Physiology of the Soul - or, if you like it better, - Neurons & SoulRiccardo Fesce - all rights reserved (if you are an interested publisher or agent send a mail)
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BLUES AND HAPPINESS − To be or to survive
Should not we talk about the soul?!
Everybody will be disappointed, by now: we have talked of motivation, and we have ended up on emotions and affects, pleasure of beauty, esthetics, ethics...
Indeed, we are not much out of target, are we? when we think of the soul, in the end − unless we simply see it as an immaterial small cloud, detached from the body, from life, pain, pleasure, memory and desires, dreams and commitment − we refer to something that is somehow “above”, but strictly linked to the body, and holds the threads, and suffers and loves and desires and wants and commits itself and judges and decides; and enjoys all that is beautiful and all that is right. And pleads infinity.
We are not off topic, then. But even neglecting theological aspects, something important is still missing in what we said up to now: infinity. That incoercible plea to overcome the limits of the body, of material reality, of life, and reach for other worlds, farther away and − this may actually be the right word − more INTENSE.
So, let us talk about that. About intensity. And infinity.
Though eating, drinking, sleeping, healing and being loved give pleasure, still thirst, hunger, fatigue, pain and desire of love are contradictory feelings, sometimes absolutely unpleasant, sometimes stimulating and somehow pleasant: at times they are pure discomfort, but they can also become impatience, desire, languor, nostalgia.
And something very similar seems to occur for harmony, beauty, good and right, intensity, infinity.
The stomach can be full, the body rested, healthy, beloved people nearby. Still, sometimes a kind of nostalgia gets you, a languor that asks for music, and wonder and infinity...
Perhaps it is just the blues. You get up in the morning and you do not even know what is the problem, but some kind of melancholy oppresses you. Maybe it is tiredness, or the spring that is coming... Women are specialists in this, and you can tease them, hug them, try and understand them or just leave them alone... Probably, that does not make much of a difference, the blues is not so bad, it is a kind of perverse pleasure. When I was a child, an old lady who had her beach umbrella and chair next to ours used to complain, because television programs were not as good as they used to be: “they do not broadcast good comedies any more, those nice old comedies that make you cry...”.
It may be nothing but old Aristotleís story of catharsis: the drama guides you among strong emotions for which there is no real substance, just simulation, and you enact all physiological, visceral-somatic and cognitive responses to such emotions, and that makes you feel better, because when everything is finished you will have discharged all your tension, nervousness, uncertainty, discomfort through fear, anguish and tears, and all causes for such emotional performance have vanished with the final applause.
But perhaps crying and suffering − when there is no real reason to cry and suffer − is not so terrible, it may even be a subtle form of pleasure... feeling oneís own sensations, the contraction of the stomach, a knot in the throat, the heart gone crazy, that pressure in the eyes, feeling the intensity of oneís own emotions.
Ask a fan whether it is worth suffering so hard when his team goes down... But the intensity of the joy of victory, further multiplied by sharing it with thousands of people, pays well back for that. Just think of the emotion when, everybody standing up, the national hymn is played to celebrate the victory of an athlete: be it admiration, pride, collective identification, be it the simple sharing of a strong feeling, well, it is a moment of happiness, in the intensity of emotions; it may rapidly vanish, but for a moment the emotion is so strong to erase everything else.
Are these transient experiences only? It may be so, but what is love, then, other than a curious coincidence of emotional and rational states that is capable of adding such intensity to any experience with the beloved one − be it a honeymoon or a simple shopping tour, an evening with friends or the mere thought of the partner on the way back home?
Thus, one may well think that happiness is simply not to miss anything, not to have any desires, because one has what he needs or, following Epicure, he has learnt not to desire... But maybe happiness also requires finding some answers to that wish for intensity, in any form in which intensity may come and be deeply perceived, as an answer to that feeling that something is anyway missing...
This brings us back to what we discussed about life, and limits.
Life asserts and sustains itself by changing: we are made by a part that tries to survive, defending and protecting itself, and a part that tries to LIVE. And to survive one shields and guards, and builds barriers, definitions, limits; to live one must abandon any defense, and face the world, naked, with no protection and no fear of changing.
A force that retains and holds you back, a force that pushes you forward. The need to rest and the need of troubles.
Thus, there are two ways of being “happy”: blessed quiet and intense moments.
This is wonderfully rendered by Angeles Mastretta in her “Lovesick”, in the two prophecies that aunt Milagros wishes to newborn Emilia; the traditional one:
« Little baby, you who sleep under the glance of God, I wish to you that you never lose it, that patience be your best ally in life, that you may know the pleasure of generosity and the peace of those who do not expect anything, that you understand your pains and be able to accompany those of the others. I wish you will possess a limpid glance, a careful tongue, a tolerant nose, a hearing incapable of recalling intrigues, precise and moderate tears. I wish you shall believe in eternal life and possess the quiet that faith concedes »
and her own wish:
« Little girl, my gifts are folly, courage, ambition and restlessness. Fortune of loves and delirium of solitude. The taste for comets, for water and for men. I wish for you intelligence and ingeniousness. A curious glance, a remembering nose, a mouth that can smile and curse with divine precision, legs that do not get old, a weep capable of restoring your pride. I wish you will have the sense of time the stars have, the perseverance of ants, the doubt of temples. I wish you will have faith in diviners, in the voice of the dead, in the mouth of swashbucklers, in the peace of men that forget their own destiny, in the force of your remembrances and in the future as a promise that contains all that has not happened to you yet. Amen. »
Apart from a naive plea for a dull and ill-defined “happiness”, each of us desires, more or less consciously, a sufficiently solid well-being, that one would not dare call happiness, and in the meanwhile something else − much closer to what each of us think of as happiness: INTENSITY, exclusive feeling and absolute privilege of the human being.
About three quarters of the male population is moved by the harmony and INTENSITY of the athletic gesture. Everybody is moved by the INTENSITY of the impossible mission and the heroic act.
Not everybody, happily, is moved by the INTENSITY of power and oppression (generally felt as strength rather than injustice), but that happens, too.
And one can be moved by combinations of words that are able to grasp and capture, for a moment, the intensity and ineffability of life.
Money, fortune, all that the world and others give us, and the philosophy of enjoying small things, and being able to content oneself, orient toward a blessed-quiet type of happiness.
But restlessness, independence from what they give us, the challenge to BE, to DO, are the prices to pay for intensity. And this is the essence of life, which must be able to protect itself, but in the meanwhile must expose and negate itself in every moment, in search of new and more complex equilibriums.
Maybe happiness can really be defined: it is harmony, but also finding the way, in every instant, for harmonies increasingly more fresh and rich of discovery and passion. Restless harmony, and passionate.
True, without surviving one cannot live either. But even where all energies are indispensable to merely survive − in front of starvation, of war − you come across disinterested thoughts and love acts, signs of LIFE, of resistance, of intensity.
And when you see our incapacity of living, you realize that to build happiness − which is made not only of quiet and well-being but also of passion and intensity − one must not forget, or must reinvent, for man, in school education, in communication, in work organization and in all other domains, the ability of attributing value to the things that are real worth, and most of all the capability of enjoying how and what one IS and DOES, and not what one possesses and obtains.
In the shell, or capable of passion
Going around in neat and orderly New England, tidy little houses with tidy small green backyards and small white corrals and tidy stars-and-stripes flags raised every morning, and fake small churches, and post offices with white columns, and firehouses with those fire trucks that seem phony, chromed golden redded full-optional with bell and hook-and-ladder − and few black people, invisible, unless you look for them, keeping aside at the backdoors of pubs − and people with their satisfied smiles, who seem to say “here, we have put our world in order; the others... we just do not care”.
Going around in neat and orderly New England it came to my mind how much the ones among us who still have some human tracts need, to keep them alive, something outside ourselves, something greater, higher, stronger, something that inspired, overwhelmed and annihilated us, so that we can “find ourselves”.
Passion, need of greatness, infinity, intensity. An insatiable need of passion, if you are not able to put it to silence in the name of integration into a society of accountants and tax advisers of well-being, of pleasure sellers and conjurers.
Ideal, political, social, love passion, as in a stormy sea that one cannot but surrender to, though striving and fighting with ardor and decision. A force capable of giving a meaning to pain, suffering and fatigue, not only ours but all that is around, that of the others, and war, starvation, oppression.
We might certainly avoid and forget all this by retiring in a paradise of well-being. But the minimum of humanity that has remained attached to our soul precisely consists in not doing that.
Forces that may give a meaning to life. Supreme and invincible love comes to the mind, and social commitment, political fight, search for the truth (does it exist?); transcending forces and as powerful as a stormy sea and the fury of elements.
In the life of many of us there are one or more periods that have remained profoundly etched in our memory: war, for some, or great enterprises, fighting for a practical or ideal aim, common commitment (most times a collective dimension is involved, and the multiplication of passions by sharing). It is epochs in which, for one or the other reason, events have been lived with amplified, exaggerated intensity, and facts, people, impressions from those epochs appear to be more deeply linked to our life, important for its equilibrium and developments. Coming across a note, a photograph, somebody elseís words, that refer to one of those periods or episodes, it is often difficult to accept that it really comes from there, kind of strikes us the inadequate intensity.
The crucial point, about intense epochs and experiences, is that they need not be positive experiences: wonderful or terrible, they are equally capable of producing nostalgia and tenderness, in remembering.
In Italy, in the sixties and seventies, a great number of the youngsters who got involved in the political dream of building a new, different, perfect society, had matured their view on life in the catholic environment. I imagine this still occurs, though it may involve a lower percentage of todayís youth. Social commitment is encountered as CHARITY, a means of negating oneself in the name of faith and loving God. Then, one discovers the PLEASURE of working hard, fatiguing and suffering together, or in any case socially, seeing the results of oneís dedication in the eyes of the others. And he finds out that it makes no difference whether a god has stated what has to be done, whether a paradise is there or not, waiting for those of us that have done what had to be done; he finds out that there is no negation, that this is finding, not abnegating, oneself; most of all he discovers that sharing − ideas, commitment, results − multiplies intensity, and intensity changes the perception itself of life, the light, the color, the music.
And the incredible power of intensity is apparent to each of us when we think of love stories: the intensity that is so profusely added by love to any experience, feeling, thought and dream, to the point of changing the perception itself of life, of reality, of oneself. Today a journalist asked an “expert” of love the interesting question: “but in the end, people get more pleasure or pain from love?”; the other one answered what anybody would have been able to say, pleasure when you are lucky, pain when you are not. But that is baloney! there is no need for experts: ask anybody who has loved − no matter what their level of education − and he wil tell you: the problem is not pleasure or pain, pleasure can be so great to hurt and pain so sweet to be lovely, the problem is intensity. Nobody would renounce to the experience of such intensity; be it the pleasure of being together, talking, finding each-other, having sex, enjoying the joys, the smiles, the fortunes of the partner; or be it the pain of getting separated, desiring, longing dreaming, missing the partner, suffering for his/her troubles and grief. Nobody would deny that all that may not be pleasure, but it is as close as one can get to happiness.
But please, let them be true passions, not fake myths disguised as strength and power. Such as runaways, drugs... Which may well be overwhelming, annihilating experiences, capable of redrawing (erasing?) values, passions, dreams and behaviors, of imposing themselves and forcing choices, acts, destinies. Every other need and desire, problem and trouble, trivialized in face of the ABSOLUTE need, the drug. And this submission to something greater and stronger than you is often shrouded with a heroic charm: you find it desperately cried out by the most lucid toxics (just read Trainspotting to get an idea), and subtly perceived, but clearly, undeniably, by youngsters that are attracted, captivated, as they would be by great, dangerous deeds, or by extreme sports... The total emotion that grasps you by your guts, and nothing else exist anymore.
I believe that the misconception is grave. Desires have an object, generally a possible or likely one, and are translated into projects, to realize them. The impossible ones become dreams - that in some cases we can coddle, but that cannot guide our life − or they become passions. Passion on the other side, is desire, or need, or indomitable decision, of pursuing what we cannot achieve, or in any case of pursuing objectives obtaining which does not depend on us, it is not in our power, because they are greater than we are; and greatness, a higher value, universality, unapproachable strength is what transforms passion into a plea to transcend ourselves, to express and find ourselves by negating our limits to fly free [eh, clever!, I have just invented sublimation... or had anybody else already thought of this?].
Here is the trick! The drug is not strong, is not high, is not great. Drug... you just buy it! Where is heroism, myth, in getting lost in chasing something that does make you forget everything else, but does not get pursued in vain, no, it just get bought? Great as the need might be, what is there heroic in accepting to be slave of something you can have in any moment, two coins are enough, or a car-radio, or the bicycle or choker of some poor guy, whom you even think right to sacrifice on the altar of this god, sold in small envelopes... Drug is not sublimatable. It is robbery and idiocy to vest it with heroism, transcending value, runaway from everyday routine, dream, vital force.
No, drug is certainly not a mere problem of culture, of distorted search of a leading idea. There are dirty interests that push, in addition. And on the other side there are disease, uncertainty, difficulty, malaise, without which the image of a different life, bleak and desperate provided it be not daily and trivial, could not take root. But the fake color of dream, of myth, of superior strength, is there, the names themselves suggest that, heroine − I say, HEROINE!, not simply diacetyl-morphine, which would be its name at the registry... and acid, and crack, and ecstasy, not bad, as an atmosphere, as a proposal of alterative, of a way out from asphyxiating, deluding routine.
Recently, voices have surfaced about chocolateís capability of stimulating specific neuronal receptors in the “reward system”, and at once somebody has expressed a certain fear of being drugged by means of chocolate or other perverse instruments, capable of mischievously introducing into our nervous system substances that might stimulate to some extent our gratification centers.
Well, I would pray you all not to panic.
If you wish to avoid that your gratification centers get activated, it is sufficient that, in addition to avoiding exposing yourself to any abuse drug (nicotine, amphetamine, ecstasy, opiates, cocaine, cannabis...) you follow these simple rules:
avoid assuming any sweet food
avoid any physical effort
avoid exchanging gentle words and especially smiles with anybody,
avoid getting involved in tasks that have even the slightest possibility of success,
avoid being exposed to information or news that may elicit any interest,
avoid exposing yourselves to any art masterpieces that are not sufficiently abstruse to prevent any spontaneous appreciation reaction (Manzoniís stools are ok, for example)
avoid sea, mountains, green lawns, especially when flourished,
avoid getting exposed to the sun, if you happen to have the misfortune of appreciating good weather.
avoid in any and whatever way any possible kind of sexual activity
and even more especially, avoid doing it with somebody you love.
Everything else can be done, with no risk of addiction.
Word of a pharmacologist.
Chi vuol esser lieto sia (Lorenzo il Magnifico): he who wishes to be happy let him be so − at his own risk and danger.
Here is my attempt at translating a short note written by Lella Costa in a small booklet published by Comunitŗ Nuova, a social association lead by don Gino Rigoldi in Milan; a booklet that collected opinions of culture and showbiz people about drugs and dependence. Here is what she says:
«I am not particularly interested − and even less prepared − to talk about drugs, a concept that by the way has become rather vague and evanescent. According to the registry, and in some respects emotionally, I belong to a generation that played and experimented with that stuff, and gambled, and often failed. And paid very high prices.
I have been sufficiently lucky, or intelligent, or maybe both, not to get involved. Often I wonder whether there has been any merit in this, or only a series of fortunate coincidences.
But one thing has always struck me, and still bothers me: the concept of dependency. Which does not relate to psychotropic substances only, and chemical additives and opium − or grape − derivatives. It is something else, and comes from before. I think of sentimental dependency: certainly a feminine experience, though perhaps not only such.
I think of (and recall, also) those moments of total panic, paralyzing pain, actual incapacity of breathing, talking, sleeping − living − when the beloved person denies himself, walks away, leaves us even only temporarily. And you think “I canít make it I canít make it I canít make it” and you mistake for love your tachycardia, and neurosis, and that angst that takes your breath away; and all your certainties get pulverized and you ask, gasping, “why? why?”, why, and how will I survive until tomorrow.
And you wonder where the true, remote cause of this inability to live is buried, deep in you. You ask whom, or what, you have lost, and when, and why; you wish you knew what they did to you, possibly when you were still a child, to undermine so definitely every autonomy, all certainties, any confidence. You wonder why you need so much to be reassured, and at once, without a single moment of delay.
It is time. Time frightens you: empty time, slow, intolerable, horrifying time. Time to fill in, to nullify, to let go by, in any possible way, whatever the cost, whatever the means.
I certainly have no clear ideas, but it seems to me that if we got to fully understand this dependence, this lack; if we managed in smoking out from inside ourselves the memory of what they denied us, or perhaps we simply misinterpreted; if we discovered where that incapability of facing wait and pain comes from; then, maybe, we might begin to discern a way out.
Lack, languor, nostalgia, blues...
A languor that has no clear reason, that sometimes we wish we were able to forget, a languor that generates suffering while we might survive peacefully, a languor that pushes to act because it does not tolerate empty time. Perhaps because empty time is only an invention to understand reality, but empty time cannot exist in our soul.
It is possible that in this languor, that is regret and nostalgia of a lost integrity, be the origin of all dependencies. But where does it come from, this lack, this longing, this need of something else? It is not born from something that has been denied to us. Or stolen. No. That languor is our way of feeling the force down there that pushes us to think and act, even when there is nothing to guard from, or to react to.
It may well be the origin of every dependence, but it surely is the origin of any creativity.
May that languor be the soul?
Actually, that insatiable need of something else is not only a force that moves us, is something we could not do without.
It might not be differently: we are not programmed to merely survive.
From “The King of Girgenti” (A. Camilleri)
[Zosimo is a cultivator who has been proclaimed king of Montelusa (Agrigento) by the “viddrani” (cultivators) who cast out Piedmontís soldiers. The marquis of Boscofino, who tries to maintain a good relationship with him, talks to him]
« − The aristocracy of Montelusa has not taken a party yet: as long as you kill Piedmont soldiers, everything is ok; but when you begin to kill the Spanish, if you ever manage to kill one, you will have them all against you. You are alone. And you have nobody to ask help to, because no other “viddrano” has been able to do what you are doing. And so, if you make your counts, what are you giving to these people that come after you?
Zosimo looked at him.
− You will never understand what I am giving them.
− I shall try to
− You cannot, because you have never suffered hunger, and black misery. But I shall tell it to you, all the same: I am bestowing them a dream.
The marquis bowed, down to the ground. »
And then, let us bestow some dreams to ourselves as well!
Let us live such dreams, without the gloomy request that they be actually possible, without the greedy request that they last forever. With no regret when they end, or if they vanish as soon as we disclose the fingers just a bit and let the thread slip and flee, thereby freeing the kite that has captured our gaze for so long, and has carried us to fly with it.
Let us preserve these dreams when we wake up, as a treasure because we have lived them, not as a defeat because they have finished. Let us preserve them as something we have been able to build and live, and we shall be able to build and live again in the future, or maybe right now.
Because dreams, the dreams we bestow ourselves and other people, give a meaning to life. Not counting calories, or the length of our car, or our weeks to the Maldives.
And once you have learned how to dream, you will never give it up.
Our behavior is moved and driven by the brain, and in particular by the complex circuits that we call motivational circuits: but in man these are not driven by external stimuli only... What motivates us is not only hunger, thirst, pain, necessity, needs.
If it were so, we would be able to react to stimuli, act to silence physiological needs, defend ourselves and those we care of, perhaps, but nothing more.
In the VTA, a deep region in the encephalon, neurons are capable of transforming external stimuli and internal needs into violent impulses that elicit uncontrollable expectations and gratifications that cannot be renounced. Motivational drives are generated, some of them physiological, vegetative, others emotional, affective. But the huge projections that from the cortex impinge on these midbrain regions justify that other motivations are equally strong in guiding our behavior: motivational drives, expectations and gratifications linked to social appreciation and to rational, cognitive ethical and ideal motivations. Actually, there is nothing strange in that one and the same mechanism transforms into a fundamental necessity − profoundly perceived as not less essential that the necessity for food, water, warmth, love − also the need of evaluating, judging, acting, and understanding and appreciating, and looking for synthesis, harmony and love.
This is the origin of such languor that bread cannot satiate
that languor that asks for music, and wonder and infinity,
that languor that pushes to act because it cannot bear empty time.
It is true that there lies the origin of any form of dependence and addiction.
Because anything that activates those system,
be it a physical or mental pleasure,
be it satisfaction, illumination or love,
or be it alcohol, nicotine or heroine,
well, it knows how to have itself desired, and strongly missed.
But, as we said, the languor does not come from something that was denied to us; it is our way of perceiving the force down there that moves us.
That force that bustles inside pushes us to overcome our limits, to look at the others, to seek their love, to understand and sympathize, to transcend ourselves and feel as part of a higher reality, that can prevail over the space and time of our life. It is a need of leaving (taking off) to be intensely ourselves, and in the meanwhile something greater, grain of sand in a furious storm, but a storm that has an objective, a reason, a value, a meaning.
And precisely this force, this longing, is what we love to call SOUL.
For a theory of pleasure
Perhaps the key of everything is there. Pain, well-being, pleasure: the crucial aspect maybe is precisely intensity.
And commitment, tirelessness, dedication of neurons. Neuronal circuitries cannot sit there inactive, not possibly, no way.
Just look at a child. Never still, never inactive. A brain designed to learn, establish and remodel new connections all the time, to fix new information, develop new interpretations, continuously reread reality. Never a dull moment. A brain made to act, interact with reality and modify it. And mirror neurons, that imitate and push you to simulate and reproduce, to learn.
When the child plays, he repeats actions that he has seen performed by adults. He repeats them just FOR THE SAKE OF REPEATING them. The action of an adult rarely has no aim, rarely it has its meaning in itself: much more often it is instrumental, has its aim and value in what it determines and produces (that is the first step of Marxís alienation, by the way, which is completed when the product itself of the action is instrumental, and given away − alienated − in exchange for subsistence). The child instead reproduces the gesture per se, and his aim is in the action itself, the value is precisely in reproducing. It makes no difference whether the horse is a broomstick, if the steering wheel is a paper dish, it need not bring you anywhere, it need not turn the wheels, it must simply permit you to BE dad when he drives the car, and to experience the undoubted pleasure he feels when he drives (otherwise, why should he do it?).
This is something we have not lost in growing up, even though they do whatever they can do to sweep it away from us: we are still capable of playing, of wasting an afternoon in building the doghouse instead of buying it ready − just for the satisfaction of having built it ourselves, and even more for the PLEASANTNESS of doing it; we are still capable of reading a book to wonder, to feel emotions, for the PLEASANTNESS of reading it... Of participating to a sports match not only to win, but also for the PLEASANTNESS of staying together, of striving and fatiguing and getting excited, and smiling and hugging each other at the end − what a crime to transform childrenís sports teams into armies, with graduates and officers! and what a disgust those fanatic parents that push along this road, and make of their sonsí sport a means of self-assertion and indirect aggression...
Something inside pushes to act, to do for the sake − for the pleasantness − of doing, to watch for the sake of observing, and to understand, to learn, for the sake − for the pleasantness − of discovery. A brain incapable of resting, curious, avid of emotions, and productive.
This is a great evolutionary privilege, because it favors learning, developing ever-new approaches and solutions in the face of vital problems; it favors the possibility of surviving in any situation and facing any changes; possibly, of living even better.
As a consequence of this, motivational impulses arise, that keep bombarding with no pauses the centers that push us to act. But why, what is the sense of all this? The CAUSE is in the organization itself of the nervous system, in neuronal tirelessness. But the AIM? What is the purpose of all this?
The purpose is mixing up, moving and enriching the motivational game. Making it more interesting and beautiful. It is a kind o vicious (or better virtuous) circle: the continuous rereading activity, in search for new interpretations, perspectives, unifying views, by the brain, is an intrinsic feature of the organization of the cerebral cortex itself, and the success of this activity − surprise, wonder, intuition, comprehension, detection of harmonies − translates into pleasure, and this reinforces and further incites this activity, this tireless research. Meanwhile, all this enriches the picture of internal drives and makes it more complex, by transforming the conflict among a few trivial physiological needs into a varied, multifaceted and mutable, complex motivational contest. An this in turn is exquisite material for further search of new harmonies, esthetic pleasure and ethic passion.
Somebody might say “what a lot of wasted time, and efforts”... But the brain HAS NOTHING ELSE TO DO! and neurons, no, they will not shut up!
Actually, why complain, if this vicious-virtuous circle, this waste of neuronal energy, donates us beauty, pleasure, emotion, and the joy of a simple sign of love...
Thus, physiological necessities, but also affective and social needs, need of communicating; and curiosity that stirs and transcends them, and longing for novelty, desire of doing, craving for harmony and beauty.
If you look at it this way, the picture is not bad: the brain frolics, it plays the game it likes, and thus amuses itself.
Provided that some original drives are there, as forces that revitalize the game.
And provided that such drives are not too strong, so much to spoil the game, so violent to wipe out all the rest.
Well, I got bored with this theory of pleasure: by now everything has become so obvious...
The pleasure of a slight appetite there at the stomach, a bit of exhaustion after an effort, a slightly crisp cool, a warmth that may be just a little excessive, and some stimulating information, some emotion − positive, if possible, but even a bit of anxiety, before the penalty kick, a slight fear, in skiing down the slope − possibly a trace of pain (there are some that like it a lot...), a bit of fright, some commotion (a movie that makes us cry), possibly a nice, old, good blues...
The discomfort when hunger, sleepiness, cold, hot are too strong, when noise confounds you, when emotion sweeps you, anguish, fear, sadness with no hope...
It is not the kind of stimulus; the right intensity is what makes the pleasure. Stronger, it hurts. Even nice things, though in that case even pain and shock become pleasant, in a climax of tension where it seems you are drowning... “e il naufragar mi Ť dolce in questo mare” [and the shipwreck is sweet to me in this sea, Giacomo Leopardi, “Infinity”].
A reasonable quantity of quietness, to survive. A reasonable quantity of intensity to live. Two forces that move us in the depth, in an interplay of discomfort (pain) and gratification (pleasure). An interplay of neuronal activities in search of equilibrium and harmony.
It is a game sustained by life, of which it reflects the rules and the mechanisms: self-assertion in changing, and thus growing and building itself. The game is having the courage of choosing, deciding, and discovering oneself different. And sometimes becoming confused, and disoriented, because little by little − possibly without noticing it − we have corroded fundamental pillars of our equilibrium. With no possibility of returning back, because our way of facing life has not been determined by fate, or our genes, or experience; no, the WAY WE HAVE LIVED every single moment of our life has written in our neurons OUR WAY of facing reality, of interpreting and thinking of it, and changing it. And this is US, there is no way of coming back, erasing the brain, resetting the neurons, it is only possible to change some more, possibly with difficulty, proceed on a new road and build new balances, new certainties, new desires, new dreams.
Sometimes it is difficult to keep the pace, and an insatiable yearning arises, of silence, peace, security.
But that is not enough.
Our senses adapt to steady signals, light dazzles us for a few moments only, sudden sounds startle us, do not let us neglect them and disturb us, but if they persist they seem to vanish, and one does not even notice them any more...
The soul itself adapts: we enjoy more a change for the better, and we suffer more for a failure, than for all we can have or miss, or we can be or do.
The soul, like the eye, sees the difference. It suffers for something missing and is happy for the slightest nothing added.
And it gets used fast. And happiness must be rebuilt moment by moment, all the time.
All life long.
And if it is so difficult to be happy, perhaps even harder is to judge the pain and unhappiness of other people.
I cannot understand women. But maybe, little by little, I am beginning to discern something.
Men are trained to build situations, to fight against nature, things, society, the others, to change the concrete and practical aspects of the reality around them and build a space and a role for themselves. Women can build the atmosphere, they fight against themselves not less than all the rest to help nature, things, society and the others to get in tune, realizing a space and climate where it is worth living.
Thus, for a woman to love means to be there, to grant the presence of her body, her voice, her commitment, her affection, her care. Not imposing them, just assuring them. An atmosphere, a music. The woman offers CARE. And maybe she expects the same from a man. He tries and understand, rather than getting in tune, he loves asking and giving according to his own rhythms, following his own logic. He offers, and demands, TIME. Not music, not care.
If tuning cannot be found, you can have devotion, but love grows weedy, meager. Because the relationship needs the lymph, the life, the emotion, the pain and the joy of an entire person, who lives and strives and builds and dreams, not the devotion of a dog who lives of your caresses and of the food your hand gives it.
Because affection is a welcoming house when you come from the gray, humid, cold street. It is an aspirin when you have a headache. But it is not love.
Love is a new song, wonderful and enrapturing. You cannot escape its melody, it stays in your head and sounds and comes back and cuddles you and snuggles you. Its words come back to your mind and take you far away. And you cannot keep loving if the song does not bump in your head, as the mirage of a non-existent place, of imprecise and remote sensations, of balances that can perhaps exist, but you do not know where or how.
And you cannot keep loving if there is not at least a part of the other one that keeps eluding you, though you painfully miss it. You are not addicted if you do not feel the “monkey”. Affection is the sweetness of something you possess. Love is the suffering for something you want, you need, you possibly miss.
Were we able to live it this way! Granting a presence, but living the others their own lives, so that they will never bore us and we may never possess them. Not because they run away, not because they are not there: simply because they live, and find themselves, evolve and change, and are ever new. In exchange, having their presence, their love, their interest for what moves WITHIN US, their desire that we live and grow and CHANGE, so that every day they may find something new and unexpected, in us, something to discover, something that eludes them...
Because every living thing, like fire, requires watchful and continuous care. You can enjoy the warmth, and the enchantment of its restless running after itself and reviving, and know that it is still alive below the ash, but you cannot neglect to revitalize it before the cinders die away.
This is the atmosphere, the true music... Enjoying the rhythm, enjoying the exalting melody, but being able to enjoy the blues as well. Feeling the need of committing oneself, the suffering of having duties, of not being able to just sit there and look, but being able to taste and appreciate its acid and stimulating flavor.
Because reality is made of flesh and blood and emotion. Of music. And the substance of life is the music that plays inside you and out of you. You must be able to hear it and feel it, with your skin, with your blood, with your heart.
So, sometimes the need for a moment of quiet calls. But the yearning for intensity, pleasure, always compels. The need of being in the meantime oneself and something grater.
It is a need that identification with a social group − the group of the peers for youngsters, the sports team fan group, the group of voluntary service, or of social and political activity, and the Country, the army, even the Factory for Japanese workers − can satisfy. It is a need that grabs and carries away when mass enthusiasms arise... It is a need that can amplify and multiply a thousand times each drive, need, desire and longing − love, solidarity and sympathy, but also aggressiveness, defense, revenge and resentment − magically transforming it into an irresistible passion.
The sad aspect of this mechanism is that it is not always easy to get tuned about projects, ideal longings and humanitarian impulses, whereas an enemy, or a “different” person/nation/habit, a limit, a symbol onto which to project the fear, the menace from which to defend, are sufficient to immediately trigger aggregation, ideal sharing and identification with the group, starting off forceful emotions. It is easy to convene, campaign, get passionate AGAINST. More difficult is to convene and get passionate FOR. Perhaps this is also the reason why it is so difficult for democratic forces to aggregate, stimulate and involve the population in great battles for peace, justice, egalitarianism, and it is much easier to win an election because the other party makes some big error or some misdeed of theirs gets unmasked.
But even if we do not steal psychologists and sociologists their job, and do not rewrite treatises about mass psychology, it should be clear, with all we said up to here, that the origin of this mechanism of amplification of the drives is itself in the physiological interplay of motivational forces with the production of pain, discomfort, well-being and pleasure. The amplification arises from convergence and coincidence of the individual motivational force with the pleasure of sharing, of social appreciation, of affective bonds, of belonging and the protection that comes with it. And the sublime, interior pleasure of harmony among motivational forces adds (superimposes from outside, from above, meta-adds) to all this, the harmony of forces that agree and unify into a multiple and coherent music, varied and ever new, but embracing and reassuring.
However, alone or in the mass, we must find a way to transcend ourselves, in the intensity of a passion, a way to project ourselves towards infinity. Be it dreams, wonder, love, commitment, but a path and a way must be found by each one of us. Otherwise, we renounce to soul. Otherwise we suffer, we feel mutilated, as in front of a puzzle which lacks some pieces, insoluble; as in front of a choice that does not admit any acceptable solution, that cannot be examined from different perspectives without contradiction, without negating needs that cannot be renounced, but conflict with one another.
It is a need of surmounting oneself. Of negating oneself, I would say, if I surrendered to my profoundly catholic formation, but this is not true! It is not negating, this is asserting oneself, it is finding oneself, precisely and fully − to finally BE oneself; it is the need of negating momentary pleasures to the body to obtain deeper pleasures, the need of throwing everything on the table, even oneís life sometimes, because there is something that is worth more, but something that is not out of us, something that is worth more and is WITHIN US; not against us, FOR US, to be well, to be happy.
Once more we find ourselves wandering among different levels. Physical and metaphysical pleasures. Motivations and meta-motivations. Individual drives and collective meta-drives...
And once again, each time we trespass a limit and change our perspective it seems we are talking about something else, whereas our outlook has simply widened and risen higher. One would like to associate a noun to what permits this change of perspective. One would like to call SOUL that which lets us transform the interplay of motivations into affects, love, solidarity, ideals, and any mission that transcends us as individuals; and to call soul the capacity itself of transcending ourselves, of overcoming the limits of our body, needs and pain and angst and fear of death, overcoming the limits of our own life, by invading the soul and the memory of other people, and thus escaping the limits of the few tens of years that we can spend on the Earth.
But such a “soul” is like “life”. A word that seems to give a separate essence to an abstract principle. That which distinguishes the living organism from inanimate is a complex set of physical mechanisms that translate into a organization criterion, and transcend themselves into an abstract principle: LIFE. A form not less real than matter, immanent in the living matter, physical and out of physics. That is internal but goes beyond. METAphysical, precisely, exactly, properly.
What distinguishes man from an animal is a complex set of neuronal mechanisms that translates into a complex relational and motivational life, soaked with transcendent yearnings and drives towards harmony, beauty, intensity, infinity. Here as well it is an organizational criterion, that realizes an abstract principle: the SOUL. A form not less real than matter − about the origin and eternity of which one can wonder − but which is in no way diminished when one realizes its full immanence in manís neurobiology, physical principle outside physics, biological and outside biology. Internal and that goes beyond. Metaphysical, precisely, and meta-biological. Exactly and properly such.
We are ruffles of the nothing
Quantum physics is pure poetry, it jokes with the world because it turns it inside out as a glove, with ironic detachment, to show that there is nothing inside it; it scrambles it and presents it back to us paradoxically pulverized and rearranged, according to illogical logics that can be only intuited in their incomprehensibility: matter is coagulated energy, it is tangible reality generated by frantic oscillations of nothing... Impressive and amusing hypotheses, the truth and reality of which does not change our existence a bit.
Quantum physics play an important role, for sophisticated and restless spirits, like mathematics for those who are ready to understand that it is a matter of balances, counts and pyramid building criteria, but the real thing is another ball game, it concerns something else, it looks for its coherence in other spaces and dimensions. It is the same function as that of music, for those who can, in addition to enjoying it inside themselves, define it and capture its essence and matter.
It is all nice games.
Because when we hear the sound, the mechanisms of our conscious reasoning force us to look for the object or the phenomenon that has produced it; to be reassured, in the same way as we are reassured, in looking at the spot of lull among windy ruffles and wavelets, if we realize that what appears calm or perturbed is anyway water, and not vacuum or nothing.
Horror vacui. But if we overcome horror, then the soul, music, mathematics and quantum physics let us perceive the absolute existence of harmonies, logics, energies and processes; the MATERIAL existence, the dynamics and the life of RELATIONSHIPS, not less real themselves than the objects they can link.
It is a part of the world that the skin does not feel, the eyes do not see, that makes no noise and has no odor or taste, that one has to learn perceiving, feeling, interpreting with suitable cognitive instruments, which we use insufficiently, too little and too awkwardly.
Shall we learn?
Maybe this is the next step of evolution, because if we have performed the great step, leaving behind the monkeys, by conquering the coherent consciousness of ourselves in the world, a long way remains in front of us, a lot of consciousness remains to be conquered.
Because too many people think that music is perturbed air and not the perturbations per se. Too many wonder how vacuum may be perturbed, while they should be moved by a whole world generated by perturbations of the nothing.
And we still know real little about our ourselves and the world, if it is true that − as the poet said − “we are such stuff as dreams are made on”.
Then it is about time stopping to consider as the object of science only that which is physically tangible. If quanta are perturbation of the nothing and matter is made up of quanta, what has the SOUL less than that, this wonderful reflection, perturbation, ruffle of the nothing?
Perhaps not many scientists would agree on all this. Still, I believe that in front of the brain, being content with simple mechanisms does not help to understand a bit. The convenient view, dominant although unconscious, of a great part of the scientific community is that of seeing the nervous system as an instrument to produce the right responses to external and internal stimuli. It is convenient, because the mechanisms of each response can be studied and a “reductionistic”, “deterministic” picture can be put together that can describe some behaviors. I believe that for human brain this is not only profoundly limited, but also absolutely wrong.
Just think of a tribal society, a very simple social and economic structure: the behavior of the group are rather well described and foreseen based on the knowledge of the social rules and of the main needs and forces that move the singles. The individual easily finds a synthesis between personal and collective benefit and generally acts in a way coherent with social advantage and well-being. In a complex, stratified, society, where economical and social dynamics intersect and conflict, trying to explain social phenomena as the result of motivations and longings of the singles has no more any sense: even if one knew in their minimum details the psychology of the single persons he would not be able to explain many aspects and distortions of society and economy. A comprehensive approach to economy is needed, and a sociology, you need politics − not so much professionals, people who live on politics, but a theory and management of social interactions. In the face of unacceptable distortions, it is no use looking for their origin into a flaw of the singles: the complex system they live in adds its own contributions, at a different level. This is what we refer to here as “meta”.
The complexity of the brain similarly adds its own contribution to the input-output scheme, to the stimulus reaction paradigm, so that human behavior cannot be understood (and even less can it be predicted) without considering that the simultaneous elaboration of information at many different levels and with many different approaches, perspectives and aims introduces new dimensions: logical, emotional, affective, historical, ethical and esthetic aspects that need be considered with specific intellectual instruments, different from physical and biological paradigms that may be sufficient to understand and explain stimulus-reaction chains.
Though science cannot be considered a lobby, a compact group, I feel that what I have been writing constitutes a diffuse attitude across a good fraction of the scientific community, and in any case reflects the direction along which science is moving: not renouncing to ask questions even about uncertain domains such as emotions, dreams, conscience, creativity.
Many would say, in front of these arguments, that they do not need scientific explanations in these domains, possibly they would prefer that science did not even try and give explanations that have not been asked for, unsolicited answers.
But this is an equivocal, because science is not the art of giving answers, and even less is it a collection of answers − possibly, it rather is the art of asking the right questions...
I like to spend a few words on science, because it is performed by neurons and I believe it is itself a part of the soul. Under certain respects science was born − or reborn in a modern sense − with Galileo and friends, and as a baby − like any child − essentially requested the right of asking questions, and like any child was favorably ready to share any apparently reasonable interpretation, in trying to understand. When it got adult, it shifted attention towards the answers: now it wants answers and when it finds one it tends to stick to it. As of now, the enemy of any new scientific idea is no more the Church but what somebody likes to call the scientific community, which is so fond of any dogma in force. We talked about limits and defense to survive, ignoring that living is changing and putting in doubt everything and oneself... Today science is mature. And as for any adult who has the courage and the force, it is now necessary not to stop in front of anything, and claim the right to ask questions, to try new readings, to discover, surprise and wonder...
We live in a culture marked by two opposed stereotypes.
The poet-literate, who can appreciate feeling lost in front of the Leopardiís hedge and the infinity it excludes, who knows how to peek in with timid and reverent imagination, as if he feared wasting the charm of uncertainty, vagueness, indefiniteness.
And the scientist, who coldly tries to sidestep all hedges to look farther and farther.
The integer man, instead, can fully enjoy the commotion of the hidden and imagined infinity, but can also confidently try and look over, with no fear of losing the infinity, sure instead that he will find a thousand more new hidden infinities, in front of which he may get moved, and thousand more obstacles to overcome. Provided he does not lose the capacity of marveling and enjoying the enchant of wonder.
The soul, thus, is an immanent form in human neurobiology, a biological principle outside biology, meta-biological. Properly and exactly.
Still, with all this, we have not demonstrated anything.
We have only seen that almost all aspects that normally are related to a spiritual dimension of life, to a SOUL, can be related to known functions − or in any case to functions that can be investigated − in the nervous system. Many of the statements contained in these pages are scientifically tenable (they agree with all available experimental evidence, are not based on any indemonstrable axiom and are possibly disprovable by appropriate studies) and can thus be considered an acceptable truth − tentative, temporary, until disproved. Many other statements are only working hypotheses; they also do not contradict experimental evidence, but are based on still very meager observations and on a good amount of intuition and arbitrary interpretation; they are WORKING HYPOTHESES, in favor of or against which it is possible to obtain experimental verification and confirmation, and that can be widely extended and re-elaborated based on new observations that may accumulate with time.
Many other questions certainly remain: whether the soul is immortal, whether it comes directly from god, whether it reincarnates after death and whatever else one may wish to ask. On the one hand, these questions regard something extremely evanescent, because if the soul is not what is necessary for emotion, affection, ethicalness, esthetic sense and need for infinity, if it is not interwoven with memory, desires, dreams, ideals and longings, then for it, outside the body, only remains a fleshless gust, rather dull, a puff that cannot feel the heart beating and the viscera twist, cannot cry or laugh, that might well live for the whole eternity, but only a life that is not rewritten all over at any moment, does not change, does not LIVE.
It is easy today for us to imagine a robot, capable of learning, building an image of itself, possibly suffering and loving − certainly easier to imagine it, science-fictionally, rather than thinking how to build it, scientifically. Let us try and imagine it, unrealizable as it may be. Where would its ME be? in the power supply, which gives it electricity and energy, in the immaterial force that keeps it alive? Or maybe in the information, the memories, the learning and experiences that are recorded on its memory chip? Let us switch off the mains, take out the current, and we shall have killed it, but let us erase its memory and we shall have destroyed all its individuality, we shall have killed him in a much more cruel way.
And as we are in the middle of fantasizing, move its chip to an other robot; or take out the soul from a person and move it to the body, and to the brain, of someone else: that soul will read a memory, a way of reasoning, an affectivity, an habit of reaction, an ethic and esthetic attitude, which are written in the host nervous system and are not its own.. its own... of whom?
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