If our minds are what our brains do and changing our brain’s habits is harder than we think (Merkl 2007) will freedom evolve naturally towards a more just society?
May 4, 2007
If our minds are what our brains do (Dennett 2003:i) and changing entrenched brain pathways may be harder than we think (Merkl 2007) is the logical conclusion of an entirely naturalistic Darwinian human evolution a more just, humane world or a dystopia? Or you tried to change your mind but your brain wouldn’t let you.
Dennett (2003) argues that the evolution of the human brain over deep time has followed the laws of natural science and that human free will is an emergent phenomena of that same physical process. He forcefully argues that biological determinism does not limit human behaviour to predictable, inevitable outcomes.
Dennett contends that recognition of the true nature of man as an exclusively physical body proscribed by the laws of nature will provide a stronger, wiser doctrine of freedom (Dennett 2003:22) than the belief that the reality of man resides in her immaterial, immortal human soul capable of defying the laws of nature (Dennett 2003:1).
Man’s evolution towards moral thinking and existential interpretations is constituted by higher levels of evolution, more advanced outcomes of the natural evolution of entities towards emergent changes that allowed them to avoid harm and reproduce themselves (Dennett 2003:22).
While Dennett draws on arguments from biology, cognitive neuroscience, economics and philosophy proposing provocative and original arguments, there is a lack of the psychological or sociological2 imaginations in his work. It is in the area of habits (particularly those that are institutionalized or community-sanctioned) that flaws may be revealed in Dennett’s arguments of a logical evolutionary conclusion of an emergent salutary human nature incapable of overriding its material brain yet somehow managing to move beyond its own autopoietic system. Would human nature not follow evolutionary pathways towards conservation of the familiar while eliminating that which is uncomfortably unfamiliar from everyday life? What are the ethical implications for sustaining an authentic pluralism, diversity of cultures? It is in this area of an expanded Derridian hospitality towards the stranger, the unknown that Dennett’s secular humanism fails to respond.
Like Dennett, William James1 (1986:369 cited in Tursi 1999) perceived the same evolutionary principles at work in inorganic matter that have been applied to organic matter. In the same year that James developed his ideas on the relationship between the birth of human consciousness, habit and knowing, Freud explored the concept of habit formation as simple agents of conservation that are instinctual reaching deeply back through consciousness, through organic and even organic compulsions. James seemed to perceive the evolutionary changes in human consciousness as radical agents of variance and development. He aligned habit and knowing so that free human agents develop habits by force of will and character. James regretfully admits that habits are difficult to change after the age of thirty (1890). Freud’s theorized that an organism, including a human being, is disposed towards repeating its own lived experience while protecting itself against unsafe levels of stimulation from the unknown, the unheimlich or the uncanny. Freud argued that the cerebral cortex as the seat of consciousness, recorded negative past experiences of unfamiliar stimuli protected itself by constructed hardened defensive shields against outer stimuli. James acknowledges the way in which habitual sequences and customary feelings provide us with an agreeable feeling of being at home with oneself, whereas unsafe levels of excitation from uncustomary, unfamiliar, incongruous representations evoke distress, doubt, misunderstanding and irrationality (Essays in Philosophy 345). For a more in-depth thoughtful discussion see Tursi (1999).
James “advocates idiosyncrasy, spontaneity, and originality as enrichments to a malleable world, he always returns to habit (Tursi 1999). We reconfigure the unfamiliar or uncanny, the unheimlich to a more welcome pattern (Pragmatism 122).
Just as rivers can be reconfigured so too can our neural networks but deep entrenchment of fast flowing rivers in their time-worn river beds are less flexible, less plastic and more embedded.
It may seem easy to change your mind, but if it’s your brain we’re talking about, maybe it’s harder than we think. A University of Houston professor is looking into this with research into something called ‘brain plasticity (Merkl 2007 ).’
Key Words: brain plasticity, free will, entrenched core beliefs, reconfiguring entrenched brain pathways, habits, character, morality and meaning,
1 The work of William James, considered by his followers as canonical, has been derided by his critics as classist and elitist. I consider it fortunate that his work has again found a legitimate place even with these critics. James began or contributed to so many debates that have been recently resuscitated.
2 Pierre Boudieu’s studies on the reproduction of social values through cultural institutions through schools and museums, for example, reveal the degree to which entrenched societal values continue to be reinforced in a hidden curriculum that benefits exclusive, powerful social strata. In Modernity and the Holocaust (1989) sociologist Zygmunt Bauman argued that genocide was the logical conclusion of the Enlightenment project with its promise of a better society based on shared western values. The Other who refused modernity would be eradicated through a process of natural selection that ensured a safer world for those with more power to reproduce themselves.
Not just for radicals, but for many mainstream liberals too, the road that began in the Enlightenment ends in savagery, even genocide. As the sociologist Zygmunt Bauman argues: ‘Every ingredient of the Holocaust… was normal… in the sense of being fully in keeping with everything we know about our civilisation, its guiding spirits, its priorities, its immanent vision of the world – and of the proper ways to pursue human happiness together with a perfect society (Bauman 1989:8).
Zygmunt Bauman. 1989. Modernity and the Holocaust. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1989), p8
Dennett, Daniel C. 2003. Freedom Evolves. New York: Penguin.
Flynn-Burhoe, Maureen. 2007. “You tried to change your mind but your brain wouldn’t let you.” >> papergirls. May 3. http://papergirls.wordpress.com/2007/05/04/you-tried-to-change-your-mind-but-your-brain-wouldnt-let-you /
Freud, Sigmund. 1953-75 . “Beyond the Pleasure Principle” in The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works. Trans. and Gen. Ed. James Strachey. 24 vols. London: Hogarth, 1953-75.
James, William. 1890. “Habit.” The Principles of Psychology. http://psychclassics.yorku.ca/James/Principles/prin4.htm
James, William. 1986 . Essays in Psychical Research. Ed. Frederick H. Burkhardt, Fredson Bowers, and Ignas K. Skrupskelis. Cambridge: Harvard UP.
Merkl, Lisa. 2007. “How Plastic Is Your Brain? UH Engineer Seeks Answers.” Medical News Today. May 3. http://www.medicalnewstoday.com/medicalnews.php?newsid=69263&nfid=crss
Tursi, Renee. 1999. “William James’ Narrative of Habit.” Style. Spring. http://findarticles.com/p/articles/mi_m2342/is_1_33/ai_58055905/print
© Flynn-Burhoe, Maureen. “If our minds are what our brains do (Dennett 2003:i) and changing our brain’s habits may be harder than we think (Merkl 2007) can we achieve a wiser, stronger freer society through a process of purely natural selection as Dennett predicts?” >> Speechless
Men feel what they imagine they feel. From that to thinking that they imagine they feel what they feel was a very short step (Gide 1925)
April 27, 2007
How can I know what I’m feeling isn’t just me imagining that I am feeling? What is counterfeit and what is real?
Psychological analysis lost all interest for me from the moment that I became aware that men feel what they imagine they feel. From that to thinking that they imagine they feel what they feel was a very short step . . .! I see it clearly in the case of my love for Laura: between loving her and imagining I love her- between loving her less and imagining I love her less – what God could tell the difference? In the domain of feeling, what is real is indistinguishable from what is imaginary. And if it is sufficient to imagine one loves, in order to love, so it is sufficient to say to oneself that when one loves one imagines one loves, in order to love a little less and even in order to detach oneself a little from one’s love, or at any rate to detach some of the crystals from one’s love. But if one is able to say such a thing to oneself, must one not already love a little less? (Gide 1925 [1958:84])
These are the questions asked by Edouard, the narrator and protagonist of André Gide’s novel Les Faux-Monnayers (1925). Edouard reads the letters, poetry and novels of others and writes in his journal as a background to his experiment in writing a new, more authentic form of novel entitled Les Faux-Monnayers. In the post WWI period of confused values and identities, Edouard begins to question his own reality:
The only existence that anything (including myself) has for me, is poetical – I restore this word its full signification. It seems to me sometimes that I do not really exist, but that I merely imagine I exist. The thing that I have the greatest difficulty in believing in, is my own reality. I am constantly getting outside myself, and as I watch myself act I cannot understand how a person who acts is the same as the person who is watching him act, and who wonders in astonishment and doubt how he can be an actor and a watcher at the same moment. (Gide 1925 [1958:84])
But is it Gide who also experiencing an existential crisis?
André Gide introduced the concept of the mise en abîme in his Journal (1893),
J’aime assez qu’en une œuvre d’art on retrouve ainsi transposé, à l’échelle des personnages, le sujet même de cette œuvre par comparaison avec ce procédé du blason qui consiste, dans le premier, à mettre le second en abyme (Gide 1893).
It is defined by Rimmon-Kenan as,
An analogy which verges on identity, making the hypodiegetic level a mirror and reduplication of the diegetic, is known in French as mise en abyme. It can be described as the equivalent in narrative fiction of something like Matisse’s [1933 painting La Condition Humaine] of a room in which a miniature version of the same painting hangs on one of the walls (Rimmon-Kenan 2002: 94).
and described by Wenche Ommundsen, who foregrounds the metatextual significance of such text-segments, considers mise en abyme as ‘an embedded self-representation or mirror-image of the text within the text. The mise en abyme may […] refer to the whole work which includes it; it may also refer to a particular element within that work, or it may take as its subject the processes of fictional creation and communication’ (Ommundsen 1993: 10 cited by Weiss).
Bal, Mieke. 1985. Narratology. Introduction to the Theory of Narrative (transl.).Toronto/London: University of California Press.
Boheemen. “Notes on Narrative Embedding.” Poetics Today 2.2 (1981): 41-59.
Gide, André. 1925. Les Faux-Monnayers.
Gide, André. 1958. The Coiners. Trans. Dorothy Bussy. London: Cassell & Company.
Gide, André. 1958. XIII. “Edouard’s Journal: Douviers and Profitendieu.” The Coiners. Trans. Dorothy Bussy. London: Cassell & Company. p. 358
Caws, Mary Ann. 1986. Reading Frames in Modern Fiction. Princeton, NJ: Princeton UP.
Dällenbach, Lucien. 1977. Le récit spéculaire. Essai sur la mise en abyme .– Paris : Seuil, 1977. The Mirror in the Text.– Cambridge : Polity Pres, 1989.
Ommundsen, Wenche. 1993. Metafictions? Reflexivity in Contemporary Texts. Victoria: Melbourne University Press.
Ricardou, Jean.1990 . Le Nouveau Roman. Paris : Seuil.
Rimmon-Kenan, Shlomith. 2002. Narrative Fiction: Contemporary Poetics. 2nd edn. London and New York: Routledge.
April 21, 2007
Consciousness begins when brains acquire the simple power of telling a story without words using a nonverbal vocabulary of body signals about the living organism constantly altered by internal and external adjustments of the life process. The self appears then as the feeling of a feeling. Knowledge of those feelings emerge as a response to a question never asked (Damasio 1999:30-31).
Consciousness is, in effect, the key to a life examined [...] At its simplest and most basic level, consciousness lets us recognize an irresistible urge to stay alive and develop a concern for the self. At its most complex and elaborate level, consciousness helps us develop a concern for other selves and improve the art of life.” (Damasio 1999:5)
Damasio calls these two phases of consciousness core consciousness which engenders and is engendered by a core self in the here and now, and extended consciousness, the zenith of consciousness, which is dependent on and built upon the foundation of core consciousness. Extended consciousness has many levels and grades with a unique autobiographical self and autobiographical memory (Damasio 1999:16-18).
In describing the course of events from emotion to conscious feeling, Damasio argues that there is no central feeling state before the emotion occurs and that expressing an emotion precedes feeling. To illustrate this Damasio paraphrased E. M. Forster words as “How can I know what I think before I say it?” 1
Damasio’s (1999) perspectives on emotion, feeling and knowing is unorthodox. Neural patterns or images arise in changes related to body state and changes related to cognitive states. Through chemical and electrochemical messages the body landscape is changed. Having a feeling and knowing a feeling are not the same. Knowing a feeling requires a knowing subject endowed with the faculty of consciousness (Damasio 1999:283-4).
Damasio, Antonio. 1999. The Feeling of What Happens: Body and Emotion in the Making of Consciousness. New York: Harcourt Brace & Company.
Zimmerman argues that‘How can I tell what I think till I see what I say? is from E. M. Forster’s (1879-1970) essay Aspects of the Novel (1927) written when he was forty eight years old and after he completed his final novel, A Passage to India. It was first delivered as part of a series of Clark Lectures given at Trinity College, Cambridge. In it Forster reveals his own unique perspective on literary history, style and form from Defoe to Joyce including a criticism of Henry James’ The Ambassadors.
“Another distinguished critic has agreed with Gide–that old lady in the anecdote who was accused by her niece of being illogical. For some time she could not be brought to understand what logic was, and when she grasped its true nature she was not so much angry as contemptuous. ‘Logic! Good gracious! What rubbish!’ she exclaimed. ‘How can I tell what I think till I see what I say?’ Her nieces, educated young women, thought that she was passée; she was really more up-to-date than they were.” (Zimmermann, Heiko . 2005. citing Forster, E. M. 1976. Ed. Stallybrass, Oliver. Aspects of the Novel. Harmondsworth: Penguin. p.99 )
Aspects of the Novel (1927) was written when Forster was forty eight years old and after he completed his final novel, A Passage to India. It was first delivered as part of a series of Clark Lectures given at Trinity College, Cambridge. In it Forster reveals his own unique perspective on literary history, style and form from Defoe to Joyce including a criticism of Henry James’ The Ambassadors. Childs. 2001. Aspects of the Novel.
Fitzgerald claims that this is the source of the citation:
The little girl had the making of a poet in her who, being told to be sure of her meaning before she spoke, said, ‘How can I tell what I think until I see what I say?’ Graham Wallas The Art of Thought (1926) [ODQ & B16] cited by Fitzgerald (2006).
Essayist and poet Matthew Arnold (1822-12-24 – 1888-04-15) wrote in ”St. Paul and Protestantism” (1870),
“Below the surface stream, shallow and light,
Of what we say and feel — below the stream,
As light, of what we think we feel, there flows
With noiseless current, strong, obscure and deep,
The central stream of what we feel indeed.”
Alan Greenspan: “I know you think you understand what you thought I said, but I am not sure you realize that what you heard is not what I meant.”
“I know that you believe that you understood what you think I said, but I am not sure you realize that what you heard is not what I meant.” Robert McCloskey. U.S. State Department spokesman at one of his regular noon briefings during the worst days of the Vietnam War. Marvin Kalb in TV Guide, Mar. 31, 1984.
Alternative: “I believe that you think you understand what I said, but I fear, that you don´t realize, that what I say is not always what I really mean.”
John Weakland: “‘The meaning of any communication is the response that it gets.”
March 7, 2007
There were six siblings and we each experienced it differently. I was in my first year of university when he had the third and final operation which meant that both his legs were gone. The weekend I brought Dave home to meet the family, during his sleep my Dad, not yet used to the shortness of both stumps rolled out of his hospital bed- which was set up in what used to be our living room. He didn’t want to wake my Mom so he reached up to his bedside table for his pipe. When my Mom saw the empty bed in the morning, for an instant she thought he had died and gone to heaven, literally. But then she saw the familiar trail of the smoking pipe. She called for Dave. Dave had been working all summer as a lifeguard and he lifted my Dad back into his bed effortlessly clinching my Dad’s admiration for him.
Creeping gangrene, war wounds and phantom limbs were part of everyday life vocabulary during my teen years. He never complained. He was always so grateful for my mother’s care. He was gentle. They spoke of the phantom limb phenomenon with visitors as just another small detail of interest in an otherwise routine life. He didn’t speak of pain but of an itch. I think he even chuckled at the thought.
As I try to piece together the disjointed readings on consciousness that have consumed me lately, I was surprised at how often the phantom limb phenomenon entered into the conversations. It challenged assumptions about the relationship between mind and body.
In 1637 René Descartes referred to the phantom limb experience of a young girl to argue for the dualism of mind-body where the body is fragmented while the mind is unified See also Wade (2006).
In the late 20th century these dynamic neural processes became the topic of more detailed investigation (Ramachandran 1993). Neuroscientists using powerful sophisticated MEGs and MRIs are challenging scientific assumptions about the neural plasticity of the adult brain. Phantom corporeal embodiment is one of the areas of investigation.
I am not attempting to trace a complete history of the debates around the concept of consciousness. I am concerned with what is being done in the name of consciousness studies that may impact on memory work, ethics, self and the Other-I, at-risk populations and most importantly the political implications of the study of consciousness on the way mental health is constructed. During the1970s academic disciplines became increasingly fragmented. With the study of consciousness various disciplines such as cognitive science, neuroscience, psychology (qualia, Folk psychology), psychiatry (pharmapsychiatry), psychobiology, pharmacology and literature (chroniclers of consciousness) and philosophy (phenomenology) and even neuralphenomenology will hopefully benefit from more collaborative inclusive research projects. This will perhaps lead to the dissemination of useful academic research in stages which will include articles written for those outside individual distinct disciplines. At the end of the twentieth century philosophers of the mind have also been more open to investigating what has been done in the name of consciousness studies in religious practice.
Phenomenology studies conscious experience from the first-person point of view. See Smith (2003).
Something must have triggered or stimulated a similar pattern from Dad’s memory, something from the past, and suddenly he could feel something that wasn’t there. Following major wars there were many of them and they must have talked among themselves. But this was just a disorder of bodily perception. The concept of feeling pain in a missing limb was counter-intuitive. It could only be reported through first-person experience, qualia.
Selected Webliography and Bibliography
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Flynn-Burhoe, Maureen. 2007. “Timeline of Consciousness.” > Speechless. Uploaded March 2, 2007. ©© Creative Commons Copyright License 2.5.
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Flynn-Burhoe, Maureen. 2007. “Timeline of Consciousness.” > Speechless. Uploaded March 2, 2007. ©© Creative Commons Copyright License 2.5.