Monday, November 15, 2010

What makes us think?

I slept the sleep of an innocent last night. I remember nothing from when I placed my head on the pillow and when I opened my eyes this morning. Just bliss! My son came for dinner last night and we had a discussion about buildings and the anxiety I sometimes feel in the city. I am acutely aware of the strength and permanence of buildings juxtaposed with the vulnerability and impermanence of the humanity that swarms around them. Erin has another view. He envies those who lived at a time when they could experience the grandeur of buildings that he sees now only in their disintegrated state. He laments the loss of buildings that must be demolished in order for progress to occur. His is an anxiety of aesthetics ~ he doesn't necessarily embrace new architectural design, mine is a disjunction between apparent order and disorder.
I'm currently reading What Makes Us Think (Princton University Press, 2000) a conversation between Neuroscientist, Jean-Pierre Changeux and Philosopher, Paul Ricoeur, in which they argue about Ethics, Human Nature, and the Brain. I'm only up to page 74, but have already underlined several lines and particularly this one by Changeux who said 'Our brain is constantly attributing significance.' (42) Perhaps we have learnt to do this as part of our survival strategy? If things, events and people had no significance then we would behave in less than ideal ways. It is perhaps the significance that we place on things that allows us to think and behave ethically. But I'm racing ahead because I've just started reading this book and I am interested to hear what these great minds come up with. Of course, the major problem these two thinkers are experiencing is the fact that they speak a different language. Changeux, although highly articulate and occasionally philosophical, views the brain in very mechanistic terms, whereas, Ricoeur considers thinking in terms of the lived body and how we, as individuals experience it. I'm enjoying the contrast, indeed the conversation reveals, as Ricoeur constantly draws attention to, that there must be a third space or a third discourse in order for them to continue the conversation. The notion of the liminal comes in here; the juncture in which the mechanistic and phenomenological intersect ~ the functional, ie. how all brains work, as opposed to the personal, or first person point of view. I was thinking yesterday about the minuscule gap between thinking an action and the action taking place. But after consideration I've decided that, given much of our actions throughout life are pure repetition, then there's probably no unconscious decision making, just an automatic response. I don't have to process information about making toast and spreading it with butter, this is a task I've done thousands of times. It is only when my right hand is injured that I must reorient myself to undertaking the task with my left hand, or adjusting my right hand in such a way that I can carry out the task without undue pain. Now, conscious decisions are another thing entirely. 'Consciousness occurs in the brain, but we have no conscious perception of our brain!' (Changeux, p.52). We are more acutely aware of our thought processes when we have a problem to solve. I can only assume that I slept like a baby last night because I have no immediate problems or at least none to keep the synapses firing.

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