The next time I make a list of the most basic dyads of the forming brain, I will add continuity/strangeness. These dyads are not meant to be binary oppositions, but distinctions that form in the brain from experience, because the basic dynamic of the human stream of identity is the pressing back and forth over a kind of boundary, blurry as it may be. When an infant comes to something strange, it goes on alert and records everything as much as possible. This may become a more intense and vivid memory than others so that it's remembered into the future.
One of the earliest moments I can remember is as a toddler visiting a country house with my family before my brother was born. The place itself was intriguing: a big house, a vast lawn, a cow from next door who crossed the first electrical fence, which I was warned not to touch. Many relatives were there and that was novelty enough since I didn't know them.
At dusk I was put down on top of the quilt on a double bed. It was summer and a blanket was spread over me. Then the room was dark. I was hypnogogic.
Wide swaths of light with straight edges crossed the ceiling and walls. Intervals uneven. No sound in the room but motors outside. Closely hand-stitched cotton under me. No color. Looming furniture, dark and rectangular. The room's door closed and rectangular. Everything straight-edged, colorless, but swept by light. Sound of grownups talking and laughing. A bit of worry. My own breathing. Unfamiliar smells. Everything fading. Electric fence. Don't touch it. Gone.
While my baby consciousness was dealing with this as long as I was awake and paying attention, the organic brain was growing. They say that the individual cells, while sleeping, become smaller and fluid washes through the head around them, carrying away irresolvables and incompletes. At the same time the neurons are become more neurons and tendrils reach out from the ones about rectangular moving light, not to name it (headlights) but to note it and then to connect the concepts to other neurons that might seem related. (day length, dark/light, safety, adult voices only heard). Like "extension cords," the neurons plug in.
Sameness/difference is such a basic crucial area for the brain to understand that it dominates our racial politics: who looks like me? Who is different? If they are different, are they dangerous? Or do they make me curious? This is not necessarily conscious, but underthought that controls rational behavior.
My life has been guided by this distinction between "don't touch it" and "see what it is." It's a contradictory principle that is sometimes rewarding and other times carries a high cost. Sometimes the consequences aren't known until much later. Going to an Indian reservation to teach, marrying a sculptor twice my age, entering the ministry -- are all examples of desire overcoming prudence, both being attracted and being repelled, with consequences that are often just as mixed.
You see in this post a mixture of sensory concept without words (baby tipping into sleep) and analytic writing based on scientific research. The concepts learned in the earliest years are underconsciousness that builds the structure of the brain and guides the development of personality through the material culture and the behavior of adults. Because "my" adults were not frightened of a big black-and-white cow but respectful of a little line of wire taught me that appearances were not the only guide.
When my mother put me down, she was severe about it because she wanted to get back to the conversation. Some of these people had been next-door neighbors homesteading in South Dakota and were very fond of each other. Talk was warm and funny. But I was clearly separated. This is also a theme of mine. (I call it choosing to be the cat that watches.)
Getting home simply happened. I didn't wake up until the next morning. My underthought knew. Like a part-dolphin, a little bit of the mind is always awake. My family was teetotal, so no one was hungover or regretful or wondering what happened. I have never learned to cope with this common phenomenon. I can't summon up much empathy for it.
Not until I was adult did I learn that the homesteads were on land where the Brulé Sioux were thrown off or that "brulé" (Burnt Thigh) was a French word used as a distinguisher because a group of men were caught by a prairie fire and even under buffalo robes, which saved them, the ground became hot enough to burn their bare legs. Not until recently did I begin to reflect on the practise of making the prairie into a surveyed grid and assigning owners.
Babies can only assimilate what they can perceive and they perceive what the adults can see. The most crucial distinction is between themselves and their caregivers, just as groups are attached to their land, because it is what they know, it is what is embedded in their brain cells. Breaking this can cause grief and chaos that challenges identity and even existence, because in the pre-human mammal structure of a creature, this is the deepest and most-likely-to save-impulse of life.
First it prevents sleep and trying (depression) and then it dictates withdrawal, recovery, reprogramming but not at the deepest underthought level which is unconscious, where babies are before they have memories because memories describe chosen consciousness. There are many other things that are only brought up to the light by art, guided thought, sudden sensory showers of light/sound/movement/temperature.
A creature can only work with sensory information derived through the skin by electromagnetic waves or noted unconsciously about what the internal systems are doing. It works with metaphor and memory, connects and disconnects, stuff unsorted from long ago. Recently it is suggested that some women have a mutated gene that lets them see four colors. It's on the leg of the chromosome that is not present in the male Y genes. For those of us who see the standard three wavelengths, the fourth can't be seen except by machines and those women, who can't really describe it. No one knows of a use or a need.
There are cultures where "peace" is a fourth color. Is it a cow (source of milk) or an electric fence (painful boundary).
Can peace nurture us or is it too dangerous?