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An ongoing conversation on brain and behavior, associated with Biology 202, spring, 1999, at Bryn Mawr College. Student responses to weekly lecture/discussions. A suggested topic was provided, but students were free to write about any other observations, ideas, or questions that particularly interested them.
If brain=behavior, then learning something about the brain (nervous system) ought to produce changes in how you think about behavior (your own, that of other humans, that of animals). In what ways has your understanding of behavior changed over the semester? What new questions have arisen in your mind? (Thoughts from the beginning of the semester are available here)
If we say that brain equals behavior then we leave ourselves open to many claims where people state that they cannot control themselves (like insanity pleas in court cases). While many of us may look at this plea as an easy scapegoat for any person who commits a crime- it is a valid one- particularly if we assert that brain does equal behavior. How much control does a person really have over their actions? How can someone determine if someone else's neurobiology is screwed up enough to warrant an insanity plea? Who's the "good" model nervous system so we can compare it to the "bad" ones? How much is nature? How much nuture? These seem like difficult questions that, as yet, can't be answered. Of course (assuming for a moment that I don't believe brain= behavior), if I were to entertain the idea of having a "soul" etc. there is still the question, well, what if someone gets stuck with a "bad" soul? Is it their fault? Can they change it? I don't know.
It is also scary to think that there's little hope in changing ourselves. People are always telling me, "People don't change," and I am wondering if there is truth in that? We don't like to think so, because we all even want to change things about ourselves- there's always hope for improvement. Perhaps any improvement that DOES occur happened only because the potential was there in the first place? I've never known anyone to do a complete turn around, and if I agree with "brain= behavior", then I'd have to say a complete turn around in personality is impossible.
The complexity and diversity of the nervous system can account for the various personalities and behaviors of people. In this way the brain helps to better understand behavior, and the better we study the nervous system, its pathways and connections, the better we may one day have a solid grasp on the essence of behavior.
I am also equally as aware as before of the importance of faith in science as well as in religious life. Two of my web papers discussed and expanded upon the idea of an underlying belief in a treatment/ drug which aided in healing. This point not only demonstrates that brain does equal behavior (because an activity of the brain "belief" results in an activity of the body "healing") but it also demonstrates the importance of NOT giving up on religion for the sake of science. They are not necessarily mutually exclusive. Both religion and science are truth-seekers. Yet, as we have learned, "truth" and reality are difficult to pin-point.
In addition, I am not ready to abandon my thoughts regarding death and the idea of a soul. Acknowledging that we are alive due to electrical and chemical energy in our bodies, when we die, where does this energy go? As I've said before, according to Newton's laws, energy is neither created nor destroyed but is converted to different forms. The energy of our electrons and protons and neurons which are the basic units of our neurons (and the rest of our body) must continue somewhere. Perhaps the death of neurons is where neurobiology ends and faith in the soul begins.
We have learned much about the nervous system and how to explain various complexities of behavior. We have also acknowledged that the definite "answer" will never be found, no matter how much research is done. Study of our brain helps us to understand behavior and behavior aids in understanding of the brain. This quest for knowledge may never end because every time we learn something new, this affects the neurons in our brains, thus affecting behavior, thus necessitating even more study. Nowhere along the way will we be able to determine the "right" reality, because for every person this reality is different. Perhaps we may be able to learn about the brain's capacity to "make up" so much of the information that makes up our reality and why it differs from person to person. But, to me, this mystery is almost more provocative than any "answer" we may find.
First, I assumed that if we said that brain = behavior, that we were not accounting for individuality. In essence, I thought this meant that all "normal" brains were anatomically the same and thus, there could be no difference between individuals. However, as I now know, this is not true. In order for brain = behavior to be true, it is not necessary to assume all brains are identical, since they clearly have an internal variability mechanism. While they may all have the raw materials of neurons, central pattern generators and so on, the configuration of each of the 10^12 neurons is unique to individuals, and this can account for individuality, learning and creativity.
Second, thinking about the I-function helped change my mind about brain = behavior. Although it cannot be localized to a certain part of the brain and dissected, it can be observed as motor output behavior, as in the case of the quadriplegic. Back in January, I had no way to distinguish between conscious and unconscious behaviors. Thus, in including the I-function in discussions, I was able to expand my thinking of behavior as a voluntary response to stimuli (I know that we are not supposed to use the words 'response' or 'stimuli', however, I thought it was appropriate since I was describing my feelings about behavior at the beginning of the course). Knowing that behavior now consists of observable and unobservable outputs generated with or without inputs, I am better able to accept the idea that brain = behavior.
I learned much about behavior and neurobiology over the course of the semester from both Professor Grobstein and other students. Although there were a lot of topics that I feel that we did not get to cover in detail due to lack of time, I feel as though we made tremendous progress in our examination of the central nervous system and our thinking about behavior. The most important conclusion I can draw from our discoveries is that the brain is an immensely complex organ that commands respect due to its amazing capabilities.
This does not mean, however, that we are in any way wrong to speak of a "mind," or of a "soul," so long as we realize that we are speaking metaphorically. Human beings are complex entities, occupying the physical realm, the biological ecosystem, as well as the "space of reasons." Any theory of personal identity or philosophy of mind must explain how we can encompass all three realms without contradiction, since there is no contradiction in nature, only in thought. Since our conception of neurobiology allows us to have choice, I feel completely justified in keeping my beliefs regarding an "inner light," and to think of myself in terms of my mind-stuff, rather than as a strictly biological thing. At the same time, I don't want to be Descartes and claim that "I am independent of my body and can exist without it." My personal identity is a holistic one, one that can be explained using neurobiology, but a neurobiology that knows its limits. The final presentation in which we discussed intrinsic variability, free choice, and the "I-function" (not self, function), not to mention the autobiographical story of misunderstanding frogs, finally made this theory completely acceptable to me.
Nicki Pollock mentioned in her entry that “the better we study the nervous system, its pathways and connections, the better we may one day have a solid grasp on the essence of behavior.” In my first entry I completely agreed with the brain=behavior theory and probably would take Nicki’s statement as a fact. Interestingly enough, the more I learned about the nervous system, the less likely it seems to me that “the essence of behavior” can actually be known. To explain any behavior, one needs more than just “pathways and connections,” things like the genome also come into play. The various ways that the elements of the nervous system can be arranged could account for various personalities and behaviors of people, but external influence on those elements (experiences) as well as the genome must be considered.
Also, I disagree with the idea that a “complete turn around in personality is impossible.” It is possible to influence the neuron connections and pathways in such a way that they become arranged completely differently. This set of new connections might account for different outputs that correspond to behavior. In fact we seen a complete change in personality in the case of Phineas Gage whose frontal part of the brain was destroyed in an accident. He went from a calm and responsible individual to irritable, impulsive, and tempered.
While I still strongly believe that brain=behavior, I am more heedful towards the factors which might influence the brain and thus alter behavior. Taking this into consideration, it becomes exceedingly harder to account for "the essence of behavior." to account for "the essence of behavior."
I think that one of the most salient and interesting things which has been learned this semester is that much of what we perceived as our realistic environment is made up by the brain. It is also important to recognize that our reality is limited by the brain's capacity to fabricate, conceptualize, abstract, categorize, organize, and homogenize inputs. This perceived reality affects behavior, just as our behaviors may amend and modify reality in slight ways. Some of these behaviors are innate responsive mechanisms (CPGs), and others are adaptive mechanisms (intrinsic variability). It has also been established that these mechanisms of behavior are unequivocally linked to the central nervous system, particularly the brain. Even what we associated more closely with the soul, the I-function, is an amalgamation of neurons, which allows us to experience and make choices.
So does brain=behavior? I think that brain=behavior in a very superficial sense. There is still something quite incomplete about this idea. I think my skepticism (or stubbornness) lies with the fact that the brain=behavior equation excludes any other possible influences on life and behavior. Not to mention the fact that it still does not explain the origin of the least common denominator-genetic variability. What is the final root origin of the I-function, intrinsic variability, and central pattern generators, to name a few? --The brain?! What has lead to the latest evolved human, and what makes these mechanisms that define the human species? These structures seem determined by random genetic occurrences. But how is it that this randomness leads to such a well organized, improbably, assembly of parts? Where does the order come from given the fact that, in general, all systems are prone to disorganized states (constructs of entropy)? Is there something else that could be contributing? There may not be, but at this point, there are too many unknowns (and too much dependency on our variable/limited perception of reality) to make any definite conclusions.
As such, it seems that this semester's information has provided a particular way of viewing behavior. It has proven to make many connections that fit a particular set of theories. It has also explained many behavioral phenomena in a logical and intriguing way. In general, this class has provided a very interesting and plausible wealth of fascinating information, but aren't there exceptions to every 'rule'? There always seems to be certain behaviors and observations that cannot be explained or accounted for. To me, it only makes sense to constantly approach solutions or explanations from many different angles, so as not to exclude or undermine other possibilities. Brain=behavior seems to be just another possibility, but should it be the only possibility?
Well, does brain=behavior? In the beginning of the semester, I was really reluctant to say yes. I was very unsure of myself and wondered how could my NS = all of behavior. Now, after the entire semester, I would like to say that I am less skeptical about the concept. And there are a few reasons as to why I feel this way. The first is that we discussed a lot about the particualr types of connections and how the NS interacts with one another by the simplest model, the neuron. We moved on to other interesting subjects, as CPG's which may induce different types of outputs, and then to intrinsic variavility, which allows us to decifer inputs differently. Yet, the subject which amazed me the most was the "I" function. The reason why is that throughout the semester, we have come to discuss the "I' function loosely here and there. But when we finally hit the subject on the last day of class, I realized that the "I" function is not in control of the body as much as I thought. It allows us to have more variability in our lives. I think that we, as scientists, will never come to fully understand the basis behind behavior completely, because in order to do this we would have to understand the "I" function more clealry. I think that we do not have a accurate way to measure the "I' function, except to say when we believe it is present and not. But when the "I" function is present, we can't understand fully why there are variability in movements. (ie the frog, who follows the Harvard Law of Animal Behavior). In this sense, I think that in order to clearly convince people that brain = behavior, the "I" function must be better defined. But as for me, I believe that brain = behavior, because it makes me feel comfortable that something solid, something I can see (the NS) is in control of my actions,my thoughts,and my decisions.
Well, I'm sure that we can all agree it's been an interesting and intriguing semester. We all came into the classroom with ideas and questions concerning the brain and behavior and I know that I (at least) left with different ideas and questions and with what I believe to be a better understanding of how things work. Then Grobstein hit us on the first day with the bombshell: What is behavior? This. The brain. That's it. There's nothing else. Just the brain. I was a little skeptical, to say the least. How could all of my complicated behavior be described by something so small and simple? I didn't want things like my creativity and my thoughts and my ability to choose to be "dictated" by a bunch of neurons. There were all kinds of doubts and questions that came to mind.
But then we began to sift through all of the information and observations that led to conclusions about behavior: central pattern generators, corollary discharge, motor symphonies, reafference, the "I-function", lateral inhibition, and intrinsic variability. With each progressive discovery more and more questions were raised as a greater understanding of the brain and behavior followed. Now, after looking at these questions for several months I still have questions. I'm not quite certain if intrinsic variability covers all of my reservations concerning creativity, imagination, and "my personality". But now I can see the possibility that it may.
Although not all my questions were answered to a completely satisfactory point, I know that I learned a lot about both the brain and behavior. But can my questions ever really be answered? Should they? I think we all know now that the answer to this is no. This entire class didn't answer many questions, but instead brought up many more. This is the point of science and this class taught us this in a very "hands-on" manner that was both very efficient and effective. The only way to learn more and understand more is to never stop questioning. Thanks for a great semester.
The bottom line that I kept coming back to as each concept was layered over the next in our discussions is that the nervous system is the most complex network of small parts and pathways that I have ever considered. The concept of intrinsic variability neatly patches up many of the unanswered questions as to WHY behavior will change in the absence of any new input. Intrinsic variability is built-in to the nervous system in response to stimulus. If you take a leach nervous system out the leach and put it in a dish and give it an electrical stimulus, will it swim? The answer is that sometimes it will swim.
This concept was presented as the basis of learning and creativity, i.e. an answer to WHY you don’t have to do the same thing every time. There is something about this concept, though, which still leaves me feeling that, while the WHY may be answered, the HOW has not been answered. How exactly does the nervous system achieve this variability? How is the “choice” for the frog to move in one path towards the worm, versus in a different path, accomplished? Can we know exactly what causes the neural pathways to diverge at a given point and produce a different response? Intrinsic variability certainly covers this in almost a philosophical sense, but it doesn’t tell me how it actually happens. In my first entry I mentioned that I was respectful of the perhaps unanswerable mysteries of behavior, but I feel less so now. I would actually like to understand the internal functioning.
Another related thought that has also stayed with me is the notion that intrinsic variability is not part of the I-Function. I’m thinking to myself, what exactly is the I-Function? The I-Function is another layer to the nervous system that gives us, the Self, some control over what our nervous system is doing. But, as we have seen this semester, there are many behaviors over which the I-Function has no control. The example of the sleepwalker, who can walk and talk but whose I-Function is not on during paradoxical sleep, is a powerful indication of the complexity of things that we can do while we are not “aware” of what is happening. Along with this unawareness must go “choice,” as it is a product of intrinsic variability. At the close of this course I am much more aware of the limitations of the I-Function and how many things we do that fall outside its boundaries. I find this thought strangely comforting. We always hear that humans are animals, but somehow we are also made to believe that we have much more responsibility for all that we do and all that we are- that we should be able to understand all of our thoughts, emotions, wants and needs. The limitations of the I-Function are comforting to me in this sense, because it allows us to not have control over things that maybe we can’t have control over. To answer Professor Grobstein’s question then, brain must equal behavior, since my newly acquired knowledge of the nervous system changes the way that I think about behavior.
I am more inclined now to think that brain does = behavior, but I am still stuck not wanting to believe it. I want to think that something more than intrinsic variability makes me special and who I define myself to be. I want to believe that I do see things differently than everyone in the world, but that the possiblity still remains for someone to see where I'm coming from. From what we have learned, no one can ever "see" what you "see." Each person's brain changes around the input that is received to produce a different output according to genetics, experience, and even desire.
From this course, I have come to a new understanding of who I am, and have also become more confused. It's strange to think that you pretty much know what's inside of you and you have some sort of control, when in actuality, it seems that your body was designed to do almost everything without "you."
Personality is still a little bit perplexing to me. I wonder if it is just a mixture of intrinsic variability, experience, and genetics. Deep inside, I want it to be more. I want to know that what makes people special is not something physical in the way that their brain processes inputs and outputs. I don't want to think I don't own my thoughts and that my body houses "me." It seems like a jail almost. Could personality and soul be left up to "me?" Or are they just a part of the way that the brain and body function together in the immediate world?
I don't understand how one small neuron could be one piece of "me" in a non-physical sense. And that many neurons make up my thoughts, actions, feelings, and dreams. This is still, and may always be very unrealistic and untangible for me. Thanks to Professor Grobstein for really opening up my eyes and my mind. My whole outlook has changed.
After looking at my answers from the beginning of the semester to "Does brain=behavior?", I realize that my perception of this question has drastically changed over the semester. At first, I thought that brain=behavior was a way of saying there is no soul or anything beyond what we observe as external behaviors. However, now realize or believe that brain=behavior is only a way of explaining our actions and patterns learned. I now view brain=behavior as a truth that has nothing to do with the potential, intangable parts of the human experience we have not been able to test through science. Instead, brain=behavior has to do with the millions of connections in the brain that are formed as we learn certain activities. Even though many situations are not the same (getting coffee at work or at home), we learn patterns in the brain to accomodate all these activities.
As for my original argument in the essay, that if brain=behavior, how could be account for all the individual nuances in someone's personality?, the millions of connections in the brain in combination with genetics woudl explain this variablity.
When it comes to mystical, unexplained things such as the presence of ghosts, spirits, or holy signs, we all have to believe what is in our hearts and go with that. Since "science" is a man-made tool, it is as imperfect as anything we could design to explain the world. Some things, I still believe, are just not testable. They might become so, or never be testable. HOwever, out of the entire course, I became convinced that brain=behavior. Now if only we could have discussed in more depth what makes the I-function tick....
In one of our first classes, there were terms written on the borad as to what makes up behavior. I realize that the only terms that we didn't come up with that Dr. Grobstein added: fun, creativity, dreaming- are those terms which I now realize are not outputs or inputs, but contained within the "box." The box concept is a wonderful idea which made my understanding of the nervous system a little more complete as the semester went by.
I never realized that the brain had so much control over what we see. It can fill-in-the-blanks, which I find remarkable. I never really realized what optical illusions were; I have much more of an appreciation for the powers of the nervous system and it's varying perceptions of reality.
Personally, I'd like to take this course again, after a full year of psychology to see if any of my perceptions of the nervous system become yet again altered.
This class presented phenomena which causes the individual to think that the brain has a more controllable force over our actions then does the I-function. Usually when I talk about behavior I am referring to the observable movements which, as we learned in class, can operate independantly of the I-function (e.g. blindsight and the beachball example).
Even though the nervous system can carry out numerous outputs without the I-function, the example of the type of light and dark image each person interprets from seeing a picture, shows that the I-function's role should not be downplayed. The I-function seems to give rise or facilitates the individual's variability. And it seems as though without the I-function everyone would be the same.
But over the last few years, for reasons that I am sure are obvious from my first web paper, I have felt a strong need to understand the physical mechanisms of the brain and it’s neurochemical systems. And as I’m sure equally obvious from my second web paper, I pay, perhaps too much, attention to my “feelings.” However, I am extremely grateful to Professor Grobstein for allowing me, in spite of my non-scientific background, and lack of pre-requisites to take this course.
The concepts that we learned about with their corresponding vocabularies
I believe will be invaluable to me in my further explorations and writing.
But I don’t believe that I have changed my position on the brain = behavior
question. From all of the topics that I have studied from rebirthing, to
mothering, to yoga, to past lives, it has been clear to me that the bodies
that we live in and their chemical and psychological conditions are effected
by and in turn effect our behaviors. And I have not changed my mind on
the topic that who we are is more than the sum of our action potentials.
Some questions have been answered such as the mechanisms of inputs/outputs.
And I’ve learned about real cool concepts such as reafferent loops, corollary
discharge. Over all I feel like now I have a new set of tools (my favorite
is the “I” function) to use and play with. And I’m really having fun with
them. Thank you Professor Grobstein for helping me think in a new way about
science. And thanks to my classmates (most of whom I am envious of, because
of their good scientific training) for the wonderful, thought provoking
forum postings and in-class questions and speculations.
During our last class, we talked about the experience of being and how do we should deal with it. This brought us into the I-function and how the body can function or behave in a given way without the nervous system. I find the concept of the I-function very fascinating, but I am still not sure how to deal with it. When I think of how it works, I wonder if it really functions on its own. Could it be that there is something else within the body which helps the I-function to perform is duties? What about the soul??? Where does the soul come in? What is the soul doing? Is it the soul that aids the I-function in its duties? For example, lets look at dreaming. We said that dreaming is an active I-function state in which your dreams involve something happening to you or you doing something. So what is it that brings on these behaviors. I think that the thoughts of these behaviors (dreams) come from inner feelings/desires or strange premonitions that we don't understand. Well, since the soul seems to be a concept that is hard to understand also, why can't we just tie these two things together. Could it be that the soul plays some role in helping the I-function to complete its task when it comes to dreaming. I am not suggesting that the soul is the main determinator of the way the I-function works, however I am suggesting that it may be a contributor. I know that we talked about the I-fuction working by itself in class, but I disagree with this. There must be something else that helps or encourages the I-function. I mean, for almost every system in the body there is some other system which it communicates with. So how could it be that the I-function works all alone. I understand that is doesn't need input and outputs from the brain or nervous system to work, but how about signals from the inner soul. How else would the I-function recieve info. from the nervous system to generate wild, strange and confusing things in our dreams? I know this may all sound crazy, but this is just one way of trying to account for the I-function and its complex duties.
Looking back to my first thoughts about how I said that the brain is the main interactive center for the body which in turn encourages the soul, mind, and the self - Could it be that I gave the brain more credit than it is due? When thinking about the I-function and what it does, the brain no longer becomes the main interactive center for the body. I think that the brain is a very large contributor, but not the main one when it comes to all behaviors within the body. It seems to be that there is a large coordinating system going on between the brain, the I-function, the mind, and the soul. Thus, this entire coordinated system equals behavior. In my first posting I said that the brain works to influence the soul, mind, and the self by means of the information it is given, but I don't agree with this statement now. I think that they all influence each other in different ways, it is not the brain that is doing all the influencing. It may be that it (the brain) is the one being influenced the most.
In closing, I must say that I still feel that the soul, mind and the self dwell within the complete body, including the brain. These systems all work together to encourage everyday behaviors. They allow the body to react based on the many influences given by this complex, yet coordinated system.
On another note, we were talking last week about the circadian rythm oscillator. It was said that this is a generalized control mechanism (or set of them) that is common to all organisms. I was wondering whether all organisms exhibit circadian rythms. What about animals that live in environments that don't change with respect to time, such as fish that live in a cave, or bacteria living on a deep ocean floor. Have these organisms adapted to such environments by eliminating circadian activity? There should be no reason to have an internal clock if there are no important stimuli that vary rythmicly.
My final web paper on the neurobiological aspects of autism really helped me to clarify my opinion on this matter. The basic assertion being that, if the brain is responsible for behavior, than it should follow that disordered autistic behaviors should be explainable in terms of brain abnormalities and disordered neurobiological processes. My brother is autistic so I have a long history of personal experience with the disorder. Even before I knew anything about the brain, neurotransmission, the nervous system in general, genetics, or biology on any level, I would have been perfectly comfortable asserting that something biological underlies the disorder. Other, non-biological theories, just don’t seem possible to me. Thankfully, the “refrigerator mother” theory that autism is caused by unemotional, unsympathetic, cold mothers is no longer accepted a possible cause of the disorder. However, I have found that, even when discussing and contemplating some of the other theories for the basis of the disorder, I generally attempt to bring the causes onto a more biological level. For example, I think that the idea that autism may be explained by a specific deficit of “theory of mind” is an interesting one. In this context, theory of mind refers to the ability to understand that other people have their own thoughts, beliefs, emotions, and other mental states. However, I find myself wondering what structures in the brain are responsible for having a successful “theory of mind” and whether those structures are specifically and consistently damaged or otherwise abnormal in autistic individuals. If that evidence can be found (and I don’t know that it hasn’t) than I will be much more inclined to accept the theory. Thus, I found the paper especially interesting to research and write because I found that there is, in fact, a great deal of evidence to suggest that autism is related to biological, specifically neurobiological, processes. Even if the basis of the disorder is not entirely clear, I found the existing evidence interesting and promising.
My first posting of the semester took the form of a haphazard display of my all too scattered thoughts. Though having advanced little in my level of articulation, the concepts and ideas, which at first intrigued me, have been in large respect further clarified by this semesters explorations. However, in addressing these concepts additional levels of complexity have also been introduced to these initially more naive ponderances.
What has proven most engaging, particularly in light of the realization that we are leaving with an altered form of the very entity which this course addresses, has been the progressive evolution of the means of approach in addressing new and at times disconcerting information. This developmental process which has involved the class as a whole, and the individuals there in, confirms the theories of an adaptable universal and independent reality perspective via brain modulation.
The communal growth towards wider acceptance and more avid questioning of any presented material has established what might be deemed a learned 'neuronal symphony' of sorts that involves perhaps previously unexplored 'central pattern generators' experienced on both a singular internal level and a collective external level. The very unsettling aspects of the explored information might be attributed to the dual activation of philosophical and scientific approaches whose 'corollary discharges' may well have crossed paths, or in some cases collided, resulting in higher levels of awareness, insight, and inevitably - intrigue.
At the beginning of the semester, I hesitantly agreed that brain=behavior, though I actually didn't see how this was manifested. The reason I have the friends I do is basically because I like and enjoy their behavior. Is that to say I actually like their brains? While it seems difficult to think of complex behaviors as actually neuron signaling, I believe it now.
I think one of the major ideas that i will take away from this class is that the "I" function is such a little part of you. So much is happening without the I function knowing. This seems a little scary to me, probably because this makes the individual feel as if he/she doesn't have complete control over oneself. as people have mentioned earlier, this can get complicated as far as law goes, and what constitutes responsibility. I also remember that we talked about mood. Originally I thought bad moods always are caused by something the I-function should pick up on. It helps to think that there may be no external reason at all, and this is a comforting idea.
Four months ago I wrote, "all that I understand as "true" or verifiable arises from observations construed by my senses." Today, after experiencing Neurobiology and Behavior class, I notice the word "I" in that sentence. I think I will travel the rest of my life thinking of myself as an "I-function" (interwoven with a larger nervous system, and that within a body as a whole, and that within a larger environmental system… etc). "I" now appreciate my neural systems as active participants in the "observations construed by my senses." Sensory systems are not mere "channels" through which information flows -- information is shaped in the process. The neurological orchestration of sensory perception shows me things that are partially invented. Information is made up when there is no data -- as when my visual blind spot is filled in. Confusing information is ignored -- as when I am shown the "essence of a wall" where nothing but variable patterns of light exist. So, in my attempt to apprehend verifiable "truth," I must engage with the world (and examine myself) through this perceptual lens that exerts its own influences. This challenges attempts to understand what is "true" or verifiable. And there are other things in the way as well…
Four months ago, I thought about my understanding of reality as the result of interaction with the world around me. What I brought with me to the world I thought of as genetic programming. It made sense to me that genetic information could have evolved out of the interactions that my parents and my parent’s parents had with their own worlds for untold generations before me. To learn what is real or true, I could test my ideas against what I observed and experienced in the world, including the ideas of other people. This reality check has often provided me with conflicting evidence. For example, on the one hand, the people in my world have largely supported the notion of intangible forces such as souls. Yet my observation of and engagement with my world has provided me with no "hard" evidence directing me to the conclusion that there is such a thing as a soul. The sticking point for me has been the fact that souls are not "empirically verifiable." Souls are not readily observable or quantifiable -- they do not offer themselves for examination with the senses. This means I cannot examine the validity of their existence. Thus, the notion of a "soul" is simply one more variation on the infinite range of what is "possible."
The question Dr Grobstein asked is this: if the "verifiable arises from observations construed by my senses", where does the "possible" (but not empirically verifiable) come from? Well clearly, I thought to myself, the infinity of possibilities I can come up with, including unicorns and mermaids as well as three-headed, smoke-breathing, purple dragons, must come from somewhere other than the external world. Maybe some of these possibilities correspond to verifiable realities that we are simply not currently able to apprehend. But can all of them? That seems unlikely. Some of them might be absolutely nonexistent as anything other than ideas. Somehow the influence of the environment must be interacting with human biology/genetic information to produce them. But how does this work?
I speculated as to an explanation. Could it be that human beings are genetically programmed with ideas and fantasies that have no existence independent of thought? This might explain the prevalence of recurrent themes in myth, art and literature. Maybe environmental influences give specific form to these genetic sorts of "templates" for ideas. But Dr. Grobstein suggests something else. It has been interesting to think about dreams, fantasies, and imaginings as a third source of information about existence – one that is not obtainable from "the genome" or from experiences with the external environment. Dr Grobstein has discussed how daydreams and imaginings shape us. Dreams give us information about ourselves and about our relationship to the world that becomes part of us. This is an interesting way to look at creativity as well as identity. If our imaginings make us who we are, we become something more, or something different, from what our genetic heritage and environmental circumstances can predict. Thus we can have unpredictable and original ideas.
I like the idea that I might conjure up a three-headed, smoke-breathing, purple dragon the likes of which no one has ever conceived. But now it seems even more impossible that reality can be knowable! If reality is different for everyone, how can it ever be known? Perhaps multiplicity of viewpoints does bring us closer to appreciating the true nature and richness of reality.Serendip © by Serendip 1994- - Last Modified: Wednesday, 02-May-2018 10:53:01 CDT