Saturday, April 21, 2007

Fixing blame

One of the strange features of our society is how much people value personal responsibility, yet then spend much time blaming others for falling short of the standards of those doing the blaming. That’s not leaving responsibility to the other person, is it? No, it’s saying my standard of behavior should be everyone’s standard. It’s saying someone should be responsible for behaving as I would, not responsible according to their own understanding.

“They made me do it.” It’s easy to say, “No, you could have done something else,” if you have no sense of how those other choices would have affected that person. Was it just self-indulgence? Was it just narcissism? Or was it surrendering to something greater than he was? Most people who label Cho Seung-Hui as simply evil or something else contemptuous have no idea of the conflict within him, no idea what it was like to walk in his shoes.

I think a suitable afterlife would be for judgmental people to experience life from the perspective of those they judged. It’s probably too much trouble or beyond the power of whoever and whatever God really is, but that’s what’s missing from all these judgments one comes across in the media, blogs or real life, on all sorts of issues. Opinions are so often more about ignorance than anything else.

Monday, April 16, 2007

If only everyone carried guns

Michelle Malkin and the guys at Fox News wasted little time to cluck that if students at Virginia Tech carried concealed weapons, “this tragedy could have been avoided”. Really?

Oh ye who would say anything to support your bias. Have you no memories? Have you no ability to explore your thoughts just a little? Let’s see, what state has the greatest reputation for carrying guns? I would say Texas, though I might be wrong. Immediately after thinking that, I remembered a little incident in 1966 at the University of Texas, an incident that used to be the record for killing people at a school, until today.

The Wikipedia article on Charles Whitman gives many details.

Concealed weapons do not prevent mass murder. They merely require a shift in tactics by the man determined to commit murder/suicide. These are not impulse killings. These are a premeditated expression of rage where the killer will do whatever he needs to do in order to feel some power before going out while he’s ahead. All of you creeps who never listened to him will get yours, directly or symbolically. I bet if Charles Whitman had a higher death toll in mind to exorcise his demons, he could have met that goal. You don’t have to be a genius to plan for concealed weapons if people have them. You do have to be willing to die, but that’s the idea.

Guns make people more efficient killers. More guns don’t change that. They just require a different plan to maximize one’s killing spree.

Actually not everyone does it

I watched The McLaughlin Group yesterday. Pat Buchanan and Tony Blankley were defending Don Imus by attacking others. I forget whom they attacked vs. other attacks I’ve heard on this subject, but there have been at least these people whose bad behavior supposedly mitigates Imus’ guilt:

--- black rappers who use harsh words for black women and others
--- others in the media and blogosphere who are racist and sexist
--- David Brock, who is CEO of Media Matters, which first publicized Imus’ description of the Rutgers players, since in his book Blinded by the Right, Brock admitted lying not only when he was a conservative, but even when he was a student, so who is he to talk about someone else?

This came up a lot the last time Ann Coulter was in the news, how people defend their own by attacking the other side as being just as bad. Interestingly that last time with Ann Coulter also demonstrated that sometimes people criticize their own as well. I don’t expect that’s a trend.

One problem with the “everyone does it” defense is where do you go from there? Should we take all the bad people out and shoot them? Why not? How about a lesser, but uniform sanction against such bad behavior? Of course people using this defense aren’t interested in any such logical action based on their rhetoric, extreme or not. They’re just using words to defend their own and to set up some future attack on an opponent. It’s not morality. It’s just rhetoric for the sake of power.

There is a world beyond the fantasies of rhetoric. There is a surprisingly large amount of good behavior out there as opposed to those who spend a lifetime engaging in oneupsmanship by attacking their opponents while puffing up themselves and those like-minded. Does the anonymity of being behind a microphone or keyboard promote that? Is it the freedom to be as nasty as someone wants to be in that anonymity that is the biggest factor? Maybe other things are more important, such as the fantasy that anyone will make much of a difference behind that microphone or keyboard and the ego involved in that.

The morality of anyone speaks for itself. It’s complicated how one chooses to respond, but I can’t believe that many people mistake the immorality of the media and blogosphere for something good. Hatred, indifference and falseness are always evil and immoral. It may be a necessary evil, useful for flushing out a greater hatred, indifference and falseness, but you can’t fool all of the people all of the time that this is as things should be.

Sunday, April 15, 2007

It's been fun

Both the media and the blogosphere are so strange. For some of that they are each strange in their own way. There was a lot of criticism of Markos Moulitsas this week when he essentially said “big deal” to vile threats against blogger Kathy Sierra, as part of his dismissal of a code of conduct for the internet. Judging from so many similar dismissals, some bloggers see it as essential that they use the f-word and the worst sexual putdowns they can imagine as well as posting fake photos showing violence to their enemies. Somehow this is not yet an issue with which the mainstream media struggles. They have strayed some from the fairness doctrine and from past standards of obscenity, but no one there seems to think the f-word is necessary to explore any controversy.

In some ways, though, the problems with the media and blogs are exactly the same. Partisanship guides almost everything. It’s not just liberals vs. conservatives, but many subgroups, too, for politics, religion, and other issues about life. There’s no exploring for common ground, little exploring for facts.

What is the morality of all these words? There was no morality that was going to fire Don Imus simply for what he said. If Media Matters hadn’t pointed out his racism, sexism and stupidity, would anyone have cared? It was when public outrage bled through to advertisers pulling their commercials that Don Imus was fired. So some say the public is overly moral, as if the lack of morality among the media is to be preferred. It doesn’t seem that way to me. I suppose it’s arguable. The public may not be that consistent in its morality. But one thing that’s for sure, there’s very little morality in all the partisanship that fuels both the media and the blogs. There’s demagoguery about morality, in service of partisanship, but little real morality.

Both the media and blogs keep fighting a war of words on topics where any unbiased, complete exploration of the subject leads to a simple conclusion. These things really shouldn’t be arguable from a factual point of view, but people pretend to argue facts when really they’re starting with some partisan fantasy. Only false premises cause anyone to deny certain truths.

Abortion is sometimes a good thing. Homosexuality is a natural trait. Evolution is a fact, both biological evolution and cultural evolution. Global warming is a fact. I understand that many disagree with those statements, but it’s only bias that leads anyone to disagree, unless they’re nitpicking about some more perfect way to say them. Fine, be perfect, but that doesn’t change facts. Neither does a public opinion poll. Neither do arguments that go on and on, saying the same false thing from the same false premises. What a waste.

Yet so much of the media and blogs are such a waste, and it’s not just because religious conservatives and political conservatives live in their fantasies. Some media insist that there are two sides to every issue, no matter where they have to dredge up “experts” for one side. Other media like Fox News just go with the fantasies as being some oppressed minority, even majority. Meanwhile blogs on any side go on and on, as if not repeating their arguments again and again with a contemptuous tone toward the other side means something awful will happen. Sometimes it’s apparent what the greater agenda is, such as those who defend that evolution is a fact and also insist that all religion is evil. There are plenty of resources to convince anyone with an open mind that the former is true. The latter is its own fantasy piggybacking on the fact of the former. Everyone is prone to fantasies, not just conservatives.

God is a more difficult topic. I understand that. Good people can have various views about it. Bertrand Russell was a good person. That atheism made sense to him didn’t change that. Gandhi was a good person. Some Christians are good people from any part of the spectrum of Christianity. Other Christians are judgmental ideologues who seem never to have considered that someone else’s way might be God’s way. I don’t just mean conservatives.

God is whoever and whatever God is, not what people say God is. I like that as a place to start about God, but so many people insist their own beliefs are all that matter, unless they are ridiculing those with other beliefs or demonizing them. Both the media and the blogs cater to such people. Why? It’s so repetitive.

I’m at the point of becoming repetitive. I find myself more and more referring to things I’ve already written here. I think I have in fact written everything that’s important for me to write. Unfortunately the search feature here is not the best as just the most recent page related to a search seems to pop up, not all of them. Still anyone who wants to read what I think will find it here.

I firmly believe in what I wrote on April 10, that the way to deal with sociopaths is to turn away from them. That doesn’t apply to patients or clients who are sociopaths and come to me for help. I’ll help anyone. But in my private life I only want to be with people who know what love is. I wouldn’t think it would be that hard to know what love is with so many examples of love in literature and real life, albeit together with many examples of hatred, indifference, and falseness. To know that God is love is hard. But not to know love at all? People have to choose that, I think, and I think some choose that in part by paying a lot of attention to the media and blogs. No, there’s little love here, lots of words, little love.

Saturday, April 14, 2007

The hero's journey

I enjoyed watching Joseph Campbell’s series on PBS in the eighties, The Power of Myth. There was an egalitarian quality to his idea that many people are heroes, that many people undergo transformation in their lives, which by itself is heroic. At that level of heroism, every child who grows up and every adult who has raised a child or overcome the adversity of illness or failure follows a hero’s journey. More often Campbell used “hero” to mean someone who had encountered something new in his or her journey, leading to a transformation that was unique in its details, though likely similar to the transformation of other heroes. Following this, most heroes return to their people to share their experience, like honey bees telling their sisters where to go for pollen, though Campbell mentioned the possibility of a hero never returning from his or her journey, instead staying in the bliss of their transformation as a yogi.

I don’t remember other possibilities discussed during the TV series, but I looked at the book The Powers of Myth, which is a transcript of Campbell’s conversations with Bill Moyers. There is in fact some brief dialog about another possibility, that a hero’s people cannot absorb what he or she would teach them. This might lead to some secondary teacher bringing back the hero’s experience at a later date when the people are ready for it, if that experience has been preserved. Then again, the whole thing might be forgotten. Then who would know about it? God might, but then the God of my understanding is limited in remembering.

Classical myths involve heroes traveling somewhere physically. As much as I’ve traveled in my life, everywhere I’ve gone physically has been thoroughly explored already. There are plenty of maps, pictures, and histories that could explain those places better than I can. The places I’ve gone where no one has gone before are intellectual, emotional, and spiritual. Some of those surprised me. Those are hard to explain. It’s easy to explain what doesn’t surprise anyone, but even some relatively common experiences are so hard to explain to the uninitiated, such as how beneficial Al-Anon is to someone with an alcoholic spouse or that it’s not that children are so loving, but how they draw out love we their parents didn’t know we had.

Even for those things the spiritual aspects of them are harder to get across than the biology of it. So what else is there to do but be grateful for our individual knowledge and use that in our own lives? There’s no living on a mountain top when one’s never left the physically ordinary life.

In science, old ideas regularly find new life. By about one hundred years ago several scholars had suggested that the continents on either side of the Atlantic resembled each other in shape, geology, and fossils. But geology was not ready for the idea of continental drift then. Few geologists could take seriously the idea that continents could be plowing through the dense rock of the sea floor to take up new positions. Then after World War II the crucial data was found. It wasn’t just the continents that move. Magnetometers showed a very clear pattern that the sea floors were spreading apart from mid-ocean ridges. Plate tectonics now made sense when continental drift alone hadn’t. It wasn’t rocks plowing through other rocks. It was convection in the layers of the Earth, like convection of any fluid with a crust on top.

This is what experimentalists have done many times, provided a missing piece that makes obvious what was debatable before. The discovery of cosmic background radiation in the sixties made the Big Bang obvious. Some combination of Earth history, fossils, comparative anatomy, population genetics, and molecular genetics makes evolution obvious today. Those who venerate the Bible still resist, but there’s even more evidence for evolution coming from the genetics revolution. That evolution is a fact is irresistible in the long run.

There are many heroes in science, but there’s only a particular type of knowledge that they can provide. Science tells me the facts of my world and to some extent facts about my body and my mind. There’s still that matter of how do I live. What’s most important in life? It’s not whatever feels good, or I’d be eating pizza right now instead of writing this. Does the one who lives the longest win? Does the one who lives the healthiest life win? Does the one who lives the most productive life win, be that wealth, intellectual production, or some social measure? Is it one’s peak production that matters or an entire life?

That’s how we analytical types approach the question of how we should live. What exactly does “should” mean? Heroes apart from science are not good at being so explicit. How much did they do that was their doing anyway? Are we all pawns of biology, culture, and spirituality?

From Joseph Campbell’s perspective, those questions aren’t so important. Every hero’s journey is much like another’s. All religions are true, even if the only way to make that so is to make them all metaphorical. So every founder of a religion is a hero, unveiling some metaphorical corner of the truth by wandering away from the convention of his or her time, overcoming obstacles because the only other choice is to turn back, and finally coming to see whatever is new and fulfilling in that journey, in a way that is not new to everyone, but to who this individual is and the culture from which this individual comes. To Campbell being a hero is as easy as falling out of a boat and hitting water. There are some preconditions to such an event, but they’re easily met.

It’s different for someone who believes as I do that all religions are false, including atheism. Founders of religion aren’t heroes to me. They each made their own house of cards in terms of beliefs, rituals, organizations, and leaders. The hero to me is the one who sees that and doesn’t do the same. Atheists who insist that theirs is not a religion, but just going their own way don’t qualify as such a hero from what I see. If atheism is not a religion, why is it so many atheists spend so much time working on ideas that support atheism, on places in the real world and in the blogosphere where people support each other in their atheism, and to promote leaders for atheists to follow?

Being a hero is not just about falling out of our boat of conventional wisdom and hitting water. People who climb back into the boat either with stories about how wonderful the water is or what a delusion the water is are just doing what people do, telling stories they like with little understanding of the reality involved. It certainly would be heroic for someone to fall out of the boat and walk on the water or leap to the far shore. That’s what some of these dripping wet prophets say can happen. I don’t believe them. The totality of such stories doesn’t make sense to me. I’d find the story of someone who fell out of the boat and realized he or she could swim more believable.

Now whose story is that? I haven’t found that to be anyone’s story. I admire stories of people being devoted to ending poverty or some other such service. Yet as much as I admire Mother Teresa’s story of serving the needy, she was always as devoted to Catholicism as to the poor. People are forever hanging on to some part of conventional wisdom from inside the boat as well as whatever they learn from the water.

I try to tell my own story of the water. It’s not a simple story. Sometimes the water is cold. Sometimes the water is warm. Sometimes it’s scary. Sometimes it’s comforting. The God whom I’ve met in the water is not the same God as those in the boat say He is. The God I know has limits, limits that explain why the world isn’t better than it is and why I haven’t heard the voice of God coming through so many religious leaders who claim to speak for Him. The place to start with the real God is to understand that God is whoever and whatever God is, not what people say He is. People don’t like that. They prefer to say God is just so or nothing real at all. They’d rather do that than learn how to swim.

God is not a hero. He/She just is. I am not a hero. It was circumstances more than it was my choice to go into the water, and while I did decide to let go of the side of the boat, it was the obvious choice at that point. After that one just has to endure, and whether one endures passively or aggressively is so much trial and error more than anything heroic. I wish there were a hero’s wisdom to guide me, but I’ve looked at all the candidates. They all have baggage left from having grown up in the boat. Paul wrote about the Spirit living in him and he in the Spirit, but he was stuck seeing the world through the artificial duality of clean and unclean. Jesus presumably had the same problem. I’ve been amazed at how easily God cuts through my confusion to give me a clear direction through prayer at times, but it’s always less than perfect, despite how many claim that God must be perfect.

If any of us makes it to the far shore, will we still see the boat? Will we care? Will it be, “I made it. They’ll have to figure it out for themselves.”? Is anything of religion truly coming back to us from heroes? Is anything of God a hero returning to help us? God tells me no, that’s not who He is. He is helpful, but not because He used to be one of us.

We can say we’re all heroes just for surviving childhood and whatever transformations we’ve had since, but has anyone been the ultimate hero? Anyone is free to follow whoever they think is the ultimate hero, but what if there isn’t one? What if there is only help for me to make the most of my life, not an example to follow? And that “most of my life” may be something that few see as an honor, such as helping the needy. Whether I follow the ultimate hero or a God who would make me as much a hero as He can, I follow. I would tell that to my culture more than I already have, but I’m quite sure everyone in my culture is up to their neck in ideas as it is.

Is life about being a hero, or is it just about enduring? If there’s a hero to tell us that, his or her voice doesn’t stand out well. I suspect both God and any hero would have that be different, yet that’s not enough. Maybe that’s the first step of the hero’s journey, toward optimism or away from it, towards there being somewhere to go or not. Then eventually report back. Maybe people will be ready to listen. Maybe they’ll prefer not to know or will be as sure as geologists once were that continents don’t go tearing through sea floors. Can we get partial credit on that last one?

Tuesday, April 10, 2007

Sociopaths are everywhere

I was following links today and came across a claim by atheist Brent Rasmussen that altruism is ultimately just what some people do to feed their self-worth. I’ve encountered similar cynicism before. One can search Google with “altruism” and various other words. It’s easy to find others making a similar claim, though never with data in my experience, despite the large numbers of people who help others in need. Instead it’s always an argument based on the meaning of “selfish” to the person making the argument. I’ve written before about my high school teacher who did that many years ago.

The answer to this is not that hard to understand. People can indeed choose to be selfless. Whatever selfishness there is in making a choice doesn’t make the whole behavior selfish. The only way to deny that is to engage in black and white thinking. Maybe that’s hard for high school students to see through, but adults who do it strike me as trying to excuse their sociopathy, from my high school teacher on. That’s not because they like black and white thinking. It’s what they’re doing in denying the concept of altruism in the first place, being subversive, justifying their own selfishness as the only thing that’s real.

Of course not everyone is so honest about their sociopathy. Conservatives make many excuses why it’s OK to neglect the needy. They say the needy should help themselves. They make up simplicities about how the homeless are mostly mentally ill who choose to be homeless as they choose not to take their pills or how anyone can get a job if they just choose to. Those Bible-believing Christians who therefore should be following Matthew 25: 31-46 find that their God instead wants them to evangelize, fight against abortion or work on themselves personally. There are lots of excuses not to help the needy. My fellow liberals often find some excuses, too.

But not the people I know who help the needy. How many would I say are volunteers this way for the sake of their ego? There are none that I can tell. Yet sociopaths argue otherwise. Brent Rasmussen insisted I must be a liar for claiming there is such a thing as altruism that is an expression of love, not selfishness. There is something in me that wants to feel sorry for people who know so little of love that they claim everything in life is selfish. Yet there is something else, the anger I often feel on behalf of my clients for their suffering and on behalf of myself that just to talk about something basic like love in this world is so difficult. Some people really don’t know love exists. Some people don’t know there is a God who is love. Some people who think there is a God have no idea what love is, just rules, power, and inexplicable mystery.

There is love. There is more to life than just selfishness. I embrace that through God, but if someone can find the same thing in a different way, as Bertrand Russell did for one, I would think that’s a step in the right direction. To say no, there is only ego and selfishness, those are fighting words. That’s the enemy. That’s hatred, indifference and falseness all wrapped into one, the things that make life difficult for all of us.

I feel anger at such hurtful things, but they are too big for me. They may even be too big for God. Maybe the only reasonable way for any of us is to turn our backs on such ignorance and arrogance and embrace love and truth where it exists, not where it is absent. Everyone dies eventually. Love may die, too, or it may survive those who deny it, whether that’s complete denial or trivializing love as being something no different than chocolate. Either way I find it better to live with love than with sociopaths. Sociopaths are everywhere, but not everyone is a sociopath. Thank God.

Monday, April 09, 2007

A simple dream

I was speaking to one of my daughters yesterday so naturally I had a dream as if I had roommates again as she does. In my dream one of them hadn't been paying the cable TV bill. The amount owed on the bill I saw was so large I had trouble telling if it was 5 figures or 6 figures. Yet in the dream I was perfectly accepting that this was possible. Hmm, that's too much for me to pay. I wonder how high the bill will go when no one pays it.

I remember feeling some fear about this in the dream, but as I've learned from my needy clients, if some situation is impossible, you just have to turn your thoughts to something that is possible. At least I remembered that much in my dream, even if I didn't remember my actual life or that the cable TV company shuts off service long before the bill even reaches a thousand dollars.

Dreams fascinate me. Some people pretend they understand them so well, whether they see them as messages from the unconsciousness or something even more mystical. Yet they're just guessing. Neuroscience understands the brainstem mechanisms for REM sleep somewhat, but what generates the content for dreams is such a mystery. Dreams are so mysterious scientifically some trivialize them as if they are merely dumping data from the previous day. My dreams aren't that trivial.

Dreams are so different from wakefulness. Dream-like images are incredibly detailed, like waking sensations, instead of the flashes I get from memory or willful imagination I engage in while awake. I regularly get dream-like images while awake, not often enough from my perspective, as they are almost always interesting associations to something I'm doing, as that image of a fairy tale I mentioned in that last post. Why is that so infrequent? If it's my unconscious trying to tell me something, why doesn't it just tell me, in images if it has no words? Why doesn't it tell me everything it knows in one straight story? Maybe it doesn't know that much, but it is creative.

And somehow I'm not the same person in my dreams. I accept whatever I see. Not so when I wake. On awakening my brain quickly figures out that there's no way a cable TV bill ever could get that high. Besides I pay the cable bill in real life, and it's not due for another 2 weeks in reality. There is no threat as there was in my dream. Dumb, naive dreamer. Why so dumb and creative at the same time?

I don't know, but that way of thinking is in me, and I'm sure it's in a lot of people, some while awake. Someday science will understand. For my lifetime I'd settle for people understanding just how much no one understands, but that's something like a cable TV bill of $100,000. It's beyond me to do anything about.

Sunday, April 01, 2007

Transient global amnesia as an experiment in consciousness

Mostly here I refer to the consciousness that neuroscience studies, sometimes called phenomenal consciousness. Toward the end I get to implications about consciousness in the sense of something beyond our biology. As I was writing this my mind was mostly on memories I have. A different sort of image popped up in my mind several times. I dismissed it each time until I realized what name I would put to it. This was not a fleeting image as a memory is, but a dream-like image, one that is startlingly clear and detailed, more so than any actual memory, even one from earlier today. It was a book cover with a drawing on it where a few people were in a medieval scene, something worthy of either The Arabian Nights or Grimm’s Fairy Tales. It was a new creation from somewhere within me or outside of me, a mimicry of book covers I have seen, but not a memory. It was exactly the same each time until I gave it words, “This is a fairy tale?” It didn’t come back after that. What I am saying here isn’t a fairy tale. It relates my professional experience. Is the concept of consciousness a fairy tale? Which part? Who says so? I have more on that later.

On my last day as a first-year neurology resident in 1982 I had to get up early to see a woman of around 60 years old in the ER. Even earlier that morning she had awoken her husband, saying she had chest pain and needed an ambulance. Shortly after he made the necessary call, she asked him what he was talking about. She didn’t have chest pain. She didn’t need an ambulance. I’m sure this latter conversation repeated many times before I made my way to see her.

When I saw her she had as dense an anterograde amnesia as one will ever see. Amnesia is nothing like it’s portrayed in the movies. Some psychiatric patients may deny knowing who they are as a dissociative symptom, but that’s never a neurological condition. With the brain, our vulnerable memories are the ones we’re making now and next most vulnerable the ones from the recent past, ones lost in the retrograde part of an amnesia. Many things can interfere with making new memories, what’s called anterograde amnesia. It’s unusual though to have a profound dysfunction of memory without any other impairment neurologically, which is what transient global amnesia is.

Everyone with this condition acts the same way, the way this woman did. When the impairment in making new memories is total, the patient will engage in conversation that recycles about every 5 minutes. The patient might say he or she just woke up, as this woman did repeatedly. Then they’ll ask what’s going on, where they are. The conversation follows a rational course. Then 5 minutes later it starts all over again as the patient has forgotten everything and believes again he or she has just awoken, because that’s what it seems like to them. Their motivations and strategies in asking questions are about the same as they were the time before, so there is a striking similarity to how the patient proceeds on each “awakening”. Fortunately this rarely lasts more than an hour or two until the patient is starting to make some memories again. Usually people have complete recovery within 24 hours. Early on though, it’s like the movie Groundhog Day, only it’s every 5 minutes instead of 24 hours that things start again, and I’m the one who remembers, not the patient.

Traditionally such a patient is said to have normal consciousness, but this only means that someone looks awake and normal. One difficulty with studying consciousness is that we do take an all or nothing approach to the meaning of that word. We are either conscious or unconscious ordinarily. We do allow a state of drowsiness when this is about the difference between being conscious and asleep, but then we speak of drowsiness as a special state of consciousness where one has not quite become fully conscious. If instead one is looking for states that are between conscious and unconscious, transient global amnesia is one, an altered state of consciousness.

It’s curious that we don’t take such patients at their word that they continuously must have just awoken because everything before just now is dark to them. Of course I saw that this person wasn’t asleep 5 minutes ago, so officially we go with that. But imagine what it’s like for the person who has no memory of the last few hours, none at all. No wonder they all talk alike, searching for a handle on how they suddenly wound up with me. Any other handle is completely different from their long-term memories of how such a present can happen. Many have seen someone suddenly materialize somewhere on Star Trek, but no one thinks of that. People go to what they know personally. We remember waking up from sleep many times, but not being transported ourselves, so we go with what we know for an explanation.

When people have permanent anterograde amnesia of this magnitude, which rarely happens from trauma or some radical epilepsy surgery once done in the past, they aren’t quite so obvious. We do have a second unconscious memory that helps us feel more comfortable without the conscious images to tell us what we’ve been doing recently. The well-studied amnesiac H.M. whose memory stopped in 1956 due to surgery was able to locate things around his house that were new since the surgery, such as where the knives and forks were in his kitchen, without remembering anything explicit about why he could do that. That is unconscious memory, similarly to motor memory of how we walk, talk, or use a tool with no thought of how, once we’ve practiced enough to know how.

Still such patients will write in journals about how it feels they just woke up or became conscious for the first time, as Susan Blackmore describes in her book Consciousness: A Very Short Introduction. Blackmore comments on a number of neurological syndromes that profoundly affect perception, mentioning each time that no spiritual or supernatural consciousness manages to rescue the brain from the affects of injury. So isn’t the brain all there is when it comes to what a mind is?

Most of those syndromes are about the consciousness that’s left when a brain injury takes away half the world from consciousness or one of our senses in one way, but not another. What’s left is consciousness, albeit on a different stage. What maintains it?

Mainstream neuroscience says that what maintains consciousness is something trivial. We have all these modules, perhaps 30 places where a visual map of the outside world exists in a portion of our brain, some for seeing color, some for seeing movement, some for detecting objects. Then there are modules for other senses, both senses that map the world around us and senses that map our bodies. Then there are cognitive areas, some that contain everything we know in terms of verbal symbols, in the speech areas of the left hemisphere, some that are non-verbal associations, including who I am and who and what is close to me, even essential to me. There are memories involving all these things to give us a context for the present. Cobble all those things together and boom (to mimic John Madden), we’re conscious. That’s the mainline theory of consciousness as an emergent property, a trivial expression of everything else we know to be real.

Memory may be the last piece in that puzzle. Most people have the experience that their conscious memories don’t begin until around age 3. We learn before that age, but it’s not through the event-based memory that we can replay in our minds, not what we think of as memory ordinarily. It’s through unconscious memory that we first learn anything. Then we change, unfortunately at a time when no child is able to appreciate the change, much less describe going through it. Is it a coincidence that this is the age when we see children as going from those who say, “No,” to those who say, “Why”?

Age 3 corresponds to when the hippocampus becomes fully myelinated, when it is fully mature. All neuroscientists think these two things go together. The hippocampus is the oldest mammalian structure in our cerebral cortex. It is vital to making new memories. This patient I describe turned out to be one bit of evidence for that as a research PET scanner was available that morning, so while we waited for her to recover, we did the first PET scan ever done during an episode of transient global amnesia. It showed decreased metabolism in the medial temporal lobes bilaterally, where the hippocampus is. Others would point to other evidence, but this evidence I can remember directly, through these fleeting images we have of the past called conscious memory, through which I can remember a few pieces of one day in 1982 as if they were happening now, even if most days in 1982 have left me no such memories. It may be the closest to time travel we ever get.

Our limbic system built up from these, as emotions attached to memories, as relationships between people and things in the world and me, something vital to mammals for mother-child relationships, often more than that. Toward the end of all this evolution came our symbolic abilities, so that we could not only express ourselves in words, but abstract words, even words that make no sense.

What is all this? Is the hippocampus the seat of consciousness? Mainstream neuroscience doesn’t talk that way, having been burned when Descartes said the pineal gland was the seat of the soul. The mainstream view is that memory is just one more module to consciousness, so patients with transient global amnesia are seen as fully conscious, but lacking the memory making module. The patients just don’t remember their consciousness from one moment to the next, while an observer does. At least the observer remembers from moment to moment that the patients looked conscious and rational.

Furthermore, children before age 3 seem conscious, and the maturity of the hippocampus at age 3 isn’t the final development in our consciousness. Our ability for abstract thought isn’t complete until our teens. So isn’t the hippocampus just another actor in the play?

Children before the age of 3 may not have the ability to replay entire scenes in their head or maybe what scenes they do have all fade until the hippocampus is mature. Somehow they look like they maintain a stream of consciousness without that, though not as well as an adult does with an adult’s will, desires, language, all these things that fill our mind.

For things like will and desire we have no clear anatomy as we do for conscious memory. Experiments have been done during brain surgery with awake patients where electrical signals in the brain related to a patient’s intent to push a button to change a slide projector, as instructed, are used to change the slide projector electronically before the patient can do that manually. The patients reported that what happened was that they were going to push the button, but the slide projector changed itself first. It was their will that this happened, but unless that will goes through what we’re used to as our voluntary muscles, we don’t recognize it. Scientists aren’t much better at recognizing what we do by will.

Our memories give us our models of what we think and do. Patients with transient global amnesia have a concept of self. At any moment they see a scene that makes sense to them except for how they got there. They know what objects are outside of them and what objects are them, like their hands. Memory in the sense of that sort of knowledge is intact. They have some remote memory because they used to have a functioning hippocampus, but they are making no new memories, none. So the last few hours are a blank. They must have just awoken. Only observers know they haven’t. They weren’t asleep. 5 minutes ago they were just as they are now. It’s just that some writer has been failing to move the plot along, and the patient doesn’t realize that.

Normally many things move our consciousness along. The outside world moves along at its normal pace. We keep up in terms of perception, memory, and planning what we’re going to do about what goes on around us. We may even develop our own plans out of something within us, our will and desires. Somewhere they enter our consciousness as well and turn into wordy thoughts or images of what we desire or why we are so determined.

Neuroscience soon may do better at following all that through neuroimaging than it has before now. But what there is now is the link between the hippocampus and memory, something that happened in mammals before any other expansion of cerebral cortex. It is a strange plan to the brain. There are sensory areas in the midbrain and the thalamus. In birds these are the most important areas for vision and hearing, not so in us. In us everything in cerebral cortex recreates sensory and motor areas that already exist in the brainstem, apart from new abilities like language. Why? Is it so these areas can be conscious in being linked up to the hippocampus? Is it so our consciousness can be seamless, apart from things such as how the world looks behind my head? Many of us in neuroscience equate cerebral cortex with conscious brain. That’s not quite true as many things happen in cortex that are not conscious, but nothing to my knowledge outside of cortex can be conscious. An entire section of the brain had to be built for us to be conscious, and that started with the hippocampus, with an ability to replay scenes from the past, the present being the most detailed scene we can have played. We see it as it happens, but only through our consciousness built for memories.

Consciousness could be what our brain had to create to make memories as well as it does, to create a virtual reality where we pick out useful or emotionally significant pieces to be stored as memory. Without that our minds in their current state just spin their wheels, confabulating as best they can to explain why we don’t have explicit memories of how we got here – we just woke up, yeah that makes sense. It doesn’t if the condition goes on. If the condition goes on, people learn just to accept the absence of new memories, except when they’re freely writing in a journal. When the absence is fresh, people do what we do easily with the memories we already have. They ask where their mind went. I must have been asleep.

We know so little about the details of making memories. Something is known about the electricity and chemicals involved in a normally functioning hippocampus, how there are long-term changes in the hippocampus which seem to relate to a new memory starting. Then this new memory is transferred to be stored diffusely in the cerebral cortex. At some point a memory is so mature in the rest of the brain that it will persist despite the hippocampus losing function. How long does this take? One can investigate how far back a retrograde amnesia goes in a patient with a brain injury or stroke that isn’t quite as restricted as transient global amnesia, but is close. One can test such subjects on historical events. Compared to controls, subjects perform poorly on events weeks or months before they developed amnesia. Yet for events 25 years in the past, the groups perform equally. How far back does the deficit preceding the amnesia go? According to studies by Larry Squire of UCSD, the two groups differ as far back as 15 years into the past. 15 years?!

That means the hippocampus is helping to support our memories for up to 15 years. After that they are finally permanent, some of them becoming more permanent all that time. Imagine that. My mental processes that I think of as being in the present are reaching back 15 years to provide an immediate context for me, in addition to the context that I call the distant past. Without that immediate context, I can only imagine that I just awoke. That is my only experience like this. I awake each morning, and I remember the things around me. I remember who I am. Even if I awoke in strange surroundings, things would be behaving in familiar way. Gravity would be obvious. If there were no gravity, that would be a big clue – I’ve awoken on a spaceship! I’d know that from video of astronauts I remember that video along with however that association is stored cognitively. My joining them would be something to remember, if I could.

Such elements would fill whatever this consciousness is I have, and if my hippocampus isn’t working, I’ll think exactly the same thing 5 minutes later, instead of being able to build on my recent memories as I usually do. All other memories and associations were formed when my hippocampus was working, long enough ago that they have become permanent, capable of filling my waking mind even when my hippocampus has shut down.

How does that happen? Good question. 36 years ago Karl Pribram likened such recall of memories to a hologram. If a stimulus matched a little of the memory, the brain is wired to reproduce the rest of it, having been rewired because of what the hippocampus does when the memory is formed. That continues to be how neuroscientists think a memory becomes permanent.

None of this would happen without a hippocampus. There would be unconscious memory and learning, as happens in all species, but it may be that only mammals are conscious because only mammals have this system that keeps stimuli reverberating within our brain to become this seamless ongoing virtual reality that our brain makes, and we live in. In that consciousness we have will instead of merely reacting to everything. In that consciousness we have desires that we can choose to embrace or deny depending on how we feel about the consequences of either one. It is a different world to be conscious, a world we try to re-enter if our hippocampus shuts down, just as we re-enter it from sleep, but without a functioning hippocampus this doesn’t work. We just keep waking up, waking up, and waking up, using our permanent memories to orient us and tell us what to say and do. It’s not enough for us to be ourselves.

I don’t know that there is a formal theory in neuroscience that consciousness exists so we can make better memories. Susan Blackmore argues in her books that the concept of consciousness is a delusion, which seems silly to me, a denial of the unknown more than anything. More mainstream would be to say that consciousness is just the sum of its parts. I don’t know that this will change until scientists can fully explore all those parts and say, “You know, there is something else.”

Will they have to do that in this century, in the next century, sometime? Will those who see consciousness as primary and the brain as trivial have to admit that the brain is not trivial? I myself have wondered if our mind might control the brain the way our brain control the spinal cord. An injury to the spinal cord prevents the brain from expressing itself through the corresponding limbs. Does an injury to the brain prevent the mind from expressing itself through the half of the world that no longer exists for the brain or through language that no longer exists? Is that so strange a perspective?

Of course the big dividing line is whether my consciousness extends beyond my brain or receives input from beyond my brain. I am forced to conclude that it might because of my spiritual experiences, though I’ll never have proof that these experiences are beyond my brain’s capacity to teach me or entertain me. It just seems too much to be entirely natural to me.

Consider the image I described at the beginning, a symbol for “fairy tale”. Who said that? It wasn’t a verbal part of me, or it wouldn’t have been an image. It could have been some dissenting part of me I keep locked up in some dungeon of my consciousness, but I don’t have any sense this was a dissent. I wasn’t starting to tell a fairy tale. Yet there are certainly fairly tales told about consciousness. I think Susan Blackmore is telling a fairy tale in calling the concept of consciousness delusional. I think those who say the brain is irrelevant are telling a fairy tale. From wherever that image came from I feel satisfaction at saying that, both of those, just as the image no longer needed to repeat once I realized what it was saying. I’m used to this, some Other sharing my mind. She says She is not just a different part of me. I’ve gotten used to trusting Her.

I know that I pray to God. I know that I get direction, strength, hope, and comfort from doing that, but I don’t know exactly where that comes from. Is it from inside me or outside? Some say they know. Their words don’t read to me as though they know. How far out does consciousness reach? However far it is, I am constantly surprised at how things come to me beyond mechanisms I know. People confabulate to fill in what they don’t know, as those with transient global amnesia do their best to explain the state they find themselves in. In fact one would have to be a neurologist to have transient global amnesia and guess that is the case from the inside. And then what? I would still make that guess again five minutes later if it were me. Knowledge isn’t everything. There is something more. I’ve lived as if that something is helpful. I believe it is, and I don’t find any way to cram all of that helpfulness into me.

So call it God, Spirit, whatever you want, there is something more than me in this.