Monday, December 13, 2010

Where My Mind Is

An ecological sense of self and of mind might be helpful. It is for me. To me "mind" is nature's system for processing information. From the standpoint of the entire universe each person is a tiny speck, but nevertheless has a mind, as do all other living instances and collections of life.

Each individual human can conceive if itself as the center of a personal universe. I don’t know of another species that has the capacity to do that. We are biological creatures, vulnerable in so many ways. Our individual minds are centered and coordinated in our brains. They don't as far as I know function unless they are each connected with the rest of our bodies, moreover with the outside world. We are connected with the outside world through distance receptors like eyes and ears, which receive information encoded in patterns of light waves and sound waves, respectively.

These patterns are codes that we evolved culturally to be able to receive and eventually make sense with. What I am writing is PATTERNS like ink on paper, which stand for words that stand for things and concepts. The black on white text is not the things it stands for. Korzybski pointed out the obvious, “The map is not the territory!” Information, the mind, rides into my being, for example on patterns of matter and energy in the form of light wave and sound wave frequencies and amplitudes.

The information is not, itself, the matter and energy, but a code that changes its form as it travels into, and around, in specific areas of the brain, where it makes dynamic loops. The processes where the changes in form of impulses occur, such as the retina or the eardrum, are called signal transduction. The key words are CODE and PATTERN. Sensorimotor loops occur at the speed of neural impulses, considerably slower than the speed of light or sound, down into the rest of the body, back up into the brain, and are reflected back into the outside world through how we behave. All sorts of dialogues are possible.

Possibly the most neglected aspects of these loops are those that bring into play our endocrine and autonomic nervous systems. They provide one of the most primitive and valuable aspects of who we are and can be. They are an integral and necessary element of a healthy mind. When neglected or battled against they contribute to depression, anxiety disorders and poor social and other judgment. Adrenaline, noradrenaline, dopamine, serotonin and other neurotransmitters can arouse us spiritually. They can also frighten us, especially if we have been taught that sad is bad, or that fear is weak, or that assertiveness is aggressiveness. Patterns of nuances of feeling that stand out sharply clear a path for memory of what is important: what is safe and nurturing, what is dangerous.

We loop with ourselves and the world through thinking, feeling, and behavior in dynamic ongoing fashion. It is a profoundly aesthetic experience for many who are able to accept sense of self as depending on healthy connections with the world outside and the world inside.

These examples are just a scratching of the surface of the processes of mind. We might conceive of Nature as a SuperMind, of which each living information-processing entity is a part. We are all connected, either by what we have in common or by the messages we send and receive.

Ortega y Gasset said, "I am myself plus my circumstance." Our connections with our important others are mental. I include healthy integrated emotional experience as an essential part of my own mind. Only when that exists is my judgment optimal.

We might extend our mind's sphere by including, inserting into it, devices that are mechanical or electronic. We might use them to connect with people, like I am doing now.

Or consider the Tom Hanks character in Castaway who was marooned for four years on an island with no people. He had no iPhone or other electronic device. He got blood on his hand doing a dental procedure on himself, then had the bright idea to paint a face on a volleyball with his bloody hand. Many were the conversations.

Sunday, July 18, 2010

What I Think ABout When I Think About Thinking

I am thinking that thinking is a silent conversation that I am having with myself. If my thoughts are connected sensibly they make sense. If they don't I am in danger of falling asleep. Sometimes I am thinking in a different way, maybe: The conversation that I am having with myself is going on at the same time I am having a sort of inner conversation with other people. I am meaning conversation with myself in the sense of dialogue as I am sending and receiving signals with sources around me.

For example, in church last Sunday the conversation was more complex than an inner dialogue. As the Men’s Chorus was singing Standing on the Promises I was thinking as part of a more complicated set of relationships: that with the director, the people closest by, the patterns of sounds moving in harmony, the musical notation, the organ, and the people in the congregation, as their responses to the musical presentation were noticeable to me; moreover, my responses to my noticing their responses were noticeable to me. All that constituted a parallel processing that included awareness of the singing inside of me, my pulsings and vibrations, as well as sounds I myself was making.

I am thinking now about what I was thinking yesterday. I am not in a church. I am at home, thinking about the sensations of my fingers typing. I am able to think without words, and want to get better at that. I remind myself of the book Thinking in Pictures, by Temple Grandin, remembering that there are advantages to being able to think in moving pictures. I am wondering if it will be easier to remember for example a song, if I translate the words into pictures, a closer connection than words, a living-out of it, complete with pictures, sound and integrated nuanced emotional experience. The emotional experience will give valence to the process, functioning as much more than a mnemonic aid. I say that because it will be associating the words with what they symbolize as well as rather than being stuck at the level of the symbol. A little deeper into the chain of ideas, remembering Korzybski’s “The map is not the territory!” Now I am thinking about the exclamation point after territory. That is a symbol for the excitement that accompanies the idea expressed.

Now I am wondering, which is now becoming more obviously a synonym for thinking, whether I am getting closer to anything of value relevant to the topic of What I Think when I Think about Thinking. I remember when writing about this in a previous exercise, that I remarked about possibly suppressing most of what I am writing. I can be writing about what I think about when I write about thinking about thinking, and on and on. But is this getting anywhere? I won’t know until I stop writing and review what I have written. What I have done with all this is write down as accurately as possible what I was thinking as I wrote. The editing I did was to more accurately express what I remember that I was thinking when I wrote it.

Sunday, June 13, 2010

The Fears that Birds Have

I did a Google search of the neurobiology of birds yesterday. Didn’t spend much time on the subject, but learned that many other people have. There is a big program at Cornell University in NY. You can do a course at home. This covers not only the neuroscience, but just about every aspect of bird biology. You can get a copy of their handbook at Amazon. Some reviewers noted that the course, or the book, totally changed their attitude toward and their appreciation of birds. I have been regularly hearing the woodthrush, one of the most beautiful songs. Just about every day in the woods close by our house. That bird was gone from here, or at least I didn’t hear it, for two or three years. It was so wonderful hearing it in the early morning darkness, in the cool of springtime. I am glad it's back. Check it out at this link

Let me know what you think!! With that Google search noted above I learned that birds, just like humans, have 12 cranial nerves. They have been given the same names as ours. I need to know more about the functioning of those nerves. I want to know about the sympathetic and parasympathetic connections, anatomic and functional. The deeper issue is how birds know what to be afraid of. How does that play out neurobiologically and mentally? How much more integrated are they than we, who have been taught since Roman times that fear is a sign of weakness?

Saturday, June 12, 2010

Tell Us Your Story

This is my response to an Atlanta Track Club request for people running is the upcoming Peachtree RoadRace to "Tell Us Your Story."

I ran my first Peachtree in the Bicentennial Year 1976 waving a little American Flag, and have run and completed every one since. This year will be my 35th and possibly last. I will be 29 days short of 77 years old.

It all got started in June 1975 when my father-in-law, Bill Ashton, age 67, challenged me to race him around the block. I weighed well over 200 pounds and 5 feet 8 inches tall, smoking 3 to 4 packs of cigarettes a day. I was totally sedentary. Bill, who lived into his early 90’s was in “Full Cleveland,” meaning he was wearing white shoes and a white belt. I was totally shocked as he left me standing still, and I yet have a vivid picture of the white vinyl soles of his shoes, as he galloped up the hill. I made it as far as a telephone pole about fifty feet from the start, and hung on to one of the rungs.

That was the shock I needed. I learned about Dr. Kenneth Cooper’s book, Aerobics, which I read and found interesting and useful. I was not counting on running, because I could only run a few steps before having to walk. I was satisfied getting my ’30 points a week’ walking, which I did for a couple of months, then started running a little. By October I was running five laps around that block, about 2.5 miles. I also went backpacking with my son Darwin that month, without any cigarettes and haven’t smoked one since that excursion. I gradually increased my distance, all the while reading books by Jim Fixx, George Sheehan, Arthur Lydiard and Jeff Galloway, most of them after that first Peachtree in 1976. I believe there were about 1200 runners. The race started at where Sears was on Peachtree and finished I believe at Davison’s. My time was 54 minutes and some seconds but I didn’t get a T-shirt because there weren’t enough, and there were no chutes to control the finish line.

Since that time I have run the race many times with as many as many 9 family members. My youngest son Clay ran it when he was 7 years old in 1984. He didn’t train again for many years, but has picked up the healthy habit, and is also running road races, including Peachtree and the Marine Corps Marathon in DC where he lives.

I lost down to 148 pounds when I was my leanest shape, have been steady at about 165 pounds for many years. I qualified for and ran the Boston Marathon twice, and have run and completed 33 marathons altogether.

Now I enjoy running local races and the Snickers Marathon Energy Bar Marathon, which passes in front of my house in Albany. In 2009 I missed it because I had cardiac catheterization a week before the race. My wife Joy and I played Beetles’ and ABBA’s music and passed out orange slices to the runners of both the marathon and half marathon. I took pictures and got a great shot of the 3 Marathon leaders with all 6 feet off the ground!

Children and their spouses, nephews and grand children will finish this one way ahead of me, but I will totally enjoy every minute, including the regular spectators I will recognize, who, I think, have been hanging out on Peachtree Road July 4 morning as long as I have.

June 12, 2010 at 7:00 a.m. at 1205 Valley Road: I think that most of the revelations I have are when I am in a half awake state in the mornings sitting on the toilet or standing at the window looking outside at the birds in the trees and at the feeder. This morning I noticed that the blue jay has to work hard for the goody in a sunflower seed. No problem for a cardinal or house finch. Chickadee has same problem as blue jay. Both bang their beaks containing a single seed against their perch until it opens, either at the feeder or by taking their seed up to the “green room tree,” so named because it is where the birds usually await their turn to go onstage at the feeder. I think I might put out some gentler food for the non-finches, but will have to think about that. I wondered this morning how many cranial nerves birds have, and how much variation there is among species. Wonder now about dominance hierarchies, and how genetic and social factors make their contributions. How are they experienced and expressed through the contributions to the minds of various creatures? How does the neuroendocrine system of the boobies, albatrosses, frigate birds that evolved in the Galapagos compare with that of birds and other creatures that evolved to fear us predators in Southwest Georgia? If we fed birds Xanax, what would happen to their fear? Their judgment?

I would think, the same think that is already happening to human social judgment. It would disappear.

Another revelation this morning came in the form of a question: If everyone had a concept of ecology that included the sense of mind, in contrast to the dualistically based Cartesian sense that our culture--- including the psychiatric community---suffer, would there not be a much more harmonious acceptance of self and others, a Schweitzerian sense of reverence and awe, an aesthetic appreciation of the Mysterium Tremendum concept of Rudolph Otto? Everyone would be a self therapist and a therapist of others; moreover, another question: What would change in the need for psychotherapists, including psychiatrists? Wouldn’t the whole world become temporarily a grand Alcoholics Anonymous Community?

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

An Ecological Event

Currently enjoying reading Benjamin Franklin’s Autobiography. He is now in London living with the entertaining widow lady with the gout. This is an outrageous book! Franklin was a master of writing skill. I think that might be one of the main attractions of the book for me. He is opening up his mind to me. When I was reading a passage to Joy yesterday I was imagining I was Benjamin Franklin talking to her. Then I remembered Emerson’s quote, about MY (yes, he was as if talking to ME) having access to the minds of many great men who have left it here for us. Their hereafter? Can’t doubt that, can you? Now I am wondering if it was really B. F. taking over my body. I am imagining it wasn’t! I remember when I was reading it to Joy I was talking with a talking with a Boston accent!

I am going to have to keep an eye on that rascal. He has already admitted that since he didn’t believe in a deity he had an excuse for not having any morals. Was he trying to make out with Joy? I think human beings, including Benjamin Franklin, are born with a moral sense, just like chickadees and titmice. Can it be that even before we are able to think linguistically, before we can talk at all, we innocently embrace a philosophy of life that is tainted with immorality? Are we led astray (literally seduced), by a culture that teaches that might makes right? A sick top down system that blinds us to the deeper morality we share with the birds and other less mighty, who then collectively blow the whistle on us?

I haven’t watched the cartoons lately. Are they still as violent as they were when my children and grandchildren were kids? And how rare is it to see an ad on TV that doesn’t have a little message for us along violent lines? Archie Bunker said a couple of days ago that “capital punishment is good because it is a detergent to crime.” Emerson said that punishment causes crime.

Keep an open mind. Look, listen, and question. Think for yourself but don’t believe everything you think. Or find in print, especially on the Web. An old Unitarian aphorism is, “To question is the answer.”

Franklin early in the book talks about his learning about this process. The Socratic Method. He got into the same kind of trouble Socrates did, though, confronting others, with their ignorance, while Socrates was busily teaching all the young people in Athens to question their superiors. Being a smart ass can cost you your life. Main difference is that Franklin learned to back off a little, when it only cost him some friends. He feigned meekness, thereafter, when he engaged someone in the process. Remember, that’s how Colombo, with dog leash tied to his rear view mirror, did it!

I am imagining that Franklin’s success in international relations was undergirded by his expertise in respectful dialogue, where everybody wins, in contrast to debate, where even the winner loses something.