When I lost [the] left hemisphere [of my brain] and its language centers, I also lost the clock that would break my moments into consecutive brief instances. Instead of having my moments prematurely stunted, they became open-ended, and I felt no rush to do anything. Like walking along the beach, or just hanging out in the beauty of nature, I shifted from the doing-consciousness of my left brain to the being consciousness of my right brain. I morphed from feeling small and isolated to feeling enormous and expansive. I stopped thinking in language and shifted to taking new pictures of what was going on in the present moment. I was not capable of deliberating about past or future-related ideas because those cells were incapacitated. All I could perceive was right here, right now, and it was beautiful.
My entire self-concept shifted as I no longer perceived myself as a single, a solid, an entity with boundaries that separated me from the entities around me. I understood that at the most elementary level, I am a fluid. Of course I am a fluid! Everything around us, about us, among us, within us, and between us is made up of atoms and molecules vibrating in space. Although the ego center of our language center prefers defining our self as individual and solid, most of us are aware that we are made up of trillions of cells, gallons of water, and ultimately everything about us exists in a constant and dynamic state of activity. My left hemisphere had been trained to perceive myself as a solid, separate from others.
Now, released from that restrictive circuitry, my right hemisphere relished in its attachment to the eternal flow. I was no longer isolated and alone. My soul was as big as the universe and frolicked with glee in a boundless sea. For many of us, thinking about ourselves as fluid, or with souls as big as the universe, connected to the energy flow of all that is, slips us out just beyond our comfort zone. But without the judgment of my left brain saying that I am a solid, my perception of myself returned to this natural state of fluidity. Clearly, we are each trillions upon trillions of particles in soft vibration. We exist as fluid-filled sacs in a fluid world where everything exists in motion. Different entities are composed of different densities of molecules but ultimately every pixel is made up of electrons, protons, and neutrons performing a delicate dance. Every pixel, including every iota of you and me, and every pixel of space seemingly in between, is atomic matter and energy. My eyes could no longer perceive things as things that were separate from one another. Instead, the energy of everything blended together. My visual processing was no longer normal.
I was consciously alert and my perception was that I was in the flow. Everything in my visual world blended together, and with every pixel radiating energy we all flowed en masse, together as one. It was impossible for me to distinguish the physical boundaries between objects because everything radiated with similar energy. It’s probably comparable to when people take off their glasses or put eye drops into their eyes – the edges become softer. In this state of mind, I could not perceive three dimensionally. Nothing stood out as being closer or farther away. If there was a person standing in a doorway, I could not distinguish their presence until they moved. It took activity for me to know that I should pay special attention to any particular patch of molecules. In addition, color did not register to my brain as color. I simply couldn’t distinguish it. Prior to this morning when I had experienced myself as a solid, I had possessed the ability to experience loss – either physical loss via death or injury, or emotional loss through heartache. But in this shifted perception, it was impossible for me to perceive either physical or emotional loss because I was not capable of experiencing separation or individuality. Despite my neurological trauma, an unforgettable sense of peace pervaded my entire being and I felt calm.
Although I rejoiced in my perception of connection to all that is, I shuddered at the awareness that I was no longer a normal human being. How on earth would I exist as a member of the human race with this heightened perception that we are each a part of it all, and that the life force energy within each of us contains the power of the universe? How could I fit in with our society when I walk the earth with no fear? I was, by anyone’s standard, no longer normal. In my own unique way, I had become severely mentally ill. And I must say, there was both freedom and challenge for me in recognizing that our perception of the external world, and our relationship to it, is a product of our neurological circuitry. For all those years of my life, I really had been a figment of my own imagination!
When the time keeper in my left hemisphere shut down, the natural temporal cadence of my life s-l-o-w-e-d to the pace of a snail. As my perception of time shifted, I fell out of sync with the beehive that bustled around me. My consciousness drifted into a time warp, rendering me incapable of communicating or functioning at either the accustomed or acceptable pace of social exchange. I now existed in a world between worlds. I could no longer relate to people outside of me, and yet my life had not been extinguished. I was not only an oddity to those around me, but on the inside, I was an oddity to myself. I felt so detached from my ability to move my body with any oomph that I truly believed I would never be able to get this collection of cells to perform again. Wasn’t it interesting that although I could not walk or talk, understand language, read or write, or even roll my body over, I knew that I was okay? The now off-line intellectual mind of my left hemisphere no longer inhibited my innate awareness that I was the miraculous power of life. I knew I was different now – but never once did my right mind indicate that I was “less than” what I had been before. I was simply a being of light radiating life into the world. Regardless of whether or not I had a body or brain that could connect me to the world of others, I saw myself as a cellular masterpiece. In the absence of my left hemisphere’s negative judgment, I perceived myself as perfect, whole, and beautiful just the way I was.
Jill Bolte Taylor, My Stroke of Insight: A Brain Scientist’s Personal Journey
Read the whole book here.
We experience objects as colored in themselves, even though it is now known that they are not. The neural system responsible for the internal structure of our color categories also creates for us the experience of color.
We experience space as structured by image schemas (as having bounded regions, paths, centers and peripheries, objects with fronts and backs, regions above, below, and beside things). Yet we now know that space in itself has no such structure. The topographic maps of the visual field, the orientation-sensitive cells, and other highly structured neural systems in our brains not only create image-schematic concepts for us but also create the experience of space as structured according those image schemas.
We experience time in terms of motion and resources, even though neither of those is inherent in time itself. Our metaphors for conceptualizing time in terms of motion not only create a way to comprehend and reason about time in terms of motion but also lead us to experience time as flowing by, or ourselves as moving with respect to time.
We experience the imbalance of an unrighted wrong. Yet the notion of justice as Balance is not part of an objective universe. The Moral Accounting metaphor not only provides us a way to conceptualize justice in terms of balance but permits us to experience unrighted wrongs as imbalance and the righting of wrongs as recovery of balance.
Our experience of the world is not separate from our conceptualization of the world. Indeed, in many cases (by no means all!), the same hidden mechanisms that characterize our unconscious system of concepts also play a central role in creating our experience. This does not mean that all experience is conceptual (far from it!); nor does it mean that all concepts are created by hidden mechanisms that shape experience. However, there is an extensive and important overlap between those mechanisms that shape our concepts and those that shape our experience.
There is an extremely important consequence of this. For the most part, it is our hidden conceptual mechanisms, including image schemas, metaphors, and other embodied imaginative structures, that make it possible for us to experience things the way we do. In other words, our cognitive unconscious plays a central role not only in conceptualization but in creating our world as we experience it. It was an important empirical discovery that this is true, and it is an equally important area for future research to discover just how extensive this phenomenon is.
We have evolved so that the hidden mechanisms of meaning produce a global experience for us that allows us to function well in the world. Our preponderance of commonplace basic experiences-with basic-level objects, basic spatial relations, basic colors, and basic actions leads us to the commonsense theory of meaning and truth, that the world really, objectively is as we experience it and conceptualize it to be. As we have seen, the commonsense theory works very well in ordinary simple cases precisely because of the nature of our embodiment and our imaginative capacities. It fails in cases where there are conflicting conceptualizations or worldviews, and such cases are quite common.
Because the mechanisms of conceptualization are hidden from us, those mechanisms are not included in our commonplace understanding of truth. But truth for a language user, in fact, is relative to our hidden mechanisms of embodied understanding.
A person takes a sentence as “true” of a situation if what he or she understands the sentence as expressing accords with what he or she understands the situation to be.
What the classical correspondence theory of truth misses is the role of human beings in producing the human notion of truth. Truth doesn’t exist without (1) beings with minds who conceptualize situations and (2) a language conventionally used by those beings to express conceptualizations of situations. Those conceptualizations required to produce the very notion of truth are themselves produced by the hidden mechanisms of mind. To understand truth for a language user, one must make those mechanisms of conceptualization visible. That is one of the central enterprises of cognitive science and cognitive linguistics.
This becomes especially clear in the case of metaphorical thought. The embodied correspondence theory of truth for language users allows us to understand what we ordinarily mean by truth in cases where metaphorical thought or a particular framing is used to conceptualize a situation. As we saw, when we conceptualize time as a resource-and live by this metaphor-then we experience time as limited resource that can be wasted or saved or squandered or used wisely. If we conceptualize a situation in terms of Time As A Resource, then it might be true that I wasted a lot of your time or that you squander your time, even though time independent of the metaphor is not in itself a resource.
George Lakoff and Mark Johnson, Philosophy in the flesh : the embodied mind and its challenge to Western thought.
Let’s [address] the question of how humans acquired music and language, since it helps us to understand the revolutionary power of imitation. Music and language are skills, and skills are not like physical attributes – bigger wings, longer legs: not only can they be imitated, which obviously physical characteristics on the whole can’t, but in the case of music and language they are reciprocal skills, of no use to individuals on their own, though of more than a little use to a group. An account of the development of skills such as language purely by the competitive force of classical natural selection has to contend not only with the fact that the skills could easily be mimicked by those not genetically related, thus seriously eroding the selective power in favour of the gene, but also with the fact that unless they were mimicked they wouldn’t be much use. Imitation would itself have a selective advantage: it would enable those who were skilled imitators to strengthen the bonds that tied them to others within the group, and make social groups stable and enduring. Those groups that were most cohesive would survive best, and the whole group’s genes would do better, or not, depending on the acquisition of shared skills that promote bonding – such as music, or ultimately language. Those individuals less able to imitate would be less well bound into the group, and would not prosper to the same degree.
The other big selective factor in acquiring skills and fitting in with the group would be flexibility, which comes with expansion of the frontal lobes – particularly the right frontal lobe, which is also the seat of social intelligence. Skills are intuitive, ‘inhabited’ ways of being and behaving, not analytically structured, rule-based techniques. So it may be that we were selected – not for specific abilities, with specific genes for each, such as the ‘language gene(s)’ or the ‘music gene(s)’ – not even ‘group selected’ for such genes – but individually for the dual skills of flexibility and the power to mimic, which are what is required to develop skills in general.
All this curious development of the sixth century B.C. is extremely important for psychology. For with this wrenching of psyche = life over to psyche = soul, there came other changes to balance it as the enormous inner tensions of a lexicon always do. The word soma had meant corpse or deadness, the opposite of psyche as livingness. So now, as psyche becomes soul, so soma remains as its opposite, becoming body. And dualism, the supposed separation of soul and body, has begun.
But the matter does not stop there. In Pindar, Heraclitus, and others around 500 B.C., psyche and nous begin to coalesce. It is now the conscious subjective mind-space and its self that is opposed to the material body. Cults spring up about this new wonder-provoking division between psyche and soma. It both excites and seems to explain the new conscious experience, thus reinforcing its very existence. The conscious psyche is imprisoned in the body as in a tomb. It becomes an object of wide-eyed controversy. Where is it? And the locations in the body or out-side it vary. What is it made of? Water (Thales), blood, air (Anaximenes), breath (Xenophanes), fire (Heraclitus), and so on, as the science of it all begins in a morass of pseudoquestions.
So dualism, that central difficulty in this problem of consciousness, begins its huge haunted career through history, to be firmly set in the firmament of thought by Plato, moving through Gnosticism into the great religions, up through the arrogant assurances of Descartes to become one of the great spurious quandaries of modern psychology.
At the beginning, we noted that archaeologists, by brushing the dust of the ages from around the broken shards of pottery from the period of the Dorian invasions, have been able to reveal continuities and changes from site to site, and so to prove that a complex series of migrations was occurring. In a sense, we have been doing the same thing with language throughout this chapter. We have taken broken-off bits of vocabulary, those that came to refer to some kind of mental function, and by their contexts from text to text, attempted to demonstrate that a huge complex series of changes in mentality was going on during these obscure periods that followed the Dorian invasions in Greece.
Let no one think these are just word changes. Word changes are concept changes and concept changes are behavioral changes. The entire history of religions and of politics and even of science stands shrill witness to that. Without words like soul, liberty, or truth, the pageant of this human condition would have been filled with different roles, different climaxes. And so with the words we have designated as preconscious hypostases, which by the generating process of metaphor through these few centuries unite into the operator of consciousness.
I have now completed that part of the story of Greek consciousness that I intended to tell. More of it could be told, how the two nonstimulus-bound hypostases come to overshadow the rest, how nous and psyche come to be almost interchangeable in later writers, such as Parmenides and Democritus, and take on even new metaphor depths with the invention of logos and of the forms of truth, virtue, and beauty.
But that is another task. The Greek subjective conscious mind, quite apart from its pseudostructure of soul, has been born out of song and poetry. From here it moves out into its own history, into the narratizing introspections of a Socrates and the spatialized classifications and analyses of an Aristotle, and from there into Hebrew, Alexandrian, and Roman thought. And then into the history of a world which, because of it, will never be the same again.
Julian Jaynes, The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind.
From a philosophical perspective, the discovery of mirror neurons is exciting because it gave us an idea of how motor primitives could have been used as semantic primitives: that is, how meaning could be communicated between agents. Thanks to our mirror neurons, we can consciously experience another human being’s movements as meaningful.Perhaps the evolutionary precursor of language was not animal calls but gestural communication. The transmission of meaning may initially have grown out of the unconscious bodily self-model and out of motor agency, based, in our primate ancestors, on elementary gesturing. Sounds may only later have been associated with gestures, perhaps with facial gestures—such as scowling, wincing, or grinning—that already carried meaning. Still today, the silent observation of another human being grasping an object is immediately understood, because, without symbols or thought in between, it evokes the same motor representation in the parieto-frontal mirror system of our own brain. As Professor Rizzolatti and Dr. Maddalena Fabbri Destro from the Department of Neuroscience at the University of Parma put it: “[T]he mirror mechanism solved, at an initial stage of language evolution, two fundamental communication problems: parity and direct comprehension. Thanks to the mirror neurons, what counted for the sender of the message also counted for the receiver. No arbitrary symbols were required. The comprehension was inherent in the neural organization of the two individuals.”
Such ideas give a new and rich meaning not only to the concepts of “grasping” and “mentally grasping the intention of another human being,” but, more important, also to the concept of grasping a concept—the essence of human thought itself. It may have to do with simulating hand movements in your mind but in a much more abstract manner. Humankind has apparently known this for centuries, intuitively: “Concept” comes from the Latin conceptum, meaning “a thing conceived,” which, like our modern “to conceive of something,” is rooted in the Latin verb concipere, “to take in and hold.” As early as 1340, a second meaning of the term had appeared: “taking into your mind.” Surprisingly, there is a representation of the human hand in Broca’s area, a section of the human brain involved in language processing, speech or sign production, and comprehension. A number of studies have shown that hand/arm gestures and movements of the mouth are linked through a common neural substrate. For example, grasping movements influence pronunciation— and not only when they are executed but also when they are observed. It has also been demonstrated that hand gestures and mouth gestures are directly linked in humans, and the oro-laryngeal movement patterns we create in order to produce speech are a part of this link.
Broca’s area is also a marker for the development of language in human evolution, so it is intriguing to see that it also contains a motor representation of hand movements; here may be a part of the bridge that led from the “body semantics” of gestures and the bodily self-model to linguistic semantics, associated with sounds, speech production, and abstract meaning expressed in our cognitive self-model, the thinking self. Broca’s area is present in fossils of Homo habilis, whereas the presumed precursors of these early hominids lacked it. Thus the mirror mechanism is conceivably the basic mechanism from which language evolved. By providing motor copies of observed actions, it allowed us to extract the action goals from the minds of other human beings—and later to send abstract meaning from one Ego Tunnel to the next.
The mirror-neuron story is attractive not only because it bridges neuroscience and the humanities but also because it illuminates a host of simpler social phenomena. Have you ever observed how infectious a yawn is? Have you ever caught yourself starting to laugh out loud with others, even though you didn’t really understand the joke? The mirror-neuron story gives us an idea of how groups of animals—fish schools, flocks of birds—can coordinate their behavior with great speed and accuracy; they are linked through something one might call a low-level resonance mechanism. Mirror neurons can help us understand why parents spontaneously open their mouths while feeding their babies, what happens during a mass panic, and why it is sometimes hard to break away from the herd and be a hero. Neuroscience contributes to the image of humankind: We are all connected in an intersubjective space of meaning—what Vittorio Gallese calls a “shared manifold.”
Thomas Metzinger, The Ego Tunnel: The Science of The Mind and The Myth of The Self.
There is no nature, only Nature – an imaginary state of man’s own invention, a realm of concept and language. That is man’s place and it is nowhere except inside his head; a mirror image of a distorted fantasy he calls Mankind. A distortion of a distortion, exponentially phantasmagorical. Nature is a conceit: a man-made garden in which we wander to relax and preen, as we nod to one another in passing, and congratulate ourselves on being us. We created Nature so that we might take pride in how far we have ventured beyond it.
Man has no place in nature because there is no nature: only what he makes. He is therefore beyond nothing. He is merely self-deceived. Forever trapped inside his self-inflated dream of what he is. A pathetic child imagining himself in the world, when, in reality, he is confined by the four walls of his playroom. His ‘world’ being nothing more than the arrangement of his diminutive models and playthings.
Man is exiled from the real world, from nature, by language. He is the willing prisoner of words. All his high-mindedness, his ideals, morality, stemming merely from the necessity of language. True nature cares for nothing, neither life nor death. It is simply in a perpetual motion of growth and decay, beyond value or morality. Lacking the curse of consciousness and the petty ethics that entails, the natural world lives and dies blindly, without intention, regenerates or doesn’t. There is no system, only a multiplicity of life cycles; parts that remain seperate, that never add up to a whole. Nature does not do arithmetic. Man is one of a myriad of dissociated parts, not outside observer of an illusory unity.
If he tears down the forests or fights for their preservation, he does it for himself. It is of no consequence to nature, whose disparate parts survive or don’t, without sensibility. The ‘ecosystem’ is man’s vision of where he is and, in reality, no system at all. The environment is his own orderly invention, his realm, but the environment cares neither for its own death nor man’s. Nor does it care for man’s care for it. Man makes a lapdog of a planet in which he is merely a passing formulation of life: the current arrangement of molecules. His continued existence, and that of the planet itself, is of no importance to anything other than a few temporary particles that are our species.
Jenny Diski, Rainforest.