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 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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