In the Shower, On the Edge

by Joel Marks
December 17, 2015
It came to me in a flash how extraordinarily limited is our hold on consciousness and hence that which most distinguishes us from inert matter. In the shower I used to invariably find myself in a quandary about whether I had already soaped up my body. This would happen when I had rinsed off and was considering whether to turn off the spigot; I would suddenly wonder, “Did I just wipe off the lather, or did I not put it on my body in the first place?”
Sounds like senility, doesn’t it? But I am not senile. I have various other self-checks on my memory to assure me that my memory remains as healthy as anybody’s my age (of 66, though this has been going on for years).
So one day I thought of a tactic. I would make a sign on the moisture misted glass shower door when I was about to lather up. I rather dramatically chose the sign of the Z, after my childhood memories of Zorro. (You see? My memory is intact!) Then when I am wondering whether to turn off the shower, I need only look to see if there is a Z on the door. (This tactic may have been inspired by a wonderful episode of Star Trek The Next Generation, which begins with the crew playing cards and then their whole ship exploding as it unexpectedly encounters a spacetime warp. This happens over and over until finally Lt. Cmdr. Data, I think, figures it out the instant before the explosion and leaves a clue for himself to discover on the next recycling so that he can prevent the explosion.) I have used this method with moderate success for a long time now. The problem is, sometimes I even forget to make the sign of the Z, so, knowing this, I am still left in the same quandary whenever I don’t see it.
Practical problems aside, though, this has put me to ponder our fragile hold on what life is all about. For I realize now that our much vaunted consciousness is but an exceedingly thin patina over the bulk of dark matter (if I may call it that – matter lacking the light of consciousness). In this it is much like the layer of life-giving atmosphere that blankets our planet – hardly a sliver of thickness relative to the globe. And as we move forward in time, it rolls up behind us like a red carpet after the visiting dignitary has passed by. I now absolutely marvel at the tenuousness of our conscious reality as I pay attention to my own awareness. There I am, lathering up my body in the shower, and I know that what I am experiencing will vanish irretrievably in just a few seconds!
Paying attention to it in this way does enable me to recall snippets … and this is my new and preferred method of recalling whether I have soaped up; because not only is it more reliable than the Z, but it also exercises, and therefore presumably strengthens, the very faculty whose preservation is so precious.
Nevertheless, the main message I take away from all this is that our conscious world is largely illusory in its seeming to be whole and comprehensive, for in fact it is quite fragmentary and fleeting. (I drew the same lesson from Dennett’s example in Consciousness Explained of an experimental joke played on him by a computer science colleague. Dennett was told he would be given a demonstration of how the mind or brain constructs whole images out of bits of images, sort of like a jigsaw puzzle. He was asked to sit in front of a computer monitor, on which he observed a screensaver appear while the colleague was in another room setting up the display. A few minutes later the colleague came back and asked him how it had gone. How what had gone? It turned out that there was no screensaver on the monitor! A camera mounted on top of the monitor had been tracking Dennett’s gaze, and in response to the input from that camera, pieces of image had been projected on the screen only at those points where Dennett’s eyes happened to be looking. Thus, the “screensaver” was not only not on the screen, but also not in Dennett’s visual field. Instead Dennett only thought he was looking at a screensaver and/or thought he was experiencing a visual field filled with the image of a screensaver. The screensaver, both real and apparent, was an illusion.)

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