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The Anatomy of Awareness, Part One: Notes on Dying

This is the first excerpt from The Anatomy of Awareness, my 260-page book illustrating a groundbreaking, mindbending new theory of human consciousness (recently completed and currently seeking publication). Each excerpt will be linked here as it is posted. For more information, look here.

My first memory is of dying.
More specifically, the first memory I have is of losing consciousness; of bright light and a sudden, slow-moving darkness; of sensations and their sudden dissolution, of knowing that whatever this was, it was evaporating.

I stopped breathing six times within the first day I was alive, and I am not sure which one of these serves as that first, earliest memory. All I remember is the strangeness of that brevity, like a flash of light in pitch darkness.
Imagine a movie screen, completely dark, completely silent, erupting suddenly into a single kinetic flare of sound and light. Then back to darkness. The darkness is slow in coming, but the light is so quick you wonder if it just was a synaptic mis-fire, just a mistake.

Being scarcely born, I had no linguistic methods with which to approximate that confusion, except perhaps “where’d it go?” (much as a dog might “think”). But whether it can be conveyed in words or not, I remember it. It can be conjured up in any moment, crystalline, buried unchanging and unchanged in the very core of my mind.
I began to wonder, then, which other memories I would end up storing as cleanly, whose edges might not be dulled by time and age. This led me to wonder exactly what memories are, and what they are not. It led me to wonder at the ways memory—both our own and our cultures must shape our identities, our thoughts, and our beliefs. It led me to examine the ways our memory is a trap, a false record, a case of mistaken identity.

And then it led me to write this.

The first time I sensed that something might be a little different in my head was when I began meditating extensively in my freshman year. Teachers and fellow students of meditation would indicate that shutting off the mental chatter, of focusing on one thing to the eventual exclusion of other thoughts, was a difficult process. The most common complaint was always that “I cant stop all my thoughts!” I understood this difficulty, and yet, I couldn’t.

You see, I just don’t have that mental chatter. I never have had it. I can zero out my thoughts fairly readily, except in the case of particularly strong emotions (more on them later). Conversely, I’ve always found it both frustrating and intensely difficult to stay focused on a single line of inquiry, or a single type of stimulus—no matter how much I might be interested, awake, or curious. The more specific the focus, the more I have to fight to keep it in my head, to follow it all the way, to not let it fade. My default mode seems to be silence: thoughts, any thoughts at all, are strange intruders, beginning to disintegrate and fall away almost as soon as they arise.

The lone exception to this rule, in virtually every case, is music. I have songs stuck in my head for at least 90% of my waking awareness; there are extensive, elaborate soundtracks even in my dreams. Music forms such a significant chunk of my remembered experience that I cant help but feel my brain treats music differently than it does other memories—more on this later.

Curious about why my thoughts functioned this way, and how they might begin to be analyzed, I began an intense study of neuroscience. I was interested in the rhythms of my various states of consciousness—what preceded and dictated a given mental experience, which emotions triggered which shifts, and perhaps most significantly, the specific states of consciousness we know to exist.

Continue to Part Two: “What Is Consciousness?”

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