Thursday, August 28, 2008

Brain as Composter IX

In Brain as Composter VIII I outlined the various ways Claxton thinks about the fast extroverted thinking he calls D-mode thinking. I disagree that scientific thinking lines up with D-mode thinking as much as he tries to assert, which is my only criticism. I do not think D-mode and undermind types of thinking have to live as separated as Claxton suggests, or that they have to forever be antithetical. They can marry, enjoy a long and fruitful partnership through life, albeit with a few misunderstandings along the way probably.

Now, I want to bring out Claxton's treatment of what he calls the "undermind," (in his book Hare Brain Tortoise Mind) and what I'd like to rename, the "Composter."

1. from p. 7:
"Modern Western culture has so neglected the intelligent unconscious - the undermind, (...) that we no longer know that we have it, do not remember what it is for, and so cannot find it when we need it. We do not think of the unconscious as a valuable resource, but (if we think of it at all) as a wild and unruly 'thing' that threatens our reason and control, and lives in the dangerous Freudian dungeon of the mind. Instead, we give exclusive credence to conscious, deliberate purposeful thinking - d-mode."

Well, maybe not always. I think it might depend on how large one's association cortex is and how well it's myelinated..

2. from p. 37:
"The undermind is acquiring knowledge of which consciousness is unaware, and by which it is unchanged, and using it to influence the way people behave. Consequently a schism develops between what people think they know (about themselves), and the information that is consciously driving their perceptions and reactions. The views that they espouse about themselves, we might say,become at odds with the ones that their behavior in fact embodies."
I would like to say, I think it probably operates this way whether or not we are conscious of it, but we CAN develop a relationship with and have conscious input into it if we understand why it's there and what it requires. Also, as Burton points out, one cannot trust the feelings that come out of it, like the feeling of being certain. One must test ideas outwardly and scientifically to ensure their objectivity, validity, reliability.. how they stack up against the rest of the natural world. Good fence-keeping.

3. p. 75:
"Sometimes ..resonating of data and experience - perception and cognition - happens quickly. (...) Very often though, when the predicament is more intricate, the undermind needs to be left to its own devices for awhile, and then the need for patience - the ability to tolerate uncertainty, to stay with the feeling of not-knowing for a while, to stand aside and let a mental process that can neither be observed nor directed take its course - becomes all important. Someone who cannot abide uncertainty is therefore unable to provide the womb that creative intuition needs...creativity is enhanced when people are forced to slow down.. the willingness to think slowly.. makes possible broader cognitions, more abstract thinking.. and consequently greater flexibility."

This section seems to find echo in Burton's new book very well.

4. p. 13:
"The 'slow ways of knowing' are, in general, those that lack any or all of the characteristics of d-mode. They spend time on uncovering what may lie behind a particular question. They do not rush into conceptualization, but are content to explore more fully into the situation itself before deciding what to make of it. They like to stay close to the particular. They are tolerant of information that is faint, fleeting, ephemeral, marginal, or ambiguous; they like to dwell on details which do not 'fit' or immediately make sense. They are relaxed, leisurely and playful; willing to explore without knowing what they are looking for. They see ignorance and confusion as the ground from which understanding may spring. They use the rich, allusive media of imagination, myth and dream. They are receptive rather than proactive. They are happy to relinquish the sense of control over directions that the mind spontaneously takes. And they are prepared to take seriously ideas that come 'out of the blue', without any ready-made train of rational thought to justify them... The undermind is the key resource on which slow knowing draws, so we need new metaphors and images for the relationship between conscious and unconscious which escape the polarization to which both Descartes and Freud, from their different sides, subscribed. Only in the light of new models of the mind will we see the possibility and the point of more patient, receptive ways of knowing, and be able to cultivate - and tolerate - the conditions which they require."
I like how this ties back once again into the ideas of permaculture and working with nature instead of against it. Again, is this not the same way compost forms? I do not, however, see any difficulty with being "receptive" and "proactive" both at the same time. Surely they are NOT mutually exclusive. Surely as compost forms, the insects and microorganisms that are developing it, the thermodynamicism of a bin, are highly proactive... but the bin itself is receptive, isn't it?

5. p. 116:
"The undermind is a layer of activity within the human psyche that is richer and more subtle than consciousness. It can register and respond to events not become conscious. We have at our disposal a shimmering database full of pre-conceptual information, much of which is turned down by consciousness as being too contentious or unreliable. Conscious awareness decides what it will accept as valid - and thereby misses dissonant patterns and subtler nuances. While in d-mode, consciousness tends to present to us a world that is somewhat cautious and conventional. Sometimes this is appropriate, but if we get stuck there and lose the key to the twilight world that subserves it, we mothball valuable ways of knowing which can find sense and weave meaning out of a collection of the faintest threads and scraps... one way of expressing this disparity between conscious and unconscious is in terms of two thresholds, a lower one, above which the undermind becomes active, and a higher one, above which information enters consciousness. The closer together these two points are, the more 'in touch' with the unconscious we are, and the more complete is our conscious awareness of what is happening across all the mental realms. The further apart they are, the more our conscious perception is impoverished. This quantitative notion of thresholds is rather crude, but it enables us to formulate an important question; what it it that determines how near or how far apart the two thresholds are? More generally, is the relationship between conscious and unconscious forms of awareness a dynamic one, subject to change, and if so, what forces control it? (...) Perhaps it is specifically things that are threatening that cause the conscious threshold to shoot up."
Well.. don't be a key-loser then. (There follows pages of info on studies to do with 'perceptual defence', amnesiacs who can 'remember,' the effects of "self-consciousness", effects of hypnosis, measurable visual perception by anger, blindsight, that all generally point to the idea that pressure, stress, being threatened or over-eager, lead to coarsening of perception and to narrower less functional minds.)

7. p. 203:
" is all the more significant that cognitive science is currently drawing our attention to the curious fact that we have forgotten how our minds work. As we have seen, the modern mind has a distorted image of itself that leads it to neglect some of its own most valuable learning capacities. We now know that the brain is built to linger as well as to rush, and that slow knowing sometimes leads to better answers. We know that knowledge makes itself known through sensations, images, feelings, and inklings, as well as through clear conscious thoughts. Experiments tell us that just interacting with complex situations without trying to figure them out can deliver a quality of understanding that defies reason and articulation. Other studies have shown that confusion may be a vital precursor to the discovery of a good idea. To be able to meet the uncertain challenges of the contemporary world, we need to heed the message of this research and to expand our repertoire of ways of learning and knowing to reclaim the full gamut of cognitive possibilities. This will not be easy, for the grip of d-mode on late twentieth century culture is strong.."
It is not entirely D-mode's fault - lazy "farming methods" perhaps.

8. from the last chapter, undermind and wisdom:
"..slow ways of knowing will not deliver their delicate produce when the mind is in a hurry. In a state of continual urgency and harassment, the brain-mind's activity is condemned to follow its familiar channels. Only when it is meandering can it spread and puddle, gently finding out such uncharted fissures and runnels as may exist. Yet thinking slowly, paradoxically, does not have to take a long time. It is a knack that can be acquired and practiced. The mind needs to be given time; but its ingenuity also depends on the cultivation of a disposition to take one's time, as much as there is. One can learn to access and use these other ways of knowing more fluently. One might even suggest that managers - and their workforces - might try meditation; though, as a preliminary they would need to understand what that means and how it helps."

My italics. I love this passage and the imagery it evokes.

More to come, a tie-in with the Burton book.

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