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Or Why We Couldn’t Get it Together Even if we Wanted To

You would expect the most exciting developments in psychiatry to have something to do with medications, or diagnostic procedures, or even some mysterious power of magnetic fields or crystals.

Instead we have learned that we are seldom really conscious. Rather than sitting in the drivers seat, we ride the crest of a multitude of mental functions. Perhaps we attend a kind of secret committee only a minority of whose members are known to us.

Let me try to defend this rather dramatic statement. Research in neuroscience suggests:

  • Our brains consist of a number of systems or modules. Although interrelated, these systems can display a surprising degree of independence.
  • We all have the experience of being conscious and having control of our thoughts and actions. However, consciousness resists attempts at location in place and time.
  • If we ask when in time we become consciousness of an experience, the answer depends on details of the way in which we phrase our question. Different parts of the brain react to an event well before we first know that something has happened. Our conception of what it was that happened changes over seconds, minutes, weeks, and years.
  • Brain modules control our emotions, behaviors, and thoughts more than we can guess or imagine.
  • These modules manage different aspects of our minds, selves, and perhaps even our souls. Identification of events and their agents, perceptions of beauty, moral judgments and ambiguities, and the emotional color of experience are determined by distinct modules of the brain.
  • The ability to be informed by past memories and to form expectation of future events are organized in particular brain regions, functional circuits, and neurochemical states.

Such ideas constitute an exploding area of knowledge in neuroscience. They bridge conventional destinctios between psychiatry, psychology, philosophy, and even spirituality and religion.

How does this impact my personal psychiatric practice?

When a person comes into my office and asks for assistance with a problem or for insight into behavior, I can always fall back on my training. For instance: Such a symptom constellation suggests such a diagnosis and might predict a favorable response to a particular medications. Cognitive and behavioral strategies (all the rage) might offer recipes for altering reactions to persons or events. Psychoanalytic strategies (out of favor and probably socially incorrect) might seek a deeper understanding dating from patterns laid down in childhood that would catalyze personal growth.

Now a different option presents itself. Perhaps we can take a moment to observe the many aspects of ourselves that ultimately are synonymous with self. They must be respected and given due consideration. An undesired emotion or impulse might be understood as an essential element of the whole. It might be appreciated for its intrinsic value and constructively directed. A more functional version of ourselves might result.

One of my mentors used to say that we are all a little like Humpty Dumpty. Sometimes we fall off the wall or sometimes we are pushed. In either case we break into many pieces, which we must try to reassemble. Each piece must be turned over and examined. Some are better discarded. Perhaps there are new pieces to be added. We only hope that in the end we may function better than before.



    • John McLaughlin
    • Posted December 4, 2008 at 10:08 am
    • Permalink

    Interesting thoughts.
    I am a retired special educator. My passion has been learning about learning, perception, the apparent self-organizing nature of the universe and how we fit. So far as I can see we are the piece that allows all this to be aware of itself…at least to some degree.
    I believe I went through the same process you describe with black and white photography then slides then the explosion into digital. I had the black and white conversation with my son. His take is black and white eliminates “time”. I describe it as being more “abstract”. Your thoughts add a bit more in terms of how the brain processes sensory data. I am making many of my photos bw to try and understand what that conversion does.

    Almost every time I take a photo I ask myself,”What am I looking at? And Why do I want to photograph it? I feel there is more than what I can “see”. I keep waiting for an epiphany. As I study the masters..went to the Avedon exhibit at the Cochran Museum last week..I can see they had a purpose..mission..point of view and tried to play with it..refine it..evolve it. Understanding the photographer’s point of view helps but just doesn’t get me any closer the answer to what am I looking at. Maybe in a Jungian sense that is my story.Just the world trying to be conscious of itself.
    At the very end of an interview with Charlie Rose(youtube)Avedon desribed his point of view. “loosely…..I try to capture the look people throw away the second they think the shoot is over.” Sort of like the conscious mind telling you some image from the unconscious just isn’t important.
    I will follow your blog thoughts. Thanks.

    • chaotos
    • Posted December 5, 2008 at 7:16 pm
    • Permalink

    John, I must thank you for your stimulating post. You touch on several new ideas which are very much related to modularity. I am fascinated by your suggestion that our individual human experience of being conscious of the universe is not other than the universe being conscious of itself. If that is true, and I believe it is, then to be conscious is both individual and universal. What better explanation can there be for the amazing phenomenon of human self-awareness which is so easy to take for granted and so hard to hold at the center of our attention?

    Take the idea that the brain creates the illusion of a single, unified self from many modular systems working in parallel. Turn that idea on its head, and you can imagine a whole and self-organizing universe manifesting its beauty and complexity by fragmenting itself into the awareness of all living creatures. I think this is an idea that threads itself through a great deal of spiritual and philosophical thinking. It appeals to me greatly.

    I was also very interested to hear that your son had discussed the idea that black and white photography eliminates time. I’m not sure how you found my blog but I had started a thread about color vs b&w photography on one of the Nikon forums at dpreview. The thread can be found here. Several people suggested that there is a timeless quality to b&w and others pointed out that color distracts from the formal or more “abstract” aspects of a photograph.

    It does appear that the brain processes color and non-color aspects of visual perception separately but in parallel. Considerable mental apparatus is devoted to the analysis of color. Our ability to perceive slight variations in shades of color is remarkable given the broad, overlapping sensitivity of the color pigments of the eye. When we see a b&w print does this whole system shut down or just sit at idle? Perhaps it sort of “steps aside” to let us thing about what we see in new and creative ways.

    I too would like to see more than I can see at the moment I take a picture. I fear all of the technology distracts us from the fact that the instant we compose and take a photograph is the most important creative step in all of photography. But so often I it seems I can only understand what it was that I was photographing long after taking the picture.


    • Kenichi Ikuta
    • Posted December 21, 2008 at 5:01 am
    • Permalink

    I wonder if aggregates of systems or modules in the brain simply constitute the “mind.”
    The largeness of amount can lead to quite and new properties, as shown by the case of “temperature.”(—->A small amount of particles moving fast cannot constitute the concept of “temperature”, I mean).
    In analogy with this logic, I wonder if only the aggeregates of particles can constitute human life.
    I like the Beatles so much the better that they gathered together:
    a large amount of additional charm was created only when they were united into one.

    Cause-and-effect relationships between affect and chemical substances in the brain are also quite complicated, I suppose.

    I only mean it is very difficult for me to understand the mental function of human beings.
    It is really difficult to understand the relationship between “parts” and “whole.”

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