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.

inverted

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.”

 

Consciousness as story

Some recent questions to myself:

Reading philosophy and psychology for so many years, was I looking all along for an explanation of consciousness?

Through neurological and evolutionary science, and more philosophy and more psychology and, in addition, some anthropology, some history. And fiction. And rhetoric. Trying, perhaps, to understand the self? Through criticism, through art, through literature?

Looking carefully at art, reading literature closely: were those also endeavors to comprehend what mind is? Other minds? My own mind? Through the creative act, perhaps?

Is the ars poetica a kind of manifesto of human consciousness from an individual perspective, yet open to interpretation by other human minds? And the beautiful–what is it that even makes beauty a significant concept? Where did that come from? Evolution and the sexual drive (see Dutton riffing on Darwin)? Society? Synthesis? Ego? Inspiration? Angels?

Is every story a scaffold to consciousness? A hedge against oblivion? (Self-oblivion, the hardest navigation act there is: depression, hopelessness, loss of self-knowledge, coma).

I wonder if the stories we tell to others and to ourselves, employing memory selectively whether or not we realize it, act as a kind of (modern-day, metaphorical) Chain of Being through which we develop Theory of Mind and, beyond that, a sense not just of ego but of neurological consciousness. If stories are what make us human.

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The chain of being, from Charles Bonnet, Œuvres d'histoire naturelle et de philosophie, 1779-83

The chain of being, from Charles Bonnet, Œuvres d’histoire naturelle et de philosophie, 1779-83

[Note: I do not hold the medieval concept of a hierarchy in which Man, angels, and God stand above all other things; the stone and the plankton have as much value–likely more–than I do in the workings of the cosmos, as far as I am concerned. I post this Enlightenment-Era engraving here for metaphorical and aesthetic reasons because I take pleasure in the delightful monkey.]

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Stories have tremendous value to human beings in ways we are still discovering; see my previous posts here, here, here, and here (among others). I keep coming across claims for the significance of story in surprising places–most recently in Dutton’s The Art Instinct and in Atul Gawande’s latest book, Being Mortal. Widely different texts, similar observations.

How is it we know who it is we are?

Possibly, in the process of inventing the story of ourselves, we become human. Perhaps the story of ourselves is fundamental to conscious “human” minds.

Speculation. But I love recalling that my children, when they were very very young, consistently made one particular demand of me: “Mama, tell me a story!”

~

Mere philosophical speculation

I have been reading more of Daniel Dennett. One of his earlier books, Brainstorms, consists of essays and talks and thus, being available to read in short bursts, has served as my intellectual entertainment in between the busy social events of this particular June.

I liked three of his essays better than the others. The first one in the book describes, explains, and argues for “intentional systems;” the author also does a fairly good job of asserting that philosophers and psychologists ought to study computer models of intelligence as a means of leaning more about human intelligence. He does not make lots of mechanistic claims, however–he does not suggest human beings are mere soft machines, and he gives a good argument in Chapter 11 as to why we cannot make a computer that feels pain. But he does separate, by degrees, the differences between basic consciousness states and consciousness that exhibits intentionality, and he separates basic consciousness from simple instinct–something that confuses many people when they are posed difficult questions about non-human animal “minds”.

His essay “How to Change Your Mind” offers terrific, logical insights about human “feelings,” “intuitions,” and opinions. Dennett shifts the perspective on the psychological question of why it is so difficult for human beings to “change their minds” and to give genuinely rational (or mechanistic) reasons for doing so.

The book’s final chapter, “Where Am I?” is available as a PDF at this link, and here Dennett offers a much more entertaining and readable philosophical thought experiment on personhood (and consciousness/mind) than Derek Parfit posits in his book Reasons and Persons. Those readers who are interested in how a thought experiment can argue for the existence of a person-as-consciousness-state without embodiment-in-carbon-based-materiality, without the usually-required religious or spiritual crutch, but also without the dense counterarguments of Parfit’s approach, may wish to check out this chapter.

Granted, I understand that many people feel thought experiments are a monumental waste of time, tantamount to navel-gazing; others feel sure that teleportation out of fleshly bodies is the stuff of science fiction (emphasis on the fiction). But as our inventions permit us to test out theories that once were “mere philosophical speculation,” all kinds of surprises may await us. Quantum physics was an imagined idea, for example, that scientists have been able to revise and explore in a more machine-based way…Thomas Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions does, often, operate historically as he envisioned the process. The recent excitement over teleportation of coded data provides an example of mechanical testing of theories (here is a good basic article on the experiment for the layperson, with graphics and a Star Trek image, and here is the scientist-written article).

All of which is fascinating, yet none of which decreases my enjoyment of a run of perfect June summer days. Incarnate, I attempt meditation. There is honeysuckle on the breeze. Insects whir and buzz around me; sun warms my left shoulder. Time for consciousness. Time to be here, among the things of this world.

 

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Brains on literature

Here’s a brief article that references a small study of how the human brain responds to reading poetry:

http://www.exeter.ac.uk/news/featurednews/title_324631_en.html

“Some people say it is impossible to reconcile science and art, but new brain imaging technology means we are now seeing a growing body of evidence about how the brain responds to the experience of art. This was a preliminary study, but it is all part of work that is helping us to make psychological, biological, anatomical sense of art.”

Here’s another short write-up from The New York Times on a somewhat similar topic, research into how reading literary work (specifically fiction, in this experiment) improves social skills–empathy and the ability to interpret other people’s feelings in particular.

http://well.blogs.nytimes.com/2013/10/03/i-know-how-youre-feeling-i-read-chekhov/?_r=2&

The article says that “after reading literary fiction, as opposed to popular fiction or serious nonfiction, people performed better on tests measuring empathy, social perception and emotional intelligence.” The psychologist researchers are from my alma mater, The New School for Social Research, and their work connects intriguingly with theory of mind studies.

What makes literary fiction challenging to read is the same thing that makes it so richly rewarding to the human brain: critical thinking is required, inference, active engagement with the text, the need to recognize and validate other points of view than one’s own and, often, to speculate on motives and meanings:

In literary fiction, like Dostoyevsky, “there is no single, overarching authorial voice,” [David Comer Kidd] said. “Each character presents a different version of reality, and they aren’t necessarily reliable. You have to participate as a reader in this dialectic, which is really something you have to do in real life.”

Interdisciplinary understanding of the importance of the arts to human consciousness, learning, and compassion: Am I surprised?