Physiology of the Soul - or, if you like it better, - Neurons & Soul
Riccardo Fesce - all rights reserved (if you are an interested publisher or agent send a mail)
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Consciousness. What an uncertain and multiple word! It seems we are condemned to talk about things that all of us know, but each of us knows and interprets them his own way.

We do not want to talk about conscience in its ethical (Christian) sense − the interior voice, the perception of what is right, the spiritual version of Freudís super-ego − but of consciousness as awareness, seeing and feeling oneself living, thinking, acting.

Even thus, however, it is not clear; particularly if we decide to try and measure the “degree of consciousness”. On the one hand, it seems it is a question of how awake, present we are, and therefore attentive, rapid and precise in our reactions. But it is clear that the point is not there: that may be the good answer for our unbearable high-school teacher, who believed that every time we abandoned him to his mumble-jumble we were falling asleep, whereas those often were the moments of most intense consciousness in the whole morning, immersed, swept and carried away by memories, dreams and desires, betrayed love, sadness and joy of fight and reconciliation...

Curiously, one measure is there that can bring to an agreement the neurologist who studies you and you, who feel yourself alive: it is not correctness and promptness of the response, but the degree of activation (electroencephalographically measured activity) of the multimodal associative regions of the cerebral cortex. There, where different kinds of information converge, where readings face one another and are compared. Actually, it had to be so. What use is to be aware of a color, a shape, an outline, an object, a relationship in the images that come to us from the world, if not to put it in relation with what we hear, recall, know, wish, thereby giving a meaning to all that, an interpretation, a possible role in our life?

On the other hand, most of this activity − harmonizing and interpreting − also occurs while only occasionally emerging to consciousness. Below the surface, well visible if you look at it, but not necessarily present, relevant, important.

Associative regions can deal with information that comes from outside − images, sounds, objects, events, words − or with that which bubbles in the brain − memories, emotions, projects, ideas. In any case, the impression is that the degree of consciousness be strictly linked to two specific aspects: on one side how intense this re-elaboration activity is − whatever be its object − and on the other side how much this frenetic activity is under “our” control, how much “we” look at it and guide it.

In spite of all we said up to here, the fundamental fracture seems to stand up once more: who is this “we”? sure, the brain simmers with the most sophisticated elaborative capacities, and intellective mathematical logics, but there is anyway an internal eye, an ego, a spirit, who watches, pays attention to what interests him in all this activity, and consciousness is nothing but where this eye is focused...

Still, the jump is not so huge.

We can accept that in brain circuits there is the necessary elaborative capacity to recognize unity-multiplicity, before-after, cause-effect, greater-smaller, sequences, cardinality, order, periodicity and structures, to compute, to build meanings and symbols, to perceive space as a set of relationships even in the absence of objects among which to recognize them, to perceive time as a flux, a story, a tale, even to speak. But it is more difficult to locate into it that internal conscious eye, which at any moment decides what we want to care of.

Let us look in better detail at how the cortex works.

The eye sends sequences of images to the cortex, and the latter analyzes them as such, but it also drives the eye to follow the outlines, to pause on details and trace and “draw” the images; it links and coordinates sequences of images to recognize objects that move, or just change their shape, dimension, color... The cortical circuitry is capable of collecting, analyzing and synthesizing, and then re-elaborating, comparing, following in time: it is an unconscious and complicated process of focus shift, approaching and moving back, changing angle and viewpoint, a process that is easy to deceive because it follows precise elaboration rules on which we do not intervene consciously − how many optical illusions have been prepared, that let one see straight lines as bent, that deceive the observer on the relative size of objects, images that seem to move where nothing moves, profiles that change meaning...

Similarly, the auditory cortex is capable of recognizing in the flow of sounds the presence of phonemes − often we even miss some of them because of other interfering noises and we do not even realize it − and continuously reorganizes such phonemes, combining them in various successions to form possible words, proposes a verbal interpretation coherent with what has been perceived, and can change the whole interpretation the next moment, when the next phoneme is recognized: here the question is not the meaning of the sentence, it is just the recognition of the words; still, these regions keep talking with other ones that look for the meaning of what we hear, and suggestions come about what may follow, which helps a lot to recognize − or, often, to misunderstand − the next incoming phonemes...

More “elevated” or “eclectic” cortical regions − composite and multimodal − combine these chunks of information, that are no more merely “sensory” but much more abstract, looking for assonances and dissonances, relationships with emotional feelings, physiological needs and motivational drives. Once again the elaboration procedure is based on examining one by one these aspects of information, and then all together, and again in a sequence, pointing the attention now on one aspect, now on another one, now on a precise combination, as if one were freely navigating in this sea of information rather than orderly examining data; and it is easy to think that precisely this process, with all the aspects of uncertainty, multiplicity and discovery it implies, brings to the threshold of consciousness a knot of perceptions that corresponds to an event, a concept, an idea...

From this analysis, simultaneous and multiple, that is also a pathway in search of coherence and objectives, and continually gets lost on single aspects, relationships, and changes its way, guided by unexpected evocations, consciousness blooms, a glance aware of oneself and of the world: once more a synthesis and unification of multiplicities.

But if there is no spirituality in recognizing − by examining several elements in succession and then all together − spatial relationships, before and after relations, presence of orders or hierarchies, or the confluence of events into a sequence, into a story, possibly with its own meaning and emotional meaning, then neither is there any spirituality in the capacity of a neuronal circuitry to examine all together an enormous amount of data and shifting “attention” now on one aspect and then on another one, to compare them and neglect what is not relevant, and to reconcile what has been elaborated with all other available information. But this precisely constitutes the consciousness: perceiving, recognizing, interpreting any result of the thousands of elaborations that many cerebral regions simultaneously perform, examining them and reconciling them in groups, in a sequential and variable manner, until “explanations” can be obtained or, even better, a single, continuous and ever different (continually evolving) explanation arises.

The general picture is that of a hierarchy of neuronal circuits in which each system utilizes all elaborations produced at any moment by “lower” systems and extracts by navigating among these partial elaborations relevant aspects and coherent readings. This process of information evaluation is sophisticated and appears to follow the same general scheme all over: a specific relevance must be attributed to each piece of information, and each must be put in relation and conciliated with the other ones that are similarly relevant; the aim is to achieve at any moment the “answer”, or better the “reading”, that the system can offer to higher systems, which will have to widen the perspective toward broader horizons, by considering many other readings, proposed by other systems.

In this picture, the last step is the comprehensive “reading” of reality, external and internal, of the world, of oneself, of history and the future, a reading that changes at any moment as the eye explores what is in front of it, by changing its viewpoint, focus, aim of interest. It really is an exploration, in the strictest sense, a continuous action, a story that evolves inside oneself, and consciousness is the development itself of this story, even more than our looking at it. It is an exploration to which the enormous power of symbolic systems − gestures, tones, codes, internal or expressed languages, acting, speaking, drawing, writing, in imagination or actually − adds the possibility of becoming a tale. A tale one lives as an actor but also spectator and narrator, as an internal eye, as a spirit, as a consciousness.

Still, even though the brain can be actor and spectator and narrator of our lives, this does not preclude thinking that further steps have to be done, that there is another world beyond this, and the soul, over there, looks at this tale and lives it but also adds something else. Something else, however; not this. Not the capacity of building and narrating our life, of suffering imagining dreaming, desiring, creating, getting committed, sacrificing oneself, loving.

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By now we should agree that the activity of the nervous system is indeed partly related to the generation of responses to stimuli − and this is perhaps the most material, the simplest part − but the continuous work of the brain mostly departs from this need of analyzing stimuli and producing responses; rather, it generates and maintains, it nourishes and develops new domains of life, logical, cognitive, affective, emotional, creative.

Thus, the whole approach to the study of the complex function of the nervous system must then be revised. The relationship with the external world, with material reality, and the elaboration of appropriate responses to stimuli, is but an aspect of the multiple and extremely vast vital activity of our brain.

Interestingly enough, disengaging from elaboration of the stimuli, and of responses to such stimuli, is usually looked at as retiring and closing of the psyche in itself. But may not be it more appropriate to consider such a disconnection as an evasion from the narrow domain of a daily, biological, vegetative and ordinary burden? It is as if, by diverting from the humble job of elaborating adequate responses to stimuli, the soul could finally look out the window to see the world, its own world, reality as it appears in the soul, to the soul itself.

Sure, not a new idea, this one of a window that overlooks the world, and reality, from its own viewpoint, individual and irreproducible, specific for each thinking being. Looking at it this way, it appears there should be no possibility of communication or sharing, of any universal reality to agree on, because each one sees and elaborates a different portion of the world with a different glance. An idea, this one of the incommunicability among monads, that certainly is not weakened by the difficulties we face every single day to have people who live near us understand what is important for us, how we would like to be appreciated and loved [how, yes, not only how much...], how we should like to be and to love.

But I really think that the metaphor should be overturned.

We are no monads who look out the window to see the world. We are connected to the outside world by stimuli, sensations and nerves, this is true, but the brain is traversed by innumerable complex activities that expand − partly by proceeding autonomously, partly by facing and conciliating one another − in a thousand material and immaterial domains: sensory information is only a small part of all this internal world. Sometimes the monad, the brain, can turn precisely to that small part, and open that particular window within itself that, through sensations that arrive from reality, permits looking at the world, and can this way go back to the world.

It is not so far from reality, this overturned view. An interior life with infinite spaces and dimensions, of which the window that overlooks perceivable reality is only a small bit.

That window, in the brain, is the thalamus.

All sensory information, from the outside as well as from inside the body, must somehow arrive to the central structures in the encephalon. It gets there by two main pathways:

  • the region where the spinal medulla enters the skull (low brainstem) displays a crowded network of neurons (the so-called reticular substance) where all sensory information is handled and bounced. This region also produces some integrated responses, but directly to the cortex it mainly sends a modulation of diffuse activation, rather than specific information. Quite essential, though, as in the absence of such activity coma ensues, a situation which is incompatible with the production of cognitive activities. Only in the presence of this diffuse stimulation by the reticular substance does the cortex work and elaborate
  • precise information however does not reach the cortex through this path, but rather after adequate filtering, analysis, ordering and organizing by each intermediate sensory processing station and after a final stage at the thalamus, which orderly distributes each specific sensory information − and in general each different kind of input to the cortex − to the appropriate cortical areas.

Through the reticular substance of the brainstem all incoming stimuli maintain the cortex active, through the thalamus they offer the brain matter to be elaborated. If the thalamus transmits the incoming signals, the cortex can construct and live its readings, interpretations and metaphors, nourished by the information arriving from the senses; otherwise, it is “free” to play with the product of its own activity, continuously and indefatigably re-elaborated: in a sense, detached from the world. It is what happens when we sleep, and we dream. It is what partly happens in half-asleep states, when external stimuli arrive damped, deformed and dominated by the unpredictable pathways of our fantasies; it is like when during a class we lose the thread, when facing a boring conference our mind involuntarily runs away, and having forgot what the matter is, slightly asleep, we start following the infinite paths of our fantasy.

The thalamus then truly is a window. But it is a window that keeps us in the world, instead of letting us evade into the ether of our mental activities; and when it is closed, instead, it lets us out, carried away by all other dimensions and metaphors of reality and life that keep wandering around our head. It is like Peter Panís window. His window is shut, and he is out, he can only care about himself, has no contact with the world, he is confined to Neverland, out of the world...

The disconnection from the world, disconnection of cerebral processing from sensory information and influence, from the specific task of producing appropriate responses to external stimuli, is often defined “closing within oneself”. Curiously enough, from the viewpoint of the brain this is rather a closing oneself out. Out, actually, where those that we call fools stay, and where poets wander. Out, where sailors are, who navigate off-shore and do not search for wider horizons, but rather for monsters and storms horrible enough to let them forget the fear of coming back, and possibly finding their windows closed...

Still, one can stay outside without remaining trapped.

Those cerebral activities that produce the thousands of “dimensions and metaphors of reality and life that keep wandering around our head” are not switched off when we are awake, when the window that leads to the world is open. They may occupy a larger or smaller portion of our conscious, and rational, activity, and thus it happens that one can stay out as well, at least for a while, while he looks at the world, even if he reacts to the stimuli.

The most fascinating aspect of consciousness is the fact that each of us not only perceives − and interprets − reality, but also clearly perceives his own perceiving reality and himself. Meta... This is why the monad is an inadequate image: the world, reality, is only a small part of what we know, we can look at it from outside and above, and we ourselves are so much greater that we can see from outside and above ourselves who watch reality from outside and above...

We are universes that also peep into the world. We may find it difficult to communicate in the world because of different viewpoints, approaches and glances, but we may also meet − and lose and find each other again − not only in the world but outside the world, in logical, creative, emotional, esthetic, affective harmonies and dialogues.

Maybe it is precisely because of this that the perception is so clear that everyone of us is made of a body and something else, which is not body, which may well be physically within the body, but in a thousand dimensions, other than the material one, is outside, is over, is other than and beyond the body. Something that has always been called soul, something that communicates with worlds and metaphors that are like it, beyond the borders of matter.

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