I Think, Therefore I Am.....Really?I interpret that famous quote is by Rene Descartes, the French philosopher and mathematician to mean that one cannot doubt the existence of themselves because the mere act of doubting is proof of existence. Descartes believed in a nonmaterial soul inhabiting and finding expression in a mechanically operated body. He maintained that the mind and brain are completely separate, but dependent entities much like a fountain pen and ink.  The pen does not write without the ink and the ink cannot express meaning without the pen.  These views were rejected by important thinkers that followed him. While I am probably not an important thinker to anybody but myself, I know this to be wrong from my own experience.

The Other I

After reading A New Earth: Awakening to Your Life’s Purpose by Ekhart Tolle in which he explains the flawed logic in the Descartes statement, I questioned how this saying could be right because my thinking was very scrambled and extremely shaky from a recent brain injury, but “I” still existed unaffected. However, I did have a weird, double consciousness where I acted as both the observer of myself and the object of my observations for the first time.

I became strangely aware of some separate, distinct part of me observing the brain injured me and watching everything unfold.  Even though huge chunks of my personality were gone and my mental processes weren’t functioning properly, my spirit or soul or whatever you want to call it was intact and fully aware.  This entity was objectively and compassionately watching me and my life play out remaining whole and undamaged.  As a matter of fact, the persona grew stronger and more clearly defined as my ego and physical self became quieter and less imposing.  “What part of me is observing me?” I wondered.  Kind of freaky, but comforting at the same time.

While this other me observed the impaired me squirm with empathy and understanding, she didn’t yet have any effect on the actions or feelings of the existing me.  The existing me was still very critical and was a pro at the negative self-talk she had spent a lifetime perfecting.  Instead, this other me looked at the existing me kindly which was a totally new perspective for me.

The Brain Is A Tool Used By The Mind

I watched the Deepak Chopra video below in which he discusses the brain and consciousness with Rudolph Tanzi, a Harvard Professor of Neurology, who GQ Magazine called a “Rock Star of Science,” and others. They get very complicated talking about consciousness and self and raise some interesting points. In another video continuing the conversation, they stress that a person is not their brain any more than a person is their stomach or gall bladder.  A brain is a tool used by the mind for expression and function much like a computer.

Because of my brain injury experience, I now believe and understand this.

They convincingly convey the belief that we are not our brains or bodies, but they exist for us to use them to express ourselves.

Wonder what Descartes would have to say about that?

image credit: https://www.flickr.com/photos/kathyroom17/7330270054/

39 Comments

  1. Ande Waggener Reply

    I’m glad you’re not split anymore, Debbie. 😉 Seriously, what you’re describing is similar to something I’m learning–the ability to develop and use pure awareness–what Frank Kinslow calls quantum entrainment (QE). It’s getting that ability to separate from thought and just be in the extension of all that is. Very calming. I think understanding that we aren’t our brain or any other body part gives us a perspective on how we can interact with the world around us in a new way.

    • Debbie Hampton Reply

      I will have to look up QE and read about it. Sounds interesting. This kind of consciousness has turned into awareness and intentional presence. I think that it is probably what many philosophies promote for us to develop. It is just that it was so new and foreign to me at the time and completely not integrated with who I was. I really do believe, in a way, my brain injury made being mindful much easier.

  2. Judy M. Hampton Reply

    Well, I continue to be awed by you and your perceptions, your insight and your forward movement and your understanding. I had an “out of body” experience when I was a child in the hospital in surgery and can relate a bit. Since then, there have been times when I felt I was observing myself in action. As Stephen says, you are a very important thinker…the most important one I know. Love, Mom.

    • Debbie Hampton Reply

      OK, I should have known that at least two other people…my parents….would consider me to be an important thinker! 🙂 You will have to tell me about your experiences. Sounds neat. (IF you have. I do not remember. Brain injury.) This, however, was not like a singular OBE. The other me was a constant, comforting presence for a while.

  3. Perhaps part of the confusion about issues regarding to what degree brains are necessary for the expression of human consciousness results from an aspect you know, Debbie, but many people don’t.

    Human nerve tissue does not regenerate. When it’s gone, it’s gone, unlike bones, skin and muscles. However, there’s a tremendous amount of tissue in the human brain that is redundant. We evolved lots of extra brain, because parts of it die in the natural process of aging and as a result of disease. The same happens with injuries like yours, though those aren’t part of the evolutionary process.

    There are two divergent scientific schools of thought about consciousness. Biology holds that consciousness requires a nervous system, therefore to that branch of science plants can be alive, but can’t have consciousness (a “mind”, self-awareness, individuality etc.) Physics, however, does not agree and holds that states of matter and energy exist flexibly, even in time and space. To a supporter of quantum physics, it’s possible for “us” (or any separate consciousness) to exist in or out of (in this case) a brain. Of course religious and philosophical positions are all over the place as to what qualifies as existence.

    To end on my usual sort of preferred bad joke, calling the “Cogito” argument original is putting Descartes before Deshorse. (Sorry, couldn’t resist.) Plato discussed “knowledge of knowledge”, and Aristotle wrote (in the Nichomachean Ethics) “…to be conscious that we are perceiving or thinking is to be conscious that we exist.”

    I’m glad your merger is going well.

    • Debbie Hampton Reply

      Very clever, Mikey, “Descartes before de horse.” Apparently this idea, has many founders. In my research, it said the idea originated with Augustine in his City of God twelve hundred years before Descartes.

      I tend to follow the quantum physics philosophy. I firmly know, after my experiences, that my spirit or energy exists separate from this brain and this body. Now whether that is “consciousness,” I do not know. Consciousness may need a physical body to be expressed. It may transition into something different after the death of this body, but it still exists….whatever “it” is.

      For this reason, I do not fear death at all, but just see it as another leg of the journey

  4. Debbie Hampton Reply

    My experience was very similar to the one Jeannie describes in her post except that mine was ongoing and continuous for that time period in my life. I really needed and thrived on the strength and knowing of this other me. I think, I had it in me all along. We all do. I just had to discover it, and shut up my left brain long enough to let it surface.

    • Debbie Hampton Reply

      Jeannie, thanks for stopping by. Taylors’ book, My Stroke of Insight, was one of the first I read after my brain injury. Her story and her experiences made me feel not so alien and like someone had gone through this before and actually came out OK on the other side. I could really relate to her and found so much hope in her words. It was as if her voice reached in through the fog and touched my heart and mind.

  5. Stephen Gemmell Reply

    Hi Debbie. Picking up on your exchange with Invisible Mikey takes us into a realm of spirit and non-physical entities which is covered well by Esther and Jerry Hall in their recounting of ‘converstations’ with Abraham (Jeannie knows more about this than me). It also occurs to me that a slowing of conscious (beta) state allows a ‘drift’ into alpha, theta and delta but whilst being fully awake and therefore providing a fuller view of ‘what lies within’ – the Comforter or spirit. Take care, Stephen

    • Debbie Hampton Reply

      Stephen, right after my brain injury, my brain waves were all out of balance as confirmed by a head map EEG later. I have no doubt that this allowed an altered consciousness. Was I “alive” by consciousness standards? I mean, I know that I was medically, but who is to say that this wasn’t some kind of altered state that might be a preview of things to come?

  6. Fantastic. I love when people question authorities. we can only move forward if we’re brave enough to question the status quo. Keep up the good work. I too questioned Decartes’ wisdom in my first book, Kingdom of the Tiger. I hope all is well.

    • Debbie Hampton Reply

      Hiya, Tony! Yeah, I totally agree. Only by questioning the status quo and the accepted can we advance and expand as a society and individuals. To continuously be curious and questioning is to really be alive, I think.

  7. Debbie,

    I absolutely agree that “we” are not our brain or body, nor are we our thoughts and emotions. In Buddhist thought there is a very subtle level of consciousness – pure awareness – that continues after the death of the body and the brain. Every great spiritual tradition seems to hold this belief in one form or another and ascribe different names to this pure awareness.

    Your experience is fascinating. While I can’t say for certain this is the pure awareness spiritual masters speak of, I’m just a novice, it certainly gives us a view in that direction. I’m grateful that you have shared it here. I’ve been wondering what it might be like to be physically or mentally immobilized to a degree and still experience this awareness. You’ve given me a glimpse.

    • Debbie Hampton Reply

      I am very thankful for this experience as it gave me a glimpse of being more aware and more conscious I think now, the challenge is to achieve a more purposeful, intentional awareness as taught in many spiritual traditions and incorporate it into my every day life. I am getting there. However, I find it very ironic that I was more aware seriously brain damaged than I ever was before in my life.

      • I remember “fate” being batted around in recent discussion. Don’t see specific reference to it here, but in that we are discussing “important thinkers” to include one Debbie Hampton (Hi debbie’s mom!), thought I’d plug in some nice thought for the Jungians reading:

        • “Until you make the unconscious conscious, it will direct your life and you will call it fate.” — Carl Jung

          • Debbie Hampton Reply

            Scott, thank you for sharing the Jung quote. I fully agree with it. When you start living consciously, you start creating you life. I have to say that it is so much better than being batted around like some leaf in the wind. I don’t know about being a great thinker (Thank ya BTW), but I do know that I am a great learner. Maybe they become one in the same at some point.

  8. Hi Debbie. I found your blog on Twitter and I guess I will be sticking around because what you write is very interesting and authentic and it also seems to be resonating with me for the most part.

    Thanks for sharing your experiences with consciousness. I always wondered how any intelligent person could actually recite this Descartes quote. I think it’s horribly misleading and just doesn’t make much sense if you even have the slightest clue about awareness and consciousness for that matter. And all that takes is to sit and observe – Meditation. But many people never do that.

    I mean I can understand how someone can get the impression that this little voice in your head is actually you. But it’s just such a pity that so many people actually believe that and this Descartes quote is probably one of the reasons most people don’t even question this assumption. It’s like, hey, this famous guy said that so it’s true isn’t it? Well, no it’s not, sorry Monsieur Descartes. 😉

    To me, the idea that you are your thoughts is right up there on the shelf of famous false assumptions sitting right next to the believe that there actually exists something like a free will. But that’s another story altogether, I guess.

    I think I know what this slowness feels like. I never experienced it quite so clearly as you wrote about it here but I have always been a very slow person. Whenever I play some game where it’s about fast reaction I’m always utterly defeated – most of the time I don’t even get one measly point, haha. But I never really thought it was a bad thing to be slow. After reading your post, maybe it’s a blessing after all?

    • Debbie Hampton Reply

      I spent the first forty some years of my life totally unaware because I did believe this. I guess, like most everyone else, I thought he was a sage of wisdom. Who was I to question it? I used to believe that little voice in my head was me…and I was shocked and abhorred at some of it. I thought I must be a horrible person to even think such things. Now, I base who I am on my conscious decisions as to who I want to be. Thoughts come and go. They do not define me. It is what I choose to act on that counts.

      I have found that most of what I was taught and adopted in my upbringing by schools, society, my parents…although well meaning…did not serve me at all and only led to misery and disillusionment. I have found becoming awake and conscious so liberating. The old beliefs were very limiting and negative. I have found miraculous healing and growth in meditation. It is amazing and integral to my peace and joy in life.

      So you don’t believe in free will? Is it not free will to choose how you act and what you believe?

      There is nothing wrong with experiencing life and reacting slowly. I think, it even gives you a kind of advantage to digest and interpret before mindlessly acting. I am not fast at all these days with a brain injury, but I am much better off! Blessings.

  9. I’m totally with you on the part with the upbringing. A good example for this is the fact that (at least here in Germany) you are practically raised to be an employee. It’s like entrepreneuship wasn’t even an option. I didn’t even *hear* that word once in my 15 years (yeah, I know that’s slow, too, haha) in school.
    And the elderly seem to always tell kids things like ‘gosh, I wouldn’t want to be young these days’. How empowering. *shiver*

    Well, the thing with free will is: you are free to choose what you *want*, that’s right. But that doesn’t make your *will* free. What you want is determined by the things you experience in life. It’s as simple as that. There is no freedom in that. The will is what drags you. Even if you question what you want that’s because something *made* you question it in the first place. That means you were free to choose to question your will but you were not free to choose that you *wanted* to choose to change your will.

    Schopenhauer formulated it this way: “Man can do what he wants, but he cannot will what he wills.”

    • Debbie Hampton Reply

      So basically, we are limited to the choices that will gives us and that is determined by our experiences? Is that it? But, can’t we intentionally choose our experiences so that they would, in turn, effect our future will and choices? Isn’t this in some limited way free will? I am not sure I am with you on this one.

      • No, I think that’s not quite it. You aren’t really limited in your choices. There is freedom of choice. But not a free will.

        To give an example: you wake up at night and remember there’s a delicious dessert in your fridge. You like to eat it. You then have the choice to go to the kitchen and eat it or you can remain in bed because you think it’s unhealthy to eat late at night. And that is freedom of choice.

        But the fact that you *want* to eat that dessert remains. You cannot change that fact and there is no freedom in that. You can act against your will but you cannot change the will you currently have.

        This will is determined by your experience and your drives. In this example it is probably determined by your experience that desserts are delicious and that eating them makes you feel good (again). And even when your will is not a direct consequence of an experience then it is a consequence of a drive, maybe the drive to satisfy your hunger or maybe your drive to experience joy.

        Even *if* your will tells you to manipulate your life in a way that may change your will in the future, you still cannot decide to not have the will to change your will and it is therefore determined.

        I hope that was understandable. It’s a really different topic to talk about because it is so abstract – and not being a native speaker makes it even harder. 😉

          • Debbie Hampton Reply

            Johnathan, you did great …native speaker or not. OK, so I think I got it now. The drive which originates is not of free will. It is just there. You have no choice in that. However…(you knew this was coming, eh?) I still believe that by making conscious choices in the now, you have the ability to influence the propensity for the drives which show up in the future. There is the free will.

            For instance, I no longer even want the delicious dessert because I think I have chosen to eat healthier for so long that this what my body desires and this is what my drives are about now.

  10. Haha, yes, I knew it. 😉 But it would be boring if everyone would just agree, right?

    And I don’t agree. Because in your example when you choose to change your will in the future because your current will tells you to then that means that your future will is dependent on your current will. Dependent, and therefore not free.

    I guess the reason why the thought that there is no free will makes many people uncomfortable is because they think that it’s a bad thing to be determined. But does it really matter? Maybe even the very concept of ‘freedom’ is an illusion in itself? It probably comes down to your definition of freedom.

    If I think about it from an absolute point of view (assuming that that’s even possible) I would say there cannot be such a thing as real freedom because it would mean to NOT have any bonds with anything. But if you look at it from a human’s perspective freedom can mean all sorts of things like to be not dependent on a boss or living in a democracy versus a dictatorship.

    And that’s why I said that there’s freedom of choice. I said that from a human’s perspective. I guess that I mixed two different perspectives there. If I view it from an absolute perspective I must correct myself: No, there’s no freedom of choice.

    As long as you don’t feel trapped it’s ok, isn’t it? And why should you? You can’t do anything against such things so why even bother? Feeling bad because you are determined is as useless as feeling down because you know that someday you will die and you cannot do anything against that fact.

    I personally don’t think it’s a problem to not have a free will. I accepted that as a fact and it didn’t change anything. Maybe you could even call that useless knowledge? Even if everything I ever did, everything I do now and everything I will ever do is in fact determined I’d still live the same life I do now. Just because I’m determined doesn’t mean I can’t enjoy what I experience.

    To put it another way: you do not lose anything by being determined. But maybe you gain a bit more insight by accepting the fact that you are?

    (Isn’t it fascinating? Humans can discuss the most useless things.)

    • Debbie Hampton Reply

      Sorry for the delay in the reply…got busy with Memorial Day family activities. I can completely see the point you are making, and it is correct in literal terms. However, I do think you are getting bogged down by semantics and linear thinking. While it would be kinda nice if everything could be broken down so simplistically and predictably, I do not believe that life …much less we humans…can be counted on to behave in such a predictable, “if this, then this” fashion. However, I entirely respect your right to believe what resonates with you. 🙂 Blessings.

  11. After my TBI, I worried about my memory but I was in good shape remembered things that shocked people after being in my lil snug coma I had 26 yrs to snap back . But memories are intererting and yet shocking haha !

    • Debbie Hampton Reply

      Good for you! There is so much that you can do to encourage and help your memory. I use lots of little tools and tricks after my brain injury.

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  15. John Henry Curry Reply

    I wonder what Chopra would’ve thought in the 17th century?

    • Interesting question. He might have thought the same as Descartes. ….or maybe not. There are original thinkers in every era. That’s how society progresses.

  16. Jenny Sundberg Reply

    Everything you write is so truly fascinating and inspiring. I’m convinced your book and your life would make a wonderful film that could reach and help so many people. Have you ever thought of contacting the people who made the really successful films “The History of Everything” or “Still Alice”?

  17. Sorry, this was just a random internet find for me, but I wanted to mention that I find the piece a little confusing in that up front it’s stated that you’re arguing against Descartes’ position but your “dual experience” actually seems consistent with Descartes’ mind/body (or soul/body) dualism. Is your argument that Descartes was not dualistic enough, that the soul has more autonomy over the body than Descartes claimed? (Note that he stated, in Discourse on Method, “So this self, that is to say the soul, through which I am what I am, is entirely separate from the body, and is even more easily known than the latter, so that even if I did not have a body, my soul would continue to be all that it is.”) Personally, I disagree with what I would consider “radical” mind/body dualism – a category under which I would put Descartes – holding rather that there is a more dynamic relationship between the two (and that embodied-ness is an essential aspect of humanness), but I was just pointing out something I found confusing in the piece. (None of this is meant to diminish the interesting experience you relate.)

    • Justin, Thank you for your thoughts, It wa s not my intent to support Descartes dualism. What I am trying to express is that my spirit was allowed to express itself stronger through my body because my typical mind chatter was quiet. I don’t mean to imply that they are separate. Only that something that was always present was now able to be heard. I can see what you are saying. I’ll re read and re write it to express my meaning more clearly. Thanks!

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