Category: Neuroscience

Writer’s Are Often At A Loss For Words

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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.

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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:

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“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.

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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.

Tides of Mind

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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—–

Body, Mind, Spirit

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“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.

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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.”

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“A Soul Brought to Heaven,” by William-Adolphe Bouguereau

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.

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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.

Daydreams and Intuition

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“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:

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“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.”

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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.”

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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.

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“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.

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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.

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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.

The Voice of Thought

Ever since the hominid brain evolved sufficiently to provide modern humans with a degree of cognitive talent that still surpasses any other known species, the blossoming of conscious awareness slowly provided Homo sapiens with the ability to not only be aware that they exist, but to utilize this new ability deliberately and with purpose. It seems likely that some form of this ability may have been present in several other early hominid species, but only began to coalesce into a functional process during the Aurignacian epoch, where the full development of the higher functions were made possible by a significant increase in the complexity of the cerebral cortex. While very little solid evidence of any truly functional self awareness has been found prior to that time, I think even the most empirically-minded paleontologist would concede the likelihood, that the process of human evolution provided the capacity for our enhanced cognitive skills long before we were able to take full advantage of them or to demonstrate them.

Cognitive self awareness is, so far as we know, an exclusively human attribute that allows us to know we exist as a unique, individual person. It is my contention that it is made possible by virtue of an elaborate synthesis of both temporal and ineffable elements. While this idea represents a challenge to our 21st century scientific community, it is not completely intractable. As with most phenomena with multiple layers of both coherent and ambiguous components, the connections between disparate elements are often only possible to discern with determined effort and an open-minded approach as to how these aspects might come together.

The ability for complex thinking and to remember what we think, when combined with an expanding comprehension of the world generally in which the thinking occurred, led to an increasingly sophisticated thought process which may initially have flourished because it enhanced our ability to survive as a species, but ultimately imparted a great deal more than a survival advantage. Once the potential for self awareness was in place, it slowly began to manifest in demonstrative ways as we have seen in the early cave paintings by our primitive ancestors. The journey from those ancient beginnings to the modern day variety of human consciousness shows a remarkable range and variety of progress and aptitude, which was directly influenced by the development of self awareness.

Imagine the early Homo sapiens as they gradually began to make use of their newly acquired “functional consciousness,” awakening to the world of objects like never before. Modern humans were finally able to associate temporal objects with symbolic representations of those objects, as evidenced in the ancient cave paintings discovered in Ardeche, France in the caves of Chauvet-Pont-d’Arc, now believed to have been placed there some 35,000 years ago by the Aurignacian culture. These were not mental giants compared to 21st century Homo sapiens. They were not very sophisticated at all by today’s standards, but they were quantitatively more sophisticated cognitively than the Neanderthals, and were better able to compete for limited resources, enabling them to outlast their predecessors by thousands of years.

No matter what concepts or images or ideas may have occurred to the early humans, there was no way to overtly confirm the existence of a thought until there was a way to express a thought. It was no accident that the first demonstrations of consciousness were images—primitive symbols painted on cave walls—as visualization within the brain originally had no other way to be expressed than the memory of what the objects looked like in the world. Whatever level and degree of brain activity led to the development of language, visualizing the objects and events of the ancient consciousness became the symbol of those same entities, just as the sounds uttered by the early humans expanded their abilities to express them and to pass these symbols on to future generations.

It is also not surprising that the early attempts at producing formal symbols to represent the world resulted in pictographic languages such as cuneiform by the Sumerians and hieroglyphics by the Egyptians, all of which were precursors of ancient alphabets. Spoken language, once it took hold, became the voice of thought.

…more to come

A Fundamental Theory of Consciousness

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As human beings, we are, in large part, unremarkably different from many other species on our planet in our physical core components and basic constituent parts and systems. In our most fundamental nature, we exist physically as they do, we are made up of the same essential molecular structures, we rely on very similar biological systems, and we require the same physical environment to sustain us. Our genetic structures and specific biological architecture are unique in some important ways, and our complex cognitive functioning distinguishes us from most other species to a degree that has permitted us to achieve dominance as a species overall, but these differences could easily be made irrelevant by catastrophic changes in our physical environment, similar to those which resulted in the demise of the dinosaurs.

Life has many layers and levels. Evolution has changed and continues to change the character of our existence in microscopically small increments, and we are only now, in this epoch of human history, beginning to see just how important our contributions have been as subjectively aware, cognitively capable, and intelligent beings and just how important they will be to the future of our world. For all the bluster and bravado of our human sciences, and the deeply entrenched and volatile pronouncements of our human religions, we still seem unable to reach beyond it all to come to terms with the true nature of our existence. None of it seems completely satisfying to most of us. It has always been my feeling that the reason for this has much less to do with the comprehensibility of our sciences or the verity of our spiritual inclinations, as it does with our understanding of the phenomenon of consciousness itself.

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Reviewing material related to artificial intelligence lately has given me some cause to reflect on precisely what it is that we may be missing in all of the fascinating and thought-provoking conversations taking place around the issue. There are a number of efforts being made to recreate the physical structure of the human brain in some of the most prestigious institutions of our day, and several of the key figures of these efforts are genuinely striving to understand the processes which drive the cognitive apparatus inside our heads, in an effort to enhance the process of producing an artificial construct that can mimic the human brain. As compelling as these efforts are and as important as they may be for our understanding generally, (not to mention the progress we may achieve in correcting and alleviating brain pathologies,) what we will ultimately achieve by these efforts is still a matter of much speculation.

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In a fascinating book by V.S. Ramachandran entitled, “The Tell-tale Brain,” we see not only a scientist enthralled by the subject of brain physiology, pathology, and functionality, but one captured by the implications of our struggle to understand how it all fits together with our experience of the world provided by the nearly miraculous capacities that our brains provide as a result of both function and comprehension:

“We are vertebrates. We are pulpy, throbbing colonies of tens of trillions of cells. We are all of these things, but we are not ‘merely’ these things. And we are, in addition to all of these things, something unique, something unprecedented, something transcendent. We are something truly new under the sun, with uncharted and perhaps unlimited potential. We are the first and only species whose fate has rested in its own hands, and NOT just in the hands of chemistry and instinct.”

I was especially intrigued by chapter nine, in which he deals with the phenomenon of introspection:

“Sometime in the twenty-first century, science will confront one of its last great mysteries:the nature of the self. That lump of flesh in your cranial vault not only generates an ‘objective’ account of the outside world, but also directly experiences an internal world–a rich mental life of sensations, meanings, and feelings. Most mysteriously, your brain also turns its view back on itself to generate your sense of self-awareness…Qualia (the immediate experiential qualities of sensation such as the redness of red) are vexing to philosophers and scientists alike because even though they are palpably real and seem to lie at the very core of mental experience, physical and computational theories about brain function are utterly silent on the question of how they might arise or why they might exist.”

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In his most recent book, “How to Create a Mind,” inventor and futurist Ray Kurzweil suggests that our efforts in artificial intelligence will eventually result in machines that will “become indistinguishable from biological humans, and they will share in the spiritual value we ascribe to consciousness.” In an attempt to explain the use of the term, “spiritual,” in a way that justifies his ideas to a broader audience, Kurzweil only succeeds in making the problem worse:

“Many people don’t like to use such terminology in relation to consciousness because it implies a set of beliefs that they may not subscribe to. But if we strip away the mystical complexities of religious traditions and simply respect ‘spiritual’ as implying something of profound meaning to humans, then the concept of consciousness fits the bill. It reflects the ultimate spiritual value.”

In my view, regardless of one’s position on the definition of “spiritual,” reducing our ability to access transcendent consciousness to merely putting enough neurons and synapses into one place in the way our brains arranges them, denigrates the profound nature of our humanity, and does little to promote the achievement of a fundamental theory of consciousness. As complex biological creatures, what we possess that the most sophisticated replica of a brain cannot fully manifest is our very human spirit which animates our “pulpy, throbbing colony of cells.” It is my belief that our rich inner life, our “experience” of existence, while facilitated by our complex cognitive functioning, making it intelligible to the degree that we currently enjoy, resists empirical scrutiny precisely because it does not “arise” from our physical systems, even though it may rely on them as a means of making awareness possible in the first place.

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photo by Keiran O’Conner

What we perceive as “experience” may, in fact, owe a great deal to the physical nervous system, and the foundational and cognitive functions of the brain, but consciousness itself, this ineffable vehicle of experience, may not spring from physical systems at all. It seems much more likely to me, as one who has these experiences, that they are far too rich, deeply personal, and profoundly beyond the natural world for them to be solely dependent on it for their existence. I suppose that removing the question of consciousness from the natural world makes scientists and philosophers a little nervous. Who could blame them? We are only recently ridding the world of many of its superstitions through science and modern philosophy, and all of our spiritual traditions, as diverse and marvelously well-suited to addressing the transcendent as they can be, quite often fall short of any better explanation.

One of the most compelling refutations to those who eschew the existence of anything transcendent or spiritual can be found in the genuine connections we sense between our own and other human spirits. Though these connections can be powerfully real “subjectively,” they cannot be demonstrated empirically. Any potentially tangible evidence that one might perceive for the existence of such connections, should it ever be forthcoming, is unlikely to convincingly persuade those whose experiences in this regard are limited or non-existent. For me though, when we find ourselves standing by the ocean, gazing out beyond the horizon, both the temporal and the transcendent can be viscerally experienced if we are open to them. Being given the privilege of looking deeply into the eyes of our beloved, or holding our newborn children in our arms, has never failed to convince me unerringly of the existence of the spirit. Convincing the world-at-large is a wholly different matter. In the weeks to come, I hope to illuminate some of the ways that we might become convinced to at least consider what a fundamental theory of consciousness might look like if we expand our view to include the ineffable.

How We Experience The World

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An interesting corollary subject within the discussion surrounding our subjective experience of consciousness is the way in which all of our previous lifelong subjective experiences provide the foundation for our comprehension and apprehension of our current experience in this very moment. Naturally, without having any previous relevant life or learning experiences to draw upon for comparison, any subsequent experience would, by definition, be viewed as a “new experience.” While new experiences are inherent in any circumstance in which we have not been previously familiar in a specific way, as when we travel to a foreign country for the first time, or when we take our first trip on an airplane, even as the specifics of those circumstances provide a degree of subjective experience that could not have been part of our previous existence, there are other foundational experiences that we use to compare against those which are specifically new. Depending on the extent and variety of prior experiences, the assimilation of those which are “new,” may require a great deal more effort to come to terms with them.

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The real issue, though, is in the accumulation of subjective knowledge of our existence in the first place. As all human adults are aware, each of us arrives in the world as newborn babies, with only a very limited unconscious experience of life in the womb. Sensory data acquired during that time, while fairly universal in nature, depending on the health and lifestyle of the mother, have a clear but limited effect on our eventually conscious subjective experience. Our early life as an infant, also subject to the subtleties and specific conditions of the environment in which it takes place, are in large part unconscious for a number of years after birth. There are rare exceptions to the general flow of conscious memory accumulation, which generally begins in the third or fourth year of childhood, but for most of us, our early childhood memories most often transmit only a vague sense of those experiences, and are often characterized by episodic “bits and pieces” or “snippets” of conscious recollection.

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Once a child achieves a rudimentary functional level of conscious subjective awareness, somewhere around five to seven years along, more lasting and significant memories begin to accumulate, and a broader range of foundational subjective experiences allow the young child to begin to interpret the world with a degree of perspective commensurate with whatever experiences were available during their early development. An experience of deprivation or limited nurturing during the early years can profoundly and adversely affect the development of the child, and providing a richer and more stimulating environment can produce a commensurate increase in the quality and character of their development, along with a substantially increased range of productive subjective experiences with which to interpret and understand the world around them.

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In combination with our inherited genetic makeup and a host of other mitigating factors in our specific familial and human lineage, as well as whatever degree of cultural orientation or psychological conditioning that may take place, we often navigate through later childhood and adolescence as much unconsciously as consciously, eventually acquiring a more independently achieved view of the world, based many times on which opportunities are either present and utilized, withheld, or unavailable. While there are no guarantees of a specifically positive or negative outcome in spite of any and all of these mitigating factors, the contributions which they potentially represent can affect our ability to assimilate new experiences significantly.

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It is not unusual for individuals with a robust and stimulating early environment to excel in adolescence and through the teen years, and upon entering the second decade of life, many times these individuals are already working toward specific goals and pursuing specific interests as they enter the college level challenges of their early twenties. Deliberately focusing their energies and attentions on specific tasks related to a well-defined goal requires a foundation of relevant previous experience to draw upon and to compare results in a progressively more complex effort to achieve an ability to deal with each new experience. Since every single moment of conscious awareness constitutes some variety and degree of experience, regardless of how often we may have one of a particular variety, examining the nature and characteristics of our subjective awareness become central to our understanding generally.

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David Chalmers, the philosopher of consciousness from New York University expressed his view this way….”There is this beautiful scientific picture…the great chain of explanation…physics explains chemistry, and chemistry explains biology, and biology at least explains aspects of psychology, aspects of sociology, and so on, but although there is a whole lot there that we haven’t worked out, we at least have a sense of the picture and how the pieces fit together, and what’s interesting about consciousness, is that it just doesn’t seem to fit easily into that picture at all…because this is a picture of the world in terms of objective mechanisms described from the objective point of view…and consciousness is the quintessentially subjective phenomenon. It’s how things feel from the inside, it’s how we experience the world from a subjective point of view, and nothing in this objective picture of the world seems, on the face of it, to tell you why there’s going to be subjectivity.”

…more to come…