Metaphors for consciousness

I just finished listening to Dr. Virginia Campbell Brain Science podcast replay of her 2012 interview with Dr. William Uttal. At that time he was discussing his book: Mind and Brain: A Critical Appraisal of Cognitive Neuroscience. My takeaway from the conversation was Dr. Uttal’s conclusion that prevailing assumptions about mind-brain organization are “not supported by empirical data but rather by preexisting and antique assumptions” (p. 370). His approach to describing mind-brain organization was to conceive of the microscopic interaction of neuronal networks and the macroscopic level of distributed, weakly bounded neural areas with variable functionality (as per neural plasticity).

Dr. Uttal’s metaphor of mind-brain organization makes sense to me because, to my understanding, he is describing an ecological system of neural networks whose interactivity and variability explain the emergence of consciousness as a phenomenological expression of biological processes.

Dr. Uttal is critical of ‘antique assumptions’ of mind-brain organization because they are based on categorical divisions of functionality arbitrarily defined and assigned by human brains studying human brains. It is well known that our human brains make sense of perturbations in our field of perception by identifying, assessing, and evaluating with the use of categorization. At its most basic, this system of perception creates definable divisions to simplify processes of sense-making or meaning-making. However, the actual operations of living systems do not actually follow such neat definitions and descriptions. In fact, what we are learning about living phenomena is that the emergence of living organisms and systems are complex, interactive, iterative, and reflexive. I believe Dr. Uttal is correct in his critique of ‘antique assumptions’ of mind-brain organization that are rooted in phrenology, the localization of cognitive function in certain regions of the brain.

It makes sense to me that the organization of mind-brain activity would reflect emergent systems of complexity found in all living organisms. Consciousness, as an expression of phenomenological activity occurring in complex systems of human bodies perceiving perturbations from their field of perception, does not follow simplistic instrumental notions of physiology, biology or neurology. Rather, it is emergent, self-organizing, and structured within the constraints of environmental conditions and pre-existing ecologies of relationships.

My argument is that our human consciousness, what we are capable of imagining, is an expression of these macroscopic distributed complex systems of cognition that are embodied within individual cognizing bodies, and in networks of related interconnected cognizing bodies. The micro applies to the neurophenomenology of physiology and biology, the macro applies to the interconnected communicative relationships that constitute ‘social ecologies of learning’.

I appreciated Dr. Uttal’s comments about the issue of defining what is thinking, decision making or problem-solving. In fact, these are all processes arising from continuous processes of learning – where we have been, where we are, who we are, who we are with, and where we are going. I find Dr. Uttal’s work supportive of my theory of social ecologies of learning.

The evolution of social media

On Twitter I received a message promulgating fake news about fake news. I had posted a comment about the promulgation of hate crimes after the Nov 8 2016 election in the US.

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It has never been more essential that we examine our uses of social media and understand our engagements with it. For all the promotion of digital media heralding a new age of social consciousness and democracy, we are seeing the exact opposite being played out in real time.

We are seeing promulgation of ignorance and authoritarianism orchestrated through social media and abetted by mainstream media.

We are seeing social media used to perpetrate the worst of social interaction and social relationships. Specifically, we are seeing social media used to amplify the same kinds of communications that characterize abusive relationships – aggression in the form of verbal and emotional abuse, denial, delusion, gas lighting, shunning, to name a few.

Our uses of social media are devolving in light of its uses to abuse, coerce and control others through uncontrolled speech acts. At the same time, we know these kinds of things are happening because we have access to social media to hear many sides of a story.

We are an evolving species and we have brought ourselves to a watershed of choice. The notion of human dominance and supremacy, as promulgated through organized patriarchal religion, has wrought devastation on our natural environment, and on the majority of the people on this planet. Do we choose social norms of equality? Sustainability? Fair treatment and justice for all?

If these early decades of social media are an indication, the contents of social media can be seen as signifying the state of our human consciousness, the quality of our human interactions and the characteristics of our systems of relationships.

We now have a responsibility, as we have never had before, to contribute our words and actions for the good of all concerned.

The example of fake news of fake news I have posted here shows two examples of possibly infinite mindsets that we are capable of. One mindset would assume that the way to interact socially, politically, economically, and culturally is to dominate through aggression and coercion. Another mindset would assume the way to interact is through building cooperative, collaborative networks for the good of all concerned. These mindsets are antithetical to each other. That is why one can create fake news about fake news, while the other would not think of doing such a thing in the first place.

The place to start these conversations and investigations is in our education system. From the earliest grades, we should be discussing our uses of digital media, the contents of digital media, and how we engage socially, culturally, politically and economically. We dare not leave these important developments to chance and corrupt forces that seek to dominate for self-serving purposes.

It isn’t a question of whether teachers will be replaced by digital technology. It is a question of whether teachers can adapt to these pressing conditions and respond with a relevant, cogent educational response.

Technology and Culture

In my lifetime the advent of digital technologies has gone from non-existent to ubiquitous. I am 60 years old. I spend my time on a screen. I use it for work, for information, to stay in touch, to write, and to create. The majority of my social connections are mediated by digital technologies.

However, it would be wrong to say that digital technology is responsible for the way I work, access information, stay in touch, etc. At the same time, digital technology is responsible for the means I am provided, that is, I am not responsible for the design of the interface, the strength of my Internet connection, or the kinds of software that are available for me to use.

My relationship with digital technology is complex. It affords me abilities to extend my reach in ways unimaginable. It also limits my access to certain kinds of information and manipulates the information available to me.

My uses of digital technology evolve in relation to my experience, knowledge and skill. Also in relation to my feelings about it, my perception of it, and the beliefs and values that guide my daily choices and decisions.

Despite the inordinate amount of engagement I have with digital technology, I have had virtually no education about my relationship to it. My uses are assumed and conditioned by the tech industry. In the context of formal education, the debates continue to focus on using technology ‘tools’ for learning and whether technology will replace teachers. It surprises me how little we actually discuss what it means to use digital technology in our daily lives and how we investigate the ways it conditions our imaginative capacity and our capability to implement those imaginings.

The issue of ‘fake news’ has provided a needed focus on what it means to use digital technology in the formation of a just, secure, and sustainable society. In fact, ‘fake news’ is the tip of the iceberg of work that is needed for us to become skilled users of digital technology. I don’t mean simply skilled at turning on a laptop, logging into a blog and writing a short article. I also mean skilled in rhetoric, propaganda detection, critical thinking, research, writing, and social constructions of reality.

That is what ‘fake news’ is about. Being able to identify and analyze fake news develops the cognitive, social and cultural skills to ensure human consciousness does not lapse back into medieval (or worse) mindsets based on superstition. Today I am inundated with dubious information from which I have to glean meaning and significance. It takes experience, knowledge and skill to do that. Where am I going to receive the education I need to be a discriminating consumer of digital media?

I argue for courses in technology and culture that start at the earliest levels of education, and continue throughout every level of educational endeavour. It should never be a debate about whether or if digital technology is included in learning, but rather, when, how and why.

beliefs, values, words, actions

The beliefs we hold inform the values by which we judge the world around us. We might think the genesis of our beliefs arise from free will. This is an error of consciousness. The beliefs we are capable of imagining are actually constituted by the conditions of their emergence. What we encounter, particularly during formative periods of brain and social development, inform what we are capable of believing.

Values are the meanings we ascribe to these beliefs. Our brains use a value category memory system. This system ascribes value to our experiences as they are interpreted through our belief systems. Emotional intensity registers particular experiences as more important, or of higher value, than other experiences. Intense emotional experiences register in our value category memory systems as more important, of higher value, than less intense emotional experiences.

Our belief system ascribes meaning to our experiences. Our value category memory system ascribes significance to these experiences.

Our experiences are defined and identified through language. Feelings are not codified in language. They are registered as sensations. We do not have words for sensations until after we have experienced them. In the aftermath of a sensation we put words to the experience to explain, to ourselves, and to others, what has happened. This explanation allows us to contextualize the experience in relation to what value we should assign to it and whether it was meaningfully significant in relation to our belief system. When we discuss our experiences with others, when we put sensations into words and assess how intensely we felt and what the experience means in relation to our beliefs, we constitute frameworks of meaning and significance within our social networks. When we talk about our experiences, we increase or decrease the possibility for changing (for the better) our depth of understanding of our beliefs and our breadth of sensation.

Our depth of understanding can lead us to critically inquire into the limitations of traditional or conventional beliefs that hinder our development. Our breadth of articulating sensation can lead us to perceive contradictions of sensation, as well as empathy for the sensation experiences of others. By putting our experiences into language we make it possible to deepen our systems of beliefs to include paradox, and broaden our sensations of experience to include other emotional realities.

Our beliefs and values are put into action through words and through behaviour. We can actually make decisions about what we do to contribute to our personal and societal well-being.

Our collective human consciousness has been sliding into a dark age for some time now. The concentration of wealth the hands of the minority is starving the majority of the world population and putting unbearable pressure on human communities. This pressure is causing ruptures and fissures where we need to opposite, where we need connection and mutual support.

Pay attention to the kinds of belief systems and values you encounter today. Evaluate them in relation to how they build a feeling of connectedness or a feeling of isolation and desperation. Choose to feel connected for the good of all concerned, not at the expense of one for the other.

Building societal dialogic imagination

It is extremely difficult these days to concentrate on daily concerns of personal or family ambition. I read somewhere, years ago, that our humanity was entering another dark age. An age governed by superstition, tribalism, and cruelty. I felt it then and I feel it all the more strongly now.

I believe it is a result of the creeping mental contagion of neoconservatism in support of the concentration of wealth in fewer and fewer hands on a global level. The concentration of wealth puts pressure on society as each individual feels the pinch of reduced resources to make ends meet. Fewer and fewer citizens of the world have access to adequate resources to live comfortably even though they are surrounded by evidence that there are excess resources at hand, just not in their hands.

The feeling of being pinched, of having to pinch pennies to survive, is not easily attributable to a defined source. It is a generalized feeling of anxiety that does not have a definable source. As the pressure builds, from one generation to the next, this generalized anxiety searches for an outlet, a target, a source, a point of impact.

The concentration of wealth in fewer and fewer hands also concentrates resources. One of these resources is education. The education system is a social system. In the most progressive countries, it is a public education system that is highly valued by society as the source of increasing social, technological, and intellectual strength and well being. In regressive countries a good education is a privilege of the wealthiest citizens. The rest of society is left to an education system that barely teaches the most basic skills of literacy and numeracy, much less more sophisticated skills such as rhetoric and critical thinking.

Our human systems of cognition and imagination are developed and evolved through our use of language. We are language using creatures that depend on social interaction for cognitive and language development. It is through our social interactions that we learn, we grow, we develop the capacity to imagine futures that we would not otherwise conceive. When an entire generation or population of citizens are denied the opportunity to flex and strengthen their linguistic capabilities, they are also denied the opportunity to flex and strengthen their imaginative capacities. It is through our imaginative capacities that we have hope. Hope is an imaginative exercise envisioning a future that is different from our current circumstances.

The emergence of race-based politics is a regressive indicator that has been evolving in concert with neoconservatism and the concentration of wealth globally. The antidote to regressive social evolution is a vigorous commitment to developing our linguistic and imaginative capacities on every level. Without words we are isolated and vulnerable. Through language we connect and grow new ways of understanding what is possible.

These are truly dark days. I never imagined I would see the kinds of thinking, words, and actions of racism, misogyny, xenophobia, sexism and other forms of objectification of Others. We are better than this. We can do better than this.

Through our uses of social media we have an unprecedented opportunity to build our dialogic imagination. We can do it. We must do it. Do it.

dialogic imagination

Bakhtin wrote about the dialogic imagination. His work concentrated on highly conceptual discourse pertaining to theorizing literature. I use the term ‘dialogic imagination’ and re-define it as a pragmatic approach to develop our capacity to imagine a new way of life and our ability to implement these imaginings to transform future possibilities. My application of dialogic imaginings is in alignment with Bakhtin’s writing, particularly with regards to his concept of heteroglossia. Bakhtin conceived language as both an established system to structure meaning and a process of meaning production through dialogic processes. He described how the potential for meanings derived from dialogic processes are conditioned by the particularities of language-use: social and natural environmental structures and systems, situational contexts, and the qualities and characteristics of the interlocutors. Bakhtin coined the term heteroglossia to refer to the multiplicities of meaning that may emerge from dynamic dialogic processes. I conceive the dialogic imagination as social, cultural, individual and collective capacities to implement and sustain change.