11 May 2007

Tunnels of the mind

Jim Putnam commented on, and extended, part of my Tube Tales post ("But the unknown is also potential opportunity") in ways that brought me back (tangentially, perhaps even tenuously) to Dr C's information thread.

For our ancestors, this tension between the twin responses of fear and curiosity was a daily knife edge of physical survival. I am starving; is this bright red berry food or toxin? If I take on this big animal I've not seen before, who will end up eating whom? Get it wrong and I die. Get it wrong in the direction of excessive caution and my whole group dies of starvation. Get it wrong too often in the direction of boldness and the group loses too many members to remain viable. For many, that remains real today: only those of us in the cosseted developed world can leave it to soldiers and explorers. My feelings at an unsigned side tunnel probably originated in the same dilemma: does this side path curving into unknown forest take me to a position of observational vantage, or past the eyes of a hidden predator? As Jim says, "without someone venturing into the unknown, much of our lives would be drastically restricted".

Jay Appleton's The Experience of Landscape is a fascinating exploration how such atavistic considerations shape the arts, and has a lot to say about wider responses. Jim extends them to the inner life: "It isn't merely venturing into the physical unknown ... ... ... Exploring the limits of our imagination can be frightening, but it can also be extremely rewarding."

One of my clichés (or, from a more charitable point of view, one of my articles of faith) is that "there is nowhere more exciting than the inside of my own head". So, I'm instantly in agreement with him (though without compromising my agreement with Dr C that the mind is absolutely dependent upon sensory data received from outside). "Head", here, is a shorthand placeholder, not a literal reference to a physical part of my anatomy.

I suppose what I really mean by "head", in this context, is partly that amorphous and wholly informational software construct which philosophers call "mind". Since I am wholly convinced by the theorem that mind is a function of body, and cannot exist apart from it, I am more comfortable with the word head. Nevertheless, mind clearly is no more the same thing as body than (say) Linux or Microsoft Windows is part of the PC on which it runs. As with a PC, though, it is impossible in practice to separate the pure idea of the program from the specifics of particular hardware: implementation is an amalgam of both.

Residing inside this head, probably straddling the hardware and software, are curiosity and caution. The balance between the two is, as I said above, a delicate one. It's my personal belief that what we derogatorily label "laziness" is one important subroutine of the caution architecture.

Curiosity makes me wonder about something ... that something is unknown, and so may be a threat or aid to survival. If the threat or benefit seems likely to be imminent, curiosity potential exceeds inertia and I investigate. On the other hand, investigating takes energy which I can't afford to waste - it may be needed at any moment for fight, flight or foraging. Or other curiosities compete with greater urgency, and I have to prioritise. Either way, if the strange something doesn't seem to be of immediate importance, I file the curiosity away in memory for possible future investigation and conserve energy.

Jim provides, in a later post, an example of how this translates to the unnatural ease of post industrial life. I have wondered since I was about eight or nine years old how "will not" became elided to "won't" ... but the curiosity never, over the decades, rose to a level which would have overcome the action threshold. Then Jim asked the question, which triggered a new state. Another member of my "tribe" had shown interest in the same object of curiosity. At one level, this emphasised its importance; it had become a tribal issue instead of an individual one. This particular curiosity suddenly exceeded the inertia which had previously restrained it - and I reached for the OED.

I was discussing this yesterday with two colleagues, a psychologist and a neurochemist, both of whom queried two aspects of the analogy which I am using here. First, they believe that by making a distinction between hardware and software, even for illustrative purposes, I am rendering my analogy worthless. There is only program: brain and body are integrally part of it, not platform and vehicle for it. At the same time, they also dispute the usefulness of analogies which encourage talk of a program, when both body and mind manifestations comprise an uncountably large community of quasi autonomous, competing, coëxisting, coöperating, interrelated, interconnected and nested programs.

Perhaps they are right; but I still retain a strong gut level faith in the power of story ... the phrase "gut level" being, quite possibly, more than figuratively true.

1. Appleton, J., The Experience of Landscape. Hull, 1986, Hull University Press. 0859584615.

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