Engagement is not a trade-off, a simple alternation of give-and-take. It is founded on paying attention to input and output simultaneously, all (or much of) the time, so there is no major gap between them, no lull in attention to both self and world.

When we get on a roll, that’s what happens. We are in the moment totally, not separating input from output but seeing both as integral parts of the same state of mind. We are with it, whatever it is. We are mindfarers so fully engaged with our surroundings that we become an integral part of the scene wherever we are.

As mindfarers, we want our companions to win along with us, not go down in defeat. Each needs to win in her own way. If Israelis and Palestinians fight until only one is left standing, they both lose. Neither side can sacrifice its integrity to the other.

Mindfaring (finding our inner way) is a matter of coordinating our lives with our surroundings, as in dancing, as in music, as in a good marriage, as in sports governed by rules. It is being both with ourselves and with the other, not in spite of.

It is a matter of being together with someone or something else. Of being yourself in a scene or setting that is wholly itself at the same time, so your engagement is mutual, both on an equal footing. Each plays her part, not going off on his own. It is an extension of a state of mind that embraces our partner in engagement, whether person, place, or thing.

Such engagements are fundamentally different states of mind than opposing, conflicting, fighting, defeating. There are times when you must run for your life, and times you must run toward your life or it might get away from you. Mindfaring is running toward, not away. It is seeking, not avoiding. Moving ahead, always ahead (seldom in a straight line). In company with respected companions. Along a path that leads to a natural culmination of the going itself.

Mindfaring is powered by the dimensions of intelligence (experience or consciousness) that make up the situation we are in at a particular point in our life engagements. Those dimensions are qualities that, taken collectively, give structure to a particular moment of awareness and experience.

Such dimensions reflect the balance between the affective roilings and turnings-over in our minds or, in neural terms, along the axis between the midbrain reticular formation and the prefrontal cortex via the limbic system (including amygdala, hippocampus, thalamus, hypothalamus, and septal nuclei)—all in response to the signals derived from our ongoing engagement with our surroundings that spark our intelligence, judgment, and subsequent actions.

Here is a diagram from page 275 of my 1982 dissertation, Metaphor to Mythology, that illustrates neural pathways in the brain that support our engagements with the world.

Schematic of Loops in the Brain

Sensory pathways in the brain, sensory input on right, motor pathways on left, limbic system lower center, loops of engagement suggested by dotted lines.

In experiential terms, those affective roilings and turnings-over in our mental innards include arousal, memory, expectancy, attention, sensory impressions, recognition, understanding, imagination, meaning, thought, feeling, emotion, biological and cultural values, humor, comparison, polarity, attitude, and judgment, all abetted by our goals, relationships, projects, selection of tools, skills, language skills, speech, gestures, and overt action, among other dimensions that come to the fore in specific situations.

How does this bear on the relationship between mind and brain? We are each born to our respective worlds of nature, culture, community, and family, all of which challenge and feed our minds on a daily basis, so we become part of them, and they part of us as a kind of reference system that, as we engage with it, defines our uniqueness in our particular time and place in our Earthly career.

Our brains process the endless stream of signals resulting from our engagements, but leave nature, culture, community, and family outside of ourselves where we can draw upon them as needed in particular situations.

The situations we find (or put) ourselves in are temporary configurations of the dimensions of our intelligence as affected by the roilings and turnings-over spurred by our ongoing engagements. They morph into subsequent situations as modified by the ever-changing flux of our experience.

We don’t lug all our memories around with us as an accumulating store of baggage, but develop neural networks capable of recognizing familiar patterns of traffic flowing through them. Our brains excel at pattern recognition, nesting ever-finer concepts together on a great many levels of discrimination. Our brains give us a capacity to recognize patterns as having been met before, not to store those patterns in finest detail.

That is, our brains are no bigger than they need to be to process the engagements we set up between our adventurous insides and ever-changing outsides. What is outside stays outside as a facet of nature, culture, community, and family. When we die, we die to them. They stay behind; we don’t take them with us.

The brain is not a filing cabinet or a closet full of old clothes. It is a director of traffic from perception to action via an experienced and intelligent self that serves as a situation evaluator in matching incoming sensory impressions to outgoing gestures, speech, and actions.

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In a very real sense, what I’m working from in writing this blog is the aftermath of writing a doctoral dissertation in 1982 as a grad student in the Humanistic and Behavioral Studies Department of Boston University’s School of Education. It took decades for me to shake off the academic tone I adopted in writing a 625-page book that, as far as I know, no one has read all the way through except me.

More particularly, I am working through the lessons I learned in writing Chapter 5, Pheromones to Phenomena, which dealt with the workings of the brain as understood at that time (largely based on animal studies). When I go back and read that chapter, I find what I wrote then is still true for me today. Not that my growth was stunted from then-on; more that what I hit upon in that chapter about the neural underpinnings of perception, judgment, and memory still serves as an excellent model for the mind revealed to me through introspection.

Of course we find in the world largely what we expect to find, so it sounds like I am indulging in a self-fulfilling prophesy. But that’s not what I mean. What I wrote then about the nature of consciousness still helps me to understand my mind of today. If it didn’t, I wouldn’t be writing this blog.

Not that I literally remember those thoughts from yesteryear. They surprise me every time I go back and read them. It’s the unspoken sense of concentration and commitment that drove me to write the dissertation that sticks with me. Now reduced to an intuitive feel for the topic I am writing about, a kind of silent presence in the background that guides me twenty-three years later.

I began Chapter Five, Pheromones to Phenomena, with the radical switch our species had to make from reliance on our ancestors’ sense of smell to living in a higher world with almost no smell at all. When we stood up on our hind legs, our jaws and snouts lessened, and we had to compensate for what we lost by rapidly developing our senses of vision and hearing, along with the ability to control muscles governing balance, posture, stance, and precise movement of our fingers.

It is the experience of thinking those thoughts that I retain to this day, not writing about what gradually happened to the amygdala, hippocampus, cerebral cortex, and other perceptual systems in having to adapt to a world without pheromones.

I was wholly engaged with my topic when I wrote my dissertation letter-perfect (with White-out) on an IBM Selectric typewriter, and it is what my brain has done with that engagement that I carry with me today, not the actual words and citations.

I know because I went back and read Chapter Five: there it all was in splendid detail. When I practice introspection in writing about the foibles of my own mind, that process is backed up by the deep concentration I put into clicking away at my typewriter day-after-day for over two years. And into scouring the sources I read in the years before that.

The difference between then and now is that today I am trying to write in English appropriate to a blog aimed at a general audience, not academic English as suited to dissertation committees and peer reviewers. It has taken this long to shed old habits learned in school, and as you can tell from reading these posts, I am still trying to overcome a natural bent to make simple things sound complicated.

Are my ideas now out-of-date because they are descendants of ideas I wrestled with in grad school? Or even earlier? I’ve written about the important role memory plays in perception, so that the words I write today go back to the language I babbled when I was an infant. Are my words as old as I am? I say, no, because I see myself as a trainable who can adapt to changing times. Words do change, but not as fast as people do. By reading a few notes, we can still make sense of Chaucer and Shakespeare, if not Beowulf—all far older than I am.

So what did I write in my dissertation? Here are some samples from Chapter Five of Metaphor to Mythology (Ann Arbor: University Microfilms International, 1982). In these excerpts, because olfactory bulbs (smell receptors) in our ancestors have such immediate access to the hippocampus and limbic system, the interactive components that make up that system are featured, including hippocampus, amygdala, and hypothalamus. I am using these bulleted quotations to illustrate the specialized world I inhabited in grad school.

  • The entire cortex is an evolutionary derivative of the sense of smell (page 259).
  • Our erect posture, by distancing our olfactory receptors from the sources of smell, has deprived us of the benefits of pheromonal [olfactory signal] communication, so it is not surprising that we have increasingly come to rely on non-chemical means for integrating our internal state with our environment (page 260).
  • The limbic system operates basically as a “selection unit” to determine the biological value of sensory information in relation to various organic drives, and then functions to facilitate the storage of information deemed relevant to successful functioning of the organism (page 263).
  • The regulation of cognitive function shifts away from the processing of pheromonal signals to the identification and evaluation of cues in the visual and auditory modalities. What remains constant, however, is the crucial role of the hippocampus (and the limbic system in general) in learning, memory, communication, and social organization (page 264).
  • The interpretation of neurological studies often relies heavily upon the twin concepts of the internal and external milieu. . . . homologous to one-celled animals in which a semipermeable membrane separates an “inside” from an “outside.” The internal milieu represents the equilibrated chemical innards that constitute the life-sustaining works of the organism; the external milieu being the sum total of all ambient stimulation an investigator can imagine to be impinging upon its sensibilities (page 268).
  • [Hippocampal] function is related to the enduring consequences of a comparison (seeing one signal in terms of another, a kind of seeing-as) between two different classes of sensory input—one primarily sensory, the other . . . facilitated by precedent episodes of similar experience (page 277f.).
  • Under novel circumstances it would be the hippocampus that would effect a comparison between perception and memory, emitting a signal that would be proportional to the non-familiarity of the sensory signal, and leading to exploratory behavior designed to acquire a more coherent and detailed version of that signal. Comparisons resulting in a high degree of registration would enable the animal to make a response on the basis of an assumed identification to which the existing repertoire of behaviors would more likely be both adequate and appropriate (page 280).
  • Since an animal’s sensory stimulation will vary in accordance with its own locomotion, it is essential that some mechanism be available to distinguish between self-generated and environment-generated variation in sensory input. To accomplish this, signals that exhibit covariation with proprioceptive input from muscle spindles and receptors in tendons and joints must be credited to the organism itself and subjected to inhibition in order to determine the coherent pattern of sensation that can be attributed to stimuli in the environment (page 282).
  • The normal animal lives neither for the moment nor for the past, but is able to compare the two and make an appropriate response to adjust the difference. It is able to find meaning in its phenomenological milieu and, when it can’t, to embark on a series of excursions that will enable it to discover appropriate meanings for novel phenomena. And if those meanings are repeated often enough, or are important enough, then the normal animal is capable of remembering them (page 283f.).
  • The hippocampus, as a novelty detector, directs its output to several important destinations: to the hypothalamus, the custodian of the internal milieu; to the midbrain reticular formation, regulator of arousal and wakefulness; to the prefrontal areas in which so many separate signals are coordinated; and to itself, via a kind of reverberating feedback loop that turns momentary stimuli into enduring potentations that influence its own activity. In each case it acts like a switch that turns another operation on or off, depending on the disparity between the signals it receives. From its central location it influences motivation, arousal, sensory coherence, interference, memory, meaning, and behavior (page 284).
  • Since the business of memory is survival (by making lessons learned in the past available on suitable occasions in the present), it is not surprising that these survival-related functions form the core of many of our strongest memories (page 286).
  • The hippocampus (and its associated network of connectivities to related areas) thus makes it possible for repeated episodes of similar sensory signals to exert a systemic influence that renders them familiar and—beyond that—meaningful. Such signals are more readily “welcomed” by the perceptual system because they “speak” to prior experience, to the heritage of the perceiver. And, since they address not an identical replica of themselves but an abstraction derived from multiple repetitions (or approximations) over time, their reception occurs within a framework of historical reference that equates their existential pattern of sensory stimulation with something already in the perceiver’s possession, with a referential meaning that is already an aspect of the perceiving apparatus itself (page 292).
  • Sensory signals, . . . are like keys that acquire a meaning by being inserted into certain locks that anticipate their configuration; sensations are different from meanings in the same sense those keys are different from the locks that they open. And, to continue the simile, the hippocampus is the locksmith who adjusts the lock to fit those keys that are repeatedly or forcefully imposed upon their workings (page 292).
  • The salient feature of context-related memory is the influence it exerts upon the process of perception. . . . Its primary function is to direct attention toward those aspects of a situation that are most likely to prove pertinent to the motivational state of the individual perceiver. It is a reaching-out for perception on the basis of an authority vested in the ongoing interaction between self and world as it has been achieved in the current (or immediately prior) situation. Thus does experiential meaning, once unlocked, strive to perpetuate itself by [putting] itself forward on the basis of its recent successes, attempting to discriminate a world that would fulfill its current promise as if foretold as a kind of destiny—like a lock awaiting to be fulfilled by a certain key(page 295).
  • [I]t is no accident that our ideas nest within each other so conveniently, that our understanding is hierarchical in nature, allowing the most venial notion to coexist with our highest ideals, the mundane with the celestial, the profane with the sacred. For all its complexity, the paramount achievement of the brain is the selection and synchronization of its ongoing processes so that mind is characterized by a coherent flow of ideas that provides a continuous rationale for purposive behavior (page 301).
  • [Our] strategy [is] to present ourselves to the world from the security of our heritage of personal experience, and to weld whatever patterns we discovery firmly to the structure we have already built. The world we see is the world we have learned to see. That is the genius of our species and the secret of our survival: the world is always contingent upon the way we present ourselves to it—upon the way we have learned to seize it. No miracle is more profound because, instead of granting us eternal wisdom, it challenges us to pursue every opportunity for learning, and to remain open to the worlds that others have discovered for themselves (page 317).

So, no, I’m not making-up these posts as I go along. They are deeply rooted in my life’s cumulative endeavors and experience. That is, in the flowing situations in my innermost parts that give meaning to my life.

Reflection 131: Feedback

July 20, 2009

(Copyright © 2009)

Three posts ago (Reflection 128: Woody Allen Consciousness), I dealt with four aspects of consciousness in which (through introspection) I claimed to see anxiety as a common feature, and the amygdala as playing an implicit role in that anxiety. I sent a copy of that post to Joseph LeDoux, leading authority on emotional consciousness (whom I had quoted), and in return he sent me a short note, and the draft of a manuscript he’d written on emotional coloration of consciousness. LeDoux’s reply read:

Thanks for the note. Interesting ideas. But my view is that the amygdala [is] not really involved in conscious fear or anxiety, at least not directly. The arousal that it generates contributes but the amygdala itself seems to be non-introspectable. I’m attaching something that came out last year in a book called Frontiers of Consciousness (Ox U Press). The attached is an unedited version of the ms, but is basically what was published. Thanks again. Joe

Talk about anxiety, I was anxious upon reading the note, and even more anxious upon reading the attached chapter, which amounted to a complete review of emotional consciousness, citing 351 sources from the relevant literature. LeDoux was generous in dubbing my subjective ideas “interesting,” but there was no question he had the peer-reviewed facts on his side. Still, I felt the reason I sent the post to an expert in the field held true: there was a place in consciousness studies for introspection as a supplement to animal research, philosophical musings, functional imaging, psychoanalysis, cultural anthropology, the arts, and any other human activity shedding light on the mind. I’d said in my initial email that introspection and basic brain research were tunneling into the same mountain from opposites sides, hoping to meet in the middle, or by a different metaphor:

In addition to studies of neural substrates of consciousness, I firmly see a need for a sandwich approach which will inform such studies by coming from above—not from the substrate but the real item itself—because I think consciousness, as an emergent property, will never be found in the neurons themselves because that’s not where it lives. So that’s what I blog about, for whatever it’s worth.

Having read LeDoux’s chapter three times now, I am impressed both by the amount of research that has been done—and the amount that still lies ahead. In truth, much of what we know today about emotional consciousness is based on informed yet conjectural interpretations of basic research. The field rests largely on claims and arguments. A close reading reveals phrases such as “are believed to be,” “are often considered,” “may be,” “might be thought of as,” “my proposal is,” “I will argue that,” “is likely to,” “probably occurs,” “much debate exists,” “perhaps,” and so on. Knowledge is harder to come by than we commonly suppose. The essence of science (that is, of knowing) is doubt and skepticism, which is why on-going research is so necessary. Current knowing invariably rests on a flurry of assumptions, beliefs, and conditional assertions. Only when the flurry dissipates does knowledge stiffen into certainty—always an illusion to fill the break until flurries fly again.

Science, like religion and philosophy, is an edifice in need of constant maintenance. My image is of a juggler whirling Indian clubs in the air, dropping one here or there, picking up others, diligently striving, balancing, laboring, watching, paying careful attention, always appearing the same yet never quite the same two cycles in a row. In a moment of laxity, the clubs spill in a heap—until gathered and set in motion with renewed vigilance. Such is every human endeavor. Such is medicine, the stock market, technology, the Internet, blogging, and consciousness itself—the ultimate human endeavor.

I juggle my consciousness as best I can, as you juggle yours. Taken together we form a spectacle of jugglers whirling our clubs en masse while knowing distraction or exhaustion or simply missing a beat will make us drop one or more. We can’t keep going forever. Sooner or later. . . . What, me anxious?

But back to emotional consciousness. Essentially, it is whatever aspect of mind we pay attention to that bears emotional overtones expressing how we feel at the time. In picturing the amygdala responsible for feelings of anxiety, I am the arch-conjuror reaching farther than I have any right to on the basis of evidence—but reaching anyway because that is my nature. If I don’t reach farther today than yesterday, what’s the point of going on? Done reaching, I am finished. Where’s the adventure in that?

I sent my 128th post to Joseph LeDoux because I felt I had made a discovery—that anxiety is behind a large part of consciousness. I have claimed that consciousness is given us to solve novel problems that evolution has no leverage on, and anxiety is what turns a situation into a problem. Anxiety is a sign we are invested in a particular situation and care about the outcome. Interpreting the phenomenal situation is a problem if we want to get it right. Adopting the right idiom of consciousness in addressing the situation is a problem in itself reflected in how we present ourselves to the world. And lastly, applying an appropriate elixir (or fudge factor) in order to fit our way of thinking to the situation is a forth-order problem. All involving anxiety because we’re not sure of ourselves or the outcome we desire. And implicating the amygdala as the neural seat of emotional consciousness, so I claimed—which is where I overreached myself. In correcting me by saying, “The arousal that it generates contributes [to feelings of anxiety] but the amygdala itself seems to be non-introspectable,” LeDoux is asserting the position he took in Synaptic Self where he wrote:

While individual brain regions and networks make distinct contributions to the processes that together constitute anxiety, anxiety itself is best thought of as a property of the overall circuitry rather than of specific brain regions (Viking, 2002, page 290).

In his chapter in Frontiers of Consciousness, LeDoux makes it clear: “Amygdala processing in humans occurs unconsciously.” Summarizing, “Indeed, amygdala processing meets most of the principles of automaticity—that is it is independent of attention and awareness.” So, like Hamlet sensing a presence behind the curtain in the queen’s bedroom but not knowing it is Polonius, I had no way of identifying the amygdala as the source of the anxiety associated with problem-solving in self-examined consciousness. As part of a network, the amygdala itself is not subject to introspection.

I stand corrected. Which I take to be a demonstration of cooperation between neuroscientists on one hand and us introspectors on the other.

Putting Heads Together

 

(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.

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(Copyright © 2009)

 

In the movie Donovan’s Brain, poor Donovan is reduced to a brain hooked up to wires in a jar, sharing his thoughts through a loudspeaker in the lab. We often entertain the careless thought that, like Donovan, the brain represents the consciousness of a whole person. But the brain is only part of a body which keeps it active and alive. A brain abstracted from its body is a dead brain. In discussing activities in different parts of the brain, it is essential to remember that no mental activity would be happening apart from the context the body provides. The brain is not the motor under the hood (“bonnet” in England) that makes us work. Heart, liver, kidneys, fingers, toes, and all the other parts of a functioning organism are implicit in pictures of the brain by itself.

 

Having said that, right now I want to consider the human brain as a complex organ which itself is composed of parts. My focus is on parts of the brain which may contribute to consciousness in particular. If you read books or articles about the brain, you very quickly encounter terms used by neuroscientists, terms which have limited currency outside the lab. Since I myself have uses such terms in earlier posts (amygdala, hippocampus, cerebral cortex, cerebellum), I want to lay the groundwork for future posts so that such terms will be helpful in developing further insights into consciousness. To do that, I will refer to two illustrations. 

 

 

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Illustration 1. Here, the left side of the cerebral hemisphere is divided into four lobes, each represented by a different color. The frontal lobe is shown in blue, parietal lobe in yellow, temporal lobe in green, and occipital lobe in pink. The cerebellum (not part of the cerebral cortex) is also shown, looking like a ball of yarn in black in white tucked under the temporal lobe.

 

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Illustration 2. Here outer layers of the left cerebral hemisphere are cut away to suggest the locations of several parts which lie deeper in the brain near the midline between the two hemispheres. (Clockwise from the top) The corpus callosum consists of nerve fibers connecting the two hemispheres. The cerebral cortex is made up of six layers of nerve cells and the fibers connecting them one to another. The thalamus is a complex relay station between the cerebral cortex and other parts of the central nervous system. The cerebellum contains over half the cells in the brain, and is largely devoted to eye and muscle coordination. The brain stem is the seat of cognitive and emotional arousal systems. The hippocampus facilitates long-term memory storage and retrieval. Not shown, but near the hippocampus is the amygdala which plays an essential role in emotional responses including fear and anxiety. The hypothalamus regulates the autonomic nervous system which maintains life-sustaining processes at appropriate levels; it is a key link between the body’s nervous and hormonal systems.

 

The human brain contains an estimated 100 billion nerve cells, each of which may form 1-10 thousand connections with other cells, producing well over 100 trillion opportunities for activation and feedback. When a given neuron (brain cell) fires, it receives feedback from other cells as a kind of consensus concerning whether it should continue to fire or not. Feedback shapes every activity in the brain and, ultimately, the conscious and unconscious processes governing bodily functions and behavior.

 

 

BBC Brain Map

 

For this post I will give a brief run-through of the functions of the various areas of the brain I have listed above, more or less according to the order in which they have been introduced.

 

Cerebellum. A fixture of the vertebrate brain, the cerebellum is particularly developed in primates and humans. It controls balance, spatial orientation, eye movements, muscle movements (as in reaching and locomotion), and planning of such movements. When there is a discrepancy between movements as planned and executed, the cerebellum facilitates correction.

 

Cerebral Cortex. Cell bodies in the cerebral cortex are arranged in thin layers near the outer surface of the cerebral hemispheres. This arrangement facilitates orderly routing of inputs and outputs between related areas of the brain. The surface of the cortex is larger than that of the inside of the skull because of its folding into valleys (sulci) and hills (gyri), which greatly expands the number of neurons that can fit into a small space. The bulk of the cortex consists of interconnecting fibers. Among vertebrates, humans have the most finely elaborated cortex, allowing detailed planning and execution of a wide diversity of behaviors. The cortex is divided into lobes (named after neighboring bones of the skull) based on prominent anatomical features. These designations are somewhat arbitrary, but the cellular architecture exhibited in different areas lends support to the integrity of different functions within separate lobes (see separate listings below).

 

Corpus Callosum. Nerve fibers connecting corresponding areas of the left and right cerebral hemispheres cross the midline of the brain in a large bundle known as the corpus callosum. These fibers appear white because of the myelin sheaths wrapping individual fibers, greatly increasing the speed of transmission. Each fiber is the axon connecting the body of a particular cell on one side of the cortex to related cells on the opposite side. In general, nerve cells (neurons) on one side of the brain control functions performed on the other.

 

Frontal Lobe. The frontal lobe of cerebral cortex extends forward of the central sulcus at the top of the brain which separates it from the parietal lobe to the rear. Cells in the primary motor area are arranged along the central sulcus as a topographical map of the muscles in areas of the body which they control, extending from feet represented in the fissure between hemispheres, through legs, trunk, arms, hands, fingers, head, face, and mouth arrayed across the surface of the primary motor area of the cortex. Forward of that is the premotor area where planning of motor behaviors takes place. Speech muscles in tongue and lips are controlled in Wernicke’s area within the frontal lobe. Working memory (or focused attention) integrate three different areas—lateral, orbital, and cingulate—within prefrontal cortex to provide what some researchers believe to be the neurological basis of consciousness.

 

Parietal Lobe. Similar to the motor map in the frontal lobe, a sensory map of the body spreads across neurons at the leading edge of the parietal lobe. Touch, pain, and temperature signals are processed in the parietal lobe, which also processes the interplay between visual and bodily sensations.

 

Occipital Lobe. At the back of the brain, the occipital lobe is devoted entirely to primary and subsequent visual processing. There are some 40 visual processing areas in the brain, but they all depend on signals received from the occipital lobe.

 

Temporal Lobe. Primary auditory processing takes place in the temporal lobe, as well as later stages of visual processing, including image recognition. The amygdala and hippocampus exist in pairs (one on each side of the brain) and are located deep within the temporal lobes near the midline between the two hemispheres.

 

Thalamus. As a relay station, the thalamus receives signals from sensory receptors and sends output to cortical sensory processing areas. Thalamic activity coordinates electrical activity in cortical neurons, giving rise to synchronized waves (basis of the electroencephalogram—the EEG). Consciousness, it is thought, represents synchronized activity throughout the cerebral cortex. Ascending pathways from the brain stem and hypothalamus pass through the thalamus en route to the cerebral cortices, conveying vital signals that maintain arousal, vigilance, and responsiveness to sensory stimuli. Injury to the thalamus can bring about loss of consciousness.

 

Brain Stem. The difference between sleep and wakefulness is largely told by neurons in the brain stem where both autonomic and emotional stimuli come into play with profound implications for arousal, attention, and consciousness. Though this region of the brain is primitive in some senses, its involvement in such basic processes suggests that consciousness is not necessarily a latecomer on the evolutionary totem pole.

 

Hippocampus. A specialized region of cortical cells near the midline of the brain, the hippocampus is essential to laying down and retrieving long-term memories. It is involved in learning and establishing spatial relations. Alzheimer’s disease involves failure of hippocampal function.

 

Amygdala. The amygdala comes into play in threatening situations. Sensory input reaches the amygdala from the thalamus by two different routes, one slow but made clear by the cerebral cortex, the other fast but relatively unprocessed and therefore crude. In emergencies, the fast route may spur immediate, life-saving action. The amygdala generates outputs affecting blood pressure, stress hormones, and both startle and immobilizing reflexes. It also kicks into the hippocampus, enabling long-term memory of emotional situations. Feelings of fear, anxiety, anger, and loathing are conscious signs of activity in the amygdala, location of a sophisticated early warning network.

 

Hypothalamus. The hypothalamus maintains homeostasis across a wide range of circumstances by providing inputs to the autonomic nervous system (which silently regulates bodily functions, including sexual arousal), the hormonal system, and the motivational system. It maintains a feedback loop by which neuronal activity can stimulate hormone production, and hormones in turn can affect brain activation. By such means, the hypothalamus integrates autonomic and hormonal functions with behavior.

 

Anterior Cingulate Cortex. On the medial surface of the cerebral hemispheres, the cingulate cortex arcs above the fibers of the corpus callosum crossing beneath it. Much like the brain stem, anterior cingulate cortex participates in homeostasis, emotions, attention, sleep and wakefulness, learning, and consciousness itself. Cingulate cortex also receives musculoskeletal inputs, and sends a large variety of output signals to motor areas related to speech, movement, and other bodily responses. Lesion studies suggest that patients with damage to this area are deprived of an active inner (conscious) life.

 

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Reflection 51: Memories

January 19, 2009

(Copyright © 2009)

 

Ten years ago I bought a hair drier to get the moisture out of a headlight that had been nicked by flying gravel so I could seal it and get my car through its annual inspection. I have hardly used it since, never think of it, yet know exactly what shelf it’s on buried between the sheets and towels in my bathroom closet. What a strange mixture of consciousness and unconsciousness. I know the pedigree of that drier, why I bought it, what I did with it, where it is now—even though it doesn’t play even a bit part in my daily activities.

 

Too, I have a pencil sharpener screwed to the end of a bookshelf in my living room. An old one. Full of shavings from every pencil I’ve used for fifteen years. It’s in full view and I must walk by it twenty or thirty times a day—without seeing it. Until I want to sharpen a pencil. Then I know right where it is. Here, too, is a strange mixture of consciousness and unconsciousness. In plain sight, yet unseen until need arises, when it materializes right where it was last time.

 

I seem to possess a utilitarian memory that files the function, location, and pertinent history of these items in such a way to be readily retrievable on cue. No emotion is involved; this type of memory is purely functional. It covers the books on my shelves, tools, kitchenware, linens, and other items of practical, if infrequent, use. I include the Leatherman Tool in its sheath on my belt in this category. I seldom see it, yet reach for it when it would be useful, and there it is, right where I expect it to be. What time is it? I look not to my wrist but to the watch hanging from its caribiner on my belt. I know where I bought it, why I bought it (I don’t like the feel of straps around my wrist), where I’ve gotten its batteries replaced, that sometimes the stem unseats itself, and so on. All that is retained in my utilitarian memory, as if I were conscious of it all the time, which I’m not. Until needed, I never think of my watch.

 

Paperwork is different. I generate lots of it every day, and unless I deliberately file it away where I can retrieve it, I have great difficulty knowing which pile or piles I should look in. I seem to have no memory for paperwork—where it is, why I wrote it, even what it’s about. The process of writing down what’s on my mind is everything; once done, it simply disappears from my consciousness as if it went up in smoke. That’s true even of my posts to this blog. If I didn’t make a list of them, I would have no memory of what I said. I may have a vague recollection of dealing with that topic sometime, somewhere, but that’s about it. My utilitarian memory doesn’t do paperwork.

 

Yet it is somewhere within me. I keep having the same thoughts I had twenty or forty years ago—as if they were wholly new discoveries. Or I come across something I wrote long ago and find it accurately expresses something I thought I hit upon yesterday. It’s lodged in my unconscious mind in amorphous form, but not neatly placed or categorized.

 

I have a fair memory for faces, but not necessarily the names that go with them. When I search for a name, I can often come up with it, but it may take me an hour or even a day. When the face is a bit fuzzy, I often have a sense of the person—where I met him or her, maybe their profession, family, where and why we were together, and so on. You know, Whatshisname, the mustache. Such vague memories are not in the same class as the fixture memories of my hair drier and pencil sharpener. They are easy come, easy go memories, more like paperwork.

 

My autobiographical memory is usually punctuated by strong feelings. Like the time I raised my hammer over the last roofing nail when I built my camp—and whammed it down directly on my thumb holding the nail. Pain, sadness, happiness, any feeling will cement a particular episode in memory as long as it crosses a minimal threshold. Many memories are categorized by the feelings that accompanied them. Excitement—being outdoors during an earthquake in Seattle, seeing a manta ray leap out of the gulf, finding fifteen dollars blowing across the lawn, picking up an ancient stone knife at the base of a cliff. Shocking loss—crying in the assembly before school was let out when FDR died, working in the darkroom while listening to the news that JFK had been shot, being furious when Jack Ruby shot Oswald, the phone call from my mother when my father died unexpectedly, that other phone call 27 years ago from the police on the morning they found my son’s body in the park.

 

These emotion-based memories are not buried very deep. They fairly leap to mind at slightest provocation, making the then accessible to the now as if no time had passed. Such memories have greater clout than mere pencil sharpeners or paperwork. They are very much part and parcel of who I am, key constituents of my ongoing consciousness.

 

I don’t know much about conceptual memory, except that words and ideas seem to emerge from nothingness when called upon. I think of concepts as being distilled from similar experiences, and of words serving as labels that index them, making general summaries of experience available when a particular situation calls them to mind. Where do words come from? I don’t know. We have all had the tip-of-the-tongue experience of knowing a word is there, but not being able to retrieve it. We may have the meaning, number of syllables, first letter, or rhyme (it sounds like . . .), but the word itself remains elusive.

 

When I write, words flow from inner space, and quickly disappear, making room for others that follow. It is the process that is important, not the words themselves. I mean the meaning-making process by which a yearning to say something is coupled to particular episodes of experience within compass of a conceptual field given voice in the vocabulary and phraseology of one language or another. I am aware in myself that the entire process is underwritten by kernels of meaning—what I mean to say—that are more fundamental than the words I actually use. I often sense the presence of such a kernel just before I express it in words, realizing that words are redundant because the one kernel anticipated them all. I don’t know how it works, but the language kernels serve as seeds from which words themselves bloom.

 

Lastly, I rely on a kind of situational sense or memory to hold these different pieces (and many others) together in coherent form to produce the running script of my consciousness, the narrative of my life. Situations have specific locations, casts of characters, furniture and props, relationships, and ongoing actions. They are not scripted beforehand; but develop according to the active relationships which bind them together in one place at one time. Consciousness is always situated, so that it follows only the most relevant details as they unfold in the mind. Those details take on meaning and relevance because of their placement within a particular situation. This happens, then this, then this. All making sense because of the flow of events in a particular place among a specific cast of characters.

 

Consciousness is a kind of theater, for an audience of one, who acts all the parts, and imbues unfolding events with personal significance. Inner life is nothing if not dramatic in nature. Playwrights simply transcribe it into the idiom of some outer world. Which is why we can find ourselves in Shakespeare. He deliberately wrote us into his plays. As all great artists are sure to include each of us in her works.

 

Neuroscientists worry about the so-called binding problem: about how the myriad shards of experience fit seamlessly together in the one vessel from which the stream of consciousness flows. My thought is that the unity of experience is made possible by the situational nature of consciousness. If it is a stream, it is a stream through a particular landscape at a certain time under specifiable conditions. Where one part of the brain (the amygdala) appears to activates emotional aspects of memory, another part (the hippocampus) provides a map of the relevant landscape, while consciousness itself keeps track of meaningful events as they transpire within that setting.

 

That is conjecture on my part. What we know is that different parts of the brain are involved in storing and activating different aspects of memory. And that whereas the amygdala is activated in emotional experience, the hippocampus is activated in relational experience. My hunch is that men and women rely on the situational-relational aspect of experience in different ways, so the same area of the brain (the hippocampus) creates a detailed map of human connections and relationships in the female mind, while in males that area may generate a more utilitarian map of objects (hair driers and pencil sharpeners) distributed in space. I base this notion on my long years of interacting with men and with women under a great variety of circumstances. As my partner sums it up: women relate, men report.

 

Here I am, duly reporting on consciousness as I experience it on the inside of my skull. As I do so, I realize that there is not a single degree of separation between me and my chosen object of study. I am my consciousness; my consciousness is who I am. Put differently, consciousness is all. I, as a separate entity, do not exist.

 

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