6.23.2009

braaaaaaaaaains.

in my last substantial entry, i discussed different conceptions of the self across cultures and throughout time (in a cursory way), and i'm afraid i got off the topic of mental illness a bit. i'll try to bring it back around in this entry, but no promises.

at the end of that entry, i postulated that, to continue talking about "the self," we need to agree on two propositions: one, that there is a self, and two, that we can talk about it. while these are not necessarily realities by any means, they do constitute the cornerstones of a rational and reciprocal discussion of "selfhood" (whatever the fuck it is). so let's go from there.

warning: dangerous "quotation marks" area. falling logic, next five pages.

if there is a self, what constitutes it? does it have parts? is it a unified whole? is it integrated with the universe, contained within the body, or some combination of both? these are questions that cannot be answered conclusively by existing religions or philosophies. if conclusive answers were forthcoming, certainly most people could agree upon them, just as most people can agree when presented with a rock that it is definitely a rock. (i understand that this is not philosophically tenable; i am instead talking about "consensus reality," which has yet to be either proved valid or disproved.)

if outside systems fail to answer questions about the self to our satisfaction, then we must turn to the ultimate authorities on our selves; ourselves.

try asking yourself what it is. the first answer you might come up with is "that little voice inside my head that tells me what to do; the thinking, perceiving mechanism." on further consideration, this answer is unsatisfactory for a number of reasons.

first, what does one mean "little voice inside my head?" there is no voice, in the strictest sense of the word, as there is no mouth inside the skull that we know of. perhaps we can say that there is something that seems to us to originate from inside the head, something that we can closely equate with a voice, but it is not technically a voice. perhaps it can be formulated as a complex of understanding; we experience sensations, and those sensations are somehow interpreted in the brain. for some reason, we experience this as a voice or a smaller version of oneself inside oneself. but what is this understanding, what is the subject for the verb "to understand"? muddy business all around. with that question in mind, let's move on.

second, many of us conceive of the self as a controlling body, dictating the actions of our bodies. again, at first glance, this may seem true enough. our sense organs (eyes, ears, nerves, etc.) send electrical signals to our brains, wherein some sort of process takes place enabling our brains to send corresponding signals to our muscles. in an often-cited example, let's say you place your hand upon a hot stove-top. the nerves in your hand detect the heat and send correspondent signals to the brain. the brain then "decides" somehow that the "correct" response to this input is to pull the hand away from the stove, lest it be burned further. it sends electrical impulses to the muscles in the arm and hand, and lo and behold, you've jerked your hand away from the hot surface just as fast as you possibly can.

but can this be called the self, this hard-wired process? the human body, including our big brains and our nervous systems, are most likely the products of a long and difficult evolutionary process, and in the time that it took us to evolve, the instinct for survival - for preservation of the attendant tissues and organs that make up the body - was no doubt selected for time after time. while some people (the author included) may also have strong drives in the opposite direction of annihilation of the body, the two drives are not mutually exclusive, and i believe they exist in just about everyone.

moreover, if the self is indeed located in the brain (which can be tentatively said to be the control panel, or the "decider"), what does that mean in consideration of the fact that the brain is not something distinct from the body, but is instead just a component of it, as fleshy and organic as an arm or an eye, if somewhat more complex. (at this point some people might be tempted to discuss inherent properties of systems - and i am one of those people - but let's keep moving.)

finally, we have the concepts of "thinking" and "perceiving." thought may be considered a static object ("a thought") or an ongoing process ("thinking), a noun or a verb. we may venture that thought is somehow "fed" by perception, which can also be a noun (nearly, but not quite, synonymous with "awareness") or a verb ("perceiving," to sort and store sensory data). these, too, are not well-defined or understood.

so we must not be satisfied with this gut reaction as an answer, either. we need to delineate different components within thought and perception. making needless divisions is not something i enjoy doing, but in this case i can see no way around it. understand, too, that all the steps i am about to describe are part of a continual process with no discernible differentiation between them; i mean that you can't pinpoint where one part stops and another begins. so while these divisions may not be inherent in the physical workings of the universe (Einstein said that all matter and energy are continuous anyway), they are conceptual divisions which may help us understand better the process of thought, perception, and understanding.

starting "outside" and working our way "in," we can say that there are stimuli, assuming that there is something outside of ourselves which our sensory organs can pick up. these stimuli are sensed by our bodies. so the first thing is stimulation, or sensation. this is sometimes called a biochemical event.

next, the sensation (meaning the myriad responses of the body to the outside world) is somehow translated into electrical impulses which travel from the sense organs to the brain. this is the first step in what i will call "interpretation," or taking one event and transforming it into something else. however, let's just call this first part translation for now.

the second part of interpretation, which follows immediately upon the heels of translation, occurs when the electrical impulses contained the encoded sensory data reach the brain and travel throughout it. synapses come alive with electricity, and before you know it, the data has been interpreted not once, but twice; once by the nerves, again by the brain. it is at this point that the thing we call "self" becomes aware of the sense data; all of this happens in fractions of a second. this second mode of interpretation can be termed "perception," in that it is only once that impulse reaches the brain that we are conscious of perceiving stimuli such as pain, temperature, hunger, etc.

now we go about taking this perception and channeling it through such filters as rationality, emotion, and language. this is the point at which we formulate thoughts; "i feel cold," "i see red." we'll call this "cognition," from the Latin cognoscere, to know or recognize. whether this is a purely mechanical process or one guided by some "intelligence" (or both) is not something i know.

finally we can say that the self (or perhaps just the body) takes action based upon the feedback the muscles receive from the brain. call this part "reaction" if you like. some people might call it decision, saying the brain makes a choice on how to react based on the initial stimuli. however, i think that passes too close to the free will/determinism issue, which i'm not even going to TOUCH.

to summarize, we have stimuli which create sensations, then an two-part interpretation of those sensations; the nerves translate or code the sensation into electrical impulses, which are received by the brain, which in turn perceives them. the perceptions (which can be understood as electrical impulses in the brain) are then re-translated into thoughts or observations about the outside world. the whole organism then takes action, or does not take action, according to the outcome of this process; it is fair to say, however, that whether the organism acts or not, it has been affected in some way (if only physically) by the whole exchange.

so far, so good. not the best definition of understanding ever put forward, but probably not the worst, either.

is this all to consider when we ask questions of the self? i wish.

other factors, more difficult to quantify, some of them completely intangible, have entered into the common lexicon in the discussion of self. some of them may have existed before the phenomena of speech for all we know, whereas others may have arisen simply to further discourse; which are which, we shall probably never know. still, since they are concepts which most people treat as real, let us also treat them as real, at least at first.

first we have interpretation. what is it to interpret something? it is an explanation, almost a definition, and therefore involves statements of of meaning.

for example, say you see a large man sit down in a small chair. the chair breaks and the man tumbles to the floor. now it is the business of your eyes and brain to interpret what seems to you to be a singular event. after the ocular nerve has interpreted areas of light into recognizable images (or does this happen in the brain?), the brain receives them and shuttles the images into mental categories; man, chair, large, small, breaks, falls. the brain is explaining what was, just a fraction of a second ago, ostensibly just some atoms interacting with some other atoms in human terms. it is, in effect, stating "this collection of matter and energy equals man, while this collection equals chair." since the equals sign may be roughly equated with the word "means," meaning has either already made its grand entrance, or is waiting nervously in the wings for its cue.

next, consciousness. this, unfortunately, seems to me to be an unexplained phenomenon. some electricity hits a certain organ in the body and all of a sudden there's a first person subjective experience. how does that arise from gross matter? i have no fucking clue. let's just take it as synonymous with self and consider it a question as opposed to an answer.

third, the aforementioned "filters" which information passes through on its way to becoming intelligible thought. among these i mentioned emotion, rationality, and language, and i would add value judgments (beliefs, ethics, morals, or simple judgments such as "better" or "worse"), conditioning or habit, the idea of "knowing" (perhaps better classified with the value judgments), and memory.

memory seems to be the odd man out here; whereas the other filters are already in place before the sensory data hits the brain stem, memory cannot occur until afterward. can it?

i think memory and its attendant, narrative, are big, big parts of what makes up the self. for my own part, i would almost venture to say that i know my memories are part of who i am. if i woke up tomorrow with no memories of who i was or what i had done, could i be said to be me any longer? opinion varies, but i don't think so.

and i also think that the statement "memory does not come into play until after perception" is untrue, or at least not necessarily true. i plan to show, in my next entry, why that is.

---

i swear, i'll post more often from now on, guys! you were all chomping at the bit, right? because you're all horses? or bondage afficionados?

also, i will talk about mental illness more! except i am feeling pretty sane... no! that's wrong! i am feeling functionally, happily nutso and more human than human.

organizing my thoughts into systems, paragraphs, is a way of keeping myself mentally healthy. trying to understand who i am, and why (or at least how), is a healing and fulfilling thing. so BACK OFF cuz it DOES TO have to do with depression, craziness, and suicide. there's a twist, boom-pow ending to all of this and a pretty little bow on top, so just hold yr breaths, kittens.

oh, and check out my spiffy NEW BLOG! it is just as crazy but probably a lot more fun and accessible. in fact, it is patently crazy, like everything i write, ever.

solipsism-a-go-go,
c.

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