E, do you remember how you used to obsess about writing and how to learn to do it by watching we two go back and forth? Well, it’s still happening, even though it’s invisible to the naked eye, but not to the naked heart. At least I’m still wrestling and gnawing and scribbling; my former “colleague” has enough to do at the moment just staying alive.
Here’s my current theorizing. Brain theory says that sensory information (which is a total body enterprise -- I don’t have to tell you that!) goes in through the nerves to sense-specific sorting centers in the brain where they are organized -- some censored, some stored, some distorted, some forwarded -- and then on to what amounts to a “black box” where everything is integrated, filtered, prioritized. That is, no one really understands how the brain converts all this information or manages it at all. The ideas keeps changing. But it is clearly a matter of various steps and processes in various groups and kinds of brain cells.
For instance, for a long time it was thought “one cell=one memory,” so your grandmother was filed in a certain cell and if that cell died, it snuffed the memory. But right now the theory is that your granny’s voice is in one place, her smell is in another, the print of her favorite apron in another, the thing she said standing in the kitchen in another. The index to the thing is sensory: the smell of frying potatoes brings her back by reassembling all the bits, which means it might not be exactly accurate, but might be surprisingly real-seeming.
Whatever happens in the “black box” assemblage that is the brain is mostly unconscious, though there might be shadows and feelings that arise in dreams. Some of it, of course, is quite conscious. Both "felt" parts control what a person decides to do, which is what comes out the other side of that black box. Including writing.
What the black box does, weaving in and out, up and down, is related to the way it evolved, adding gizmos over the millennia, each one giving enough of an advantage to be conserved by evolutionary forces. And also a result of experiences -- reaching out in the surf for another boy, drinking champagne at dawn.
People are talking about the three-part brain.
Individual survival level -- breathing, heart beat, hunger and thirst, temp regulation.
“The protoreptilian formation corresponds in anatomy with the brains of lizards and—through what we call an autonomic nervous system in humans—regulates basic life-support functions.” This level of function can be “felt” but is not usually conscious or describable in words.
Social level -- bonding, nurturing, territoriality
Here are some nearly random thoughts about this level. The first one is quoted from a guy named Panksepp who did a LOT of brain research.
"Rats have specialized skin zones that send play signals into the nervous system when they are touched. In other words, mammals appear to have 'play skin,' or 'tickle skin,' with specialized receptors sending information to specific parts of the brain that communicate playful intentions between animals."
In animals that have had their cortex removed, "play solicitations and overall roughhousing, as monitored by direct activity measures, remain intact," writes Panksepp, although pinning behavior is reduced by about half.
Isn’t this why even damaged boys so love pillow fights in their unders, though they could never say why? But doesn’t play for pay undermine this because the brain begins to chant “danger, danger” to make it shift back down to the reptilian part that has to decide whether to fight, freeze or flee -- and decide fast.
Consider this: “psychostimulants such as methylphenidate (i.e., Ritalin) and amphetamines—are all very effective in reducing playfulness in animals. Moreover, parents of hyperkinetic children often complain that one of the undesirable side effects of such medications is the reduced playfulness of their children.” So drugged boys sit and stare. Art teaches them to play again.
And here’s another brain idea: in the gestational formation of the brain, the development step at about five weeks that creates the autonomic nervous system is simultaneous with the step that creates the face. Identity.
Cultural level -- rational thinking, constructing
Art and play are both signs that the brain is able to move back “up” to the cortex where patterns and intentions form. Art and play are both symptoms and modes of response to the world. They have survival value.
So let’s premise a boy, a street boy. He is starving, which makes him hyperactive in an attempt to find food. But the way he finds abuses his body, drives his brain into urgent confusion, so he wants drugs that will shut this down. Except that those drugs remove his ability to play, to make art -- meaning unable to form a plan or make social contact. This could happen to an upscale boy just as well as any other.
It’s the third level that must take over now, the culture outside the boy, around the boy, the web in which the boy is a strand. If that culture values “the least of these” and will both tolerate the fight/flight/freeze behavior that the boy has learned in order to survive and will put into his hands the means of play -- skateboards and iPads and spray paint -- then that boy can join the culture and enrich it.
The breaking point is when a boy is frozen, a boy with the “zone of play” -- the shoulders, neck and throat -- too abused to respond to love, with a badly developed autonomic nervous system and therefore an ambiguous face, signals he is only a commodity and will be further abused until he is dead, carnal debris from a commodified society.
So? It’s a novel plot. It’s a poetry kernel. It’s images for a vid or a painting. It’s therapy, a message in a bottle, a new language, poetry that rhymes in occult ways, music from a different dimension, the stories society always thought would come from another planet so built huge parabolic ears to listen for. They cost a great deal of money, but we are pointing them in the wrong direction. We should be aiming them down the canyon streets of the cities. Maybe then we could find out where the points of intervention are.
What are the sensations that a street boy knows: the smells, the sounds, the temperature, the rubbing of his clothing on him, the sandiness of eyes that haven’t slept, the itchy oiliness of unwashed hair. The hunger, the bruises, the infected injection sites, the sore throat, the constant coughing, the aching joints. That’s the first of the three parts. Then the middle: the pressure on consciousness from too much fear, cold and wet, too many threats from too many directions, the shadows of unprocessed memories. And third the plans and actions: so many prevented, so many unimagined, so many people in the way. It’s hard to reach out.
SO: three approaches: new sensations, new ways of thinking, and new possibilities. Can that be so hard? The hard part is thinking of it for the first time. Just tell the stories. That’s the key.
The Triune Brain in Evolution: Role in Paleocerebral Functions by P.D. MacLean is the original book on the “three part brain,” but it costs hundreds of dollars. They say that Carl Sagan’s book “The Dragons of Eden” is a good explanation and used copies of it sell for a penny. You will have to pay shipping.