Objectively Subjective

Objectively Subjective

Over the centuries philosophers and scientists alike have attempted to solve or at least to some extent explain how the mind and the body are connected. Those coming from the dualist field of thought will tell you that there is the corporeal or tangible body, including the brain, and then there is something separate – a mind, a consciousness, a soul – something ethereal. Dualists believe that there is something more to us than just the biological, physical substance; something that we will most likely never be able to understand.

Monists on the other hand take the logical and more practical approach that mind and body are the same thing and that although neuroscientists have yet to pinpoint the exact mechanisms behind this thing we refer to as consciousness or the mind, there is nothing supernatural about our existence. The big issue for monists is to explain how consciousness emerges from a blob of biological matter, which has electric potentials and chemical messages constantly traversing it.

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And here is the crux of the mind-body problem. No matter which way you look at it, we are still no closer to coming up with a definitive answer for what the mind is, let alone the exact mechanisms behind it.

In this day and age we have developed many different ways to measure brain activity and to investigate the functional pathways of the brain. But when we look at an EEG, MRI, fMRI or the like, what we are seeing is the measurement of the biological processes involved in the cognitive facets which are being measured during such experiments. We are not able to measure how the participant is feeling, or what exactly they are thinking at the time of the measurement. This is because even if we were to ask the participant, we would suddenly have to rely upon subjective feedback. In terms of ‘serious’ science, this is not an acceptable form of data.

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Scientists work with objective data. Objectivity means that it is separate from our own perspective, in that it is independently verifiable. So, for example, if I wanted to measure the length of a room and I had a measuring tape, then the length of the room should be the same no matter who uses the measuring tape to measure it – taking into account measurement error of course! On the other hand, subjective measures are messy and clouded by our feelings and point of view. For example, if you wanted to know how the participant felt as they viewed certain visual stimuli – then only they could give you that feedback in that moment. The problem is that this type of feedback can be biased. Say that in that moment, the participant felt something inappropriate – they would be less likely to convey their true feelings – and we would not be able to argue with them. We are at the mercy of the participant as we are unable to tell them that their point of view is incorrect.

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However, this brings us the question that how do we objectively measure something that is inherently subjective? Things such as emotions, consciousness, our human experience in general, among many other things are purely subjective in nature. Short of finding a way to plug into each other’s brains and share our own internal points of view with each other – this seems like a tall order.

I contend that we should stop looking for an objective measure in relation to consciousness and the human experience and instead start trying to develop better methods of subjective data collection. We are so obsessed with measuring everything and comparing everyone in an attempt to define what is normal – but what if there is no normal when it comes to the mind and our own individual consciousnesses and human experiences.

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Currently there are methods such as experience sampling – however there are still inherent problems with these methods. For example, experience sampling involves the use of a reminder which then prompts the participant to write down their thoughts or feelings in that moment. The issue here is, does this reminder effect the thoughts and feelings of the participant in that moment? If the data looks something like this you know you are in trouble:

9:00 – Damn that alarm is annoying now I’m writing what I’m thinking but all I can think is that I need to write what I’m thinking and I can’t think of anything else.

11:00 – Why is it always right on the hour and the buzz is still annoying and it is making me tired. I am still thinking that I need to be writing what I’m thinking and it feels very circular……etc.

As you can see – the method of experience sampling in itself can change the experience of the participant that we are trying to sample. It takes participants out of the moment and anything that they may have been organically thinking, is tossed directly out the window as a result! In contrast to this, we could develop a way to use stream of consciousness as a form of experience sampling. If the participant was unprompted and could either, write, type or speak into a recorder unencumbered – this could counteract the negative side effects of traditional experience sampling. However this method would not be effective with everyone and it is a skill to just let go and write exactly what comes into your mind in that moment without a filter. Most people would not allow themselves to be so vulnerable.

Until we can find a reliable method to subjectively measure the mind – and I mean reliable, then I believe that the mind-body problem will remain unsolved and a contentious issue well into the future.

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