Saturday, October 29, 2011


These are what I understand to be the state of the art premises of consciousness studies, though they change daily and there is no unanimity. I accept them myself -- provisionally, because that’s the way science works.

1. The brain is “on” 24/7 from the first moment a fetal brain appears. There is always something happening: electric waves, chemicals, sorting, recovering, and sensory input/behavior output.

2. The brain is not the only part that is involved in thinking: thinking is a whole-body activity because what the brain really does is manage the sensory inputs and the behavioral responses. Only a small part of these events are conscious.

3. One way of looking at the brain is the accumulation of “brains” piled at the top of the spinal column in order of evolution, each with its own domain and “factory-installed” way of working. This is true right on up to the cerebellum, which is the big wraparound that extends into the forebrain, nose and eyes.

4. Another way of looking at the brain is in terms of the small organs emplaced there, each specializing somehow: thalamus, hypothalamus, pituitary, hippocampus, amygdala, and so on. Now we realize that all these parts operate together to create a synergy that is managed by an area usually on the left side of the brain. This creates both consciousness and identity -- or rather those “personhood” aspects of a human that arise from it.

5. Beyond the “factory installed” functions of these little parts, sensory information reaches the body and brain from the moment of conception, because a human forms inside another human which is already a swarm of feedback loops, genes switching on and off, and whole body thinking. The fetal brain “learns” from all that, but also before birth it learns basic dualities, spectrums like light/dark, motion/stillness, sound/silence. This is the kernel of memory: every memory is wrapped in sensory information, but it is usually unconscious. The right sense information can make it conscious.

7. The habitual practice of nature is to create a plethora of something and then reduce whatever part of it is not needed. This is also true of the brain. The little parts don’t disappear, but the common neurons of the cerebellum that are not used simply disappear. This is called “apoptosis.” It amounts to being parted out. No trauma, no pain: just resorption. This process builds in the assumptions about existence that the baby makes in the first months. As the baby becomes more active in its environment, it adds the results of its actions in new assumptions. This continues life-long. You probably know all this.

What I needed for my thinking about liturgy is embedded in these paragraphs from a talk by Leda Cosmides and John Tooby at I’ve emphasized the relevant phrases.

We thought that there should probably be internal regulatory variables in the same sense for social motivations. And so these would have evolved to track particular properties of the body, the social environment, and the physical environment—whose computation provided inputs needed for evolved decision rules. These internal regulatory variables have magnitudes, and they express value, or else they provide input to mechanisms that compute value.

TOOBY: The very interesting thing is that the role of consciousness suggests it's just necessary for carrying out at least some of the recalibrational computation required by new information. . We think feelings are signals broadcast through consciousness about changes in these regulatory variables,So that . . . our data show that the intensity of conscious feeling, such as anger, predicts the magnitude of the downstream changes in these non-conscious variables. People put a lot of time into, you know, seemingly functionless behavior—just feeling in response to personal news. When something important happens, they go off to be by themselves, and they take time to feel about it—so we think the function is revising their motivational weightings.

People like these thinkers do not use phrases like these in an idle or approximate way. In this case they are the key to a whole new way of thinking about identity, so I’ll try to invent my own definitions, staying as close to what Cosmides is saying as I can. But these are MY interpretations.


Internal regulatory variables: These are essentially rules for getting along in the world, deeply internal to the point of being part of one’s identity, They are a kind of “algorithm”, maybe with an if/then pattern. The capacity to develop these is evidently in the forebrain where it evolved during the hunter-gatherer period of evolution of humans, probably because it enables community and cooperation.

Evolved decision rules: These internal algorithms come from what happens to the individual and are recorded in actual brain cells, associated with the sensory inputs at that moment. If questions never come up, the decisions are never evolved, so entirely new situations are tough to address. We may fall back on rules that evolved somewhere else and don't really fit.

Recalibrational computation: When something previously unknown shows up, the algorithm has to be “recalibrated.” This is not something that happens easily. It’s not only that you have to give up an idea you’ve cherished, but also that you have to give up the idea that you really knew in the first place.

intensity of conscious feeling: Recalibration is accompanied by or possibly caused by or maybe made possible by intense conscious feeling. Like a religious feeling, a transforming experience. Maybe combat.

Revising their motivational weightings. So having brought to consciousness one’s previously unconscious assumptions because they seemed like simply the way the world IS but now there is contradictory evidence, one begins to change. Maybe in a good way and maybe in a bad way.


Spartacus assumes that the world is terrible place where one must survive through violence and skill, suspicion and alliance codes. Gradually, though intense emotion and physical encounters that are meant to instill the brotherhood of gladiators, he subversively changes because of friendship and love until he is open to the gentle pacifism of Christianity. (Elaine Pagels says that there were evidently Buddhist missionaries carrying some of these ideas into the Middle East. Others claim Jesus went to India and developed his thinking there. How and through what experiences would make a fascinating novel.)

My core assumption about liturgy/ritual is that if it is intense and accurate enough, using the sensory context most meaningful to the person, it can be either a life-confirming experience or a safe place in which to revise one’s inner algorithm. This assumption should work in every culture. It is not about morality -- whether being a Christian is better than being a Gladiator is beside the point -- which is how a person gets from one to the other regardless of which direction he or she is traveling. It is not about institutions or dogma -- only human experience. You might need to grow some new brain cells. You might appreciate a community.

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