Friday, July 08, 2016


Felt thinking is always embodied and admits that. No need for debate over abstracts. A major part of embodiment is the sensory system. There are at least four different categories of senses:
1. Senses like sight and hearing that are really detected electromagnetic waves whose wavelength and variability provide code that comes to our awareness on a screen we call the mind. We think we are actually seeing something or hearing something. Technical machinery can demonstrate that we’re only seeing part of the light waves and the sound waves, and that we greatly edit and interpret the code that gets to us.through the sensitivities of cells.
2. Senses that get to the brain directly through brain cells with the ability to interpret atomic particles and molecules, like smell. Taste is close. The perceiving cells of smell are actually an extension of the brain. Without smell, taste is very limited. Taste and smell are named and perceptible but they cannot be shown on the “screen” of the mind. One can’t see or hear a smell or taste, but only the source of the sensation.

3. Senses that only occasionally come to consciousness, like breathing. We sense breathing but we don’t control it consciously unless there is a problem. The parasympathetic nervous system monitors and corrects the functions needed for homeostasis all the time, like heartbeat, kidney function. Some senses are almost automatic like the dilation of eyes. But hormone secretion responding to situations can order a suite of responses without our consciousness: like fear or falling in love or just getting excited. Hunger and thirst fall into this category.
I don’t know what to do with instant reflexes like responding to danger or pain or coughing or blinking. There has to be a stimulus of some sort, but the response might be too fast to be routed through the brain.
4. Just now being found are specialized cells in the brain that monitor whether we are right side up, the propriocentric sense of where our bodies are, whether we are close to a wall or a precipice, whether there is food close by, whether we are being watched. Some of this is so subtle we hardly know the situation exists, much less perception of it.
The sense-nodes near sense organs do a lot of sorting and pruning before they send the code to the main management platform in the brain, which is believed to be in the pre-frontal lobe of the orbital cortex behind the forehead. This part IS capable of looking at relationships and metaphors beyond just feeling them. They can imagine “as-if” and consider alternative explanations.

The brain can perform Entrainment and concatenation, gathering things up into a kind of chain link or layering so that separate whatevers are reinforcing each other, maybe over time or maybe by making divisions of quality or sequence. This may be related to liminal time, concentrating without analysis or imposing hierarchies, so that one can re-think, change one’s paradigm, include new information. If things are coordinated and consonant, then dissonance will be more meaningful and dynamic. The sensation, which can be physical, will push things along the way that internal contradiction, paradox or oxymoron can force thought into a higher context, more inclusion, seeing the consistencies under-or-over-lying conflict, a new point of view, changing the terms of the argument.
So now we have a environment outside the skin that can only be accessed by senses and another environment inside the skin which is crucially what runs the body, a community of cells that must be reconciled and coordinated. The evolution of mammals doesn’t only mean that they can create their own warmth and new creatures inside their bodies, which greatly increases the complexity and need for homeostasis monitoring, as those of us who manage things like our glucose level or blood pressure are aware. Normally the mammal body does those things beneath our awareness. If they get a little out of kilter, we are not well.
"Reponomamus" -- your payment is overdue!
(That's this early critter's real name!)
Mammals also add emotion to the repertoire of the “cold-blooded” reptiles. Emotion is closely related to the hormone loops of adrenalin, oxytocin, serotonin, and so on — every addition or subtraction of a molecule is monitored by the brain to keep the in-skin within the necessary limits. The action is unconscious, but the results of the process rise to our awareness, becoming sensory: hunger, love, fear. Growling stomachs, blushing faces, hair rising on the head.
Mark Johnson (who has been Lakoff’s long-term collaborator in exploring metaphor) wrote “The Meaning of the Body: Aesthetics of Human Understanding.” I’m only beginning to read it, but I see that he addresses the senses of movement, the uses of space and containment, the actual interaction between in-skin and out-skin, impact and traveling in the world, and the invention of play as a way of learning how to use this action/perception loop. Reptiles do not play. I doubt that they dream. I’m thinking about dreams as a form of play, a rehearsal of “real” action and sensory recording — sometimes overwhelming. There is a body of writing about worship/ceremony as play. Children’s play often involves flow, focusing, mental exploration, natural ceremonies of the senses, tasting the world.

When it became possible to “read” brains and what they are doing through the use of machines that could pick up the subtle electro-chemical changes of thought, one amazing realization was that a person who is watching someone dance or play tennis is in their own observing brain and muscles duplicating faintly the same moves. The reality of empathy between persons — not just sympathizing with them or admiring them but feeling “with” them — which had been understood as imagining by observing through eyes and ears — was suddenly enlarged by muscle synchrony that links in-skin with out-skin. When mammals play, this is what they are developing. I watch the feral kittens in my backyard get better at pouncing every day. My own muscles “pounce.”
There is a concept called “Theory of Mind” that is meant to designate the empathic ability to understand first that others are also thinking, and then to be able to predict what they are thinking. It is thought to have developed as a hunting skill related to the effective coordination of muscle empathy. The cougar watches carefully, coordinates speed, and is finally able to jump to a grip on the throat of the prey.

Quickly, I found that using this phrase in the presence of young male Ph.D. academics makes them very upset. They think there is only one mind: their introspections; and that movement has nothing to do with thinking, even though thinking has been proven again and again to depend upon the schematics of movement through space. The better thinkers are often walkers.
Empathy is an evolved capacity that allows humans to sense other humans so as to entrain the whole group into thinking and acting together to form social effectiveness. Empathy works against violence and destruction. People who can have empathy with the stigmatized and understand them well-enough to work with them are the “molecules” that hold society in the homeostasis of survival. If empathy dies, the result is holocaust and genocide. It’s not a mystery — even chimpanzees have empathy for each other and included Jane Goodahl, who returned empathy with rational understanding. And even chimps sometimes “lose it” and go to war, reverting to reptile predation. Ceremonies that reinforce empathy are part of evolution to a better world.

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