Saturday, September 12, 2009

democracy of the mind

About eight or nine years ago I was taking a class on contemporary drama at the U of Memphis, and while I was working on a paper on Tom Stoppard's play, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead, I came across an article in the journal Modern Language Review that explored the way this play related to consciousness theory. I don't recall the specifics, but the general idea was that the audience represented memory. Roz and Guild were sort of bumbling idiots outside of those few passages from Hamlet because the audience has no memory of these characters outside of their representations within that play.

It was somewhere along those lines, but the brief glimpses of neuroscience that the article provided were the starting point for my own forays into neuroscience, philosophy of mind, and consciousness theory. I spent several years fairly focused (for me [which is still not so much]) on this study, and a few semesters after this first glimpse, while taking a class on political philosophy and reading Locke's 2nd treatise of gov't, I spent one Sunday night pacing around the attic, chain smoking cigarettes, and trying to work out a clearer picture of what is just a small passage from that work on the dangers of material excess, which I felt was a key to unlocking my own interpretations of the work as a whole. At that stage I had a still pretty hazy knowledge of neuroanatomy, but I had a grip on the basics. At some late hour, I came to develop my theory of mental resonance in this mad pacing thought session that is still the foundation of my understanding of the role and value of spirituality.

The basic idea is that there are all these systems of the brain that are interacting all the time, and there's surely as much disagreement within the mind as there is in the world. Most of this occurs below consciousness, but undoubtedly feeling, thought, and action are heavily influenced by this neurological chatter. When there's dissonance between the systems, one system has to dominate and therefore tamp down on disagreement. How this process happens is a complicated mess of complexity and abstractional layering, and I wouldn't pretend to even feel close to having a grip on that. Consciousness is a slippery concept and agency is difficult nay impossible to locate precisely.

So, in my mind, excess is the result of this mental dissonance and a kind of unconscious political fight for control of conscious experience and expression. The type of excess and immoderation that Locke was talking about was the result of this disagreement in (possibly) concert with maybe socially skewed rational processes of the neocortex. The further idea was that mental resonance was what the spiritual experience was. I came to this conclusion based on my own experiences of meditation which can be this kind of hyper-awareness, a feeling that consciousness is expanded and the filter is removed a little bit. A way to get the mind synced up and not talking at cross purposes.

Last year I worked up a presentation for a social psychology class about how this internal process related to the externalities of social interaction. And I really wish it had been a paper and not a presentation because all I have are some vague notes and nothing clearly articulated. Here's just a bit of those notes:
Internal resonance of the mind is an internal democratic process. Must be internally democratic for healthy cognition (read: balanced mind), and therefore able to be democratic in relation to others so as not to dominate.

The idea was that outward autocratic behavior was a projection of this unconscious internal process of dominance. I didn't at the time explore how this dominance came to be or whether this mental resonance would always return similar outcomes across personalities, but I see now these are important questions. And not ones that I have any kind of answers for, for now.

In the previous post, I suggested quickly that this idea of unconditionality (which can be found in one form or another in just about all mystic writings from all different sects and religions) was related to Rousseau's general will, which was itself the ideal political expression and the thing that magistrates (Rousseau's term for gov't officials) should aim for. All these things raise a lot of questions in terms of both ideals and pragmatics, and certainly the fact that Rousseau was the most influential thinker in the French revolution doesn't exactly inspire confidence in his ideas. Course, philosophers have been often misunderstood, which is a problem of the discipline as well as a problem of heuristic human tendencies (and if these are natural tendencies [which cognitive psychology suggests] then what does this mean for democratic consciousness?).

I had a clearer point in my head when I was running this stuff earlier today, but I guess I'm just gonna have to say that I think it's interesting that these ideas appear in such different places as Christian mysticism and 18th century political philosophy. Rousseau never explores any of the spiritual implications of his idea, and settles on The Lawgiver as a way to give expression to this general will. Probably where Lenin got his dictatorship of the proletariat (as if those consolidating power ever really need philosophical backing), but I digress.

Oh, wait. I remember now. So, neuroscientific studies of meditation have sort of verified a portion of my theory in that they found high levels of synchronous electrical activity in the various systems of the brain during meditation. Mental resonance does in fact take place during meditation (and can I just reiterate that I worked that out through introspection, basic neuroanatomy, and logical induction, and, yes, that does make me a badass [in my own admittedly dissonant mind at least]). Returning to the the notion of both unconditionality and the general will being more than just the sum of there parts, I would suggest that this is also true of this gamma wave synchronous mental resonance. The resonant state is the mystical experience that is itself the heavy duty, full-on version of the spiritual experience. And that that experience is itself the absolute intensity of ecstatic human experiential possibility, which is greater than the sum of the dissonantial potentialities all tallied up nice and neat.

Clearly, there's miles left to go with this argument, and certainly my point is not that people who don't engage specifically in transcendental meditation are not all they can be or anything. I'm just not sure as a society we can get anything close to an expression of this ideal, the general will, in a society that on balance lacks spiritual rituals and experience or as a collection of individuals who mostly eschew these potentially mentally resonant states. I also think that in a heterogeneous society those rituals have to be developed personally and no set of 'Here you go, now go to town' paint-by-numbers rituals can be symbolic in the Jungian sense. The hard choices of freedom or some such.

Like I said, miles to go here. Shoulder pain is starting to overwhelm my capacity to sit in a chair, so I'm calling it here.

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