(Copyright © 2012 by Steve Perrin

Does a printing press know what it is printing? Does a projector know what it is showing? Does a sewing machine know what it is stitching? Does a computer know what it is computing? Does a brain know what it is thinking?

In each case I would say, no. Brains are an organic apparatus for doing a job, but that doesn’t mean they know what that job is. Brains are necessary, certainly, to getting a job—any job—done, but just as presses require ink and paper, and projectors require light sources and film, brains require patterned sensory stimulation in a context or situation in order to do whatever it is they do.

What is it, exactly, that brains do? They enable pattern recognition through comparison of sensory impressions against patterns fixed in memory, and use the degree of recognition to govern behavior within situations constructed on the spot from whatever clues are available.

The autonomic nervous system works below the threshold of awareness in performing its job of regulating bodily functions. The rote, habitual, or ideological nervous system works like a kind of automatic pilot programmed to recognize and respond to particular sensory events and situations. The conscious nervous system adapts behavior to sensory impressions, understandings, feelings, values, and memories as interpreted in light of the current situation as intuitively construed.

So it is that we make ourselves happen in the world in a variety of ways: unconsciously, consciously but almost automatically, or consciously and inventively to suit a given occasion as we can best make it out.

All the while, we are creatures of the cultures we are embedded in, and perform dutifully (or in reaction against) what we have learned in those settings. We are duly indoctrinated (calibrated) by our birth-family culture, community culture, school culture, work culture, sex and reproductive culture, political culture, arts culture, military culture, mythological (and theological) culture, and so on. We often do unto our neighbors as we have been done unto in the past.

We are not taking in “information” all the while, but patterns of energy in the form of sensory stimulation which we interpret (give meaning to) in light of situations we believe ourselves to be in at the time, or structure according to prior experience. Our brains alone are not up to regulating our behavior. It takes experience established in the past. It takes an autonomic nervous system to keep us going under a variety of conditions. It takes acculturation to possible ways we might respond. And it takes the raw energy impinging on our senses at any given moment, stimulation that we interpret as best we can under the circumstances—all taken together generating behavior more-or-less appropriate to the situations we find ourselves or judge ourselves to be in.

The sensory space in which we are conscious is a synthesis of a great many dimensions, which include expectancies, sensory impressions, feelings, values, prior experiences, interpretations, understandings, skills (including language), judgments, decisions, projects and relationships, all leading to action more-or-less appropriate to our sense of the situation we are in, and apart from us, to our physical and energy-rich surroundings.

And so it goes, this life we are living. Yes, it takes a brain to coordinate our experience, but also the environs and cultures in which we live, the energy our sensory receptors/transducers receive, our physical bodies, our history of comparable occasions, as well as those alongside us who share in our current predicament. Which together constitute the mythology by which we act. Not the information, not the facts, not the background, not the history—the mythology that informs our synthesis at the time so we make what we judge to be a fitting response.

Mythology is our rationale for living as we do. For being true and proper members of our families and cultures. For being upstanding citizens of nations, true believers of one faith or another, exemplars for others to follow, correct thinkers, members of the proper political party, wise and experienced beings who claim to know what is good not only for ourselves but for others as well. With our neighbors of various persuasions treating us likewise.

All the while, we are playing out the roles we learned as children in our formative years within our families and communities—prankster, nurse, defender, finder of misplaced objects, lover, master, servant, helpless child, Mister Fixit, dancer, princess, troublemaker—acting in ways that got us the attention we wanted then, and we have been looking for ever since.

We make ourselves happen in the world as we invented ourselves in the beginning days of our personal infancy and youth. Had we been born to the family next door, or even in a different slot in the birth order within our own family, we would have turned out very differently. If only father hadn’t been away at the war, or at work. If only mother hadn’t had other children to care for. If only we had lived across town, or in a different culture. If only, if only. That’s how we excuse ourselves for being the fallible, raw, subdued, or aggressive creatures we know ourselves to be.

My interest is in who we are as revealed by how we act, not who we might have been under different circumstances. And by the tools and props we use to stay familiar to ourselves. Humphrey Bogart needed fedora hats, cigarettes, bow ties, leather jackets, trench coats, a scowl, and Lauren Bacall to be the person he wanted to play in his mythology. Barak Obama needs to come across as the wise decider who has considered every option in coming up with a plan of action fair to all. Republicans come across as barking dogs warning of threats to the mythological homeland they have sworn to defend. The whole Republican primary has been a tournament between rival mythologies dressed for public consumption by that great abstraction, “the American people.”

Religion comes down to being a tax-exempt mythology or mystery play some believe in but no one understands. Imagine Joseph Ratzinger (a.k.a. Pope Benedict XVI) without his miter, robes, rituals, holy writ, and Curia—without all the mythological dressing that makes him appear larger than life—and he would turn out every bit as fallible as the rest of us. At base, being Pope is a living based on the illusion and pretense of a costume drama as if he were some manner of extraterrestrial being.

All of us are playing roles we picked up in childhood, and have come to believe in. Which, because it dimly remembers, our brain makes possible, so through practice we get good at recreating the illusion that we are who we claim to be. Every day, through standardized rituals, props, recitations, and actions, we live out our mythologies as if they were reality itself.

Under the cloak of mythology lie the energy patterns we interpret in accord with our fears and desires. The neurons in our brains know nothing of this imaginative superstructure we build on the substrate they provide, abetted by the substrate provided by the energetic material world that feeds our senses. Together, brain and ambient energy build a fantasy life based on our mythology of choice and personal experience.

Our conscious selves arise from the engagement between our individual brains and the energies in our physical surroundings. We earnestly believe we live in the real world, but it is a world of our own making and construal, i.e. a mythology. We are the people who developed the atomic bomb to save the world from destruction; who armed the mujahadin, then fought against them; went to war against the Vietnamese and the Iraqis for reasons we invented; who think it OK for us to send armed drones over other lands, but will be outraged when they return the favor; who cover the losses of scheming banks who brought those losses on themselves; who think the sky is blue in itself, leaves are green, blood is red.

Which brings me to the question of how great ape descendants manage to think and act like this, topic of my next blog.

From my myth to yours, I remain y’r friend, –Steve