Why does consciousness and self feel like its in the head?
September 9, 2022 9:58 PM   Subscribe

I don't know how exactly to google this question or even how to ask it. But what I'd like to understand is why generally the self, consciousness, and the voice in our heads is, well, perceived as being in our heads?

I have been pondering and googling this for a while. I want to know why it is we (I?) perceive our selves to be in our heads - that the voice those of us with inner monologues we hear in our heads are residing in our heads?

I think what I'm asking is if that feeling and assumption we are in our heads are a result of learned or cultural influences, if its due to some biological process in the brain we can sense, or if its simply because we speak from our mouths, which we feel and hear, and therefore our internal words and thoughts "feel" they are coming from the same place they would be if spoken.

The closest I've found is this paper which looks at parts of the brain that are activated when reading aloud vs reading silently. I'm not entirely asking about inner voice, either, but I am suspecting this is closely linked to where we perceive consciousness to reside in our bodies.
posted by [insert clever name here] to Science & Nature (16 answers total) 11 users marked this as a favorite
As a practitioner of mahamudra “awareness of awareness” meditation, my teacher has told me two things 1) our dominant senses are located in the head especially sight 2) it is a habit of mind to locate ourselves there (actual awareness is expansive as the room and beyond). Based on my experience when in deep meditation this habit of localization in the head goes away and the self then does indeed feel at one with everything / the perceiver is not separate from the perceived.
posted by St. Peepsburg at 10:10 PM on September 9, 2022 [11 favorites]

I've pondered this too and felt my sense of self is located in my head because that's where my eyes are, but that's where the ears are too.
posted by Gravel at 10:12 PM on September 9, 2022 [7 favorites]

Well, we didn't always believe that the brain was the center of self. Many of the ancients believed that the heart was the center of thought and consciousness. I don't know if this means some of them perceived the inner voice as residing there, or if they still placed it near their ears. Also some people who "hear voices" do not perceive those voices as being in their own head (but others do).

My feeling is that it's about literal perspective. It's pretty clear when you move your eyes that there is a something looking outward and it makes sense that it would have to be behind the eyes somewhere. This is similar for your ears. As inner vocalizations aren't subject to the physics that allow location in 3d space, I would think most people perceive them as being somewhere between the ears or near the mouth. In many cases visual and audio imagination will end up activating the same neurons as real perception, so it makes sense that they would be perceived as having some default physical location. When I playback an irritating earworm in my head, it's in mono and not stereo (unlike my tinnitus which is definitely positional)
posted by JZig at 10:25 PM on September 9, 2022 [10 favorites]

It's at least partly cultural. In Homer's Iliad, for example, thoughts and emotions are located to the phrēn (the dictionary gives: "midriff, heart, mind") or the thumos (the dictionary gives "spirit, breath, seat of courage, anger, emotion"), rather than the kephalē (head).
posted by dum spiro spero at 10:25 PM on September 9, 2022 [6 favorites]

The first hundred pages of R.B. Onians's The Origins of European Thought about the Body, the Mind, the Soul, the World, Time, and Fate steps through many details of the evidence that consciousness wasn't always perceived as being in our heads. However, it's pretty old, its topic is complicated, and I am not sure it spends much time on 'encephalocentric' sources. It just happens to be available online and full of relevant examples to consider.
posted by Wobbuffet at 10:42 PM on September 9, 2022

You can add the ancient Egyptians to those who believed we 'live' in the heart. The heart was very carefully preserved during embalming; the brain was removed and discarded.
posted by zompist at 10:51 PM on September 9, 2022 [3 favorites]

I can't answer the question directly, but I can provide some other support for what I take to be one of the ideas behind your question: that our thoughts are not really anywhere. I like the way Dennett presents the idea in his "Where am I?" I think it is also implicit in Kant's first Critique and in the later sections of Wittgenstein's Tractatus.

If you like being horrified you might also enjoy the Greg Egan short story "Learning to be me."
posted by grobstein at 11:32 PM on September 9, 2022 [3 favorites]

Lucretius, in Book 3 of On the Nature of Things, wrote "But chief and regnant through the frame entire is still that counsel which we call the mind, and that cleaves seated in the midmost breast. Here leap dismay and terror; round these haunts be blandishments of joys; and therefore here the intellect, the mind." The ancient Greeks considered the brain, on the other hand, only good for radiating excess heat.

As others have mentioned, it is natural to locate one's intellect behind the eyes because that is mainly the sense we use to determine our location. But, personally, once I close my eyes and start meditating, that sense of location disappears and I seem to be floating in nothingness. And speaking more philosophically, just because some neurons fire in the brain when a person "thinks," that is no proof that "consciousness," whatever that is, actually lives there.
posted by jabah at 11:40 PM on September 9, 2022 [4 favorites]

Definitely cultural.

The Eastern heart and Galen's ventricle: a historical review of the purpose of the brain

“ The seat of consciousness has not always been thought to reside in the brain. Its "source" is as varied as the cultures of those who have sought it. At present, although most may agree that the central nervous system is held to be the root of individualism in much of Western philosophy, this has not always been the case, and this viewpoint is certainly not unanimously accepted across all cultures today. In this paper the authors undertook a literary review of ancient texts of both Eastern and Western societies as well as modern writings on the organic counterpart to the soul. The authors have studied both ancient Greek and Roman material as well as Islamic and Eastern philosophy. Several specific aspects of the human body have often been proposed as the seat of consciousness, not only in medical texts, but also within historical documents, poetry, legal proceedings, and religious literature. Among the most prominently proposed have been the heart and breath, favoring a cardiopulmonary seat of individualism. This understanding was by no means stagnant, but evolved over time, as did the role of the brain in the definition of what it means to be human. Even in the 21st century, no clear consensus exists between or within communities, scientific or otherwise, on the brain's capacity for making us who we are. Perhaps, by its nature, our consciousness--and our awareness of our surroundings and ourselves--is a function of what surrounds us, and must therefore change as the world changes and as we change.”
posted by rrrrrrrrrt at 12:42 AM on September 10, 2022 [1 favorite]

For me, it’s really important to remember that this is still, even now, a cultural story. Medicine and research science study the role that the stuff in the head plays in thought, emotion, and self-making, and they show that the head is deeply involved! But the deep involvement of the head-stuff doesn’t preclude other body-stuff being essential for those functions that modern folks believe so deeply to be head-functions. It’s a really complex system, and the head is such an essential component that we can’t test what people’s thinking or emoting or selfhood is like without one.

I definitely don’t believe that brains are unimportant for these functions, but I don’t think there is “a seat” of reason or passion. What part of the plant responds to the sun? Thought, emotion, and self are all emergent properties of a system that was honed and strengthened as those emergent properties helped our ancestors survive and raise their kiddos.
posted by rrrrrrrrrt at 12:50 AM on September 10, 2022 [4 favorites]

As far as cultural influences are concerned, iridic made a really great post back in 2014 about the possibility that the particular form of inner voice you’ve been exploring and that we take for granted, silent reading, was so uncommon in the ancient world as to be marvelous:
Midway through the Confessions, St. Augustine recalls how he used to marvel at the way Ambrose, the bishop of Milan, read his manuscripts: 'His eyes traveled across the pages and his heart searched out the meaning, but his voice and tongue stayed still.' Scholars have sparred for decades over whether Augustine's offhand observation reveals something momentous: namely, that silent reading—that seemingly mundane act you're engaged in right now—was, in the Dark Ages, a genuine novelty...Could the earliest readers literally not shut up?"
And there is some evidence that the voices schizophrenics hear, which they perceive as external, are closely related to the voice of silent reading
The present study was aimed at investigating whether schizophrenic patients are impaired in monitoring their own speech. In particular, we attempted to assess their ability to discriminate between overt and covert speech in a reading task, in order to verify whether they can correctly recollect the modality in which an internally generated action is produced. Subjects were asked to read either silently or aloud, items from a list of words. After a delay of 5 min, they were required to indicate in a new list which words had been read previously (either silently or overtly), or had never been presentedduring the reading task. With respect to normal controls, schizophrenic patients showed a significant bias to report that they had read aloud words which they had actually read silently, or which were absent during the reading task. The results are discussed in relation to recent neuroimaging studies on inner and overt speech in hallucinating schizophrenic patients. Our data favour the hypothesis that the inability to correctly discriminate between inner and overt speech may play a role in the onset of schizophrenic hallucinations.
In another study, reading aloud appeared to block hallucinatory voices:
The aim of this study was to investigate why requiring hallucinating schizophrenic subjects to read aloud produces large reductions in reports of auditory hallucinations. In Expt 1 hallucinating subjects (N = 9) were required to sort cards quietly into one, two, four, 13 and 26 piles. It was shown that the large reductions in the reports of hallucinations produced by reading aloud could not be accounted for in terms of the information content of the task. In Expt 2 the subjects (N = 7) were required to place the cards into one or two piles quietly or whilst saying the colour of the card aloud. Sorting cards into two piles whilst saying the colour of the card produced the largest reductions in the reports of hallucinations. It was concluded that it was the requirement to make overt motor and verbal response that produced the large reductions in reports of auditory hallucinations in the reading-aloud task.
Evidently experiencing voices 'in your head' is not necessarily common to all cultures, and not universal in our own culture, in which it might be regarded as one indicator of good mental health.
posted by jamjam at 12:58 AM on September 10, 2022 [6 favorites]

not specifically answering your questions, but you may get something out of this podcast discussion, or some of the reading linked from the show notes:

> Philosopher of mind Keith Frankish is one of the leading proponents of “illusionism,” the theory that argues that your subjective experience — i.e., the “what it is like” to be you — is a trick of the mind

posted by are-coral-made at 1:29 AM on September 10, 2022 [2 favorites]

Yay! Julian James and The Evolution of Consciousness Through the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind. Where are the voices coming from?

Otherwise it's pretty reductive. The head holds the majority of the senses and moving the head changes the senses so the senses are likely in the head. But the heart proposal can come from sleep or coma or the like, unresponsive but still alive, therefor the life/consciousness must be in the heart. Or the lungs. The brain is hard to inspect in any meaningful way sans surgical procedures. The heart and breath is easy to check. Add in the gut which provides the fuel (a bit harder). You end up with four things that can fail. No gut is no fuel, you die. No lungs/breath, you die. No heart, you die. No brain, you die.

It's just that the brain isn't easy to diagnose especially in olden times being all protected behind a skull and it doesn't even beat or grumble or rise and fall. So it's natural that the chest organs that are visible diagnostically become the seat of the mind/life because they (barring obvious head trauma) were the visible and measurable signs of life.

But then again, if you think mind and body are two different things, you are wrong; if you think mind and body are the same thing, you are wrong.

But now it's probably more cultural of realizing that we can replace all the parts except the brain, so we now know that the consciousness has to be in the brain.

But I still go more for the "move head around and perception changes" so it's probably in the head.
posted by zengargoyle at 3:43 AM on September 10, 2022

I didn't believe my center of self was in my head until fourth grade, when my mom told me we did all our thinking in our brains. I remember being surprised, but she insisted.
posted by aniola at 9:14 AM on September 10, 2022 [2 favorites]

If you want to knock someone unconscious give them a sharp blow to the head. A sharp blow to the knee doesn't work.
posted by Tell Me No Lies at 11:06 AM on September 10, 2022 [2 favorites]

Another group who seem to have trouble with silent reading are people with PTSD.

And somewhat surprisingly:
Rare cases of PTSD may involve auditory hallucinations and paranoid ideation. Individuals who experience auditory hallucinations may experience tinnitus, a constant ringing in one’s ears, or they may hear a voice or set of voices that are not physically present. Individuals who are experiencing paranoid ideation are highly guarded and constantly suspicious of being harmed and harassed by those around them. When the trauma involves violent death, symptoms of both complicated grief and PTSD may be present.
posted by jamjam at 2:32 PM on September 10, 2022

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