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.


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.  😀

At sundown

The disintegrating physical and mental situation of an elderly best-beloved recently has led me back (after a brief pause) to readings in neurology and consciousness. It has also led me to reflect on the tasks memory accomplishes for us and how the need to tell a story seems to reside deep in whatever “makes us human.” Many poems, perhaps most of them, are “inspired” by memories and a need to tell. So I will indulge myself by giving a narration here, and perhaps poems will follow later.

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The best-beloved has been in and out of hospitals, rehabilitation centers, and so-called independent living placement and appears to have developed a very common but not-commonly-talked-about cognitive disarray, or hospital-induced delirium, that medical personnel call “sundowning” when it occurs in Alzheimer’s patients. But my patient does not have Alzheimer’s disease. Her meshing of realities must have been triggered by something else, but the possible factors are many. We may never figure out what it was that pitched her into delusion and lack of compassion, turning her into a person we barely know.

She took good care of her body. At 90, her physical self is in better shape than many people 20 years her junior. Her brain–and hence, her mind–has not stayed as healthy as the rest of her. Several small strokes deep in her brain began to alter not just her gait but her personal focus. Long years of hearing loss no doubt altered how her brain processes input. The reading I have been doing (most recently Carr’s The Shallows, Sacks’ On the Move, and Damasio’s Looking for Spinoza) indicates that the human brain is “plastic” but not necessarily “elastic.” It can modify in response to damage or training, but that does not mean it will spring back to the way it was before. In extreme old age, the process of adaptation slows. The brain becomes less resilient. For reasons no one really understands–a host of possible culprits includes hormones, glutamates, serotonin production, medicines, genetic predispositions, and environmental factors among others (a perfect storm…)–persons who have been sharp and cogent may suddenly experience delusions, often leading to paranoia, confusion, loss of affect, lack of social filters, violent and contrary behavior.

And we ask, “What happened to the soul I love?”

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If we believe in souls, we have faith that somewhere under the changeling is the best-beloved. In flashes, she may return to us. If we believe that the brain is the person, the transition from best-beloved to aggressive complainer is harder to accept. Damasio seems to believe the brain is the person. I find it hard to agree with him fully, though I have been learning a lot about neurology in the process.

Metaphors or analogies for the situation seldom seem, to me, quite to capture the wrenching feeling I have when encountering sundowning. The idea of disintegration seems inappropriate in this case, because she recalls who we are and her mind is not collapsing so much as morphing in unaccountable ways. Threads unraveling? No, not really; the metaphor of a quilt coming undone, maybe, or an intricately-woven tapestry shredded apart–but that’s far too simplistic.

Think of the mind: it encompasses the brain with its regions for motor, somatosensory, auditory, and visual processing; the body, which takes in those physically-produced inputs; memories; thoughts; feelings, which are thoughts spurred by emotions; and a host of complex inter-relationships we cannot even begin to map. Somewhere in all of this is the person, the “self.” At least, as far as we have so far been able to speculate (though not everyone agrees; see my post on Hofstadter & Parfit. Parfit suggests personal identity is an invalid construct).

Perhaps an environmental analogy would suffice, being complex enough for comparison. She is the planet Earth, aging and adaptable, but not endlessly adaptable; her healthy balance has been thrown off by things she may not have had any control over. In whole regions, she becomes inhospitable. Poisoned. Dry. Hot. Overrun with invasives. She seems not to like us anymore, but that is not what’s going on at all. In fact, she’s dying.

Maybe that’s taking the metaphor too far. But in difficult times, one reaches far. There is hope she may recover at least some of her Self, and in the meantime, we have stories in which she plays a role. Mnemosyne–awaken in the consciousness of those who know her. Telling the stories is a step toward letting go.


The empathy button

Human nature being what it is, and our feelings being so rooted in often physiologically-based emotions, negative responses tend to aggregate. The book I just finished reading–Damasio’s The Feeling of What Happens–offers neurological, evolutionary, and psychological reasons for the human tendency toward negativity. Dozens of psychological studies concur that humans in general feel more “bad” feelings, and more frequently, than “good” feelings.

Facebook has a “like button,” as do many blog hosting pages (see below for mine!). This ingenious algorithmically-programmed information-gathering software–I hesitate to call it a device, but I guess it is–offers social media users a shortcut to social interaction, a way to show conformity and agreeability among friends, to support a statement or cause, or to indicate pleasure at seeing a photo, work of art, or shared piece of information.

Other sites, such as YouTube, have the additional option to “dislike;” and though I have not read any research supporting this inference, I would speculate that the option to dislike could lead to the generation of more negative feelings. Human nature being what it is.

If social media users cannot take the time to type their feeling-based responses and just need something to click, why not offer a “compassion button?”

I am not serious, of course. The compassion button is internal, and it isn’t an immediate gut reaction for most of us. It moves us from emotions such as anger or ideas like reason and duty to shared human experience. It takes us from simplistic liking or disliking to understanding. It takes more than a mouse click to get to compassion.

“Love and compassion are necessities, not luxuries. Without them, humanity cannot survive.”
― Dalai Lama XIV, The Art of Happiness

A good start. Possibly.

My most recent reading material is The Feeling of What Happens: Body and Emotion in the Making of Consciousness, by Antonio Damasio. Damasio is convincingly on the neurological/evolutionary trail to recognizing how consciousness operates and why we have developed it, though he allows for mysteries we do not yet and may never understand.

Damasio is clearly not a dualist who thinks the consciousness can exist separately from the body (one of his previous books is aptly titled Descartes’ Error). He doesn’t address the “soul” in The Feeling of What Happens, but argues that reason requires feeling in order to operate effectively, that feeling is a more “conscious” form of emotion, which is “unknowing” in the sense we call consciousness and is founded upon core consciousness, which is reliant upon the physical organism…a vastly complex array of cells, nerves, you name it, generally self-regulating and not by nature in particular need of a conscious mind.

So next time someone tries to explain why a situation happened and just says, “It’s complicated,” maybe you ought to accept that. Because, apparently, it’s really really really complicated! does not keep people like Damasio from trying to track down what goes on in the minds of sentient beings.

Having just read Flow, I immediately thought of what Csikszentmihalyi says about the way true flow experiences depend upon deepening levels of complexity–that’s how we keep from becoming bored by routinization of a task. Dennett suggests that consciousness consists of layers: “multiple drafts,” and Damasio calls the human brain, and the brain-body unit, a series of “systems within systems.” But there is no little self, no metaphorical or actual homunculus, at the very bottom of the system, or at the very top. There are only more and varied connections, he asserts–with profound respect and amazement at what biology has wrought.

I also thought about Csikszentmihalyi’s idea of a life project. Some years ago, I began a journal devoted to exploring my poetic project and learned that I do not really think about my writing as a project per se, at least not in the formal sense of poetics. [Here’s Dorothea Lasky harping on the whole concept of a poetic project, in a bit of refutation aimed at poetry critic David Orr.]

What I think I was doing, in fact, was trying to figure out my life project, in the way Csikszentmihalyi defines that concept. What is my life’s philosophy in terms of guiding tasks, principles, goals, projects, challenges? Is teaching part of the package? Motherhood? Gardening? Writing? Human relationships? Learning? Speaking of human consciousness, do I have a conscious path or goal?

Maybe my goal is to keep on amid the complexity and to relish it as much as possible, since it is unavoidable. And perhaps by accepting the complications, I will find my life becomes simpler. That could be a possible outcome–right?

I think of Reineke writing on Marcel Proust’s narrator and his struggle with status, jealousy, conformity, and desire. I read the Proust novel(s) when I was in my early 20s and found his narrator frustratingly neurotic but also a little too familiar, as my life experiences in many ways mirrored his. Eventually, he learns that the way to cure the pain of desire is to discipline himself to let go of desire itself; (and no, neither Proust nor his narrator were Buddhist).

And what happens when he gains this recognition is that he can write the novel. He develops flow, and a life project.

I am past 50, a good time to establish more consciously what my life project is. I know it involves relentlessly and joyously learning new things. I think it will include poetry in some way. And discipline of some kind, conscious effort. For now, those things constitute a good start.