Reflection 86: Interpretation

April 6, 2009

 

(Copyright © 2009)

 

In the late 1970s, having built my cabin on an island in Maine, I decided to limit my landscaping to planting a bush of rugosa roses on the south side. My sister-in-law offered to make it two bushes, so we went to the florist together and looked over the large selection of potted roses on a large table. Right away my eye landed on a bush rising from a thick, dark stem, which looked abnormal to me as if it suffered some kind of fungus infection or disease. Stay away from that one, I told myself, and went on to find the perfect specimen, which I took to the counter. Soon my sister-in-law joined me and put her bush beside mine. Looking down, I saw the thick-stemmed plant I had deliberately shunned at the outset. She said she had looked at them all and this was by far the healthiest plant of the lot, and so she took it off the table before anyone else could buy it. Rather than try to dissuade her, I thought to myself maybe she know something I don’t. Who was I to look a gift rose in the mouth? Planted side by side, both roses did well the first year, but thick-stem got a late and scanty start the next year, and by the third year produced neither leaves nor blooms. I dug it up to put it out of its misery or, more accurately, to keep it from infecting the other bush which was doing just fine.

 

Our brains feature a resident spin doctor that joins concrete sensory impressions with conceptual meanings drawn from memory. Or if it doesn’t actually join them, it gives voice to the now meaningful image, creating a story that, whether true or not, makes sense within the current situation. Not the situation as it is in the world—for that is a mystery—but the situation as rendered by consciousness itself, the phenomenal situation as consciousness by its own devices would have it be.

 

Michael Gazzaniga has come up with an interpreter module located in the left side of the brain to explain findings from his research with split-brain patients whose two cerebral hemispheres have been separated from each other by severing the corpus callosum, the bundle of nerve fibers by which the two sides of the brain communicate.

 

The very same split-brain research that exposed shocking differences between the two hemispheres also revealed that the left hemisphere contains the interpreter, whose job is to interpret our behavior and our responses, whether cognitive or emotional, to environmental challenges. The interpreter constantly establishes a running narrative of our actions, emotions, thoughts, and dreams, It is the glue that unifies our story and creates our sense of being a whole, rational agent. It brings to our bag of individual instincts the illusion that we are something other than what we are. It builds our theories about our own life, and these narratives of our past behavior pervade our awareness (Michael S. Gazzaniga, The Mind’s Past, Univ. of California Press, 1998, p. 174).

 

Given our native assumption that consciousness opens upon the real world, the same world on which we assume our understanding is based, this is pretty spooky stuff. According to Gazzaniga, truth has little to do with our interpretation of events. We are less interested in truth than in producing a plausible storyline for the sake of coherence in explaining why we act as we do. We don’t spin yarns to deceive others—or indeed ourselves—so much as to explain events of which, in our current situation as we construe it, we may have only slight understanding.

 

In my youth, ever on the lookout for treasure, I made it my business to explore back lots and other people’s barns lest anyone have a secret stash I didn’t know about. At the end of the street there was a house with a big barn which I could tell was filled with furniture, boxes, and good stuff like telephones and radios. I pried open a back window and, over a period of days, went through every drawer and pile. All the medals and jewelry I found I pinned to the shirt I had on under my sweater. I wore it at home, at school, and on the street—and nobody knew. I felt like a decorated hero. Then one day my mother saw me changing my clothes, and asked, “Where did you get all those pins?” “Up in front of Gleasons,” I said without a pause, “on the sidewalk. Somebody must have dropped them there. I don’t know who.”

 

Mother’s intrusion into my private realm of consciousness created a new situation, which required a new narrative. And there it was, right on the tip of my tongue. I couldn’t blame a split brain for my new predicament, but I sure had to tell a story she would find acceptable or, as she would say, unobjectionable. That way the decorated hero could carry on without annoying interruptions. That’s who I was, after all, and I had the evidence right on my chest.

 

When the Queen Mary II first came to Bar Harbor, I was at the shore before sunrise to photograph it coming in. There was no sign of it when I got there, so I perched on a rock and watched for it to round the cliffs to the south. Islands and submerged ledges in Frenchman Bay make navigation a bit tricky, so a pilot always goes out to board such ships and steer them into harbor. At last I saw the great liner’s bow emerge—and gradually the whole ship—beyond the cliffs and cautiously enter the bay. At which point an armed Coast Guard vessel got under way in its direction. This was after 9/11 and port security had been put on steroids to ward off lurking terrorists. A woman in the group behind me asked what that boat was, referring to the CG vessel. A man answered with great authority, “That would be the pilot boat taking the pilot out to QM II to bring her in.” “Oh,” said the woman. But I knew he was talking through his hat. The pilot had gone out long before the ship got anywhere near the bay proper.

 

Today I would say that his interpreter was speaking, spinning a yarn about matters he knew little about. That’s something men do all the time—speak from the hip. Which is a variation on driving in uncharted territory without asking for directions. There are a lot more lost men in the world than reported by any census. They seem to take pride in speaking from the depths of great ignorance as if their brains had been cut in two. It is as hard for men to admit not knowing something as it was for me to tell my mother how I came by the decorations on my shirt.

 

What was it Bill Clinton said? “It depends on what the meaning of is is.” And that meaning depends on what the interpreter modules in our left brains say it is. Most of us have left and right brains that speak to each other, so the narratives we spin in our left hemispheres are usually supported by ample sensory data from the right hemisphere, representing our conscious situation as we understand it at the time. But if one side suppresses or inhibits input from the other because it is, say, inconvenient or embarrassing, then our understanding of the current situation may very well depend on a variant definition of is. What is the situation? Well, that depends how you look at it. A Palestinian sees it one way, an Israeli another. Democrats vote yea, Republicans nay on the very same bill before Congress.

 

Split-brain syndrome appears to be endemic in some areas of the globe. Notably, among preachers of the one true faith everywhere, as well as politicians in state and national capitals. The clampdown on full disclosure during the Bush-Cheney regency led to a plague of denials and fabrications on behalf of protective self-interest. The case of the former Governor of Illinois, now impeached and expelled from office, is another textbook example.

 

Consciousness is full of such traps. With only our personal experience at the helm, we have no reliable defense against interpreting events in selfish ways, which may get us by for the short-term, but over the long-term invariably prove disastrous. We do better if we attend to what our right brains keep trying to tell us—that is, the bare facts—and insist that our aides and companions, or our mothers, tie us down when our left-brain interpretive fantasies threaten to take control.

 

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2 Responses to “Reflection 86: Interpretation”

  1. tp said

    One of the pieces you collected was a college fraternity pin. I think (?) I was present at the following dialog: “Steve, where did you get this?”
    “Oh, up in front of Gleasons.” “But Steve, this is a Diamond, surrounded by Pearls.” And thus the fact of Mrs Taylor’s barn unraveled. I had been in there too, completely unrelated to you, and had taken a picture of a sailboat which hung in my room. My story was “Cynthia Roberts was cleaning out her attic and didn’t want this.” It flew until the fraternity pin blew the whistle on all of us.

  2. Steve Perrin said

    In some cultures, at that amoral age we would have been impressed into the military, handed a weapon, and sent out to kill the “enemy” of choice. We were lucky it was merely a lesson, not life itself.

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