This is the first few chapters of one of the books I am writing about the brains of poets, delving into the science and the art of poetry. No other site is synthesizing these very different worlds. See also: bibliography (under brains) for reading materials. I am, for instance, quite a way yet from the issue of creativity, and its relationship with mental illness. See Kay Redfield Jamison, Touched with Fire. Coming now: I am writing a second book that cuts to the chase, and in the first chapter tells you how a poet’s brain does what it does. Check out: brain bites, first items, intended to be short decisive ways to check your creative abilities.
BRAINS ARE HERE. Both Creepy and Amazing. Click on brains and zoom through tissues!
For great books of poetry, up and to the left: home. See other neat things for a creativity exercise, and random poetry aesthetics, June 29, 2009.
And go to Amazon.ca for my book reviews. Look under brain book reviews above.
And NEW: The Poet’s Personality – Do you have what it takes to be highly creative in words. Do you recognize yourself below?
The Poet’s Personality – this post will grow and grow.
Creativity – a poet is highly creative, and highly creative with words. An alternative would be an accountant – not creative but far better at working with other people and the steadiness to look over figures all day. The word artist and creativity are taken as synonymous in the literature. And the closest profession, researchers in the natural sciences – isn’t that interesting – do not have creativity scores as high as poets.
Lack of Latent inhibition.
Higher than average scores on the psychotic scale appear for poets, and the higher the ability (there is a problem here with definition) the greater the score. It’s an adaptive behaviour that favours creativity. As in it buttresses other important characteristics of sense of independence and nonconformity, in other words it is very important for the poet to believe in him/herself – another word for this is arrogance, and thus the ability to disregard personal circumstances associated wtih poverty because the belief in the poet’s self is so high. Do note that lots of artists do make a living, mostly at other jobs.
Being self absorbed, having defocused attention (Simonton) that results in negative priming and latent inhibition, thereby enabling ideas to enter the mind that would normally be filtered out during information processing (Eysenck, 1993). Does that sound familiar? Without doubt. And, the less restrictive mode of information processing is also associated with openness to experience, a cognitive inclination that is positively associated with creativity. Have you ever asked a poet his/her opinion on something. Chances are you got back many opinions, many of which might well contradict other of the opinions offered up.
High ego strength and self-sufficiency. That is needed to walk off the cliff to creativity and ignore criticism (though I’d say poets are ultra-sensitive to criticism, by other poets. The rest they ignore, like family requests to earn a living).
Meta-cognitive control. This means being able to take advantage of bizarre thoughts rather than bizarre thoughts taking advantage of the poet. Non-highly creative people shove such thoughts out of their heads as they recognize their negative influence and refuse to think of them – like an OCD.
Capacity to exploit unusual ideas and recognize their worth from a poetic point of view.
IQ of 120. You don’t have to be brilliant to be abrilliant poet, but being 120 is a highish level. It’s the mixing togehter of subjects and words that is more important than braininess. So poets have sufficient information processing power to select, develop, elaborate and refine original ideas into creative contributions. Creative means the production of something out of nothing.
Association of high creativity with psychopathology -( see Andreason, Simonton and Ludwig). Poets tend to have similar personalities to those with mental diseases, particularly manic depressive illness. This allows for periods of high creativity during mania and zero creativity in the depressive phase, that is, if it isn’t too low, is useful for rewriting. Are you, for example, already taking lithium based pills for bipolar disease or anti-depressants for depression. Also associated is alcoholism, depression and suicidal behaviour. Alcohol is the writer’s drug. Ludwig quotes an 87% rate of famous poets with mental diseases – I think this is high as other studies are around 50%, an extraordinarily high rate in itself. Psychotic behaviour and schizoprenia have so morbid an effect that high creativity is not associated with these diseases. Note that when the mental disturbance takes hold, creativity is pretty much completely destroyed. So you can’t be crazy when you are creating, but the more creative the poet the greater the correlation with mental disturbances. As i have said: take those pills if you have to.
Creativity: mental ability and willingness to think outside the box, to explore novel, unconventional and even odd possibilities; to be open to serendipitous events and fortuitous results and to imagine the implausible or consider the unlikely. The personality traits to do this are above.
Poets act alone. Artists operating in formal, classical or academic styles will operate under more constraints than artists working in more expressive, subjective or ‘romantic’ styles. For example, a member of a symphony.
Genetic component. Mental pathologies and higher creativity have genetic dispositions. For example, typically the family of an artist has higher levels of mental issues. On the other hand, your family life may contribute to having the personality traits associated with creativity. Nurture.
More to come… Ludwig
Depression state – in the past depression and frenzy were lumped into the definition of depression. The poet can be depressed and turning out huge amounts because of the juxtaposing opposing emotional states (Flaherty). Depressed people tend to be strongly introspective, a trait that is essential for writing. And after deep depression, the rise out of it triggers new ideas and work. Also the mid states of mild mania and mild depression results in more work and more rework, than in full blown psychosis or schizoid phases.
Chapter 1: How the Brain Works
The brain is a flower on what we do not know.
– D.C. Reid
If the brain were a book it would be a very strange one. It would be strange because the brain is very old and very young. The old part is hidden from our view. We can only feel its rumbling, subterranean energy. For this reason, virtually the entire book of the human brain would be empty. The young part, where we think, and consider and speak, all the things that we think of as human, is so recent, it would take only one page to be written. And that would be the sum total of what we call consciousness, the holding of the skull in the hand and considering. One whole book of emptiness. One short page of print.
That one page of our brain is the story at the end of our evolution. In one short span of 100,000 years, humans have been lifted from the animals and plants of our home we call the Earth. In that time the red mush that is our conscious brain has bloomed so ferociously it has blown the eight bones of our skull apart. So strong is this jello-ish matter that, as it has grown, it has required a bigger skull to house it. The human brain has made wholesale changes to our primate skull. Our growing brain has blown our skulls much like a plastic balloon, several inches forward; several inches up, and over, our eyes; several inches to the side and above our ears; and several inches backward. It’s growth has allowed for a safe hard structure that has allowed the brain to bloom with the gift of being aware of itself. From our consciousness has arisen much of what we think of as human: the speaking, the wondering, the watching, and the ethical discriminating. These are the things a brain can do once it can take itself in its own hand and think about itself. And it is so recent and it is so violent and it contains its own deterrent fragility, that it is a flower. The brain we know is a flower. It is also commonly known as the cortex.
The rest of the book of our brain, the vast empty pages, is the summary of all the long years that have gone before. In its long span of 250,000,000 years, the brain of Earth’s animals developed, from fish to frog, from frog to reptile, to mammal, to primate to human. To the last page where the print is contained. All the preceding pages are empty. They are empty because there is no awareness in them. The half of our brain, the lower half, supports the more recent flower of consciousness. While there are nerve endings that go down from where we think, there are far far more that rise without thought, and so for the quarter of a billion years that the base of the human brain has been evolving, it had and still has no consciousness. That means that the pages of the human brain are empty, white, one after the other, until the last blip of evolution. And so, the brain: is a flower on what we do not know. This, the lower, subconscious part of our brain is commonly known as the mid-brain, cerebellum and brain stem.
If you remember nothing more from this book than the phrase I have used to sum it up, you will have given yourself the entire subject in one line. But do read on. There is more, much more, to be said.
Interesting Quote: It is ironic but true: the one reality science cannot reduce is the only reality we well ever know. This is why we need art. By expressing our actual experience, the artist reminds us that our science is incomplete, that no map of matter will ever explain the immateriality of our consciousness. Jonah Lehrer, 2008
I. The Subconscious – What We Do Not Know
A. Learning To Love Your Internal Iguana
Some very bright scientists (1) wanted to figure out when, in time’s slow progress, emotions arrived in the brains on this earth. So they hired some very special people. These people were experts in fondling iguanas. I don’t know what kind of person likes to do such things, and I don’t know how you as an employer distinguish a good fondler from a bad fondler, but I know that they needed someone with a steady hand.
They needed someone with a steady hand because science, unlike the arts, is based on anyone – anyone good enough – being able to reproduce experiments that are used to figure things out, by doing the same fondling that any other scientist has done, is doing or could do. That is the essence of science: reproducible experiments giving reproducible results. The scientists reasoned that since emotions elicit higher body temperature – in essence a fever, what love has often been said to be – a disease – and higher heart rate in humans, then it might well do so in some animals not as high on the evolutionary ladder. They also reasoned that there might come a point where no matter how lovely the fondling, that the fondled animal would not respond. So they decided to choose animals at distinct stages in the evolution of animal life on this small planet in its lonely corner of the sky. They chose a: fish, frog, reptile and mammal.
I don’t know how you fondle a fish, but I can tell you from the results of the experiments (that you could do at home if you were clever enough), that no fish changed temperature – as measured by sticking a thermometer up its anal vent, nor did its heart rate change. (I know if I were a fish, my heart rate would change if two alien hands were on my slime covered flanks, but theirs did not). And when they moved on to fondle a frog – a good example of an amphibian – they also found that their anal thermometer did not indicate a rise, nor did the frog’s heart rate rise.
Interesting Sidebar Tidbit: In Shakespeare’s day, and in his work, love was often considered a disease. Sonnet 147, starts, for example:
My love is as a fever, longing still
For that which longer nurseth the disease,
And ends, my words and thoughts for you are making me crazy:
For I have sworn thee fair and thought thee bright,
Who art as black as hell, as dark as night
But when they came to the iguana – a good example of a reptile – the results changed. When the scientist fondled the iguana and put the thermometer up its anus, the reptile’s body temperature rose. Its heart rate increased as well. Scientists agree (1) that these bodily reactions can be taken as prototypical emotions, as in: this is where the human emotions that we have today got their start. This is because when you measure body temperature and heart rate in all animals above the level of reptiles – mammals, birds, humans – all rise after fondling. Consider your cat when you pet it, consider when someone you like to get close to you fondles you. You get warm and well, you get the picture.
Now, since there is no consciousness in animals below humans (well, add in a few higher mammals like cats, dogs, chimpanzees, whales, etc.) this means that emotions are below the level of consciousness. This does not mean that when we feel glad, sad or etc. we are not consciously feeling these emotions. We are feeling these emotions. What it means is that because emotions arose in a brain that had no consciousness, that when the human brain exploded from the reptile/mammalian brain to grow the four cortex regions that are responsible for conscious awareness, emotions continued to reside in the reptilian part of the brain. We have nerve access to these regions, but, there is no consciousness within the emotion centres below the level of consciousness. I use the word subconscious for this part of the brain, rather than the more commonly used word, unconscious, because the latter has so many different meanings (2).
Now, those bright scientists who were keen to get in touch with their internal iguanas came up with another interesting experiment. They were able to show that the basis of human decision-making resides in the part of the brain below the level of consciousness. They kept their happy iguana in a glass tank with a roasty toasty heat light, a saucer of water and a bowl of tasty nutritious food right there among the warm rocks and etc. that iguanas like. But these scientists knew something else about iguanas: they prefer to eat lettuce rather than the perfectly satisfying food in their bowls.
The scientists extended the cage so there was a portion that was unheated as well as the heated portion. The iguana stayed in the heated part and did not venture forth into the cold part of its tank because, as we all know, reptiles can’t raise their own temperatures as easily and as high as mammals can. So Mengele, er, the scientists put some lettuce in the cold part of the tank. The question was whether the reptile would move from where its needs were satisfied and where it was warm to nab the lettuce.
Once the lettuce was put in the cold part of the tank, the scientists sat there in their lab coats with their white pads, watching the iguana. First it eyed the lettuce, scratched its chin, then moved through the cold tank to eat the lettuce. The scientists were overjoyed. Their work showed that reptiles have the ability to act on preferences; this is not a situation of learning because it has food, water and warmth where it is residing, the things it needs to happily survive.
Interesting Sidebar Fact: The brain is actually deep red, not grey and white. Check out the rotating brain on dcreid.ca. It has not been preserved in formaldehyde and thus is its original red colour, not grey and white as we have always been taught.
What they didn’t tell us is what I want to know: did the iguana grab the lettuce and move back under its sunlamp or did it just stay put and eat the lettuce in the cold? I would race back to the rays if I was an iguana, but the scientists didn’t think about this one. They felt they didn’t need to because the moving from warm to cold was clear evidence that the iguana, without ‘consciousness’, was able to weigh up alternatives and move after the tasty food. I asked lead scientist, Michel Cabanac, this question and he got in touch, saying that the tank was rigged up so that the iguana could not get back to the warm part of its enclosure, so it had to really make a decision about the lettuce. He also said that it would be a fascinating experiment to see whether the iguana would go back to the warmth with the food, if it could, meaning taking the tank obstruction out.
What the iguana experiment suggests for humans, and this is almost so fantastical as to be beyond belief, is that we have no conscious control over the process that prompts us to make conscious decisions. In other words, our conscious thought cannot get anywhere without the subconscious part of the brain, the cerebellum, and the floor of the midbrain telling it to get going.(3) This notion is so counterintuitive that the whole western world has been built on the notion that this is not so it. We have spent the last three millennia, since the time of Aristotle, and then Plato, and his relentlessly repeated theory of the forms, trying to be rational, scientific. Remember how long our tradition has preferred reason over emotion, has, mistakenly, labeled males as rational and female as emotional, and thus males need to have control over females. All of this has been wrong, all a mistake, 3,000 years of civilization – and more. And we have done away with it in one paragraph and parenthetically (consider how small a part of the world, even today, believes and actually acts upon the notion that men and women are equal).
And there is good evidence that the subconscious controls the conscious in humans in the same way. There was an unfortunate fellow, ‘Elliott’, who had an operation to remove a tumour from the front of his brain. A large amount of surrounding brain tissue was also removed. Afterwards, although Elliott was of the same IQ, his memory was intact and he could follow the train of logic in a calculation and so on, he had disastrous consequences in life, for example, he went bankrupt due to becoming involved in business dealings that others would not enter. An important neurologist, Antonio Damassio (4), gave him a battery of tests and found that he had impairment in the emotional centres of his brain. This inability to ‘feel’ things resulted in him being unable to make decisions.
Any human like Elliott, would find life intolerably difficult due to not being able to make decisions. Not only would work be impossible, such a person would not be able to make it out the door in the morning. The person could, for instance, choose five sets of clothing to wear for the day, but because the person’s ability for preferences was removed – remember the iguana preferring lettuce – he or she could not choose among them, and the day would end right there – a fundamental problem, indeed. The subconscious part of the brain where preferences lie was cut off from Elliott’s consciousness. Think, then, how useful it is that the sub-conscious part of our brain that has existed for 99% of the time that there have been brains on this planet is there, just waiting and willing to offer up its help even though we don’t consciously know it exists. Hence, we should learn to love our internal iguana.
And, our iguana does some other things just as interesting as being the marionette below the stage. For example, there are many kinds of brain issues that can affect our ability to see things. There are several dozen ways that lesions in the brain can interrupt the flow of visual sense data and our perception of it. This is commonly known as being blind. However, there is a portion of blind humans that can nevertheless do some pretty remarkable things even though they can’t see. Blindsight is the term given to such abilities. These include: being able to act upon visual information, such as dodging bullets or other nasty things, even though the person cannot see the objects consciously.This is because some of the nerves that are part of the complex system of brain cells that run back from the eyes go directly down to the subconscious part of the brain, while the rest move to the back of our conscious brain to be made into an image.
The nerves that run down into our internal iguana are very helpful. We would not know of their existence and those with blindsight confirm that they cannot see anything. But the subconscious nerves produce action. The bottom of the brain sends out signals to move the body away from danger, including crouching, standing behind a tree that you cannot see and so forth. Thank goodness for our internal iguana, a subject that we will return to when we discuss the special abilities of writers and how to get the most out of our brains. In the meantime learn to love your internal iguana. You need to. It is fundamental to poetry and to all art.
And cavalierly, let me sweepingly suggest that we, meaning the western world, and all of everyone else on the planet with similar views, will make an important shift in our understanding. Our conscious brain has been and is a monument to evolution, but we are not using all of our brains. The western tradition of intelligence and the ongoing cracking open of nuts and figuring out their contents by our reasoning, hard focus, mental calculus, the abacus beans clicking, is not where we ultimately must go, even though the technical achievements are necessary and even grand. Let’s boldly go.
Interesting Sidebar Tidbit: The brain has 100,000,000,000 cells, each of which has 1,000 to 10,000 connections with other brain cells. The rest of the body has 100 trillion cells. All develop from one cell in less than nine months in the womb. Amazing.
II – The Conscious – The Flower
The most obvious place to start thinking about things is in the conscious part of the brain, which is, after all, what distinguishes human beings from virtually all of the rest of the animal life on earth. Lots of advanced vertebrates (means backbones made of bone) have brains, they just don’t have the huge explosion that the human brain does. Think about a popcorn kernel. Think about it after it bursts. Now think that that latter image pretty much sums up what has happened to human brains. A brilliant, ferocious, rampant, fragile 3.5 pounds of mush we can crush in our hand. And yet, it has made the pyramids, the multi-syllabic Mayan language hieroglyphics, the Sistine Chapel and sent spaceships to Jupiter by blowing ions out their back ends. And that is just the beginning of what the human brain can do. At the end of the chapter, we’ll put into perspective the big mental achievements of the 20th century: quantum mechanics, sense data, a little bit of relativity, and the notion that consciousness is a by product of looking around.
But first, what is this flower on top of what we do not know? It is largely made of skin cells, and so it has those nice sounding fat words: omega-3s and -6s in abundance. That is because when the human fetus develops from the one cell of union, it divides and divides like a fugue until it reaches around a trillion cells. On the way, it folds over like a crepe and seals inside some of the outside skin. This turns into, among other things, the spinal column and the brain. The brain grows from zero cells to almost 100 billion cells in less than the nine months. Amazing. And each of these cells can be many inches long, though so narrow we could not see one held up to the light between a pair of chopsticks.
We all know that the brain is white and grey matter, even though this is not at all true. The reason we know this is that scientists have told us this. But, they forgot to tell us one little thing: that the little mis-speaking or failing to mention, is that scientists have messed so much with the brain in order to preserve it, say in formaldehyde or alcohol, that the process has taken all the colour out of our brain as it exists in the human body. Talk about the process of science changing what it is that it studies by studying it, which, of course, science says it does not do. That little criticism aside, you will be interested to know that the human brain as it exists in our living heads is actually a very deep red. Think of how alive that means it is with blood vessels and how that allows us to use those very cool MRIs (magnetic resonance imaging machines) to make 3-D colour images by keying in on microscopic increases in blood use.
Now, the part of the brain that has exploded is the conscious part of our brain. It has divided into four main areas and all the frilly little folds are what allow it to have all those huge number of cells of which we can’t see a single one. These areas are for reasoning, considering (the frontal lobes that hang out over your eyes and behind them), talking, reading, arting (temporal lobes that take up space above and a little forward of your ears) getting your body moving (parietal lobes just off the tops of your ears); seeing (occipital lobes, everything behind your ears inside the skull above the beginning of your neck). In addition all areas of the conscious brain can store memory, perhaps the single most important thing that proves to each of us that we are unique and have extension through the years of our lives. I have the hope that in the face of all the hardness there is in life that your memories are good ones and that they sustain you. These four parts of the mind are really what we think about when we think about what is human. And they have grown, let me remind you, in the past 100,000 years on top of the mammalian brain, which sits on top of the reptile brain which overshadows the amphibian brain and the last little remnants of fish brain, in, perhaps a small good word, so close to the meaning of a small body of landlocked water: the pons.
Sidebar Image: The Human Brain
A very simple image showing where the frontal, temporal, parietal and occipital lobes are, and also beneath them what we can see of the floor of the midbrain, and below, the cerebellum, pons and brainstem. Oh, and the skull of a sheep.//
Had these four areas of the mind not shoved their way rudely into the world, the human skull would have looked much different. Take your two first fingers and touch them just under your nose, then slide them back across your cheeks to just the top of your ears (where your glasses wrap around if you are as blind as I am) and then have them continue around your skull so they touch behind your head, just above your neck. What you have just drawn on your head is the shape of your skull had our subconscious brain not had the wherewithal to send out its tendrils of white (really red) to push their palms against the inside of our skull. And that shape – the original shape – is the same shape as that of a sheep. We would look and think like sheep. Baaad.
Why did this growth happen? Ah, that is an interesting story, but one I will leave to the third chapter. This chapter is about the main things our brains do, in language that doesn’t put you to sleep – the third chapter may well do that. Instead, let’s move onto another beginning: the human mind must have something to think about. The information that it uses comes from three sources: it comes into the brain from outside the body; it comes into the brain from inside the body; and, it comes into the brain from inside, well, itself.
A. Information from Outside of the Body
The information that comes into the brain from outside the body, comes through the conduit of eyes, ears, nose, tongue and skin. These special organs have been organized by the powers of nature to be on your head in the part of your body that is thrust into new situations, making having sense organs in this special spot very, very useful. And right behind them is the brain, also nicely located by the powers of nature to bring all the sense data together and process it. Skin all over the body, particularly that on the hands, face and genitals brings loads of information about our tactile connection with the world into the brain, too.
Let’s look at sight first. Sight is our most important sense and that is why the back of the brain, the entire back of the brain is devoted to processing light. One of the oddities of sight is that light comes into our eyes and the liquid pools we call corneas reduce the entire world into an image less than the size of your thumbnail. And, interestingly, that image is presented to the back of the eye, the retina, upside down. But, our brains, behind the eyes, in processing the image, interpret it as right side up and we don’t even know either is happening, very interesting. If you want to see how odd it would be to see the world the way the eyes see it – upside down – put a magnifying lens in front of each of your eyes and try to walk down the street. At first, it is very confusing, but the experiments (6) that have done this show that quickly we learn to adapt and can carry on with images that come in upside down and are turned right side up in the eyes and then reinterpreted as upside down in the back of our brains against the back of our skull where we scratch our heads at something unusual and puzzling – just like this.
As both predator and prey our eyes, and most other animal’s eyes, have to be able to distinguish some fundamental things about what is happening in the world outside. The most important thing is to see movement of what wants to eat us and what we want to eat. And right among the first modules inside the back of our skulls is one, V1 that distinguishes lines or borders, comparing them with any that cross the others, which is, of course, the very fundamental task of determining movement, which is very useful whether you are interested in eating someone else or avoiding the same fate yourself. Any relative movement the conscious brain picks up and pays a lot of attention to, but that is getting ahead of the story./////
Though we cannot see like an eagle that has part of its retina flipped out in front of the blood vessels supplying it, our brains can do many neat things with light that stimulates the retina to produce electrical changes in the nerves behind them. The outside half of one eye and the inside half of the other eye are displayed on the back of the brain on the same side as the outside half of the eye, meaning the left outside is displayed on the left, and the right on the right.
Vision is by far our most important sense and thus has received the most attention from scientists. Millions of words have been written about sight and hundreds of millions have been spent on research. Semir Zeki (7) is one of the foremost researchers and has spent the past 30 years looking into sight. What he has found, you can also take a look at. His lab very quickly forwarded a good review article to me and you can read it, too. Just be prepared for lots of technical language and concepts. Now, the visual brain at the back of our skulls has 30 different modules that determine, for instance, general scanning, angles, colour, lightness and darkness, shape, depth perception, movement and so on.
Our eyes move in complex motion at all times, searching out information from our environment. These saccades, which are subconscious, are for the purpose of informing us of what is out there. We think that we look and see everything, but this is not true. When we are not directing our eyes to a particular part of the outside world, these saccades, which are so rapid, that the eye move thousands of times per second, are picking up. We can, of course, direct our eyes, overriding the subconscious attention focusing part of our brains, to pick up something important, for example, a car approaching as we consider walking across a street.
But the point I want you to remember is that sight is not at all like a camera, or cell phone, or DVD. It is not a record of what is out there and it cannot be played back like a recording. It is only a record of what among the small amount of what is out there that the eye sees, and the small amount that the brain wants to view, and virtually all of what is coming at our eyes is either unseen or is disregarded or is forgotten. This will be a familiar refrain in this book.
Smell is the only sense that comes 100 percent into the sub-conscious brain. And since we smell that cinnamon, we smell that curry and we smell that rose, this means that smell is instantaneously moved – well in about a third of a second – from the sub-conscious lower part of the brain into the conscious upper conscious. The question is why does smell, unlike all the other senses, all the other sense data from outside the mind and body come first and completely into the subconscious. It does so because the recognition issues are fundamental and clear.
Smell determines, among other things, prey, predators, kin, offspring, mood and readiness for sex. All male mammals smell females to see whether they are ovulating and thus ready for mating. The scent has pheromones in it and the subconscious mind recognizes this and prepares the sexes for the important act, the posture in rats that scientists like to call lordosis. Sounds like a disease for the English upper classes. Little wonder that attraction seems to come out of nowhere but can lead to the most important place: creating one more of your kind to carry on when you are gone.
The other thing about smell is that it is the easiest sense for us to understand how odd it sounds for it to be described as it is: smell is electricity. And all the other sense data are, electricity, too. That is because our one hundred billion brain cells are covered in those nice sounding fat words and the little gaps between their padding is jumped by electricity, the potential between potassium and sodium. (We will get into neurotransmitters later in the program).
The smell of pine, the turps as they are called, come into our noses and settle on cells that translate their chemistry into electrical patterns. That is because nature has made our brain do very complex things with a very simple thing: the electron that exists around its atom like an afro wig. The pattern of the ocean at dawn, the scent of a baby’s head, the blood of Christ are all represented by electrons assembled in slightly different patterns. The pattern then moves down the rest of the cell into the brain and the brain deals from the first cell of our eyes, or ears or nose, taste bud or skin as electricity.
Consider, also that the memory of, say, the smell of ammonium, is also stored as electricity. And as you don’t think about smelling salts constantly this means that we need memory to bring the smell and our instant reaction back to us is also existent completely, endlessly and without alternative as electricity, and in a pattern that we do not need to have on our minds at all times, thank goodness. When you touch the skin of your partner and look inter their eyes, all of this is electricity – like the endlessly streaming numbers of the Matrix. Fascinating.
Humans don’t have particularly good hearing and the expression should be dumb as bats because bats are able to hear their little chit-chits in the dark bounce off and return to them so well they can navigate, flying with their eyes closed (so it doesn’t matter if they are blind as, well, bats), and can also tell where targets are, how big they are and whether they are likely to be tasty and should be grabbed by a toenail or two. While this has to be admitted, human ears are interesting, too.
First, though, you can prove to yourself just how poor your human hearing is while you are lying on the couch idly channel surfing until you find something worth watching. Cup your hands behind your ears while watching The Simpsons, er, I mean an educational lecture on rocket science on PBS. If you push your ears forward, you will find that the sound gets much louder. You can even make it louder by bringing your fingers forward together and rounding them out in front of your ears. What you are doing is becoming much more acute in both volume and direction, as well as being able to dissect out interesting bits of the white sound that comes at you for your attention. This is exactly the way the ears of many animals work, such as horses, arctic foxes and wolves: they can be rotated, aimed and etc.
Most people cant wiggle their ears and we don’t need to. What our ears are good at is discriminating almost identical tonal information received in short batches. This is another way of saying: language; which is one of the fundamental aspects of being human. We are irrevocably social animals, even though our consciousness makes each of us essentially alone in the universe. Ears are only part of the human equation that makes us able to transfer information from one person to the other and thus take on the collective value of knowledge of all people, even those from before we were born and make predictions of those who are in our future. But this is getting ahead of the story.
Let’s get back to ears. Individual human ears lie on either side of the face. This makes our bodies, as scientists like to say, symmetrical, that is, from a line drawn from our forehead head to our five hole, each side is a mirror image of itself. Each side could be folded together and exactly meet and disappear into the other side. Each ear receives its sound and sends most to the other side of the brain next to the ear on the other side. If you were to take a quick look in there, though, you would find that the two equal sides of the conscious upper brain don’t act exactly the same.
The left side deals with naming of things, and identifying objects and is more associated with skill at words than the right. The right side picks up rhythm in the sounds we hear and is better at discriminating fine differences in what is heard, for example, the mood of a mother as she calls for her child. Her tone is different based on her knowing the child is close; is angry at what the child may have done; is looking anxiously for her child; or is suffering the beating that is oxytocin, the chemical that makes all parents agonize when their children are taken away. And the melody that is getting them back is the same as the sound of water or notes from a piano that when taken together projected through time form a pleasing whole.
The right side is good at music. And we will find that when the mouth and its lips and its tongue and our vocal chords are brought together, much as a symphony of individual instruments is conducted by the parts of our brain on the inside of each of our temples in front of our ears, and continue to do so through the feedback of our own voices to our ears to ourselves, that it is good at something else. These parts of our upper brain behind the tips of our fingers rubbing just where the hair falls from the side of our faces do something extraordinary: understand language. And each side of the brain is not the same as the other. The left has bulges where the right does not, and were you to slice off the top of a head like an ostrich egg, you would be able to see that each side is not its mirror image. You have come to language and we will return for it is fundamental to our being human and to many of our most important methods of understanding the world: art.
One last thing. And though our ears that are not up to those of bats, whales nor birds that can hear insects beneath the bark of trees, for their purpose, in humans, they can do amazing things for us. You probably remember Pythagorus (circa 500 BC) as the fellow who gave us the aa plus bb equals cc to describe the lengths of the three sides of a triangle. But you probably don’t know that he, way back then came up with the way music is played in the western world today, more specifically he came up with a scale of eight notes that is represented on the pianos in its tones and semitones, being the white and black keys. And in the time of Mozart this octave, say from C to C (C is the white key with two black keys on its right hand side) was played with all the quarter tones and that is the basis of the unusual sound of a harpsichord that for the same eight notes, has 32 individual keys. Think how difficult it would have been to talk some kid into taking harpsichord lessons. Piano is easy in comparison. And consider this, based on the Pythagorean scale, an eight bar melody – a typical pop song, Let It Be, by the Beatles for example, has a 12 bar melody – there are 10 to the 48th power of possible tunes, an immense number, each tune of which our ears can discriminate.
Taste is much like smell. The chemicals in say, ice cream, on the tongue fit within the taste buds- ball mitts in such a way that each flavour makes for a distinct pattern of electrical charges that zoom off on their nerve arms to the brain at about 186,000 miles per second. And taste distinguishes good things to eat, potentially poisonous things and can be used today as a useful way to reprogram a brain that has been injured or where a sense has been lost.
Dr. P. Bach-y-rita (8) suggested in the 1970s that brain areas could be made to do different functions from what they normally do. At the time, he was thought a nutbar because everyone believed that brain functions could not vary. But today, his area is one of the most useful in practical terms because his worked spawned the area of research that we know of today as brain plasticity. In fact, his colleagues (9) have developed a small ‘paddle’ that sits on the tongue. It is connected to a headband that senses light and transmits it to the device with fairly good resolution. This has enabled blind people to walk through an obstacle course without hitting things because the pattern on the tongue in essence is the same thing as sight. More spectacularly, this paddle that acts through our taste buds allowed the blind person to ‘look’ at and pick up a tennis ball from a table then look across an open space to find a garbage can. Then the blind man tossed the tennis ball into the can. Amazing.
These findings have been extended to other types of sensory and brain problems. For example, one female patient had had brain damage to the reptilian part of the brain at the back and on the inside of the lower part of the skull. As a result she could not keep her balance when on her feet and simply fell over. With the paddle in place, she was able to stand erect, walk, and in due course ride a bicycle. Interestingly enough, in her case, the result was incorporated in her brain because she was able to stop using the paddle that sat on her tongue.
The world also communicates with our brains through the skin all over our bodies. In mammals the warmth of furry bodies touching one another sets off the rumbled pleasure of lions, and we humans hug one another on meeting, and even in sleep seek out our partners’ bodies. We tend to forget this sense organ is the body’s largest, perhaps because our sight is so prominent. Touch may well be much more important in an animal that cannot see or hear. Consider that a snake’s touch is largely in its stomach plates and that it’s sense of taste is so acute that its forked tongue senses small packets of photon heat coming its way – usually meaning small mammals.
I would like to illustrate one of the important brain concepts that is counterintuitive, that applies to touch. We tend to think that everything that we touch is informing us uniformly on our bodies, but this is not true. There are not only regional differences, there are differences among sub-groups of tactile experiences. You can prove this to yourself easily by taking a little rubber stamp that is perhaps two square centimeters and has rows and columns each millimeter, or 20 of each. This means there are 400 small squares comprising each ink-stamped spot. You will find, if you stamp the square on the back of your hand, the palm of your hand, arm, cheek or anywhere that you choose, that you do not feel touch sensations uniformly all over your body.
Next you have a few probes for touching each tiny square to see whether you feel it. These probes, each a point, has a property that you are testing. For example, you have a hot one, a cold one, a touch one, a sharp one and an electrical one. Each of which you test in the following way: you touch each of the one millimetre squares with say the hot probe. You have the same two centimetre square stamped on a piece of paper and put an X in each square millimetre when you feel the heat. Then you go back and do it with the cold probe, putting an X on another stamp on a piece of paper and so on.
You will be amazed with the results. Not only does each different probe produce a different pattern on its respective paper stamp from all the other probes, but each square on its different part of our body’s also differs from its own pattern derived from the same probe somewhere else. This is why we feel different things more or less in different parts of our body’s. Because our eyes are very important, the tiniest grain of grit causes so much pain that we have to stop everything and deal with it. Similarly, as gonads are important for continuing the human race, pain receptors are in high supply and register in the male brain as agony. On the other hand, the back of our arm or shin is not at all as sensitive. Put some grit on it and many of us won’t even feel it.
The point is that the body does not feel everything the same in all of its parts; this means that we don’t feel everything that the world could be doing to inform us through our senses, in this case, touch. That is the concept. And another thing, look at the paper results that you have generated and you will be surprised that in some only 25 % of the little squares will have an X in them, meaning the body has deliberately evolved away from feeling everything, everywhere, even pain. None of the senses pick up everything there is to be picked up and we will return to this below.
The Sixth Sense
The sixth sense is the one that we seldom feel. It is the one that got put on the shelf some 12,000 years ago when the human race moved from being prey objects to being animals of the town and farm. And so we no longer need or feel it, now, as in our civilized lives we have no animals that can track us down and attack and kill us. Sabre tooth tigers may still exist, I am sure, but they are in the same skins as ours and so our own aggression or retreat is done so without the worry that some would like to bite on our ankles – and ribs and livers and so on.
But I understood the sixth sense when after a long family and the end of that, I returned to where I have spent most of my life: in the wilderness, not of my making, like the years of Wintston Churchill’s life, when he was out of power, but the land and water and trees that when we walk away from civilization we walk into the land of our ancestors. Into a time of our ancestors. And what I found was this: while walking head down down the river I now call my own, I was taken by an unshakeable feeling of terror, a feeling that my life was in threat. And the feeling was so overpowering that I wanted to drop all of my gear and simply run at full speed the many miles back to my car and its safety.
Since that day I have felt that feeling hundreds of times, that eerie, malevolence of something being on my own skin, me about to be destroyed. And it finally came to me, that what was happening was that animals in the forest were looking at me, with intent. It was the eyes of bears and wolves and cougars; even elk, though grass eaters, they can kill you if they want. I have been charged by bull elks and with their voluptuous male racks nine feet in the air and as much as eight feet across are as much to be feared as any other animal that might do you harm. I have asked many others who also spend a lot of time in wilderness whether they have felt the feeling and they have all agreed that it is a weird and almost overpowering fear. But it arrives not from the eyes, nor from the ears.
This is the sixth sense and it is one, as I have said, that we no longer need, so few of us walk far into the wilderness that was our ancient home. But the instinct or sense still remains and it is one that the scientist’s don’t address – not many carnivores in their university labs – but they should, because we have this sense. And my sense is that it is an early warning system routed through the amygdala which is our centre for processing big emotion. But how it works on us, I do not know, that something watching us can make us fearful. But it does happen. And it must have other uses in our current life.
I would add that this may be the same sensory apparatus that some commentators mention. _______(10) for instance, has pointed out that visual art, for example, a Mark Rothko painting, works not simply by sight, but by its very immenseness and the consuming colour, it’s weight coming at you. But would you feel it with your eyes closed? I don’t know. I will sent her an email and let you know what she says.
Before moving on, let me add two more sensation events that do not seem to be caught within the five sensory apparatus scheme that we often use to describe receiving information from outside of the body. First, as a person who has fished for 50 years, I have experienced an event in freshwater fishing for coho salmon that seems to me to defy the usual explanations of the way we receive information. Coho bite with great abandon in times of high rainfall because that is the time the side streams that they spawn in have the greatest likelihood of being filled with water – these are days of as much as three inches of rain. During this period I have had almost berserk action for many hours. Then I lift up my head because something has changed, and then realize that the bite period is ending, and the fish do stop biting within five minutes and may not bite again that day. The question is how do I know that, how do I come to know it, what is the sensory apparatus. I have asked other highly skilled anglers if they have experienced this phenomena and they have said yes.
Second, I have also noticed in freshwater fishing for salmon, most commonly for pink and Chinook salmon, that change in air pressure – falling – signals an almost instantaneous end to a bite period. Periods of sustained high pressure also slowly kill the bite over several days, but not in the snap of the fingers time of rapid dropping air pressure. So, how do humans feel such a thing as drop in air pressure through, again, the five senses we have, or are there more than five senses. Another similar example is those with arthritis or other joint ailment, feel rain coming on as much as two days before it happens. They do so based on increased pain in the body. How does coming rain make it’s effect. I don’t know but the point is that there are many different sensation events that don’t seem to be connected with our conventional explanations.
Information from Inside the Body, but Outside the Brain
Millions of nerves are firing in our bodies every second. Much of this activity is relayed to the spinal column and/or the brain. Much of the activity we are not aware of and much of it we can either be or not be aware of. All of this type of information from our little toe to the last follicle on the top of our head sends its information as electricity down and up nerve cells into the brain where it is ‘apprehended’ and a response is generated either without thought or after much consideration.
I put apprehended in quotation marks intentionally. That is because there is great debate on the nature of consciousness (12) in scientific circles, and without. It is common, for instance, for people, and within many religions to suggest that, an animal, say a fish has awareness because it will take action on threats, location of food, presence of spawning behaviour, and so on. The explanation is that there is more than one kind of awareness and we have to distinguish between them or much is lost. The first kind, is more simply a response to a stimulus. This is easy to see in a robot that is made to ‘neutralize’ threats. Such a robot would be able to recognize an enemy by visual record which automatically results in bullets being fired until the threat is, say, without pulse. In this case we would not call the robot either aware or conscious. The response is without consciousness and without thought.
The fish is like the robot. But as we have seen, higher animals, starting with reptiles do have a kind of awareness and can make decisions to nab the lettuce, and so do mammals, birds and primates, which includes us. But what we humans have is another kind of awareness and that we call consciousness; it is the ability to consider oneself, and is only found in animals that have the kind of brain structure that allows this, and this is pretty much only humans and a few higher animals. As mentioned it chiefly resides in the right frontal part of the brain.
Now, let me get back to the other type of information that comes from the body to the brain. This is chemical in nature, and includes many many substances, chiefly, hormones. There are, of course, many others, including glucose, or sugar, that is the brain’s only food, and of course there are those nifty omega-3s and -6s, alcohol, substances that alter perception and on and on.
So, to sum up, the information coming into the brain from inside the body is either a chemical substance or it is electricity, just like the brain itself generates and uses.
Electrical Information from the Body
Every second more than 10,000,000 nerves fire in our bodies and this electricity that is generated runs along the arm of the nerve into our spinal column and up into our brain. I say 10,000,000, but it is probably more, much more, as you will see. For example, every second nerves fire all over the body in little cells that in firing, indicate where our body is in three dimensional space.
Typically, these little cells send off in total 6,000,000 records of electrical information every second. Every second. Think how many that is in a single day:518,400,000,000. And we can either pay attention to them or not. It doesn’t matter whether we pay attention because the rest of our systems that account for where our bodies are can easily carry on without our thinking. Whether you are standing at a mike giving a talk on how our brains work, and I do this from time to time, or are sitting in a chair listening, or watching TV, walking down the street, sneaking the channel changer from your partner or watching a neighoubour talk to someone in the next yard the nerves are firing. They give the brain an accurate indication of where you are. If you are playing soccer, you would have an intention to move a certain way and kick the ball, etc. largely without considering consciously where your body is in three D space. The same is true of the acrobats in Circ de Soleil.
Here is the interesting part: the brain is specifically designed to deal with these subconsciously or have the override system of consciousness monitoring them. But, whether we are conscious or not of this half billion bits of electrical information, the result for this information is the same. That result is that we forget it all. The brain is designed to forget all of this information, unless of course it is highly important, say, the sweetness of a professional golfer’s swing.
Now, there are a whole lot more nerves firing in our body that our mind does not consciously pay attention to. These include things like the beat of our hearts, breathing – which we can control for short periods, but which fall back into regular rhythm as soon as we stop – digestion of food in our stomachs and 29 feet of intestines, elimination of waste, the growth of new blood cells, body temperature, the rate of metabolism, interest in, well, sex, moving your arm to scratch an itch, our six senses as we have discussed above, the pattern of our eye movements, the saccades that we have mentioned. You get the picture: my figure of 10,000,000 nerve firings in our body is very low even though it is a high number. I will take up this notion of the brain not using this information again, below, under memory. It is vital to your understanding of how the brain works to know this.
Chemical Information from the Body
The brain has interfaces where it will accept chemicals from the blood locking into place on a cell and thus cross into the brain and make an effect. The most important of these chemical are hormones. Hormones are simply chemicals produced in the body (and a few in the brain) that travel with the blood in arteries until they bond with the brain. Sex hormones fall into this class of chemical. Typically produced in the ovaries or male gonads (and some other places) these chemicals include estrogen, progesterone, androgens, testosterone, cortisone and related compound molecules.
But there are many more: ones to regulate growth, to control the amount of water in the blood, production of milk, to stimulate the production of red blood cells and so on. The point is that all these chemicals produce an effect on the brain, to stimulate more hormones, to affect mood and various vegetative functions. All of them result in the stimulation of electricity in brain cells that then passes down the long arm of its shape to interact with other cells in tandem. So, chemical information results in electricity and/or more chemicals.
There are two other classes of chemicals: those carried in the blood, and there are thousands of these, and those that affect mood, as in drugs. I have lumped the first class together but you should know that this is just for convenience; these chemicals can be diverse in nature from simple sodium and potassium mineral atoms, to far larger, complex proteins, sugars the brain’s food, oxygen for oxidation reactions – what is commonly called the baddy oxidants – HDL and LDL that we are all familiar with for its carriage of cholesterol, also related to the sex hormones, small atoms that regulate the acid base level of the blood, antigens to diseases and so many more that it would take several pages to put them on paper.
The latter class, drugs – and I include most prescription drugs above -, have many different effects on the brain. Primarily they act on many parts of the brain from the conscious frontal parts, to subconscious parts, to the pleasure centre and have resulting addictive qualities. We are all familiar with their names: nicotine from tobacco, alcohol, heroin, cocaine, LSD, the recent ecstasy and other illegal and legal ones; for example, oxycontin is a pain reliever that is abused for its heroin-like effects. These chemicals are abused or used in rituals and religions for the effects they have on thought, their trips. These chemicals are vitally important to the moods of artists and poets, and we will return to them later in the book in Chapter ___, when we discuss writers’ moods and mood disturbances [look at the next post on the home page: Lecture Notes, for a list of the chapters and topics in this book].
Information from Inside the Brain
The third place that the brain gets information or stimulus from is from inside of itself. There are three different forms that this information takes: our old pal, electricity, hormones that originate in the brain, and, neurotransmitters.
By far and away the highest amount of information in the brain is electricity that is passing down cells and groups of cells on its way to other places to be looked at, to influence, to initiate or to simply contribute to higher level waves, for instance alpha waves that do ___. During development before and after birth, certain cells begin to associate with one another and when one cell spikes with electricity, so does the one beside, provided there is a connection (more commonly known as a synapse), or the one ahead or behind the cell. And over time, with use, the connections get strengthened and thus the related cells come to perform a certain function and fire together in order to achieve it. Hundreds, thousands, hundreds of thousands, millions. With 100 billion, we have a lot of cells to work with.
For example, every parent will know the emotions that pass across a baby’s face and eyes as it swims into the world in the first few months of life. It takes about 6 months before the eyes come completely into focus on what is out there, and inside the brain there is a growing facility with dealing with visual information that comes at the brain. In a few months a baby will focus on its parent, and if you slowly stick the tip of your tongue between your lips and repeat it your child will too, and will keep on doing until it nearly drives you crazy (and this goes on for the next twenty years, and those of you with girls, get set for age 14. Good luck.) Repetition of the pushing the tongue out, something that is also related to feeding and thus is instinctual as well, sets the track of electricity in motion to burn that circuit into the connected brain cells.
You might think that sticking out your tongue is a pretty trivial thing to explain the complexity of how the electricity in your brain whirling from cell to cell results in something as grand as the human mind. But no, it is exceptionally complex and so is the rest of the electrical brain. Let me explain. First there is the intention in the subconscious part of the brain to get the eyes to focus on the parent’s tongue (and, of course, before this, the baby, must first recognize the parent), the image has to be generated in those 30 sub units of sight at the back of the brain, then the apprehension of the image must occur, and then the mind must ‘decide’ to take some action, in this case, to send information to the pre-motor areas of the brain and then to the motor centres of the brain, to then control the tongue, the lips, the cheeks, larynx and so on, then to monitor the movement to be sure that the instruction sent is being carried out, which includes bringing back the feedback of monitoring the movements of the muscles and so on, and then to complete the loop with continuing the movement, then stopping it, and then pulling the tongue back in. Finally, the baby sticks the tip of its tongue out over and over and over again, a marvel to its mom or dad, and then, of course, it needs its diaper changed and we are into another complex series of ‘recognition’ and execution. You get the picture.
The next type of information in the brain is hormones that get generated in the brain itself, that is, chemical substances. Many of these, such as ones that influence water removal from the body in urine, or growth of the body are carried by blood vessels to their target organs in the body and have their function there. Hormones released in these bodily cells as a result of brain released hormones go back to the brain to turn off the release of the brain hormone that started the process. This is called feedback, a term we all know. Some, though, have local function, those for instance that can be formed in a lower part of the brain and are carried up to higher a higher centre in the brain. Typically, as you can understand, hormones that affect the body don’t necessarily affect our thoughts.
Oxytocin is an interesting hormone that is released primarily from the brain. It affects, among other things, the production of milk in breasts and the contractions in the uterus resulting in birth. But it also has great effect on our emotions, that is, in the brain. And it is the chemical by which humans are pinned to the wall by grief over the loss of a partner, parent or child, the latter, perhaps the worst thing that can happen to any human being. So hormones from the brain need to be understood to affect the brain greatly, though all are simply chemicals carried in the blood stream, as we have discussed earlier. Of interest to the curious, many hormones produced in the brain move down our brain cells at 3 mm per day before they are released. Some cause immediate effects, for example, adrenaline that gets our attention in the snap of a finger to take some action to wipe out a threat, say someone who may try to steal our child, or flee, as in a good reaction to being presented with a bear in the woods.
And then there are neurotransmitters. These chemicals are produced primarily in the brain and they have effect by migrating between brain cells across narrow gaps called synapses that connect one brain cell to another. Electricity comes down the cell and when it hits its connections with other cells it makes little purses of chemicals open up. Some make it all the way across the opening and fit like keys into locks on the other side, as in the next cell. This results in electricity shooting off down the arm of the next cell purposely striding off to make something happen.
We are all familiar with the names of many neurotransmitters: dopamine, serotonin, glutamate (yes, like, MSG), norepinephrine (very similar to meth-amphetamine) and there are many less well known chemicals like acetylcholine. You are probably familiar with the expression serotonin re-uptake inhibitors. In certain artistic mood disturbances serotonin released from one brain cell to another is taken out of the gap too quickly and mental diseases like depression result. The more commonly known anti-depressants have their function in the brain to make the neurotransmitter stay in the gap between cells longer, thus making depressed people have a more healthy headful of thoughts. The trade-named products include, among dozens of others: Zoloft, Celaxa, Paxil (don’t give any of this one to kids as they can get suicidal in a week), and everyone’s most well known blue sky drug: Prozac. We will return to neurotransmitters later in the book in Chapter ____, when we talk about writers’ moods and mood disturbances.
Let me add one thing here and then we will also return to it later in the program. The mammalian part of the brain – warm blooded, furry animals like dogs, cats and us – is known as the limbic centre. This sits below our conscious brain and on top of our subconscious brain. It is mainly concerned with the hormone systems common in mammals, for example, our body temperature is regulated by the limbic system which is a dramatic improvement on the next lower group of animals, reptiles. We don’t have to spend hours of the morning building up heat to allow us to zap after something we want at high speed. The limbic system, do note again, is also subconscious.
Chapter 2: Realms of the Human Mind
Well, finally, we get to talk about consciousness, the mind state that most humans would agree is what makes us human. The reason we are at this stage is that now, having talked about the information from out side the body, from inside the body and from inside the brain, we have the complete, absolute, sum total of all and every kind of sense data, to use Bertrand Russell’s old term, that the brain, conscious, unconscious or subconscious gets to work with and do its deed. There are no other kinds of information coming into the brain. None at all. Zero. Zip. Nada.
The first thing is to know where consciousness exists, that is, where in our heads do we, as in each of us individually, reside. Can you take your first left finger (if you are left handed) or your first right finger (etc.) and actually point at your skull and find that behind the bone is where you are. The answer is yes. And the story is interesting.
But first let me tell you the parable of the frog. Frogs are great hunters and when the tongue zaps out faster than the eye – our eye- can see, then the fly disappears and you say, whoa, that’s one fast dude frog. And you are amazed at the intelligence of the frog. And while you are wondering on what that says about us, the fellow in the white lab coat, distributes a layer of dead flies around the frog, and you’re thinking I don’t think he can eat that many, when the frog just sits there. It does not zap after any one of the flies. In fact the frog will sit until it dies without eating any of the flies around its feet. Why is this you ask? It is because the frog does not recognize that the dead unmoving flies are food. In other words it has no intelligence at all, nor consciousness, and has no abilities anywhere near to our own, which are only granted to us because of the flowering of our brains in the past 100,000 years. So consciousness is only part of a being that has the same brain structures as us. That is true even though many believe that, say, a rock, or any other object shares in the understanding of its beingness (being for itself rather than of itself, JBPS) is simply untrue.
And think of the 40,000 poor human beings a year that in the 1950s were given frontal lobotomies in the States – by hitting an icepick just over one eye and separating the frontal lobe on that side and then hitting it just over the eye on the other side. Such a waste. Such a sickening waste. Perhaps even worse than the waste of war. The human does not seem to be able to get beyond its wars. And the frog cannot get beyond the prey recognition abilities of its great big eyes that register movement exceptionally. And so there is more than one definition of awareness or consciousness and the issue of definitions we will return to below (I keep saying this and I keep meaning this). As a final thought, you might like to know that it was Egas Moniz, a Portuguese neurologist who invented the frontal lobotomy, and to our surprise won the 1949 Nobel Prize for medicine proving he could calm behavour by cutting out a patient’s frontal lobes. The ‘white cut’ led to tens of thousands of people turned apathetic automatons, suffering incontinence, epilepsy and confusion. JFK’s sister Rose was one of the poor people who was given a white cut. Very sad.
Now, back to consciousness. The arrival of consciousness takes about two years from the time a baby is born. Consciousness is the ability to think of one’s self thinking about one’s self. In other words it is a two level thing. First there is awareness of the information coming into the brain then there is the ability to combine them and arrive at an outcome, for example, first you see the baseball and the batter, then you decide to throw the ball. This seems simple enough but is far more complicated than the baby that stuck out its tongue a few pages ago. But, this same baby, like all human beings comes from a state of no awareness into the state of understanding two things: that it is a being and that there are other beings outside of it. These are also called the theory of I and the theory of others.
And you can connect with your understanding of yourself very easily. Take that first finger that has been hanging in space for a page or two and think of where you are thinking. Having spoken many times to many people and groups at conferences, I can tell you that most people, when asked to point a finger at where they are, as in, where am I, will point right between their eyes. Interestingly enough this is where Zen says the third seeing eye exists, that was discovered many thousands of years before western science came along with its tables and graphs to fix the tabula rasa. In other words you don’t need to be a rocket scientist to know where you’re thinking from.
Actually, right between the eyes is not quite where the I centre of our brains is. It resides just over your right eyebrow behind a centimetre of bone in the front part of your brain. It comes on stream about the age of two – and along with ego is responsible for the terrible twos that toddlers have and that parents suffer. Before this, a human child does not think of itself as a distinct thing, and even earlier, if you put your hands in front of your face, and then move them aside, each time you do it, the baby will think that you have suddenly appeared, not that you were existing through time, and behind your hands.
The I centre is the powerful part of our conscious mind that western nations have used for the past 5,000 years to take the tremendous technical leaps forward: use of language, tools, architecture, social systems, economy as in money and so on. If you are sitting there deciding what shall I do today, the I you are talking about resides less than an inch behind your finger tapping above your right eye, you are talking about your I centre. Without that structure of your brain, you could not do this. If a bullet or an icepick severs the connection between this centre and the rest of the brain, you cease to be the human being your were in the millisecond before the calamity.
Roughly at the time that the I centre is developing in a young child, another closely aligned fundamental feature of our brains and thus minds is also coming on stream, and that is, as above, understanding that there are other people in your world. It is located in your brain just behind your left eyebrow, a larger part of the left half of your brain, but located in the front of your head. The important point is that our brains contain, because of their structure, the billions of cells that over the last 100,000 years have bloomed from the subconscious mind, both the concept of I and of others that is fundamental to the social animal that we are. And with these two centres is the sense of free will that the western world has championed since the sixth century BC in Hellenic Greece. It is a cultural imperative, a culturally prescribed sense, though it need not be. For example, all of individuality is sham, unreal in the Zen tradition, and in the Islamic, as it exists today, is the attachment to role or expected behaviour, favoured over individuality. But that is digressing.
The point of this is that our brains the actual structure of the cells and the cells they join makes us unable not to conceive that we are an individual and that we are among other individuals like our selves. This renders the belief of solipsism, that we are the only person in the universe and we make all others from our own mind, an impossibility, even though a great deal of western philosophy has had difficulty with establishing, that to understand I and to understand others therefore I am. These areas of consciousness are where the memories that we have are considered, and do think of Hamlet, though not of his fatality with the skull he knew in his hand, exist. They are the result of electricity, they are electricity and they are influenced by hormones, they are influenced by what we perceive and they are influenced by our genetics and by the society and the time in which we live in it.
Ethical discrimination, for instance, is a high-level thought process, that of law, of being fair, of being guilty, of shame, perhaps the strongest of the negative emotions. And they result from more basic emotions like fear, love. These arise in the subconscious, they arise in the iguana brain. Facial expressions are understood to have meaning. Fine discriminations.
Finally, consciousness is the residue of perceiving, not the other way around, that consciousness is a stream and directs perception, as paradoxical as that may sound. But first, let’s talk a bit about memory, and then return to the oddness of reality and its unreality.
Memory is probably the most important constituent of the function of a brain that makes us say, yes, I am, because I have a long continuous stream of remembrances that form the past of my life. They follow or lead from one another to the other much as water does in the earth on its way forward gathering more and more until it is a great river. And if we lose our memories, as happens in critical accidents, when the brain is concussed, or shot through, or from the inside out alzheimers or other degenerative diseases weaken out memories and our ability to use them together, from amnesia, from strokes where brain material is destroyed by lack of oxygen or drowned by blood, or we get old, our memories departing is pretty much the same thing as losing ourselves. And it is sad and sobering to see someone you have known your whole life do something as simple as get out of a car, and not be able to find their way from the one side to the other where they live in their own home. And there are the memories of our children, of our graduating, being married, the summer days of long ago when we swung from ropes over the gently greening river that you remember, the first girl or guy with whom you slept. These are the mental objects of our lives.
Memory is what defines us as human to ourselves. And when we lose it we lose ourselves. But in early life there is a long phase when we have virtually no memories, too, because the cells of our mind and their organization are still taking place. I would like to tell you that the fundamental ability of the flower of our brain is to think on the objects it contains in it self. These objects are memories, parts of memories, objects of thought. But though this is the case, we do not have memories of when we first discovered these objects. That is because they were being developed before we had, well, good memories, but they were what our mind focuses on.
Let me begin this explanation with a beach ball. Picture your typical plastic blow up white ball with yellow blue and red panels. Then place it on the carpet in front of a baby. What the baby sees, when it does see, meaning is capable, is this whitish shape with some colour on it. Now take the baby and put it down on the carpet on another spot. When it sees the ball, it will take notice, but, and here is the clincher, but it will not realize that the two balls it has seen are in fact the same ball. It thinks that each is a different ball, because each has a different colouration based on where it is viewed from. A baby actually has to have its mind grow enough to recognize that both of the balls, and even from every spot that it sees from on the carpet or in your arms is actually all the same ball.
The process of making this discovery is being able to understand that each and every image are of the same ball, as simple as it sounds. To do this it has to form a simple concept, to make a representation of the ball, and understand that the ‘sameness’ is the binding force. In other words, the very fundamental basis of human thought is metaphor. That is, in this apparently simple case, that two different objects of thought are the same. That is the simplest definition of a metaphor that one can come up with, the more common definition in adult poets being the ability to see an association or relation in two separate categories of thought. But it gets its start in babies, as our most basic conceptual tool.
Once the representation of the beach ball is understood to mean that all views of a ball are views of the same ball and not of different balls, one more step is require, and that is making an abstraction. But first, a digression to Ludwig Wittgenstein, the philosopher that all intellectuals like – after they have been meaningfully confused by western rational empiricism during their days at university. He said it this way, to explain this idea of epistemology that has foxed people in the long tradition of Locke, Barkley and Hume. And to give you an idea of how difficult the current scientific debate gets when trying to define an existent human being; Joseph McCard (8), has come up with the term:Dynamic physical entity identity. My that’s deep, the important part being the DPEI may be termed action which is conscious of itself, as we have been saying. But as the British philosophers pointed out that each object of perception can have an infinite number of ‘views’ to a DPEI and thus you see the difficulty that must be overcome by a baby in its search to understand the world that its brain is getting to the verge of understanding, as in growing and developing.
Now, there is one more step. And that is forming an abstraction from a number of representations. As we come on stream as human beings from a baby that cannot even hold its head up to, say, the DPEI of the physical skill of a ballet dancer, we have to cross the second step. That step is to understand something about, for example, round objects. A child comes to understand that a beach ball, a soccer ball, a golf ball, a marble, a glass eye, are all round. And understanding that round objects roll, is a concept derived from bringing up the representations of different round objects, understanding that the basketball and the snowball, will roll. Thus the concept of round objects roll is an example of thousands and thousands of concepts we humans come to know.
And here is the important point. If we take two different objects and understand how they have characteristics that are the same, this is the same process, at a more junior stage, as developing a metaphor. In other words, the human mind is built on metaphors, as the most fundamental levels of thought are developed. Little wonder that poets have such a great ability to relate different categories of thought – the mind is built on metaphors – and this is how the human mind comes to understand itself and the world at this most basic level.
Now, you may have liked this discussion under consciousness, rather than memory, but there is a reason for discussing it here. That is because memory, which we think is a mental entity (engram) that is from our past that endures over time, but we cannot get to having memories until we can understand the basic objects of our outside world and inside world are the same. We cannot form useful memories before this step, that takes place in our brains in the first two years of our life.
Before discussing that perception is active versus passive, which is a crucial distinction (1/3 sec), let us take a look into memory itself. What for instance does it mean that we have a memory of our childhood, included in mine a place to swim as kids where a rope hung out over the Ghost River west of Calgary, Alberta, the milkyness of the water and the sun sifting through green trees.
We tend to think that our memories are real, which of course they are not, it is we who continually change, not the world, a Zen sentiment that all share as they grow into mid-life, and the few friends that remember what we were part of, have their own memories that are not the same as ours , and also unreal, and soon, for we all die, those memories cease to exist. We also tend to think that memories are discreet bundles of information that are stored in our heads for retrieval as the distinct remembrance of all of the scene we took part in. That we had a sunburn, that it was getting late, that our skin when we emerged from the water was covered in goose bumps. That we could smell a barbecue of steaks and see its smoke drifting through the trees making the sun into hazy rods that leapt from the trees.
Let me disabuse you of these common sense beliefs. There are three things we need to know: that we dream 24 hours a day; that dreaming is when we lay down memories; that we forget 90 % of what happens to us; and that our memories are in many many parts of our brains and these change as we age and the emotions that we feel are generated at the time we think them, they are in the present, not the past.
It was Karl Jung (and others) who came to understand that we dream 24 hours a day. Our consciousness when we are awake obscures the fact that we are still dreaming. And dreams have an important characteristic: they don’t operate completely by the rules that we find in our days, for example, we may be able to fly in a dream, or drink a river dry, or run away from danger, only to have a tree we are climbing fall down, and then we run to the next with danger behind and the next tree falls down, in other words in a danger and frustration dream we experience events that do not operate by the rules of physics that we have come to understand that our world operates by. Why is this? It is because the rules of logic, the refusal to accept magical solutions, the sieving out of the oddnesses in our sensing of the world is mediated by the right frontal lobe close to the I centre and thus, it disallows our believing that such events happen. But, and here is the important point, when we are sleeping, these centres are turned off and, the odd events, for example, singing a song underwater all night long, can occur because our sergeant at arms is not at his post.
Now, the next important thing to know is that dreaming is where we lay down long term memory. Short term memory is stored in the conscious brain, but long term memory is laid down by the subconscious mind – and it often takes as much as three years. All of which is done subconsciously where we have no conscious control over what we are thinking. In other words, our memories, what we consider to be the most important aspect of our personal humanness, are completely out of the control we consciously have as to their contents and our emotional reaction to them. This is completely counterintuitive to the western mind that favours rationality and science, but it is true. And once you accept that it is true you understand the world in a greatly different way. That, for instance, what we remember is not a factual account of what happened, it is only what our subconscious mind has established in the conscious part of the brain, as per our most fundamental emotional drives. So we are not what we think we are, or what we remember is not what actually happened. This conceptualization will have dramatic consequences on medicine and law in the decades to come, but I am not interested at the moment of examining that digression.
Here is the next great kicker about memory: our brains are structured to only ‘see’ a very little of what happens to us. Remember the saccades that the eyes move in. These micro movements that happen on their own, make our eyes dart around what is in front of us, short distance, long distance, moving objects etc. They do not, like one of those red eyes in stores, take in and record everything. It is our emotions that make the eyes move – and they are subconscious – and if you think about it, you will find that in a memory of an event for example, if the mind were really to record like a movie what happened then our memory of say the day we were married or confirmed or whatever, would be 12 hours long. And of course our memory is not like that, it is select little bits. In fact, our memory is much like looking into the things that happened and the high points, like placing the ring on the finger, the now I pronounce you man and wife, the person falling into the wedding cake and so on, come back, but not the rest of the 12 hours and not that our eyes recall everything in our visual field, not every face, not every name, nor every suit and dress and their colour and the times we went to the bathroom and the number of squares of paper we used, nor the number of triscuits we ate, the arrangement of everything on the bridal table, the napkins, the carrot and crudites and so on. These things would be in a camera recording, but they are not in our memories, in fact, even a camera recording would not get everything, because it is not programmed to recognize a face and assign a name to it. Our memories are selective, highly selective, we do not remember everything that happened. So the human mind is limited, intentionally in its memories because we do not have to remember so much flotsam.
Here’s the deal on the fallibility of memory: remember those six million nerve firings a second that tell the motion centre of our brains where our body is in 3-D space? Ah, well, virtually every second of every hour of every day and then night, we do not pay attention to any of it. We can, if we want to, pay attention and then direct our foot to move out in space, and take the leg with it and when to move the body forward and then to put the foot down and let go and fall forward into the foot on the pavement. But they are then lost, lost completely, and as before, if we were to form a memory of them, the memory would be another 12 hours long, and then there is the 12 hours when we are asleep and so on. So our minds forget are refuse to accept into consciousness 6,000,000 nerve firings time 60 seconds per minute time 60 minutes per hour, times 24 hours in one – only one – day.
So we forget 518,400,000,000 3-D nerve firings every single day. That is more than five hundred billion firings we don’t accept into memory each day. And that is five times more than every brain cell in our heads. The point is that our memory is not designed to be a recording, like a video camera. And, of what we do remember, and of course, this is all of what happens to us, excepting all those five hundred billions of nerve firings, it has been estimated that we forget 65 % of it in one week. This is intentional, that is the way our minds are constructed, so it is not bad that we forget 90% of what happens to us; it is the way we are built. Oh, and in case you are wondering about photographic memories, these aren’t like camera recordings either, they are just very good memories about what happens, but, again they are little bits and pieces of what happened, even the fellow (12) who could mnemonical remember big chunks of the telephone book, that doesn’t mean that he could remember a great deal more about the day itself, if he wasn’t applying his categories to remembering it. He just had a very good memory, it was not photographic.
How Memories are Stored
Now, the next subject is just how are memories stored in the brain. That is a fascinating story and in brief the answer is that memories are not stored as a single item but as hundreds of items that are brought together. And here is how it is done.
Let’s say that you were the child of an abusive parent. And a small incident happens. At some point during a conversation a friend of your father reached out to shake your hand. You put forward your right hand, with a glove on and shook the man’s hand. He shook it and the conversation continued. At the end of the conversation the friend shook your father’s hand but when you put out your gloved hand he did not shake it.
Afterwards, as your father was driving you away in his car he erupted at you telling you you were the most useless son of a bitch and kept screaming at you until you retreated into the back corner of the back seat crying.
Your memory of such an event is extremely complex, and, contrary to what lawyers would have us believe, changes over the decades after the event. To give you this example, it was late in the day, and long shadows from the houses were falling across the driveway where you stood, and your face was in half light sun coming into one of your eyes. You register that you could not tell the man’s face because you were blinded by the light.
You were not listening very closely because the conversation was about some technical matter that both men understood, but you did not. Instead, you were blowing air from your mouth because it was cold, you saw no snow on the ground, but the angle of the sun made it later in the afternoon, in November before the first snow had fallen. Your breath condensed before you in the air and floated a little distance before melting into the air. You had a new maroon ski jacket full of down and you were very warm in your new gloves that were leather, with a red maple leaf on the backs of the hands and they were very cool, and you were so glad to have them because all the kids at school had them. They were necessary to be part of the crowd, and useful as you all went skiing on the weekend.
You put your tongue on the zipper where it was pulled up to you chin, but your tongue did not stick, so it was not very cold. A November cold you thought, and put your hands behind your back just like your father was doing and so on.
Now, this tale could be told with more and more detail of what you were experiencing from outside your body, what your were daydreaming about inside your mind, and the feelings you had, though they were far below your conscious thought. You had learned that having emotions was a bad thing. You were expected to do the right thing in all circumstances and to completely ignore your feelings, but at this stage of your life you did not understand this. You would later, though.
But let me now just pick out one small detail – tonguing the top of the zipper and show you how huge it becomes to remember and thus that all memories are almost unimaginably large. You were sticking your tongue out of your mouth and had to from time to time wipe a little bit of moisture away from your lips with the sleeve of your new coat, where it became cloth to fit snuggly on your wrist. Your tongue you stuck out only half its length because the zipper was tightly up to your neck which you liked because you had always disliked having a cold neck and behind it was a turtleneck with a logo from the sports club you belonged to and where you were taken for dinner as a treat and where you learned to play badminton, not that good when in competition with members, and that was something that your mind pushed down, because it meant being useless and you were ashamed of being useless as your father had let you know. And even though your high school always won the city championship and you never lost a game in the city tournament, you do not remember this only that there were 30 guys in front of you on the leader board and you were in shame.
So you were tonguing because you felt less than other people, and because it occupied your mind when you were feeling this. You touched the zipper at its top and memorized that it had two identical side pieces and a higher centre piece because that was the part of the zipper that you pulled up to your chin. You noticed that there was a taste of peanut butter on it and this was because on the way to school one day you had eaten your lunch before arriving at school you were just so hungry. You ate it in this coat and a small bit had touched the zipper of your new cool coat. So you then put your tongue out even further to pass down the rest of the top of the zipper, to test whether you had slopped some peanut butter down there. But, no, there was no taste down there only the mint from the gum you were chewing. So you brought your tongue back in a bit and were slowly, methodically eliminating every molecule of peanut butter on the top of your coat. In so doing, you were being clandestined as you know your father would know that you had been messy and was sure to give you a rough time and you were resenting him in the moments you were tonguing the peanut butter away, but you did not have a memory of this because you had been taught to eliminate any conscious thought of being ashamed of yourself and it resided underneath the layer you had put there so that you would not feel his anger, would not feel your uselessness and it was then that the man stuck out his hand and you quickly moved to shake his hand because your father would be looking and you did it for him. To be accepted, to do as he did, and try for his approval even though you were not conscious of this and would not realize for decades later when you were in therapy that you have always thought you could think, do or say anything that was right and so you hid behind a layer that insulated you and mounted an approval delusion with a being far above you who was looking down and approving of everything that you did. But as you tongued the last molecule of peanut butter away, you knew you were leaving water on the neck of your coat and that your attempt to cover it up had failed. You knew your father would notice and then he would be mad- we could stretch this one instant out longer and longer but there is no need. The point is that you would forget by the time your father exploded at you that all these thoughts had been pouring through your head and also, as you cried, you knew you were completely useless even though you pushed this out of your conscsiousness.
This does have a good outcome even though you would remember nothing other than your father screaming at you, because many decades later your shrink would listen to you tell him that you were always two people, and he would observe, that that was because you needed a defense against the abuse and so this big part of your personality was simply a delusion. He suggested putting the word ‘I’ in every general sentence, instead of referring to it in third person. The first time you did you began to cry, but this was a good thing because it was the first part of healing, the feeling of the pain of uselessness. Some years later when you father was pushing his walker around his house you realize you are no longer angry because the pain had been brought up, dealt with, acknowledge and then could disappear.
The important point, though, was that your memory of the time was almost infinitely large, yet you had forgotten it in the moment you heard your father’s voice screaming.
The sense data of the experience is gone. No one ever had told you to take your glove off and so you had no idea that that was necessary. And now, everytime you shake someone’s hand with a glove on, and he has a glove on because it is cold, this stirs you to remember the Proustian nature of the infinity of the moment the many decades before. And now your realize that your hate and anger were over your life were the outcome of abuse, but you have forgotten about the cold, the coat, the shadows, the tongue, the peanut butter.
How Memories are Stored
Memories are trimmed down conscious and subconscious thoughts about the what that happens to us. It is directed by the little almond of the brain, the amygdala, which is largely responsible for the great emotions that are attached to our thought.
Potential memory material is sent to the subconscious part of the brain, the brain floor the reptilian brain, that underlies the great flowering of consciousness in the flower that has bloomed consciousness on top of the phylogenetic tree of the evolving brain.
This material is broken down into little bits. For example, the wetness of your tongue as you licked the zipper on your coat. From the subconscious, 24 hours a day the brain beavers away at developing long term memory. The bits are thrown up into small areas of the conscious brain 24 hours a day. This process is unconnected to conscious thought and thus our memories are not, as mentioned, veridical or camera records, they are what the mind wants to remember.
The smallest bits of memories are electrical circuits among as little as 100 brain cells in the conscious brain arranged in a hexadecimal order. For example, the liquid on our tongue, the taste of metal, the temperature of the metal, the peanut butter taste, the bit of toothpaste on the zipper, the taste of the paint on the zipper, the plastic feel of the paint, the feel of warm air on our tongue, the feel of cold air on the tongue, the coldness of the air, the warmness of the exhaled air. I’m sure you get the picture: exceptionally small parts of the overall memory.
This process takes as long as 3 years, the subconscious floor of the brain throwing up the gazillions of little bits, and their connections into consciousness part of the brain. And remember in the example, the person was a very introverted person and thus the brain activity was huge in addition to the sensed information. And this process lays down memory in the 100,000,000,000 brain cells and what the brains wants to retain it does so by your consciously thinking about the parts and each time you think of it, it makes the net a little stronger, as in a few more cells are added to it. And as mentioned, it is dreaming, 24 hours a day that lays down long term memory, without our consciously thinking about it at all. Note that the conscious part of our brain is turned off in sleep, and not attending to dreaming during waking hours, hence our memories are not in the slightest a ‘trace of what actually happened.’
And over the decades your rethinking of something, that is mediated by the subconscious brain and emotions are added at the time of thinking by the amazing amygdala. But remember, just as we forget the cat’s eyes on the road as we drive down the highway, so do we forget and change our recorded memory. It coats the experience with the emotion that it is dealing with at the time we think it, so that in no way do our memories actually contain what we could have experienced, nor are they static; they change.
Eidetic memory (photographic memory) also falls into the same class, as this very good memory is only a small percentage of what there was for us to direct our senses to experience.
Then there are specific molecules of memory, that we will get into a little later in the book.
How Memories are Retrieved
Our brain stores a billion memories. These memories comprise what we think of ourselves, and, if they disappear, for example, when you have a seizure, or alzheimers, or a brain injury or it is simply that you are over 50 and it is after 4 in the afternoon when you remember nothing, we and others think that it is I ourself that has disappeared. So memories have a way of contributing to our sense of self, what it is that has continued through time from our early memories of childhood until this very moment when we are reading this book and considering that this is so. In fact, if your think about it, our memories constitute who we are, for without them we are, as in, exist, be, no longer.
And a fundamental issue is how it is that we come to place our attention on the memories that we want to think about. For example, remember as a child being on a windy dock on a lake and leaning into the wind on the end. This has a setting in a real place at a real time and the sense that this is in the past and about ourselves. And in this thinking it is hidden that the beginning motive that sets the whole process in motion is the subconscious mind that we have no conscious thought in.
There has been a long history of scientists (11, eg Domassio, etc.) understanding that if we want to think about something in our mind, say we are sitting on a chaise lounge that slowly swings in the late afternoon sun and into our consciousness comes an image of playing kick the can as kids, of a child who hid so close to the can, he could not move for fear of being spotted, but was so close as to almost be able to reach out and kick the can.
We think that we have been thinking about our past and how this past seems no longer to exist, even though we have this memory of it. But what is actually happening is that before we have this dreamy series of thoughts, that underneath, the subconscious mind at the bottom of our brains has been directing our attention to these memories and because we are not conscious of our subconscious, all we are thinking about is the dreamy seemingly un related images of playing in the dying light of day as a child, perhaps at a lake in the summer, where the whole gang assembled after dinner until the night was too dark to allow anymore play.
But that dreamyness only seems this way because we are not attending to it as, for example, if we were at work, and needing to concentrate, or had become aware of the sexuality of a woman’s ear right next to us though we may not know her, or that the flichering tongue on the ground is a poisonous snake and we get a jolt of adrenaline to be hyper attentive and take defensive action. No.
The dreamyness of the situation is only because our conscious mind is not aware of itself directing our attention. Underneath, however, the subconscious mind is directing us, to memories of a certain flavour, of childhood, of the past, of the quality of light falling into the lake, that there was the sound of a mosquito and then it ended, meaning that it was biting your leg, but you could not move- we could make this scene go on as long as a Proustian moment takes a thousand pages. But we don’t have to. All that is needed to be understood here, is that the subconscious mind is working overtime to direct the conscious mind to reacquire memories of a childhood kind.
Now, you may be interested to know how long it takes for this to happen. Let us move on to perception and the same process that makes us remember something controls our looking out and sensing out our world.
Perception is Active
There are two current views of how we perceive things. One is that perception is passive: light enters our eyes and the images of the football game come into our head from the television and then we watch the game until the ads come and then race to the fridge for a beer, and be back in place just as the last ad ends and the game goes on.
Not so surprisingly, such a view of how we perceive the outside world, seems pretty accurate for describing us lounging on the couch idly flipping the channels on the changer to find our game or whatever. And this is called the representational view of perception and the other way of describing it is that it is passive.
And there is a long long list of neurobiologists who look at perception this way, notably Semir Zeki and VS Ramachandran (12), though there are many more. And this is largely because they come at the issue as scientists interested in how the eye works and how the electrical stimulations run from the eye to the back of the brain and the various sub-modules of sight put the colour, shape, hue, movement and so on together to make an image. Then, the theory says, the mind considers the image and takes action. And, of course, the argument goes, the same process occurs with all the other senses. Take hearing for instance. One understands far less about the football game on television if the sound is turned off, having then, to pick it up only by sight, which results in the mind being confused or grasping at meaning, and settling for less than it could have gotten with the sound turned on. Now, if one were a football player, the other senses, most importantly touch is always left out of a football game on television. The football player lying on the couch would be going ouch when the quarter back is crunched face first into the ground because of his experience of so doing.
But there is another view: that perception is active. Remember those thousands of small eye movements that take place every second, saccades? They have important explanatory value here. We have no control of them but the eyes are darting around exceptionally fast and onto different objects and focusing up close and then far back, thousands of times per second. The directing impulse is, again, the subconscious mind – OR THE EYES WOULD NOT MOVE – that is the brain structures at the bottom of our brains. They make the eyes do these small movements, as many as several millions every hour of our day, much as they make our stomachs take over breaking down food and presenting it in small small pieces for our intestines to absorb into our blood stream. The movements of our bowels are the same, the beat of our hearts, too.
So in our couch potato example, how does the subconscious motivate our conscious attention. First it monitors our stomachs and our thirst centres, making us get off the couch to get that beer. It also makes us avoid, say the dog in our path, push the door open, run to the kitchen avoiding walls, doors and other objects, and directs us to push out our hand to open the fridge door, look for a beer, push things aside to get it and do all the rest in reverse to arrive back at the couch just as the ads end, because the sense of unease about missing any of the action that we get is what the subconscious mind is using to make our conscious mind do the things that we want to do.
The other important piece of information is that it takes the mind a third of a second to pay attention to something that we see with our eyes. It may not seem of great significance to wait a third of a second to perceive something, but a few examples of what it would impair make it clear that it makes a whole lot of difference. The obvious problem would come when we are traveling through space at any given speed. Driving down the highway, flying a jet plane, traveling in a rocket, would become impossible. This is because we would be traveling faster than we can perceive what is coming at us and at all times we would not be able to see what was coming at us, a turn in the road for instance, and we would drive off.
There is ample scientific proof (13 Ellis) now that indicates that the subconscious brain is ‘meeting’ the incoming information from our senses through ‘pushing’ the conscious part of our minds to pay attention. If we did not pay attention to, say, a snowball coming our way, we would not duck, move, put our hand in front of our face and so on. This is because if you don’t perceive the snowball you won’t take any action. And one needs to have had experience with snowballs – or, say, mass growing in our visual field, which is the same thing – indicating to- for the subconscious to have developed the preference for us not to get beaned by one, because it could hurt, etc.
Remember that preferences are prototypical emotions that were fully developed at the evolutionary level of reptiles, probably between amphibians and reptiles for those who want to be precise. That means that your friendly inner iguana is the original motive force for all conscious thought. Now, once conscious thought has been stimulated and it cruises along in its magnificence thinking things out, do remember that at all times the subconscious is down there below consciousness but giving the push the emotional significance of what we do and what happens to us. This is hugely important to art, because artists regularly distort our basic categories of subterranean thought. We will return to this crucial issue later in the book, and return at length.
To summarize in another way: ‘our emotions gear us up for action and then we search and scan the environment for relevant perceptual clues’ (13). And we cannot perceive what we have not previously paid attention to.
- Cabanac, M., Journal of Consciousness Studies, Vol 6, 1999. There is an extensive bibliography on the end of this review article, including many articles by Cabanac in scientific journals. Interestingly, Cabanac, works at Laval University in Quebec, Canada.
- Subconscious – below consciousness, below the floor of the midbrain. I use this term because the more commonly used term: unconscious, has too many meanings, for example, one can be unconscious as a result of being asleep, in a coma, ingesting substances or alcohol, be unaware of things, the Collective unconscious, being clued out, repressing thoughts, having amnesia, alzheimers, or simply because you are more than 50 years old and it is later than 5 pm, and so on.
The issue of differing academic specialties and even differing groups of people can result in the same words having different definitions. And a great deal of argument ensues before some non-charged words are developed. For example, the iguana lettuce research points out that once there are emotions, the animal has some awareness to act on preferences. Now, awareness, is a word that is usually thought of as a kind of consciousness. On the other hand, a gun that has a camera, and shoots bullets any time an insignia of an enemy is registered, cannot be considered conscious, but in what, if any, sense is it aware. And the literature gets into long involved discussions of ‘pleasure’, emotion and thus necessary consciousness in a lizard’s brain. I won’t get into this, but the reader needs to be aware that there are definitional problems all over the literature on the conscious brain.
- Ralph Ellis, Journal of Consciousness Studies, Vol 6, 1999.
- 4. Antonio Damassio, Descarte’s Error: Emotion, Reason and the Human Brain, Picador, 1995. Damassio’s work is central to the argument of this book, providing evidence that the subconscious is of fundamental importance, though we have no conscious thought in it.