Sunday, February 19, 2012

Self and Soul: Biology meets Philosophy

Recently, a rather intelligent psychology student was told by a humanities professor that there is no self. Not surprisingly, the professor in question would probably not object to being camped with post-structuralism, so we could probably discard, along with self, a notion such as the good. Like goodness, self has (at least for human beings), biological imperatives. As psychologist Thomas J. Bouchard, Jr. has demonstrated, personality variance is an adaptation to group interaction and sociality. In fact, John T. Cacioppo and William Patrick (discussing the work of psychologists Wendi Gardner and Marilynn Brewer) indicate that any self has three facets (depending on the situation): private, relational, collective.
Neither self nor goodness is necessarily a transcendental signified: granted we could not put either one on a table, but we can clearly define (from real life) aspects of each one. As social creatures who spent most of their heritage as hunters and gatherers (the Pleistocene era spans over 2.5 million years), being fit meant having a sense of self (in the context of others) and being good to others (at times). Cost versus benefit is not the only consideration in terms of being good: research on apes (e.g., Frans de Waal) and on insects (e.g., E.O. Wilson) demonstrates that there can be unconditional gestures of benevolence or instinctual self-sacrifice for the benefit of another (and clearly there are cases of such benevolence in human history).
Any reading in contemporary psychology (e.g., Steven Pinker) would demonstrate that a person (building a sense of personhood) has a conscious mind that creates (for many personal and social reasons) a self. In fact, evolutionary psychologists (e.g., Leda Cosmides and John Tooby) would say that the human mind is to a great extent a product of evolution and still contains responses to our ancient past. Therefore, the mind is not empty at birth, and the self is not constructed entirely from external environment: rather, since the mind has built-in adaptations (e.g., to cooperate, to select a mate, to nurture a child), there are pre-formed building blocks from infancy related to self in a group. Additionally, to say that there is no self denies the biological fact of frontal lobes (especially a prefrontal cortex) where (as often cited by scientists) one’s attitudes, values, and beliefs reside, where individual (self) decisions are made. Without self a human being would be either an automaton or some simple organism whose basic instinct is only to grovel for survival. Self is riddled with memories, emotions, feelings, and most importantly, the ability to plan (abstractly) for the future.
Goodness is mentioned (above) in this note for a reason (since the aforementioned professor has an interest in ethics with a focus on the philosophy of the middle ages – i.e., religious “philosophy”). Our ability to be good, kind, and benevolent is not divinely inspired. Just a little reading in evolutionary biology or evolutionary psychology would reveal – as clear as day – that there is a biological notion of self: we could not survive as human individuals in human groups if we had no (human) sense of self. Likewise, for anyone to study morality and ethics and confine oneself to the middle ages (for all of its wisdom) overlooks the advances of the intervening six hundred years – and quite a bit has happened since then, from David Hume and Adam Smith, to Charles Darwin and Antonio Damasio. That is, while we tend to be self-centered creatures, we are able to act kindly toward others for practical reasons that quite often have nothing to do with teleological or divine reasons (e.g., Robert Trivers).
On a related note (since medieval philosophy has been mentioned), two philosophers were recently overheard discussing whether or not souls could have a conversation. While one need not agree with how Daniel Dennett argues that there is no special ingredient (i.e., a soul) in being human, at the same time, to imagine that a soul is somehow self-embodied to the point that it can recognize, think, and converse with another soul ignores completely any findings in science. So, on the one hand, we have someone denying the existence of self (which is more than quantifiable), and, on the other hand, we have others assuming the existence of soul (which is not quantifiable). If there is a special ingredient in being human, most likely it is individually based and has something to do with gene combinations and variations in brain chemicals (i.e., self). Psychologist Jerome Kagan (building off ideas about personality types first advanced by Carl G. Jung) has spent nearly his entire career researching and writing about individualized temperament, concluding that each person is different and special in this sense alone.
In terms of the human species, clearly any special ingredient would include, collectively, certain brain chemicals and the more developed brain functions and parts. Coming back to what initiated this posting, there are parts of the human brain that enable us to conceive of (and to construct, individually) a sense of self. We are creatures that live well beyond any mere sensation of self-awareness – we are aware that we can be aware, and we organize (individually) memories, feelings, and our capacity to plan and direct attention in order to create a self. While not all aspects of the self are (yet) scientifically explainable, no thinking, contempoary person should deny that most of who we are is biologically based. Some naturalistic philosophers before Darwin (e.g., Schopenhauer) argued for uniqueness of character, and now psychologists such as Kagan (and neuroscientists such as Michael Gazzaniga) are proving what has been common knowledge: each of us is an individual self, with different degrees of consciousness and caring. While there is a biological basis for us to be good (since it helps us survive in a group), not everyone is good in quite the same way. Environmental factors have the potential to aid in shaping us, but we comprehend (and create) self from the essential uniqueness of our individual temperament susceptible to such shaping (or not).
Returning to our main point: what are we teaching our college students – many of whom are serious and eager scholars – if we neglect evolutionary biology that clearly complements philosophical ideas? One cannot be only a biological or a (medieval) philosophical thinker: findings in science elucidate many of the core ideas in philosophy and vice versa. The death of the humanities (as Joseph Carroll has so eloquently explained in his books) derives from these very scenarios that create sealed, solipsistic towers of words simply referring to other words (or using words to ignore physical reality) without any reference to the findings of evolution. Let us now begin a conversation where evolutionary science and philosophy are equally engaged.
- Gregory F. Tague

Sunday, February 5, 2012

Biology and Creativity - Guest Post

The “Beyond-Selfness” and Neurobiological Substrates of Poetry

The venerable journal Poetry is commemorating its one hundredth year in publication this year, and part of the celebration is a fascinating series of contributions by poets in the “Comments” section of the journal each month. The February, 2012, issue includes a section by poets describing and reflecting on their experience in the process of writing, with a particular focus on the relationship between poetry, spirituality, and prayer. This is certainly not unusual or novel territory, but I was struck by the coherence of the comments by many poets around certain themes. For example, the poet Carolyn Forché states that “the more you’re there writing [poetry], the more you realize you are not writing it . . . This is an experience close to revelation, to the realm of prophetic language” (Poetry, February 2012, p. 462). Similarly, Kazim Ali avers (with regard to writing poetry about spirituality and religion):  “If you talk all the time about something, you stop knowing anything about it” (Ibid., p. 436). Further, Jean Valentine makes the connection between poetry, meditative prayer, and dreaming, regarding all of them as healing processes, and “all being out of our hands” (Ibid., p. 438). She maintains further that “the poetry I like best is mostly silence . . . that it seems to have come out of silence, to exist in the midst of silence, and to go toward silence” (Ibid., p. 439). Finally, Eleanor Wilner proposes that “the poet must relinquish a certain kind of control, and attain a kind of self-forgetfulness” (again relating the writing of poetry to the process of prayer) and declares that “the poem is never just about experience, it is an experience” (Ibid., p. 448).

What are all these poets talking about? What kind and quality of experience are they referring to? Why the attribution of the process of writing poetry to realms of cognition that are beyond personal control, beyond self, and more proximal to some form of altered state of consciousness? Actually, I believe that the answer to these questions is fairly simple, in a way: The creative process of poetry – and very likely other fields of creative and artistic endeavor – seems to call upon, or even to require, a shift in consciousness, a move toward “letting go,” a yielding to some aspect of mind that feels “beyond self” or closer to some sense of otherness or greaterness (which some refer to as god).

In a previous post on this site, Jason Wirtz suggests the usefulness of the concepts of plasticity and automaticity, which derive from cognitive theory, in explicating what he refers to as the “Muse phenomenon.” He proposes that this phenomenon, in which “writers feel that they are channeling a source outside of themselves,” can be understood in terms of the combination of plasticity (the brain’s ability to adapt to new information by developing novel neural connections) and automaticity (the tendency of practiced skills to become “procedural,” or not requiring conscious awareness to function). Certainly, this is an interesting point of view, and worthy of further investigation, although I do not believe it goes far enough in addressing the experience described by the poets quoted above. Their experience is beyond just that of “channeling,” and seems to include a strong sense of being beyond themselves, outside themselves, or lacking a relationship to a personal “self” at all when they are in the process of poetic creation.

To my mind, the relevant and fascinating question here, however, is how this state of consciousness or being – and its compelling nature in the creative process – came to develop in the human species, and what evolutionary function it has served (and perhaps still does). We as a species have known about this cognitive shift for millennia, as Wirtz noted in reference to the ancient Greek conceptualization of the Muse, but we have little to say about why it exists. We tend to think of it in terms of a religious perspective, and there is a risk, then, in some circles, that it will be “thrown out with the bathwater”; that is, that we will regard this highly valued and central experience as a vestigial or ancillary epiphenomenon to our development as a species.

To be sure, there has been much written about the creative process, and its nature and quality have been much examined and articulated – from literary, philosophical, and religious perspectives, among others – but its neurobiological and presumed evolutionary bases are much more difficult to access or delineate. Some exciting recent research has been done in this regard using functional MRI (fMRI), with some progress in delineating the areas of the brain that “light up” or shut down under conditions of creative flow. For example, Limb and Braun, in a study of musicians, found that the dorsolateral and lateral orbital areas of the prefrontal cortex are relatively more deactivated during jazz improvisation, while the medial prefrontal cortex is more active. The former areas are associated with self-monitoring, conscious volitional control, and effortful problem-solving (colloquially the seat of the “ego”), while the latter is more associated with stimulus-independent, internally-motivated behavior. In other words, the brain of a musician in improvisation suggests a diminishing of a sense of “self,” and an increase in the allowance of “unfiltered, unconscious, or random thoughts . . . to emerge” (Limb & Braun, p. 4). The authors of this study also note that this pattern of deactivation and activation appears in hypnosis, meditation, day-dreaming, and REM (i.e., dream) sleep.

These are fascinating findings, and certainly with parallels to the (improvisational) process of writing poetry. They are also confirmed phenomenologically in the descriptions of the poetic process quoted above. In fact, in a sense, these findings should not be surprising to those of us who participate in creative endeavors, nor to those who study the process of creative inspiration. Moreover, most can likely hypothesize regarding the evolutionary benefits of the shift in consciousness that apparently accompanies – or is even requisite for – the creative process. However, the core question remains unanswered, perhaps because in an age in which such “epiphenomena” of neurally-based brain function make uncomfortable bed-fellows with “hard science.” To date, then, a full understanding of the meaning of this creative consciousness in the development of the mind, the evolution of our species, is left as just that: a compelling question in need of an answer if all of our experience as humans is to be understood in relation to its functional and adaptive neurobiological substrates.

- James K. Zimmerman

Works Cited

Limb, Charles J. and Allen R. Braun (2008). “Neural Substrates of Spontaneous Musical Performance: An fMRI Study of Jazz Improvisation.” PLos ONE 3(2): e1679.

Poetry (Feb., 2012). Vol. CXCIX(5). Chicago, IL:  The Poetry Foundation.

Saturday, February 4, 2012

On the Nature of Being Human

This is the PREFACE to the just-published literary anthology , 
Being Human: Call of the Wild. [copyright 2012 Editions Bibliotekos]

We are primarily interested in stories that deal with human character. Who are we as a species and as individuals? What is our human nature? While we have constructed, over thousands of years, a vast cathedral of scintillating, rational humanity, we can be primal and shadowy with visceral emotions. We can profoundly love and superficially hate. Though we are by nature social creatures, we can commit acts of aggression (either against ourselves or others). And yet, quite often, we seek through rituals a natural peace with ourselves in unison with our family or the larger environment.

What is our evolved human essence? What makes us tick as a species? At one point in history, as many as ten different hominid species roamed the planet, but only we endured. There is even speculation that seventy thousand years ago only a few thousand of our species were alive. Why do we struggle on, survive, build cathedrals (and yet hurt each other)? Why do we have rituals, and why do we create and sometimes destroy relationships? What is (in the phrase of one of our contributors) the human factor? What does it mean to be (simultaneously) a deeply meditative and a yet a spontaneously feeling human being?

The fact(or) of being human means recognizing that there is in each of us a call of the wild, however subtle. There is something elemental in us that lingers. Who hears the ancestral call? Who answers the call? What is the response of any individual to the force of being human? For most of our human history, we have not lived in cities but have developed from hunters and gatherers (roaming in small clusters) into engineers of sophisticated national languages and intricate cultures. How much of the old nature lingers in us still? Apparently quite a lot.

We are in a natural world from which we emerged; we are part of a large universe of nature; and we wrestle with aspects of our own human nature. Our history is such that we are social creatures who have evolved very complex emotions not only of sympathy and compassion, but also of jealousy and hatred. So the call of the wild does not mean running off into the woods and hunting fish with one’s teeth; it means acknowledging our deeper connections to the earth beyond concrete buildings, and more importantly, our essential connection to each other.

There are aspects of our psyche (feelings and instincts) and of our physical structure (teeth and fingernails) with which we must reckon. While we have evolved superstructures of civilization, there are darker moments in our collective and individual histories, mostly (as this volume investigates) on a personal or inter-personal level. While familial creatures who create loving bonds, we are also capable of inflicting harm.

For this book we received quite a corpus of submissions – well over one thousand pages. We have tried to cull from that mass just enough material to make our literary point, but keep in mind that the stories between these covers consist of many different styles and voices. Much of the writing is poetic, magical, contemplative, and even humorous. We are sure that after having read this small book, you too will be captivated by the question, Who are we, individually and collectively?

- Gregory F. Tague and Fredericka A. Jacks