Riffing on Books and Life – Arts & Sciences Literary Blog by interactive new media author & artist Terry Bailey


Back to Proust Was a Neuroscientist – with an intro riff to Kurzban’s Why Everyone (else) is a Hypocrite

I'm writing at a Starbucks in Encino today. Outside. Beautiful day. I love L.A.! Just came from a seminar on Neuroscience and Creativity at UCLA. I'll have a few comments about that in a later post. I seem to be on a theme roll for a while here with those two topics. I gotta admit, too, that I am thinking I should write my own book on the topic (maybe after I finish my Amy Beach and Me one). Scientists are studying this, but they are really missing the creativity and creator perspective, I think. I have made a few mentions of this in previous posts (will look up and link here later). There needs to be more cross-talk between scientists and creative people, too. And the scientists must take care that they talk to actual creators, not imitators - the latter being a descriptor for the majority of people practicing any of the arts. That in itself, is a huge topic of discussion - and I will discuss it, but today we are all about Walt Whitman and  Proust and Jonah Lehrer again.

Lehrer focuses attention on poet Walt Whitman's refusal to separate body/flesh and mind/spirit. He cites contemporary neuroscientist, Damasio, who conducted a card game study in which, over time, the game playing subjects' fingers appeared to learn the "danger" of selecting from one card stack before the player consciously became aware of the game's rigged win-lose pattern. The player's fingers would hesitate, perspire, etc. as they approached the incorrect deck. Damasio calls this the "mind-body loop." Lehrer raises this example as a modern day concurrence of science with poet Whitman's apriori understanding of it.

This particular example of Damasio's mind-body loop theory (hypothesis?) does not have me convinced. Why is it thought that the fingers are thinking and reacting, rather than that some part of the unconscious mind is calculating faster than the conscious mind, and directing the fingers to react (via sweat/perspiration) unbeknownst to the conscious mind? Or, perhaps, Lehrer has slightly misrepresented Damasio's theory here. Maybe we need to ask him.

Adding author Robert Kurzban's hypothesis  about mind structure (Why Everyone (else) is a Hypocrite) to this mind-body loop idea, I might draw a different picture. Rather than the finger's signaling the mind about danger, perhaps the brain app in charge of game playing was signaling the conscious mind of the danger of a wrong move via producing beads of sweat on the fingers. Kurzban envisions the mind as a assemblage of multiple mind apps, yes, like iPhone / Android apps, each given a separate life task. Given an imagined Kurzban scenario, one part of the brain might be better at game playing than the conscious mind, but unable to communicate consciously or verbally. I could extend that hypothesis by combining an idea from Damasio's mind-body loop and conclude that perhaps the game mind app communicates to the conscious mind via finger perspiration and raised heart beat when the fingers are about to select the wrong card.

Some scientists say that a huge problem we humans have is that there is all this thinking and calculating and reacting and observing going on in some unconscious, subconscious, state, and yet we are not able to communicate consciously with this information. Because we cannot consciously communicate with these underthoughts and perceptions, they may control us - cause us to take actions, or to feel feelings - that may or may not be appropriate. And, beyond the appropriateness of our unconscious actions and feelings, we may be frustrated at many times because our conscious minds are not able to control these actions and feelings.

I think it is important to remember that Kurzban's ideas are hypothetical and the "app" description of the mind is a metaphorical analogy he is drawing because we humans have no better way of understanding a lot of science without some sort of visual and/or metaphorical analogy. Lately I have been "watching" my mind and paying particular attention to my unconscious mind - and how it needs to be listened to. Our goal must be to watch for those signals that the non verbal unconscious sends to our conscious so that we can bring the unconscious ideas, thoughts, observations, fears, discoveries, etc. to our conscious mind. This is, of course, one of the goals of psychotherapy - to find the unconscious thoughts that are impeding a person's life progress, causing her/him to live in fear, inhibiting successful relationships, etc. But I believe that we can use the goal of learning to talk to all our mind apps every day in our own lives unassisted by anyone other than our conscious mind's determination to "listen."

I'll give some examples.

The other morning I was about to leave the house when suddenly I felt compelled to return to my kitchen. I didn't shake off the compulsion like I might have ordinarily. Becasue I am in this "listen to my unconscious" mode. When I returned to the kitchen, there lay my house keys on the counter. I ALWAYS put my house keys in my purse when I enter my home, but clearly something had distracted me the previous evening, and I had dropped them on the counter instead. Had I gone out the door that morning, I would have locked myself out (no, I have never been one to leave an extra key under a rock or matt outside my front door). I think that Damasio, or Lehrer translating Damasio's mind-body loop) might have suggested that my front door agitation had been caused by my body telling my mind not to leave. I would extend that a bit to conclude that my eyes had seen the keys, but that vision had only regsitered on my unconscious (or one of my Kurzban mind apps). When my unconscious signaled to my conscious at the front door, via a sense of agitation, I listened to it, and to its nonverbal signal to me to return to the kitchen. My conscious did not ask, "Why ever do I need to go back to the kitchen right now, I am late for work and must leave." No, it listened to my unconscious bidding, and saved me from a LOT of trouble (locksmith, wasted time, etc).

In my next post, I will give more examples and bring Virginia Woolf into the discussion. Right now my battery is running out (I am writing on the patio, where there are no electrical outlets for my laptop for recharging). I also just returned from a trip to Monterey (where I began the Kurzban book), so I will talk about that and show some pictures soon, too. I took my cat Salome on her first vacation, and decided she makes a great travel companion! although she hasn't yet grasped the fact that a leash means "take a walk" rather than "lie down."



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