March 29, 2004

Surf Report

In checking out an article via ArtsJournal which promised ideas about how the brain begats mind, I'm hooked by the first paragraph:

Spend enough time talking with Dr. Gerald M. Edelman, and eventually his theory about how consciousness develops will seem confirmed by experience. Somehow, out of anecdotes about Andy Warhol, Friedrich von Hayek, Jascha Heifetz and Linus Pauling, out of free-floating riffs, vaudevillian jokes, recollections, citations, arguments and patient explanations, out of the excited explosions of example and counterexample, associations develop, mental terrain is reordered, and ever grander patterns emerge.

He had me at Hayek. The article was about the ideas of a Dr. Edelman, who says:

... "The brain confabulates." It associates diverse sensations, defies contradictions and creates coherence. It even seeks explanations for its own unfathomable behavior.

At 74, Dr. Edelman is one of the most renowned neuroscientists as well as one of the more controversial. Some have hailed his views about neurobiology and consciousness as revolutionary and revelatory; others have dismissed them as unoriginal and unclear. With his maverick stance, immense ambitions and proven accomplishments, the man himself has inspired similarly polarized reactions.

I love mavericks. And confabulators. The article describes his Neurosciences Institute which is my idea of an academic wet dream. (I now remember walking through the complex a few years ago, checking out the architecture of Tod Williams Billie Tsien & Associates in San Diego.)

The article wades into the idea of minding:

The theory's first principles and assumptions are relatively simple: There is no overseer in the brain setting rules and making connections. There are also no "spooky" forces, as Dr. Edelman puts it. Neither is the brain a machine or a computer. For Dr. Edelman, there are only the "unlabeled world" and the "embodied brain," a confrontation of unstructured immensities.

Fricking fabulous. No overseer, no authoritarian ruler prescribing the system. No mistake of seeing the world in the image of the current technology, as in ye olde clockwork universe... or in our case, the machine or computer universe. I see hints of Hayek's spontaneously self regulating system. Reading on:

Dr. Edelman calls his theory "neural Darwinism." He believes that what organizes the brain is precisely what led to the organization of the eye ? or the evolution of species. It is also the process he found at work in immunology: he showed that the body produces the precise antibody required not by manufacturing it according to a specific set of rules, but by making available an incredible diversity of material from which the appropriate antibody is selected.

The brain develops in a similar way, he suggests: connections among groups of neurons that are most effective in their reactions to certain stimulations become strengthened and succeed in affecting perception and behavior. These connections are modified by what Dr. Edelman calls a "value system," the impinging realities that affect the brain's evolution. The brain cannot be conceived of apart from the body, which provides its first and continuing "values."

I would refer to Darwin in my presentations, describing how I came to my current mode of alla prima painting. I'm no expert in Darwin, but my impression is that people know only of half of his ideas: natural selection in an environment marked by scarcity. There is also a proliferation of types that occurs within an environment of plenty. For me, Darwinianism conjures the pendulum swing between the diversity that thrives in fat times and the cultivation and pruning that occurs in lean times. Each pole serves to ratchet up a movement that is increasingly articulate, vivid and intelligent.

And how did I model this in the development of my painting? Coming out of grad school (where I felt the problem was how to continue painting in the affirmative after the negation models of the late PostModernism of that time), I fashioned a "sandwich" schema of background and foreground imaging (kind of like Ruche but in reverse) and because both grounds could be variable (the power of that particular schema), I let myself range far and wide in methods and manners of painting. I would proliferate types for a time, and then I would select the ones I thought were strong and push them farther along. Back and forth, I would proliferate and cultivate in succession. The paintings you see here in this weblog are an outcome of this process.

One last excerpt for you:

What, for example, does it take to recognize an object? Stimulations spurred by the color red and others by the shape sphere must be coordinated before a red ball is recognized. But such coordination doesn't require a manager. These first stimulations may trigger other stimulations that associate the earlier ones with one another; in turn, these groups of neurons become elements in ever more intricate mappings. Patterns evolve and interact in a dizzying dynamic. The brain is not a logically structured organ; these processes of connection resemble the processes of metaphor more than those of logic. Eventually, consciousness is a consequence of these neural mappings.

In the knotty working out of this theory, Dr. Edelman's supporters see him developing a new view of the body and mind.

Posted by Dennis at March 29, 2004 2:40 AM

Leave a comment