Monday, December 22, 2008

Self-Image and Consciousness

The brain is for problem solving. By the term "problem solving," I mean something far more primitive and basic than "where did I leave the car keys?" or even "is that an itch I feel on my arm?" If one had to put it into words--and it is more primitive than words--it might be, "oops-dee-doo, keep the blood pressure up in that earlobe" or "there goes raindrop number 41,379,028."

Speaking of raindrops, there's a good example of what I mean by "problem solving." Say there are a million raindrops falling on and around you, but they're not raindrops until you "say" to yourself, "that's a raindrop" ("and that's another one, and another one..."). And "problem solving" is the process--all the steps and sortings and comparisons with prior data and all that--that the brain goes through to come to the solution, "yep, that's a raindrop all right."

Further examples of the brain's problem solving activities are those for identifying food (in other words, for distinguishing it from non-edible environment); for figuring out when it is time to (and how to) "pull up the covers" when the body feels cold; for scratching where it itches; etc. The brain represents an amazing array of adaptive, responsive, problem-solving tools--thought tools.

Some of these are relatively simple and automatic--pulling your finger back when you touch something hot; going into a "red alert" status when someone screams "HELP!"; waking up when someone calls your name. I say "relatively simple" and I should emphasize "relatively"; clearly these are complex, delicately orchestrated actions, but some of the problem-solving thought activities we mobilize are many layers, many dimensions of complexity greater. Consider the problem-solving thoughts that go into driving a car or holding an elementary conversation, much less into buying groceries or--the mind reels--buying a house or choosing a college.

How does the brain solve problems? First, it gathers sensory data and sorts them into useful, meaningful "information" by associating them with memories of earlier similar data. Then it postulates a conclusion or solution (which consists of a series of brain images). And then it imagines what steps might be taken to connect the input with the desired output. It is this intermediate process that leads to consciousness--imagining various steps and trying out this and that pathway (in one's imagination). Why does this lead to consciousness, that is, to awareness of oneself? Because it involves concocting an image of oneself trying out this and that, doing this and that. And that's what consciousness is--an image of yourself doing this and that. Or, in a more high falutin terminology, "self-awareness."

Of course, a lot of the brain's problem solving goes on outside of awareness--it is unconscious (or preconscious--which means you could pull it into consciousness if you bothered to). This is usually because the problem is too simple, or too routine, or the solving process is too quick for us to notice it much in consciousness. Consider that your mouth fills with saliva, so you swallow; or your eye feels dry or itchy, so you blink. Clearly these are rather complicated problem-solving activities, but you hardly notice them. But now consider some slightly higher-level problems: an arm starts to itch so you scratch it; or you step over a puddle while walking down a garden path. You have to try out scratching events in your (unconscious) imagination to hit the right spot on your arm with the right force and abrasive success; you have to coordinate some rather complicated muscle movements, even consider (in your unconscious imagination) jumping over the puddle or going around it. These problems require imagining yourself in action--creating a visual and kinesthetic image of yourself interacting with a 4-D image of the environment (three dimensions of space plus one dimension of time).

What about some even higher, more complex levels of problems--what to have for dinner, what to do this evening, who to call on the phone, and how to talk to them (and about what)? These require using the highest levels of brain generalizations and abstractions, levels we call "emotions." Emotions such as feeling love, hate, anger, or disgust--or, more moderately, feeling like or dislike, interested curiosity or annoyance--group together vast assortments of data; they give us tremendous power to manipulate these data in problem solving. And these complex levels of problem solving require manipulating complicated, multi-dimensional images of ourselves--images that include humor or gruffness, patience or hurriedness: all the elements of personality and personal style.

So it is out of these high-level problem-solving strategies that even the subtlest aspects of self-image and consciousness emerge.