This is not about a Christmas tree, neither the northern White Goddess/celtic vegetative code of evergreens nor the patriarchan Middle Eastern birth symbol which was a palm. This is about a tree as a structural form which is then also the shape of thought because the brain is organized that way. I’m going to consider three aspects: the spatial pattern of it, what the branches support (memory), and rhythm, the pulsing of life itself.
What I’m really thinking about is how brains work. The architecture of brains looks like blobs sort of glommed together when they’re lifted out of a skull, but actually, as in a computer-sketched version of the connections, it is structured far more like a tree or maybe branched coral. This “tree” is dynamic. Not only does it respond to experience by growing new branches, but also it will let old unused ones dwindle and die. This can be done intentionally as when one practices a skill until it is mastered.
A tree of thoughts is a spatial design and, indeed, it is organized in terms of space -- back and forth, up and down, in and out. Our stories -- our lives -- are seen as paths through time plotted as a line. Our analyses are often diagrams, boxes and arrows, connecting lines. Our grammar depends partly upon position in a sequence of words; English reading is produced by interpreting an ant march of letters. Music is dots clustered on lines.
Researchers discover that thoughts are composed of information from our sensorium, a word I particularly like because it implies so much more than just the five senses and also suggests the in-skin processed nature of the information that comes from out-skin. Some of it is like the toad’s bb’s, sitting there inert until it is pruned out. (See previous blog.) Some of it is processed without our knowing it -- shadows in our muscles and guts that we feel without any consciousness -- and some of it has been transformed into something it really isn’t because there’s no place on the tree for what it is. No holes for nests means no nests. But wait -- what about nests in forks of branch?
The surface of the brain’s cortex, where much of the through-skin sensorium info is kept, actually is plotted like a map of the body, though the more sensitive parts (lips, hands, etc.) are bigger in proportion because so much more info from them is stored. This information is filed by indexing it to the associated sensorium, which is why a certain smell, taste, smell, muscle twist, can summon up memory and even emotions, which is what Method actors use to manage their consciousness when representing situations. The work of memory is first editing the intake and then “filing” the sensorium in the cells of the cerebrum. If the memory functions are overwhelmed, editing loops can result. This is thought to be at least part of the problem with PTSD: the sensorium is too intense and there is no place to put the information anyway. It is indigestible information and disrupts all the bodily resources with floods of hormone and adrenaline. A ball-bearing in the brain, insolvable but electrical.
Using the tree idea again, some of the sensorium information becomes flower (music), some fruit (theorems), but mostly leaves and attractors that pull small mammals, birds, insects, fungus, moss, mistletoe, and possibly small boys into the branches. This is too fanciful to be useful. We must not neglect the tree’s reflection rooted underground where memory -- possibly cultural, sort of Jungian universals -- nourishes the life-force that travels up and down and out to the tips, all driven by a kind of life-urge that is like atmospheric pressure. This is also fanciful but fancy often shapes scientific insight.
New insights have major implications for education and for self-management. One can “grow” one's mind and one can manage the patterns of the connectome, which is what determines the momentary nature of consciousness, depending on which centers of function are connected. Dynamic events in the brain are always echoed in the body, not just in nerves but in both organs and muscles, and, in fact, can be controlled in part by bodily actions and positions. This is ancient knowledge more acted upon in the Asian, African, American and Australian parts of the world, which is a slantwise way to say that Euros spend too much time sitting and pondering motionlessly.
Too much of that pondering gets channeled into business capitalism and empire war-mongering. A case might be made that the result of all this figuring out has since Egyptian times meant bookkeeping to keep track of wealth or in order to design military advantages. The history of Europe seems to be preoccupied with ownership and domination. Fantastic systems of theology based on unchallenged assumptions crowded out science based on experimental direct observation. Men have one fewer rib on one side, they said, because of Eve being made from an extracted bone, but no one simply counted ribs.
Now we come back to old issues with a huge technically augmented sensorium that has already forced many paradigm shifts, but most of all has proposed the idea that givens can and should be challenged. Already so many unnecessary and unjustified givens have been swept aside. The invention of the imaginative novel began to claim back a lot of territory related to human experience. Now it's video images that go everywhere. We see things never seen by humans before, either at the tiny submicroscopic level or at the most faraway macrocosmic distance.
How it is that we can watch ourselves watching? We begin to understand how the sensorium perceives the out-skin world, but how is it that we can feel ourselves feeling? And critique the ways we react, try to train ourselves to react differently, to look at the out-skin world differently? Even stranger is our capacity to imagine by extension -- greener than green, more powerful than any power -- and unlimited continuums of time and space: eternity, infinite other dimensions. Forests that carpet the earth, trees that reach to the skies, roots to the center of the earth. They don't exist but we can think of them.
In our own consciousness we combine music, image and word in ways that evoke far more meaning than the definitions of the words and then we make them move to rhythms of sound that are partly language and partly melody. We call this poetry -- when it is not song -- and cherish its indelible patterns in our brains. We don't think of trees as having rhythm though obviously they do: growing, shedding, regrowing, swaying in the wind, responding to the seasons, making music with the leaves that flutter and hum or branches that rub together, and occasionally providing a great crescendo crash of falling over, whether or not we are there.
We’ve known about brain waves for a long time and know about circadian rhythms sliding into nightly sleep. We note the waves of emotion that accompany us through the seasons, and maybe the long gradual movement of our lives through maturation and the slowing of age. We know about alphabetically labeled brain waves and what the mind does when the patterns differ. We know how to run electrical surges or magnetic trickles through the brain -- sometimes a happy jolt, and others inducing the confusion of seizure and disorder. We even know about the radar-like wave that keeps the other waves synchronized, washing through the brain at regular intervals. We speculate about whether trees scream when we cut them down, still pushing a projection of ourselves in extremis as we try to think the unthinkable. We are life in the midst of life but what does that mean? Should we do something about it besides growing our brains? What invisible particles wash through us on their way to eternity? They say the planet vibrates like a gong.