Friday, October 09, 2015


A brain without a body is not a brain -- the body IS the brain.  The brain only sorts the experience it acquires through the body.  it's just the dashboard.  A computer can only perform a few of the sorting abilities of a whole body.   For instance, it has NO autonomic nervous system, therefore no emotion.

Some of this short film is old-fashioned, dominated by the same prejudice of our culture that “smarts” are “brains” and that it is equipment-and-function-based.  The newer analogs leave this machine context and go to music.  It’s vibes and immersions, not wiring and transformers.  Very hard transition to make for most of us.  

The time dimension of evolution and mutations interacting is totally ignored in computers.  The difference between a worm and a human is partly in the brain, but if a worm is A and then B is added, and then C is added, and then most of the ABC worms die for some reason, but there are a few ABCD worms, who are now able to do ABCDE because of some adaptation to the conditions that killed the merely ABCD worms and because of the space and food left when the ABCD worms were gone, and this adaptation adds a new capacity from the interaction of the ABCDE worms, which creates an ABCDEF worm that can dominate the space.  Then some new shift in the environment (temperature, an evolved virus, a new predator) creates conditions that can only be survived by collaboration among the ABCDEF worms that gives the ABCDEFG (those who WILL collaborate) an advantage.  All unconsciously.

‘Experience-dependent plasticity’ is pretty much ignored by these thinkers because is not something you can see in tissue -- so far.  But any teacher knows that the capacity to change people is not just a matter of instrumental intervention or memorizing facts.  You cannot create a piano player by surgically adding fingers.  The plasticity part is vital -- you can create a piano player with practise, practise, practise, which is an interaction feedback loop that connects the fingers with what are probably a range of brain functions. (hearing, muscle control, “perfect pitch,” ability to perceive structure in sound, love of a particular kind of music)  Music can be composed that will adapt to missing fingers or even one entire hand.  Music can be created and played with only one’s mouth.  One discovers how to do it by doing it.

It is not enough to invent a prosthetic arm, because it will take a long time and a lot of effort to get the brain to recognize the connection to the machinery and then learn how to make it move.  Brains are not “plug and play.”  Part of the feedback loop will involve the eyes taking in the phenomenon of a moving arm and admitting it into the idea of their “selves.”  We’ve learned a lot from people who have lost an arm but can’t give up the idea of it and therefore often suffer.  The researcher Ramachandran invented a new feedback loop with a mirror and succeeded in teaching the brain a new version of the body.

What we think about something changes our attitude towards it, our action towards it and its response so that what actually happens can be wildly off the mark.  I loved the story about the woman who got the idea that a vacuuming “Roomba” was a living autonomous creature, a pet bumbling around the kitchen eating crumbs.  In the end, according to her neo-liberal “theory of mind,” she became convinced that the Roomba longed for freedom and to meet another Roomba for a pair-bond.  So she set it free and it went lurching into the woods, never to be seen again.  

I don’t know whether this an apocryphal story or just another “Simple Simon” tale meant to alert ourselves to the importance of being appropriate, but it certainly applies to what are now being called “neo-liberals” who believe that everyone should want what they want and set about forcing them to want freedom.  Or die.

Plasticity responds to time, which means that the brain and all the rest of the body must constantly adapt to change through interaction.  This is why solitary confinement destroys people, esp. young people who are passing through windows of capacity.  The brain can learn to speak, to write, to pair-bond, at certain intervals of growth and then can’t; don’t even know there is anything to learn, might learn basics but only with considerable protection, guidance and new experiences.  

We think of brains as pre-programmed into apps, but each person writes code, has code written on them, shares code with others.  Even gut biota code us.  Some of this learning by experience is considered play in some cultures.  Others guide everything into what they think is good for the culture.  But if the culture shifts (and cultures MUST change or be snuffed or deformed), the person faces something close to insanity.  In our own American “television” dominated lives, we are full of subtle perceptions about electronics and untested-by-reality assumptions that can become obsessional, like the idea that Obama is Muslim without any real understanding about Muslims.  It’s like believing that Obama is a witch or a zombie -- just a label carrying something mysterious and dangerous.  The whole strategy of him traveling around talking to people is to demonstrate that he’s just a guy with a certain set of experiences.

Look at this experience thing from a slightly different angle.  Our culture BELIEVES intensely that what is conscious, what is verbal, written, academic, what is certified by the culture with test scores, degrees, and high level jobs, is what is BEST, a value judgment that then controls what experience is offered and controlled.  Literacy and reason are valued as the pinnacle of what a brain can do.  And yet much of our humanity, our empathy, our motivations, and other vital abilities (the ability to survive pressure, the ability to accept comfort, a sense of humor) are not consciously achieved but appear and survive below language, below the concepts about experience, in the world-frame developing already --  even in the womb while gestating.  At that earliest point one’s own motivation is pretty much irrelevant.  

Once my mother and I had one of our monumental conflicts, usually basically because she thought survival mean conformity and I thought being “normal” was being mediocre, that the point of living and learning was to be exceptional.  Suddenly she burst out, “You’ve always been against me!  Even when they brought me to you when I had just recovered from being knocked unconscious for your birth, you fought me and wouldn’t suck.  There was a big red-headed nurse who was very angry at me.”

It took me a little while to assimilate this.  I have red-hair and somehow got confused with that nurse.  Neither of them had been educated about how to support “latching on,” which is a matter of getting a newborn to discover “nursing.”  Nor was the nurse “nursing” -- just forcing an over-conscientious new mother and a resistant baby.  So then I protested through tears, “Mama, I was just a little tiny infant!”  She looked very confused and the quarrel ended.

In adulthood she constantly tried to get me to go on walks with her, driving to one of the many pleasant paths in Portland.  I always balked, because inevitably when she got me where I couldn’t escape, she started again on her three-cornered theme about how she tried to guide me, how I refused to be helped, and what the world expects.  Now I find that I sometimes begin -- without any consciousness of doing it -- to re-enact that pattern but it never works.  Staying with the trope of nursing babies, some people are guided by La Leche League, some mothers are living at ground-level life in remote places where they never thought of it as a problem because they were just trying to survive.  Some people are hypnotized by pretty advertising images; some people are as driven to control as if they were boa constrictors.  Some people have milk full of poison and a baby half of whose beginning in semen was also poisoned.  Think of THAT!!

Each of these little vignettes represents a difference in experience that results in different people, different actions, different cultures, different brains.  No computers.  It's the differences that give us survival.

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