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.  😀


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?


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.


photo by David Sloan


*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.


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.]


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.



Brains on literature

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

“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.

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?