I stumble through and bump my head

For a couple of years now I have been reading various works from Asia and pondering how Eastern thought contributes to our understanding of ourselves and our world.  This includes specific ancient texts, like the Tao te Ching and various sutras, as well as commentaries thereon, and ancient to almost modern poetry.  Lovely stuff!  I have also been going through The Gateless Gate  (an old collection of Buddhist koans—paradoxical statements meant to help one along the way to enlightenment, like “What is the sound of one hand clapping? Or one of my favorites:  What was your primal face before your parents were born?) very slowly and marveling at how Buddhists can confound linear thinking.  While I learn much from all of these texts, I also have had a nagging quibble that seems important but difficult to articulate  . . . .

. . . Until I read a statement of some hybrid beliefs involving Buddhism and Gaian theory and my quibble crystalized into a coherent structure.

More context before my quibble.  I was reading a book not about Eastern thought but one about Gregory Bateson, a very interesting fellow.  He comes from a self-described family of atheists, himself being the fourth generation of skeptics.  In Gregory’s youth they hobnobbed with some of the great thinkers of early 20thcentury England such as the Huxleys and Alfred North Whitehead.  His father was instrumental in spreading the ideas of Gregor Mendel, the monk who worked so assiduously on plant genetics, integrated with Darwinian ideas; indeed he was one of the first to call this study of heredity “genetics” and Gregory was named after the monk.  The father seems to me a prime example of being in the right place at the right time with a mind prepared to grow the opportunity.

Gregory Bateson was a mostly independent scholar who worked across many disciplines.  As a young man he married Margaret Mead and they did research together in the south Pacific islands.  He then had a long and influential career studying cybernetics, psychiatry, semantics and communication theory, as well as anthropology.  I had heard mention of him over the years without remarking upon him very much until recently, and then his ideas seemed quite relevant to mine and important in general, so I read Understanding Gregory Bateson:  Mind, Beauty and the Sacred Earthby Noel Charlton (a decent read though Mr. Charlton spends much energy evangelizing for Bateson’s ideas—they are good but this is not how change comes about.  I may get around to a more thorough review of this book later).

Bateson saw all of nature as a series of nested minds, ours being nested on some intermediate level, so that all of our ecology is actually one mind composed of many minds.  He saw that in our separating ourselves from nature, we had lost ‘grace’ and were harming our world and so also ourselves.  The way back to grace is to engage with the sacred or the unitary grandness of life on our planet (oh, I am simplifying here a great deal—read more for yourselves) through aesthetics, the beauty of nature, and human art.  If you follow my blog you can understand why I wanted to know more about his work.

In the penultimate chapter Charlton reviews how other thinkers were influenced by Bateson and how other ideas meshed with his ecological views.  One of these was Gaian theory, of course, and one of these thinkers was a Buddhist-Gaian scholar named Joanna Macy. This seems a natural confluence here, and you know I like confluences.  When I read Charlton’s rendition of Macy’s ideas, I realized what my mind had balked at as I read other ideas from the East.  Specifically I struggled to understand the notion that enlightenment involves experiencing the unity between objective and subjective or the truth that there is no self.  Yes, I do accept that in meditation such boundaries can and do dissolve but once again, anyone who experiences enlightenment is a biological creature and that entails certain corollaries.

So Charlton says this of Macy’s ideas:  “Similarly, in both Buddhism and General Systems Theory (Macy uses this term interchangeably with ‘systems cybernetics’), the self is a process that cannot be abstracted from its context in nature and society.  It is an ‘open system’ and it is impossible to distinguish self from non-self.  Any division is arbitrary; the individual self is a fiction” (p. 189). Oops!  Sure self is a process on many levels but it can and is abstracted from its context; indeed, at a very basic level anything we use words to discuss is already abstracted from the flux and phantasmagoria of experience.  My question is always about the adequacy of the abstraction, i.e., does it capture the primary structure and its history along with its inter-relationships and dependencies with its soma, its ecology and its its ancient past?

The self, like its soma, is not an ‘open system’ and can certainly be distinguished from non-self, just like the soma is understood to be a life form. These are not ‘open systems’ because a soma, a brain and its MEMBRAIN maintain their integrity through control of the membrane functions, passing information in and out, keeping information in and out. The self follows along with this pattern.  Sure the soma is a wonderful composition of different life forms—the biome is a necessary adjunct to its healthy vital operations, and the self is also a complex composition dependent upon social interaction for its derivation.  I maintain that that the basic features are an autobiographical sense of its life and a sense of its agency, but secondary features abound, e.g., roles, selves associated with those roles, an apprehension of conscious subjectivity, etc.  Again, an adequate abstraction must also include what supports these features that operate below the limen of awareness, and also what the self keeps out of its ‘self-definition’.  For example, I am myself a father and husband, which are clearly within my self’s bounds, and I know the alphabet and basic math, but those are not a part of myself. Is this a fiction?  Why yes it is as a construct in the mind, but as Dumbledore told Harry, it is still true.

Somehow my mind likes Eastern philosophies; I find a good deal of truth and wisdom in their approach.  I think Buddhist enlightenment is a worthy goal, of sorts.  As I say in my creed, I follow an ethic of knowledge, and this leads me to explore the mystic boundaries within and beyond myself.  I find there a most agreeable landscape to wander (yes, yes, remember that not all who wander are lost).  But read the third chapter of The Gateless Gateabout Zen Master Gutei who always answered any question about Zen by raising one finger.  When he heard that his young assistant answered a question about his master’s teaching by raising his one finger, Gutei cut off the boy’s finger with a knife. The boy ran away.  Gutei called him back and raised one finger, and “the boy was suddenly enlightened”.

Somehow this enlightenment came with the experience that the self is a fiction, that his finger was part of what separated him from this realization, and that he understood that his self was a fiction and experienced reality as unitary and without conceptual distinctions—finger or no finger is a distraction.  Oops and ouch!  I have reached a mystical boundary and bumped my head in finding it.

With any religious school of thought and discipline my skepticism finds antiquated constructs, and there one is.  My ethic of knowledge keeps me grounded in my biological roots.  So enlightenment is a biological notion (maybe a rock or tree is enlightened but they, not some human being, would have to communicate that to me and I do listen out as I wander the farm.)  The self is an outgrowth or feature of life; it bears many relations to all that surrounds it now, past, and future, but a life has an onset and termination.  Some spiritual and religious traditions maintain the self is independent of those events, and I myself wonder about that, i.e., about how it could be true in my cosmology which is devoid of the supernatural. (Remember my motto: “If it is, it’s natural.  If it isn’t natural, it isn’t, except as an imaginative dream).  But the self and its soma is not an open system nor a closed system but a gated system operating to sustain the negentropic balance of energies working at the heart of life’s vitality.

How we understand life and cherish Gaia and structure our participation in this transcendent reality is important.  Bateson and many others know that we as a species are not doing a good job of this. How do we find and follow a better path? I do not know, but I think, like Bateson, that engaging with natural beauty and the vital experience artists render for us is very important.  I also think following an ethic of knowledge and seking a knowledge of ethics is important, e.g., appreciate our science and our human relationships with each other and Gaia.  As the previous post put it, “sometimes human beings are stupid”.  And sometimes we are smart.  I wonder about the cultural rhythms of wisdom and ignorance and travel on seeking a better wave.  But I cannot hold up one finger to indicate the one true way or condone mutilation in the interest of religious purity or spiritual realization.

self or no self–that is a question

I learned a new word this week: autonoetic.  It means something like the ability to place one’s self in the scene or narrative or situation as part of episodic memory, i.e., memory for one’s own life experiences.  Research shows that we can remember our autobiography through two perspectives, 1stperson (we see the experience through our own eyes) or 3rd  (we see the ourselves in the experience like a movie).  Seems important.

One of the pleasures of reading widely is coming to understand different approaches to the same phenomena, and learning this word has brought some of these issues to the front of my mind.  In my thinking here and in my book (forthcoming someday) I consider that what we call the self arises from two basic mental functions.  The first is a sense of agency—we do and we know that it is us doing; the second is our sense of autobiographical experience, what Endel Tulving called episodic memory (as distinct from semantic and procedural memories).  So I guess that one’s self is some integrated, amalgamated hodgepodge of those, and a human hodgepodge is one that grows out of social connection into an identity, i.e., a self that operates through its social roles.

I read a book a good while ago now by the great Antonio Damasio, Self Comes to Mind, in which he self-corrects his own previous thinking; to wit, he had thought that the neuropsychological construct of a self was not needed or justified but as he studied the brain some more, he came to understand that we did have a self.  It is a good book and he knows brain science as few in the world do.  Now more recently I read what is described as a landmark book, The Embodied Mind: Cognitive Science and Human Experienceby Francisco Varela, Evan Thompson, and Eleanor Rosch, wherein they endeavor to bring together the twin strands of cognitive psychology and Buddhism.  Their basis for doing so is the challenge that what we call the self is quite illusionary.  They state this claim explicitly:  “all of the reflective traditions in human history—philosophy, science, psychoanalysis, religion, meditation—have challenged the naïve sense of self.  No tradition has ever claimed to discover an independent, fixed, or unitary self”

They go on to quote David Hume:  “For my part, when I enter most intimately into what I call myself, I always stumble on some particular perception or other, of heat or cold, light or shade, love or hatred, pain or pleasure.  I never can catch myself at any time without a perception, and never observe anything but the perception.”  Varela, Thompson and Rosch maintain that this “insight directly contradicts our ongoing sense of self,” and that this comports with the long and thoughtful tradition in Buddhism that the self is an illusion.  This is also consistent with some Hindu traditions, e.g., the Yoga Sutra attributed to Patanjali from around the second century BCE.  The realization through meditation and other practices that one’s self is an illusion would seem a step towards enlightenment.

Alas, I am going to walk on another path for a moment, postponing my meditative quest for enlightenment a short while.   I learned my new word, ‘autonoetic,’ reading a 2011 article by Robyn Fivush, “The Development of Autobiographical Memory.”  In an excellent, well thought out paper, Dr. Fivush lays out the conceptual prerequisites for autobiographical memory and its importance to our human sort of mind.  The first prerequisite is autonoesis, the subjective sense of self who experiences events and the second is the personal narrative of action that includes the thoughts and feelings while experiencing these events.  Now you can shift perspective and call this self an illusion, but I think that even such an illusion is still a biological function.  Fivush thinks autobiographical memory is “uniquely human” and that I doubt. Remember, if you will, my post from 4/8/16, “de Waal Admits Tickling Chimpanzees”, on Frans Van der Waal’s observation of a bonobo who inadvertently bit off the finger of a favorite handler and who quite clearly expressed his dismay for doing so, even some years later when the handler returned from another job to visit, that same bonobo tried to see the injured hand and seemed to re-experience the distress over its actions. Fivush also says autobiographical memory depends upon one’s social-cultural group and cites research showing the influence of maternal reminiscing style on how we create a “story of how one’s self became who one is”.

So autobiographical memory as developing from autonoesis and narrative coherence seems a pretty solid notion.  Let me wander a bit further here and consider some of its implications in dreaming, Dissociative Identity Disorder, dementia and novelists.  Of course I will end with a reference to Susanne Langer and return to the question of self or no self.

So, we form our episodic memories incidentally for the most part and that means when we recall them later, we reconstruct the episode according to current circumstances and purpose.  We often dream some of these memories elicited from episodic memory, the information transformed into dream material.  I think many dreams include a sense of self, an autonoetic perspective.  Of course some dreams derive from the self’s current state, like when I dream of water sloshing over the road or the gunwales of my boat and wake up to a very full bladder. My point here is that while maybe in dreams your self is not imaged from a 3rdperson perspective (though I believe some few dream this way a good deal), your autonoesis is still operating.

My dissertation research was with a person with what is now called Dissociative Identity Disorder.  At that time the diagnosis of Multiple Personality Disorder was gaining validity. For example, research showed different somatic, e.g., autonomic, responses for different personalities.  Alters (alternate identity or personality) manifest in various ways, e.g., some know about others, some don’t, some know about the soma’s entire life, some remember only fractured episodes, etc.  So each alter has some autonoesis operating in a selective manner.  A person with dissociative identity disorder actually does seem able to look inside and find a self (actually more than one, the contrast perhaps making the apprehension possible) contrary to Hume’s assertion. My dissertation showed that one person’s child alter did indeed use childlike language and that as she grew up as a part of therapy to help the different alters integrate back into one, her language advanced along developmental lines.

I have written in the past about people with dementia and how resilient their musical memories are (see post 8/27/14).  Therapy using ipods with playlists of songs from their youth helps them remember more clearly.  They remember the music and often they can remember other episodes, other people and even sometimes, who they themselves are.  Think about autonoesis here.  The remembered music is a kind of abstracted episode or retained through an important emotional connection; they may not remember who they are but they remember the tune, often tinged with personal experience.  They remember other stories and people, e.g., even their children sometimes, as a direct function of autonoesis.  And they may remember their own identity, the “I” in autonoesis.  If unfamiliar, check out an incredible documentary about Glen Campbell who suffered from severe dementia in his last years but continued to perform even though he could remember little of his life, had difficulty remembering his children, hardly knew his own name, but he could still play the guitar (procedural memory) and sing the songs (semantic memory, I guess) with emotion.

Consider as well how novelists seem to be able to use autonoesis to create characters. Good writers say that characters, once formed, can take on a life of their own and even contribute to the creation of the story.  This is maybe not autonoesis involving episodic autobiographical memory but rather is drawing upon semantic memory and imaginative construction in an autonoetic manner.  Still, reading Catcher in the Ryeor David Copperfieldor Notes from the Underground, which all start with first person narratives, you know that one large part of the novelist’s skill is using autonoesis to create character and story.

Regular readers here know that Susanne Langer posited that art, i.e., presentational symbols, is created from the artist’s experience.  The art symbol conveys import abstracted from the person’s life that is too complex to be rendered in the linear discursive symbolic expression of language.  Art, even novels that use words, conveys this import through some complex, abstracted form of myriad elements, whether these are visual, auditory, movement, verbal, constructive, etc.  Given that, I think any artist must use their autonoetic sense to wander the landscape of their life and map out that essential terrain that will represent the inspired apprehension of some features of vital experience.  The artist’s self would seem, then, an essential tool of their craft.

Maybe, as Varela, Thompson and Rosch assert along with David Hume and deep Buddhist traditions, the self is an illusion.  I am sure that at one level the self is a construct that facilitates awareness and analysis of one’s being in context.  I am curious, though, about a mystic sense wherein we find the discrimination between subjective and objective lacking, e.g., we are one with the world, and find that the self is an illusion of our engagement in samsara.  After reading The Embodied MindI have delved into some Eastern texts, e.g., The Yoga Sutra among others, and begun listening to a Great Courses lecture series by Dr. Grant Hardy, “The Great Minds of the Eastern Intellectual Tradition”.  (A great series, by the bye—his knowledge and enthusiasm are delightful).  Our Western intellectual tradition is a good one. One of humanity’s virtues is that we have more than one good intellectual tradition and I am finding, like many other Westerners before me, that the Eastern tradition is both very different and very valuable in what it offers both in knowledge and wisdom.  So, let us travel on to new roads and learn more about our humanity.

Sensing another’s self

Here is a report (NYT 8/21/15: “Your Brain, Your Disease, Your Self”) of some half-way interesting research recently published in Psychological Science. I say half-way because this is the type of study the validity of which I question because it relies on questionnaires, though these researchers used them in a well constructed context with plenty of ancillary data. I also say half-way because of a recent study out of the University of Virginia in which they tried to replicate 100 psychological studies and could only do so for about a third of them, which to me suggests the original methodology was inadequate to the task, the topic poorly understood, or the supposed phenomena was too trivial to matter.

Anyway, this study looked at how family members perceived personality changes in patients with 3 different neurological diseases. One was ALS (amyotropic lateral sclerosis) which affects lower motor centers and not higher centers, one was Alzheimer’s with diffuse effects throughout the cortex and midbrain, and the third one was fronto-temporal dementia where specific cells are effected so as to disrupt systems in both frontal and temporal lobes. They used a variety of data to show overall neuropsychological status, e.g., memory, IQ subtests, etc. and then they asked family members to rate in a variety of ways if and when they thought their sick member had changed in personality, i.e., was not their old self. Little change was noted in the ALS patients, which makes sense because this disease affects motor control until the end stage. More effects (memory loss, slowed mental faculties, etc.) were noted in Alzheimer’s patients but family members did not report a change in the self (personality) even as memory failed and the patients themselves failed to recognize or recall who they were. The most change in others’ perceptions of self came with fronto-temporal dementia when this disease affected the patients’ treatment of others, i.e., their ethical or moral behaviors, e.g., stealing, lying, tricking others, etc. Family members reported that these patients had lost or changed their selves. A curious finding that gratifies my humanist longings.

Yet somehow this seems to me misconstrued. Of course we do not want to think that someone we love has become capable of immoral actions, so we must attribute some basic change in their self, as opposed to their inability to move or remember or think, which we attribute to the disease debilitating key functions but leaves the self intact. But in fact, one postulate of psychology since Freud, Jung, even Nietzsche is that we all have within ourselves darker impulses that most of us control or repress in the service of healthier, prosocial activity. We do generally ignore this aspect and vary our attributions according to the disability, e.g., memory, motoric, impulse control, inter-personal relationships, in-group/out-group, etc.

Sensing another’s self is basic; we empathically follow another’s intents, moods, etc. Sensing a change in self is not basic because such a change violates expectations. Our selves are embodied and we maintain expectations of identity based upon that body. Sort of, anyway. A few months ago I went with my wife to her 50th high school reunion. She recognized some of her classmates and not others. Some recognized her but not others. Many people came up to me, peering in my face and trying to place who I was. I took up the joke of saying, “You don’t remember me, do you? And after all that time we spent together in English class.” Later I disclosed I was actually a spouse and not a classmate. Some laughed at the joke and some did not. Could we have predicted from their high school selves who would enjoy the joke and who not? Maybe. I think sense of humor is a stable trait. And the people we liked or didn’t like back then are about the same as now.

Of course, this study above focused on a marked change in neuropsychological status due to disease. I think we experience some difficulty in understanding and dealing with people with neurological/psychiatric disease. There are many sorts of rapid changes seen ecologically, including patients with bipolar illness, borderline personality disorder, traumatized patients, dissociative identity disorder, etc. I have worked with the last a few times and the personalities assumed at any one moment were difficult to tell apart unless one was adult and the other child or male-female or unless you knew the physical cues marking the transition.   A different self? In some sense. Some adolescents change their moral stances through large swings before settling in an enduring adult pattern.

We make different attributions for different selves. I have worked with teachers who called a problem child, e.g., severe ADHD, a devil, some literally and some close enough. The mentally ill person who commits mass murders are generally not recognized as being the same youthful self by their family members. One example of this was Charles Whitman, who shot and killed 16 (?) people from a tower at a college in Texas. He had sought help several times in the period before the incident, complaining that his mind was changing and going out of control.   The response of the mental health system was clearly inadequate in part because his symptoms were unusual.   Later his autopsy revealed a large tumor had grown in a lower temporal lobe and impinged on the amygdala, a cancer consistent with his reported symptoms.

A famous college basketball coach when dying of cancer famously said that the cancer could not touch his mind or take away his soul. Ouch! Cancer certainly touched Charles Whitman’s mind (and he is only one dramatic example out of many). I won’t say anything about souls, though I think murdering others comes close enough to merit the question.

death and the connectome

Quick post about a well done story in the NY Times on Sebastian Seung’s and other’s efforts at mapping the connectome, the connections between neurons or the white matter, not the grey.  Here is the link:

http://www.nytimes.com/2015/01/11/magazine/sebastian-seungs-quest-to-map-the-human-brain.html?hpw&rref=magazine&action=click&pgtype=Homepage&module=well-region&region=bottom-well&WT.nav=bottom-well&_r=0;  and here is a picture:

wikimedia commons

wikimedia commons

Going back to my cauliflower model (and no, buying it did not exhaust my budget for the year as some have wondered), imagine if all the florets were missing and just the interconnections were present, different colors for different neurotransmitters.  Consider that the brain has 10,000,000,000 neurons and each of those can have a thousand or more connections–that is the connectome.  Gonna need some kind of computer power there. A good read.

And here is a story that contributes to Seung’s inspiration.  A young woman in Norway had a skiing accident in which she tumbled a good ways down and then crashed through the ice covering a stream.  It was an hour or so before her friends could retrieve her body.  She was dead; her body temp was in the 50s F, but they airlifted her to a hospital where they slowly warmed her body up and then her heart started beating again.  She had to undergo much rehab but she more or less fully recovered, her personality and memories and her ability to work as a doctor all intact. So despite all loss of metabolism and activity, her brain, its neurons and their connectome, preserved her identity and knowledge.  No word of her memory or perception of the death or near death experience.  How this could occur is currently a mystery Dr. Seung and the rest of us can enjoy.