Monday, April 30, 2012
HOW OBJECTS BECOME ICONS
The thought break-through by Damasio and others came about by applying the principles of evolution to the concept of “consciousness.” This has been prevented because humans think of “consciousness” as something separated from “thinking” which is what brains do. To most people “consciousness” is a kind of mystical phenomenon, almost like soul. “Thinking” is more mechanical, like what computers do. But Damasio is applying the concept of “emergence,” the idea that as the brains of animals developed over time, each advance in complexity allowed a new capacity to process sensory information, always in the service of survival which is what governs evolution, but not always available to introspection, which has been the controlling access to thought about “consciousness.” He claims that “consciousness,” even with this accumulation of powers, can never quite get to direct contact with reality -- no brain can, since brains work by constructing maps drawn from sensory information. But we can get to an intense “feeling” of relationship that gives meaning to existence. It is this “feeling” that I pursue as a function of liturgy.
Every creature has “consciousness” in the sense of “sentience” because that’s more or less the criterion for being a creature. But it can be, in the one-celled animal for instance, merely the abilities to go toward, to avoid, to ingest, to excrete, and to reproduce. The four-letter functions, if you like to be blunt. I used to tell people in my animal control education role (if I had an audience that could get it, like kids) that the basics of dogs were eat, shit, fuck, sleep, give birth, and die -- all of which people have major cultural hangups about. (Admit it -- you reacted to these Anglo-Saxon words that have been markers of low class rudeness since the Normans invaded England.) Of course, dogs are several evolutionary stages beyond one-celled animals, which means that their body functions are entwined and expressed with emotion. Cats are usually the subjects of experiments on “emotion” because they are smaller, highly emotional, and not so protected by the culture as dogs are.
What we know is that the lowest levels of creature function (worms, sea creatures) do react but they have no emotion. Their basic sentience is that of the sea anemone, which shrinks and balls up when things are unpleasant but blooms and reaches out when things are rewarding. Damasio’s insight is that the sea anemones' reactions remain in us, no matter how many other processes are added. They may be complexified or morphed somehow, but they are still there. On top of them are arranged -- in our stacked brains going from early up to recent and then bulging out to even more recent developments like our round foreheads -- are all the self-regulations and sensory-mapping capacities that have survived the long trek through time. The bottom structures are the most basic, so damage to the bottom (brain stem) presents far more of a function problem than the top. In the top brain, the older and therefore more vital bits are in the middle of the tissue and towards the bottom, while the structures that are towards the outer rind (cortex) and the sides can be destroyed without destroying the creature -- simply removing some functions, maybe so minor as to hardly make a difference. The phenomenon of consciousness is not destroyed until damage is down towards the middle bottom, early in evolution. That means coma, if not death.
“Consciousness” as the word is used in ordinary conversation is not helpful because there are many SUB- UN- PRE- and UNDER consciousness functions. They are not necessarily “knowable” by introspection, but can be detected by instruments, experiments, and even simple outside observation of behavior. CONSCIOUSNESS IS NOT A MONOLITH but an interplay of sub-elements. It is like an orchestra, not a soloist. But to most of us it feels like a solo because only some of it is available for introspection.
One of the most basic functions of the brain is sensory perception of the world outside the body and also, at a rather higher level, “objects” that are in fact concepts, like love or mathematical zero. These objects, both the concrete ones that the body directly contacts and the conceptual ones derived from thinking, each have an emotional “attachment” or aura to which the brain directly connects and uses to recover the memory or thought of the object. When you think to yourself, “skateboard,” you cannot help but have an emotional response along with the sense memory. They are entwined and expressed in what you do about skateboards. You may not realize you have a feeling about them. You may have a passionate attachment to them, so that the thought comes with strong feelings. Maybe you are a rider and so your body gives you the sense of movement, even if you don’t move.
It is this dimension of sensory attachment that is lost when people think about religious objects in a factual, detached way. If to some people a Koran or Bible is only a book and if books carry no emotional meaning, then how can it register on them that others are deeply enmeshed with the emotional significance of certain books? The constant dry arguments about religion -- theological dogma about which statements are true facts -- encourages this suppression of emotional attachment. When people say they are not “religious” but are “spiritual,” I think this is the dimension they are talking about. Religion keeps turning into mathematics, while spirituality can be emotional and MUST be to carry identification and meaning of a higher kind.
How can objects, let’s say lighting a chalice on Sunday morning, be made meaningful? By connecting them to emotion in the form of the sensory experience but also the simultaneous evocation of memory, image, testimony. Starting with a sensorily perceptible solid object is an advantage -- we already have emotions about vessels and fires. But to expand, reaching out, associate with the act of lighting a chalice in a safe place and in the company of a “holding community” associated with supportive explanatory experiences, is to open those individuals to what I’ve been calling “liminal space.” In that space can be invoked “objects” that are concepts, like “freedom of thought.” Those concepts are invested (that’s the right word) with feeling and therefore meaning beyond just the dictionary definition, because it is felt in the mind and body.