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Hands are handy

July 20, 2011

Since I was raised in a secular post-modern hyper-rational society, one of the notions I had about existence growing up was that I was a brain with a body.  My body talks to my brain, and my brain is where I am, and that’s how I have consciousness.  Odds are if you’re reading this, you’re familiar with this basic concept if not an adherent of it.  The idea that you’re a floating brain, potentially in a jar but for now in a body, is an easy one to adopt if you don’t think about it too much.  Your eyes and your other sense organs are all on your head, surrounding your brain.  Seems like just as you use your eyes to look through a window, you use your brain to look through your eyes.  If you cut off your hand, you’re probably going to live – if you cut off your brain, you’re going to die.  Movies show brains or heads in jars that are alive, so eventually science will get to that point.  It all makes sense.

But that’s all wrong.  Why, you ask?  How can it be?  To approach an answer, try this little experiment.  Focus on your tongue, and feel around in your mouth.  Feel your teeth, your gums, your cheeks.  How big are they?  Now go look at your mouth in a mirror.  Notice how your teeth etc. appear a lot smaller to sight than they did to your tongue’s touch?  Weird, huh?  Makes you think?  If you’re not getting the connection yet, try this other experiment.  Close your eyes, and focus on your hands.  If you’re at a computer, put your fingers on the keys of your keyboard.  Feel how wide they are.  Do this for a few seconds.  Now open your eyes and look at them.  They look a lot smaller than they felt, don’t they?  If you’re really not getting the connection yet, go grab your shoes and put them on.  Close your eyes and focus on your feet.  How big are your shoes on the inside, in the dark next to your feet?  Now open your eyes, take off your shoes and look into them.  Smaller than they felt on the inside?

So what is going on, and why am I asking you to try these things out?  Just to show you that your entire body is sensing, and that you experience that sense not from the seat of the brain but from the seat of the entire body.  The key under your finger should have felt about as big as it looks if you bring it as close to your eye as you can focus on it.  That’s where your hand touch would be most equal with your eye touch.  Same thing with your teeth and mouth and your shoes.  This seems to mean that your sense of space has to do with proximity to touch.  Because your eyes can touch lots of things, things that are close and far and would take a lot of effort to touch by hand, it’s useful to map out space visually.  With all that eye-touching you’re doing all the time, you believe your eyes more than your hands, feet, or tongue, especially so if you think you are floating somewhere behind your eyes.  You end up deferring to your eyes about size and space when you can.  But when your eyes can’t reach somewhere, like inside your mouth, you map out space according to skin touch.  You actually do that with your entire body all the time, you just tend to listen to your eyes more often.  Hah, “listening to eyes,” that’s a good one!  So really, you aren’t a floating brain in a body, you are just a body.  How consciousness fits in there is a mystery and no one’s figured it out yet.

This thought isn’t supposed to change your life or anything, just be an interesting little tidbit.  If you’re ever bored at a party, you can entertain yourself with it: just look down at your hands and think about how your hands feel different from what you’re seeing with your eyes.  It’s like looking at yourself in a mirror, but you’re on both sides of the mirror.  It’s fucking stupid.

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