Reflection 128: Woody Allen Consciousness

July 13, 2009

(Copyright © 2009)

I’ve posted about consciousness being situational in nature (Reflection 80), about the left-brain interpreter module deciding the meaning of events (Reflection 86), about idioms of consciousness providing ways of being in the world (Reflection 124), and about elixirs of consciousness adjusting “reality” to our way of thinking (Reflection 127). What I’ve not mentioned is where such activities might be seated in the brain, for if they are aspects of consciousness as I claim, that’s where their stories would necessarily begin. It strikes me that these four modes of consciousness have something in common, but I’m not sure what that something might be. This post is about my search to find out. As usual, it points to discovery through coincidence or by accident—and beyond that, to the mind revealing itself in strange ways.

My first step was to consolidate my thoughts on situations, interpreters, idioms, and elixirs in one place to make comparison easier. How to do that? I thought of a matrix laid out with the four aspects of consciousness lined up in columns and possible functional substrates listed in rows down the side. The word matrix stems from the Latin meaning a female animal used for breeding—basically, the female principle in reproductive mode. That’s just what I needed, something to stir my creativity. I listed the functions of each aspect as briefly as I could:

  • Situations—provide the context or framework of consciousness
  • Interpreters—develop meaningful stories or narratives accounting, rightly or wrongly, for awareness
  • Idioms—are ways of being in the world according to one acquired discipline or another
  • Elixirs (fudge factors)—adjust understanding to accord with fundamental beliefs in order to produce a desired effect.

Reading what I had written, I felt a jab of anxiety. What could they possibly have in common? Nothing sprang to mind. So I went on, off the top of my head listing broad functional regions of the brain where facets of consciousness might arise or at least be involved: perception, conception, memory, expectancy, feeling, planning, judging, speaking, acting, and so on. Then I took an hour to break down each of the four aspects in terms of what I knew about different functional areas of the brain. And went to bed. This on the day before my son’s birthday.

For two hours, I lie awake in the dark, wondering what to do. Basically, worrying. It all started so innocently. Days ago, I’d left a message on my son’s answering machine, asking how he’d like to celebrate his birthday. I said Carole and I would be happy to provide a floating meal to be eaten whenever and wherever he chose. If Friday didn’t work, maybe Sunday. Just give me a call. Days rolled by with no response. His birthday is tomorrow. What to do? After installing a bilge pump in my boat, I stop by my son’s workplace. It turns out both his mom and I (long divorced) are pestering him about his birthday. He’s working toward a show on Saturday and feels cornered with no place to hide. So he disappears by not taking calls. Anyway, after encouragement from his wife, my son agrees that Monday is doable. We agree to meet at the boathouse at noon. He’ll see if his brother can come. I call Carole to ask if Monday is OK with her. It is. I will bring turkey loaf, mashed potatoes, and ice cream; she’ll bring asparagus and bake a cake. So it seems settled.

Yet here I am at 2:00 in the morning, worrying how to pull it all together. Catsup. I don’t use it, so don’t have any. Buy catsup. Bring salt and pepper. How keep the turkey loaf and mashers warm while rowing across to the island, the ice cream cold? How many potatoes do I need? What if rains? With the battery for the bilge pump in place, how can I fit two other people in my boat? Where will I brace my feet without jarring the pump? And that’s only for starters. I progress to more serious anxieties, dwelling on times things hadn’t worked out in the past. I spend two hours reviewing my life—marriages, divorces, relationships. And in the back of my mind—the consciousness matrix and what it has to tell me. I run through the four aspects of consciousness, their possible placement in the brain. Everything is problematic—life is problematic. Eventually I get back to sleep.

When I woke up, I saw immediately that the four aspects of consciousness all deal with attention, arousal, and anxiety. They are all ways of putting energy into coping with stress. Situations are situations precisely because their parts are at odds, and so kindle anxiety. Our interpreter modules provide answers to questions that stir anxiety (I recall a write-up of Michael Gazzaniga’s work in which a split-brain patient begins his answer to a question about his interpretation of an experimental situation by saying, “Oh, that’s easy” or something to that effect, which I now see as compensating for anxiety). Idioms of consciousness focus attention on discrete topics, reducing anxiety by narrowing the field of concern. And elixirs of consciousness serve to deal with anxiety more than truth, as students are anxious to fulfill assignments by coming-up with right answers by hook or by crook. Shelley Smithson’s piece in the June 29, 2009 issue of The Nation, “Radioactive Revival in New Mexico,” provides this example of using God as a magic elixir to help things turn out as desired:

[Marita] Noon, . . . a Christian motivational speaker before becoming a self-proclaimed “advocate for energy,” says God put uranium in New Mexico so that Americans can wean themselves from Middle Eastern oil and Russian uranium.

Consciousness appears to be largely a means of dealing with situations in which doubt, uncertainty, and consequent anxiety predominate. The amygdala is involved in each of the aspects of consciousness I am focusing on, shaping relevant strategies for converting motivating stress into productive behavior. In The Emotional Brain (Simon & Schuster, 1996), Joseph LeDoux writes:

The amygdala is like the hub of a wheel. It receives low-level inputs from sensory-specific regions of the thalamus, higher level information from sensory-specific cortex, and still higher level (sensory independent) information about the general situation from the hippocampal formation. Through such connections, the amygdala is able to process the emotional significance of individual stimuli as well as complex situations. The amygdala is, in essence, involved in the appraisal of emotional meaning (page 168).

And it is certainly the emotionally meaningful aspects of consciousness we pay special attention to and, thanks to the hippocampus, remember. As I have said, consciousness is given us to solve novel problems, including those in a cultural, not natural, context. I have reached that conclusion the long way round, by using my late-night anxiety as a means of studying anxiety itself. Anxiety about loose ends hanging from my wish to celebrate my son’s birthday kept me awake. So anxiety was an integral part of my mind at the time.

Schools are hotbeds of anxiety. Every test, lesson, and assignment is a source of stress. Even sports fire people up, both players and spectators, all traceable to anxiety. What we learn is not content so much as how to deal with tensions that force us to learn how to proceed through difficult tasks that upset us at the time. Through exposure to various subject disciplines, we learn to cope with related life situations. We acquire the idioms educated people use to surmount their problems. We learn how to do research, how to listen, how to express ourselves, how to solve problems—how to accomplish tasks others assign to us. All based on suffering anxiety and applying techniques that diminish it.

Sitting down to write a post, I am nothing if not anxious. Usually I am anxious in a way shaped as curiosity about an issue I am involved with. But every creative endeavor starts with stage fright of one sort or another. Am I up to the task? Do I have the skill, energy, and desire to work this through? I remember Hector Berlioz writing in his autobiography about dreaming a piece of music in specific detail, but knowing how difficult it would be to ever get it performed, not writing it down. The music came to him in his sleep two nights in a row—then never again, scuttled by anxiety over the trouble it would cause later on.

When dirty dishes pile up in the sink, we become active in a constructive way—or else make ourselves scarce. These are two different ways of dealing with stress, by coping or refusing to cope at all, by fighting or fleeing—as I fled from the lady with the torn jaw and cheek on a street in London 50 years ago (see Reflection 119: Man and Dog). Our amygdalas help us decide which strategy to select. Schooling trains us to face into challenges directly. When we tire of that, we go to the movies—the funnier, the sexier and more violent, the better to distract us from our worries. We can learn from the emotional fixes we get into, or maybe get high or drunk. We can deal, or try to escape.

I heard Terry Gross interview Woody Allen on Fresh Air this week. His view is that life consists of one anxiety-producing situation after another. Each of his films deals with a different episode of the human condition as he sees it:

TERRY GROSS: So, may I ask, what are some of the real problems that making movies distracts you from?

WOODY ALLEN: Well, they distract me from the same problems that you face or that anyone faces, you know, the uncertainty of life and inevitability of aging and death, and death of loved ones, and mass killings and starvations and holocausts, and not just the manmade carnage but the existential position that you’re in, you know, being in a world where you have no idea what’s going on, why you’re here or what possible meaning your life can have and the conclusion that you come to after a while, that there is really no meaning to it, and it’s just a random, meaningless event, and these are pretty depressing thoughts. And if you spend much time thinking about them, not only can’t you resolve them, but you sit frozen in your seat. You can’t even get up to have your lunch.

So it’s better to, you know, distract yourself, and people distract themselves creatively, you know, in the arts. They distract themselves in business or by following baseball teams and worrying over batting averages and who wins the pennant, and these are all things that you do and focus on rather than sit home and worry.

Woody Allen is a good example of someone who reduces anxiety by immersing himself in his work—adopting a way of being in the world, an idiom, that he has the drive and skill to maintain while working on exactly the same types of problems that he finds so overwhelming:

WOODY ALLEN: [M]aking a movie is a great distraction from the real agonies of the world. It’s an overwhelmingly, you know, difficult thing to do.

You’ve got to deal with actors and temperaments and scripts and second acts and third acts and camera work and costumes and sets and editing and music, and you know, there’s enough in that to keep you distracted almost all the time. And if I’m locked into what would appear to be a painful situation because half my movie works, let’s say, and the whole second half of it doesn’t work, or a character in my movie is terrible, you don’t believe the love story or something, these are all problems that are, or generally are, solvable with reshooting, with editing, with thinking, diagnosing what’s wrong. And they distract you from the real problems of life, which are unsolvable and very painful problems.

Also in the problems of moviemaking, if you don’t solve your problem, all that happens to you is that your movie bombs. So the movie is terrible. So people don’t come to see it. Critics don’t like it. The public doesn’t like it. This is hardly a terrible punishment in life compared to what you’re given out in the real world of human existence.

Working our way through anxiety-producing situations may be the essence of life if it teaches us how to accurately diagnose situations, train our interpretive facilities to identify what’s really going on, adopt idioms giving us mastery over a small slice of life, or develop cons and scams for beating the system one way or another. Consciousness offers us a range of such powerful survival techniques to apply in particular cases. Members of congress try most of them—inevitably disillusioning their constituents by the deviousness of their means for maintaining their public image while abusing the power of their office. But there are no good guys—or gals—it turns out, only those with a will to live and thrive. In the big leagues, innocents, idealists, and dreamers get eaten alive. No one is larger than life, for life is run by consciousness, and that as everyone knows can get pretty seamy.

Am I more jaded than the next person? Naive, perhaps, but not jaded. I haven’t given up on humanity just yet, thought I have my doubts. I still believe consciousness is worth studying, but it sometimes takes a strong stomach. I figure that if our record is ever to improve, we are going to have to come to terms with ourselves. Evidence points to the fact that we are selfish bastards always seeking to advance our personal cause at others’ expense. More likely, we are doing the best we can under extremely difficult circumstances to figure out what is going on in and around ourselves. In truth, I think we are half  babes in the woods, half hungry wolves—innocence and cunning wrapped in the same fleece.

Besides anxiety signaled by the amygdala, other neural-based features shared by situations, interpreter modules, and both idioms and elixirs of consciousness include: a strong sense of cohesion through time, expectancy, reliance on sensory feedback, executive judgment and decision-making, motor planning, and execution of specific behaviors. Thus the amygdala relays messages to several higher areas of cerebral cortex, which ultimately shape and execute behavior, and look to subsequent feedback from appropriate sensory areas. This is an extremely rough sketch, but to me the keystone of this activity is the potential danger or opportunity available to the conscious organism as signaled by the amygdala. The follow-up details appear to be a function of individual judgment and decision-making based on learning, prior experience, and current expectations.

Consciousness, it seems to me then, is not based on prowess and ego so much as on stress and anxiety. If that is true, it would appear to be one of our best defenders within cultural situations which natural evolution could never anticipate. In rising to consciousness, each of us is on her own, doing the best she can to cope with situations that might well undo her. Going solo, we have a great many options for dealing with such situations. Diagnosing more-or-less accurately what’s going on in a given situation is one of them. Interpreting ever-changing relationships in meaningful terms is another. Adopting the idiom and special expertise of one favored discipline is a third. And applying magic elixirs or fudge factors in order to view situations in terms of a predetermined ideology no matter what is a fourth option among others I have not considered in this post.

In dealing with personal fear and anxiety, evolution hands the choice to consciousness—namely us. Whether we deal on the basis of greed, faith, evidence, prejudice, or aesthetics is up to each of us personally. In selecting the choice we prefer, we reveal who we are. The scary part is realizing that how we choose determines the wiring of our brains by strengthening the synapses involved. We become the creatures of our prior choices. Which is why growing up is so hard—think of the child soldiers of Africa. “Survival of the fittest” is shorthand for those who make the best choices under the circumstances being more apt to make it than those who select poor choices for whatever reason. Life requires endlessly dealing with anxiety as evolution intended. If we flub-dub around, we are apt to be dead.





One Response to “Reflection 128: Woody Allen Consciousness”

  1. […] Reflection 128: Woody Allen Consciousness […]

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