Posted by: Bob Fisher | July 30, 2011

Unconscious Travelling: More than Meets the Eye

Moments in time

Have you ever arrived at a destination and just felt completely at home?

Or perhaps you instantly felt a deep connection to “the place”. Or maybe you even sensed, on an intuitive level, that something in the landscape was speaking directly to you.

This was my experience the first time I encountered a prairie landscape in Saskatchewan on a glorious day in June.

Alone by the side of the road I gazed at a ripe field of canola; a solitary grain elevator stood like a sentinel on the horizon. A warm breeze seemed to waft through my entire being; it was akin to an out-of-body experience.

The occasional bird came twittering by, not unlike a fanciful Disney cartoon. I felt euphoric.

The sight lines were impeccably “drawn”, enticing me to enter the landscape. Even the infrequent rising and falling crescendo of a passing vehicle gave this latent environment a momentary purpose.

In brief, I was experiencing the deep sense of place which, in Canada, is often the point of departure for literary discourse.

In retrospect, I can imagine how the ultra-left brain of Mr. Spock of Star Trek, would analyze what actually was occurring in my unconscious mind:

“The clear and simple frame of reference that registered on your retina reduced your human unconscious brain to a primal state thus releasing an optimal amount of the hormones serotonin, dopamine, and endorphins. In turn, the large, small, and minute muscles of the body also relaxed, reducing blood pressure, increasing blood flow to the brain, and in general producing the sensory effect of a perceived state of calm. In human terms, this is the brain-generated ‘antidote’  to what is known as the stress response, sometimes referred to metaphorically as the ‘fight or flight’ response.”

But with due respect to Mr. Spock, let us not forget that it was the balanced brain of Captain Kirk that commanded the good ship Enterprise.

A world away

In a Mumbai “slum” — the same location in which the film Slum Dog Millionaire was shot — I experienced a different but similar sense of integration, albeit incongruous given my North American mindset.

Because it was my first visit to India, I had dutifully read what the major guidebooks had to say about that incredibly complex nation; and I was led to believe (and therein lies a negative self-fulfilling prophecy) that I would be dismayed by the sights, sounds, smells, and general sensory overload of India.

However when I went for a stroll through this “slum” — paradoxically just a short walk from The Orchid Hotel, a completely self-sustaining, ecological destination within a destination — I was not horrified by the poverty, nor the environmental degradation, nor the pollution.

I felt instead engaged.

I felt welcomed into the intricate lives of those who actually lived there; and it was relatively easy to see all the “systems” that made this complex place function.

For a sociologist, such poor and very overcrowded living conditions are a perfect place to study how human ingenuity and basic survival skills operate.

I realize of course that I was this innocent white guy with a camera meandering far from any reality I was accustomed to; but I felt an interconnectedness in the shy smiles, waves, nods, and smiling faces of the curious children who greeted me.

The guide books, on the other hand, had led me to believe that India would be a faceless nation; but instead I experienced a “normalcy” that was only mildly surprising.

In retrospect, I have often speculated on how my unconscious mind and its “implicit memory” had manage to connect to this place.

I often say that landscape shapes culture. At the same time, I have always been aware that this interaction is always a process and never an event. And this has led me from time to time to muse about how human evolution has developed in us — sentient beings that we are — the ability to experience any environment on many levels.

And this is also where, in my experience cognition and affect shake hands.

Le coeur a ses raisons que la raison ne connaît pas.

The Coimbra phenomenon

Lest you think that all my travel experiences have been blissful, let me assure you that this is not the case. There have been numerous destinations I have tumbled into that were far less than perfect, often wretched.

Unfortunately, the city of Coimbra in Portugal was one of them. And ever since — and this is quite unfair to that city — it has stuck in my unconscious as a miserable experience.

We had arrived in this city after a long and arduous (although exhilarating) trip by road through the hot, dusty, and very dramatic landscape of Spain. When we crossed over the border from Spain to Portugal, there was a slight reprieve but fatigue and sensory overload had taken its toll.

By the time we reached Coimbra I was in a state of mild depression, feeling unwashed, and isolated.

Furthermore, when we arrived in Coimbra it was a Sunday, not the best day of the week in which to end up in some European cities. For all intents and purposes, the city was closed. The skies were overcast, as opposed to the brilliant, dramatic, and sunlit landscapes of Spain.

As the pathetic fallacy expressed in Verlaine’s famous poem attests:

Il pleure dans mon coeur

Comme il pleut sur la ville;

Quelle est cette langueur

Qui pénètre mon coeur?

(It is raining in my heart/As it rains on the city; /What is this languidness/That penetrates my heart?)

To make matters worse, the city seemed to have a pervasive odour of urine; and as I have learned since, olfactory memories tend to get stored in our unconscious minds.

So Coimbra became the scapegoat for what in the 1960s we called a bad trip.

It also became a transferred epithet, in which there has occurred a shift from the intended (or unconscious) modifier to a quite different sensory experience.

(A literary device, a transferred epithet transfers the focus from the animate to the inanimate. When one has a “sleepless night,” it is the individual and not the night that suffers sleep deprivation.)

At that moment in time, it felt like a humourless and desolate place.

My apologies Coimbra. If I can re-adjust my unconscious perceptions of your city, I shall return and explore your Middle Ages history.

Romanticism and the brain

Now some have said that I am a Romantic at heart (and that I believe is true), but at the same time I have become aware over my time on the Blue Planet that the human mind is the real final frontier. And because I am always intrigued by neuroscience and how the brain works, I have become somewhat of an amateur adherent of that field of study.

As a result over the years I have attempted to explore how the unconscious mind operates. And by that I mean the “smart mind” as opposed to the “dumb mind” — and therein lies a substantial controversy in the world of psychology and brain science.

But more on that to come shortly.

Unconscious connections

In their book, Connected: The Surprising Power of Our Social Networks and How They Shape Our Lives, Nicholas A. Christakis and James H. Fowler explore another dimension of unconscious human behaviour; and how emotional behaviour patterns can actually be “contagious”.

This very well researched and substantiated book also demonstrates how unconscious social networks influence our ideas, feelings, physical and mental health, human relationships, behaviors of various kinds, and even politics.

Their research is a variation on the scientifically validated concept of “six degrees of separation”; only they demonstrate quite clearly why those degrees of separation can actually be much closer to home.

Consider the unconscious impact of the following statement from the book:

“As we studied social networks more deeply, we began to think of them as a kind of human superorganism. They grow and evolve. All sorts of things flow and move within them. This superorganism has its own structure and a function, and we became obsessed with understanding both…. We believe that our connections to other people matter most, and that by linking the study of individuals to the study of groups, the science of social networks can explain a lot about human experience.”

To watch a video of Nicholas Christakis explaining the “hidden” influence of social networks and their intricate beauty,” click here.

An altruism gene?

In a recent study in the journal Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience, researchers focused on three variations of a gene called the COMT gene by taking saliva samples from 101 men and women.

They subsequently extracted DNA from the cells of the participants in the experiment in order to study how certain neurotransmitters are activated in the brain. In previous experiments these neurotransmitters, including dopamine, had been seen to create positive emotions and social behaviors.

According to one of the researchers, “There must be more genes which influence altruistic behavior whose association has not been discovered yet…. Our future objective will be to identify all of those genes and how they interact with each other to eventually put a pretty complicated puzzle together — with the goal to understand who we are and why we are how we are.”

Unless

In her novel Unless, well-known (and Pulitzer Prize- winning) Canadian author, Carol Shields explores the nature of goodness.

Sadly, this very “psychological” writer is no longer with us.

In an interview she gave to the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation before her death, she explored with the interviewer how the unconscious plays a role in implicit memory.

In the interview, Shields makes reference to an altruism gene that through human evolution (i.e. DNA) has contributed to our species biological need to collaborate and to behave in an altruistic fashion.

It has been my experience that really good novelists, such as Carol Shields, are often individuals who have the most transferrable skills; and as they are engaged in such crossover fields as philosophy, psychology, sociology, and the list goes on, they are often key communicators of the intricacies of the human mind.

Through their “imagined” characters, character development, plots, and universal narratives — and by virtue of their imaginative powers — they allow their readers to explore the multidimensional brain.

In the novel Unless, Shields explores how people unconsciously recognize goodness; and its parallel concepts and behaviours of benevolence, generosity, good will, grace, humaneness, integrity, mercy, morality, righteousness, and even virtue. And they recognize it “intuitively” as an innate characteristic of higher order-thinking beings.

At the same time, in her novel, she explores the feelings of being shut out or excluded and the need to conduct an analysis of evil. In the novel one of her characters says:

“We will [also] discover the meaning of consciousness … and therefore goodness.”

This anthropological approach to the nature of the unconscious emphasizes also that there is a possible genetic benefit (“return on investment”) to people behaving in such a manner. One can only hope.

Philip Roth and the nature of evil

In his most recent novel Nemesis, Philip Roth also explores the atavistic sense of evil.

The novel is set in his home state of New Jersey and takes place during the 1950s when the polio epidemic was creating a primal response to that disease. His lead character is an elementary school teacher and playground director who all his life has been devoted to being good and to serving up goodness to everyone he meets. However, he struggles with the “evil” of polio and “God the great criminal” who has allowed this latest scourge to target children.

“Was this his Everyman’s version of Gnostic doctrine, complete with an evil Demiurge? The divine as inimical to our being here? Admittedly, the evidence he could cull from his experience was not negligible. Only a fiend could invent polio.”

And here is the primal sense of justice and injustice that is innate in the collective brain and mind of human beings. Why are the gods angry? Was it something I said?

I am also reminded of one of the first full sentences that a young child says: “It’s not fair!” And in Roth’s analysis of the nature of evil through his characters, he also explores how we humans constantly explore the cognitive whys and wherefores of epidemics and other evils.

And as the sentient creatures we are, we are constantly impelled to search for reasons for the existence of evil.

At the same time, Roth has his principal character explore obsessively his self-punishing emotional response to evil. He ultimately assumes “ownership of the issue”; unlike the rest of the “animal world” which can only live for the moment and not question the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune.

“There is an epidemic and he needs a reason for it. He has to ask why. That it is pointless, contingent, preposterous, and tragic will not satisfy him… Instead he looks desperately for a deeper cause…”

Imagination and the unconscious

As a teacher of adolescents for many years, I strove to encourage them to think critically — and to imagine.

As we all know, storytelling is one of the most important ways to stimulate the key psychological survival skill of imagining.

But the role of imagination, in my experience, is often underestimated.

Because we are a species that can optimize our cognitive and affective skills, we have become extremely adept at imagining. Some might prefer the term “predicting”.Unlike most mammals (as far as we can tell), we can envision outcomes by using our heads as well as our hearts.

As I have suggested above, the heart has its reasons too, which reason itself is unaware of.

Imagining is the ability to visualize images, to feel sensations, and to conceptualize when the actual stimuli are not present.

In his article, “The Biology of Imagination,” Simon Baron-Cohen, Professor of Developmental psychology at the University of Cambridge UK,  argues that “the content of the imagination is determined by culture,” but that the capacity to imagine owes more to biology than culture.

“[T]he only hardware needed is a visual system that starts with an eye and ends in the visual cortex of the brain… [but] to move beyond imagery to imagination … one needs an extra, special neurological mechanism…. the capacity for meta-representation involves a special module in the brain, which humans have and that possibly no other species possesses. In the vast majority of the population, this module functions well. It can be seen in the normal infant at 14 months old who can introduce pretence into their play; seen in the normal 4 year old child who can employ mind-reading in their relationships and thus appreciate different points of view; or seen in the adult novelist who can imagine all sorts of scenarios that exist nowhere except in her own imagination, and in the imagination of her reader.”

And all the narratives, fantasies, fairy tales, and mythologies that we encourage children to “indulge” in and to express, play an important role in developing the ability to imagine.

I often have wondered about the reasons for telling such tales as Hansel and Gretel, which in my mind is a tale of the fundamental fear of a child, that of abandonment. Are we asking children to prepare themselves psychologically for “loss”?

Archimedes’ holistic bath

I used to teach a poetry unit as the opening apéritif in a French Immersion class.

The students tended to be divided into “right-brainers” and “left-brainers,” although there were occasional lucky souls who represented the “balanced brain” approach to human endeavour.

The left-brainers tended to be Math and Science students who sometimes would advise me that poetry was not their thing. As for the right-brainers in the class, who generally responded intuitively to images, imagery, and literary devices, it was quickly obvious that I was preaching to the converted.

Therefore, I would begin the poetry unit with a reference to Archimedes and his bath-time experience. When this Greek mathematician of classical antiquity “discovered” the principle of buoyancy to displacement (how metaphorical is that!), it was his unconscious and hyper-sensory brain that was actually doing the pre-conscious work.

Although Archimedes articulated the rule, he of course did not really invent the principle.

He is alleged to have shouted Eureka! when all the “elements” (both physical and unconscious) came together at the right moment.

Archimedes felt holistically the scientific principle through an unconscious sensory experience which his cognitive mind (only a splash or two behind) then translated into words.

Ah words! Those feeble attempts to explain universal phenomena — like truth and beauty.

You must have been a beautiful baby

 Why do we use aphorisms like “Beauty is in the eye of the beholder?”

Why do words have such a profound and internalized effect on our brains? What actually is happening neuro-chemically when a certain word, phrase, or line of poetry goes deep into the core of our being?

Why do so many the world over relate to and identify with Hamlet’s dilemma “To be or not to be”?

What is the anthropological and existential (mind/body) connect that occurs? Why do we, as higher order-thinking primates, strive to balance our brains in order to fully understand our human condition?

When, in our evolutionary journey, we stood up, leaving our hands freer to be used as tools (or weapons), our sight lines and horizons also changed. We began to migrate; in effect to travel and became omnivores.

We also began to conceptualize our own mortality.

Do our brains edit how we prefer to see the world?

Is beauty indeed in the eye of the beholder or are there formidable unconscious forces at work in the human brain?

Consider the following: The Human Face

Cultural psychotherapy

Consider how Matthew Taylor looks at the collective consciousness; but also how he explores the unconscious elements of the human brain/mind.

In this video he looks at the values, norms, and lifestyles “appropriate” to 21st-century enlightenment. He also suggests that because our species has developed the ability to adapt, to invent, and to engage in critical analysis (especially that relating to “human nature”), we are able to reach a high level of collective self-awareness, despite the fact that as human beings we are better at understanding relative versus absolute values.

Our first response to the world around us tends to be “automatic” and unconscious. Biologically speaking we put our appetites ahead of our real needs.

To watch this video, click on the link below.

RSA Animate: Shifting Paradigms

The Unconscious Mind

In their article “The Unconscious Mind” by John A. Bargh and Ezequiel Morsella of Yale University, the authors explore a number of key issues relating to neuroscience and the unconscious mind.

These include: the unlimited powers of the unconscious mind; how social psychologists have influenced the study of the unconscious; an examination of the language of the unconscious, clarifying terms such as “unconscious”, “preconscious”, “subconscious”, “nonconscious”; the different “flavours” of the unconscious mind; and whether the unconscious mind “is capable only of highly routinized activities and perceives little without the aid of consciousness” or whether in fact the unconscious mind is “highly intelligent and adaptive.”

Herein lies the “smart” or “dumb” unconscious mind debate.

The authors also explore the “gleaning of cultural knowledge,” and suggest that “[a]ny human infant born today can be relocated immediately to any place and any culture in the world and will then adapt to and speak the language of the culture just as well as any child born there.”

They also point out that “Many recent studies have now shown that unconscious goal pursuit produces the same outcomes that conscious goal pursuit does… [g]iven the late evolutionary arrival of conscious modes of thought and behaviour.”

What readers may find most most intriguing is how Bargh and Morsella suggest that social behaviour is unconsciously guided by what they refer to as the “current context” and that “We are often guided by our feelings, intuitions, and gut reactions, which prioritize the things that are important to do or attend to.”

Their statement that “psychological science remains wedded to a conscious-centric model of higher mental processes” may also raise eyebrows. And finally, a statement from their article that amused me was, “It is nice to know that the unconscious is minding the store when the owner is absent.”

David Brooks

In his very enlightening book, The Social Animal: The Hidden Sources of Love, Character, and Achievement, David Brooks also lends support to the complex unconscious mind.

In the introduction to his book, he says:

“We are living in the middle of a revolution in consciousness. Over the past few years, geneticists, neuroscientists, psychologists, sociologists, economists, anthropologists, and others have made great strides in understanding the building blocks of human flourishing. And a core finding of their work is that we are not primarily the products of our conscious thinking. We are primarily the products of thinking that happens below the level of awareness.”

Brooks is an op-ed columnist for The New York Times, and has been senior editor at The Weekly Standard. He is also a contributing editor at Newsweek and The Atlantic Monthly. In addition, he is a weekly commentator on PBS NewsHour.

A self-described non “touchy-feely” person, Brooks is primarily a political journalist and commentator. And yet, I find it interesting that this book explores the nature of the unconscious mind, a realm that initially seems to challenge conventional “rational” thinking.

But as has been said many times, “The heart has its reasons too.”

Afterword

What is the difference between the mind and the brain? And for that matter, how does the mind/brain play role in the evolution of the psyche and the self?

As one source I found put it so aptly, “The mind is the software of the brain.”

Mumbai

Gandhi Corner in downtown Regina, Saskatchewan

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