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21.02.2014
We’re used to thinking about the self as an independent entity, something that we either have or are. Of the many people who have supported me in this project, my first thanks go to Jennifer Windt, who has spent countless hours helping me with the English version. There are other important issues in the quest to probe our inner nature — new, exciting theories about emotions, empathy, dreaming, rationality, recent discoveries about free will and the conscious control of our actions, even about machine consciousness — and they are all valuable, as the building blocks of a deeper understanding of ourselves.
The person telling you this story is a philosopher, but one who has closely cooperated with neuroscientists, cognitive scientists, and researchers in artificial intelligence for many years.
Before I introduce the Ego Tunnel, the central metaphor that will guide the discussion from here onward, it will be helpful to consider an experiment that strongly suggests the purely experiential nature of the self. The most interesting feature I noticed when I underwent this experiment was the strange tingling sensation in my shoulder shortly before onset of the illusion — shortly before, as it were, my “soul arm” or “astral limb” slipped from the invisible physical arm into the rubber hand. As a matter of fact, there are phenomenal states in which people have the robust feeling of being outside their physical body — these are the socalled out-of-body experiences, or OBEs. One of the neuroscientists I am proud to collaborate with is Olaf Blanke, a brilliant young neurologist at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Lausannne, who was the first scientist to trigger an OBE by directly stimulating the brain of a patient with an electrode. Whenever our brains successfully pursue the ingenious strategy of creating a unified and dynamic inner portrait of reality, we become conscious.
In ordinary states of consciousness, there is always someone having the experience — someone consciously experiencing himself as directed toward the world, as a self in the act of attending, knowing, desiring, willing, and acting. The Ego, as noted, is simply the content of your PSM at this moment (your bodily sensations, your emotional state, your perceptions, memories, acts of will, thoughts).
It must be emphasized that although our brains create the Ego Tunnel, no one lives in this tunnel. Variations of this tunnel metaphor illustrate other new ideas in mind science: What would it mean for an Ego Tunnel to branch out to include other Ego Tunnels? The idea of an Ego Tunnel is based on an older notion that has been around for quite some time now.
In the first chapter, I confine discussion to the phenomenon of conscious experience and develop a better and richer understanding of why exactly it is exclusively internal. To confine oneself to studying consciousness as such means to consider the phenomenal content of one’s mental representations — that is, how they feel to you from the first-person perspective, what it is like (subjectively, privately, inwardly) to have them. All evidence now points to the conclusion that phenomenal content is determined locally, not by the environment at all but by internal properties of the brain only.
The same general idea holds for more complex states: Their phenomenal content is precisely that aspect of a state (say, of happiness plus relaxation) that not only emerges naturally in everyday situations but can also be caused by a psychoactive substance — or, at least in principle, triggered by an evil neuroscientist experimenting on a living brain in a vat. One way of looking at the Ego Tunnel is as a complex property of the global neural correlate of consciousness (NCC). An Ego Tunnel is a consciousness tunnel that has evolved the additional property of creating a robust first-person perspective, a subjective view of the world. Consciousness is a very special phenomenon, because it is part of the world and contains it at the same time.
Judging from the available data on animal brains and evolutionary continuity, the appearance of worlds in biological nervous systems is a recent phenomenon, perhaps only a few million years old. A much more recent phenomenon emerged only a couple of thousand years ago — the conscious formation of theories in the minds of human philosophers and scientists.
Over the centuries, the theories we have devised have gradually changed our image of ourselves, and in so doing they have subtly altered the contents of consciousness.
In the early 1970s, after the heyday of behaviorism, interest in consciousness as a serious research topic began to rise. We have also come to understand that consciousness is not an all-ornothing affair, a phenomenon that either does or does not exist. However, what we do not know is how far discovering such neural correlates will go toward explaining consciousness. The conscious brain is a biological machine — a reality engine — that purports to tell us what exists and what doesn’t. Antti Revonsuo alluded to the fascinating phenomenon of OBEs when he compared conscious experience to a constant and effortless out-of-brain experience.7 As I have, he invokes the world-simulation model to explain why the sense of presence you are enjoying right now is only an inner, subjective kind of presence.
Any convincing theory of consciousness will have to explain why this does not seem so to us. Once upon a time, I had to write an encyclopedia article on “Consciousness.” The first thing I did was to photocopy all existing encyclopedia articles on the topic I could find and track down the historical references. The first is that consciousness is a higher-order form of knowledge accompanying thoughts and other mental states.
In any case, many of the classical theories stated that becoming conscious had to do with installing an ideal observer in your mind, an inner witness providing moral guidance as well as a hidden, entirely private knowledge about the contents of your mental states. The second important insight seems to be the notion of integration: Consciousness is what binds things together into a comprehensive, simultaneous whole. What would it be like to have the experience of living in many worlds at the same time, of genuine parallel realities opening up in your mind? A number of new ideas and hypotheses in the neurosciences suggest how this “world-binding” function works.
The basic idea is simple: The global neural correlate of consciousness is like an island emerging from the sea — as noted, it is a large set of neural properties underlying consciousness as a whole, underpinning your experiential model of the world in its totality at any given moment.
We also possess the first mathematical instruments that allow us to describe the causal complexity within the dynamical core of consciousness. This emergence can happen during “offline states” as well: In dreams, however, the binding of contents does not work quite as well, which is why your dream reality is frequently so bizarre, why you have difficulty focusing your attention, why scenes follow each other so quickly. One of the intriguing characteristics of current research into consciousness is how old philosophical ideas reappear in the best of cutting- edge neuroscience — in new disguise, as it were. Another fascinating scientific route into the One-World Problem is increasingly receiving attention. The synchrony of neural responses also plays a decisive role in figurebackground segregation — that is, the pop-out effect that lets us perceive an object against a background, allowing a new gestalt to emerge from the perceptual scene. Interestingly, this high-amplitude oscillatory activity in the brains of experienced meditators emerges over several dozens of seconds. To sum up, it would seem that feature binding occurs when the widely distributed neurons that represent the reflection of light, the surface properties, and the weight of, say, this book start dancing together, firing at the same time. The biological consciousness tunnel is not a tunnel only in the simple sense of being an internal model of reality in your brain.
The empirical story will have to deal with short-term memory and working memory, with recurrent loops in neural networks, and with the binding of single events into larger temporal gestalts (often simply called the psychological moment). You may disagree at first: Is it not true that my conscious, episodic memory of my last walk on the beach refers to something in the past? A major function of conscious experience consists, as the great British psychologist Richard Gregory has put it, in “flagging the dangerous present.”11 One essential function of consciousness is to help an organism stay in touch with the immediate present — with all those properties in both itself and the environment that may change fast and unpredictably. By the way, there is an upper limit to what you can consciously experience as taking place in a single moment: It is almost impossible to experience a musical motif, a rhythmic piece of poetry, or a complex thought that lasts for more than three seconds as a unified temporal gestalt.
At this point, it becomes clear why philosophers speak about “phenomenal” consciousness or “phenomenal” experience. This point gives us a second fundamental insight into the tunnel-like nature of consciousness: The sense of presence is an internal phenomenon, created by the human brain. What we experience as the present moment embodies implicit knowledge about how we can integrate our sensory perceptions with our motor behavior in a fluid and adaptive manner. Even given a radically materialist view of mind and consciousness, one must concede that there is a complex physical property that (as far as we know) exists only in biological nervous systems on this planet. At this point, we also touch on a deeper and more general principle running through modern research on consciousness. Now, try to imagine something even more difficult: The robust sense of presence you are enjoying right now is itself only a special kind of image. One might argue that this disparity exists because the system creating the “pixels” is also the one trying to detect them. Just as swiftly and effortlessly, the book-model is bound with other models, such as the models of your hands and of the desk, and seamlessly integrated into your overall conscious space of experience. In The Ego Tunnel, philosopher Thomas Metzinger claims otherwise: No such thing as a self exists.
Instead, it is my first attempt to introduce a wider public to what I think are the truly important issues in consciousness research today. If we want not just the building blocks but a unified whole, these are the essential questions. Unlike many of my philosopher colleagues, I think that empirical data are often directly relevant to philosophical issues and that a considerable part of academic philosophy has ignored such data for much too long. Chapters 1 and 2 introduce basic ideas of consciousness research and the inner landscape of the Ego Tunnel. In 1998, University of Pittsburgh psychiatrists Matthew Botvinick and Jonathan Cohen conducted a now-classic experiment in which healthy subjects experienced an artificial limb as part of their own body.1 The subjects observed a rubber hand lying on the desk in front of them, with their own corresponding hand concealed from their view by a screen. Of course, there is no such thing as a ghostly arm, and probably no such thing as an astral body, either. It is an efficient way to allow a biological organism to consciously conceive of itself (and others) as a whole. The first point is simple to understand: Whatever is part of your PSM, whatever is part of your conscious Ego, is endowed with a feeling of “mineness,” a conscious sense of ownership. OBEs are a well-known class of states in which one undergoes the highly realistic illusion of leaving one’s physical body, usually in the form of an etheric double, and moving outside of it. There are typically two representations of one’s body in these experiences: the visual one (the sight of your own body, lying on the bed, say, or on an operating table) and the felt one, in which you feel yourself to be hovering above or floating in space. Modern neuroscience has demonstrated that the content of our conscious experience is not only an internal construct but also an extremely selective way of representing information.
First, our brains generate a world-simulation, so perfect that we do not recognize it as an image in our minds.
But it can become the Ego only because you are constitutionally unable to realize that all this is just the content of a simulation in your brain. It is the concept of a “reality tunnel,” which can be found in research on virtual reality and the programming of advanced video games, or in the popular work of nonacademic philosophers such as Robert Anton Wilson and Timothy Leary. One question to be addressed is, How can all this take place inside the brain and at the same time create the robust experience of living in a reality that is experienced as an external reality?
For example, the predominant phenomenal content of seeing a red rose is the quality of redness itself. Moreover, the relevant properties are the same regardless of whether the red rose is there in front of you or merely imagined or dreamed about.
The problem of consciousness is all about subjective experience, about the structure of our inner life, and not about knowledge of the outer world.
The NCC is that set of neurofunctional properties in your brain sufficient to bring about a conscious experience.
As I claimed at the outset, we will never have a truly satisfying comprehensive scientific theory of the human mind if we don’t dissolve the core of the problem. The essence of the phenomenon of conscious experience is that a single and unified reality becomes present: If you are conscious, a world appears to you.
All our data indicate that consciousness is part of the physical universe and is an evolving biological phenomenon.
In Darwinian evolution, an early form of consciousness might have arisen some 200 million years ago in the primitive cerebral cortices of mammals, giving them bodily awareness and the sense of a surrounding world and guiding their behavior. Thus the life process became reflected not only in conscious individual organisms but also in groups of human beings trying to understand the emergence of self-conscious minds as such — that is, what it means that something can “appear within itself.” The most fascinating feature of the human mind, perhaps, is not simply that it can sometimes be conscious, or even that it allows for the emergence of a PSM.
True, consciousness is a robust phenomenon; it doesn’t change simply because of the opinions we have about it.
In several scientific disciplines, the topic of subjective experience gradually became a secret research frontier.
We have learned how great the fear of reductionism is, in the humanities as well as among the general public, and how immense the market is for mysterianism. Frequently, a deeper, unarticulated insight may lie behind our uneasiness with reductive approaches to the conscious mind. Before we can understand what the self is, we must look at the current status of consciousness science by taking a brief tour of the landscape of consciousness, with its unique complex of problems. There is no clean one-to-one mapping of consciously experienced colors to physical properties “out there.” Many different mixtures of wavelengths can cause the same sensation of apricot-pink (scientists call these mixtures metamers). Whatever else may or may not be true about consciousness, once all the internal properties of your nervous system are set, all the properties of your conscious experience — its subjective content and the way it feels to you — are fully determined. Indeed, it is not clear what counts as a whole experience: Are experiences discrete, countable entities? And the book you are holding right now — that is, the unified sensations of its color, weight, and texture — is just a shadow, a low-dimensional projection of a higherdimensional object “out there.” It is an image, a representation that can be described as a region in your neural state-space. In Plato’s beautiful parable, the captives in the cave are chained down at their thighs and necks.
Phenomenal shadows are low-dimensional projections within the central nervous system of a biological organism.
The idea is that the content of consciousness is the content of a simulated world in our brains, and the sense of being there is itself a simulation.
Therefore, let us embark on a brief tour of the Ego Tunnel, examining some of the most important problems for a philosophically as well as neuroscientifically convincing theory of consciousness. I wanted to know whether in the long history of Western philosophy there was a common philosophical insight running like a thread through humanity’s perennial endeavor to understand the conscious mind.
The Latin concept of conscientia is the original root from which all later terminologies in English and the Romance languages developed.
Consciousness connected your thoughts with your actions by submitting them to the moral judgment of the ideal observer.
Imagine you are no longer able to bind the various features of a seen object — its color, surface texture, edges, and so on — into a single entity. There are neurological patients with wounded brains who describe “shattered worlds,” but in these cases there is at least some kind of world left — something that could be experienced as having been shattered in the first place.
One such is the dynamical core hypothesis,5 which posits that a highly integrated and internally differentiated neurodynamic pattern emerges from the constant background chatter of millions of neurons incessantly firing away.
The global NCC has many different levels of description: Dynamically, we can describe it as a coherent island, made of densely coupled relations of cause and effect, emerging from the waters of a much less coherent flow of neural activity.
Technical details aside, they show us how self-organization in our brains strikes an optimal balance between integration and segregation, creating the wonderful richness and diversity of conscious contents and the unity of consciousness at the same time.
What we want for consciousness is not a uniform state of global synchrony, a state in which many nerve cells simply fire together simultaneously. Nevertheless, there is still an overall situation, you are still present, and that is why phenomenal experience continues.
Aristotle and Franz Brentano alike pointed out that consciously perceiving must also mean being aware of the fact that one is consciously perceiving, right now, at this very moment. Each time your eyes land on a scene (remember, your eye makes about three saccades per second), there is a feedforward-feedback cycle about the current image, and that cycle gives you the detailed conscious percept of that scene.
It has long been known that in deep meditation the experience of unity and holistic integration is particularly salient. Ulrich Ott is Germany’s leading meditation researcher, working at the Bender Institute of Neuroimaging at the Justus-Liebig-Universität in Giessen. This rhythmic firing pattern creates a coherent cloud in your brain, a network of neurons representing a single object — the book — for you at a particular moment. The truly vexing aspect of the Now Problem is conceptual: It is very hard to say what exactly the puzzle consists of. And is it not true that my conscious thoughts and plans about next weekend’s trip to the mountains refer to the future? This idea relates to a classic concept introduced by Bernard Baars of the Neurosciences Institute in San Diego, best known for his book A Cognitive Theory of Consciousness, in which he outlines his global-workspace theory as a model for consciousness. When I was studying philosophy in Frankfurt, professors typically did not extemporize during their lectures; instead, they read from a manuscript for ninety minutes, firing rounds of excessively long, nested sentences, one after another, at their students.
It is a psychological strategy we inherited from our primate ancestors, a slightly more subtle form of ostentatious display behavior that made its way into academia.
If the brain could solve the One-World Problem but not the Now Problem, a world could not appear to you.
However, this type of knowledge applies only to the kind of environment we found on the surface of this planet. This new property is a virtual window of presence, and it is implemented in the brains of vertebrates and particularly of higher mammals. The more aspects of subjective experience we can explain in a hardheaded, materialistic manner, the more our view of what the self-organizing physical universe itself is will change.
However, if we solve the One-World Problem and the Now Problem, all we have is a model of a unified world and a model of the present moment in the brain. Recall that a representation is transparent if the system using it cannot recognize it as a representation. Of course, in the continuous flow of information-processing in the brain, nothing like pixels really exists. Because it has been optimized over millions of years, this mechanism is so fast and so reliable that you never notice its existence. The conscious self is the content of a model created by our brain—an internal image, but one we cannot experience as an image.
The selection of relevant philosophical issues and new empirical insights is entirely my own — and of course hopelessly incomplete and necessarily superficial. It is difficult to write a nonacademic book in a language other than your own, and if I have at least partly succeeded, it is due to her accuracy, conscientiousness, and reliability. But it is not just that the modern philosophy of mind and cognitive neuroscience together are about to shatter the myth of the self. What we currently lack, however, is the big picture — a more general framework we can work with. There is a new story, a provocative and perhaps shocking one, to be told about this mystery: It is the story of the Ego Tunnel.
The best philosophers in the field clearly are analytical philosophers, those in the tradition of Gottlob Frege and Ludwig Wittgenstein: In the past fifty years, the strongest contributions have come from analytical philosophers of mind.
The visible rubber hand and the subject’s unseen hand were then synchronously stroked with a probe.
The subject observes a facsimile of a human hand while her own hand is concealed (gray square). What you feel in the rubber-hand illusion is what I call the content of the phenomenal self-model (PSM) — the conscious model of the organism as a whole that is activated by the brain. Thus it enables the organism to interact with its internal world as well as with the external environment in an intelligent and holistic manner.
It is experienced as your limb, your tactile sensation, your feeling, your body, or your thought. This is why it is a tunnel: What we see and hear, or what we feel and smell and taste, is only a small fraction of what actually exists out there. First, we possess an integrated inner image of ourselves that is firmly anchored in our feelings and bodily sensations; the world-simulation created by our brains includes the experience of a point of view.
The Ego and the Tunnel are evolved representational phenomena, a result of dynamical self-organization on many levels.


Can machines possess an artificial form of self-consciousness, and can they develop a proper Ego Tunnel? Moreover, the whole idea of potentially being directly in touch with reality is a sort of romantic folklore; we know the world only by using representations, because (correctly) representing something is what knowing is. We want to understand how what Finnish philosopher and neuroscientist Antti Revonsuo calls an “out-of-brain experience” is possible: the experience you have all the time — for instance, right now, as you are reading this book. In the conscious experience of smelling a mixture of amber and sandalwood, the phenomenal content is that raw subjective quality of “amber-ness” and “sandalwood-ness,” ineffable and apparently simple.
The subjective sandalwood-andamber experience doesn’t require incense, it doesn’t even require a nose; in principle it can also be elicited by stimulating the right combination of glomeruli in your olfactory bulb. There is a specific NCC for the redness of the rose you experience, another for the perceptual object (that is, the rose as a whole), and yet another underlying your accompanying feeling of happiness and relaxation.
If we want everything to fall into place — if we want to understand the big picture — then this is the challenge. This is the challenge: If we want the big picture, we need to know how a genuine sense of selfhood appears. Conscious experience, however, is much more than physics plus biology — more than a fantastically complex, dancing pattern of neural firing in your brain. The truly remarkable fact is that we can also attend to the content of our PSM and form concepts about it.
But it does change through practice (think of wine connoisseurs, perfume designers, musical geniuses). Then, in the last decade of the twentieth century, a number of eminent neuroscientists accepted consciousness as a proper target for rigorous research. The straightforward philosophical answer to the widespread fear that philosophers or scientists will “reduce consciousness” is that reduction is a relationship between theories, not phenomena. We know that our beliefs about consciousness can subtly change what we perceive, influencing the very contents and functional profile of subjective experience itself. Consciousness is also not a unitary phenomenon but has many discernible aspects: memory, attention, feelings, the perception of color, self-awareness, and higher-order thought. And if certain aspects of consciousness are ineffable, we obviously cannot correlate them with states in our brains. There has been considerable progress, but as far as our conscious minds are concerned, we still live in prehistoric times. The apricotpink of the setting sun is not a property of the evening sky; it is a property of the internal model of the evening sky, a model created by your brain.
It is interesting to note how the perceived colors of objects stay relatively constant under varying conditions of illumination.
Or you can enjoy an even more dramatic color experience under the influence of a hallucinogenic drug, while staring into the void behind your closed eyelids. By “internal” I mean not only spatial but also temporal internality — whatever is taking place right now, at this very moment.
However, the flow of experience certainly exists, and cognitive neuroscience has shown that the process of conscious experience is just an idiosyncratic path through a physical reality so unimaginably complex and rich in information that it will always be hard to grasp just how reduced our subjective experience is. This state-space itself may well have millions of dimensions; nevertheless, the physical reality you navigate with its help has an inconceivably higher number of dimensions.
They can only look straight ahead; their heads have been shackled in a fixed position since birth. Let us assume that the book you are holding, as consciously experienced by you at this very moment, is a dynamic, low-dimensional shadow of the actual physical object in your actual physical hands, a dancing shadow in your central nervous system.
Our conscious experience of the world is systematically externalized because the brain constantly creates the experience that I am present in a world outside my brain. Whatever we may think about these early theories of consciousness-as-conscience today, they certainly possessed philosophical depth and great beauty: Consciousness was an inner space providing a point of contact between the real human being and the ideal one inside, the only space in which you could be together with God even before death. The One-World Problem is so simple that it is easily overlooked: In order for a world to appear to us, it has to be one world first. In a disorder known as apperceptive agnosia, no coherent visual model emerges on the level of conscious experience, despite the fact that all the patient’s low-level visual processes are intact.
If the unified, multimodal scene — the Here and Now, the situation as such — dissolves completely, we simply go blank.
Or we could adopt a neurocomputational perspective and look at the global NCC as something that results from informationprocessing in the brain and hence functions as a carrier of information. We do not yet know, but there are some indications that the unified whole appears by virtue of the temporal fine-structure characterizing the conscious brain’s activity — that is, the rhythmic dance of neuronal discharges and synchronous oscillations. But when you move into deep sleep and the island dissolves back into the sea, your world disappears as well. You continuously make conscious snapshots of the world via these feedforward-feedback cycles. Thus, if we want to know what consciousness is, why not consult those people who cultivate it in its purest form? Keck Laboratory for Functional Brain Imaging and Behavior at the University of Wisconsin studied Tibetan monks who had experienced at least ten thousand hours of meditation. He confronted me with an intriguing idea: Could deep meditation be the process, perhaps the only process, in which human beings can sometimes turn the global background into the gestalt, the dominating feature of consciousness itself?
The oscillations also correlate with the meditators’ verbal reports of the intensity of the meditative experience — that is, oscillations are directly related to reports of intensity. Here we encounter a subtler form of inwardness — namely, an inwardness in the temporal domain, subjectively experienced.
At this point, philosophers and scientists alike typically quote a passage from the fourteenth chapter of the eleventh book of St. Yes, this is true — but they are always embedded in a conscious model of the self as remembering the starfish on the beach right now, as planning a new route to the peak at this very moment. His fruitful metaphor of consciousness as the content of a global workspace of the mind implies that only the critical aspects are represented in consciousness.
In order to create a common platform — a blackboard on which messages to our various specialized brain areas can be posted — we need a common frame of reference, and this frame of reference is a temporal one.
I suspected that these lectures were not aimed at successful communication at all (although they were frequently about it) but that this was a kind of intellectual machismo.
What enables this new kind of machismo is the limited capacity of the moving window of the Now.
In a deep sense, appearance is simply presence, and the subjective sense of temporal immediacy is the definition of an internal space of time. The moving window of the conscious Now, though, has proved functionally advantageous for creatures like us: It successfully bundles perception, cognition, and conscious will in a way that selects just the right parameters of interaction with the physical world, in environments like those in which our ancestors fought for survival.
Other conscious beings, in other parts of the universe, might have evolved completely different forms of time experience. Very obviously, and in a strictly no-nonsense, nonmetaphorical, and nonmysterious way, the physical universe itself possesses an intrinsic potential for the emergence of subjectivity.
What would happen if you could distance yourself from the current moment — if the Now-ness of this current moment turned out not to be the real Now but only an elegant portrait of presence in your mind? A world-model active in the brain is transparent if the brain has no chance of discovering that it is a model.
If you look at the book in your hands and try to apprehend individual pixels, you can’t see any.
Still, could your inability to break the book percept down into pixels be caused by something other than the speed of integration in the brain? Everything we experience is “a virtual self in a virtual reality.”But if the self is not “real,” why and how did it evolve? But I do hope this book will give interested lay readers a realistic view of the picture of self-consciousness and the human mind now emerging — and of the accompanying challenges all of us will have to face in the future. It has now become clear that we will never solve the philosophical puzzle of consciousness — that is, how it can arise in the brain, which is a purely physical object — if we don’t come to terms with this simple proposition: that to the best of our current knowledge there is no thing, no indivisible entity, that is us, neither in the brain nor in some metaphysical realm beyond this world. The new mind sciences have generated a flood of relevant data but no model that can, at least in principle, integrate all these data. However, a second aspect has been neglected too much: phenomenology, the fine-grained and careful description of inner experience as such. The experiment is easy to replicate: After a certain time (sixty to ninety seconds, in my case), the famous rubber-hand illusion emerges. Both the artificial rubber hand and the invisible hand are stroked repeatedly and synchronously with a probe. Most animals are conscious to one degree or another, but their PSM is not the same as ours. But then there is a deeper question: Isn’t there something more to the conscious self than the mere subjective experience of ownership for body parts or mental states?
Obviously, if one seriously wants to understand what the conscious self is, these experiences are of great philosophical and scientific relevance. Our conscious model of reality is a lowdimensional projection of the inconceivably richer physical reality surrounding and sustaining us.
This image includes not only our body and our psychological states but also our relationship to the past and the future, as well as to other conscious beings. Second, we are unable to experience and introspectively recognize our self-models as models; much of the self-model is, as philosophers might say, transparent3.
The Ego is a transparent mental image: You — the physical person as a whole — look right through it.
Ultimately, subjective experience is a biological data format, a highly specific mode of presenting information about the world by letting it appear as if it were an Ego’s knowledge. How do empathy and social cognition work; how can communication take place from one tunnel to the next?
The filtering mechanisms are our sensory systems and our brain, the architecture of which we inherited from our biological ancestors, as well as our prior beliefs and implicit assumptions. Also, the Ego Tunnel is not about what psychologists call “confirmation bias” — that is, our tendency to notice and assign significance to observations that confirm our beliefs and expectations, while filtering out or rationalizing away observations that do not. The robust experience of not being in a tunnel, of being directly and immediately in touch with external reality, is one of the most remarkable features of human consciousness. In experiencing an emotion — say, feeling happy and relaxed — the phenomenal content is the feeling itself and not whatever it refers to. Glomeruli (there are some two thousand of them) take input from one type or another of your olfactory receptor cells. But there is also a global NCC — that is, a much larger set of neural properties underlying consciousness as a whole, underpinning your experiential model of the world, the totality of everything you subjectively feel. We have to explain your experience of yourself as feeling the tactile sensation in the rubber hand, of yourself as understanding the sentences you’re reading right now.
What sets human consciousness apart from other biologically evolved phenomena is that it makes a reality appear within itself. In any case, an animal that cannot reason or speak a language can certainly have transparent phenomenal states — and that is all it takes to make a world appear in consciousness.
We can communicate about it with one another, and we can experience this as our own activity.
Human beings in other historical epochs — during the Vedic period of ancient India, say, or during the European Middle Ages, when God was still perceived as a real and constant presence — likely knew kinds of subjective experience almost inaccessible to us today. No serious empirical researcher and no philosopher wants to “reduce consciousness”; at best, one theory about how the contents of conscious experience arose can be reduced to another theory. Some fear that a materialistic disenchantment, along with advances in the sciences of the mind, may have unwanted social and cultural consequences.
Nevertheless, the essence of the phenomenon — what I call the appearance of a world — seems to be preserved throughout. We have no good understanding of what it means to say that consciousness is “subjective,” a “private” phenomenon tied to individual selves. Our theories about consciousness are as naive as the first ideas cavemen probably had about the true nature of the stars. An apple, for instance, looks green to us at midday, when the main illumination is white sunlight, and also at sunset, when the main illumination is red with a lot of yellow. Converging data from modern consciousness research show that what is common to all possible conscious sensations of apricot-pink is not so much the existence of an object “out there” as a highly specific pattern of activation in your brain. As soon as certain properties of your brain are fixed, everything you are experiencing at this very moment is also fixed. While we are drinking in all the colors, sounds, and smells — the diverse range of our emotions and sensory perceptions — it’s hard to believe that all of this is merely an internal shadow of something inconceivably richer.
All they have ever seen of themselves and of one another are the shadows cast on the opposite wall of the cave by the fire burning behind them. Then we can ask: What is the fire that causes the projection of flickering shadows of consciousness, dancing as activation patterns on the walls of your neural cave? Everything we know about the human brain today indicates that the experience of being outside the brain, and not in a tunnel, is brought about by neural systems buried deep inside the brain.
In classical antiquity, as well as in the scholastic philosophy of the Christian Middle Ages, conscientia typically referred either to moral conscience or to knowledge shared by certain groups of people — again, most commonly of moral ideas. From the time of René Descartes (1596–1650), however, the philosophical interpretation of conscientia simply as higher-order knowledge of mental states began to predominate.
For most of us, it seems obvious that we live our conscious lives in a single reality, and the world we wake up to every morning is the same world we woke up to the day before. Sufferers typically have a fully intact visual field that is consciously perceived, but they are unable to recognize what it is they are looking at. At this point, it becomes something more abstract, which we might envision as an information cloud hovering above a neurobiological substrate. This is why the border of this whole is a functional border, outlining the island of consciousness in an ocean made up of a myriad of less integrated and less densely coupled neural micro-events.
We want large-scale coherence spanning many areas of the brain and flexibly binding many different contents into a conscious hierarchy: the letters into the page, the page into the book, the hand holding the book into your bodily self, and the self sitting in a chair in the room and understanding the words. If this idea is true, the brain state creating your conscious perception of the book in your hand right now must have two logical parts: one portraying the book and one continuously representing the state itself. In a more general sense, the principle is that the almost continuous feedback-loops from higher to lower areas create an ongoing cycle, a circular nested flow of information, in which what happened a few milliseconds ago is dynamically mapped back to what is coming in right now. Or even better, why not use our modern neuroimaging techniques to look directly into their brains while they maximize the unity and holism of their minds? They found that meditators self-induce sustained high-amplitude gamma-band oscillations and global phase-synchrony, visible in EEG recordings made while they are meditating.9 The highamplitude gamma activity found in some of these meditators seems to be the strongest reported in the scientific literature. Another interesting finding is that there are significant postmeditative changes to the baseline activity of the brain.
Conscious information is exactly that information that must be made available for every single one of your cognitive capacities at the same time. Although, strictly speaking, no such thing as Now exists in the outside world, it proved adaptive to organize the inner model of the world around such a Now — creating a common temporal frame of reference for all the mechanisms in the brain so that they can access the same information at the same time.
Nature optimized our time experience over the last couple of millions of years so that we experience something as taking place now because this arrangement is functionally adequate in organizing our behavioral space. The physical universe does not know what William James called the “specious present,” nor does it know an expanded, or “smeared,” present moment. In this sense, it is a form of knowledge: functional, nonconceptual knowledge about what will work with this kind of body and these kinds of eyes, ears, and limbs. They might be frozen into an eternal Now or have a fantastically high resolution, living for only a few of our Earth minutes and experiencing more intense individual moments than a million human beings experience in a lifetime. The physical passage of time existed before this property emerged, but then something new was added — a representation of time, including an illusory, smeared present, plus the fact that the beings harboring this new property in their brains could not recognize it as a representation.
A model of the current moment is transparent if the brain has no chance of discovering that it is simply the result of information-processing currently going on in itself.
If your brain worked much more slowly (say, if it could detect time spans of a year but no briefer), you still wouldn’t be able to detect those “pixels.” You would still perceive a seamless passage of time, because the conscious working of our brain is not a single uniform event but a multilayered chain of events in which different processes are densely coupled and interacting all the time.
So when we speak of conscious experience as a subjective phenomenon, what is the entity having these experiences?
There is one central question we have to confront head on: Why is there always someone having the experience?
In particular, altered states of consciousness (such as meditation, lucid dreaming, or out-of-body experiences) and psychiatric syndromes (such as schizophrenia or Cotard’s syndrome, in which patients may actually believe they do not exist) should not be philosophical taboo zones. Suddenly, you experience the rubber hand as your own, and you feel the repeated strokes in this rubber hand. The light areas around the hand and the dark areas in the index finger indicate the respective tactile and visual receptive fields for neurons in the premotor cortex.
Our evolved type of conscious self-model is unique to the human brain, in that by representing the process of representation itself, we can catch ourselves — as Antonio Damasio would call it — in the act of knowing. Isn’t there something like “global ownership,” a deeper sense of selfhood having to do with owning and controlling your body as a whole?
In a series of virtualreality experiments, Olaf, his PhD student Bigna Lenggenhager, and I attempted to create artificial OBEs and full-body illusions (see chapter 3)2. Our sensory organs are limited: They evolved for reasons of survival, not for depicting the enormous wealth and richness of reality in all its unfathomable depth. The internal image of the person-as-a-whole is the phenomenal Ego, the “I” or “self” as it appears in conscious experience; therefore, I use the terms “phenomenal Ego” and “phenomenal self” interchangeably. Transparency simply means that we are unaware of the medium through which information reaches us. The construction process is largely invisible; in the end, we see only what our reality tunnel allows us to see, and most of us are completely unaware of this fact.
Nor is it true that we can never get out of the tunnel or know anything about the outside world: Knowledge is possible, for instance, through the cooperation and communication of large groups of people — scientific communities that design and test theories, constantly criticize one another, and exchange empirical data and new hypotheses.
If the unified sensory quality of smelling sandalwood and amber typically involves activating smell receptor cells of type 18, 93, 143, and 211 in your nose, then we would expect to get the same conscious experience — an identical odor — by stimulating the corresponding glomeruli with an electrode. The incessant information flow in this global NCC is what creates the tunnel, the world in which you live your conscious life.
The most important question I seek to answer is why a conscious world-model almost invariably has a center: a me, an Ego, an experiencing self.
This genuine conscious sense of selfhood is the deepest form of inwardness, much deeper than just being “in the brain” or “in a simulated world in the brain.” This nontrivial form of inwardness is what this book is about.
Such well-known consciousness researchers and theoretical neurobiologists as Anil Seth, Bernard Baars, and D.
The process of attending to our thoughts and emotions, to our perceptions and bodily sensations, is itself integrated into the selfmodel.
Many deep forms of conscious self-experience have become all but impossible due to philosophical enlightenment and the rise of science and technology — at least for the many millions of well-educated, scientifically informed people. In 1994, after a conference of consciousness researchers in Tucson, Arizona, I helped found a new organization, the Association for the Scientific Study of Consciousness (ASSC), which is aimed at drawing together the more rigorous researchers in science and philosophy. As I point out in the concluding chapters of this book, these voices are absolutely right: This is an important aspect of the development of the mind sciences.
But pinning down the neural correlates of specific conscious contents will lay the foundation for future neurotechnology. Subjective color constancy is a fantastic feature of human color perception, a major neurocomputational achievement. In principle, you could have this experience without eyes, and you could even have it as a disembodied brain in a vat.


Of course, an external world does exist, and knowledge and action do causally connect us to it — but the conscious experience of knowing, acting, and being connected is an exclusively internal affair. It has to do with certainty; in an important sense, consciousness is knowing that you know while you know.
Philosophers like Immanuel Kant or Franz Brentano have theorized about this “unity of consciousness”: What exactly is it that, at every single point in time, blends all the different parts of your conscious experience into one single reality? They cannot distinguish shapes from or match shapes with each other, for example, or copy drawings.
The “border” of this information cloud is functional, not physical; the cloud is physically realized by widely distributed firing neurons in your head. In this way, the immediate past continuously creates a context for the present — it filters what can be experienced right now.
You require a conscious representation only if you do not know exactly what will happen next and which capacities (attention, cognition, memory, motor control) you will need to react properly to the challenge around the corner. A certain point in time had to be represented in a privileged manner in order to be flagged as reality. They will make your short-term buffer collapse, because you cannot integrate them into a single temporal gestalt anymore. Underlying all these experiences of duration, succession, and the formation of temporal wholes is the rock-solid bed of presence.
Those animals in the history of our planet that did this too often did not stand a chance of becoming our ancestors; they were eaten by other, less pensive animals. But from a more rigorous, philosophical point of view, the temporal inwardness of the conscious Now is an illusion. The brain is an exception: For certain physical organisms, such as us, it has proved viable to represent the path through reality as if there were an extended present, a chain of individual moments through which we live our lives. Billions of conscious, time-representing nervous systems created billions of individual perspectives. Imagine you could suddenly apprehend the whole world, your own body, the book in your hands, and all of your current surroundings as a “mental model.” Would this still be conscious experience? Imagine you are watching a movie on TV — 2001: A Space Odyssey, say, and you have just watched the scene in which the victorious apeman throws his bone-weapon high into the air, at which point the film jumps into the future, matching the image of the tumbling bone to that of a spacecraft.
Visual attention cannot dissolve the fluidity, the continuity, of your book experience as it can discover the individual pixels when you take a closer look at the TV screen.
Among the many colleagues who have supported me, I am particularly grateful to Susan Blackmore, Olaf Blanke, Peter Brugger, Daniel Dennett, Vittorio Gallese, Allan Hobson, Victor Lamme, Bigna Lenggenhager, Antoine Lutz, Angelo Maravita, Wolf Singer, Tej Tadi, and Giulio Tononi. Quite the contrary: If we pay more attention to the wealth and the depth of conscious experience, if we are not afraid to take consciousness seriously in all of its subtle variations and borderline cases, then we may discover exactly those conceptual insights we need for the big picture. The two final chapters address some of the consequences of these new scientific insights into the nature of the conscious mind-brain: the ethical challenges they pose and the social and cultural changes they may produce (and sooner than we think), given the naturalistic turn in the image of humankind. Moreover, you feel a full-blown “virtual arm” — that is, a connection from your shoulder to the fake hand on the table in front of you.
The illustration on the right shows the subject’s illusion as the felt strokes are aligned with the seen strokes of the probe (the dark areas show areas of heightened activity in the brain; the phenomenally experienced, illusory position of the arm is indicated by the light outline). We mentally represent ourselves as representational systems, in phenomenological real-time. During these illusions, subjects localized themselves outside their body and transiently identified with a computer-generated, external image of it. Therefore, the ongoing process of conscious experience is not so much an image of reality as a tunnel through reality. The phenomenal Ego is not some mysterious thing or little man inside the head but the content of an inner image — namely, the conscious self-model, or PSM. Finally, the popular notion of a reality tunnel is playfully used in simply too many ways and contexts and therefore remains hopelessly vague. This property, as noted, probably distinguishes us from most other animals on this planet: the ability to turn the first-person perspective inward, to explore our emotional states and attend to our cognitive processes.
Theories change social practice, and practice eventually changes brains, the way we perceive the world. A beautiful rainbow continues to be a beautiful rainbow even after it has been explained in terms of electromagnetic radiation. We have learned that consciousness — like science itself — is a culturally embedded phenomenon. When you wake up in the morning, you experience yourself as existing at a specific time, at a single location, and embedded in a scene: A single and integrated situation emerges. As soon as we know the sufficient physical correlates of apricot-pink or sandalwoodamber, we will in principle be able to activate these states by stimulating the brain in an appropriate manner. It is just as your physics teacher in high school told you: Out there, in front of your eyes, there is just an ocean of electromagnetic radiation, a wild and raging mixture of different wavelengths.
On the other hand, you can consciously experience the same physical property, say, the hot kitchen stove in front of you, as two different conscious qualities. The same is true of the shadows cast by the objects carried along above the wall behind their heads.
The fire is the incessant, self-regulating flow of neural information-processing, constantly perturbed and modulated by sensory input and cognition. Today it is interesting to note that the first essential insight — knowing that you know something — is mainly discussed in philosophy of mind,2 whereas the neuroscience of consciousness focuses on the problem of integration: how the features of objects are bound together.
Only people who have suffered severe psychiatric disorders or have experimented with major doses of hallucinogens can perhaps conceive of what it means to live in more than one tunnel at a time. Apperceptive agnosia is usually caused by a lack of oxygen supply to the brain — for instance, through carbon monoxide poisoning.
Just like a real cloud, which is made of tiny water droplets suspended in the air, the neuronal activation pattern underlying the totality of your conscious experience is made of millions of tiny electrical discharges and chemical transitions at the synapses.
Whatever is within the cloud’s boundary (the “dynamical core”) is part of our inner world; whatever is outside of it is not part of our subjective reality. On the other hand, maximal differentiation is not optimal, either, because then our world would fall apart into unconnected pieces of mental content and we would lose consciousness.
Conscious states could be exactly those states that “metarepresent” themselves while representing something else. We see how an old philosophical idea is refined and spelled out by modern neuroscience on the nuts-and-bolts level. As Wolf Singer and his coworkers have shown, gamma-band oscillations, caused by groups of neurons firing away in synchrony about forty times per second, are one of our best current candidates for creating unity and wholeness (although their specific role in this respect is still very much debated). If meditation is seen as a form of mental training, it turns out that oscillatory synchrony in the gamma range opens just the right time window that would be necessary to promote synaptic change efficiently. It spans many levels of organization, it self-organizes over time, and it constantly seeks an optimal balance between the parts and the whole as they gradually unfold. This critical information must remain active so that different modules or brain mechanisms can access it simultaneously.
In order to understand what the appearance of a world is, we urgently need a theory of how the human brain generates this temporal sense of presence.
But what actually happens at the moment you fully lose contact with your present surroundings, say, in a manifest daydream? I like James’s metaphor, according to which the present is not a knife-edge but a saddleback with a breadth of its own, on which we sit perched and from which we look in two directions into time. A good (and more difficult) question is how much room for variation there is in terms of subjective time experience. The pivotal question is how to get from a world-model and a Now-model to exactly what you have as you are reading this: the presence of a world. The blinding speed with which your brain activates the visual model of the book and integrates it with the tactile sensations in your fingers is simply too fast.
In a time when the science of cognition is becoming as controversial as evolution, The Ego Tunnel provides a stunningly original take on the mystery of the mind. This work was in part supported by the COGITO Foundation (Switzerland), the DISCOS Project (“Disorders and Coherence of the Embodied Self,” an EU Marie Curie Research Training Network), and a Fellowship at Europe’s best Institute for Advanced Research, the Wissenschaftskolleg zu Berlin. I close by arguing that ultimately we will need a new “ethics of consciousness.” If we arrive at a comprehensive theory of consciousness, and if we develop ever more sophisticated tools to alter the contents of subjective experience, we will have to think hard about what a good state of consciousness is.
The resulting activation of neurons in the premotor cortex is demonstrated by experimental data. This ability turned us into thinkers of thoughts and readers of minds, and it allowed biological evolution to explode into cultural evolution.
What these experiments demonstrate is that the deeper, holistic sense of self is not a mystery immune to scientific exploration — it is a form of conscious representational content, and it can be selectively manipulated under carefully controlled experimental conditions. The Ego is a tool for controlling and planning your behavior and for understanding the behavior of others.
An Ego is not a self, either, but merely a form of representational content — namely, the content of a transparent self-model activated in the organism’s brain. Could we selectively elicit exactly the same phenomenon by doing even less, possibly at another location in the brain? Edelman have established seventeen criteria for brain structures subserving consciousness, and the evidence for the existence of such structures not only in mammals but also in birds and potentially in octopi is overwhelming. Through the theory of neural networks, we have learned that the distinction between structure and content — between the carrier of a mental state and its meaning — is not as clear-cut as is often assumed. Ten years later, when I updated this bibliography for the fifth German edition, it had almost twenty-seven hundred entries.
Adopting a primitive scientistic ideology would be just as bad as succumbing to mysterianism.
The same is true for dreams or hallucinations, in which you not only experience yourself but also experience yourself in the context of a particular situation, as part of a world that has just appeared. We will be able to modulate our sensations of color or smell, and intensify or extinguish them, by stimulating or inhibiting the relevant groups of neurons. Most of them are invisible to you and can never become part of your conscious model of reality. You can experience it as the sensation of warmth and as the sensation of glowing red, as something you feel on your skin and as something you project into a space in front of your eyes. How can you prove that the book in your hand — or your hand itself, for that matter — really exists? Might we be like the captives, in that objects from some outside world cast shadows on the wall in front of us? The wall is not a two-dimensional surface but the high-dimensional phenomenal statespace of human Technicolor phenomenology.6 Conscious experiences are full-blown mental models in the representational space opened up by the gigantic neural network in our heads — and because this space is generated by a person possessing a memory and moving forward in time, it is a tunnel. The latter phenomenon — the One-World Problem of dynamic, global integration — is what we must examine if we want to understand the unity of consciousness. The unity of consciousness is one of the major achievements of the brain: It is the not-so-simple phenomenological fact that all the contents of your current experience are seamlessly correlated, forming a coherent whole, the world in which you live your life.
Patients may well have a coherent, integrated visual world-model, but certain types of visual information are no longer available to them to act upon. Conscious experience can thus be seen as a special global property of the overall neural dynamics of your brain, a special form of informationprocessing based on a globally integrated data format. The trick with consciousness is to achieve just the right trade-off between the parts and the whole — and at any single moment a widely distributed network of neurons in the brain seems to achieve just that, as a cloud of single nerve cells, dispersed in space, fire away in intricate patterns of synchronous activity, perhaps with one pattern becoming embedded in the next.
This classical idea has logical problems, but the insight itself can perhaps be preserved in an empirically plausible framework.
For example, on the level of conscious objectperception, these synchronous oscillations often seem to be what makes an object’s various features — the edges, color, and surface texture of, say, an apple — cohere as a single unified percept. It shows up on the EEG as a slowly evolving global property, and, as demonstrated by our meditators, it can be cultivated and explored from the inside, from the first-person perspective.
If I wish to explain it to one that asketh, I know not.” The primary difficulty with the Now Problem is not the neuroscience but how to state it properly. Similarly, individual thoughts can form more complex conscious experiences, which may be described as unfolding patterns of reasoning. If my argument is sound, conscious minds can be situated only in one single, real Now at a time — because this is one of the essential features of consciousness.
If the first-order process — the process creating the seen object, the book in your hands — integrates its information in a smaller time-window than the second-order process (namely, the attention you’re directing at this new inner model), then the integration process on the first-order level will itself become transparent, in the sense that you cannot consciously experience it.
We urgently need fresh and convincing answers to questions like the following: Which states of consciousness do we want our children to have?
The Ego is an extremely useful instrument — one that has helped us understand one another through empathy and mindreading.
When I first experienced the rubber-hand illusion, I immediately thought it would be important to see whether this would also work with a whole rubber body or an image of yourself. A conscious world-model active in the brain is transparent if the brain has no chance of discovering that it is a model — we look right through it, directly onto the world, as it were. Most neuroscientists, and probably the majority of philosophers as well, would answer yes: Activate the minimal neural correlate of a given conscious experience and you get the conscious experience itself. The empirical evidence for animal consciousness is now far beyond any reasonable doubt.1 Like us, animals are naive realists, and if they have, say, color sensations, it is plausible to assume that these appear to them with the same quality of directness, certainty, and immediacy as they do to us. At this point, I gave up my attempt to include all of the new literature on consciousness; it was simply no longer possible.
Furthermore, most people would agree that the scientific method is not the only way of gaining knowledge.
We have learned that consciousness reaches down into the animal kingdom.4 We have learned about psychiatric disorders and brain lesions, about coma and minimally conscious states, about dreams, lucid dreams, and other altered states of consciousness. This may also be true for emotional states, such as empathy, gratitude, or religious ecstasy. What is really happening is that the visual system in your brain is drilling a tunnel through this inconceivably rich physical environment and in the process is painting the tunnel walls in various shades of color. The pivotal question is this: If something like this is taking place all the time, why don’t we ever become aware of it? But in the process we may discover how both these essential questions — the top-down version discussed in philosophy of mind and the bottom-up version discussed in the neurosciences — are two sides of the same coin. Just like the water droplets that form a real cloud, some elements leave the aggregate at any given moment, while others join it. And this may be a deeper insight into the essence of the world-creating function of conscious experience: Conscious information seems to be integrated and unified precisely because the underlying physical process is mapped back onto itself and becomes its own context.
Many experiments have shown that synchronous firing may be exactly what differentiates an assembly of neurons that gains access to consciousness from one that also fires away but in an uncoordinated manner and thus does not. Is it logically possible to live in two or more absolutely equivalent Nows at the same time, to have a subjective perspective originating from multiple points in the temporal order? Floyd reaches Moon Base Clavius in his lunar landing craft, and discusses with the local Soviet scientists “the potential for culture shock and social disorientation” presented by the discovery of a monolith on the moon. Which states of consciousness do we want to foster, and which do we want to ban on ethical grounds? Finally, by allowing us to externalize our minds through cooperation and culture, the Ego has enabled us to form complex societies. The central claim of this book — and the theory behind it, the self-model theory of subjectivity4 — is that the conscious experience of being a self emerges because a large part of the PSM in your brain is transparent. If — as, for instance, in dreamless deep sleep — the tool is not needed anymore, it is turned off. All this has led to a general picture of a complex phenomenon that comes in different flavors and strengths. Indeed, the philosophical version of our position on reality developed from Plato’s myth — except that our version neither denies the reality of the material world nor assumes the existence of eternal forms constituting the true objects of those shadows on the wall of Plato’s cave.
There are also patients suffering from what has been called disjunctive agnosia, who cannot integrate seeing and hearing — whose conscious life seems to be taking place in a movie with the wrong soundtrack. Consciousness is a large-scale, unified phenomenon emerging from a myriad of physical micro-events. If we apply this idea not to single representations, such as the visual experience of an apple in your hand, but to the brain’s unified portrait of the world as a whole, then the dynamic flow of conscious experience appears as the result of a continuous large-scale application of the brain’s prior knowledge to the current situation. It makes the world present for you by creating a new space in your mind — the space of temporal internality. I don’t think so, because there would no longer be one single, present “self” who had these experiences. When they arrive at the gigantic black monolith, a member of the exploring party reaches out and strokes its smooth surface, mirroring the awe and curiosity the apemen exhibited millions of years earlier. Transparency is not so much a question of the speed of information-processing as of the speed of different types of processing (such as attention and visual perception) relative to each other.
We are not in direct contact with outside reality or with ourselves, but we do have an inner perspective.
These are exactly the sort of questions we can consider only after we have constructed a satisfactory theory of consciousness.
It does, however, assume that the images appearing in the Ego Tunnel are dynamic projections of something far greater and richer. As long as a sufficiently high degree of internal correlation and causal coupling allows this island of dancing micro-events in your brain to emerge, you live in a single reality.
If you are conscious, the overall process of perceiving, learning, and living creates a context for itself — and that is how your reality turns into a lived reality. Moreover, it’s hard to imagine a situation in which experiencing multiple lived presents might have been adaptive.
The scientists and astronauts gather around it for a group photo, but suddenly an earsplitting highpitched tone is picked up by their earphones — a tone emitted by the monolith as the sun shines down on it. Obviously, I cannot provide definitive answers to such questions; instead, the concluding chapters are meant to draw attention to the important new discipline of neuroethics while at the same time widening our perspective. As modern-day neuroscience tells us, we are never in touch with the present, because neural informationprocessing itself takes time. Thus, although no such thing as an extended present exists from a strict philosophical point of view or from the perspective of a physicist, there must be deep biological truths and a profound evolutionary wisdom behind the way conscious beings such as ourselves happen to represent time in the brain. You are completely engaged in the scene unfolding in front of you, to the point of identifying with the bewildered spacesuited humans.
At the same time, we are already beginning to find the first neural correlates of specific forms of conscious content.5 Eventually we should be able to discern the minimal set of properties our brains require to activate specific qualities of experience, such as the apricot-pink color of the evening sky or the scent of amber and sandalwood. Signals take time to travel from your sensory organs along the multiple neuronal pathways in your body to your brain, and they take time to be processed and transformed into objects, scenes, and complex situations. However, you can distance yourself from the movie at any time and become aware that there is a separate you sitting on the couch in the living room and only watching all this.
So, strictly speaking, what you are experiencing as the present moment is actually the past. You can also move up close to the screen and inspect the little pixels, thousands of little squares of light rapidly blinking on and off, creating a continuous flowing image as soon as you are a couple of yards away. Not only is this flowing image made up of individual pixels, but the temporal dynamic is not really continuous at all — the individual pixels blink on and off according to a certain rhythm, changing their color in abrupt steps.



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