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    "I Observer"/"I Avatar"

    As a young adult, I bought crime novelist Mickey Spillane’s premier 1947 novel, I, The Jury. Before it was made into two movies, the book had sold 3.5 million copies. In a flurry of action, Spillane wrote it in 19 days.

    In ways generally unrecognized, the book captures the essence of the existential “I” that we all carry around in that three-and-a-half pound of mush inside our head. The protagonist of the book’s narrative, detective Mike Hammer, featured his “I, Observer,” who witnessed the deliberately intended painful murder of Jack Williams, a close friend who had saved Hammer’s life during a WWII combat incident. Hammer’s “I, Observer” felt the injustice, pain, and grief of the murder. Hammer’s “I, Avatar,” acted to achieve revenge on the killer.

    All real live humans have these two “I’s.” Our “I, Observer” is a witness to the events of life. We experience life as if we were given a ticket to watch the game of life as it unfolds. Our “I, Avatar” responds to what it sees to act on our behalf. We take actions that we think are appropriate ways to respond. The difference is that the one I is “captain of its own ship,” while the other I is the sail of its own ship, unfurling as the wind blows.
    One way to recognize one’s own dual I’s is in the dreams we have every night. Our “I, Observer” consciously witnesses a dream, whether we later remember it or not. In such dreams, we are aware of the story and maybe even of our role in it. Normally, however, we do not intervene to alter what happens in the dream. Even our own actions are just witnessed, not modified, as if we were watching ourselves in a movie.

    Photo by Daniel Hohe on Unsplash
    There are, however, other dream occasions, apparently relatively rare, in which “I, Avatar” takes over in a dream to steer its course in the real time of the dream. These so-called “lucid dreams” are apparently not the default mode of brain thinking in dreams. Maybe “I, Observer” is the default mode of operation in both dreams and in wakeful life.

    It does seem clear that the mode sometimes switches to “I, Avatar.” Our I becomes an agent that intends to act in response to what happens to us. “I, Avatar” reasons on the issues, decides the most appropriate course of action, constructs an action plan, launches activity, and adjusts action in response to the emerging consequences.

    Neuroscientists don’t know how the brain switches between observer and avatar. In fact, some neuroscientists believe that the brain has no avatar, only the observer. These scientists enlist this view to support their contention that humans lack free will. If your conscious mind has no capacity for agency, then it surely cannot exert free will. All willed action would have to be pre-determined or driven by uncontrolled forces, like the sails of a ship. Such a view precludes a captain who can adjust the sail positions.

    Most neuroscientists likely agree that Observer and Avatar, if it exists, are creatures of the brain. The brain must construct those creatures the way that it constructs everything elsethat is, in the form of nerve impulse representations. This basic fact was made most compellingly by the Nobel Prize studies of David Hubel and Torsten Weisel, who noticed something astonishing as they moved recording electrodes up and down in the visual cortex of awake cats who were watching scenes on a screen. A given neuron was inactive most of the time, but occasionally fired off a burst of voltage pulses. They later proved that a given neuron was sensitive to only a small feature of the image, such as a small line segment. Other visual cortex neurons were sensitive to other small segments, and they likewise selectively responded with impulse discharge. Together, all these neurons could reconstruct the image. A key point is that the image is not in the cortex. Its representationis there, in the form of nerve impulses.

    The logical extension of such facts is that the brain experiences and acts in the world via its nerve impulse representations. Both the observer and the avatar must be likewise constructed of patterns of impulses, likely differing depending on whether the I is operating as observer or avatar.

    This way of thinking about selfhood also resolves the mind/brain enigma. Mind is not some ghost floating around in brain. Mind is the material existence of nerve impulse representations of experience and thought. The concept of “mind over matter” is nonsense. Mind IS matter.

    No one knows how the brain decides which mode of operation to use. The Observer mode seems preferable as a default, because it is the collector of information and experience that can inform the Avatar should action be beneficial to the brain and body in which it is embedded. Without the Avatar, however, our personhood is a victim of circumstance, compelled to act in predestined ways that may not be beneficial or wise. We can argue that the Avatar is the brain’s way of saving itself from its own foolishness, of counteracting adverse circumstance, and of advancing one’s agendas. The trick of successful living is the ability to switch into Avatar mode when it is needed. When we fail in life, we should ask I, Avatar, “Where were you when I needed you?


    Klemm, W. R. (2014). Mental Biology: The New Science of How the Brain and Mind Relate. New York: Prometheus.

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