“I learned something new about you!” The Ever-Smiling Evil Indian gloated after I whined (!) about having never been claimed. “Your friends claim you.” (She really did say this, obviously a weak moment.) I know, but this doesn’t mean I believe! That’s the fundamental part &emdash; not exactly hard-wired into my brain &emdash; but the synaptic patterns I cognize as “not belongingness” (electrical stimulation among dendrites and axons in my limbic system) are encoded in neuronal firing patterns that can (only?) be changed by engraining long-term memory through “changes in the strength of the synapses between the nerve cells” (p. 8, Who do you think you are? A Survey of the Brain, The Economist, December 23, 2006).
The trick then, is manipulating the strength of those synaptic patterns, “changing the way that information flows through the neuronal network” (p. 8). One time when neuroscientists have found that synaptic strength change is accomplished is, believe it or not, during sleep! They don’t actually know how: one has to accept a comparison with sea slugs and worms to follow the argument Geoffrey Carr lays forth. 🙂 He presents the relationship among “sleep, dreaming and the establishment of long-term memories [as] known about for awhile” (p. 8), citing in particular studies of the hippocampus by Dr. Eleanor Maguire on the Knowledge of London taxi cab drivers (p. 7) and Dr. Matthew Wilson on electrical activity – dreams! – in the brains of rats “as it learnt something about the environment, such as how to run around a particular maze” (p. 8).
Identity, extrapolating from the above and other findings of modern neuroscience, is generated from (by, through) the subtle interactions of emotion and reason. Emotions are processed through the limbic system, particularly the amygdala and hypothalamus. Particular emotions (fear, anger, disgust, sadness) are conducted by the amygdala, and others (e.g., joy) with the hypothalamus. Memory is orchestrated by the hippocampus. Organizing all of these neurochemical and neuroelectrical processes is a function of language &emdash; Carr says “many … think the evolutionary pressure that drove the enlargement of the human brain was not a need to survive the natural environment but a need to negotiate the social one” (p. 9). Intriguingly, even categories of objects are associated with certain physical locations in the brain: for instance face recognition (always and only in the fusiform face area), images of places (parahippocampal place area) and writing (left fusiform gyrus) are always processed in the same place:
Somehow, all healthy developing brains not only work out that written words are a category to which it is worth allocatings its own piece of neural anatomy, but find it easiest to accommodate that category in the same piece of wetware. (p. 9)
The how of all these layers are being worked on at the level of genetics, with researchers aiming to pinpoint which genes are responsible for which synaptic connections, and theorizing about language and the mind. “Though no one has yet proved the case, it looks as though the evolution of language and the evolution of theory of mind might not only be two sides of the same coin, but might actually be different specializations of the same basic structure” (p. 10). Carr comes down strongly in support of Steven Pinker’s language instinct (and, hence, Noam Chomsky), citing an array of behavioral evidence, the existence of a speech production area in the brain (Broca’s area), a speech-recognition area (Wernicke’s), and parallels between auditory and visual languages:
Nor is language processing merely a matter of decrypting and encrypting sound. Deaf people who communicate using sign languages (which have all the grammatical and syntactic features of spoken language) also do their processing in Broca’s and Wernicke’s areas. If they suffer damage to these areas, it shows up in exactly the same way that it does in those who can hear. (p. 10)
What do humans, apes, elephants, and dolphins have in common? Awareness of self. This is a feature of consciousness that sets us apart from other animals. Reflecting upon the fact of self-awareness invokes theory of mind: “the ability not only to hypothesize what other minds are thinking, but to hypothesize what they are thinking about what you are thinking” (p 10).
The evolutionary value of this is that people can anticipate the actions of others in a way that helps them. But with language, they can not only anticipate the actions of others, they can try to manipulate them. (p. 10)
Enter interpreting &emdash; oh alright, it has been here all along! 🙂 &emdash; and mirror neurons. “A mirror neuron is one that is active both during the execution of a particular action or the production of a feeling by the individual concerned, and also when that individual observes the same action or feeling in another individual. In other words, it mirrors the actions and thoughts of others” (p. 10). But not exactly. Mirroring, based on a visual metaphor, is flawed from the start, since “visual experience…is a complete fabrication. What is consciously perceived is not a simple mapping of the images that fall on the retina. Instead, the signals from the optic nerves are deconstructed and re-formed in a process so demanding that it involves about a third of the cerebral cortex” (p. 12). Now, let me infer beyond what Carr explicitly states.
What is “mirrored” by mirror neurons are qualia &emdash; “consciously experienced feelings” (p. 11), but these are not necessarily the same, they are dialectical. We may both feel fear, or shame, or joy simultaneously, or your joy might elicit my grief, my anger your guilt, etcetera. This is because of the mutual reinforcement of a theory called neural Darwinism, which “combines two ideas. The first, as [Dr. Gerald Edelman] charmingly puts it, is that ‘neurons which fire together, wire together’ … provid[ing] the selective pressure that is the prerequisite for any Darwinian-based theory: to those neuronal networks that have shall be given, from those that have not, even what little they have shall be taken away.
The resulting changes are the physical basis of learning. (p. 11)
While Dr. Edelman restricts his claim to the internal neurochemistry of the brain, I am suggesting that such isolationism reduces the problem of consciousness to a false basis. Perhaps an opening to extend beyond the false autonomy of an individual is provided by the second idea in Edelman’s theory: re-entrant mapping. Here, Carr’s explanation reads like a communication textbook:
The process of learning can be viewed as one by which reality (as perceived by the senses) is transformed into a representation of reality. (p. 11)
These transformations, Carr continues, are described mathematically as mapping. “In Dr Edelman’s model of the brain…the maps themselves are mapped by other groups of neurons. It is the phenomenon of different groups of neurons watching each other that he refers to as re-entrant mapping” (emphasis added, p. 11). [Tangent: see this piece re William James on the Emotions, Mimicry, and the Social Self]
The anthropocentrism of neurons “watching” each other returns us to the problems of vision and the fact that even the perceptions of our senses differ. This variability of input/reception results in diverse &emdash; sometimes even contradictory &emdash; meanings, assertions of value, or evaluations of meaningfulness. Hence, the dilemmas of communication as we labor to create systems that enable survival and improve the human condition. If the key to learning lies in changing the basic neural firing patterns of daily experience, then the ways people talk about the experiences of living provides a powerful source of information about the phenomena of consciousness. Examining discourses enables framing to become apparent as a structure of knowledge: our own as well as others. The extent and depth to which the knowledge of how our own consciousnesses are structured can be transformed into changes at individual, societal, and institutional levels is an open question. [For instance, to what extent can we manipulate fractal geometry?]
Carr describes a particular mechanism of change as the “recapitulation of experience” (p. 8). (One must be amused by this proposed definition: “What usually happens after eating a parrot sandwich.”) Time and repetition are crucial components &emdash; both in terms of what has been documented with powerful technologies such as the fMRI (functional magnetic-resonance imaging &emdash; which has its critics, btw), and in securing (what I will call) the meaningfulness of memory. Taking time first, two absolutely fascinating details: rats in the experiments by Dr. Matthew Wilson “replay their experiences in their hippocampuses even when they are just resting, although, intriguingly, the pattern of electrical signals runs backward at this time” (emphasis added, p. 8). One could infer that memories are stored in chains of electrical impulses stemming from the most recent (closest in timespace) to oldest (most distant in spacetime). One can even imagine that links in this chain are not necessarily continuous through each-and-every-related experience, as what would matter is the strength and repetition of the neuronal firing pattern itself. The details of experiences that reinforce a synapse could easily be lost as dendrite firing to a specific/particular axon of another nerve fades without reinforcement.
The other totally compelling time detail involves the relationship between action and decision-making. Dr Benjamin Libet has shown (via electroencephalography) “that the process which leads to the act starts about three-tenths of a second before an individual is consciously aware of it” (emphasis added, p. 12). In other words, our synapses initiate action prior to what we imagine is our own intellectual, conscious, and deliberate choice: the mind is always playing catch-up with the brain. Does this temporal fact of physical reality seal the coffin on free will? I do not think so. Language is a mechanism for redirecting experience: not just for (attempting to) manipulate others but for reconstructing the structure of mirror neurons in our very own brains. The challenge, hidden like a seed in Carr’s prose, is not to merely repeat the spontaneous neuronal firing of new experience, but to recapitulate that pattern.
I may always be in the process of arriving just-after-the-fact of a neural firing of not-belongingness due to whatever obscure trigger sets off the conditioned synapses, but I can delay and interfere with its knee-jerk imposition of past reality. What comes out in terms of behavior may itself be warped, but at least it represents the evidence of learning, the desire for change. (See explanation of Vipasana, Camping in the Dawn Land.) Indeed, although inconsistent, I am aware of the establishment of new patterns – different responses than I’ve had in the past to certain stimuli. Acting in such a way as to continually reinforce these new ways of being is an effort that becomes easier with practice.