Saturday, November 09, 2013


The human brain specifically “grows” or unfolds itself, beginning in the womb, by creating neurons and then connecting them.  This is done through the sensorium (the sum of all the senses, including a sense of gravity, space, and internal body states) which sends signals from the organs that interface with the out-skin world and then ties the information together in “hubs” or points of neural concentration for interaction and winnowing.  At this level all thought and feeling are woven together, each individual in uniqueness but united in basic similarity.  The phenomenon of this happening is what caused humans to have big brains or maybe big brains allowed this to happen or -- most likely -- the two interacted, the capacity to record and store memory pushing for more space in the cranium at the same time that the pre-existing richness of material compressing together and complexifying increased the capacity and nature of what was stored.  Capacity creates desire; the desire demands more capacity.  This is enough of an advantage to cause survival evolution.

A brain is an ecology: the push to expand into niches, as a consequence creating new niches, means -- in the case of humans -- not just better integration with the out-skin world but also the artistic creation of virtual worlds, representations that only exist in-skin but can be made “real” and communicable to other humans out-skin through painting, dance, music, ritual.  The brain is the in-skin’s access to the out-skin world, powered by wanting to know, to understand, to participate, to desire, to be awestruck.

My premise in the eventual longer document is that the sense of the sacred and the ability to feel and even create experiences of deep-felt meaning are what maintain a clear relationship between in-skin and out-skin.  In times and situations that are unvarying and that do not demand peaks of exertion or risk, it may be that unchallenged ideas and practices accumulate in the way that brains store first level memories that must be edited by the hippocampus, perhaps through dreams or maybe simply forgetting, disuse.  If there are no occasions of felt transcendence, humans can fall into depression and malfunction.  (Nassim Taleb has discussed his ideas about this.  The paleoanthropologists talk about it.)

This material is best approached through anthropology, arts, psychoanalysis, paleobiology, and possibly theories of sexual function but NOT theology.  Human institutions claim “ownership” of transcendent phenomena and because institutions are the result of group consensus and self-maintenance, they will exclude any free-ranging or innovative theories.  Also, in the modern Western world, they are dominated by written words and the rules and bookkeeping that arise from them.  But this line of thinking here doesn’t challenge any institutions and possibly could even benefit them: probably has always dwelt somewhere within them particularly at the level of founding.  But the particularity of dogma and practice interfere with thought about primal levels so deep that they were shared with Neanderthal humans.

I hasten to say that this is all speculative, though there is a huge body of material and I have a certain amount of “clinical” experience through arts and institutional religion.  Our present ability to see individual neurons or “hubs” of interaction in the brain as they fire offers a window on the mind we’ve never had before.  But this is not to brush aside introspection as a long-standing and useful access to the mind.  The limitation on simply asking “how do you feel?” has always been to hit that boundary between what is conscious and what is unconscious.  Since that boundary can be pushed back and forth by various means, such as free-association or performance and creation in arts or drugs, we know it’s there.  A boundary is felt when crossing it.  Likewise, there is a permeable or variable boundary between reason and emotion:  we react emotionally to what we have reasoned out, but that emotional response is evidence useful in rational reflection.

Institutions are not always helpful when they become enforcers of morality, even when the precepts seems humane and possible, such as obeying the Golden Rule.  Still, even that can become problematic.  (Sir Bertrand Russell remarked that it might not be helpful when dealing with a liver fluke.  Is it helpful when dealing with pets?)  If institutions develop in one place and then move to a different set of circumstances, they can do immense damage, particularly when their ideas have destroyed the place they have come from (a form of clear-cutting) and now move to a new place where they repeat their approach.  This sort of issue belongs to ideas about community identity rather than individual persons.  But it also puts both person and community into a context of environment.

Drawing on an environmentally-based theory of thought, I‘m developing a three-part argument.  The pattern derives from a buffalo jump as newly understood by Jack Brink in his book Imagining Head-Smashed-In: Aboriginal Buffalo Hunting on the Northern Plains,” published by the University of Athabasca Press.  We think of bison in simple generic terms as a given and a “jump” as simply where they are killed by being pushed over a precipice.  In fact, certain preconditions and skills are necessary.  One is a broad grassy area above the cliff where buffalo collect to graze, then the patterned means of hazing and finally stampeding them over the cliff, and finally the sorting and processing that converts them into cured hides and dried meat that can be stored.  Kind of an hourglass pattern with the precipitation as the pinch-point.  In this manuscript the first part is awareness and collection of the sensorium, the actual intense experience is the “buffalo jump”, and the third part dissects how the events nurture people, how the incident is assimilated.  This neither contradicts nor excludes principles of syllogism, narrative climax, or scientific method.

“Afterlife” or immortality will not be addressed, though their felt meanings will be.  Plains Indians had their own felt sources of courage in a life full of peril.  Much of the variation in institutional or broadly cultural ideas about such matters comes from the tension between individual and community.  Fears of personal survival can be subsumed by the necessity of saving the group, but the group may keep control by threatening individuals with dire fates, one way or another.  The tension between person and community is another matter that can be addressed by transcendent experience, the feeling of proportion and a far greater belonging to creation, a way of going to James Flynn's thinking at the level of abstraction and imagination.

That felt connection to an ultimate is part of the in-skin knowledge crossing to intense relationship with the out-skin world.   Intimacy with other humans, the existence of other life-forms, the understanding of geological processes, an awareness of the cosmos, can energize lives that require small acts of service and vision in a local setting.  One might say “the heroism of the ordinary,” which is a moral concept but one drawn from life experience, rather than dictated in a book.  If a person can compensate for his or her own limits and fears by helping others, even in indirect ways, that opens the mind to empathy, which I take to be the newest evolutionary accomplishment of the brain, even beyond the group efforts necessary for something like driving buffalo.  This can take us past the blind mammal instincts of lethal domination.  Maybe even past the famous “banality of evil.”

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