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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MAYBE BOTH − Beyond the limit − meta
Natura non facit saltus.
Still, an important objection to Darwin’s views has been that evolution does not appear to proceed so smoothly and quietly...
Indeed, the world itself does not proceed calmly. It is nature that proceeds through jumps. Or better, the jumps are not in it, it’s us who see them. We realize that all of a sudden properties and features appear that were not there before and that call for new interpretative approaches and new readings; thus, we decide that new and different orders have been achieved, and limits have been trespassed.
Life itself is the most huge of these jumps. Nucleic acids, for example. Molecules that can guide the surrounding potential energy of chemistry towards their own reproduction, and then towards the synthesis of even more versatile molecules − proteins − and through these towards the organization of complex systems, ordered systems, such as cells, and organisms that in turn can collect energy and use it to keep going, change, evolve and reproduce themselves.
A jump, certainly a powerful and frightening jump towards infinite possibilities. But a jump that has no starting, or turning, or arrival points. That which was holding everything before − energy, potentials, entropy − still holds everything afterwards. Still, in all that existed before one could not read this possibility of reproducing a form by ordering external matter.
Actually, it is two jumps, with life. Reproducing the form by ordering matter. Sure. But the cell, the organism, can also keep the form alive in a never-ending exchange of matter with the outside, and can lead an individual entity through time, so that it remains recognizable in spite of its continuous changing, until, after decades, not a single molecule of what used to comprise it at the beginning will still be there to constitute it.
And further impressive jumps. The synthesis of molecules capable of capturing sun rays and using them to destroy stable equilibriums − inert molecules such as water and carbon dioxide − to combine them into sugar, vigorous and energetic, ready to give out its energy for any possible use by the cell, or to donate itself as food for other organisms, that are incapable to exploit sun’s energy but are well happy to permit sugar to disaggregate, and ready to use its euphoria to build themselves, repair their own cells and tissues, move around, and change the world. It’s the plants and then the animals. It is the possibility of using, to make life, not only the potential energy that has remained trapped in Earth’s cooling down after the Big Bang, but also the energy that comes form the sun.
But the rules that used to govern before are still in force. Simply, new, additional rules are needed to understand the new processes, the new regulations, the new possibilities that life has brought about.
Another big jump: the development of cells that are capable of signaling at a site of the organism changes that have occurred at another site. The neural cells, neurons. And networks of neurons, more and more complex, that make it possible to simultaneously respond to different stimuli, to compare, to integrate and modulate complex responses, to organize coordinated behaviors of the whole organism.
More. The development of a central nervous system, where the bunch of information that pullulates among the neurons and their intricate connections begins to constitute a complete representation of all the complex relations that organize the organism, the external reality, and their interactions. A system that permits the organization of behavior based on sophisticated evaluations of vegetative needs and less easily describable motivational drives. A meta-biology is born, that physics and life are not sufficient to interpret and understand, that has its own rules, forces and dynamics; a meta-biology that invades the field of immaterial, of knowledge, of a cybernetics (kubernetes is the Greek word for pilot, and cybernetics is the science of control and control systems) characterized by anticipation and finalized action.
Finally, in man, the cerebral cortex undergoes an impressive growth and becomes capable of escaping the function of merely producing a response to each stimulus: innumerable circuits in the cortex elaborate the information that reaches them according to specific modalities, perspectives and contexts, and generate a cohort of different readings of the reality that pullulate and evolve in the cortex, each of them integrated with the others, but also complex in itself and in many ways autonomous. Each reading as an image of a specific aspect of oneself or of the world, that arises, grows and evolves like a meta-organism, endowed with its own life, although confined in the immateriality of formal, abstract representation.
But there is no contradiction. The rules developed so far still hold, the energies, the forces, the mechanisms, the processes. And still unchanged holds the fundamental rule: each event has its own cause, energies that push, mechanisms that enable them to be released more or less easily by producing one or the other effect. Mechanisms often so complex that it becomes difficult to understand, or even simply to describe them. They can be seen, however, reasonably well defined, even though they begin to appear as processes guided by aspirations and aims.
There is no contradiction, but at every step and every jump a new dimension appears, that must be noticed to appreciate what is facing us. At each new jump a novel formal description becomes more appropriate, because the rules that have guided simpler systems, though they continue to operate in depth, are not the most relevant ones to describe and understand the general dynamics of the new system, which is governed by certain specific necessities and interactions that in simpler systems could not even be thought of.
Finally, the ultimate step (up to now, at least). From representation, of objects, events, simple and complex relations, to conceptual and symbolic manipulation.
The innumerable readings that waggle in the brain carve the concepts, build a multiple, complex and variegated vision of reality and of oneself, made of metaphors, capable of symbols and of abstract manipulation. Specific regions of the cortex evaluate visible aspect, sound, smell, taste of each element of experience, and its spatial and temporal relationships with other elements, its order, affective valence and value for satisfying vital needs. Associative areas in the cortex are regions in whose circuitries all the readings of an object, present in the various regions of the brain, are compared and reciprocally related; along with the massive development of such associative areas the possibility arises of an abstract representation of the object in all its aspects, of a concept, the unifying principle of a coherent multiplicity. The possibility of a concept not only of an object, or of an event, but also of a set of objects, of a sequence of events, the concept itself of relation among objects, and among events, of relation among relations...
Here, in the systems that interconnect the thousands readings, sprouts conscience, a gaze which is conscious of oneself and of the world. Once more it is a synthesis and unification of multiplicity. And the regulation of behavior becomes careful and delicate, in the variegated interaction among vegetative, hedonic and socio-cultural forces, and ideal; a clear and real possibility of choice appears, finalized behavior strictly speaking. And biology and cybernetics are no more sufficient, here, the field of epistemology is invaded, and of ethics, and freedom. We are trespassing into the territories of the soul.
It is the concomitance of metaphors, conscience and free will.
All this, further empowered by language. The quintessence, and admirable tool and toy, for symbolic representation and manipulation.
Actually, language is a good paradigm to understand the brain, and the powerful jump that man constitutes in evolution. «Ipse» (Aristotle for friends) had many defects; he was authoritative and systematic, he might have been so careless (as Galileo accuses him) not to realize that in order to define space three dimensions are enough, because of a simple reason, i.e. that no more than three perpendicular lines can be drawn through a single point: there was no need of idealities for this, there was no need to claim that the dimension of a body MUST be three and no more than three, no need at all of using sophistic and mystical arguments about the perfection of number 3... He had defects, all right, but about logos, about the language, Ipse was not careless at all: he knew it well, he had a clear vision.
The sounds that animals produce have a meaning, and human voice, with its modulations, can naturally express many meanings and nuances. But language is something else. In his De Anima Ipse unveils the trick: it has been necessary to strip voice’s sounds of their natural meaning; and then to crystallize phonemes, vocal sounds, without any meaning; and finally to give them a new meaning, by combining them, partly in an arbitrary way, partly by similitude, assonance and association, according to multiple criteria and rules, ending up with a system of symbols. A system that exists as a set of signals, which in turn have a precise meaning only within that same system. The same phonemes have different meanings in a different language, the same meanings in a different language require different phonemes.
But why did he put all this in a book that he called De Anima? Because one perceives straight away that manipulating symbols has nothing to do with the material reality, that we are abandoning the perceivable reality, we are taking off towards the spirit, that portion of our intellect that has nothing left that is mechanical or predictable.
Then, let us tell each other that bees talk, that they explain one another how to find food using symbolic flights, that our cat understands and meows in a way that it seems he’s talking... There is a difference. Not a small difference. All animal sounds and communication modes simulate, represent, describe according to predetermined and/or natural associations; they are mimic languages. A symbol is something else: it has nothing in itself that links it to its meaning, it might mean something completely different in another symbolic system, in another language. They teach us at school that there exist words that remind and represent their meaning by natural association, they teach us to call them onomatopoeic: they are but rare exceptions. And there is nothing strange there. Because they are useless, except sometimes to evoke in a direct and precise way − in an instinctive way − objects, actions and images, and even more the emotions that we spontaneously associate to those objects, actions, images.
The capacity of symbolic manipulation is a new dimension of life that is born with Man. It is curious that there is no need of formal models to inject it in the brain: the way neural circuits elaborate information precisely draws the limits, the modalities and the rules with which we are able to generate symbols and combine them in a symbolic system. The formal and fundamental characteristics that are common to all natural languages in the world are numerous, and they essentially reflect the modes in which the cerebral cortex recognizes and classifies the objects and the spatial, temporal, causal relations that appear to link them...
But we are running too fast. Let’s wait until we have described, at least roughly, how the brain works.
As of now, we shall be contented of having described this hopping-jumping by nature, creating more and more complex systems, that each time transcend the rules and the mechanisms of the preceding ones, and invade ever wider and higher domains of order, form, immateriality.
Up to language. Up to thought.
And complexity grows, and multiplicity.
So, maybe evolution does have a meaning, a dominant direction. It proceeds blindly, that is true, any path is good to produce and multiply life, life that keeps discovering ever new ways for consuming blocked energy. And surely evolution does not abandon any alternative path, simply it shuts them down when they can no more compete, but as far as possible it keeps every tactic open. The main direction is multiplicity, «biodiversity», the thousands different solutions for any problem. But in this search nature sometimes encounters «qualitative jumps», new solutions that are substantially more complex, that offer higher flexibility, and multiplicity of strategies by one and the same organism. In this direction, complexity accompanies multiplicity: evolution does not abandon simple solutions, but in addition to multiplying simple solutions it is able to find more and more complex solutions, that escape from the domain of mere survival and begin to modify the world, and then to represent it, and then to interpret it, and understand it, and look at oneself and interpret and understand oneself.
In this direction − complexity and multiplicity, solutions that depart from mere practically facing the problem and explore implications and colors and atmospheres and higher harmonies − it is evident that man is not the endpoint. Evolution has already made at least another step: woman...
The created creator, or: Evolution and History, but WHOSE history? (1)
Usually, one thinks that Man lives his history and marks its stages in stones and papyruses, in traditions, in knowledge, in products, in myths and religious convictions, in political structures and social organization.
Genetists and molecular biologists play puzzles −which they like defining scientific studies and camouflaging of intense conceptuality − through which one generates schemes that resemble genealogical trees, where yeasts, worms, men, rabbits and bacteria are located on branches more or less distant as a function of the differences that distinguish the respective sequences in the gene of interest. Here is the puzzle: in ordering all the differences and deducing where each of them has arisen, thereby reconstructing the evolutional path of the gene... Not much of a enigmatic challenge, however, or of mental gymnastics, as the computer takes care of that.
Looking at these schemes usually bores, sometimes it upsets you − specially when the ghost of an exam impinges... But if, by exploiting all the resources that our brain can offer us, in presenting us similitudes and ways out from boredom, we are caught by the fantasy of looking for a meaning, a story, a development, some kind of a poetry, then the evident, fascinating and intriguing image appears of a colored tiny snake, an infinite winding little staircase of nucleic acid that, by coiling and curling in the millennia and reproducing itself, thanks to the sexual appetites of stupid animate beings that believe that air is there for them to breath, water for them to drink and the whole world to be eaten and destroyed... a colored tiny staircase that may be the only thing that has really survived, and evolved, during all this time. And, strictly speaking, not even the small snake has survived across prehistory and history and the black Monday and the controversial new-year day of the prophesized “a thousand and no more thousand” (1.1.2000 or 1.1.2001?); not the snake, actually, but THE SEQUENCE.
And written stuff, the “text”, does not it evolve as well? knowledge, ideas, interpretations, images, written histories have their own pathway, their own growth and evolution, every written thing feeds on what has been written before, after having been digested in a solitary meal by the abstruse erudite or mixed up, contaminated, crushed, thrown up and recomposed by a crowd bath, read taught discussed refused and revisited... On the other hand, THE SEQUENCE, in order to live and reproduce itself, has been able to create life and has ended up, after recombining everything in every way, relying on living beings that are capable of drawing and representing the reality that surrounds them; then, why should not THE TEXT, that was embryonically born in scratches in the rocks on the walls of a cave, profit of this situation, to organize and grow up and live its own history, using the brains and sometimes the viscera and emotions of men to coagulate in ever new and ever more complex combinations, and to embrace ever wider horizons?
And what are we authorized to say about art? what has it got to do with us? it is like feeling proud, ants in a queue, for the magnificence of the anthill, for the sublime and superior equilibriums that not us, but some strange emerging properties of the coordinated ensemble of billions of us, have created! The pictorial, volumetric, linguistic expression of some persistent moods in nature and man, of relations unexpectedly discovered in different domains, of unimagined improbable harmonies, of the QUINTESSENCE of things, what we call “art”, has developed in history like a fantastic drawing in continuous evolution, a process of which we only are unaware creators and spectators, like the ten thousand participants to that old coca-cola Christmas tree who, small candle in their hand, were transformed into the molecules of Great Market’s poetical aspect.
So Man has been used. By the TEXT and the QUINTESSENCE. And by many others. Economy, and Market also have used Man to grow and proliferate and change and adapt and crawl in their uncertain and doubtful evolution, and social ORGANIZATION as well, that transforms into a history by our working, using men as picture cards for a millenary role-playing game.
And finally encouragement, opium and superstition. Myth, and spiritual, mystical interpretation of good and evil; evil, especially, that is more difficult to bear, and death itself, that is more difficult to cope with. From the simplest natural puck to the sophisticated One and Triune God, mysterious and incomprehensible, revealed in His Divine Humanity to elude reason and keep alive the devoted, faithful, unaware and humble acceptation and submission; uppermost justification of the value of life in a world that kills for money, of the value of love in a world that only loves what it can possess; sublime justification needed to grant the desire of copulating and proliferating even in the face of misery, famine and war, disease and pain, thereby keeping Religion itself alive in the millennia. And keeping GOD alive, but this way THE TEXT as well, and the QUINTESSENCE, and THE SEQUENCE, mother of any things that live...
Maybe, then, not a GOD who creates Man who will recognize His creation and appraise Him and honor Him, but the SEQUENCE that creates man to merely survive, and through him the TEXT to be described, the QUINTESSENCE to perceive and love itself, the ORGANIZATION to consolidate these conquests, and finally GOD himself, to give a meaning to its own stupid and insensate life.
But was it really necessary that all of us were here, and Giacomo Leopardi and William Shakespeare and Michelangelo and Tom Waits and Countries and Flags and Churches, and God, and War... merely to justify the stability of four molecules in a line...!
Now, let alone the reference to religion, that may taste too much Marxism and people’s opium, and certainly has offended somebody; but from the point of view of RNA, and of life in general, and of animal kingdom, and maybe of human species in particular, histories and fascinating developments such as art and music, philosophy and literature, are nothing but incidents, collateral effects. Life itself, indeed, for the history of the Sequence that all governs, is but a collateral effect.
Here is the question: a complex system that interacts, persists and reproduces itself asks for a new perspective, for a new, other reading dimension, that recognizes its own and different evolution rules. It generates a meta-system.
The development and the history of complex systems generate new agents, organisms and meta-realities that are born and grow up and appear to live their own life, outside of the system that has generated them (above it?), in a different domain of what is conceivable, a different domain of reality. It is a curious, exciting interplay of collateral effects. Unforeseen collateral effects, unpredictable from the examination of the system that has generated them, from the relations that define it, from the rules that govern it, from its most complete and organic possible formal description. They are unpredictable products because they blossom and grow in unexpected domains, that are ruled by other criteria, forces and fates. Complex system students and lovers have created the term «emerging properties» to indicate those aspects that produce such unexpected collateral effects, because they are aspects that only appear − emerge − when a complex system is considered as a whole, from the outside, in its relations with higher systems, examining its behavior in spheres that are not contemplated by its internal relations and rules.
Well, from the impressive development of cognitive, cybernetic and behavioral power of human brain a collateral effect was born: an unexpected and fascinating mixture of interpretative power, emotions and motivations, memory and desire, pleasure and pain, and conscious understanding and feeling, and blue and happiness, love passion and will, curiosity and fear, wonder and shame, fervor and commitment. A mixture that is a new level of life, interior and superior, not secluded and excluded, but rather capable of etching reality and carving the world, and of doing this in a new and different way, following plans and aims, desires and ideals.
And even more, from this mixture of gazes whishes and fantasies a new unexpected dimension of life blossoms, the need for other, infinite in time and space, the need for transcending the self to wander in eternity and infinity... It is a curious collateral effect, something for which it is difficult to find out a name that be nicer and more appropriate than «soul».
And all this is «meta».
The logic that governs the system is useless to understand, explain, interpret the reading, the meta-system. Still, the latter, and its logic and its life, are based on the logic and life of the underlying system.
This is meta. This is Gödel. We live in a world full of complex systems, that because of their complexity are something different from the sum of their components, and invade domains that their elements do not know. Emergent properties, that cannot be predicted by analyzing the elements which constitute a system − and their reciprocal interactions.
But then one must forget that objects and systems end where they end, and perceive and understand the border that connects them to (rather than separating form) the surrounding reality: the apple is green only because the light hits it and somebody observes it; it is not a property of its own, and in any case it does not depend on, and is not relevant to understand, its structure, its organization, its equilibrium. Still, from outside it is green, and we do not know the apple if we do not know it under this respect as well, if we do not know it in something that arises and remains outside it, but contributes to define it in reality.
That’s baloney, is not it? sure! until it only concerns apples. But a little alarming/worrying if all this also messes up logics, and mathematics, because these matters constitute what to many of us appears to most closely approach perfection.
Gödel has bewildered and upset modern thought by demonstrating a theorem that stated more or less as follows: “there cannot exist a logic and/or mathematic system that simultaneously be coherent and complete”. In other words: if a logic system wants to be coherent it must accept to apply to a limited domain only, and if it wants to be complete it will certainly contain some incoherencies.
A small effort of concentration, to appreciate the theorem, with a trivial example: in a logic system that permits deciding with absolute certainty and coherence whether a sentence (statement) is true or false, what happens to a statement such as “this statement (this same sentence) is false”, i.e. to a sentence that states its own falsity? Such a sentence is fully acceptable and correct, grammatically, syntactically and even (abstractly speaking) logically. Still, it is not possible to define its truth/falsity. Then, a logical system that attributes a value of truth/falsity to statements, since it cannot classify such a statement either among the true ones or among the false ones, will have to admit that there exist at least one class of statements that it cannot deal with (if it wants to be coherent it must be incomplete): it cannot be applied to those statements that talk about the truth of statements (meta-statements), for which a different and complementary logic is needed (meta-logic).
Somebody will disagree, and will claim that the logical system can easily apply to meta-statements. Here is a good one: “the statement «snow is white» is true”. A logical statement, correct, true, and talks about the truth of other statements. Then let us try: “the statement «this statement (this same sentence) is false» cannot be defined as true or false because it is true if it is false and is false if it is true, ergo it is absolutely possible that it be both false and true”. Perfect. Now we have a logic statement, grammatically correct, syntactically correct and true, that talks about truth and applies to other statements. We did it. Now our logic is complete.
Just a small problem: our logic now admits as a true statement a true sentence, that negates the capacity of the logic itself to judge the truth/falsity of a statement that belongs to the logic itself. Our logic is now complete, but incoherent, by its own claim. Was the previous incomplete logic better than this?
Yes. All right. Word games...
No. This is not the place to recall the rigorous demonstration of Gödel’s theorem, but it is not word games, and the question is not the detail of what the theorem states, but the philosophical relevance of the theorem. Not only mathematics, and logics, and reason itself that is based on the two of them, are not perfect (ouch!), but the most coherent, rigorous and sophisticated logic that can be applied to the analysis of a system cannot be applied as it is to the interactions of the system itself with the exterior. The correct analysis of the components and the internal dynamics of a system is not an adequate approach to evaluate the system in its wholeness, its interactions with other systems, or the way it will emerge in a different cognitive or ontological dimension.
One must surrender, then?
No. But an approach must be developed, a meta-analysis approach, that be capable of looking at the system from outside, still without exiting the system, using new canons and criteria that will say nothing about the internal logics of the system, and will ignore irrelevant details, which cannot be interpreted in the new perspective, but will correctly describe and interpret and understand the modes, times, roles and behaviors of the system, in the higher reality it belongs to, in the new dimensions it has invaded.
Back to infinity, then. Back to «all» that encloses and cannot go further, maniac for coherence, and to «infinity» that instead does not stop, and finds new rules where the old ones do not hold any more. Back to the power of multiple perspectives, that sacrifice the certainty of universal coherence but can offer multifaceted readings that do not see limits but different sights and perspectives, that do not amputate the soul of its liberty.
It is difficult, anyway. It is difficult to give up the protection of four walls, that limit and warrant a whole, a small one perhaps, but entire. It is difficult not to dream of freedom as a wider space, wider but anyway protected, please, a castle maybe, and its flourished garden... But there is another freedom, that of American Indians, who died if they where trapped among four walls, because the eye must fly far away, the skin must feel the wind, the spirit must travel, free.
The desire of infinity is meta, is consciousness of the soul, is going beyond, out of oneself, it is living and feeling oneself living. It is trespassing the limit between self and non self, expanding and transcending oneself. It is flying and enjoying the flight, but remaining ourselves: it is the naturalness of flight in our dreams, pleasant discovery that unexpectedly does not disagree with our own being and our idea of ourselves. It is transcending ourselves in space and time, but in an intensely dialectic way: it is not Peter Pan, it is not flying away, it is living, here and now, and still being able to fly and see ourselves from outside, and see the world. It is not being outside. It is beyond, it is meta. It is being also outside. The contradiction is apparent, but so is also the absolute reality, and equally apparent is the reconcilability of the contradiction. This is the magic of dialectics, that does not demand ontology to be static, and by permitting a contradictory ontology gives (gives back) life to reality.
Luigi Pirandello once said “life, either you live it, or you write about it”... It may be true, strictly speaking, but the soul precisely consists in reconciling the two things: maybe both, feel and read and write life, while you live it.
If you try playing the scientist, today, you must be able to alternate two opposed approaches. It is so evident that biological processes that occur in any organism are useful and appropriate for the survival of the subject, or the species, that it comes natural to stop and describe their admirable organization and interaction in making possible the incredible equilibriums, the intricate processes of life. It comes natural to highlight the “aim” that appears to be driving every process, and to forget that a true “scientific” explanation must instead clarify what forces and energies feed it and make it possible and accomplish it (the “causes”).
For the neuroscientist everything is even more difficult, because forces and mechanisms are multiple, intertwined and hidden by the anatomical and functional complexity of the brain, whereas the usefulness of any aspect of neuronal elaboration for a specific aim is more easily discernible and traceable. It is comfortable then to reason that each response that is produced by the nervous system be triggered and guided by the stimuli that reach it, and the circuits and modes of elaboration be selected so to give the most appropriate and suitable response to each stimulus, so that in order to understand something one has to follow the stimulus-response pathway, paying attention not to get lost. Thus, in order to understand something, one ends up reasoning backwards, from human behavior to what determines and guides it, as if the brain were a black box whose functioning could be understood by studying the responses it gives to the stimuli it receives.
But this is misleading. Because it is not so. Or, better, in a sense it is so, but in another one it is not. From the mechanistic point of view, this idea is somehow correct: for each signal that moves around in the brain it is possible to track back a signal, near of far away in space and time, that has determined it, either directly or through more or less complex mediations. But if one looks at human behavior, it is clear that the sum of stimuli and causes is not sufficient to foresee it, and not even to track the paths and the mechanisms that have generated it. In order to understand it, one must accept that something, in the brain or elsewhere, has elaborated and accumulated and drudged information, and clearly has not done this by considering and weighting each piece of information solely in terms of their relevance to behavioral and practical aims. And from this “something” man extracts, in each moment, the strength that generates autonomous acts and modifies the responses that would be expected based on the stimuli that are present or have occurred in the near past. This is a “something”, in the brain or elsewhere, that is capable of generating autonomous motivational drives, capable of initiative, choice, creativity.
We must start again from the right perspective, then, forwards, not backwards. From the information that arrives to the brain and the use it makes of such information. This way one encounters bifurcations, wanderings and collateral effects that strongly characterize the functioning of the brain and generate emergent properties and processes, that definitely depart from the stimulus-response path, complex as it might be. They are collateral effects that may appear of little relevance in terms of response to the stimuli, but are indispensable to understand human behavior, the drives that guide him, his creative aspects. Collateral effects that actually constitute man’s peculiarity, and pervade and profoundly permeate his life, opening to it unexplored expansion spaces in cognitive, ethical, esthetic domains.
Here is the “meta” of the brain. In its playing and spending most of its time in re-elaborating and re-drawing and re-interpreting the world, following its multiple and varied tastes, with no practical aims, in generating sketches, impressions, readings and metaphors of reality. And when a thousand metaphors live and urge in the brain, and drive acts that are no more mere choices among possible responses, then something is born that cannot be studied any more by the same approach: causes are no more sufficient, elementary mechanisms cannot explain. A new perspective, a new gaze is necessary to understand, ideas are needed, and aims, objectives, and possibly dreams, and desires and imagination, to explain gestures that are no more responses, but autonomous initiatives.
The smart ones among us (or better the smartest ones among those who are not smart enough not to care − indeed, one lives pretty well disregarding the problem) have looked closely at the screen of the television set, and have seen that each point of the image is actually divided into three sectors, a blue one, a green one and a red one, more or less lighted and more or less intense. All the colors arise from this. Sure, it is obvious that all colors arise from this, because this is exactly the way our eye builds them: a sensory cell recognizes the red light, another one the blue light, a third type the green light, and a task for other nervous cells is to combine these sources of information to decide what is the color of each point of the visual field.
Then, once the color of each point has been recognized, the image is projected (upside-down! this we all know well) on the posterior part of the cerebral cortex, isn’t it? did not they explain us the story this way, in the high school textbook? − were there a single textbook that doest not print the candle, upside down, at the back of the head...
No. No images stroll around in our brain. And certainly in our brain there is no “intellect” that looks at such images, interprets them, records them in “memory” and recalls them when it needs it.
Each cell that is in charge of recognizing a stimulus (receptor) generates an electrical signal. As it is, it remains there − in the skin, in the retina, in the olfactory epithelium in the nose: it is not reproduced identically in any other part of the brain. Before leaving the eye toward the central nervous system, visual information has been decomposed into different aspects − general light conditions, local contrast, color ratios − and is not simply transduced (transformed from light to electrical activity) but re-elaborated according to specific criteria, reading canons; it is not transmitted and reproduced but translated, and narrated. This is true for any external stimulus: a photon that hits a cell in the retina, a sound vibration that excites a cell in the cochlea, a molecule of perfume captured by an olfactory cell in the nasal mucosa, the terminal of a pain neuron stretched by an air bubble in the intestine. The receptor generates a signal that more or less directly reaches numerous neurons in the nervous system, and at each of these it is related, compared, summed and integrated with many other signals coming from other similar sensory cells and from many other neurons. The results of these elaborations are what proceeds towards further neuronal stages.
In the retina, for example, several layers of neurons are present in addition to sensory cells, and most of them do not respond to the intensity and color of the light that hits a single point of the retina, but to the difference in light and/or color between this point and the surrounding ones... It is not strange that even the most trained painter cannot select on his palette the exact color he wants in a precise point of the painting, among the other neighboring colors, because we cannot “see” a color independently from the context.
And, as usual, one gets distracted. It comes natural to ask why should it be this way, what is the advantage of all this. Actually, it is not difficult to support the statement that it is much more useful to see color differences and relations, rather than absolute values. This lets us recognize a ripe fruit from an unripe one, or rotten, both in the white sunlight at noon and in the red light of sunset... And if the light dims while we are reading it is absolutely no use to concentrate on seeing all points darker in the image we have in front; it is much better to simply perceive there is less light (by summing the signal that comes from different points) but to realize the image composition is essentially the same (the differences among neighboring points have not changed much). Nothing strange, that mother nature selected sensory mechanisms capable of performing such elaborations.
But try for a moment to forget the practical usefulness of these manipulations of sensory data by our nervous system. Can we try and let the underlying mechanisms, rather than the aims, captivate our attention? It is worth doing so, because intriguing and fascinating consequences will arise.
In particular, it becomes obvious why we cannot watch, listen, perceive elements that occur together, without noticing and elaborating their reciprocal relations. It becomes apparent that no colored points exist for us but shapes, no vibrations but sounds, and not even sounds but possible melodies or words, and not words but sentences, talks, poetry.
Then, let’s forget for a moment what is more or less useful, and try and understand how all this works, why (what is the cause, not the aim) it is not reality, but only its elaborations, that enter the brain: reality only pops in, but is worked on and ground at once, because these processes do not apply a posteriori to recorded and saved information, they are not “cognitive” elaborations; they are the result of an automatic computation that is “pre-cabled” in the network of neuronal connections in the brain, an absolutely unconscious computation that starts taking place even before the sensory data reach the cerebral cortex. These are computations that occur exactly in the same way, no offense, in the head of a mouse.
Each one of the myriad of sensory signals that reach the brain at any instant contacts numerous neurons. At each neuron it is combined with other similar signals, some of them with an analogous meaning and some with a different one, because they come from other neuronal systems. At each neuron the signal enters a different and specific computation.
This way of dealing with signals characterizes all elaborations by the nervous system. Typically, each nervous cell can bear some tens of thousands of synaptic contacts, through which other neurons transmit signals to it. Each neuron collects an impressive amount of information, and does not do it at random: the connections are such that activation of each single cell has a “meaning”, indicates that a certain characteristic, a relation, an organizational principle, a sequence is present and detectable in the collection of stimuli that reach the brain. Going back to eyesight, in the cortex there are neurons that receive information from a certain number of receptors that are positioned with a precise spatial organization in the retina, so that their coordinated activation indicates that a profile, a margin between two colors or gray levels occurs in a specific area of the visual field; other neurons recognize, by the same principle, a horizontal line, or a vertical, or oblique one. By combining the information elaborated by these neurons, other cells detect the presence of geometrical figures (squares, triangles, circles) or even more complex figures such as stars, targets... By refining more and more this game of feature and relation detection, one reaches neurons that are located in the temporal lobe, more lateral and anterior, at a distance from the primary visual areas of the occipital cortex: these neurons perform even more “abstract” or general tasks, and are capable of detecting objects and complex figures in the visual image, or even any possible combination of elements in which a human face or expression can be perceived − :o) :-( :-p ^__^ are smile, sadness, bleah, another smile. The child in his first months, as soon as he begins to see well, is happy − and is more quiet and smiles − if we position a face sketch, , in front of him. And when we raise our gaze to the sky and look at the clouds, as soon as it is possible wee see faces, profiles, smiles. It is not just chance.
This way, each nerve cell in the brain − according to the signals it receives and the way it elaborates them − produces its own synthesis and reading of the small piece of reality it is in contact with, and sends this result to hundreds, thousands of other neurons, which in turn perform the same operations on similar information coming from thousands of other neurons. The raw sensory datum (sound, image, smell...) is digested and decomposed in a thousand different ways by a thousand distinct brain structures: no more image, but lines, colors, masses, volumes, light and tone contrasts, geometrical figures, faces...). The raw sensory datum produces a specific pattern of activity in millions of specific neurons and connections. Thus, a set of activity patterns by specific sets of neurons correspond to each sensory experience. Each pattern represents a specific trait, a feature, a way of looking at the sensory datum: the brain has invented “parallel architecture” − in which information is distributed, and elaborated, in a thousand pathways, in parallel − well before information scientists.
Parallel elaboration makes possible to simultaneously extract different features and characteristics in distinct circuits. In our brain there are no “photographs” of our experiences but records of the elements that comprise them, and of the relations among such elements, and of the relations among such relations. Reality is redrawn and interpreted in innumerable ways, from many points of view, with a thousand perspectives and different gazes, simultaneously.
The brain incessantly elaborates information, and at each step it is messed up, decomposed and re-unified. Each element and detail is only preserved in its relations and relevance. But information simultaneously gains thickness and new dimensions. Each neural system can be considered as an organ that operates as a transcendental system, in that it receives information and rearranges it by extracting the specific features to which “it is interested”. And in each neuronal system it invades, information becomes a concert of colors and melodies typical of that particular system.
This capability of transforming sensory data into a representation of elements and relations has a quite obvious usefulness, because it makes possible, and effective, the recognition of objects and situations, so that the appropriate behavioral response can be evoked. It is a modality of elaboration that characterizes the brain of all animals who possess one. The main difference, in man, is not only the mass, and the number of neurons and circuits, of the regions of the cortex that take care of these combined and “interpreted” readings of a piece of sensory information; even more important is the enormous development, with respect to any other animal, of the associative multimodal areas of the cortex, the regions where complex evaluations are performed by combining and putting into reciprocal relation the information that comes from different sensory modalities (and not only sensory) and bears different relevance and meaning: sound information, and visual, and visceral, motor, emotional...
We shall discuss these aspects further on. But an unusual perspective already emerges here. A very complex neuronal machinery, organized to grant the appropriate behavioral response, produces as a collateral effect, as a precious byproduct, a representation, or better a multifaceted series of representations, of reality. Relations among objects and events are represented by patterns of neuronal activation, that can be recognized when they occur again, and perceived by analogy in other situations, and generalized to drive a predictive reading of reality. Each pattern of neuronal activation can therefore be profitably used to optimize behavior, but is simultaneously collected and related to others to reproduce the world and its dynamics, to generate a new dimension of life, a meta-biology of reality representation, more and more complex as the dimension and organization of the cortex expand and become more sophisticated, in ascending the evolutionary scale.
Thus, the idea that the stimulus-response scheme is not sufficient, in front of the development of brain cortex, already arises in examining animal behavior; possibly, stimulus-response is not even the most appropriate paradigm to understand what is going on. Sure, there are reflex responses; there are, in the brain, connections and circuitries that produce predictable reactions; but input information does not merely control responses, it coalesces into a multifaceted, ever-changing, simmering representation of reality; and this informational turmoil generates impulses and unexpected controls, capable of evoking behaviors that none of the present or past stimuli could justify per se. If one wants to stick to the idea that the nervous system serves to produce adequate responses and behaviors, well, let him stand there. But one cannot deny that in complicating the circuitries ever more, mother nature has found itself facing something new: a neural inner experience, built by re-elaborating sensory experiences, that is capable of flanking and substituting for external stimuli in guiding and determining animal behavior.
Life is sustained by a cosmic force. It is the potential energy enclosed in molecules, that urges to get dispersed into the disorder of entropy. Life, as we have seen, helps it with great efficiency to overcome barriers and constraints, to escape immutable and ordered ballets, and as in this helping the force life sustains and reproduces itself − why should not it exploit this? − life can perpetuate and find ever new ways and paths. In a sense, life is sustained by its own capability of perpetuating and reproducing itself by granting an efficient production of entropy. Thus, any new idea that strengthens survival capacity, ability to cope with environments that are difficult, mutable, insidious, will have the tendency to get fixed evolutionarily. The combination of sophisticated control mechanisms and processes − the cybernetic power − of the living organism, and the jump represented by the brain, in terms of complexity and versatility of such control, offer even greater help in releasing the force. But through this last jump life overcomes the limits of cybernetics and invades the immaterial territories of information, representation, inner experience of the world; the possibility arises of a predictive, and unpredictable, behavior...
Welcome, then, to this runaway from biology toward knowledge, row and rudimentary as it may be.
The force itself gets an advantage from this. But then, as it sustains life and biology, the force will be happy to sustain meta-biology, knowledge and wisdom.
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