The Neuron Was Born To Swim
Purely Abstract Thought Does Not Exist
The assumptions of Von Neumann architecture infect contemporary neuroscience: it’s implied and assumed that the reasoning mind receives mere data from the hindbrain, as though everything below the cortex were just buses, routers, or at most sensory transducers. What we must internalize is that there is no central processor in any organism: organic structure is radically parallel, redundant, robust. Even the nucleus of a cell contains many various pieces of the genome under many various stages of transcription: every “singularity and manifestation” model of life is a bad metaphor, which has had too much currency for too long. Life breathes synchronicity into the asynchronous, life is convergence, life is emergence: when will we be prepared to accept this axiom in the field of neuropsychology? We must stop looking for imaginary entities dwelling in imaginary shrines: there is no ego, no unified personality, no self, no hall of perception, no unity of consciousness, no homogenous episodic memory, no static identity. Every seeming unity of purpose and will is an emergent order parameter, and generally the more focused the behavior the more energetic the dissipative flow: a creature that seems to know what it’s doing is a creature compelled, a creature tyrannized by its own vitality.
Biological systems run on massively parallel, low speed computation, within an essentially fixed topology network with bounded depth.
Rodney Brooks, Intelligence Without Reason, §3
The calculations performed by the cortex do not operate upon static datasets: they operate with behavioral outcomes. The purpose of “mind” is not to determine the objective “Sachverhalt” to lisp like the young Wittgenstein, but to determine what to do. This determination does not need objective modeling, and judging by the history of philosophy it seems to grossly err with every such attempt: it only need weigh the relative weights of its contingent behavioral thresholds against an accurate but extremely specific sensory array. A living creature is not a reality reproduction machine: intelligence has nothing to do with objectivity. A living creature inherits successful behaviors from its ancestors, and its job therefore is to balance them delicately and wisely, but perform them with abandon: much of what it means to live is to do justice to the badass attitudes of our forbearers - whether you are a Pacific salmon jumping up a cascade, a chipmunk stealing dogfood in broad daylight, a shrike impaling a grasshopper midflight, a snowgoose migrating in a thunderstorm, a dormant scorpion waiting in eternity for spring.
It’s not that scientists have been projecting their own modus operandi upon the subject of intelligent behavior: they’ve been telling the white lies of sociality. “Collect all available data, reason and plan in abstract semantics, and translate into action”: this is the fable of free will, this is the fable of conscious agency, this is the fable of personal responsibility and thus guilt and thus punishability. When it succeeds, the ape says: “I meant it.” When it fails, it says: “I didn’t want it.” When it perpetrates, it says: “I didn’t do it, and anyway I had a right to.”
There is no distinction between data and computation: biological computation is a kind of side-effect of behavioral loops. There are no truly abstract semantics: there is no “pure thought”, only elaborations of premotor and perceptual processing. That we believe in such a ridiculous thing, is an artifact of the influence of postaxial philosophy concerning the primary role of narrative consciousness: we want to believe that the auditory hallucinations we all know and love and loathe, are the last veil before the holiest of holies - the seat of “thought itself”.
We are interested in when a neuron or neural system evokes an action or makes a decision. […] If there is no choice, there is no effective information.
J. Feldman, “Ecological expected utility and the mythical neural code”
Again the purpose of mind is not “objective modeling”, it is to produce successful behavior. It accomplishes this not by reasoning about the world, but by virtue of a balanced and calibrated structure - which is not essentially about modeling the state of the world, but producing coherent successful behavior in response to stimuli. The Merkwelt of any given creature is likely to be highly distorted, because it is always highly valenced: all information is weighted by virtue of the creature’s structure, not its “reasoning”. Thus a great deal of what we’re doing in meditation and spiritual development, is adjusting the weights of a perceptual field. Slowly tuning down amygdalic covalence, slowly leveling a plane which was once highly graded, such that many paths become possible and we begin to become a little unpredictable. Spontaneity is ours again: which means we get to become funny, obscene, and eloquent by turns. We should be like a spinning top: lightfooted, elliptical, and difficult to displace. An angular momentum that keeps us balanced, a lavish expenditure that makes us energetic: part of my definition of a spiritual life is that it seems to obtain energy from nowhere. This is some of what has made all the talk about “higher planes” and transcendent effulgent realms from which we feed, seem a little annoyingly relevant to those of us who know: but we can now recognize these “higher” things as nonlinear dynamics, efficiency gains, and the very heart of organicity itself. It’s not uniquely human, and I’ll only accept the adjective “divine” if it’s acknowledged that what lives is divine.
The corollary to the idea that there is no difference between data and computation in biological systems, is that there is no neural code: the meaning of any given quantum of neural information is not realized until it reaches expression in behavior - precisely analogous to the way words are meaningless outside of bodily experience. An ungrounded “pure symbol” is purely meaningless. To watch a mathematical mind realize the necessity of this premise over the course of a lifetime, read Wittgenstein. About 90% of all the chatter in Anglo-American analytic philosophy, 20th century linguistics, cognitive psychology and its cherished “mind-body problem”, and the sexier dithering of French poststructuralism can be wiped away with this robust postulate: meaning is derived from action, not representation. Which is also why every attempt at a purely objective philosophy begins and ends with unexamined ulterior motive: the way to mean precisely what you say, is to treat language like a physiological exercise, and thus another domain of ethics. Every utterance should be a reflection of who you want to be and where you want to live: the original meaning of “ethos” is habitat.
There is no neural code: it would be unimaginably inefficient to encode and decode every signal between neurons, or between neural networks, or even in a sense between an afferent signal and its efferent muscular and hormonal realization. The neuron began as a muscle actuator, and therefore continues to speak the language of muscles: consider the rippling jellyfish to appreciate this - or imagine the undulation of the spine of a fish, with cross-lateral activation of limbs, the rational coherence of rhythm. The neuron was first adapted to swim - and I believe it still bears that mark, just as we still carry a simulation of oceanic fluid inside our terrestrial bodies. You’re a talking bag of brine. Have you noticed how the rhythms of swimming clear the head? But everything rhythmic calibrates the body, from making a coffee to walking to the corner store to shaking your moneymaker… One of the most powerful instruments I’ve found for musical trance induction, is the Persian dotar, because the rhythmic stroke is performed with minimal neuronal expenditure: one crooks the wrist inward and oscillates the whole mass of the hand, precisely as the mentally handicapped do for soothing self-stimulation - it’s an extremely old primate gesture. All neuronal experience is conditioned by rhythm: yet it’s not so much an overwhelming rhythmic conformance we’re looking for - as though a pounding march represented an optimum - but the subtleties invoked by successful polyrhythm, even if only hinted by syncopation. Why does this matter for the student of meditation? Because when you learn to experience your inner life as a series of concentric pulsations, and the underbelly of the impulse to think as a throbbing cadence, you will come much closer not to suppressing it as the Buddhists want you to, nor to indulging and abusing it as most of us do, but to riding its waves skillfully, seeking neither quiescence nor finality.
Addendum. The problem is that neuroscience still looks to the seat of the soul for the meaning of any given emotion, deed, or thought. Thus it is that they’re always looking to the isolated brain: they’re sure that somewhere in there lies agency, choice, freewill, personality, and the ultimate referent of all interpretation. But the meaning of any given behavior arises from the totality of the organism in the environment, including the lifespan of the individual, the history of the species within its niche, the local interactions with all other species, elemental cycles, seasons, and molecular resources - the entire phylogeny of the species reaching back to the beginning. The whole conditions the parts, and perhaps the future as well as the past: there is no last touchstone of interpretation. Every theory, every language, every age, every personage, every attitude, every mask, every history, is incomplete. What’s the point therefore? Of this theory, this striving, this discipline? We don’t get to know - and it’s only our job to fulfill our role with as much boldness, austerity, or filigree as suits it.
More from this series:
The Bad Psychologizing of Neuroscience: And the Quest for Metaphor