Thursday, March 31, 2011

I hope you don't suppose those are real tears?

Thought-provoking idea from noted neuropsychologist Paul Broks, author of Into the Silent Land: "the self is a story the brain tells itself."

In other words, our brain needs to conjure a "self" -- consciousness, self-awareness -- to help make make sense not merely of the myriad (that word again) perceptions and sensations that penetrate our awareness, but, uniquely in humans, also come from within the mind. We rise from the sea of instinct to become both tale-teller and our own avid audience.

When babies emerge from the darkness of the womb, they have to learn the rules of seeing. For example, if a patch of a single color moves across our visual field without changing shape, the chances are it's one thing out there in the real world. If there's an abrupt change in color, it may well represent an edge. A blue shape with red shapes on either side could be three separate objects, but it could -- aha! -- be a small blue thing in front of a larger red thing, and so on. (Nature gives us a start -- a baby will turn his or eyes toward two black dots on a piece of card, probably thinking they're eyes in a face, a schema that many scientists think is innate.)

But in humans, pattern recognition goes beyond making sense of sensations. With our highly developed cortices, we have to deal with capacities that most animals don't have, and no animal has to our extent: language, memory of events, awareness of time, knowledge of causality, imagination, visualization, etc. And so we see patterns in behavior, too -- past behavior predicts future behavior, first impressions count, anger precedes violence, "when you're lying, your eyes look upward. . . ." We remember the past, we envisage the future, and thus we see ourselves as a character, moving from one to the other.

What I find most extraordinary, most intriguing about this metaphor for consciousness is its application to dreams. Put broadly, dreaming is the brain doing things during sleep that it didn't have time to do during the day. Sometimes it's because an issue is so overwhelming that the waking hours are not long enough to contain it, and so our anxieties party on past their curfew. Sometimes we refuse to deal with a troubling topic during the day, and so it surfaces as a nightmare when sleep overcomes our sentinels. But mainly, the brain is just catching up on the filing, storing those associations between events that you failed to note when you were awake, tucking those loitering perceptions into their pigeon holes in long-term memory.

But here's the deal: as those flashes of recent memory, newly forged associations, rehearsals of new physical skills, mental gymnastics tromp across the stage of the Theater of the Night, we continue to try to make some sense of them, just as if they were daytime images. From this haphazard mixture, we improvise surreal little stories, filling out the plot points with a touch of imagination from our own store, straining for a passing coherence.

In other words, daytime storytelling and nighttime storytelling are no different. They're exactly the same mental process.

The difference lies only in the raw material. When we're awake, our goal is to use our perceptions and our higher cortical processes to form a mental model of the world that's close enough to the real world to rely on for making predictions (often with spectacular mismatches, from believing that the scorchmarks on a tortilla are the face of Jesus to denying that the swastika tattoo on the forehead of a new beau means he's anything other than a lovable scamp).

Dream images, on the other hand, can never be forced to cohere with reality, no matter how hard we try. But we do try. And its the compromises and distortions we therefore conjure that makes them so interesting. And often preferable to reality. Go ask Alice.


  1. I just finished re-reading Connie Willis's Passage. If you haven't read it, give the book a shot. It's a totally different subject and story, but I think you'll find some parallels to what you've just been talking about. Besides that, it's an excellent book

  2. I love Connie Willis, as I think I've mentioned before around these parts. Next up, though is "The Doomsday Book."