Body and Soul are not two substances but one.
They are man becoming aware of himself in two different ways.
C. B. Von Weizsacher, 1949
Shortly after Lovejoy arrived at his hotel he looked up Mindy. She was his high school math class partner in crime. They had plotted pranks against Mrs. Corgy, the hunchback of Notre Dame to the calculus world, only in this version, Mrs. Corgy was the villain. Mindy's class preceded Lovejoy's. He fondly remembered looking forward to Mindy's notes stuffed between the desk and the radiator, detailing what Mrs. Corgy was on about today and how others had ruffled her feathers. This gave Lovejoy a headstart in his taunting of this very unpleasant and unhappy soul.
Lovejoy had lost touch with Mindy long ago. Shortly before his flight north, he noted an article in the New York Times science section about her work with chimps and other great apes. She was a rising star in the new field of cognitive sciences. Besides wanting to revisit with her, he was very intrigued by her work. She studied biological underpinnings of consciousness. It seemed she was trying to understand what made humans'well, human. What were the crucial differences between animals and humans? And how did we make it from one to the other? After his little talk with Jehovah, he was surprised to find that she was working on some connection between the muscular system and thought.
He rang her up at the lab the next morning. After some reorientation, she sounded genuinely excited to see him again. When he walked into the lab, the odor of chimps was strong. He thought he was at a veterinarian's office. Mindy looked so much older. He'd forgotten that he'd grown older too. She was certainly vibrant and comfortable in her surroundings. They reviewed their math relationship and talked about the intervening years. Mindy was surprised Lovejoy had sequestered himself away in a "monastery" for so many years. She figured him for a science research career more powered than hers. But then, they hadn't kept in touch through the college days.
He caught her up on his intention to move to Boston and practice medicine in underserved neighborhoods. She tried to give him a rundown on her research. There was a lot to cover but Lovejoy wanted to understand it all. Long ago he had decided scientific and religious perspectives must ultimately be compatible. It occurred to him that the interface between the two might be revealed in the study of consciousness. After all, he thought, it was through the mind that we moved in one paradigm or the other. It was time for her to get to work. As Mindy dashed around the chimps in their cages, she launched into an explanation.
"Even the term consciousness is not so simple" Mindy started. "There is quite a history of how this term has changed in usage over time. Some people use it to refer to the state of an animal that can observe its environment, process information neurologically and come up with appropriate actions. According to this view, a dog would be conscious of its surroundings. Other people limit the term consciousness to the state of self-awareness. Humans, at times, think about the fact that they are thinking and feeling.
"So how do you use the terms?"
"I prefer to use 'conscious' to mean aware. I think dogs and cats are aware of their environment. And for the reflective mode of thinking I use 'self-consciousness'. This state we believe applies only to humans, although of course, that's not simple either. It turns out other members of the great ape family besides humans have rudimentary forms of self-awareness. The real distinction may be more like an ability to imagine ourselves as viewed from the outside. It seems to develop in children around the age of two."
"The terrible two's."
"Perhaps no coincidence." Mindy said.
"So how did we develop self-awareness from our pre-great ape predecessors?"
"That's precisely what I've been working on. First I needed a model for what 'thinking' is, before I could find out what thinking about thinking is."
"We don't know?"
"Oh no. The study of cognition is in a very early stage. We call the two or three neuron system of a liver fluke a reflex loop. And every nervous system more sophisticated than that we liken to whatever machine is current in our time. We've moved from comparing minds with clockworks to comparing them with computers."
"What do you compare them to."
"I start with reflex loops and build on them in orders of magnitude of complexity. After a certain point, the term 'reflex' no longer suffices to describe the system. But it's still an input to output proposition. That is how evolution developed our nervous system. Why shouldn't we understand it in the same fashion?"
"I'm all ears."
"It's a little complicated. But if you trust that I can flesh out my facts, I'll try to give you the skeleton." Mindy continued.
"I like to start the story with fish becoming amphibious and moving onto land. This occurred about 350 million years ago. The first amphibian had to interact with its environment in a new way. Gravity meant that locomotion on land was awkward. The first job for the amphibious nervous system was to touch the ground, feel out the surroundings and in a very rudimentary sense to begin to build an internal memory of the land. Not so much in order to remember every rock, but to remember the best way of responding when confronted with an incline this way or a bump that way. The portion of the nervous system used to do this was borrowed from the 'lateral system' in fish. In the underwater world, the lateral system sensed the currents of water surrounding the fishes' bodies. In land animals this developed into the proprioceptive system. But that's cumbersome, let's call it the 'pro-system'.
"I know that term. It's the part of the nervous system which tells us where our muscles and bones are, and how they are moving at any given moment." Lovejoy inserted.
"Right. However, you've been taught that it's only important in coordinating movement. I'm emphasizing a different aspect. Let's call it the dynamic part of the sense of touch. The pro-system is crucial in helping us to learn about the world around us."
"What do you mean?"
"Have you ever watched a little baby learn about the things it holds. It moves them, touches them all over, even places them in its mouth." Mindy imitated with one of her chimps' toys. "The mouth is the most sensitive touch surface that the baby has. Babies can tell texture, shape and temperature with a high degree of accuracy using the mouth. Babies create an internal image of the object by the reverse mold of the hand, or mouth, as the baby touches the object.
"This is the way the baby learns about breasts and bottles, rattles and toys and all things large and small in its environment; first through touch. As touch is correlated with vision, the internal model of the world can eventually be modified by visual input. But touch comes first."
"Ok, so land-lubber vertebrates learn about the world through their sense of touch as they move through it. They sense relationships of objects through the 'muscle sensing' system, or pro-system. Later they correlate what they see with what they touch to build a model of the outside world at any given moment."
"Very good. You catch on quickly." Mindy complemented.
"What's so special about the muscle-sensing system? Why is it so important?"
"Because we have to act via the muscles. There's no point to having a nervous system at all unless we can take actions that help preserve us. Action is the only output of our nervous system. Sensation is the input of our nervous system. The pro-system is uniquely involved in both." Mindy continued.
"Think of the nervous system as a black box. We know that sensation goes in and action comes out. But we want to know what happens inside that black box. The muscles sit in a unique position in that system. Through the muscles and the pro-system, what goes out can influence what's coming in. We no longer have a linear arrangement; we have a circular one."
"I think I get it. Can you give me some examples?"
"OK. You know about body language."
"Sure." Lovejoy replied.
"People communicate more truthfully through their body language than they do verbally. Consider the 'tell' of poker players, the anxious movements that betray an unaccomplished liar, and the seductive mannerisms of someone you know is interested in you before they speak. This is as true for animals as it is for humans. We can read the state of alertness of our pets through their movements. Are they relaxed, angry, excited about food, or fearful? Once we learn to read their body language, it isn't difficult at all. In fact, nature has found body language so universal that recognition of certain movements is preprogrammed into our brains. Babies come out responding to smiling and cuddling differently than they do to the harsh movements and faces of anger. The universality of body language tells us something about how the nervous system is wired."
"You mean what's going on inside the black box?"
"Yes. The muscular system, reflects what's going on in the brain. That's the output side. The input side of this is not as well known but just as important. We can influence what goes on in the brain by manipulating the body. If someone gives you a massage, not only do your muscles relax, so does your mind. In fact the word relax applies to both muscles and the state of mind. After work, people have various ways of letting go of the mental stress of work. They can run and exhaust their muscles. They can spend a few minutes intentionally releasing their muscles with a meditation or they can even drink a muscle relaxant in the form of alcohol."
"But alcohol also affects the brain directly." Lovejoy reminded Mindy.
"True. But I hope you're getting my point. We can influence our state of mind by working on the muscles. It also works in with the opposite of relaxation. Young job applicants pump themselves up to look, and then feel, confident as they head into a job interview."
"Thanks. I'll be doing that tomorrow."
"If you want to help yourself get out of a depression, get up - get out of the house and be active. A more fascinating example occurs when people have so called 'body memories' triggered during massage or other body manipulating sessions."
"Manipulating our thinking by changing what the body's doing. So what's next?"
"This is a clue about how the nervous system is organized. The muscles are linked closely with the brain in both the input and the output side, in at least a semi-obligatory fashion. Anything linked so closely with the brain while it thinks, is part of the thinking process."
"So you're saying that the brain uses the muscular system while it thinks."
"Correct." Mindy helped. "The brain uses the muscle system to model the external world. Then the brain tweaks the muscle system this way and that to see how various plans of action could affect the model. Our brain has little value if it can't function to predict. By using the pro-system to model the world, we can try out a set of actions to see exactly how they would change that model of the world before we really act."
"If that's the case then you must find a relatively larger sized proprioceptive system in animals that think more."
"And we do. The emergence of mammals after the dinosaurs disappeared represented smaller but smarter animals. There was a big difference between the pro-systems of reptile and mammals. Within mammals, if you go down the branch of the great apes, again you see a dramatic blossoming in this system. The pro-system is used in those animals who use thinking as their evolutionary edge."
"Do animals really think?" Lovejoy backtracked.
"That's a semantic question as far as I'm concerned. You can insert 'neural processing' if you wish. We still haven't gotten to self-awareness yet." Mindy said.
"What about dreaming? Isn't that modeling? Muscles are disconnected while dreaming. So how can we be modeling with the muscles turned off."
"As you get into animals with bigger brains, the entire muscular system has many secondary systems. According to this theory, the model is originated with information from the actual muscles outside the head. However once established, this feedback loop method of processing can occur inside the brain in these secondary motor areas. If you're awake, the muscles will be at least partially activated. But once you're asleep and there's no direct connection the muscles, the process loses its concreteness. That's why dreams have such loose associations."
"So when we are awake and thinking, signals are going to our muscles?"
"Right, but this all happens at a low level of neural activity. So you can play this modeling game for a long time before actually triggering a full muscular action."
"You mean my muscles are actually tightening and loosening while I'm thinking."
"Yes, at very low levels. Tomorrow, when you're interviewing, pay attention to your body. If you're in a situation you don't like, or somebody is making you anxious, a part of you will be thinking about the option of getting up and leaving. When this happens, one of the muscles that would be required to help you get up and leave will be tensing. If you can find it, consciously make this muscle relax. You'll feel the urgency to leave die down, at least temporarily until another muscle tightens up."
"My muscles are tensing right now. But I think its because I'd like to get up and take you to dinner." Lovejoy was allowing himself to be distracted.
"What? Skip part two? And desert my chimps?"
"Just for awhile. You do get out don't you?" Lovejoy challenged.
"Not enough. Do you like Indian?" Mindy offered.
"Indian what?" Lovejoy was caught offguard.
"Food!" Mindy chided.
"Right. Well I'm not sure I've had any. Certainly not for a long time. I'll try it if you'll order." Lovejoy entrusted his palate to Mindy.
Later, in the restaurant, Lovejoy was starting to appreciate his senses. The exotic aromas diffused his usual focus. Lovejoy relaxed and began to see Mindy in a different light. She was intense. She was beautiful because her spirit was so strong.
"Why didn't you ever marry?" he started.
"Subtle, aren't you?"
"Well neither did I. I certainly don't mean it as a criticism. I think I'm trying to sort out my own feelings on the subject." Lovejoy was open.
"I just became much more excited about my research. To me it was a way to help the world. I was very idealistic."
"And now?" Lovejoy asked.
"I'm still idealistic. But life's more about relationships now than grandiose plans. How about you?"
"I certainly had grandiose plans. I wanted to transcend the earthly plane and find nirvana. I still don't know whether it was more of an ego trip or just refusing to settle for what I saw as less."
"You mean 'normal' life is something less?"
"I don't feel that way any longer. I used to think every moment was meant to be a peak experience. I saw spiritual life as a reaching for that."
"And now?" Mindy echoed.
"There's a Zen proverb about the spiritual path. Before beginning, the mountains are just mountains and the trees are just trees. After walking on the path for a while, the mountains are something other than mountains and trees are no longer trees. However, eventually after walking long enough, the mountains again become mountains and the trees again are trees. The real challenge for the monastic is to take the truths learned in isolation and put them into practice in the broader world."
"You know you call it a monastery but it sounds like it was a cult to me."
"If a cult means a cult of personality, it was. But there are cults of personality more or less in many places: in politics, in Hollywood, in evangelical religion and even in some job situations. However, I will tell you what scares me. I really was willing to put my life on the line for that cause. I saw anyone who couldn't be committed as somehow weak, in their courage or in their ethics. I was totally committed and I was proud of that fact."
"I can appreciate commitment. Maybe it's a question of what you're committing to?" Mindy suggested politely.
"True. That's like the social workers who went to the south in the 50's, even though they knew they might die. Or like joining the Army for that matter. You know I've read books about different stages of adult development but not much about people in their twenties, when they put careers, lives and families on the line for their idealism. And it's not just charismatic charlatans who take advantage of this. The religious orders would die off without this incredible surge of ideological impulse. If you're not pushing the envelope for whatever you believe in during those years, maybe there's a sign that your social drive is a little weak."
"Just so long as your eye doesn't catch the glint of fool's gold." Mindy reminded Lovejoy.
"Thanks for your vote of sympathy."
"Listen, there are some people I'd like you to meet." Mindy suggested.
"Six friends. We get together from time to time and talk about brains, and knowledge. Where does it come from? With your mixture of scientific training and immersion for years in magical thinking, you have a unique perspective. You've actually lived two completely different world views. I think they'd like to pick your brain."
"That concerns me a little, with your habit of experimenting on things."
"Actually I could have meant 'piqure' your brain."
"You're still punning me after all these years."
"I can't stop, but the chimps don't show their appreciation."
"So what about your chimps, and what about part two, when do I get to hear it?" Lovejoy asked.
"How about tomorrow, late morning. My day's broken up anyhow because of a late meeting, and I do want you to hear it before meeting the E-group."
"How succinct. I think your group needs some poetry."
Soltrey@humanmind.net is copyrighted July 2000. All rights reserved B.T. Brian Brown.