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Who Are We?

The Secret Life of Scientists and EngineersThe Secret Life of Scientists and Engineers

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Listening to Andre Fenton talk about his pioneering work on how the brain stores and extracts information, my mind—untrained in meditation and sorely unfocused!—trailed off into the incredible notion that science seems to support: I’m not really just me and you’re not really you

Speaking not just of our brains but of our entire bodies, Lewis Thomas wrote in the classic “Lives of a Cell”: “A good case can be made for our nonexistence as entities. We are shared, rented, occupied.”

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Evidently, meditation, which Andre makes an excellent case for, is just the process to bring that idea to light. Neuroscientist Sam Harris describes how in deep meditation the feeling that there is a self thinking the thoughts disappears. “This experience of selflessness is interesting for two reasons,” Harris says, “It makes perfect sense from a neurological perspective, as there is no privileged place for the self to occupy the brain.”

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Dr. Cliff Pickover

And he adds, tantalizingly, “The loss of self can be utterly liberating.”

“What does it mean that your brain has nothing in common with the brain you had a few years ago?” physicist Clifford Pickover asks. “If you are something other than the collection of atoms making up your body, what are you? You are not so much your atoms as you are the pattern in which your atoms are arranged. Some of the atomic patterns in your brain code memories. People are persistent space-time tangles. It’s quite possible that you have an atom of Jesus of Nazareth coursing through your body. Gilgamesh, the historical king who ruled the city of Uruk, is part of your brain or tendons or heart. An atom in your retina may one day be in the tears of a happy lunar princess a hundred years from now.”

Who are we, where can we draw boundaries?

I wouldn’t be surprised if Andre, the man who as a boy loved Hardy Boys mysteries, who grew up to become a very different kind of detective, sheds some light on that little mystery too.

Original funding for "The Secret Life of Scientists and Engineers" was provided by the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation.