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Physiology of the Soul - or, if you like it better, - Neurons & Soul
Riccardo Fesce - all rights reserved (if you are an interested publisher or agent send a mail)
all the material herein is protected by copyright laws and cannot be reproduced without the explicit permission of the author

XI

NARRATING THE WORLD − Space and Time

Neurologically, we are visual beings.

A great fraction of neuronal circuits work according to that paradigm: extracting information, relations, interpretations from myriads of data simultaneously examined, recognizing schemes, orders, positions, hierarchies... SPACE.

It is not at all strange that what we can do best is to extract elements and relations from a cohort of data: near-far, front-back, unity-multiplicity, and order, regularity, relevance.

Even numbers, most of us see them in a line, 1 to the left, 10 a little to the right, a billion down there, almost outside the brain, and a thousand billions, and infinity, far away, you can hardly see them.

This way of ordering things is the one most congenial to us.

And we end up applying it also to TIME. In our brain TIME initially is only capturing before-after relations, perceiving the unity of a sequence, measuring durations through the time necessary to perform a gesture, a word − keep the pace, twenty-one, twenty-two, twenty-three...

We build for ourselves an ordered and infinite time, as the space is, a time that has nothing to do with our representation of ourselves and reality, not even in our memory. The line of time in our life is a chronology that we must rebuild with an effort, when we need it, by mapping the events on the appropriate coordinates: the date; this, yes, during my third high-school year; that, when my son was two-years old; that, when my sister got married.

Curiously enough, we order the same way, positioned on a line, the intensity of our moments, experiences, emotions: this is more important than that, down there, and what we care more looks closer.

In the same way we order depth, along an axis that goes from what appears to be clear out there, and objective and real and material, to what is more ours and personal, to what we ourselves barely feel, or to what even appears so deeply buried in our soul that we can only occasionally perceive it in a vague and confuse way...

Curiously, sometimes the axes are overturned; even more intriguing, that does not even bother us so much: in Platoís myth of the cavern, we in there, in the dark, things outside, but they themselves only shadows of a true but remote reality; from matter to truth, farther and farther from us. According to Kant, instead, reality out there, the senses to feel it, the modes of intellect to read it, and truth, pure, within ourselves...

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Relativity

This continuous work to frame experience along axes, in spatial frameworks, is tiring.

No datum can be used as it appears, we have to re-elaborate it and “locate” it along the axes of space, and time, affective relevance, good and evil...

Maybe this is why the special theory of relativity is easier than general relativity, and much more popular − nobody ever talks about the latter.

Because in the end it appears it is only a problem of accepting that scales and time are relative, and that funny things happen in fancy domains, such as that of velocities close to that of light: time gets stretched and can be turned over as a glove, and things appear smaller (well, actually, they BECOME smaller, but it is difficult to feel the difference).

Finally, what is the big deal? one would say, what need was there for any Einstein? A tower, from far away, is as high as a finger. And we cannot perceive time other than through our neuronal activity, and it dilates, contracts and runs forth and back, and it jumps, slave of thought who unfolds our life and folds it back again, flies and stops; only clocks tell us that time is a nice straight, continuous line, which runs regular... and we have learnt to trust clocks, but the soul, deep inside, is happier with relativity than with atomic clocks.

Now, in the face of relativity one struggles to understand. Crawling, he manages in focusing the fundamental aspects, and he remains with a strange sensation that a great tour has been done to demonstrate something that no one of us would have been able to formalize mathematically, but that is absolutely clear to each of us, because one feels it inside: time and space are relative and the soul wallows in this. Einstein arrives and demonstrates that this is also true for Physics, which instead had appeared so rigid and inflexible and certain of itself... Hey, Albert, welcome among us, and good for Physics!

General relativity instead upsets us. Even neglecting that one has to massage his brain quite a bit to understand something. The fact that infinity be limited looks more like a mystical intuition − a rather annoying one, indeed − rather than science. And black holes seem like unpleasant dreams. Ogres are almost more amiable.

Who is capable of following all the mathematics gets to the end and says “gosh, it is true!” and is upset, provided that, although he can mathematize, he has retained a trace of soul. The others tend to say “okay, let it be like that way, however I do not care, it does not change my life a bit”.

I mean, if one gets convinced by the general theory of relativity, he comes out just a little frustrated, because he has to accept that this universe, infinite as it may be, is limited, a cage you cannot escape from (and just notice that although you might have never left your house at the periphery of Town Creek, AL, you anyway will be disturbed if they tell you that there is some place you CANNOT GO); and he must accept the idea that if in a black hole there is another entire universe (because black holes are not empty, are they?) we will never be able to see it, unless we manage in getting close to it, and being sucked in forever.

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Genes or experience

Dimensions, measures, directions. Actually, in biology directions are essential.

It is sufficient to imagine the complexity of the development of an organism.

The solution of the amateur genetist: “it is simple, everything is written in DNA”.

Written in DNA? Come on! then it is the same as being written in destiny. That would not explain anything, either, but at least it would not require tons of paper, or disks, or miles of molecules. And it would be much more romantic.

Because in an organism there are thousands of billions of cells, all with the same DNA, and as different from each other as a fly can be from a hippopotamus. Then, let us assume that in the library of the nucleus there are all the recipes to make each one of these single cells; what happens next? each time a cell divides in the embryo each one of the daughter cells fishes out a number to know which recipe it must use and what its future, its destiny will be?

Now, take the fertilized egg cell. It divides in two, then in four, in eight... Who decides which ones of these cells will have to contribute in forming the placenta and who will make the embryo itself? and among the latter, when they reach a certain number, who is to decide which ones will take care of the bottom and which of the above (technicians would say who defines the caudal-rostral axis?)? and which will end up in the front and which in the back (for refined readers, who will define the dorsal-ventral axis)? and then who will tell the cells that they have ended up on the right or on the left (this remains right and left even for the most sophisticated ones), since we can do with a single heart, or liver?

I realize one may consider a severe pathological sign the fact itself of asking these questions, instead of simply saying “ah! the mysteries of life...”

But the answer is there: it is GRADIENTS. “See, he has started with the words that only he knows”, everybody stands up, someone has a urgent appointment, someone else remembers that he has his spaghetti boiling in the kitchen, and someone feels a sudden dizziness and must lay down a moment...

No, it is simple. And we already discussed this. Because of the asymmetric position of the nucleus, the cellular organelles and the microtubules, that constitute what is commonly called “cytoskeleton”, a gradual difference (gradient) of concentration is generated for some substances, from one end to the other of the cell. When the cell divides, these substances will be found at different concentrations in the two daughter cells and will be able to determine their diverse fates. In the embryo of vertebrates, for example, a gradient in the concentration of retinoic acid is observed along the caudal-cranial axis, already at primordial stages: since numerous genes have control regions that are sensitive to retinoic acid, the latter not only defines the major developmental axis, but also determines differences in the degrees of activation of various genes in cells that are positioned at different levels along such axis. It is not hard to imagine that the activation of different genes will determine differential synthesis of a number of proteins, which may in turn switch on or off other genes, and so on, thereby infinitely amplifying any very slight difference, and translating it into largely different pictures of gene activation, and protein production, in distinct cells; the result is the production of very different cells, tissues and organs in the various parts of the organism.

It is not worth detailing these mechanisms here. What must be noticed, however, is the impressive combinatorial growth of possible differences, generated not only and not so much by the enormous number of genes that can be turned on or off in any cell (notice by the way that the number of genes in human DNA is not impressive, probably just some 30000 of them), but rather by the much greater number of signals contained in DNA, that permit a fine regulation of the expression of each gene (production of the protein it codes for), in the presence and according to the concentration of many other proteins, soluble factors and signals that reach the cell from outside.

Thus, it is not necessary that everything be written somewhere; in particular, it would be crazy to take note, for each cell that will comprise the adult organism, which genes it will have to activate and to what extent − 1000 chromosomes would probably not be enough, and we only have 48 − or, for each of the 300 billion nervous cells, which thousands of other neurons it must make contact which, and in which particular position of its complicated tree of cellular processes (dendrites) it must receive synapses from each of the hundreds of thousands of neurons that must contact it to send it their signals.

This is a fascinating example of interaction between what is written − in DNA − and the small, innumerable differences in the surrounding biochemical and cellular environment − some of them gradual, other so sensitive to determine a net bifurcation, yes or not: these differences exponentially multiply the possibilities of choice, but in the meantime guide an ordered development, precisely because they are not casual differences, but they are generated by the previous steps of development itself.

It is an interaction between WRITTEN information and READING system; but the READING SYSTEM CHANGES due to this interaction. The reading system is an array of proteins, and reading DNA produces a new array of proteins. New, different reading systems are generated, capable of extracting new indications from the same written information, to generate other different readers, and so on and on for a thousand times, until in my skull a neuron is produced that seems identical to that of a mouse and nothing instead appears to share with a leukocyte of mine, though both contain my same sacred, unique, personal and irreproducible DNA.

This is pure biology. Still it is reminiscent of the psychological debate about genetic versus environmental influences on the development of the individual. It reminds me of those who can even only imagine that everything is written in genes. Or those who, in facing the observation that twins grown up together can have different stories and preferences, need to assume that there be a written destiny, somewhere in the stars, or in the soul, or some daimon who − hidden or well visible, helped or contrasted by the world and by fortune − has his own design to pursue and realize. As if the extraordinary, complex and versatile, sensitive and mutable reading system, that is constituted by the body, the brain and the mind in their forming and changing, had no relevance at all, and required external help to read the information in DNA in an original way, to grow and change, to re-read every day, every moment, not only DNA but all oneís previous history as well, in an ever new way, and to extract from the egg cell − which after all contains instructions that are quite precise biologically, but rather vague with respect to the choices of life − oneís own personal destiny.

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The skin of the soul

Gradients and asymmetries are essential in determining the lines of development of the organism.

And the first and fundamental distinction among cells is between epithelial and non epithelial cells. Yes. Because epithelial cells are asymmetric, polarized.

The whole organism is polarized, not only and not so much from the head to the feet, but rather from outside to inside, and from sensations to responses, and from the external world to the depth of the soul. And there, to mark polarizations, and divisions between different milieus, epithelial cells: skin, mucous membranes, and neurons.

The skin envelopes the body.

Mucous membranes envelope it with respect to “internal” cavities.

Endothelia separate vessels from the spaces of tissues and organs.

And finally the other polarized cells, also epithelial, the nervous cells, that derive, look what a word, from the ectoderma, from the most external layer of the embryo, that separates it from − or connects it to? − the world.

At a certain moment during development the ectoderma forms a furrow, which penetrates in some depth and then closes forming a tube (the neural tube), constituted by epithelial cells, that are by now detached from the external covering of the embryo. These are the cells that will become neurons, and it is as if they enclosed something, and separated the organism from something else, that remains inside. It is easy to remain enchanted. In discovering that the nervous system is born this way and a thin tube continues to travel along the spinal medulla in the adult, and generates small pouches in the skull − the cerebral ventricles − in the midst of the brain, one is lead to imagine that the liquid that flows in there must somehow contain the vital spirits, perhaps the soul itself... Actually, in pseudo-scientific elaborations at the beginning of the neurosciences, this system of liquids internal to the brain were hypothesized to constitute the proper site of the “animal spirits”, that is the site of “spirit”, in opposition with previous interpretations − how infantile and anti-scientific! − of animal spirits that resided in the heart and spread about the organism through the blood.

Epithelial tissues are polarized because they separate two milieus, different compartments that have different compositions and needs for exchange activities. The nervous tissue is also polarized, as all epithelial tissues are. Each nervous cell is polarized... could it not be then that the nervous system is a kind of skin, that separates the organism from something else − from spirit, perhaps? − contained in the neural tube...

Actually, polarization of the nervous cells clearly has a different function. All nervous cells have a portion that receives signals − chemical signals from other neurons or stimuli that arrive from outside in the form of electromagnetic waves (light, heat), vibrations (sound) or odorant or tasty molecules. A portion receives signals, thus, then a large portion of the cell summates such signals and translates and elaborates them, and finally another portion conveys the signal that results from such elaboration and transmits it to other nervous cells.

This makes an evident input-output polarization, a stimulus-response polarization.

This is so clear, in the organization of the nervous system, that it originated the most classical and diffuse interpretative paradigm of the nervous system − a still dominating view, that considers it a system whose essential function is to generate appropriate responses to the stimuli.

But the complexity of the neuronal network is extraordinary, and even if you look at it as a simple system of response production to stimuli, it puts up such a richness and complexity of multifaceted regulation, modulation and control activity that it CREATES a true and fully ABSTRACT dimension, a conceptual, logical, cognitive domain, as a side effect of this elaboration.

In this perspective, a slightly different view emerges fro the polarization of the nervous system, and of this “cutaneous” concept of the nervous system: yes, a skin, but a skin that in conducting information all around the body and the brain, creates a separate, immaterial domain, and separates the organism − the material organism − from such sphere of cognitive, logic, conceptual elaboration, and from the sphere of emotions and affectivity.

A skin. Yes. The skin of the soul!

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I have heard someone saying “science is the dream of defeating time”. Meaning, perhaps, that through genetics, biotechnology, or god knows which other knack − the philosophical stone? − we shall be able to prolong human life...

I cannot agree: the dream is anyway infinity, it is not merely pushing the limit a little farther. It is depth, not length. It is the innumerable multiplication of dimensions, of views, of interpretations, of comprehension; it is HARMONY, it is not one more piece of knowledge, centimeter, year of average life.

Already in sensory elaboration, the portions of the cortex that specifically deal with it are not content of merely recording sensations, but look for relations, rules, logical criteria, as if one always had to go further, and look for something more.

And much more this is evident in thought, that continually alternates and interweaves a sequential thread with instantaneous syntheses (images, evocations, memories); explanation and visible intuition; logic and palpable evocation; so that data, objects, facts and event sequences are transformed into a narration, that escapes the too limited dimensions of space and time, and invades the domains of possible, emotion, desire, commitment, passion, fantasy.

Similarly, the language can play with words and keep them alive, by attributing them meaning, color, sound, affective value, implications, and cultural, political, historical and ideal references; this way words, and the language itself, get ever richer, more capable of capturing, representing, keeping alive, singing reality and its music, in all its innumerable dimensions.

In this functions one may already see all the complex, fascinating relation that the soul creates between conscience and affects, logos and passion, good, beauty and justness.

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Space arises from the analysis of the relations among elements simultaneously present in experience. Thus it is generated in the brain, in that region that recognizes the relations of uniqueness/multiplicity, distance, periodicity and order, number and cardinality, unity and collectiveness, hierarchy and ordinality, direction, symmetry...

The paradox of space − what remains there when nothing remains − evaporates. Space is no more the container but a network of possible relations, not an ontological entity, that materially exists per se, but a LOGICAL entity, that exists in an equally real way in the logics of spatial relations that our brain elaborates.

These relations do exist even with no contents (like in Kantís intellect) and are “in the senses” (broadly speaking) like in Herderís anti-criticism, but with no need for them to be before in the experimental datum: here Kant wins, and his poetry. The relations are in the neuronal organization that is capable of recognizing them; that often finds them even where they are not − just think how easy it is to deceive the eye. The most curious aspect is perhaps that also Herder is partly right (I cannot be too hard on a materialist): if a relation is not there, in any experimental datum, it is difficult that we find an organism with a brain that has produced and preserved neuronal circuital organizations suitable to recognize such relation: it would be wasted neurons, and after so many millennia it would be curious if evolution had not privileged organisms that have found a better use for those neurons...

Stupid as this last observation may appear, it is worth noting that a Kantian intellect that transcends the experimental datum, by imposing relations and categories a priori that do not have any material basis in reality, would not be the maximum of cleverness; on the other side, a sensory system only capable of recognizing a posteriori relations that are there (before) in the experimentable reality must anyway be predisposed to recognize them... It is like the egg and the hen dilemma, as long as you consider an immaterial intellect on one side and a material reality on the other. If nobody has brought them to an agreement in advance, we are destined to arbitrarily interpret reality, without really understanding anything. Otherwise, who did organize the agreement?

It is amusing to consider how the evolutional drive, which will necessarily favor the organism that is capable of recognizing a relation objectively existing in reality, and relevant for survival, may account for how and why the neuronal circuits have evolved in such a way to elaborate reality through relations and schemes that are actually coherent with the objective structure and organization of reality itself. Here is how the agreement between reality and intellect arose, here is who did it. With no need for somebody who can cross the barrier between matter and spirit...

After all, as a truth criterion, the one just stated is not so bad. If after billions of years, being the most advanced edge of evolution, we recognize in reality objects, relations, rules and laws, we can be reasonably sure that we are not much wrong. Provided that we are clearly warned about where the limit − not irrelevant − of this approach is: anything that is not relevant for survival is not covered by warranty!

If one sees the sun rising in the morning and going down in the evening, and deduces that it must go around the Earth, he lives just as well. And a brain capable of perceiving astrophysics with no computations and mediations is absolutely no use (for survival, I mean, astrophysicists do not get angry, please!).

This may also be a quite trivial observation. But if one dedicates a bit of attention to it, maybe this explains why we have never understood anything about space and time, or about infinity, or matter and energy, and why it has been so difficult to believe Einstein when he upset everything in front of us, showing that there is nothing absolute in space and time, the universe is bent and limited though it may be infinite, and matter is nothing but coagulated energy; and why it has remained impossible to intuitively understand all this.

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Okay, space is in the links and relationships that we can recognize among elements that simultaneously come to our observation, and permits us to manipulate abstract relations − multiplicity, order, hierarchy, numbers − that apparently have little to do with space. But, if SPACE is there, where is TIME?

Is time a relationship, too, a way of interpreting reality by our brain rather than a reality in itself, a pre-existent entity?

In more than a way it is so. In relativistic terms time only is a relation of simultaneity or antecedence that turns out different and relative, depending on position, velocity and particularly accelerations of the implied systems.

But also for us, in our brain, time only is a generalization of relationships that we can recognize. Time arises in recognizing successions (before, after, delay) and in many way from the application of a spatial conception − which is so congenial to our brain − to the temporal order (sequence). On the other side, in its measurability time arises from the awareness and timing of movements: just think how we can wait 10 seconds, “one... two... three... ...”, we have learnt to count loudly and employing about a second for each number...

Perhaps we should agree first that time is two distinct things:

  • a before−after relationship, which is necessary to define an event, a fact, an episode, a process − for its existence itself
  • an − unnecessary − alignment in an ordered, non arbitrary, sequence

But then one realizes that OUR TIME, the time of our life, the time that appears to be a fundamental dimension of our history, is something else. Our time is the time of memory, and memory does not possess the second kind of time, the aligned sequence: it has to be built in top of it one time after the other. Memory (episodic memory) is a film-library full of innumerable clips − each continuous in itself, sure, but all separated − and contiguity is generated by the cognitive, emotional, operative perspective, in an arbitrary and capricious way, with no respect for space or time as physical dimensions.

Each event is located on the time axis through association with a date, a phase of our life, another relevant event. But the entire sequence, the succession, of the time of our life − interior, affective life, working, social, political life − simply is not there. It must be rebuilt with a − rather maniacal − operation of reordering. An operation that some very orderly people may do every evening, by reordering events and memories after dish washing and housekeeping, after dusting all books, arranging them according to their height − or their title, or author, or publication year − and putting them back on the shelves.

Those who − like me − are disorderly are instead ready to understand and share the bewildering sensation that grabs one when, in looking back − in looking back at oneself, he only sees a mess of memories, near here the most dreadful or the most beautiful ones, perhaps far back in time, but pressing to be remembered, and there in the background events that may be recent but do not call to be remembered and begin to be forgotten, and lots of holes and abysses that one can only fill with great effort by recalling with obsessive meticulousness labile traces of events that we have never been interested in remembering.

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Like memory, WORD − abstraction of the entity, of the event, of its relationships − also shares this freedom from physical dimensions, to the point that it represents the quintessence of negation of space, time, causality, necessity, thanks to its capability of joining what is far apart, of instantaneously evoking images and memories of events that are remote and near in the past, present, future; its capability of stating absurd links and neglecting unquestionable relationships... Still, in the meantime word is the most powerful instrument to create and assert space, time, causality, necessity, be they real, objective, true, or arbitrary, or foolish.

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The nostalgia of what could have been − WE could have been − steals us the time we have lived, we live, we shall live. It forces us to a today somewhere else, with no return.

But then, merde! to the fore in this misty wood. The noise and clamor cannot stop the music − inside, − the music that tells us about other times and dreams, and possible lives. To infinity, and beyond!

Because there exists the time of life and of the soul. A time that expands and contracts, evaporates and vanishes, or stops, explodes and leaves behind emptiness and languor (as when the rushing airplane chases the vibrations, the sounds it tosses in front of itself, and runs until it reaches and overcomes them in the unacceptably meaningless bang of sound barrier breaking). Or a time that dances, calm elegant and harmonious. And all this while a tyrannical and incoercible, monotonous cadence empties and fills the time of the soul, along a narrow, rigorous, inflexible rail, and fights it and steals and returns it, colors and sing it, clouds and silences it.

Sometimes you have the impression that the soul is fractured by a deep abyss − somebody knows, or thinks he knows, who has stolen the ground, the flesh, the love (the time?) that is missing, many do not have the least idea. An abyss so deep that we do not even ask the others to try and fill it, but just to coat it somehow, to conceal its mouth. And the less they are fitting to do it, and the larger and empty the cavity of the soul, under there, the more we attach to them and − fictitious, absurd and unhappy loves − we fear we may lose them, and we might have to face once more that vacuum, that nothing, that disappointment, that pain.

Perhaps, the abyss is but time, our lost time, stolen or wasted − it does not make a difference. And it cannot be filled, or replaced, either.

But if it is true that we are such stuff as dreams are made on, maybe that time perhaps can be, yes, regained. By finding again, out of ourselves, the signs of our own time, the lived and stolen time, and the eternal absolute meaning of this exhausting, uninterrupted boiling, smiling and suffering.

Maybe, rather than abysses they are pieces of ourselves that have terminated (possibly irrevocably − we know it − irreversibly, with no remedy) in one or another moment of our life. Blocked. Their time empty, and somehow refilled in some way with joys, affects, friendships, loves; an interrupted music, that clips of songs and refrains − dear and suggestive as they may be − cannot replace, even less they can revive.

The times of the soul, of our history, like many threads, run along more or less long tracts of our life. Long enough, sometimes. Sometimes, absolutely not.

Nostalgia, regret, threads that may be tied again, or may not. Jealous symbols that do not want to surrender their greatest value. Implicit conditioning that no words can resolve. Ties that prevent regret from evaporating into yearnings.

Sweet and bitter times, exalting and sublime, or tormenting, trace our life. Perhaps the most painful gaps are where these times stop abruptly, unexpectedly, instead of thinning and gradually evaporating.

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Space and time. Their intersection, intuition, on one side; their pathways, narration and thought, on the other side.

The thought, even when it is sustained by interior language, that guides it along a logical thread, is never a march, a chronicle; it looks more like a narration. A poetical telling that follows a path, but at any moment can evoke images and other paths where to get lost.

It is like exploring an old town. You have a path to follow, you are enchanted by a prospect you looked for, and then an unexpected game of shapes and colors hits you, novel symmetries, suggestions, inviting trails, and while you are supposed to be admiring a palace for its magnificence you find yourself meandering into a passage that enwraps you in its mystery, or you end up in a disconcerting open space, or in a garden that welcomes you, amorous and embracing.

It is particularly so when the thought tries and explore emotional life: you notice glances, intuitions, emotions that appear to arise from an elsewhere you have inside you; you examine them, you deploy them and travel them, you spell them out and explain, and this brings you somewhere else, to other glances, other emotions you have lived or dreamt; meanwhile, the history of that other elsewhere inside you follows other paths and offers intuitions and emotions that depart and follow one-another while proceeding along other logics.

It is not so strange to find such an uncertain and multiple walk in thought: the whole brain, from elaboration of sensations to movement programming, is soaked in this contradiction.

The organization of neuronal networks enables the nervous system to re-elaborate sensory information in a parallel way, by preserving its mode of presenting itself as a complex, multiple, unitary and instantaneous set of data, but in the meanwhile recognizing relationships and schemes and translating this way the information from a cohort of independent elements into a system of relations, objects, properties (from the dots that constitute an image to its conceptual representation). Neurologically, we are visual beings − we said − and we are very clever with SPACE, very clever in transforming an image into a complex, living reality.

Our brain “applies” space to anything that can be simultaneously perceived.

But aside to this spatial organization, this parallel elaboration, of information and knowledge, simultaneously, other refined neuronal systems elaborate data in a sequential way.

If we look at a picture, the eye moves to follow profiles, scans the elements that have been detected, IN TIME, and its path is recorded, as if it were a charcoal sketch that is added to the image to help interpreting it and understanding it.

In addition, a large portion of the brain, that guides movements, is busy drawing, programming and performing complex sequences, coordinated and well temporized. They are all regions that contribute to perceiving and handling successions, intervals, to inventing and navigating TIME.

And so, the same way as we navigate the image, and violate its unity by transforming it into a narration, and detect processes in its changing with time, conversely we can perceive the sound, which is a pure SEQUENCE of vibrations, as an unitary way, and violate its incoercible movement by transforming it into stable and persistent perceptions and images.

We perceive the sounds through sensory cells of the cochlea, the so-called hair cells. The ear does perceive pressure variations, but what is analyzed in the brain is “patterns of variation” (sounds) and how these combine to yield an impression, a color, an image (harmony); their sequence itself in time (melody) is perceived as a unitary assembly, a melodic phrase that evokes emotion, intuition, and binds to the next one in this continuous threading of images and pathways.

Those who have seen Walt Dysneyís “Fantasy” surely remember those representations of a violin tone, slim, trembling and strangled like the pulled out neck of a chicken, and a trombone tone that instead flows down like honey and broadens fatty and soft...

Once more, multiplicity: sound has a shape, even a color. It is not by chance that we use the same word to indicate the “tone” of a sound and a “tone” of color. And sound has an emotion.

Well, just try and play a C minor chord, or have it played, and then a C+ minor chord, and listen to them with your eyes closed. It might be different to you, but to me C minor gives a thoughtful impression, from which C+ minor brings me to a slight suspension, a kind of surprise, veiled by query, curiosity, uncertainty (note, it is the tone of Beethoven moonlight sonata)...

All this makes it possible to recognize equilibrium and order features in the sequence of sounds (harmony and melody) and to enjoy anticipation and surprise in listening to music. Once more, all this talks about the complexity and multiplicity of interior experience.

But this, physiologically and trivially, makes it possible to recognize complex sounds (or sequences) to which a value of danger is associated, or of warning, attraction, repulsion; to recognize verbal sounds that express and communicate emotions; to recognize phonemes that must be analyzed and combined to identify words in the framework of languageís symbolic system.

This intertwining between a compound momentary picture and a path in time profoundly imbibes the organization of motor systems too: a large fraction − in terms of weight − of what we have in our head, and the great majority of neurons are located in two structures that have a fundamental role in movement: the cerebellum and basal ganglia.

The cerebellum is a control system that, by comparing in any moment the position of muscles and joints with the motor orders output by the brain, corrects the movements so that they reflect “the program”. But it mostly is a large tabula rasa: each time a movement is performed and the cerebellum controls and corrects it, the cerebellum itself modifies its internal connections, so that it learns to perform the movement on its own, moment by moment, by generating each new motor command as an automatic consequence of the precise momentary situation: each key pressed at the piano automatically recalls the next movement of the fingers...

On the other hand, the basal ganglia verify each motor command and control each muscle in the body that may help or interfere with this command, or with the next one that has already been programmed in the brain; they return all this information to the cortex and thus make it possible to perform acts and sequences of movements in a fluid and harmonic way: those who have a relative affected by Parkinsonís disease − a disturbance of the basal ganglia − know what happens when this system does not work well; difficulty in starting movements, resistance, rigidity, tremors...

These two systems are perhaps the most important “generators” of TIME in our brain − TIME as a succession − one instant after the other − and as a process − a continuous flow of events. And as it is the case for any other function − or better, elaboration modality − of our nervous system, they are not used for a function only (movement): this capacity of reproducing sequences and transforming successions into fluid processes offers to all other elaboration systems in the brain the suggestion and perception of time as a line along which a temporal sequence lies, and as a measure of intervals.

All this can be abstracted and generalized to yield the temporal axis itself, along which any episode, sequence, story, can be mapped. In generating this operational conception of TIME in our brain, these systems are flanked by other nuclei and systems that possess timed activity − many such neurons operate at various levels in the nervous system, for example the groups of neurons in breathing centers, that regulate periodicity of respiratory activity − and by a complex game of hormones that originates circadian variations − during the twenty-four hours cycle, also based on light/dark cycle − and seasonal variations.

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The interlacing and integration of the two modality − parallel and serial, that originate and mould the internal SPACE and TIME − permeate all higher functions: thought, language, feelings and imaginative activity proceed in an analogous way, by merging the presentation of complex instantaneous pictures (intuitions, images, emotions) with sequential elaboration (analysis, research, explanation).

This collaboration of two processing modalities − parallel, iconic, evocative on one side and sequential, analytic, explicative on the other side − is particularly evident in language: a THREAD that runs in the words (trying to follow a precise pathway) and a simultaneous, continuous generation of meanings (not necessarily univocal and often capable of evocation and visible remembrance).

Thus, the capacity of symbolically elaborating the reality donates us, with language, a system that not only describes and analyzes, but also can associate to meanings music, and rhythm, evocation, emotion, intensity, and knows how to do it; a system that can describe life and NARRATE it in its innumerable dimensions. Because precisely this continuous reciprocal chasing and intersecting of a speech with intuitions and evocations becomes narration, and sometimes poetry, and transforms information into a tale. And, using a sentence borrowed from Alessandro Baricco: “the tale, not information, makes you the owner of your history”.

A fascinating analogy exists among an image that is capable of capturing us, an engaging music, and a well written story, or poem.

If one wants to reproduce a vision, he must be able to recreate the general picture, in its visibility, with precision and exactness for the perceived details and relationships − there is no room for approximation, it is only possible to knowingly and intentionally violate exactness, wickedly, as Picasso did in his portraits of women with disassembled, violated faces... But in the meantime it is necessary that the image suggests the pathways and the appropriate TIMES to travel it, and that it can offer MULTIPLE elements, relationships, possible readings, perhaps unexpected, so that they leave us a margin of freedom and lightness.

In the same way music requires a harmony made of exact sounds − not necessarily in agreement, possibly in dissonance − and a melody that fuses together the chords that follow one-another into a unitary, visible perception, but also a rhythm made of precise times for the melodic path, and the counterpoint of parallel or contrasting, multiple melodies, that intersect each other and bring us to a dimension of incorporeal lightness.

Exactness, visibility, time-rapidity, multiplicity, lightness...

But this same thing is so clear in language! a thread that runs in words and a continuous generation of meanings, a sequence that is music and a meaning that can be seen...

In the end we shall have to admit that Calvino, in his American Lectures, in listing the five things that he would put in his rucksack to face the new millennium − if he were to get there − and in compiling this way the most appropriate recipe book for good literature, also has identified the fundamental features that guide perception, interpretation, reading of reality by our brain, and the fundamental properties and habits of language and of thought itself...

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Almost done with the first draft of these meditations, once more I stumble on Calvino. The end of “If on a winterís night a traveler...”. In a few pages he writes all that I have been trying to write up to here. What follows is a theft in a strict sense, plagiarism and bootlegging. Only minimal changes.

« His gaze wanders in the air. But his eyes are not unfocused: an intense fixity accompanies the movements of the blue irises. Here and there your gazes meet. Suddenly he speaks to you, or better he kind of speaks in the vacuum, though he certainly addresses you:

− Do not be surprised if you see me continually wander with my eyes. This is actually my way of thinking, and only this way thought is fruitful to me. If a question truly interests me, I cannot follow it for more than a few moments before my mind, having captured an association that the text proposes, or a feeling, a question, an image, starts off and bounces from thought to thought, from image to image, along a path of reasoning and fantasies that I feel the need of following to the end, departing from the problem until it is out of sight. The stimulus of the question is indispensable to me, and of a substantial question, although I cannot face more than a few aspects for each problem. But those few aspects already enclose to me entire universes, that I cannot exhaust.

− I understand you well − intervenes an other, raising his waxy face and flushed eyes from the pages of his book − thought is a discontinuous and fragmentary operation. Or, better, the object of thought is a punctuate and intersperse matter. In the overwhelming extension of reality our attention distinguishes minimal segments, connections among elements, metaphors, relationships, logical links, organizational peculiarities that reveal an extremely concentrated density of meaning. It is like the elementary particles that comprise the nucleus of a composition, around which everything else turns. Or, like the void at the bottom of an eddy, that aspires and swallows the streams. And precisely through these clefts, through barely perceptible flashes, the truth that reality can carry manifests itself, the ultimate substance. Myths and mysteries consist of impalpable fragments like pollen that sticks to the legs of butterflies; only he who has understood this can expect revelations and illuminations. This is why my attention, contrary to what you were saying, sir, cannot abandon the real details, not even for a moment. I must not distract if I do not want to overlook some precious hints. Each time I encounter one of these clots of meaning I must keep digging around to see whether the nugget extends into a vein. This is why my study has no end: I read and reread each time looking for a confirmation of a new discovery in the folds of sentences.

− I, too, feel the need to reexamine what I have already seen or thought, − says a third reader, − but at each reading it seems to me I am reading a new book for the first time. May it be that I keep changing and I see new things that I had not perceived before? Or the thought is a construction that is formed by putting together a large number of variables and cannot repeat itself twice along the same drawing? each time I try and live again the emotion of a previous intuition, I get different and unexpected impressions, and I cannot find again the old ones. At times It seems to me that between one time and the next there is a progress: in the sense of penetrating more deeply in the spirit of reality, for example, or increasing the critical detachment. At other times I feel as if I preserved the memories of the impressions of the same reality next to each other, enthusiastic or cold and hostile, dispersed in time with no perspective, with no line connecting them. My conclusion is that thought is and operation with no object; or that its true object is itself. Reality is just an accessory support, or even a pretext.

A fourth one says: − If you want to insist on subjectivity of memory I may agree with you, but not in the centrifuge sense that you attribute to it. Each new experience I live becomes part of that comprehensive and unitary book that the sum of my memories constitute. This is not an effortless process: to compose that general book, each particular experience must transform, establish connections with the memories that I had previously built, become their corollary or development or confutation or comment or text of reference. I have been attending this library for years and exploring it volume after volume, shelf after shelf, but I could demonstrate you that I have been but proceeding with the reading of one and the same book.

− For me, too, all experiences I live lead to a single story, − says a fifth one looking out from behind a pile of freshly bound volumes, − but it is a story that goes back in time, and barely emerges from my memories. There is a story that comes before all other stories for me, a story of which all experiences I live seem to bear an echo that vanishes at once. In my reading I do not search but that book I read in my infancy, but what I remember of it is too little to find it again.

A sixth one, who was standing and exploring the shelf with his nose up, comes near the table. − The moment that counts most for me is that one that precedes intuition. Sometimes it is a hint that is sufficient to elicit in me the desire of an experience that may not be possible. Sometimes it is the atmosphere that comes about, the first perceptions... I mean: if a little is enough for you to trigger imagination, I need even less: the promise of a discovery.

− In my opinion what counts is the end,− says a seventh one,− but the true, ultimate end, hidden in the dark, the arrival point which reality wants to bring you to. In thinking, I too search for glimmers, − he says nodding to the man with flushed eyes, − but my gaze digs among the details to try and catch sight of what is materializing far there, in the spaces that extend beyond the words «the end».

It is time you too say what you think. − Sirs, I must premise that in life I like to read only what is written there; and to link the details with all the ensemble; and to consider certain readings as definitive; and I like keeping an experience separated from the others, each of them for what it has of different and new; and above all I like the ideas that can be followed from the beginning to the end. But in the last period everything has been going wrong for me: it seems to me that only stories that remain suspended and get lost in their way have remained in this world. ...»

I have only changed the words in italic and dropped three or four words. Calvino was talking about readers: books, read, reading. As I modified it, it talks about thought, memories, life, discoveries. But the difference is real slight.

In this vision there is a great modernity. Forget hermeneutics, that cares about the relationship of the author with the text. The book − life − is there to be read, its value is in what you can read in it (out of it), in how you can make it a part of yourself. Sure, there is subjectivity, each one underscores a way of looking at it, but nobody says no, nobody negates the admissibility, and the value, of a perspective different from the one he sustains, because all realize that reading − and thought, experience, memory − never is unique and unambiguous, and all Calvino says is in it, and much more.

Among readers, in talking about books, nobody is offended by this exasperated relativism, by this subjectivity, concentrated on the act of reading, irrespective of the value of the book and the author. Literary men and critics would not dare talking like this.

But in front of the great book of life − I knew I would find the occasion of using this expression... − are not we readers, all of us? Let us leave to hermeneutics the analysis of the texts, and of all references and relationships of the author with each written word; let us leave to philosophers and theologians the analysis of what is “absolutely” real and true, and of the relationships of each element of nature with its anonymous Author. And let us care instead of how reality enters in us, of what remains in us of each moment of our life, and of how we transform all this into our history, which is not a list of elements, situations, facts, but a tale of how we have lived them and we live them.

Understanding oneís own role often is the best way, possibly the only way, to understand what we are facing. We are readers, each of us with his own tastes, in a library where reality is made of books, written for us. The metaphor is not crazy, neither is it little scientific. The problem is not to be deceived by words. Because in revising the evolution and development of higher functions in the brain one cannot avoid the simple conclusion that we are made − our brain is made − to read the book of nature. Reality is written for us, because we are precisely made to read it.

This may appear as an optimistic statement, since it is so easy to deceive our senses − think of optical illusions, for example − and to misinterpret complex natural processes. Still, we have been capable to understand physical principles that govern microscopic worlds that we cannot even see, to clarify that space and time are not what they appear to be, and that the entire structure of space and time is upset by high speeds, accelerations and gravity, to understand that infinity need not be unlimited, to realize that the limit between matter and energy is not an ontological barrier, but rather they can convert into each-other. This indicates that our brain is designed to look for explanations about all the information it can input: not only data that our sensory systems gather from the external world, but also any logical consequence of that, and more and more information that we can indirectly obtain by developing investigation devices and instruments... Never satisfied, moved by a force that we may call “thirst for knowledge”, or we should more simply relate to the functioning principle of all brain structures: NAVIGATE information in trying to coagulate unitary visions, navigate among unitary visions in trying to coalesce a more general vision, then do it again and try and conciliate the different results...

Reality is written for us, because we are precisely made to read it. Reality is a hyper-complex system, intersection of innumerable levels of organization and complexity, each subsystem governed by distinct sets of rules, and basically (I would dare saying “ontologically”) affected by the uncertainty principle. Reality cannot be comprehended with a single approach, a single criterion; it is necessary to simultaneously interpret it in a thousand ways and to conciliate the results, accepting that a margin of uncertainty will remain, and several readings will simultaneously hold, and will have to be accepted, even though they may partly conflict with each other, to grasp reality in its essence. And this is exactly the way our brain works, no single reading, looking for harmonies, harmonies of harmonies, meta-harmonies, in spite of uncertainties and deceivability of our senses, guided by a fundamental principle that I like to call “aesthetic”.

Curiously enough, if this multiplicity of readings and levels, with all the inconsistencies that may follow, is guided by a common principle (the search for harmony at each and every level), then this line of though does not bring us towards “relativism”, but rather to the idea that different interpretations are admissible at each level, but convergences and compromises are possible in the name of the COMMON principle (looking for harmony), and shared syntheses can generally be attained at higher levels of complexity.

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So, along these axes − exactness, visibility, rapidity, multiplicity, lightness − the writer can gradually transform chronicle into narration, and from here, thanks to his creativity and artistic sensibility, he can generate legend and myth; in the same way thought and interior life depart from the elements and the sequences of experience, transforming perception into intuition and reasoning, thinking, and then fantasy and dream. Because intuition is not made of details but rather of meaning, atmosphere, emotion, and its substance are relations (the totality, multiplicity, complexity, the many levels, the structure of relations) rather than the elements. And to get hold of the intuition one must examine (travel) its many aspects. It is a process that from the raw reality of the datum arrives to the interpretation and the rule, but from here can then proceed toward other possible rules, toward other readings, toward freedom.

Most of all, we cannot stop. If elements and relationships, and knowledge, are not sufficient to derive a rigorous interpretation, then nobody stops, anyway, and a possible reading will be generated by legend, by myth, or fantasy. This is the outlook of the child who, voracious of information and interpretations, understands what he can, and for the rest accepts any interpretation, any reading that somebody else can offer or he can find by himself.

Lewis Carroll in his Alice captures the essence of thought, of the speech as a journey in a stranger, unknown country, new and unexplored. You are in the hands of a world that calls for your glance and proposes and demands ever different perspectives. Alice has no discomfort in face of any reading, even the most absurd and paradoxical; she is the true, pluralistic and open-minded investigator of the world. But she is a child, naive, simply free of “diverting”, of wandering (among the wonders of her world...)

But when you are an adult, when you KNOW, when the counts add up correctly and you feel you do understand, it seems you must stop. Stop changing angles and accepting different readings. Still, trying novel glances, freeing oneself from the limits of a canonical interpretation, noticing other and unexpected relationships, looking for new perspectives... all this remains quite attractive. Keeping to what has remained in us of the children we used to be. Wandering in other dimensions in search for higher harmonies, not mere knowledge, but comprehending, taking inside, feel, live...

Yes, Alice is a child and is free to simply wander. But if you know, you still are free, and this turns into poetry.

Perhaps the most intriguing aspect of OUR time − our interior time, the time of the though, which does not stop at the first reading but always runs further and, curious, has itself deviated and recaptured, is that any sequence of events, though it may be irreversible, can be retraced backwards, its time reversed; the path of the thought, instead, which is marked by a non-causal time, by an arbitrary before-after, evocative, curious, the path of thought cannot (“how did I get to this idea? to this image, this memory?). No. It evaporates, so often unrepeatable, like dreams at dawn.

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Talking about ciliate cells

The first time I talked her about hair cells in the inner ear − which we call ciliate cells, in Italy, a name reminiscent of “cilia”, the way we refer to eyelashes − she first of all objected that if nature had a minimum of coherence it would have put ciliate cells in the eye rather than in the ear, but as we know nobody is perfect, and some errors may be forgiven also to nature. Actually − I like playing the teacher − the cilium is useful in the ear because it can vibrate in response to sounds, so that the cell gets excited and thus informs the appropriate neurons that it has perceived the sound.

Along the spiral of the cochlea − in the inner ear − the sounds proceed and only reach a certain point: those at higher frequencies − high tones − stop early whereas low tones − low frequencies − are capable of transmitting a vibration to the membrane that runs along the cochlea up to the top (obvious! would say a good housewife, who well knows that in making the bed the sheet must be moved with wide and slow oscillations, otherwise it will not swing to the end; and a proficient hooligan, or a political activist, would say the same, because they know that small flags can be swung fast, but big ones ask for calm, steady hand and wide, slow movements). Thus, each hair cell, depending on where it is located along the spiral of the cochlea, “hears” better one or the other sound, and thus preferentially recognizes a vibration at a precise frequency, its preferred particular tone. But like neurons, hair cells also are generous, hard-working and dispassionate, they do not care suffering, when the cilium moves too strongly and electrolytes − deadly calcium in particular − flow in and out of the cell; they are dispassionate to the point of dying if the stimulation is too intense.

This way, hair cells die at the discotheque.

There is a sad and curious aspect, in all this: what kills each particular cell is not any sound whatsoever, no, for each one it is precisely its own preferred sound, the one it has been designed for, its beloved tone, the one it is destined to, its twin tone...

“God! − she cried out − its sole love... LOVE AND DEATH!...”

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