A recent conversation with a psychologist friend of mine brought up the importance of our very human version of neurobiology, and how little we still understand about the complex neurobiological processes that are responsible for behavior and our ability to interact with our fellow cognitive creatures. While much has been discovered about the mechanisms of both cognition and genetics as they relate to brain development and how it all relates to human activities, not much material is actually available that definitively addresses the implications, sources, and treatments for specific pathologies as they relate in the fields of neuroscience and biology. A quick check into the sources of information on neurobiology in general will provide a wide range of options from which to choose, but so much is still not being studied and not wholly understood.
With all the research and scholarship taking place in the field of cognitive studies and neurobiology, there are a few hopeful signs that an expanded view of what might constitute a comprehensive theory of the subjective experience of consciousness might finally be emerging. UCLA psychiatry professor, Daniel Siegel, whose most recent book is “Mind: A Journey to the Heart of Being Human,” has a supportive view. On the website, “Big Think,” Siegel’s idea is reviewed and his idea is phrased in this way: “We’ve come to accept that the brain is the instrument that plays the mind, but Siegel takes it one step further by positing that your mind isn’t limited to the confines of your skull, or even the barrier of your skin anywhere in your body. Your mind is emergent – it’s beyond your physiology, and it exists in many different places at once.”
Supporting Seigel’s ideas is an impressive background in a wide range of studies in psychiatry and philosophy, and his serious attention to the science of the mind and brain give his ideas some genuine gravitas. According to his bio on his website, “…Daniel J. Siegel received his medical degree from Harvard University and completed his postgraduate medical education at UCLA with training in pediatrics and child, adolescent and adult psychiatry. He served as a National Institute of Mental Health Research Fellow at UCLA, studying family interactions with an emphasis on how attachment experiences influence emotions, behavior, autobiographical memory and narrative. Dr. Siegel is a clinical professor of psychiatry at the UCLA School of Medicine and the founding co-director of the Mindful Awareness Research Center at UCLA. An award-winning educator, he is a Distinguished Fellow of the American Psychiatric Association.”
I recently reviewed Siegel’s 2011 presentation to the Garrison Institute on YouTube and recommend it as a good introduction to the idea that the mind is, in Siegel’s words, “…an embodied and relational emergent process that regulates the flow of energy and information,” and in the video he describes “the role of awareness and attention in monitoring and modifying the mind.”
These are complex ideas and challenging for many people to wrap their own minds around them, but Siegel presents them in an accessible way to a more general audience and goes to great lengths to explain in detail, how it is that the “mind” includes the physiology of the brain, but is not limited to the physical structures of the brain, or indeed to the body itself. The implications for subjective experience in particular, and our very human version of consciousness generally, are far reaching and intriguing for anyone interested in the subject.
In the coming weeks, I hope to write about some of the recent ideas and investigations going on in our current century, and also to reflect a bit on some of the more expansive ideas from some of the great thinkers of the past few centuries. It’s interesting to me how many of the ideas from the past are now receiving greater attention due to the efforts of scholars like Siegel, and look forward to sharing my thoughts and musings with my readers here.
Since there is so much conversation going on these days about Artificial Intelligence and what we might expect in the coming years as scientists and researchers advance in constructing ever-more complex machines, I thought it might be a good time to consider not only what it means to be “intelligent,” but also what importance the term “artificial” carries with it when using the two terms together in a sentence. In recent years, cognitive scientists and AI researchers have made significant progress in producing machines which can perform specific tasks and demonstrate specialized capacities for accomplishing remarkable feats of machine intelligence, and in very specific ways, have outperformed humans in circumstances which previously were thought to be beyond such artificial constructs.
While all of the hoopla and publicity surrounding such events generally results in hyperbole and sensational headlines, there is a degree of fundamental achievement underneath it all that warrants our attention and could be described as commendable in the context of modern scientific research. Most media consumers and television viewers have encountered the commercials for IBM’s Watson, and have likely been exposed to reports of Watson’s abilities and accomplishments. There is much to admire in the work that resulted in the existence of such a system, and the benefits are fairly straightforward as presented by the advertisements, although it is also clear that they have been designed to feature what might be the most benign and easy-to-understand characteristics of a system which accomplishes its tasks using artificial intelligence. Much of the underlying science, potential risks, and limits of such research are rarely discussed in such ads.
In order to make some kind of sense of it all, and to think about what it is exactly that is being accomplished with artificial intelligence, what forces and processes are being employed, and how the results compare to other cognitive achievements, especially as it relates to human intelligence and human cognitive processes, we have to understand something about the most important differences between a system like Watson, and the cognitive processes and brain physiology of modern humans. While some stunning similarities exist between the basic architecture of neural networks in the brain and modern AI devices, not a single project currently being undertaken is anywhere near the goal of rising to an equivalent level of general capability or even just achieving a basic understanding what it takes to create a human mind. It’s not that it’s an impossible undertaking, nor is it impossible to imagine how human minds might eventually make great leaps in both constructing advanced systems and in making progress toward a greater level of understanding. After all, the human mind is pretty stunning all by itself!
What is most discouraging from my point of view is how much emphasis is being placed on the mechanics of intelligence–the structural underpinning of physical systems–instead of including a more holistic and comprehensive approach to increasing our understanding. A recent article in the Wall Street Journal by Yale University computer science professor, David Gelernter, (Review, March 19-20, 2017) posits that “…software can simulate feeling. A robot can tell you it’s depressed and act depressed, although it feels nothing.” Whether or not this approach might bring us closer to “machines that can think and feel,” successfully doing so seems like a long shot. If all we can do is “simulate” a human mind, is that really accomplishing anything?
Professor Gelernter goes to great lengths to describe the levels of a functional human mind, and gives us valuable insights into the way our own minds work, and he illuminates the way we shift between levels of awareness, as well as how we make such good use of our unique brand of intelligence. He then suggests that AI could create these same circumstances in a “computer mind,” and that it could “…in principle, build a simulated mind that reproduced all of the nuances of human thought, and (which) dealt with the world in a thoroughly human way, despite being unconscious.” He takes great pains to enumerate all the ways in which the “spectrum” of a human mind operates, and then concludes that “Once AI has decided to notice and accept this spectrum–this basic fact about the mind–we will be able to reproduce it in software.”
We cannot reduce what it means to feel to the astonishingly complex machinations of the human brain, any more than we can boil down the complexity of the human brain to the point where an artfully written piece of software can recreate anything even close to human feelings–what it actually feels like to be a living, breathing, cognitive human being. As Hamlet explains to Horatio, “There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.” Shakespeare’s intimation on the limitations of even human thought should give us pause to consider the limitations of producing it artificially.
—more to come—
Winter has finally begun to lose its grasp on the world around me, and as it wanes, I find myself in a fairly predictable state of mind for this time of year. It generally feels like a sort of aching melancholy or some leftover winter suppression or vagueness in my personal emotional experience of life, and while that sounds as though it might be unpleasant, it usually precedes a more buoyant and upbeat condition as the temperatures become more moderate and the Spring begins to really take hold. Since it is only temporary and is normally followed by a more balanced interval, I try to be philosophical about it and look forward to the inevitable lift as the flowers bloom and the world slowly becomes more verdant. Stepping out the front door this morning, I caught my first glimpse of that transitional moment and it inspired me to share some recent thoughts with my readers here.
The image of the blossoms right outside the front door was enough to stir the anticipated and more optimistic emotional response in spite of current conditions being a bit chilly and rainy outside. These blossoms seemed to appear overnight, and every year the various plants always appear on a different schedule, almost competing with each other for bragging rights as to which ones were first and second. While I generally would not definitively or empirically associate such emotions with the flowers that appear in front of my house each year, speaking of them in this way feels completely reasonable to me, and my appreciation for their arrival also appears unfailingly when they arrive. We may wish to call this “imposing” my own emotions on a bunch of plants, but it is more correct to say that my emotions are stirred by the appearance of these plants, and I recognize the part they play in my experience of these emotions.
The image at the top of the post was actually taken out behind the garage, but had no less effect on my emotional response to the plants out front. Having been inspired to walk around the yard by the availability of both time and opportunity, I found myself standing in a fairly moderate rainfall as I attempted to capitalize on the momentary emotional stirring within me. Quite the opposite response occurred as I examined the astonishing progress of the ivy crawling up the side of the garage, which had not been there only a week ago. Each Autumn, I attempt to reduce the presence of the vines in the back by savagely and unapologetically slashing the overgrowth on the back fence, and every Spring, the tenacity of nature and the persistent determination of the vines always seems to win out. I’ve tried every solution known to man to eradicate the chokers of the trees in my yard and the destroyers of my other plants, and every year the vines return, almost as though I hadn’t made any effort at all.
I recently reviewed a new book by Lisa Feldman Barrett called, “How Emotions Are Made,” and while there is much to admire about her work, it struck me as completely counterintuitive to suppose that our brains alone produce our emotions. The book claims to be about “our emotions—what they are, where they come from, why we have them.” She writes, “A mental event, such as fear, is not created by only one set of neurons. Instead, combinations of different neurons can create instances of fear…A single brain area or network contributes to many different mental states.” The implication here seems to be that our emotions are entirely explainable through brain science.
Dr. Barrett is a Distinguished Professor of Psychology at Northeastern University. According to her webpage: “Dr. Barrett’s research focuses on the nature of emotion from the perspectives of both psychology and neuroscience, and takes inspiration from anthropology, philosophy, and linguistics. Her lab takes an interdisciplinary approach, and incorporates methods from social, clinical, and personality psychology, psychophysiology, cognitive science, cognitive neuroscience, and visual cognition.”
In the coming weeks, I hope to expand on these ideas and explain how a great deal more goes into our emotional experience of life than can be explained by cognitive science, and to flush out more of my own ideas in the process.
January has flown by at the speed of light it seems, and I have only today been able to find an opportunity to sit quietly at my desk and contemplate this posting–the first of the new year. It has been a tumultuous time for us all here in America over the past several months, and it has, no doubt, also been equally so for many others around the world. As Americans, we tend to look upon the events in our own native land as primarily our own, when it might be more precise describe them as world events, since we are inextricably linked to the rest of the world by virtue of our standing as a major force in the world. We may wish to turn our focus inward on our own country as a means of coming to terms with the circumstances of the world-at-large, but ultimately, we are, at some point, going to have to face up to the reality of eventually becoming a global community of human beings. I am not inclined to engage in political debates about the wisdom, virtues, or liabilities of becoming a global community of humans, and the purpose of this blog is far removed from such debates, but it is clear that as a sentient, cognitive, emotional, often irrational, historically contentious and radically philosophical and diverse community of humans, we are gradually going to have to acknowledge that our focus on the external world, on the world outside of our own personal subjective experience, will very likely require a much greater emphasis on understanding our internal world, if we are ever going to solve the problems facing us everywhere else.
The image above shows a most unique and thoughtful gift I received this year at our annual family Christmas gathering. Since we have such a large extended family group, for years now we have put everyone’s name in a hat and conducted a Pollyanna method for gift-giving, and our tradition has grown into an enormous barrel of fun as we not only scramble to find our recipient in a house full of celebrating members, but then we increase the torment by going around one-by-one and describing our gift to the gathered multitudes. As you might imagine, there are frequently choruses of “o-o-o-o-o-s” and “a-a-a-ah-h-h-s” as particularly fancy or interesting gifts are displayed, and occasionally, when a gift is clearly a mismatch with or some commentary on the receiver, chaos and laughter generally follow. My received gift of the writer’s quill and ink with a beautifully embossed journal met with a resounding cheer of approval from those present, and the acknowledgement that it would be particularly appropriate as a gift for ME, while not surprising to anyone, was a source of great delight for me as the grateful recipient. As someone who is historically sentimental and overtly emotional, I found myself oddly at a loss for words. The gift, in my heart and mind, clearly was much more one of gratitude for the acknowledgement as a writer, and I muddled through the description phase in a fairly unspectacular manner, only managing afterwards to give a heartfelt expression of thanks to my dear nephew for the sentiment the gift held for me.
After the holidays had settled down a bit, I once again turned to this gift and thought to write some message on the inner leaf as a first use of the quill. It seemed appropriate to me to invoke the ancient wisdom of Ecclesiastes in view of the acknowledgement that all things contain elements of opposing energies, and in spite of our best efforts, each urgency in life has a time for it to flourish and a time when it wanes, but perhaps none more-so than when writing with a quill. I had some experience with similar ink pens in grammar school, which had the same metal point through which the ink would reach the paper, but the quill presents a unique challenge as the writer must gauge when to pause and when to dip the end into the ink bottle, and finding a method of presenting one’s thoughts in a reasonably consistent flow on the page takes patience and focus. I spent some time practicing on scraps of paper and experimented with my technique for some time, but eventually I concluded that it comes down to achieving a basic understanding of the dynamics of the process and then throwing caution to the wind in order to make any progress at all. What follows is an excerpt from my first entry in the journal. It’s a reasonably consistent flow in the thoughts expressed and a somewhat less consistent display of mastery with the quill:
“Indeed, of all the things that make us human, perhaps none is more important or prominent or significant than brain physiology. So many of our capacities are enabled by the brain, so much of our experience of the world is made possible by cognition–by the firing of neurons and the transfer of ions across barriers from one axon to the next dendrite over the synapses, which send the electrical impulses racing along the neural networks between brain regions.”
While recording these thoughts in the journal, it occurred to me that there was a time in our world when the quill was the one of the most common writing utensils in use for writers of every sort, and it became quickly apparent to me that my mind, having become accustomed to a much quicker pace and a much wider variety of methods for recording its machinations, was clearly unhappy with the slow, steady, and almost draconian pace which the quill forces on the writer. My tendency to change my mind several times in the course of a paragraph or even in a sentence or within a phrase, caused me much consternation when I realized that implementing these changes would require that I either cross something out or inevitably to rewrite entire sections. We have been spoiled by our modern editing tools and alternative methods of recording our thoughts, in ways that allow for changes to occur with very little fanfare.
On the box, the manufacturers in France chose to quote Victor Hugo, who rightly points out that writing with a quill has “the lightness of the wind,” but may, if the writer has some degree of skill in the subject, end up presenting thoughts which act with “the power of lightning.” There have been authors and creative souls of every sort through the ages whose words did indeed act with the power of lightning, and who also recorded those words using the quill and ink. They have my unmitigated admiration for pursuing their thoughts in such a way, and with such patience and determination required just to set them down on paper, let alone empower them with the strength of lightning.
I have recently been at somewhat of a loss for words. There are many thoughts tumbling around in my brain, though, and I am hoping to present a great many more of them for my readers here in the months to come. I hope you will return often to review those I have already recorded, and add your own thoughts on any entries you feel speak with even a hint of that lightning.
With best wishes to everyone here at WordPress.com…….John H.
Contemplating David Gelernter’s new book, “The Tides of Mind,” for weeks now hasn’t helped me much with my own “struggles of mind,” but it has opened new avenues of thought, which is always a welcome development. In particular, his imagery of a “spectrum of consciousness,” with descending and ascending layers from being wide awake and alert to dreams and unconsciousness, although interesting as a means of describing the aspects of our mental machinery, illustrates well the challenges presented by the subject. He seems to bend over backwards to frame the question of consciousness as having everything to do with “mind” and not much to do with anything else. His background as a computer scientist and A.I. authority do provide a formidable foundation for dissecting the human mind, but I am often left unsatisfied as I work my way through his elaborate treatments of each layer in the spectrum.
What he does well is lead us through what we experience subjectively in a more comprehensive framework for appreciating and understanding the complexity and subtlety of that experience as a cognitive creature. I enjoyed reading along as he guides us step-by-step through the gradually descending lower end of the spectrum, characterizing each layer in great detail and illustrating his points with passages from literature. It’s a unique approach that serves him well for the most part. Some of his references are not as familiar to the general reader, but this is easily resolved by simply looking up the passages which are well documented with footnotes for the curious reader.
Visually striking metaphors are occasionally employed and he sometimes wanders into unconventional and unscientific territory to good effect. As we drop down into his “spectrum,” where there is far less empirical data regarding what exactly is taking place, he deftly navigates his way through these vagaries and treats us to a no-nonsense description which invariably seems plausible, although less definitive. In the section entitled, “Dreaming is Remembering,” he calls the dream state “the inner field of consciousness,” where imagination and memory combine to “feed” consciousness, and where he concedes that we have only a small degree of “control” to determine which thoughts enter and which are turned away. He straddles the two worlds of conscious thought and dreaming reality with the confidence of a computer scientist, but with less imagination or intuition regarding how it is that our subjective experience of each reality might possibly arise within each layer.
It’s interesting to consider his idea that our memory of our experience of emotion is the catalyst for the spectacle of dreams, in spite of the fact that dream content may or may not relate specifically to the actual memory itself. The emotions we ignore or suppress in our waking life, according to the author, is once again presented to us in an imaginary vision, conjured as best as possible from whatever our memory and imagination can provide, which may seem completely unlike the original experience. Since the mind is “unconstrained” by our normal waking sensibilities, we cannot control how our thoughts manifest as we might while awake, and we must confront them in a way that we might never consider doing while conscious. Even in these scenarios, Gelernter acknowledges that “we never surrender completely” to these thoughts. We “feel” the memories, but still keep them from becoming “conscious” most of the time, only occasionally letting some “slip through.”
His description of dreams as something “we all know are hallucinations,” struck me as dismissive of any other possible explanation, and while we all may recognize that while we are asleep in our beds, our physical bodies are not fully participating in our dream scenario, anyone who has has any vivid dream of any sort can attest to the occasional physiological response that our bodies can produce in response to dream experiences. So little is known definitively about this area of subjective experience, that it seems a bit presumptuous to me to eliminate any other possible interaction by declaring that everyone knows dreams are hallucinations. Whatever dreams might be from a scientific perspective, it may well be that as we evolve as a species, we may yet discover some as-yet-undetected link to capacities which may reveal a transcendent or non-physical aspect to dreaming which does not require our bodies to participate.
In an interesting sidebar, David pointed out that even as cognitive creatures known for our capacity to reason, we also “…long for our minds to be flooded with powerful emotion, so that we can only feel and can’t think, so that we can’t reason.” In the middle of all that, he points to one of the most human longings we possess–one that is central to my own dilemma–“…we long for pure experience.” I’m not as sure as David seems to be that this implies we “only” want to feel, and in a way that prevents us from thinking and reasoning. Cognition, in its most essential human form, is an acknowledgement of what we are feeling, and memory seems to me to be more a recollection of how we once “felt,” in a particular moment.
Our all-too-human longings, if we are able to acknowledge them, and to contemplate the connection we have to them–the “why” of our obsession with them–informs us about our nature as human beings in the broadest sense, but more specifically as an individual spirit in the world. Residing in our innermost personal world, our longings take on a much greater meaning–one that can only be understood well when considered as an image composed of the events of our lives–the moment-to-moment record of our innermost life as it unfolds in our daily lives and in our dreams…
—–more to come—–
“If we seek genuine psychological understanding of the human being of our own time, we must know his spiritual history absolutely. We cannot reduce him to mere biological data, since he is not by nature merely biological, but is a product also of spiritual presuppositions.” – -Carl Jung from a presentation at the C. G. Jung Institute Zurich, Küsnacht, 15 Nov 1953
“If we can reconcile ourselves to the mysterious truth that the spirit is the life of the body seen from within, and the body the outward manifestation of the life of the spirit–the two being really one–then we can understand why the striving to transcend the present level of consciousness through the acceptance of the unconscious must give the body its due, and why recognition of the body cannot tolerate a philosophy that denies it in the name of the spirit.” – C.G.Jung from “The Spiritual Problem of Modern Man, CW, vol.10
The persistent assertion by modern scientists regarding the development of consciousness and the human mind as “an accident of nature,” is an idea which not only opposes our natural inclinations as cognitive human creatures, but also one that is difficult to sustain in a definitive way given the equally persistent assertions to the contrary by researchers in a variety of disciplines. The tendency of modern science to view the development of our human mind as an accident seems to me to be more a result of the limitations of science to explain it, rather than being a conclusion that is justified by the evidence.
Considering that it took hundreds of millions of years and countless variations of living creatures for life on Earth to produce Homo-sapiens, one could be forgiving of the empiricists for being a bit skeptical, considering that it is only one variation–an anomaly so to speak–in the pantheon of life. Considering the nearly miraculous confluence of events which permitted life to evolve on Earth in the first place, any suggestion that it was not only BOUND to happen, but inescapably bound up in the fabric of life, does require a bit of a leap intellectually. Although there have been some exciting and compelling exceptions over the millennia, scientists are frequently reluctant to include their intuition, and tend to resist directing their imaginative inclinations outside the realm of science.
No one disputes the essential nature of neurological functioning in achieving an awareness of experience. All one has to do is observe the devastating effect of trauma to the brain to establish how vital brain function is to awareness. It does not necessarily follow, however, that the subjective experience of consciousness is created SOLELY by the brain. Neurological functioning involves a multitude of interactions within the brain itself. It includes a process of fragmentation and re-integration of multiple components: neurons firing in specific sequences, synaptic transferal of electro-chemical impulses, sensory input, cross-referencing of iconic imagery and memories of previous experiences. It is a very complex process which still eludes our understanding, and any attempt to reduce it to biology alone must surely fall short of the mark. We may be DEPENDENT on our brains to enjoy our capacity as human beings to experience our existence, but it seems unlikely to me that our brains GENERATE that experience.
In an enormously compelling and technically superb rendering of how the brain supports and grants us access to the world of conscious experience, Nobel laureate Gerald Edelman, and his colleague, Giulio Tononi, explore at length the foundational elements and functional components of our complex thalamocortical system in “A Universe of Consciousness,” and their treatment of the subject is “highly plausible” according to the book review excerpt on the cover. The level of attention to detail in discussing the various aspects of conscious states is reasonably accessible for anyone with an intense interest in the subject, and they present the reader with an enormous body of information relevant to brain functioning. In a refreshing change from many treatments of the subject, the authors acknowledge the limitations of what we are so far able to discern about this complex organ:
“The ability of the nervous system to carry out perceptual categorization of different signals for sight, sound, and so forth, dividing them into coherent classes without a pre-arranged code is certainly special, and is still unmatched by computers. We do not presently understand fully how this categorization is done…but we believe it arises through the selection of certain distributed patterns of neural activity as the brain interacts with the body and the environment.”
When addressing this “distributed neural activity,” they cite the example of how we are able to read after “…a time in which we had consciously to learn about letters and words in a laborious way, but afterward these processes become effortless and automatic.” They then acknowledge “…How our brain performs these demanding tasks remains largely unknown to us.”
As someone who feels certain that a comprehensive theory of consciousness will eventually require us to include some sort of essential non-physical interaction, the anecdotal reports of visions, apparitions, and other psychic phenomena which humans periodically report, while mostly amusing to scientists and philosophers in our day, all suggest at least the possibility of an interaction with the ineffable or the mysterious. All of my research and study into the nature of our cognitive functioning continues to intrigue me beyond measure, but nothing I have encountered thus far has eliminated this possibility for me. On the contrary, much of it seems to ENHANCE the possibility! Much of the literature and astonishing progress in neuroscience points toward activity that is INFUSED with the spirit. Far from being dissuasive regarding a potentially “spiritual component” to human consciousness, examining the astonishing complexity of neuroscientific progress seems to me a fair indication of its PRESENCE!
It may well be that LIFE itself has, as a natural component of its nature, the infusion of nor-corporeal aspects for which there may only be a subjective awareness. That we are unable as yet to establish with certainty, a universal experience of a transcendent consciousness for all humanity is not sufficient cause to suppose that it does not exist. The quality and nature of our lives generally compare in many ways to that of all other living entities, and it is not difficult to detect subjectively, a profound connection to the natural world all around us, and to recognize that we are an essential member of the terrestrial community of life on Earth. Our higher cognitive capacities distinguish us in important ways, adding a significant element to our human nature which allows us to perceive and appreciate our interconnection with ALL life.
We owe the scientific community a great debt for the many benefits we enjoy today as a result of the advancement of empirical knowledge and the elimination of superstition and fanaticism which were the cornerstones of our ancient worldview. Science has brought us a long way from the “Earth as center of the universe,” mindset of ancient times, and in modern times it has created “miraculous” technologies that have enhanced life on this planet a hundredfold, and we need to continue to pursue its advancement vigorously.
But even as solid and predictable as the the laws of physics seem to us today, not one of them eliminates the existence of the human spirit, just as the many avenues of pursuing the human spirit cannot alter or eliminate the laws of physics. It doesn’t take an Einstein to conclude that both can co-exist and that each may be dependent on the other in important ways. Our subjective sense of “being” relies on being able to use our senses, but our senses do not BRING US into being, nor do they determine the significance of our existence. They are our window to the world of experience, and it is that world of experience that connects us to our sense of being and to the spirit.
“Everything remembered is dear, touching, precious….at least the past is safe, though we didn’t know it at the time. We know it now, because we have survived.” –Susan Sontag, Partisan Review Winter 1967
“Daydreaming is good for you. It fosters creativity, happiness and mental health…Daydreaming, letting your wishes and instincts play out, is so important because the real you– your true, authentic, emotional, free and spontaneous self comes to life. When you express the true self you are less likely to feel anxious or depressed and more likely to feel creative and content…Memories, fantasies, intuitions and inner conflicts that need to be worked through find a place for expression in daydreams. When your deeper mind opens up, you feel better, see possibilities and uncover solutions. Daydreaming strengthens the identity, fosters awareness and helps you grow…”
–excerpts from article in Psychology Today, “Creativity, Happiness and Daydreaming,” posted May 27, 2012, by Carrie Barron M.D.
Reflecting recently on the idea of the wandering mind, it occurred to me that daydreams often take up a significant portion of my daily mental life, and as the quote from Dr. Barron points out, it can have benefits for those who employ it in moderation. Recently, though, it seems that engaging in wandering mentally has become what I prefer to do whenever the opportunity presents itself, and seems to affirm her conclusions, particularly the one about opening your deeper mind allowing you to “…feel better, see possibilities, and uncover solutions.”
During a recent episode of concentrated daydreaming, I decided to record my wandering thoughts, hoping to gain some perspective or intuition from the stream of daydreaming consciousness. The recording took place in solitude, in a warm bath, and in a spontaneous state of mind:
“There is a single candle burning in the corner. The water is warm and surrounds me on all sides. There is no light except for the candle, and yet, this is not completely true. There is another kind of light in the room, but it is not of the visible sort. It is, in some ways, a memory of light–in some ways the essence of light–and in other ways, a monument of light.
The memory of light, as it once shown, occurs often enough to evoke the feeling of the experience of the light, even as I might sit with eyes closed, allowing my wandering mind to illuminate the darkness without the benefit of an actual source of light being present. And yet I feel such comfort from the flame of the candle in the corner. It is a very small flame, but it speaks to something much greater–the sense of mystery and awe that I am even here to observe it in the first place.”
There have been a number of times in my life when I came close to extinguishing myself through accident or serendipity–never by intention–even though we often conduct our lives with other intentions of one sort or another, we occasionally place ourselves on the path of danger. I have been on the path of danger many times. Danger and I are old friends. As I contemplate the possibilities which may endanger me on the path ahead, perhaps the greatest danger is revealed upon reflection of the past:
“A long time ago, in centuries past, we existed on a plane that can no longer be reached. It is clearly in the past, but it also here and now in my wandering mind. We breathed the same air. Our hearts beat in rhythmic unison. I gazed deeply into your eyes; inhaled the scent which rose from your body; embraced the spirit inside you. At such moments, though bodies touch and hearts beat independently, we were one. My heart rose with each embrace. My spirit expanded until it encompassed yours; it has happened a hundred times a hundred times over centuries…and now…I know your spirit. I can see myself in you; our paths are illuminated by each other.
We have no patience. We cannot say what makes all of us as one. It must be experienced. In the ages past, when we first encountered the path, everything else disappeared. The whole physical world went dark except for the immediate area which surrounded us. As my eyes fell upon you, there was a powerful moment of astonishment and utter fascination. I couldn’t be sure if what I saw was the brilliance of the morning sun or a natural aura surrounding you. Like the fascination one feels staring into a fire in the darkness, I couldn’t turn my gaze away.”
Life itself contains the essence of light. We sometimes refer to difficult days as “dark days,” and celebrate joyful people as “lighting up a room,” whenever they enter it. When we lose the trail of thought or come to a point on our path where we lose track of our direction, we say the trail has “gone dark,” and conversely, when we see a path forward, we may say that our path is now “illuminated.”
When I was a very young grammar school student I was fascinated by the ancient world, far beyond what any of my fellow classmates seemed to be, and I delved into it mentally with a passionate intensity within my own inner world, and it seemed to me that no one even noticed my absence in the room as I wandered through the thoughts of what it must have been like to live in ancient times. There was no frame of reference for me or for the others either, but somehow I persisted and continued to indulge my daydreams. I wasn’t able to express the content or the character of those machinations. It was probably about the age of twelve when I realized that I obviously was contemplating experiences that could not be the result of what was manifesting in my everyday real world. I never lost this dual awareness as I grew, and even as a young man in the modern military in Germany, I couldn’t help but spend any available moment staring out the window, lost in the inner world of my daydreams.
“While in between tasks, (during a recent study) researchers noticed that a set of brain structures in their participants started to become more active. These same structures turned off as soon as the participants began to engage in the cognitive tasks that were the original focus of the research.
Eventually, scientists were able to pinpoint this set of specific brain structures which we now know as the brain’s “default network.” This network links parts of the frontal cortex, the limbic system, and several other cortical areas involved in sensory experiences. While active, the default network turns itself on and generates its own stimulation. The technical term for such a product of the default network is “stimulus independent thought,” a thought about something other than events that originate from the outside environment. In common speech, stimulus independent thoughts make up fantasies and daydream, the stuff of mind wandering.
Apart from entertaining us when we’re bored…the preponderance of evidence suggests that the default network is there to help us explore our inner experiences (Buckner et al., 2008). Specifically, we engage our default network when we’re thinking about our past experiences, imagining an event that might take place in the future, trying to understand what other people are thinking, and assisting us in making moral decisions.”
–excerpts from article posted on Psychology Today website, “Why and How You Daydream,” Jan 08, 2013 by Susan Krauss Whitbourne Ph.D.
In the evening, as the days grow longer, and the daylight lingers, I sense a change beyond my control. I don’t know at all how I might survive it. Clinging to the grasp I have, I try to express myself in positive terms. I am uncertain about the future. What I do know, is that there is something more for me, my world–it is headed for the unknown, the incongruous, the ambiguous–the complete and utter boundlessness that the realm of possibility presents. I can stare blankly ahead, I can retreat, look away, drop into obscurity, but no matter where I go, my destiny will find me. When it does come, with luck, I will be able to pursue it. When my star rises, and the wheels begin to turn in that direction, perhaps there is a chance, after all these years of contemplation and writing, I may be approaching the culmination of the sum of all my daydreams.