Metacognitive Musings
John Dalton

This summer, I had the distinct pleasure of attending the two week Brain and Behavior Institute 2001at Bryn Mawr College. It was moderated by Dr. Paul Grobstein. During our initial sessions, Dr. Grobstein introduced us to his extraordinary website on the brain and behavior: Serendip. It has a striking image that represents some of what I have traditionally associated with the process of reflection. There's a body with some kind of meditative awareness contemplating its skull or brain.

I've been interested in this process of reflection for some time. I initially began exploring it with regard to service learning. I wanted to systematically precipitate this activity in students with regard to the community service they were doing. While exploring it, I recognized its universal application and the extent to which it permeated many subject areas where I had never really isolated it for consideration. The philosophical implications seem immense. The basic activity ultimately has epistemological significance. It possesses a recursive aspect which one can metacognitively examine. We linearly, existentially, progress forward in time. But, our understanding of things is recursively historical. Our progress inevitably involves looking in a rearview mirror. There's real historicity involved in living. In the present moment, we recognize something new. Our inevitable tendency is to isolate it (part) and place it in the greater context of our previous understanding (whole). A new understanding emerges out of this process. We're inextricably enmeshed in the hermeneutical circle, the relationship of part to whole.

Therefore, my tendency has been to try to place what I'm presently learning about neurobiology, the brain and behavior, within the context of my previous paradigm/paradigms about reality. This has proven somewhat difficult because so much of what we have learned is not only new, but contradicts my previous paradigm/paradigms. The change has been epistemic. The first stumbling block that I encountered stemmed from the fact that like what's imagined in the image above, I viewed the brain as distinct from the total nervous system. Once I overcame that bias, I found the equation underlying the course, brain = behavior, became much more palatable. The next major stumbling block resided in admitting that the reality I thought I perceived was in reality very questionable, and, that because of this, the very nature of self might have to be reevaluated. Because of Dr. Grobstein's neurobiological theorizing, my previous view of the relationship of the I-function with unconscious understandings proved rather problematic. It was especially significant with regard to the implicit intersection where the I-function communicates with the rest of the nervous system. If individuals have varying degrees to which their I-function both receives input from the nervous system and gives output to the nervous system, than this suggests that, we may have the ability to expand the amount of communication taking place. Doing so might positively enhance the amount of conscious free will that an individual exercises in relationship to the amount of unconscious biological determination that an individual experiences. Inherent in this recognition is the belief that because of the way in which our brains are constituted, we all possess more knowledge than our I-function realizes. The problem becomes one of accessing this unconscious knowledge.

Learning about the latest findings in neurobiology has been both very stimulating and very challenging. It's underlined by the fact that it has been more than thirty years since I've taken any science courses. In trying to contextualize what I've been acquiring, I invariably related it to the familiar. My background as an English teacher affected the direction that I'm taking in this inquiry. A chance remark in class was the stimulus for this brief excursion. It occurred to me that some of what I was learning about the multiplicity inherent in reality reminded me of the "Magic Theater" in Steppenwolf by Hermann Hesse. It lead me to think that his inquiry into the nature of the self might have some relevance to my present inquiry.
"We need not be surprised that even so intelligent and educated a man as Harry should take himself for a Steppenwolf and reduce the rich and complex organism of his life to a formula so simple, so rudimentary and primitive. Man is not capable of thought in any high degree, and even the most spiritual and highly cultivated of men habitually sees the world and himself through the lenses of delusive formulas and artless simplifications -and most of all himself. For it appears to be an inborn and imperative need of all men to regard the self as a unit. However often and however grievously this illusion is shattered, it always mends again. The judge who sits over the murderer and looks into his face, and at one moment recognizes all the emotions and potentialities and possibilities of the murderer in his own soul and hears the murderer's voice as his own, is at the next moment one and indivisible as the judge, and scuttles back into the shell of his cultivated self and does his duty and condemns the murderer to death. And if ever the suspicion of their manifold being dawns upon men of unusual powers and of unusually delicate perceptions, so that, as all genius must, they break through the illusion of the unity of the personality and perceive that the self is made up of a bundle of selves, they only have to say so and at once the majority puts them under lock and key, calls science to aid, establishes schizomania and protects humanity from the necessity of hearing the cry of truth from the lips of these unfortunate persons. Why then waste words, why utter a thing that every thinking man accepts as self-evident, when the mere utterance of it is a breach of taste? A man, therefore, who gets so far as making the supposed unity of the self two-fold is already almost a genius, in any case a most exceptional and interesting person. In reality, however, every ego, so far from being a unity is in the highest degree a manifold world, a constellated heaven, a chaos of forms, of states and stages, of inheritances and potentialities. It appears to be a necessity as imperative as eating and breathing for everyone to be forced to regard this chaos as a unity and to speak of his ego as though it were a one-fold and clearly detached and fixed phenomenon. Even the best of us shares this delusion." (p.58-59) Steppenwolf by Hermann Hesse. (New York, Henry Holt and Company, 1957. ISBN 0-8050-1247-8)
This quote comes from a portion of Steppenwolf called a "Treatise on the Steppenwolf." Throughout the text, we encounter multiple views of Harry Haller, the protagonist. Here, he mysteriously receives this treatise on himself while searching for the "Magic Theater". The search symbolizes the journey into his own mind that he is undertaking and the "Magic Theater" will become the brain where multiple selves reside. More universally, Hesse, as artist, is exploring his own unconscious brain. The quote represents the revelation that he is acquiring about the nature of self; it arises from knoweldge about himself that his I-function hasn't previously actualized. Previously, Haller had been described as alienated and disturbed almost to the point of suicide because of the recognition of the split in his personality manifested by the darker side of his personality, which he termed the Steppenwolf. Haller has to journey into the Magic Theater of his own mind in order to "break through the illusion of the unity of the personality and perceive that the self is made up of a bundle of selves." Hesse is indebted to Eastern philosophy for this psychological paradigm of the mind. But, it seems to have resonance with the paradigm that is emerging with the latest findings in neurobiology. Hesse concludes, "In reality, however, every ego, so far from being a unity is in the highest degree a manifold world, a constellated heaven, a chaos of forms, of states and stages, of inheritances and potentialities." This resonates with the idea that there are a multiplicity of realities within the brain which originate from the way in which the brain is particulary constituted of I-function and the rest of the nervous system. Haller's inward journey manifests an inherent realization that not only is his more bourgeoise personality prey to the Steppenwolf, but there are other interior realities unexplored.

In the novel's climax, when Haller finally enters the Magic Theater, another of his dopplegangers, Pablo, introduces Haller to a gigantic mirror that reveals the "real" nature of reality:
"I saw myself for a brief instant as my usual self, except that I looked unusually good-humored, bright and laughing. But I scarcely had time to recognize myself before th reflection fell to pieces. A second, a third, a tenth, a twentieth figure sprang from it till the whole gigantic mirror was full of Harrys or bits of him, each of which i saw only for the instant of recognition. Some of these multitudinous Harrys were as old as I, some older, some very old. Others were young. " (p.179)
There's a multiplism inherent in what our brain creates. The I-function is only a small part within a greater whole of understanding that is both interior and historical. Living with this neurobiological reality is inherently difficult because we are invariably drawn to "the illusion of the unity of the personality" in the present moment.

This recalls a pertinent anecdote that a sculptor confided to me many years ago. The sculptor said that in honor of her marriage of thirty years, she had secretly created a bust of her husband's head and shoulders. When she presented it to him, he became very offended, saying that she had depicted him as twenty years old. Given his umbrage, she went back to work and produced another more realistic bust. Unfortunately, he was equally outraged. He couldn't understand who that old man was! The anecdote embodies the basic dilemma of what the mirror of reflection holds: What is real? Her perceptions of her "real" husband were no more real than his own perceptions of his "real" self. Similarly, Haller's Magic Theater is where he journeys to meet the "multitudinous Harrys" which inhabit that part of his brain which is not just the I-function. It would seem that the journey from the I-function inward is an ever spiraling process which is existentially both, historical, in it's accessing of past understandings that may have emerged into the I-function from the rest of the nervous system, and, immediate, in acquiring knowledge that the I -function hasn't accessed, but which the rest of the nervous system tacitly understands.

Links to Hermann Hesse and Steppenwolf