I have not posted much about the MEMBRAIN since 2017 (see post 11/24/17, also 8/27/14 & 4/7/14), but I have been thinking about it and recent readings have fed that line of thought. In brief, the MEMBRAIN comprises those parts of our brain and soma that establishes the mind within and the world without as it connects us socially and mentally (in this empathy is both basic and powerful) to our conspecifics (and other animals and other worldly features, more on that later). It is a rather grand development along our evolutionary path. Remember life on Earth appeared some 3.7 billion years ago when chemical metabolism established a membrane protecting the self-organizing and self-replicating processes within and controlling interaction with the environment, i.e., Varela’s autopoietic form (see post 8/22/18). This resulted in the basic soma, i.e., the body each life form develops for its span. Somas evolved to become more complex until brains appeared to promote the somatic vitality given the more complex needs and gain increasingly powerful ways of exploiting environmental opportunities. Somas and their brains then evolved in various ways until sexual reproduction initiated new phases of genetic streaming and of conspecific relations, say around 1.2 billion years ago.
As luck would have it, conspecifics became so important a feature of the animal’s umvelt, that the brain, that heretofore had concerned itself with its own somatic vitality, began to deal with the vitality of its conspecifics, i.e., the vitality of other somas not its own. This was a momentous development as brains evolved to carry out this challenge as exemplified most powerfully in mammals who appeared around 315 million years ago. (I have posted several times on the felicity of our mammalian heritage—see posts 11/12/16 & 11/8/19). As the interaction with conspecifics mounted in importance, brains evolved to include MEMBRAINs (as I have called them) and this entailed a new development in the evolution of minds. The increasing transactions with others pressured the evolution of social relations obviously, and in a bit of a paradox, the evolution of mental functions supporting subjective awareness. This is where my notion of the MEMBRAIN of the mind comes into play.
The MEMBRAIN gates (or doesn’t) information or parcels of experience specifically drawn from the social/mental realms. For example, our visual system has a large proportion of cells dedicated primarily to facial recognition, e.g., conspecific information gated in, and further, such processing is basic and preliminary to reading the other’s emotional states, i.e., their internal musings. Another example, this time of gating an experiential parcel out, is our kinesic expression of our own emotional states through facial expression, tone of voice, posturing, etc. Of course our language is a remarkable feature of MEMBRAIN functioning, passing info in and out (or not if the we do not know that language–the channel then does not exist).
As I read books, etc., that touch upon the MEMBRAIN, I find some who mention how the brain functions as a membrane controlling flow in and out; after all, those are basic to any organism, taking needed nutrients in and passing out wastes. I have not seen much about keeping material in or keeping it out, but that too is a membrane function—it will only pass through items that fit through its channels and will decidedly reject , for example, toxins from without and certain parcels from within that can range from lower level processing, e.g., we would not want our protoplasm leaking out and we do not express or pass out gut functions or the initial phases of intuitive constructions which are not available to consciousness or say, socially embarrassing secrets. A more esoteric example is information that conflicts with our beliefs or personality structure. An example here is that some people hear information indicative of a leader’s corruption but it does not enter into their minds as such. It is kept out through some MEMBRAIN function which only gates distorted parcels (kinda like a word from a foreign language that sounds like one of our own–we think we understand when we do not) that I do not well understand as of yet.
While many understand that our ubiquitous linguistic functions support the MEMBRAIN, both to communicate with our conspecifics and to organize our interior experience, fewer understand that art likewise supports the MEMBRAIN. Clearly art fulfills a social function, but it also helps to organize our mental domains by structuring intuitive processes in the service of developing creative and communicable renderings of our vital experience. Susanne Langer’s thoughts are important here. First, art forms are a high form of nervous response, i.e., they are abstracted from experiential felt material. These abstractions are created in virtual domains; their communication depends upon these same domains being present in both artist and audience. The MEMBRAIN channels must function in quite a sophisticated manner in order to communicate such complex information about our vital experience. Further, she details in Feeling and Form the demands each art genre, e.g., music, dance, painting, sculpture, poetry, cinema, etc., places on our virtual capabilities.
Now I am reading Evan Thompson’s Mind in Life in which he discusses the basis of life forms and how mind is in fact a natural outcome of life’s evolution—a very good book so far with the promise to get even better. He, like others such as Susan Oyama (see post 2/22/19), is critical of the gene-centric view generally received from the Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett and cohort. Thompson says that their usual metaphor of genes providing coded instructions for an organism has been shown to be inept; too much data shows that genes are only a part of developmental system and that they do not play any privileged role apart from the organism as a whole and its complete ambient, i.e., Oyama’s developmental system. A better metaphor, says Thompson, “for development than ‘following coded instructions’ is ‘laying down a path in walking’. This metaphor implies that there is no separation between plan and executed action. It also evokes the similarity between organic self-organization and human creativity discussed by Kant.”
Remember how an artist composes through feeling the future, as I have put it (see posts 5/15/15 & this year’s series on art as spandrel). This is especially apparent in music, where even the listener feels the flow into the future. Art results from a series of steps creating contingencies that render a vital form. Unlike discursive thought, such as any mathematical theory of science, which if lost could be re-discovered because that is inherent in its relation to the world, art if lost is lost—it cannot be recreated because of its contingent nature with the chaos of life and world.
Thompson following his work with Francisco Varela and Eleanor Rausch in The Embodied Mind explicates the basis of life. It is an autopoietic (a new and important word) system whose inherent purpose is two-fold, identity (self-production and this entails closure from the without) and sense-making for adaptivity and cognition. “This twofold purposiveness turns an indifferent physicochemical world into an environment of biological significance.” The implications of this formulation are extensive, and I will have more to say of them another time.
But back to the MEMBRAIN and what Kant discussed, the “similarity” between organic self-organization, aka autopoietic system, and human creativity. Any organism is self-organizing which is sustained through metabolic activity with the inherent purposes of identity and sense-making. It is self-contained, its parts are subsidiary to the whole, and it interacts with its environment in specific ways. (Remember Acquinas’ 3 aspects of aesthetic beauty: unitas, claritas, and luminas—see post 6/19/17.) This is the essential idea of life, as we understand it. So our MEMBRAINs take in art forms, gathering this import, and artists of any and all sorts construct art works that they can express through MEMBRAIN channels. If art renders the import abstracted from vital experience, and autopoiesis is the basis of that vitality, then any conceptualization of aesthetics must include such in its account. Whether we study art as a biological activity (see post 2/9/19!) or as a critical effort to assess its aesthetics, we need to understand how an artwork is a whole, how its parts come together (and these two are essentially an extension of gestalt studies), and how that form ‘shines’, as it were, or how it has rendered intuitively that spark of life such that others can feel the vitality therein. As Susanne Langer taught us, art is a high intellectual activity whereby we deal in vital experience. Empathy and symbolization are the two great channels of our MEMBRAINs—that is the easy part, but what lies within that powers such intuitive creative constructions? Travel on.