Reflection 60: Discovery

February 6, 2009

(Copyright © 2009)


From ninth grade, I still remember the shock I got when teachers in two different classes talked about the same thing. In social studies we were studying map projections. One day, the difference between Mercator and conic projections came up. It was a great class because I suddenly realized there was no way to map the surface of a sphere onto a flat plane without distorting or doing violence to the image. Several periods later, in geometry, the teacher showed on the blackboard how lines projected from the center of a circle onto a straight line would represent equal sectors of the circle by different lengths on the line. She gave Mercator projection as an example. So that’s why Greenland always looks so big. Eureka! Classes in school didn’t exist in a vacuum. They could be about the same world as seen from different points of view. I always assumed they were separated by some universal law. I don’t think I have ever been more excited by classroom learning. It wasn’t something I was taught, it was something I discovered on my own, as if by accident.


Three cheers for serendipity. Accidental or coincidental learning is powerful stuff. There’s no mad scientist deliberately trying to pair the sound from the loudspeaker with an electric shock soon to come. Since nobody arranged for it to happen, it has to be true. At least that’s how it seems.


I spend hours trying to dope out my own consciousness. Reading about lateral and orbital prefrontal connections with the anterior cingulate cortex, how the amygdala fits in, the hippocampus, the senses, bodily feedback—all connected to motor areas that will implement decisions with the precision they deserve.


I consult results from animal research, clinical studies of brain damage in humans, functional neuroimaging, and my particular method—introspection of my own conscious life, trying to keep up with what my mind has to show me.


Finally, I come to the conclusion that consciousness is shaped by the situations in which it emerges so resultant actions will be more-or-less appropriate to the specific conditions that apply. I carry the idea around in the back of my mind that consciousness has got to be situationally relevant. Whatever areas of the brain are involved, they have to work together in representing current situations, detailing the factors involved, the locales, how I feel about things, my relevant experience, options, motivation, what I hope to achieve—all in direct contact with motor planning areas so that once I decide what to do, I can make my move with some confidence that it will suit the occasion. I am on the outlook for confirmation that I am on the right track. Then I read this:


Our results suggest that the [anterior cingulate cortex] integrates inputs from other emotion-related areas and frontal cortex, and sends the information to motor executive centers to behave appropriately in a variety of specific motivational or emotional contexts.[A]


Reading those words, I say, “Yes, that’s got to be right. Prefrontal cortex, emotion, motivation, leading to action suitable to the situation—I couldn’t have said it better myself. It’s got to be right.” For monkeys, at least. Actually, I don’t even know if it’s right for monkeys, but for human’s it’s got to be true. At least that’s how I feel. I always come down from such surety after a while and get on with my work. Then, further along in Gazzaniga, I come across this:


Thus, posterior cingulate and adjacent precuneus cortex can be hypothesized as a region of the brain associated with the continuous gathering of information about the world around us.[B]


This is not dealing with the sensory world of rats or monkeys, this is a study done with humans. Not the anterior cingulate this time, but close to it. Tying sensory input into the mix. Making the situation (world around us) more explicit. Another piece of the puzzle fits into place. Does the posterior cingulate in the parietal lobe feed sensory information to the anterior cingulate in the frontal lobe next door? I assume it does, and probably vice versa, but I haven’t found out for sure.


That’s how it goes—using every resource available, you just have to keep pressing into the mystery ahead. The trick is not leaping to conclusions but staying open. One day your social studies and math teachers will strike a chord in your brain, and you’ll be on your way. No one can do it for you. Discovering the ins and outs of your own consciousness is the adventure of a lifetime.


[A] Ono, Taketoshi, and Hisao Nishijo. Neurophysiological Basis of Emotion in Primates: Neuronal Responses in the Monkey Amygdala and Anterior Cingulate Cortex. Pages 1099-1114 in Gazzaniga, Michael S., Editor-in-Chief, The New Cognitive Neurosciences, Second Edition. The MIT Press, 2000, page 1111.

[B] Raichle, Marcus E. The Neural Correlates of Consciousness: An Analysis of Cognitive Skill Learning. Pages 1305-1318. Same source as above, page 1315.