Wednesday, October 18, 2017


The human system of perception and action that we call “thinking” is complex and often binary, though not in the way that computer code is.  I’m referring to the halves of the brain, the bilateral construction of the body (two arms, two legs, two eyes, two ears, two nostril holes), and the reciprocal cycles of all the electrochemical and molecular signal systems (depletion, then renewal, then depletion).  

We are used to thinking of the nervous system in terms of action, meaning operation of the stiff coral-like bones by opposed muscle systems that use a variety of hinge styles (ball and socket, lever).  The nervous system also gives us access to the world outside our skins through cells that are up against the stimulus and cells that carry the code back to the brain.  But there is a whole second system:  the autonomic nervous system which reports to the brain in a yes/no manner (sympathetic/parasympathetic) that is not controlled by the “other” nerves but that monitors emotion by registering internal organ states and operations.   

Then there are fluid systems, the blood but also the lymph/mucus/plasma that fill the skin-sack and engulf all cells in chemical neurotransmitter reporting and operational code.  We can easily interfere with it by ingesting substances.  But these fluid systems interact with the long strands of sensory and internal signals, so that movement and even ideas can change molecular content and blood pressure.  Since the marrow of the bones are the origin of body fluids, stresses on hinge and structure can change thought, and thought in electrochemical terms can change bone function.

Now developing is a whole theory of operations: how these systems work together and against each other, reconfiguring through experience to create and maintain a “hallucination” that is your identity, your conviction of reality.  This linked video — an hour-long class lecture — explains how the consciousness and its immediate but UNconscious substrate work.  George Lakoff: How Brains Think: The Embodiment Hypothesis

In the shortest account, embodiment of thought works by connecting neurons in the cerebral cortex, which responds to repetition, pre-existing connections, and editing out of what is considered irrelevant.  The basic mode of thought is metaphor.  This justifies “religion” as an art form, visual or literary, and encourages humanities as the substrate of thought as much or more than logic and math, which can also be seen as metaphor.

Even newer than this is a body of thought developing called “extended cognition,” which plays “the active role of the environment in driving cognitive processes.”  That is, the manipulation of objects that are also mental concepts interacting.  When one plays chess, are the movements of the figures on the board external or internal?  To read more, 
and  This explains why different cultures from different ecologies see the world quite differently.  The physical world they have internalized is quite different and even leads to different conclusions, different strategies.

There are two more steps.  One is “theory of mind” which is one’s idea of what those other beings’ behaviors mean about their thinking.  In a small town people are always trying to understand their neighbors' goals and strategies, but they must figure them out in terms of what they already know.  (See above.)  Yet those neighbors may have had experiences and come to conclusions markedly different or even invisible to the observer, who may not know that the evidence even exists, that a world different than that of the observer is possible.  Here is where nations run into problems — how does a Somali understand the Inuit?

The other is "empathy" which is more than a feeling about someone else's circumstances, but instead a direct sharing of that other person's state of mind through eye contact and/or posture.  Many feel this is where evolution is happening now.

There are yet more forces, including the reptile brain and the mammal brain that are the foundation of the human metaphorical mind and even the rational consciousness that is what we assume is “thinking”.  The instincts (oh, yes! -- concepts so deep and elemental that they have been encoded in DNA ) and survival responses of all the aeons of development can burst up through everything evolved since, like the movie Alien’s spawn bursting up out of the soft viscera of the space men, with results just as disastrous.  In fact, the alien story is essentially a metaphor for that earthbound experience of the primordial erupting through whatever culture we have made from our environment.  

So now turn your attention to a new streaming series called “Mindhunter”, about an FBI team trying to understand and predict serial killers, each case an illustration of the above (ALL of the above) in terms of how this alien spawn was implanted in them by a culture that stigmatizes and tries to destroy what it doesn’t like because it’s not understood and maybe interferes with other agendas.  The humanness of the serial killer morphs into a metaphor system that drives him (usually “him”) obsessively to perform deeply antisocial acts.  

The “hook” of the series is that the investigators as they work bring to life their own internal primal structures, which are not necessarily benign and can lead to madness.  But the FBI is an excellent example of an order-keeping body that keeps its sanity and legitimacy by denying the humanity of the criminals, which means they never figure them or their motives out.  This persisting inscrutability of crime — easy to demonize but probably at the core simply dissonant — has the advantage of preserving the employment of FBI agents.  I’ll be very interested in where the second season goes.

In the meantime, we read Dostoyevsky and puzzle over his “Notes from the Underground.”  We struggle to make iconoclasts, immigrants, and children conform to our version of reality and wonder at both violence against others and suicide when someone’s reality has become so painful that death bursts out of the flesh.

Or maybe it’s just a mistake in thinking, a lack of proper information about the dangers of drugs, an environment that won’t support a culture of alternatives, child-raising practices that deform their very bones by not supplying what they need for healthy growth.  Standing apart to depict and analyze a culture or a person or a category of society is a risky business not usually economically supported, even if the emotion and thought of an individual want to take it on. 

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