Mind & gray matter

After an interlude of fiction-reading and the start of the semester, during which there is little time for personal reading, I have returned to some of the topics of neurology, consciousness, and the evolution of the story-telling mind that have so often diverted me from–yet influenced my thinking on–poetry.

Just a brief overview of my “difficult books” of the past four or five years…I have a background in philosophy and, to a much lesser extent, theology. Both disciplines endeavored over thousands of years to explain why we think the way we do and why or how we reason, make decisions, and make clearly unreasonable decisions.

The Free Will paradox, the Mind-Body Problem, ethics, tribalism, the body politic, you name it.

My thinking tends to sway slightly Eastern in terms of intention, mindful behavior, and non-theistic compassion despite my being raised pretty much Western Protestant with Enlightenment ethics and values (also compassion, as based upon the teachings of Jesus).

Throw in a bit of psychology built upon philosophical foundations, Freud, William James, Darwin, Thoreau, and my constant searching for what makes a being conscious, and I end up with an eclectic but not unreasonable reading list.

Also poetry. But I digress.

Here’s the barest outline of my more recent forays into understanding the probably not-understandable: I read Stuart Kauffman’s book At Home in the Universe to obtain a grasp of a chemistry-and-statistically-based (Boolean) thinking concerning how consciousness may have arisen in the universe and whether we Earthly human beings may not be entirely alone as conscious beings in a huge and expanding cosmos. Frances Crick’s The Astonishing Hypothesis offers a biologist’s view of how we ought to go about trying to study consciousness and its evolution based upon biological science. Douglas Hofstadter’s I am a Strange Loop, a deeply engaging look at an interdisciplinary concept of consciousness, examines evolution, biology, neurology, and a bit of physics and philosophy; Dennett & Lakoff’s Philosophy in the Flesh grounds philosophy in neurological underpinnings. Just to be sure the physicists are not overlooked in my overview of consciousness, I’m now reading Werner Lowenstein’s Physics in Mind: A Quantum View of the Brain.

Referenced in almost all of these books are Patricia Churchland, the D’Amasios, Thomas Nagel, Thomas Kuhn, Charles Darwin, Descartes, and Kant.

To name a few.

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What good has this reading done me, in terms of understanding what constitutes consciousness, from what it is derived, and how it evolved? Do I know any more than I did about human beings? I certainly know more about the human body, especially the brain, than I did. I know more about the cellular level of information processing and more about theories people have posited during the past centuries–and what aspects of those theories seem to have had either intuitive, reasonable influence or scientific (empirical) value.

That last paragraph appears to be question-dodging, doesn’t it?

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I love to read. I love human beings. I love the phenomena of the visible and experiential world. I love the urgent fuel of creativity. Can that be enough, for now?

In time, maybe I will come to accept the fraying of the consciousness, the decay of memory and the intimate Beloveds as they fade into senility or pass out of the tactile world.

 

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Not enough

The fall semester is about to begin, a very busy time for me and my colleagues. I need to be nose-to-the-grindstone, yet I have some deep and worrying concerns that distract me from the evaluations, curriculum preparation, scheduling, and staff meetings. Among the 40+ students who attended our university’s summer “bridge” program for college transitions, at least six openly expressed fears about being accepted and wondered how to deal with prejudice on and off campus. I am pretty sure they spoke for others who kept such fears to themselves.

We do not have answers for them. We can only say: Be yourselves, and be that well; say what matters, and say it forcefully but non-violently; and tell us if you feel afraid or need support–we promise we will stand with you.

That promise I take as seriously as any promise I make to my family members or best-beloveds–even though my students are “strangers” to me. I will intervene if I notice that they are threatened in any way. I’m a writer; I know that words, too, can cause harm.

And maybe that promise is not enough.

And maybe marching is not enough (read about marching here and here).

I am by nature a quiet person. But being quiet is not enough.

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It is not enough. It is, however, a start.

Truth as relationship

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What is truth? Is there an absolute truth? Is truth relative? Can it be relative and simultaneously absolute? I have not been much of a sojourner on the path to truth, because other things interest me more; however, in 2017, what constitutes truth has become a topic of contemporary discussion–in the most superficial ways imaginable.

And as I have been reading about Josiah Royce in Harry Cotton’s text, the definition of truth and the concept of The Absolute (the philosophy of which Royce and his dear friend William James often argued over) raise their abstract heads and ask for understanding.

Royce insists that truth is not something that happens. It’s not a verb, though people often employ the concept of truth when referring to occurrences: It happened just this way, so I know it is true. That’s a scientist’s empirical truth, or a pragmatist’s truth, someone who believes in his or her own experiences–a truth-in-action. It is also by nature individual in essence.

Just so, says Royce, but what happens to that truth-in-action once the action has stopped, the occurrence is over? Is the event still true? It is now past, and therefore has passed into the realm of memory or idea. Any number of other probabilities could have occurred in experience but did not, and it would be impossible to disprove all of those possibilities in order to prove something that happened as “true.” Cotton sums the thinking up (and you’d have to read Royce’s work on this idea to get the better picture) as “Indeed, no series of events can determine the truth of an idea.” Rather than being an event, Truth, says Royce,

…is a relation whereby various possible or real objects, events, ideas, counsels, and deeds are joined, in ideal at least, into one significant whole. This whole is no one event, or mere set of distinct events. It is a connected life process.    [my italics]

I cannot say I am wholly convinced by Royce’s philosophy in general; but I do like the concept of truth as “a connected life process,” which–to my own mind and given my predilections  about life and consciousness and truth–rings true.

 

Self as social

I’m an introvert. I need and, indeed, quite enjoy people–but in small groups and short doses. Much as I love you, I may still need to retire alone with a book or journal or a long walk in the meadow by myself to re-charge my energies, which are low enough to begin with these days.

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Potter’s curled-tight hedgehog, my animal totem

I think of that as alone with my Self. But recent reading along neurological, evolutionary, and psychological lines has me questioning this Self that seems to own its singular consciousness, and makes me consider the self-less consciousness of, say, Zen Buddhism.

~

 

From Carl Zimmer’s book Soul Made Flesh:

 

Finding the mechanisms of consciousness will not mean we lack a true self. It’s just that this self looks less and less like what most of us picture in our heads–an autonomous, unchanging being that has a will all its own, that is the sole, conscious source of our actions, and that distinguishes humans from animals. All animals probably create some kind of representation of their bodies in their brains, and humans simply create a particularly complicated model…

The human self did not reach this complicated state on its own. Thought is more like a node in the social network of our species…The human brain can make a series of unconscious judgments about people…in a fraction of a second. In recent years, neuroscientists have been mapping our the networks that make this social intelligence possible, and one of their most astonishing discoveries is that a picture of the brain thinking about others is not all that different from a picture of the brain thinking about oneself. Some neuroscientists think the best explanation for this overlap is that early hominids were able to understand others before they could understand themselves.      [italics mine]

In the foregoing passage, Zimmer cites Damasio, M. D. Lieberman, and an academic-philosophical article by Endel Tulving (2001) titled “Episodic Memory and Common Sense: How Far Apart?” that basically shows how little we can depend upon our own memories as “fact” and how deeply we engage in forms of storytelling to connect our memory episodes. It is possible that our general knowledge of things-as-they-are (including the behavior and “minds” of other beings) evolved before our ability to recall episodes of experience. Tulving writes:

…when we wonder which came first, episodic memory (experiences) or semantic memory (facts), common sense tells us that the answer is episodic memory. Information gets into semantic memory “through” episodic memory: First an individual has a particular experience in the course of which he, say, learns a new fact, and later on he can use the knowledge thus acquired independently of any remembering of the original learning episode as such.

This is what many experts in the area of memory have believed (and many still do) ever since the distinction between episodic and semantic memory was drawn. The careful reader of papers in this issue will be able to spot statements to this effect in various chapters. Nevertheless, although the jury is still out on this question, and although the final answer may turn out to be of a kind that almost always is reached at the end of debates (“well, it all depends”), I believe that the correct view is the reverse of common sense: information gets into episodic memory through semantic [general knowledge] memory.

He closes with the observation that “evolution is an exceedingly clever tinkerer who can make its creatures perform spectacular feats without necessarily endowing them with sophisticated powers of conscious awareness.” Darwin would not disagree.

Now to mull over the idea that my self is part of a wide-ranging network of human relationships, and hence not so entirely my “own.” Ha–I find myself of two minds (or more!) on this one.  😀

Difficult books & the death of reading

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Philip Yancey worries about “the death of reading” in a recent Washington Post opinion piece; he says that even he, an inveterate reader and possessor of several thousand books, finds it harder than it once was to read for several hours each day. He feels distracted by modern technology’s urgency yet suggests reading–now more than ever–offers not just intellectual but neurological rewards:  “neuroscience proves…it actually takes less energy to focus intently than to zip from task to task. After an hour of contemplation, or deep reading, a person ends up less tired and less neurochemically depleted, thus more able to tackle mental challenges.” (Yancey does not cite the study, so I cannot do so; I think he picked this information up from Nicholas Carr’s book The Shallows).

I find I still have time to read; but I am not a well-respected writer of books, articles, opinion columns, and blogs, nor am I asked to appear in public as a speaker very often. Yancey has a life that requires hours at a computer. My life contains less urgency from an audience, although my students–when classes are in session–certainly supply a sense of “prioritize me!” that can get distracting.

Most of us recognize that there are many forms of urgent distractions in our lives.

Anyway, I continue to apply myself to books.

~

My latest difficult book has a bit of family history. Royce on the Human Self was written by one of my father’s college professors, J. Harry Cotton, and published in 1955. Harry Cotton was a Presbyterian minister who later taught at Wabash College, where my father encountered him. My dad gave me this book a month ago, saying, “I thought you might be interested in this one. I came across it in my shelves and read it, thinking I’d never read it before. But apparently I had, because I see that I annotated it in the margins. And I hadn’t recalled that he inscribed it to me.” The human self must overlap with consciousness, so why not introduce myself to Royce, especially given the circumstances?

Josiah Royce is not a name I encountered in Philosophy coursework, even when I was studying William James’ work (it was undergraduate study, so we did not get to James’ correspondence with Royce and their disagreements over the Absolute; James & Royce were colleagues and very good friends).

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My father notes the misspelling of his name by Dr. Cotton. I note the logic chart my father annotated above.

Royce’s philosophy was rather Hegelian–he studied in Göttingen–and he was a long-time proponent of “idealism” (defined in what strikes me as a rather phenomenologist way) based upon his rendering of what constitutes the Absolute. According to the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy entry, “In his later works, Royce reconceived his metaphysics as an ‘absolute pragmatism’ grounded in semiotics.” Royce moved from idealism into the possibility of objects, which took him for awhile on a symbolic logic train of thinking. He loses me a bit there, despite Dr. Cotton’s quite clearly-written summaries.

An intriguing aspect of the book, for me, is my then-22-year-old father’s marginalia. Sometimes, his notes–in handwriting that has hardly changed in 60 years–make a comment [“Royce denies a self-evident truth contra-Descartes”]. More often, there is a question, or some underlining, that suggests where his interests lay. I notice he seems to have skimmed over the “Logic as the Science of Order” chapter (that’s a section I found to be a bit of a slog myself).

I wonder whether the last chapter, which covers Royce’s late thinking on Christianity, the problem of evil, and salvation, would have made any sense to a person as young as my dad was in ’55. By the time Royce got to his most mature philosophical thinking on god and the human self, he was in his 50s and had experienced the loss of a young adult son to “madness” and typhoid. These are the sort of events that mature the thinking of a thinking and feeling human being such as Royce obviously was. In our early 20s, few of us have that kind of depth to our understanding of mortal, ethical, or spiritual issues.

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Nevertheless–my father, influenced to some extent by his Uncle Raymond and by Harry Cotton–chose to go to graduate school in Theology. He may not recall whether Royce’s work on Salvation or Christianity had any bearing on his decision. But I wonder. I think of my dad–a classic extrovert, despite his prodigious reading habits–when I read the following words by Royce concerning the community and the relational aspect of the human self (in the Absolute, or in god, as referred to by the use of his in this quote):

And as the moments of my finite thought are to me when I reflect upon my own meaning and upon the relations of many moments of my life, so my neighbors and I are to the larger Self when, discoursing together about the same objects, we find ourselves as it were but moments in his inclusive unity.

All one. There are many philosophies and theologies that stress that premise.

 

 

 

Dementia, fears, & mirrors

Dementia: the very idea raises fears about the loss of control, loss of beloved memories, loss of self. Is a person who is deep into dementia still sentient, still conscious? If we lose our ability to connect with who we are–let alone with other people–have we misplaced whatever it is we call consciousness, or mind?

Yet no one who has interacted with a person who has dementia would say the person has no consciousness. It is, instead, an altered consciousness: sometimes a loss of ego or sense of self in the world, or the disintegration of social or emotional “filters,” or a series of cognitive gaps that collapse into fugue, fears, or blankness. There are people who lose everything but the distant past, and people who lose everything but the present moment. Dementia has many causes and takes many forms. We do not understand it, and that creates fear.

Of the things I fear that are actually not unlikely to occur, dementia–more than death–unsettles my equilibrium. I have watched it unfold among a number of people, uniquely and inexorably each time, devastating to the loved ones of the person who has become ill and frustrating beyond measure to the victim.

I try to avoid the word victim when describing illness, but there it appears.

Personhood, consciousness, rationality, emotionality, familiarity, habits and the framework of the person’s life erode while the person goes through the usual day; nothing stays usual. Sometimes all that remains are useless habits, physical tics, fragmented phrases that no longer convey social information.

Because I struggle with the concept of mind, because I read philosophy concerning mind and neuro-psychological texts about human consciousness, because I am a writer and feel passionate about human expression and interconnectedness and how we originated the tools of speech, metaphor, storytelling narrative and writing, the loss of sentience that dementia seems to bring represents the deepest kind of loss.

How do you face your fear?

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How about in a mirror? Through a glass, darkly…*

Through some sort of glass–of which there are so many varieties, a huge number of which I encountered recently at the Corning Museum of Glass in Corning, NY. It is worth the trip to western New York state to experience this gallery of art glass, collection of glassware spanning 35 centuries, interactive exhibits on the development of such commercial and scientific glass innovations such as Pyrex, tempered glass, shatterproof and mirrored and flexible glass, fiber-optic glass, telescope mirrors and lenses, silicon chips, and bottle-making equipment. The huge museum, established as an in-house exhibit in the Corning Glass headquarters in 1951, has had several major architectural upgrades and expansions from 1980 to 2015 (and suffered a disastrous flood in 1972).

We can face fear through changes in our perspective, I think.

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photo by David Sloan

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*1 Corinthians 13:12, King James Version:For now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know even as also I am known.”

 

Love & reflection

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We express love because the gratification of love is enormous, and we continue to express love and to act protectively because the loss of love is traumatic. If we did not experience pain on the demise of those we love, if we had the pleasure of love but felt nothing when the object of our love is destroyed, we would be considerably less protective than we are.

It may also be that the very structure if consciousness opens the pathway to depression…To give up the essential conflict between what we feel like doing and what we do, to end the dark moods that reflect that conflict and its difficulties–this is to give up what it is to be human, of what is good in being human.

–Andrew Solomon, The Noonday Demon: An Atlas of Depression.

Reflection is a sign of consciousness, the ability to take in information and observe how it feels to be oneself in the face of that information, and to assess the impact of behaviors and actions and catastrophes and deaths. Socrates, the irritating questioner, required of human beings that capacity of reflectiveness. Solomon suggests this reflective ability is natural to people who undergo a depressive episode: “The unexamined life is unavailable to the depressed.” (italics mine)

Yet it is also this reflective consciousness which permits recovery among those who’ve been in the abyss, and sometimes a kind of bounce into remission/relief. Solomon adds that “[p]eople who have been through a depression and stabilized often have a heightened awareness of the joyfulness of everyday existence. They have a capacity for a kind of ready ecstasy and for an intense appreciation of all that is good in their life.”

That sense of “ready ecstasy” often acts as the impetus for poetry, in my experience. I am not sure that joyful awareness was worth the pain and despair–couldn’t I have just achieved heightened awareness through, say, meditation, song, or religion? Nonetheless, if I can craft a relationship with depression that is not a destabilizing battle, that’s enough for me. The recognition of joy and the critical thinking that reflection deepens in my consciousness keep me striving.

Yesterday morning, early, in the long grass, the three-legged doe gave birth to a fawn. I watched as they emerged from the meadow and headed for the woodlot together, mama still licking the little one.

Earth delivers ecstasies readily, if only we will observe.

ann e michael