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Introspection: Personally Observing the Workings of One's Own Mind


Permalink 08:48:00 pm, by Brandon Norgaard Email , 758 words   English (US)
Categories: The Mind, Building Knowledge

Introspection: Personally Observing the Workings of One's Own Mind

We all know that we can observe the external world through our eyes and ears. Well, those among us who are not skeptics or solipsists would agree with that. I don't pay much attention to skeptics or solipsists because their arguments are self defeating if they wish others to believe that they are saying is true. But that is for another blog posting some time in the future.

What I want to write about today is introspection, which is where one observes the inner workings of their own mind. It is possible to come to know things about one's own mind through introspection that would be difficult to know through other means. In a future blog posting I will argue that there are actually some things that can only be known through introspection. I believe that there are certain important truths that are impossible to understand through any means other than introspection. First though, I want to explain the process and limits of introspection in general.

It should be obvious that it is impossible to fully understand one's own mind through introspection, or through any means for that matter. Understanding requires brain cells, and the brain cells that are used to understand the rest of the brain would then not be understood. Actually we humans will only ever have the ability to understand our own brains at a very high level. The details are just far too complex. Billions and billions of brain cells.

There are those who deny that introspection is possible. How, they ask, can the brain ever observe anything about itself? This is possible because one part of the brain observes another and the information gained from this exercise is stored in yet another part of the brain.

The truth is that the information that can be gained from introspection is severely limited because it is only possible for the brain's observational capacity to observe a very small portion of the processes that occur at any given moment inside the brain. Most brain processes are subconscious, meaning that one can never become consciously aware of these processes through any amount of introspection. Subconscious brain processes include those responsible for keeping the body alive, muscle reflexes, intuition, etc.

It appears that the scope of knowledge that can be gained from introspection is limited to the following subjects:

  1. The processes associated with sense data coming into the brain and then being interpreted. This includes when one sees an image, hears a sound, or receives data from any other senses. One who introspects should be able to understand the difference between different types of sense data and to understand which sense any datum comes from. This means that introspection should allow anyone to understand the difference between visual images and sounds and from this they should be able to take inventory of their senses. Although knowledge can be gained from the experience of introspection, this is not a sense, but a way of being consciously aware of brain processes that are not subconscious but that one’s central consciousness has a tendency to ignore unless one engages in introspection.
  2. The processes associated with the generation of mental ideas that simulate sense data. This includes when one imagines a visual image, a sound, or a similar simulation of other senses. This can come either from memory or from mental synthesis. Any sane person should be able to know from introspection whether an idea came from a very recent sense experience, from memory, or from mental synthesis, at least most of the time.
  3. The content of what one is currently thinking about. Most of the processes responsible for thoughts are subconscious, which effectively means that they are beyond the reach of introspection.
    Introspection is made possible because the brain’s conscious awareness can direct its attention to any of the aforementioned subjects. Most of the time, the brain is not engaged in introspection and is thus tends to direct its attention to the content of sense data and to ongoing analysis of facts.

So what kinds of interesting things can be known from introspection? You can know that you are thinking, and that your memories are not the same as your current sense data, but this is obvious. What else can be known that is worth taking time to introspect? I will answer this question in my next posting. Stay tuned.

What are your thoughts on this topic? What, if anything, can be known from introspection? Let your voice be heard in the forum.
You can also email the me at brandon@enlightenedworldview.com


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