Sunday, April 17, 2016


Easter Island -- always watching

If a person had been following the latest research in what it is to be human (which in our age has replaced— or should — all the worrying about what it is to be God (let Him take care of Himself)  they would have learned things that most people have not absorbed yet.  I shouldn’t say “things,” because the paradigm shift is away from things to patterns, interactions, and change.  Get your dictionary.  

Most people assume that thinking is done only in the brain, that it is accessible on reflection, controllable by “will-power” and at its highest point a matter of words and math.  These things are not true. The whole body counts and thinks, most of it cannot be summoned up by reflection, and many feel its highest use is in the arts.

The essence of a human being is the meiotic synergy of two plans for a body as an aggregation of individual eukaryote cells specialized to operate in a unity.  The plans are encoded in a double helix of only four molecules which are arranged in a specific number of chromosomes that are in pairs.  One pair is either XX or XY — the Y allows the male gametes to leave everything behind (pack ONE bag) except their code and travel to the ovum.  The united halves then begin to follow a specific plan.  This will take nine months or three trimesters in the womb.  At that point the new human emerges and continues the gestation outside for what is considered by some to be a fourth trimester.

A baby ready for the world?

At this point the infant can breathe, eat, digest, pump blood, feel with all senses.  Some say that when newly discovered specialized cells are included (spindle cells and others) there are as many as 200 senses.  No computer or built machine can do this, at least not all at once.  A computer has no access to sense code unless it is provided by a human or an auxiliary machine.  Humans do not perceive directly or consciously many sensory elements, but they always perceive code for waves and molecular interactions that are sorted and patterned in the brain until they reach our awareness as colors, sounds, tastes, and so on.

The brain begins to weave a scaffold for identity: all of this is code and the code is emotion- and memory-based.  This is the fabric for the rest of that individual’s life.  Anything not relevant to this first structure is discarded, literally, by the deaths of those cells. 

We’ve only recently understood the epigenome, which is another set of molecular codes that I think of as a sleeve over the helixes.  However you think about it, it is from the environment and is capable of turning individual genes on or off, sometimes in an individual, sometimes with a wave of effects lasting into three generations later or becoming permanent code.  We are beginning to learn how to turn individual genes on and off though they turn out to be complex interactions with sometimes unforeseen consequences.  We come in a cloud of imperceptible tiny independent creatures: parasites, symbionts.

Hitchhikers and helpers.

The next five years are devoted to learning basic muscle management — standing, walking, gripping, — coordinating eyesight, organizing the perception of senses, forming habits of all sorts.  Next comes reading, writing and arithmetic along with the protocols of interaction among people.   The basic stories, games, management of emotion.  

We now know that the brain is forming the connections among neurons and clusters of neurons that we call the “connectome.”  It is not just through neurons, but also from the production of molecules by organs that form operational loops that control the on-and-off swings of whatever is needed in the moment.  These interact with the autonomic nervous system that controls unconscious operation of the body, often resulting in perceptible emotion.

From about  age 8 to the onset of puberty, the individual is forming an identity, self-talk, reaction style, shape and dimensions of emotion, and belonging to the family, a cohort, and larger sets of loyalty.  

Then comes the challenge of managing sexuality and finding a life work that will sustain a family.  All this greatly involves the pre-frontal cortex, the most recent part of the brain to develop, believed to contain morality, art, and high concept formation which isn’t complete until the mid-twenties and sometimes not even then.

Another capacity is that for empathy which clearly involves the eyes, absorbing another person’s emotion and understanding by looking at them.  To know how another person feels through one’s skill at empathy is mysterious and not anything a machine can do, though a lie detector can record what the autonomic nervous system is controlling.  Muscle movements can be formulated and interpreted, but that’s not the same as activating mirror cells.

A lot of people were seduced by the right brain/left brain idea and the studies that assigned image to one side (females and artists) and words to the other side (men and scientists), but they oversimplified and distorted what happens.  It may be more fruitful to review the evolution of the brain from the first hominin, though much of it is guesswork.  

The aggregated organ we call "brain" was tightly formed by interaction with the environment, which changes for many reasons, or — if the homonins went exploring, the new place changed them.  The two — human capacities and environmental demands — are as tightly choreographed in retrospect as that first dance between the infant and the world.  Homeostasis is the guide.

The human body/mind is a composite that is always in flux, but also always evolving new ideas and skills.  This is so complex that we nearly have to reassemble ourselves on waking every day.  Trauma or disease can interfere to the point of insanity, crippling and death.  

Thus we need communities to sustain us through the ordeals and to learn and remember our work after we are gone.  Communities are individuals gathered and in tension between what is good for one and what is good for all.  In a way this mimics the tension between the parasitic developing zygote and the mother’s resources as a providing body.  It’s a balancing act.

The tension between the one and the many can be governed by religious principles or — after writing was invented — governmental laws.  Greek drama was meant to act out the struggle between the individual and the state.  I first learned about it as a sophomore in high school when we performed “Antigone” in a classroom, theatre in the round.  

One young woman has two brothers who war over power.  Both die in battle.  Creon, the king, has to pick one brother as justified in order to reunite the country and he does it by denying the other brother traditional burial, using his power as a human law-giver to oppose what was seen as God’s law.  Antigone insists on burying her brother, which ends up with her death and the death of her lover, the king’s son.  The play has repeatedly been recreated as opera, which was intended to use the best and most powerful of the elements of staging to get to the passionate core.  A computer can do parts of this, but no computer can compose and perform an opera.

There is another set of stages related to the empathy stirred by spectacular story, progress beginning with focused attention, then growing interest, entwined memories, accordance, intimacy, bonding, faithful dedicated love (not sex or not JUST sex), virtual concepts of what is true.  One can go through these stages with a person, a work of art, an animal, a landscape, and more.  It is what unites the person and the group, the world, the cosmos.  It is the source of the sacred, a felt dimension of human being that cannot be detected by instruments, no matter how sensitive they are.

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