374. Brain Talk

December 4, 2014

Brain talk is full of words like data, information, computation, processing, knowledge, and other terms of that noble family of academic abstractions. But seldom do we live up to the expectations of the scientists and engineers who treat the brain as if they had designed it themselves by rational means, which they didn’t and never could.

Such terms are descriptors of what neuroscientists want to find, not necessarily of what’s there in the brain to discover. That is, neuroscience is salted with metaphors meaningful to those who study the brain, but many of those same terms are wide of the mark set by instinctual users of particular brains as tools for conducting life as a work-in-progress at every stage.

Most of the mass of the brain is made up of axons (connectors) that lead from one nerve cell nucleus to its terminus, not the nuclei, cortical columns, and synapses that actually perform so much of our mental work. It is the chemical flow between nerve cells that brings minds to life, as facilitated by the travel of ionic potentials from cell bodies to their extremities.

The flow of neurotransmitters across synaptic gaps between nerve cells at myriad points of connection enables those chemicals to get to the right place at the right time to activate or inhibit a comparison in synchrony with other signals so that simultaneous connections are sustained between different regions of the brain, furthering the coherent neural traffic we experience as mind, awareness, or consciousness.

Mind is not confined to the brain but reaches through skilled action to the outer limits of the body and, beyond that, via traffic through nature, culture, community, and family, to the cascade of energy impinging on our sensory organs.

Our minds acquire language and numbers because they are born to language and numbers as two of the cultural media in which they are immersed. They acquire a genome and genetic heritage by being born to particular parents who, at conception, consist of one man and one woman who inhabit a particular niche (nest) in the physical world.

Mind is a collaborative function of brain, body, nature, culture, community, and family. It is the seat of our organic intelligence together with  the many situations and active engagements that make up our lives. I think that to call it a computer or data processor is to miss the point of what the mind actually does and how it operates.


Reflection 182: Intelligence

February 18, 2010

(Copyright © 2010)

I was born asking questions. That’s the kind of person I am. Still damp from the womb, I looked around and asked, “Where am I?” Then, looking at the doctor, “Who are you?” Then at my mother, “What’s for supper?” Much later, I remember riding in the back of a pickup truck from Seattle to Nespelum, Washington, asking the archaeology grad student next to me one question after another the whole way. I exhausted him well before I knew as much as I wanted to about the dig we were heading for. Inquisitive to the point of annoyment, that’s me. Is annoyment a word? Annoyance, that’s what I mean.

Asking questions is somehow related to intelligence. My American Heritage Dictionary says intelligence is “The capacity to acquire and apply knowledge,” but that’s not what I mean. I’m not talking about a mental capacity, or knowledge in general. More, as the CIA uses the word to refer to that which is known about one thing or another. But I don’t mean mere scraps of data—I mean getting the big picture: intelligence on a nontrivial scale referring to the interrelatedness of things in a particular system. In other words, building an aesthetic model in my mind of a system outside my body. Intelligence, for me, is a process of gathering experiences about relationships—how things fit and act with one another—into a coherent picture in the mind. Excuse me, in my mind. That’s the only mind I have access to or can talk knowingly about, or expand by asking further questions.

Intelligence tests claim to measure a human capacity—as if learning is independent of interest, curiosity, subject matter, or personal experience. That usage suggests a person is equally intelligent regarding anything that can be known, that intelligence is some kind of virtue or trait, which I don’t think is true. There’s no such thing as an intelligent person; there are only people who know a lot about a small number of things in relation to one another—and little about everything else. An evening spent playing Trivial Pursuit should tell us that much, at least. I’ll give you an example from my personal experience.

I’ve been studying Taunton Bay, an estuary in Maine, for a number of years. I would have said I was checking it from an inquiring point of view because it interested me, but in hindsight I see I was paying attention to it every chance I got, so I guess I really was studying it, expanding my experience of the bay holistically without reference to “information” or “data.” That way, I slowly built up an understanding of some of the workings of the bay in my head, which collectively added to “intelligence” about the bay as a  biological system. This is related to this is connected to this is tied-in with this is balanced with this. Building to a broad, qualitative under-standing of what is going on in one place in Maine. That’s what I mean by intelligence. I didn’t learn about other bays because each one is different and I wasn’t—my body wasn’t—there. And I didn’t learn about bays in general because my acquaintance was up-close and personal. Let me illustrate my wordy illustration of aesthetic intelligence by showing a picture suggesting the relationships between blue mussels and eight other aspects of Taunton Bay.


That’s a picture of a small portion of my aesthetic—of my coherent intelligence about the bay. Blue mussels are connected to sea stars (which eat them), to eelgrass (which shares their habitats), to Canada geese (which eat eelgrass), to diving ducks (such as common goldeneyes which eat mussels), to eagles (which eat goldeneyes), to marine worms (which eat food particles that mussels discard), to hunters (who shoot mussel-eating ducks), to horseshoe crabs (which mussels often attach themselves to), and to human (who harvest mussels by diving, dragging, or hand-raking). They are also connected to me because I take pictures of them in relation to other features of Taunton Bay.

That’s a snapshot of what I mean by big-picture intelligence. Getting things together in my mind to reveal their relationships and interactions. In a very real sense, that is a portrait of one corner of my conscious mind. Which is the real topic of this blog: getting my mind together about consciousness. Since reading books by Gerald M. Edelman about human con-sciousness, wrestling with his theoretical ideas, my under-standing of my own conscious processes has made a quantum leap to the next higher level. After slogging through one post after another, Edelman helped tie things together for me—at least as I interpret his writings. So today I want to write about my experience of consciousness as a whole, not just this aspect or that.

My big learning up to now is that understanding is a matter of developing an aesthetic sense of how things go together in relationship. That’s actually what the word consciousness means. Con- refers to a collective joining-together, sciousness (as in science) refers to splitting things apart into particles or elements—that is, discernment of relationships, which is commonly called knowledge. Taking splintered parts together in relationship produces consciousness—the “withness” of all aspects of mind. In this case, the withness of the different sensory arrays spread throughout the sensory brain, which Gerald M. Edelman and other neuroscientists refer to as “maps.” The parts of the brain devoted to vision contain some thirty or forty such maps, each tracking two-dimensional relationships in one aspect of visual perception—movement, color, location, direction, texture, and so on. Consciousness, then, consists of mapping events in the brain in ever-changing relationship to one another, creating an overall sense of the dynamics of the current situation.

Think of the George Gibson Quartet—guitar, organ, saxophone, percussion—in aesthetic relation to one another, or a cut by the Henry Threadgill Sextet in the 1970s. Or the Boston Symphony Orchestra playing Berlioz’ Symphony Fantastique. Or the Boston Red Sox when they get their act together and each player gives his all in exquisite relationship to the others. Or all the parts of Picasso’s Guernica telling the story of the Nazi bombing of a small town in the Pyrenees during the Spanish Civil War. Which is not unlike Albert Einstein spending his last days in search of a unified theory of everything that would tell the story of the universe. Many scientists, mathematicians, and theologians engage in similar quests having spiritual overtones in relating the individual mind to the larger whole as they picture it. On a more mundane level, aesthetic coherence is what a chef strives for in balancing the flavors, textures, color, and nutrients in his soup of the day. Or me in my peapod rowing across Taunton Bay at low tide, trying to fit everything I see into a coherent appreciation of what’s going on at that time in that place.

The point of the exercise being, then, to act appropriately in the situation we are engaged with as we discern its different parts and assemble them in consciousness as a coherent life event. If we can do that, then we derive a survival advantage from understanding what’s going on around us compared to others acting out of a less nuanced understanding. It’s always an aesthetic judgment call based on how we see aspects of the situation fitting together into a coherent unity—or not, as in the 2000 presidential election, the Haitian earthquake, or the global instability of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere.

Regarding consciousness, what are the parts I am talking about? Sensory perception as annotated by memory of concepts and prior experiences. Attention, salience, and expectancy reflecting personal or biological values, motives, and interests. A sense of oneself, with feelings, hopes, fears, anxieties, pains, pleasures, and ethical preferences. Judgment of how to weigh each part, what to emphasize, what to leave out. The valance or attractiveness of one option for action compared to others. What the larger culture would recommend through the medium of tradition, habit, training, or instruction. Ongoing categorizations and interpretations modeling a scenario of the current situation as it is likely to develop in the future. These and other aspects coming together in consciousness, evaluated in relation one to another, fed forward to decision-making, advance planning, and execution, culminating in more-or-less decisive action in the world. And motivated attention to what the world does in response as told by the myriad maps keeping track of what’s happening from one’s situated point of view at the moment. All parts playing into the great loop of engagement coursing through our minds, constituting consciousness itself—the withness of such separate parts in coherent relationship with these and other parts in addition to those I have mentioned.

Without the ongoing governance provided by the contemporary loop of engagement between self and non-self, we are left in a state of autonomous dreaming disconnected from any adjustment imposed by culture, others, or the great world beyond. When flying blind in the sensory vacuum of dream-land, consciousness is entirely on its own, doing the best it can to find coherence based wholly on internal evidence of ongoing concerns. In dreams, we can see the separate items being shuffled again and again in a vain attempt to find the most apt relationship between them. What comes through is not the order of the world but the persistent order of the self as imposed on that world. In some circles, this counts as a spiritual more than a rational or cognitive take on events. The subject of dreams is always the same—yours truly, the dreamer, chief of operations in all matters concerning consciousness when the mysterious world has no say in the matter. That is, when all intelligence is internal, without curiosity about or regard for what might be happening in the great world of Beyond.

This, then, is a miniature portrait of consciousness as I understand it right now and write these words to post to my blog. If you ask me tomorrow, I’ll tell you something different because my mind will have moved on from where it is now. But this gives you an overview of the kinds of thoughts I have in gathering intelligence about my personal stream of con-sciousness. Here is an assessment in keeping with the aesthetic highlights of today’s line of thinking. My subsequent experience will unfold differently than ever before, and my dreams tonight will be unlike any I have had previously. Who can tell what tsunami will surge, what volcano erupt, what star explode, what earthquake turn the terra firma of my little world to heaving jelly? Stay tuned to this station for further bulletins as my mind delivers them to me.

In the meantime, to end as I began—with a question—how is it with you on your trek through the universe? Do the seconds, months, and decades of your mental journey add to a larger whole? Whatever your experience, I’d be happy to receive a brief summary of what intelligence you’ve picked up along your route. I invite you to leave a comment in the space provided below.



(Copyright © 2009)

If it is true that there is no little homunculus in our heads enjoying the passing parade, it is equally true that there is not even a parade. As for representations of a parade, there are a great many (on the order of at least a 100 in any given brain), all dealing with different aspects of the parade, but there is no one street corner or theater where the float of Humpty Dumpty, say, passes by drawn by six white horses in living Sense-Surround.

Mr. Dumpty is represented by action potentials, ions streaming through membrane channels, neurotransmitters flowing across synapses, some degree of synchrony between neurons firing in different brain modules, and so on, none of which can account for the representation (or illusion) of reality, much less for reality (the parade) in-and-of itself.

Yet we keep talking about the brain as an “information processor,” as if information from the world somehow gets into our heads and forms a representation that can be taken for the world itself. Ionic or chemical signals (suggestive of patterns of energy), yes; information, no. As for interpreting such signals, each and every brain is on its own in that regard. Those signals mean to us solely what our respective minds take them to mean. Our surroundings provide patterns of energy, we map our understanding of what they might mean on those patterns.

We interpret patterns of energy from our surroundings as clues to the situation we are in at the moment, then interpret that situation as meaningful from our point of view based on our investment in that situation. Which varies, depending on how we choose to regard it. Our minds deal in the currency of conjecture and speculation, not information (as if the meaning were determined beforehand by an unidentified agent who is not in our head).

Which is not what we commonly assume or even read in some neural science textbooks. It is easier to assume information enters the brain through the senses, is coded in terms of patterns of neural activity, and is magically “represented” in one form or another, then interpreted by the mind—interpreted to have the same meaning it had on the far side of any sensory apparatus, without giving an account of how such a miracle could happen.

Energy is not meaningful in and of itself. And it is energy, not information, that impinges on our senses. Interpretation requires a context—some sort of situation within which energy takes on meaning in reference to relationships characterizing that situation. And it is no easier for situations to enter consciousness through the senses than it is for information or “reality” to make the same journey. For us, situations exist in terms of relationships between traces of brain activity, which means we derive them from ionic and molecular flows in various modules in our heads. A pretty neat trick.

Yet everyday wisdom has it that there is a one-to-one correspondence between what goes on in the world and what goes on in the minds of those who live in the world. It would be far more accurate to reverse that depiction and say that the world has no existence other than that extended to it by the minds in which it lives. For the world, in fact, does live in us and not vice versa. When we die, our versions of the world also die. Based on a few selected patterns of energy flow impinging on our senses, we project our hypothesis that the world is in such-and-such a state onto those patterns—voila! the “real” world.

That is, contrary to our naive assumptions, the world reflects to us representation we concoct in our minds consistent with the few patterns of energy flow we take the trouble to interpret. What is real is the world in our heads, the subjective (meaningful) world that guides our behavior. That other (outer) world is largely a mystery to us. We inform it according to our preferences at the moment. Information flows outward as mapped onto energy flows which are inherently meaningless until interpreted; interpretation takes place in the mind (ours or others’), not the material world.

What I’m trying to get at is how we can seemingly rise above our own consciousness to observe ourselves interpreting the world through the medium of the energy flows in which we are immersed—and which we narrowly interpret to suit ourselves. That is, I’m out to show how Michael Gazzaniga’s postulate of the left-brain interpreter provides an explanation for a great deal of human behavior that causes so much trouble in a world we can’t see very clearly for what it is.

What I’m after is ways of doing better by that world than we have done up till now. Since the world conforms to our ideas of the world, doing better by ourselves means doing better by the world, and every one of its inhabitants. We’ve had it backwards all this time. It is time to straighten the world by straightening ourselves, an approach so ancient it seems almost new to us. I think we can do it.