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    What Am I? What Are You?

    I am an agent, one who does things like think, feel, believe, choose, plan, and does things. But what is it about me that makes me an agent? Obviously, my agency arises from my brain, as does yoursbut where and how?

    The starting point for an answer has to be based on how the brain does everything else it does besides create my “I.” The principle is that the currency of brain function is the nerve impulse. More specifically, the brain models my inner and outer worlds by creating representations of sensation, memory, and thought in the form of patterns of nerve impulses flowing in specific neural networks. I call these Circuit Impulse Patterns (CIPs). For detection of a specific visual image, for example, the image is represented by one set of CIPS in the visual cortex. A different image will generate a different set of CIPS in the visual cortex to represent it. Documentary basis for this conclusion was provided in the Nobel Prize work of Hubel and Weisel. The same principle applies to all other mental forms of representation. That is, for example, one set of CIPS carries out the command of my “I” to type this sentence. Another set of CIPs carries out the command of my “I” to get up out of my chair and take a break. In short, everything my “I” chooses to think, feel, and do is implemented by a specific set of CIPs.

    The circuit nature of the nervous system is fundamental. I have, for example, a circuit of neurons that begins in my foot, projects into a specific spinal cord segment of neurons, and these in turn project back to leg muscles that make me lift my leg if I step on a tack. Nerve impulses carry the sensory and motor information in this circuit. Additionally, this spinal circuit has reciprocal connections with various circuits in the brain that collectively inform me of pain and may also modulate my behavioral response to the pain. This information is likewise carried by nerve impulses.

    So now we must examine my “I.” What is its nature? How does it get created? How is it that I knowI have stepped on a tack, have generated a stream of cursing, and am aware of any other associated behaviors? Is it not likely that this “agent” of selfhood inside my brain is itself a set of CIPs? This set may operate unconsciously or consciously. I likely am not aware of what is happening in my spinal cord. I most certainly will be aware that my foot hurts and that “I” am responding to the pain. This “I” serves as an avatar that mediates my interaction with the world my brain is representing via CIPs.

    Now, this brings us to the issue of conscious awareness. That too may be implemented as a set of CIPs. The CIPs of consciousness are equivalent to an avatar that the brain has instantiated to act consciously on behalf of its perceived interests. My avatar can reflect on the meaning of various sets of CIPs circulating within the global workspace of brain. The avatar can access and influence these various CIPs sets, because it too is a CIP set that connects physically to the other circuits and communicates in the shared language of nerve impulses.

    This means that the conscious avatar can do things via its integral connections with other circuits. This capacity for agency refutes the contention of many scholars who have the unfounded belief that consciousness is just an “observer” that cannot do anything. Because the CIPS of my conscious avatar can do things, it means that it can implement choices and decisions that it makes.

    This brings us to the issue of free will. The CIPs of my conscious avatar most certainly are affected in automatic ways by its connections to other CIPs. Thus, much of what my avatar does is not caused by free choice. Such actions result from inherent circuit connectivity and the programming of prior learning. On the other hand, because my avatar CIPs have their own existence, they can create representations for many alternative actions, including creative options that it had not been taught by prior experience. The avatar CIPs can reason about the pros and cons, and make a choice that is neither pre-determined nor inevitable. In short, my “I” avatar has the capacity for some free will.

    The CIPs of my avatar allow me to be conscious, to think, feel, and choose with some degree of freedom. To reframe the dictum of Descartes:

    I am, therefore I think.


    1.       Klemm, W. R. 2016. Making a Scientific Case for Conscious Agency and Free Will. New    
    York: Elsevier.
    2.       Klemm, W. R. 2014. Mental Biology: The New Science of How the Brain and Mind Relate, New York: Prometheus/Random House.
    3.       Klemm, W. R. 2011. Atoms of Mind. The “Ghost in the Machine” Materializes.New York: Springer.
    4.       Klemm, W. R. (2015). Neurobiology Perspectives on Agency: 10 Axioms and 10 Proposition, Chapter 4. Constraints of Agency. Explorations of Theory in Everyday Life. edited  by Graig W. Gruber et al. Annals of Theoretical Psychology, Vol. 12, p.51-88.
    5.     Klemm, W.  R. 2012. Sense of Self and Consciousness: Nature, Origins, Mechanisms, and Implications, p. 111-138, in Consciousness: States, Mechanisms and Disorders. Edited by A. E. Cavanna and A. Nani.  Hauppauge, N.Y.: Nova Science Publishers. Open access available at https://www.novapublishers.com/catalog/product_info.php?products_id=38801
    6.        Klemm, W. R. 2011. Neural representations of the sense of self. Archives Cognitive Psychology. Advances in Cognitive Psychology. 7: 16-30. DOI 10.2478/v10053-008-0084-2.

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