I got emotional recently, to the point of crying (not that unusual, in my case). No sooner had the episode begun but there was a particular “voice” in my brain that started to chatter…rather insistently. I did my best (this isn’t the first time this has occurred) to “disengage” my attention from that particular part of my consciousness so that I could get on with my emotional moment. But afterwards, I began to ponder just where this “chattering voice” was coming from. I began to think about the “geography” of my own consciousness.
Here is a good place to make something clear: I approach questions such as this from an understanding that any and all of this mental cacophony that I experience is happening within the confines of my skull (and not outside of my self). Still, I have a need to “place” things. That’s only natural. The big difference, then, between me and many others is that I don’t place any of my conscious self outside of my physical self.
So as I thought about the chatter that kicked in when I was emotional, it didn’t feel like it was coming from a “higher” functioning part of my consciousness, but from a sort of ante-room of my brain. Having said that, I must still recognize that I am applying an imaginary construct in order to give a location to the different aspects of my functional consciousness. This is a conceptual tool — like language itself — that allows me to create a visual sense of something that is biological and electrochemical. Therefore there will never be an exact one-to-one physical relationship between the mental phenomenon such a framework describes and the phenomenon themselves. But then, language has no intrinsic connection to the things it describes — what matters is that those of us using language share our catalog of word-object associations with our fellow speakers (so that, for instance, we don’t picture a pit bull when someone asks us if we like their hat). On the other hand, we know from recent studies that certain actions are taking place within specific regions of the brain. So my exercise in mental geography — fanciful though it is — is not without some basis in reality.
That being so, what can I know about the nature of this chatter that popped up to halt my tears? Well, it almost seems as if it had intention, in that it appears to be a quite specific reflex that is triggered by strong emotion, almost like a too-earnest friend that jumps in with a “WHAT’S WRONG IS THERE ANYTHING I CAN DO TO HELP AND MAKE YOU STOP CRYING RIGHT THIS MINUTE!” while what we feel like saying is: “Shut up and let me cry!”. (Actually, the “heart” doesn’t want to say anything — does not, in fact, want to switch it’s focus from emotion to the part of the brain that is used to tell someone to “shut up!”. No, in moments of deep emotion, our “heart” just wants to feel what it is feeling, which is a joint exercise of mind and body that, like sex, doesn’t like distractions just now thank you very much. But then, that could be precisely why the noisy chatter is effective — that interruption, alone, breaks the hold of deep emotion on our conscious attention. Like sleep, like sexual intensity, deep emotion — once interrupted — can be “lost”).
You’ll note here my use of the term “heart” for the seat of my emotion. This is a rather universal exercise in placing parts of our brain activity on a conceptual “map”. In this case, however, the emotions are displaced to a place somewhere in our chest — or gut, depending on the emotion — a foot or two away from our brain case. This is a recognition, I think, of the sense we have of emotions coming from a certain depth of our consciousness. They feel too deep to be taking place within our brain, and, since they are felt in our body, we place them (with some good reason) somewhere in the deepest parts of our physical body. (In a similar, if more dramatic way, we most often displace the mid-level of our consciousness — the part that answers us when we talk to it — much further outside, or above, us). Which just goes to show how natural is the bleed-over between our brain and body, and how natural, then, is our ability to displace aspects of our consciousness from the particular region (or regions) of the brain that they are actually occurring in.
And so what sense can I make of this mental chatter that would seem to be — if the emotions are the root of the tree — the chirping birds in the upper branches? I can make some guesses about what this part of my consciousness is all about — what it’s “intention” is. And I can have some confidence that it is there for a useful reason (useful for my evolutionary success, anyway, even if it gets in the way of my emotional life). But I may never be able to state with absolute confidence what is really going on in that part of my brain. We are, after all, wary, reactive, emotional animals. Understanding that fact alone immediately makes a lot of what goes on in our day-to-day experience of consciousness make some sense (even the parts that don’t seem to make sense for the kinds of comfortable lives many of us Westerners actually live).
The fact is I have no good, specific answer to give you on that score. I do have a more general answer that may have to suffice. But it involves a story, and a kind -of answer.
I used to be a much more anxious human than I am today. I struggled with intrusive thoughts and periods of panic and even depression. This led to what I refer to as my “Therapy Years”. But the point where things began to turn around took place at a Golden Corral restaurant one night. It must have been around this time that my therapist first offered me the idea that the “biggest thing wrong with me what that I thought something big was wrong with me”, and that the panics that gripped me were not necessarily events that just happened to me — were not, in fact, irresistible forces imposed on a helpless Bob. This seemed far-fetched, as it felt as if a panic would always hit me before I saw it coming — like a mad monkey that suddenly was on my back — and all I could do was react after the fact. But that night as I finished my dinner, I had turned enough of my attention to the workings of my own brain that when a panic hit me, I caught the slightest glimpse of a tiny gap between the thought I was thinking and the nearly instantaneous global bodily reaction of cold fear. I had at last witnessed the machinery of reaction in my consciousness. After that, it was only a matter of time before my senses become attuned to the point where I could widen that gap, and identify the thought I had had that triggered the reaction. Then began the process of learning to interrupt the process between the thought and the panic (it turns out this can be done). My therapist was right: my own thinking was the source of my panic. But it was the (rather intriguing) ability to use one part of my consciousness to catch another part of my consciousness in the act that led to my coming to terms with that brain of mine. I was learning to fight brain with brain.
Obviously, this has informed my view of consciousness as I then moved from the last years of my religious (or quasi-religious) belief to a more materialistic view of consciousness. Having experienced many of the quirks of our human consciousness, I deeply appreciate the insights into those quirks that neuroscience and evolutionary psychology offer. The upside of this is obvious, as such a view can free us from some of the add-on doubts and terrors — based in a belief in outside intentional agents acting upon our exposed souls — that have accompanied our evolution over the last few tens of thousands of years.
The point being that this non-externalized understanding of the brain makes analysis of events much different than the standard search for external agency that is our most common response. Note that the phenomenon in question do not change, only the way in which they are interpreted or understood to exist. It is a question of SOURCE, and with our determination of source comes our idea of causation or intention.
Hence, I can see this odd chattering that suddenly pops up when I’m crying not as some evil spirit, or neurosis, or critical agent, but a reflex that most likely evolved in my brain and may be more or less active in me than in the average human (perhaps as a simple tool to reduce my physical vulnerability when overcome by emotion by “snapping me out of it”). In other words, there is a real possibility of understanding it in a nonjudgmental way, which removes from the discussion all sorts of further emotional and existential complications. (After all, if I think the Devil is trying to seduce me away from God, then my poor mind and body are reduced to a sort of confused war zone with spies and plots and open battles taking place over my highly-valued soul. What a mess).
Instead, I can see my brain for the highly evolved organ that it is, even though this also means that it carries within it some rather ancient operating systems, reflexes and responses that were programmed at different times in my evolution, some of which are not necessarily the most conducive to living in a relatively non-violent, non-life-threatening modern social environment. This is the down side: the fact that we have to come to terms with the notion that — having the evolved mammalian brains that we do — we are living with a consciousness that is actually a complex, sometimes self-contradictory alliance of innumerable evolved survival responses often better suited to a lizard than a lawyer (insert favorite lawyer joke here).
And, finally, back to my allusion to the “intention” of my emotion-interrupting mental chatter that kicked off this sermon. I have to say here that the mind’s response to stimuli turns out to be intentional in only a rather limited way. I’ve come to understand that there resides in my brain a sort of “blind librarian” that connects current stimuli to stored experience, and in a bio-chemical version of a word-association game, yanks from our memory any and all cognitive and bodily responses in our past experience that have any possible connection to the moment at hand. That’s why certain triggers can make people panic over and over again — even when the current situation doesn’t warrant it — and why such connections are so challenging to break. In evolutionary terms, this makes perfect sense as a means of keeping a wary animal wary, but it can sure get in the way of relaxing and “enjoying” life.
As an aside, I can tell you from my own experience that one of the most curiously challenging parts of my own journey has been this recognition of the kind of brain we humans are actually carrying around in our skulls: That the very organ that has brought us through all of our generations of evolution — and that we rely on for every bit of our ongoing survival and experience of life — is, well, a “Kluge” (as Gary Marcus so aptly describes it in “Kluge: The Haphazard Construction of the Human Mind” reviewed this blog).
In general, I am obviously well-adapted to my overall species (and individual) survival, but that does not mean that I am always going to be perfectly suited to any and every situation I find myself in. Evolution is not about perfection, but adaptability. And so nature doesn’t care if the human brain is an amalgam of reserved bits and pieces of its evolutionary journey through every brain it’s ever been, from fish to shrew to monkey to man. I may care, but that, in the end, is my mental problem to map out.