Monday, January 24, 2011

Still Trying to Find Myself

No, not that way. I gave up that jejune exercise a long time ago, although I think a lot of people I know remain unconvinced. I mean I really have a hard time finding the self that is mine. I'm not so concerned with finding the essential me which might be expressed by style and a life's work leading to accomplishment. I just have a hard time actually believing that there's anyone me at home here.

There's been a lot written lately about traumatic brain injury survivors following on the Gabrielle Giffords shooting. It almost seems as though a shot to the head is not the quickest way to kill someone, despite assumptions we've all fostered on TV. Or to put it another way, there are lots of critical systems in the body, but there is also a lot of redundancy - proven by our ability to remain alive despite all sorts of outrages to the body - including in the brain.

The brain's analog would be a hologram, whose information is distributed throughout the substrate, but the more substrate, the sharper the image. So, with the brain, it turns out that we can still be ourselves despite radical attenuation of the brain's substrate. Naturally, there are critical regions and parts without which nothing much goes right.

As I was ruminating the other day, much of the brain's activity is alien to that self I seek. It seems to operate more quickly - the subliminal level seems to throw things up faster than I can process them. So this organizing principle, or is it principal, which makes some kind of sense out of all that random sensation seems closer to me. Some process of the brain, but not the brain itself. Maybe we stop being when the ratio tips upside down to where there is some sort of stalling in the information to be ordered.

I mean, if you think about it, we know that sensory deprivation leads to hallucinatory insanity - we seem to need the relative stability of a relatively unchanging world outside our heads. But on the other hand, if there is no motion there is no perception either. Our eyeballs bounce around to construct a stable and seamless reality "out there" and our brain fills in the gaps to where the seeming is still more enhanced.

We need to learn to see. "Above" seeing we need to learn to organize what we see, much of which will remain invisible until we have some kind of category for it. Eventually, we need some language to smooth our raw insights to some sort of conformity with those held by everyone else. And as we learn, many of these tasks move to someplace "beneath" our conscious attention, so that we can deploy that for higher order ordering.

It's funny (or NOT) how much of what gets called education relates to making conscious all that stuff which works better when it remains unconscious. Well, OK, so let's say someone has a lot of musical talent. If they want to play the violin, there's lots of technique to be focused on until the point where it can be fogotten and the focus is on the music.

But what waste for someone without musical talent. Well, unless you're a Chinese Tiger Mom, and then you might want to push the technique anyhow. And the very success of such efforts might do a lot to disprove certainties about "native talent."

But learning is about conforming what you can do to the way it's being done by others, and to the technologies which have evolved to enhance what you could do without them. Silent reading was impossible not so long ago, but now we've pushed those voices well back beneath our vocal apparatus.

It turns out that brain trauma survivability is partially a function of the mental power of the victim before the accident. For sure, we know that anyone who works out will look and be more physically fit. But being mentally fit is not always such a popular pursuit in American society, where anti-intellectualism often engenders a kind of inverse association between mental and physical virility.

Intelligence is so commonly thought to be a fixed attribute. Indeed the studies of brain trauma survival which indicate that brain power predicts speed and quality of recovery depend on the intelligence assessments conducted by the Army, thus producing a massive pool of data for Vietnam War brain trauma survivors.

But who knows where the mental desire which leads to fitness is first engendered? In the womb? In the genes? In the family constellation? There are so many chicken-egg type problems to sort out, since surely curiosity of any sort is where real learning starts. Who would ever start by wanting to know how to answer multiple choice problems. Who would start wanting to know how to do arithmetic? But it isn't so hard to imagine starting with music. Or with being able to build a durable house.

I have experienced several kinds of near death. The two most acute both involved loss of breath,. In the first instance, by drowning, my conscious knowledge of impending death against which I could and did swim with all my resources, induced that storied sensation of my entire life passing before me. In the second, a pulmonary embolism where there was nothing I could do, I only felt a fairly calm and actually serene sense that I was checking out. That this would be it, and afterward nothing at all.

Learners who already know that they have no "native talent" must also stimulate nothing at all to arise in the brain, and so the thoughts become flaccid. But you know, given a sharp enough sensation of impending end,  combined with some real swimming and breath-holding ability, the result may also be a kind of eternal life, if time is compressed toward the limit of zero.

It must be this then, in which consciousness consists. This compression ratio where the information coming in does neither over nor under whelm its organizer. Where there is just enough to stimulate the forward motion, but not so much as to stun the self into massive hallucinatory chaos.

Just so, consciousness has not always been an attribute of human animals. And its origins must be not unlike that memory I have of writing my name for the first time, on a paper bag with a pencil. Right up there with where I was when JFK was shot, or when the Trade Towers came down. No real mystery to it at all. And no real moment of inception.

No comments: