On Serendip

The Brain's Images: Co-Constructing Reality and Self

Paul Grobstein
Bryn Mawr College
May, 2002

Notes for a talk at the 11th Annual Usability Professionals' Association (UPA) Conference held July 8-12 in Orlando, Florida. Illustrated notes are available at http://serendipstudio.org/bb/reflections/upa/

Abstract: "Reality" and "self" are concepts which predate modern inquiry into the nervous system and its workings. An illustrated and interactive discussion of brain function suggests that both concepts can be usefully reconceived as hypotheses developed by the brain to make sense of signals occurring within the brain itself. This in turn gives some new meaning not only to "reality" and "self" but also to "freedom" and "agency".

The Brain - is wider than the Sky -
For - put them side by side -
The one the other will contain
With ease - and You - beside-

A hundred and fifty years or so ago, Emily Dickinson wrote a poem suggesting that the brain was big enough to contain not only the "Sky" but "You" as well. And that it did so "with ease", which is to say with room left over. Is it possible that that is so? If it is so, what implications would follow … for how one thinks of oneself? of others? of humanity and its place in the universe?

With the continuing explosion of information about the nervous system and behavior, it is looking more and more as if Emily Dickinson was right, that all of human experience, up to and including one's sense of self, corresponds to various patterns of activity across the very large number of cells of the nervous system. The explosion of information is beginning to provide as well new ways of thinking about human beings and our relation to things around us … ways that, perhaps surprisingly to many, enhance rather than detract from ideas of individuality, freedom, and agency.

Indeterminacy: The Brain as a Semi-Autonomous, Evolving, Creative Agent

Much popular thinking about the nervous system reflects early simplifications of its function resulting from experimentalists trying to get a handle on how it works. From these emerged a picture of the nervous system as a "stimulus-response" machine, one in which output (observable behavior) is dependent on input and stereotyped, predictable given a knowledge of the input and the internal workings of the machine.

The more up to date picture which is emerging suggests that much of the activity of the nervous system originates within the nervous system itself and, furthermore, that there is a significant degree of indeterminacy in the processes which generate this activity. In addition, it is becoming increasingly clear that the nervous system is continually being modified by its own activity.

What emerges from all this is a picture of the nervous system as something quite different from a stereotyped stimulus-response machine. The nervous system can much more appropriately be thought of as an exploratory device, one that is continually building and revising models of the world by generating outputs and observing the resulting inputs. It has, moreover, a distinctive individuality, an infinite capacity to create candidate models, and an internal organization that continually promotes their creation and evaluation.

The emerging understanding of the nervous system not only makes it a more plausible substrate for human experience, but also has some important lessons for those interested in human interactions (parents, educators, and usability professionals, among others). Efforts to "control" the nervous system by controlling its inputs can not succeed. One needs instead to think of "engaging" with it as an individuated complex system having its own evolutionary and creative dynamics.

The Bi-Partite (at least) Brain: The Unconscious and the "I-Function"

A closer look at one particular aspect of human nervous system function, the processes underlying "seeing", reveals an additional characteristic with important implications. The experience of "seeing" involves two distinguishable (and dissociable) stages. The first consists of the detection and analysis of visual input (perhaps with an associated response); the second, consequent on the first, involves the"experience" of seeing. The initial, "unconscious" processes are quite sophisticated and include unpredictable and creative characteristics. What's particularly noteworthy, however, is that these activities are invisible to the processes involved in the experience of seeing. The latter "conscious" activities depend on the former but are the separate domain of the "I-function", a distinctive set of processes constituting internal experience, those things of which an individual is aware. A similar distinction between unconscious and "I-function" activities is apparent not only in seeing but in all other realms explored, including acting and learning.

This bipartite arrangement helps to make sense of Emily Dickinson's assertion that there is more to the brain than "You": much of what an individual's nervous system does is not experienced by that individual. In so doing, it also raises some perhaps unsettling questions about the meaning of "self", and of "reality". What one experiences, what the I-function reflects, is not with any certainty what is "out there", but is instead an interpretation of sensory inputs done by a set of processes within the nervous system which are always to some degree unpredictable and unknown. Moreover, the "self" (at least to an external observer) is a complex and changing blend of things some of which at any given time one internally experiences oneself, and at other times does not.

The Loop Between the Unconscious and the I-Function, and its Significance

Uncomfortable as it might at first seem, it is precisely in and because of this bipartite arrangement that one can look for new and richer meanings for concepts like individuality, freedom, and agency. Just as the nervous system as a whole is an explorer, so too are each of its distinguishable parts. Moreover, the styles of exploration and interpretation of the two are quite different. The unconscious works with very large numbers of variables, is relatively unconcerned about ambiguity and uncertainty, and functions largely in relation to what is rather than to what might be. The I-function functions best with small numbers of variables, looks for clear and explicit relationships, and, in so doing, creates the capacity to conceive realities beyond those that follow directly from what has been experienced. Because of these differences, the nervous system can be usefully thought of as not one explorer capable of elaborating one story, but as two (at least), with each capable of elaborating from a different perspective and with a different style a different story. In addition, the exploration is not only of the world but also of the self. Indeed, it is likely that the very concept of the "self", and its distinction from a "reality" outside, is the result of the "I-function" exploring the unconscious, creating a story which accounts both for sensory input and for the role the nervous system itself plays in shaping that input.

The bipartite organization of the nervous system makes both "self" and "reality" concepts that are more fluid than they are usually thought to be, and perhaps more fluid than one might like. On the other hand, the trading back and forth of stories between the unconscious and the I-function substantially enhances the nervous system's exploratory capabilities; it yields an inexhaustible capability to conceive both the world and oneself in new ways. Moreover, it creates a substantial capacity to make choices, not an absolute "free will" but a quite significant (and nurturable) capability to be onself an agent of change, with regard both to the world and to oneself.

The human nervous system is an evolving explorer, with the capability to reflect on and be altered by both its experiences and its own efforts to make sense of those experiences. To fully exploit its capabilities, we (parents, educators, and usability professionals, among others) may all need to learn to accept more fluid concepts of "reality" and "self" (and perhaps of "right" and "wrong" and "meaning" and "purpose" as well). In exchange, we will get a renewed sense of individuals (and humanity itself) as not only skilled explorers but meaningful participants in the broader exploration which we share with other living and non-living components of the universe.


References (available on the web)

Paul Grobstein (1994), "Variability in Brain Function and Behavior", In The Encyclopedia of Human Behavior, Volume 4 (V.S. Ramachandran, editor), Academic Press, 1994 (pp 447-458). Available at http://serendipstudio.org/bb/EncyHumBehav.html.

Paul Grobstein (2002) Who's Afraid of Emily Dickinson, Or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Brain. Newsletter of the Psychoanalytic Society of Philadelphia. Available at http://serendipstudio.org/bb/brainpsychoanal.html.

Paul Grobstein (2002) Getting It Less Wrong, The Brain's Way: Science, Pragmatism and Multiplism, in preparation. Available at http://serendipstudio.org/~pgrobste/pragmatism.html

Brain and Behavior … a section of the Serendip web site, at http://serendipstudio.org/bb.

Serendip … " a gathering place for people who suspect that life's instructions are always ambiguous and incomplete ... and hence need to be continually examined and rewritten", available at http://serendipstudio.org

Some Recommended Readings

Austin, J.H. Zen and the Brain, MIT Press, 1998

Damasio, A.R. The Feeling of What Happens: Body and Emotion in the Making of Consciousness, Harcourt-Brace, 1999

Dennett, D. Consciousness Explained, Little, Brown, and Company, 1991

Jaynes, Julian The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind, 1976

Norretranders, T. The User Illusion: Cutting Consciousness Down to Size, Viking, 1998.