Tuesday, November 27, 2012


One of my parishioners told me about lying in the hospital after giving birth and feeling something that at first she interpreted as the baby moving around, until she remembered that the baby was out.  Then she realized it was her displaced organs, now that the baby wasn’t taking up space, moving back where they were supposed to be.  Maybe because of this sort of thing, women are aware of their visceral feelings.  Menstruation, the sluffing of the uterus wall, and the cramping strain on the ligaments that hold the uterus in place, is clearly felt -- more by some and less by others.  Why?  Some can feel ovulation, or so they claim.  And orgasmic pulsing is far more internal in a woman that in a man.  (Do the penis and scrotum count as viscera?)

These sensations must enter the brain for processing but there is little I’ve seen so far about how things the autonomic nerve system is monitoring actually get into the brain.  Mostly it seems the signals have to be translated into something mechanical (heart beat, panting, hiccups, bubbles of gas moving through the intestines) before we are conscious of them.  One of the tasks of a person with diabetes is to recognize when their blood sugar is high or low WITHOUT the little monitor.  But these things, like hypothermia, are whole-body states, almost like moods.  They may be a general diminishment of awareness or failure of logic, but people “outside” can see the change in behavior and remark on it.   If you’re hiking in chilly rain, you’re supposed to monitor each other for incoherence or stumbling.  Of course, we know that a dog is useful because it can perceive and respond to clues, becoming in essence a canine part of the person’s autonomic system.

Counselors who constantly ask “how are you feeling?” are a pain in the butt (sorry) until you realize they are trying to teach you to mark and interpret things that normally pass by “unseen.”  That particular evidence is missing from one’s conscious thought, though not from one’s unconscious responses.  Writing or recording oneself in a state of free association are ways to realize things going on but not “felt.”  Some people can remember images from the hypnogogic state before sleeping -- but all of this begs the question of just how this information gets into the brain and what the brain does with it before sending the messages of adjustment back to the insides.  And what does it send, aside from “fight, flight, freeze” -- the big preoccupations of most pop science writing about the autonomic responses?

I considered for a while, since I was reading about acting theory, whether “primary thinking” (thinking in images) versus “secondary thinking” (thinking analytically) had something to do with autonomic reactions, but I think that’s a different kind of analysis from what I’m trying to get at.  I want to know about things like blood solutions -- cortisol levels and testosterone levels and so on.  Can one feel the molecules enter the blood flow and affect the operation of the brain?  Clearly they DO affect the brain because all those molecules are feedback loops.  Twenty years ago a zealot of a gynecologist put me on strong birth control pills and, though I was ending menopause, the cycles of my adolescent years returned with a vengeance.  I bled, I raged, I wept.  I could SEE where I was in the cycle by looking at the packet of pills.  But I didn’t feel it.  Could I have if I’d had training?

Can a bipolar person feel their inner rollercoaster -- often perfectly apparent to an onlooker?  Is there a way to modulate the waves without pills?  Are words a way to reach into the functioning of the brain?  What about art?  Powerful music?  We can feel our heart rhythm change, our breath speed up or relax.  Can we feel our livers and spleens?  

The intestines are not just drug responders -- using the same chemicals as the brain tissue -- but also powerful drug makers as well as muscle responders.  Can one voluntarily clench one’s guts?  How does unconscious relate to involuntary?  Can anything that is “raised” (why raised? because the brain is on top?) to consciousness, does it then become voluntary?  As I age, I can feel the moment when anger that is controllable turns to a state that is reckless -- I know it is reckless, out of control, and I could probably stop it (maybe) or someone else could stop it by appealing to me, except that part of the recklessness is not caring whether I do.  I’m not out of control -- I’m out of concern.

Is there a line or distinction in the brain between structures where subconscious thought happens as opposed to conscious, voluntary thought?  Does unconscious thought accumulate in some older part, like the limbic system that is associated with emotion, and then become intense enough to become conscious?  Cats are famous for their strong autonomic nervous systems and the subject of many experiments, but it’s hard to find the data because experimenters are afraid of public reaction.  (Oh, KITTY!!)  So I watch my own two fat cats.  I see them sit there with their little jelly walnut-brains revolving behind their eyes, considering options until they finally snag on an idea and do something about it.  (It usually has something to do with cat food or going in or out the cat flap.)  I also see them sitting there, all relaxed, and suddenly explode with leaping lightning reflexes if a whiff of dog comes through the screen door.  Stimulus-response with no time at all for processing, or so it seems.  All I get out of it is that I don’t know enough, but that’s generally what I get out of everything.

The main thing, rather useful actually, that I get out of these reflections is that meaning that comes up out of the subconscious is “emergent.”  That is, it cannot be logically plotted or analyzed or imposed from outside, but simply must be triggered by interacting forces that are unseen.  They must be “called out.”  What can be provided is stimuli, images, concepts that are evocative according to what is stored in the brain of the person.  In a congregation, there needs to be enough consensus shared experience to be able to predict what that evocative image might be:   mountain vista?  lovers?  A common passage of prayer or hymn?  Cradling a baby?

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