This morning I was awoken by the telephone ringing at about 6am. It only rang once. But this made me realise something rather profound.
I had obviously been asleep before the ring. In fact, I remembered what I had been dreaming about. Specifically, I dreamt that I was in a completely different location. I was at the home of some of my close relatives, nowhere near where I live, and we were discussing something over a box of chocolates (not that I dream about chocolate all the time or anything) but the important point is that this was a totally different environment filled with a set of people undergoing complex social interactions. As an aside, one should note that I always dream as though everything is happening for real – I can never control dreams or be aware that they are actually only dreams, so this felt like a totally normal series of events, as would happen during an average day.
Anyway, because the telephone only rang once I was able to gain a temporal reference of the time frame over which the following occurred: My brain was able to change its mode of operation from self-referential to external input driven, my mental model of the world was substantially overhauled by awakening into a completely different environment, realising who I am, where I was, the fact that there was a telephone ringing in the next room, understanding what a telephone is, that it was some time in the early morning, that the telephone should really *not* be ringing at this time, and that I should probably be doing something about the fact that it is.
In a period of approximately 2 seconds, by the time the ring was over, I was contemplating whether or not to get up and try to answer it. I usually don’t have such an accurate temporal reference to the experience of awakening, as I awake either naturally or via my alarm clock which I have actually learned to turn off whilst still mostly asleep so I have no idea how long it takes me to ‘come round’ under those circumstances.
Interestingly, I recall another occasion whereby I was awoken by an earthquake. This was a very different experience, I was completely confused, presumably because my brain couldn’t latch onto a real world model of my ‘self’ to load in that particular environment (i.e. one where the room was shaking around), as it had never had any reference data under similar circumstances.
Anyway, this just totally makes me crazy thinking about it. No need to load any data into RAM, no need to boot an OS, just taking in a couple of visual, audio and physical orientation-based input data streams for a half second or so is enough to kickstart those reinforcement learned neural circuits back into firing in recognisable patterns which correlate with wakeful consciousness, self-awareness, and understanding of your environment. You’re back to your normal self. Pretty neat, huh? That’s what a special-purpose processor running a hard-wired algorithm, evolved to be natively efficient, can do for you.
I just think the brain is cool sometimes.