My family and I are off to see the musical Wicked tomorrow.  Should be fun.  It will be the closest to thing to a vacation I’ve gotten and will get for a while, methinks.

The rest of this long blathery post will be yet some more thoughts I think I thought while reading Consciousness Explained by Daniel C. Dennett.

Funny little story

Here’s just a funny little story from page 59 of Conscious Explained by Daniel C. Dennett:

A neurosurgeon once told me about operating on the brain of a young man with epilepsy … [he was] making sure that the parts tentatively to be removed were not absolutely vital by stimulating them electrically and asking the patient what he experienced … one spot produced a delighted response from the patient: “It’s ‘Outta Get Me’ by Guns N’ Roses, my favorite heavy metal band!”

I asked the neurosurgeon if he had asked the patient to sing or hum along with the music, since it would be fascinating to learn how ‘high fidelity’ the provoked memory was.  Would it be in exactly the same key and tempo as the record? … The surgeon hadn’t asked the patient to sing along.  “Why not?” I asked, and he replied: “I hate rock music!”

Later in the conversation the neurosurgeon happened to remark that he was going to have to operate again on the same young man, and I expressed the hope that he would just check to see if he could restimulate the rock music, and this time ask the fellow to sing along.  “I can’t do it,” replied the neurosurgeon, “since I cut out that part.”  “It was part of the epileptic focus?” I asked, and he replied, “No, I already told you — I hate rock music!”

I wonder if I could make everyone in the world love my music and hate other people’s music by operating on their brains?  I wonder if I could also religiously convert them too, so that they will all think I’m a god.  But, of course, I believe that would be morally wrong, so I would have to operate on my own brain first.  Then I will believe it to be right.

Ha ha ha!

On page 62, Dennett writes:

There is a species of primate in South America, more gregarious than most other mammals, with a curious behavior.  The members of this species often gather in groups, large and small, and in the course of their mutual chattering, under a wide variety of circumstances, they are induced to engage in bouts of involuntary, convulsive respiration, a sort of loud, helpless, mutually reinforcing group panting that sometimes is so severe as to incapacitate them.  Far from being aversive, however, these attacks seem to be sought out by most members of the species, some of whom even appear to be addicted to them.

When I realized he was talking about humans and our habit of laughing, I could not help but engage in involuntary convulsive respiration myself.  When you laugh at the thought of how strange laughter is, you can create an internal infinite laugh loop.

Thoughts on the whyness of things and such

On page 64, Dennett writes:

We can give a perfectly sound biological account of why there should be pain and pain-behavior … what we want is a similarly anchored account of why there should be hilarity and laughter.

I think one has to be careful in asking “why?” because it can mean two different things.  There’s the cause-and-effect why and the purpose why.  For example, if I ask “why does the heart pump blood?” you could either answer “to get blood to other parts of the body, duh” (purpose why) or “because the brain tells it to, duh” (cause-effect why).

The thing is, purpose why applies only to human actions (and perhaps animal actions); consciousness and planning create purpose why.  Nature works only with cause-effect why.  But we tend to project a purpose why understanding of the world sometimes, especially on things like evolution and living systems.  Why do we have hands?  Not to grab things; nature doesn’t know anything, and it doesn’t care about grabbing.  You could argue that being able to grab things has provided an evolutionary advantage.  OK, but that still doesn’t answer how hands came to be.  Before creatures could grab things, nature didn’t say “it would be nice to have a body part that could grab things!”

Ultimately I think the reason we have hands, the reason we laugh, the reason we cry, feel pain, etc., all lie in the complexity of DNA replication over many millions of years (and the effect of having physical advantages (which is not to say that all elements of the human body have some evolutionary advantage; I doubt they do; why only one thumb, for instance?  There’s no advantage to having only one thumb)), and since that system is too complex for us to understand at the moment (and there are things about it we may never be able to fully know anyway, like the entire DNA structures of all of our ancestors), we might as well say that it’s random, that there is no reason.

All that said, asking [the right kind of] why might still help us learn something, but we should realize that it might be something we can never know.  Dennett might call this “defeatist thinking” … but oh well.  (Oh well?  More defeatist thinking!)

Knowing thyself

On page 67, Dennett writes:

Perhaps we are fooling ourselves about the high reliability of introspection, our personal powers of self-observation of our own conscious mind. … We are either “infallible” — always guaranteed to be right — or at least “incorrigible” — right or wrong, no one else could correct us.

This reminds me of a post I wrote a long while ago in which I blathered about why I hated being a teenager.  (It has nothing to do with a “maturing brain” and everything to do with society and parents trying to continue to maintain power and control over “teens,” which is a pretty new word/concept in the scope of human history.)  If you read the comments, someone says:

Though I can’t say I agree with the phrase “That’s why” in cases like this… “That’s what made me moody and depressed” — I really don’t think anyone has the authority on how their responses work to stimuli. If you’re on that level, you ought to be able to supersede them and establish control over your mind; however, I think that inability to control goes hand in hand with deficit understanding.

To which I responded:

Yikes! But then, who does? Does anyone? Shouldn’t I be the authority on how I feel, if I speak for myself at least? Can’t I know what’s making me miserable?

Now, I’d still defend the notion that teens being forced to do things makes them miserable. I think it makes just about everyone miserable.  Would parents in their 30s or 40s really want to trade places with their teens? I think not (though some might not admit it). But then, how many teens would agree with me? What are the reasons teens give for being so “moody”? The world is stupid and no one understands them?

So, I still agree with myself on the issue of “the myth of the teen brain” (and the myth that there even is a “teen” stage of psychological development), but I also agree that in many circumstances (uh… except this one) we should be cautious of thinking we can understand why we feel what we feel.

In fact, I think this is kind of exploited in works of fiction like the show House, when a character might say something like “I’m trying to help you!” and House will say something like “no, you don’t care about me, you just feel guilty about about what you said to Chase” or some other psychological twist that sheds new light everyone’s motivations, which is one of the reasons the show is fun to watch… the characters’ true motivations for everything is almost always in question (OK, maybe not always, but still).

How well can we truly understand our own motivations and causes of our feelings and our own thought processes and whatever? How are we to know?

On a side note, I’ve always thought it not only useless, but also a bit dangerous to too deeply psychoanalyze yourself (or believe someone else’s psychoanalysis of you). You’re probably likely to be wrong about yourself, and then acting on your own psychoanalytical conclusions, you may destroy yourself even further whilst thinking you’re helping yourself.

Though maybe I’m just saying that because I’m uncomfortable being too self-conscious… oh wait, oops, I was psychoanalyzing myself there…

But, really, if someone tried to convince me that they knew how their own mind worked, and what their subconscious desires were, I’d think “oh brother” and not believe them. Unless they agree with me on the teenager issue, of course.

That’s all folks

OK, is that enough?  I think so.  I kind of rambled, and I’m not sure I’ll fully agree with everything I said a few days from now, but writing all this helped the spare time go by today at work, and it made me feel as if I was doing something useful with that spare time, even though you can probably tell that that was not case.


Don · March 16, 2010 at 10:10 AM

You have peeked my intrest towards this book. I will now have to read it myself.

S P Hannifin · March 16, 2010 at 12:23 PM

It’s from 1991, so I’m sure there has been plenty of brain research since then that has shed new light on the topic. Still, I find it to be a very thought provoking book, which makes me take forever to read it since I always have to stop and think (and blog) about it.

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