Deric Bownds


(This is a sample of text that draws on and adds to some ideas in my Biology of Mind book. It is the form of free standing chunks, written mainly I enjoy doing them. Please email me with any comments you care to make.© 2002 M. Deric Bownds


We are forever barred from recalling the buzzing cacophony that greeted our entry into this world. Our remembering brains had not formed, they had not begun to construct a world for themselves outside the womb. And yet, they had a very ancient kind of knowledge formed over millions of years. They knew to look for a face, they knew to direct muscles of the mouth to draw milk from a mother's breast. From a very rudimentary beginning repertoire they began fashioning a network of sensing and acting to finally generate the extraordinary machines that can read a page like this one.

In both the womb and with the growing baby, the story is a record of sensuality, of kinesthetic, visual, auditory, tasting and smelling histories that form themselves into a predictable order. A sense of past and of anticipation of the predictable future form a base non verbal imaged story line on which the layers of human language begin to build themselves. A smooth continuity informs the transformation of communication from gestures and simple sounds to strings of words with subjects, objects and verbs that form into stories about why, what, how, where. This transformation does not occur in feral children raised by surrogate animal parents, they appear to remain locked in the more present centered mental space of animals - a space that gives no flicker of reflectivity. The requirement is for not only our distinctively human genes but also a cultural context of human communication through gesture and language kept alive, altered, and transmitted by successive generations. We are tools of our our tools.

The programming of our brain regions central to social interactions is just as biological as the workings of a liver or kidney. It involves involuntary linkages of our primitive mammalian or limbic brain and its neuroendocrinology to status, sex, affiliation, power - mechanisms whose fundamental aspects we share with prairie voles and cichlid fish. Unique to humans is the self conscious confabulator or self-constructor that provides a new level of nudging, specification, control over these processes. It is this confabulator that generates what we take to be the world, what we take to be social sources of validation. All are in fact internal self creations that are assayed by their utility.


Why must we strive so hard define what is special about us humans compared with other animals, to deny a continuity between humans and nature, to want to believe that humans minds are in a category distinct from animal minds rather than rising from them? Our primate relatives show behaviors once thought to be distinctively human: cultural transmission of learned tool use, social politics, and social morality. (Initial crucial studies proving these points were done in Asian cultural contexts where the separateness of humans and nature is less emphasized than in the West). The roots of our shared animal behaviors extend well beyond the primates. The basic neuroendocrine circuits that regulate our afflictive attachments, as well as aversions, rewards and addictions are found in the most simple of our mammalian precursors. What further grows out of human minds is the bringing of these basic energies under the guidance of personal and cultural stories that regulate how they are expressed. The primeval triggers of our emotional behaviors may remain in place, subject to sudden arousal, but they are now constrained by cultural rules of appropriate context. Thus our daily experience of being a feeling narrative self is generated by a complex mix of ancient and modern brain processes. Recently evolved cortical structures enable us to use linguistic and logical tools to probe the mute emotions and motivations centered on older parts of our mammalian brain - processes that constitute most of the mental life of our animal predecessors. These mute forces, normally inaccessible to our introspection, can play a more decisive role in our behavior than we usually realize.


For our feelings or actions there is not always a reason, in the way we commonly suppose. Lower parts of our brains can follow rhythms of their own sending chemical instructions to our thinking brain that can decisively regulate our temperament, mood, attention, sexual energy, or state of arousal. These limbic energies however can be stoked by the narrative scripts generated by our verbal neocortex, whether of love, heroism, despair, or the mundane. We imagine that the behaviors of our mammalian predecessors are generated mainly by these mute limbic autopilots, which in us can come under the additional governance of our self story, so that we are not completely prisoners of the murky starlings of unknowable old memories. We continuously grow and renew a self, a story of our place in our culture and world, which derives from the living presence of the past resident in our memory, as well as our anticipation of a future. This provides a buffer against our being high-jacked by the present centered tyranny of the emotional brain that we share with our primate cousins. For these animals, life centers on the cusp of the present, while ours has vastly greater abilities to reflect back and forward. Past and future become tyrants in their own right, however, if they suppress openness to the present, to novelty and emotional spontaneity. Our ability to reflect on these processes appears to be unique in the animal kingdom. Even the great apes, our closest relatives, appear to be locked into the present, looking out from rather than seeing into each passing moment.

Our emotional minds draw on our deep history to carry on a life of their own, Pascal's "The heart has its reasons whereof Reason knows nothing." Much of this life can be immune to our introspection, as if our thinking and emotional minds were separate passengers in the same vehicle, occasionally but not always conversing. In fact, the parts of our brains most central to our implicit emotional memories and our explicit verbal processing can be distinguished from each other. The richness of the former can infuse the relative aridity of the latter. In its parallel track, our emotional mind can sometimes remain immune to bogus explanations or rationalization that our linguistic mind confabulates, leading to the familiar experience of what we say being different from what we really feel. Thus feeling provides a useful check or corrective. The cognitive linguistic mind shows its unique utility when the normal ripples of our emotional mind suddenly turn into crashing waves, and it chooses to watch rather than be this upheaval.

If you pay careful attention to your physical body and your breathing as you enter a familiar place after an absence, or recall a person once important to you, you can sometimes feel subtle flickerings of your muscles as they assume a more relaxed or more tense configuration. These are the stored somatic markers of the emotions you once linked to this place or person and now bring to life again in more gentle form. Think of these memories as being almost like alien creatures that you host, whose tentacles reach through brain and body to generate what you are feeling. Such subtle patterns are a part of our experience of almost every perception, imbuing them with them with a negative or positive tinge, for our emotional economy is largely manichean, diving the world into things to be approached and those to be avoided. Usually beneath our awareness this continuous labelling goes on, and we note it best by paying attention not to what we are thinking but by attending to the changes in our breathing and muscle tonus that can attend each new perception.


There are nerve circuits in our brains, and also in the brains of monkeys, that not only regulate a movement such as reaching out but also are active when we see others doing the same movement. They represent a primitive beginning of empathy, a knowing the experience of another that goes without words or description. With elaboration, these circuits could be the background of social ritual, the nonreflective "It is done." Such a basis for action is central experience for those in interdependent cultures that value group integrity over individual achievement. Throughout human history, there have always been individuals who probed their own motivations and strived for individual distinction, but the emergence of whole societies that value individual reflectivity and initiative has occurred only over past several hundred years.


Pause for a moment to think how it is that you happen to be reading this? Pause, and pull back a moment before answering... image yourself as a vast and layered library, a partially self aware archive of all you have ever been. It is from such a depth that any impulse to act rises. A brief halo of consciousness surrounds you now, as you have been brought to this moment by muscle movements directing your eyes to these words. Such an movement is antecedent to every thought, and the ultimate point of every thought is to plan some next action. How completely backwards we get it in our ordinary experience, imagining ourselves to be passive observers of an external world whose stimuli are processed and analyzed to generate 'output,' as if we were computers patiently waiting for input instructions to act. Unlike computers, our brains bring a whole world to every moment, a reality already formed and constantly under revision, a massive background which dwarfs the information coming in from the world and going out to act on it. No action is naive, but rather is patterned by our extensive memory of its precursors.


In moments of quiet, looking out at our world, we sometimes can note flickers of emotional energy that bias us to approach or avoid. These derive from our archive of stored memories of similar settings or faces, and can very rapidly and surreptitiously alter our subsequent thinking and reacting. The process can sometimes be noted if we let the window of our self awareness gently expand to probe times ever closer to the moment of our initial perception, without interpretation, and also inhibit our normal impulse to react. It is as if the clutch normally linking our perceptions to our actions has been disengaged. For just a moment a habitual response is suspended and surrounded by mindful awareness. A cloud of background narrative, along with considerations of personal advantage/disadvantage, is set aside as we probe closer to an animal-like primal awareness with less cognitive overlay. A piece of that overlay might be seen more clearly as a bias or assumption becomes visible in its own right. Such a bias, if we choose to let it continue, now must operate downstream from the moment of perception. We have begun to sense the millisecond epochs of our undermind. In these epochs there is no precise `moment of awareness.' There are rather successive iterations of more or less awareness at shorter of longer latencies from triggering events in the environment, depending on current circumstances and salience. Think of your awareness as an ensemble of larger or smaller waves washing up on a shore.

Might it be possible it reverse our social ontogeny, to deconstruct through these meditative techniques those links between social connections and our thinking/acting selves that have become debilitating, to release us from a tyranny of our own past to emerge as something closer to the state of a feral human or an animal, vitalized by life forces more ancient than humans and their self conscious language? Only to a limited degree, for the very wiring and development of our social brains and their linkages to our immune and endocrine systems requires from birth our social dialogue with caretaker - faces, touches, sounds, smells. In their absence we die, and they remain a mute set of rules about the social world only later overlaid by the appearance of an "I" with its self conscious language. Any techniques of meditation or mindfulness claimed to reveal an "authentic self" may bring clarity and quiet to confusion, yet still face this irreducable barrier. While these techniques can enhance clarity and sometimes permit the choice of new action scripts, our animal minds were not designed to sit on the cusp of reinventing themselves every moment. Their normal mode is to subsist on default rituals until the necessity for change is impelling. The clarity and flexibility of response made possible by mindfulness techniques is a metacognitive artifice that requires discipline and practice. Very few individuals manage to let mindfulness be a platform for their daily lives.


Our experience of an "I" that initiates action is an illusion, for brain cells fire to initiate that action several hundred milliseconds before we are aware of our intention - we are late to consciousness. Late does not mean irrelevant, however, even though our subjective experience may bear no more relationship to what the brain is doing than a computer monitor bears to what the insides of the computer are actually doing. In this late moment of consciousness, the usefulness or accuracy of our action can be noted, and an inappropriate action already in process can be inhibited - as if our capacity is to have "free won't" rather than "free will." This information can be presented back to the underground processing that is preparing the next instant of action that we will retroactively `intend.' Our brain thus works in an expanded present that contains the moments antecedent to our awareness of thoughts and actions and that also persists as their consequences are integrated into the ongoing cycle. This curious process is the decisive departure from most other animal minds that our evolving brains have made - in discovering that it is expedient to generate the illusion of a self and self consciousness.


Being swept up in the immediate grip of an emotion of anger, affection, moral judgement - feeling that `just is' or `just doing it' intensity -may mirror similar present centered experiences in the anthropoid apes with whom we share a common ancestor. This kind of immediate experience gives the feeling of authenticity, much more than any amount of reflective `thinking about it' can. Our more recently evolved narrative devices make our story, but they are arid without the reinforcement of the more primitive limbic circuits that link them to emotions and neuroendocrine arousal. The newer and older structures are not simple upstairs/downstairs layered structures, cognitive brain on top of emotional brain. Rather they are loops upon loops in which our deepest limbic and brain stem circuitry has been wired to and talks with newer cortical structures in a way that is absent in monkey and apes. What we try to spin is a story of the delicate dance between our fragile neuroendocrine configurations - the temperament and mood molecules that can flood our brains - and the cognitive structures, self stories, that brought them to life and which they now support.


We can feel solace and companionship from our pets because of their external behaviors that seem so similar to our own (affection, fear, anger, sadness), and we feel that they must be having internal experiences similar to ours. Perhaps, when a purring cat has starting to make kneading motions on you with its paws (as it did to pump milk from its mother's teats when it was a kitten) you have felt a moment of calm or repose. Have you felt a brief moment of uplift or playfulness when an excited puppy has bounced up and down in front of you? Draw away, however, and think of shaking off for a moment the assumption that a pet's feelings are like yours, of looking in their eyes to ask not "Hello, who's in there?" but rather "What's in there." Can you sense more of an alien strangeness?

Imagine living only on the cusp of the present, looking only into the next moment rather than ever reflecting back, having the subjective feeling of being the vehicle doing the journey rather than a passenger in it, being a moral patient rather than an agent as impulses to desire or avoid arise seemingly from nowhere. Such a state of present centered `just being' might be the closest we can approach to having the experience of an animal such as our pet. For us, approaching such a space does not come naturally. We are able to let our minds move towards resting in the present only by employing a cognitive technology such as meditation to be aware of and then set aside the traffic noise of our usual internal discourse. Does suspension of this chatter then let us sense that even our feeling of `being there' - as reflective observer and actor - might be a recent evolutionary overlay grafted onto our more basal animal consciousness?


It is hardly a surprise that our evolved brains have more structures obviously devoted to threat and alarm than to pleasure and contentment, that the former are easily triggered while for most of us the latter require slower cultivation. These ancient parts of our mammalian brains, such as the almond shaped amygdala, are central to the ease with which we so readily `scare ourselves' when minor social setbacks are magnified to bring forth the emotional and visceral correlates of a tiger at the door. When we experience an apparently inexplicable interruption of a period of benign calm by an anxious impulse, we might wonder whether our threat-making circuits haven't determined, on a rhythm of their own, that an episode of vigilance is due.


Does recognizing that even the most rich of our emotional and affiliative experiences rise from processes as impersonal as the birth and death of stars doom us to an aridity of soullessness and no-meaning, is it required to lead to nihilism and disillusionment? Perhaps not, if we suggest that the issue has been miscast, that from a biologist's perspective these imagined dire consequences might be viewed as an imposition of our social brains on a biology that simply evolved to `be.' Being perpetually curious and seeking meaning turned out to be much too good a survival trick for humans, those curious brains weren't designed to face no-meaning and other questions of philosophers. They were designed to be a `we' in a symbiotic confluence with the social body, to make stories about origins and ends that traditional religions encompass. Such stories are confabulations that let us feel more comfortable about the reality that our conscious selves are a very small fraction of a larger whole they can never fully understand or control.


In normal development each of us moves from a primal union with caretakers through an individuation that is most pronounced in advanced individualistic western societies. The pain of the separation into a isolated self can be ameliorated by feeling re-owned by a community that substitutes for the sense of security felt by the infant in its caretakers. Richness of union can be felt because the same neuroendocrine affiliative hormonal mechanisms stimulated by infant-caretaker interactions are elicited. Insight into the biological origins of social bonding provides in principle a rationalization of even our loftiest experiences of union. Understanding these origins need not compromise the richness of the experience. Just as an infant savors the richness of being held and protected, so can the devoutly scientific or religious person savor what remains of that energy in their adult communities as they live with a simple animal curiosity and gentle respect for the mystery of it all.


While taking refuge or finding personal meaning in a conventional religion offers the prospect of some repose and a set of instructions for moral and right action, the issue always rises of how that system explains or justifies the evil in the world, especially the violence done by humans to each other and their environment. Evolutionary explanations of why humans have developed aggressive, xenophobic, and genocidal tendencies offer a 'why' for these behaviors, but don't offer an obvious set of instructions for moral and right action. We humans generate an array of aggressive, affiliative, curious behaviors seen also in higher mammals, but we posses also the remarkable ability to have some insight into, and choice about, their operations. Thus we are able to become moral agents, rather than moral patients, and chose those behaviors that are most life affirming - to become our own gods. Such a course, a training of the introspective intelligence required for insight and choice, is a much more arduous option than adopting the simple precepts of an established culture or religion. But, it is more likely to create humans who can extend their compassion and caring beyond the tribal and cultural boundaries that are the origins of intolerance.

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