This is my pet turtle “Alfred”. He’s been a surprise and joy in my life for several years now. I adopted Alfred when his former owner was preparing for a baby. She needed to lighten the load of non-human life forms in preparation for another human to care for.
Alfred has survived two significant geographical displacements, divorce in the family, and my inconsistent tank cleaning schedule. All the while Alfred hasn’t complained too much. I like to think of Alfred like “Alfred Pennyworth”, Batman’s butler from the DC comic book series. Like Batman’s trusted companion, my Alfred is there every time I pull in the garage and close the door behind me. I didn’t expect us to develop much of a bond. But we did. And not unlike Batman’s substitute caretaker, I’ve come to rely on Alfred to help me stay inspired.
Along the way Alfred has taught me a lot about the neurobiology of consciousness and it’s relationship to human bonding. I was surprised when he first moved in how interactive a reptile can be! I grew up with a dog and I’m very familiar with the emotional responsiveness of canines. When Alfred moved in I thought, “Oh, well he’s no dog, I guess it will be like having a fish.”
Boy was I wrong! Alfred is a semi-aquatic “red-eared slider”. He spends time on a basking platform under the heat lamp and is in and out of the water. I noticed that it took a day or two before he seemed comfortable enough to venture up on the basking rocks. It was as if he didn’t feel safe exposing himself up there in a new environment. Once he felt comfortable I would come home and hear a great splash! in his tank every time I opened the door.
He spent the next few days diving off the basking rocks into the safety of the water. Then one day he trusted we were not going to take advantage of his vulnerable position on the rocks and stayed. He would eventually swim to the front of the tank and wave his entire body back and forth anxiously awaiting some connection. He would wag and snap and chase your finger before the glass like a dog playing catch. Before I knew it, I was saying to myself, “He’s no dog, but I think I like him!”
I’d go on to remember from interpersonal neurobiology, that Alfred has the basic neurological equipment to establish a primitive bond with me. At the same time I’m all too aware that reptiles eat their young when they are starving and they don’t have culture and societies set up to try and end suffering in the world. So, he makes me feel great, but he’s not much of a partner in crime beyond our greeting ritual. So what are the differences between us? Why are human relationships so much more fulfilling? On the other hand, why are “companion pets” being recognized as good for our health? And why do some people resign themselves to relationships with pets after being discouraged by negative experiences with human bonding?
While Alfred carries his shell on his back, we humans carry our history on ours. We both remember things. However, it was clear to me we don’t remember the same things. Alfred Pennyworth not only remembers that Batman’s parents were murdered, but he knows they were. He chose to care for Batman as a surrogate caregiver in light of his history, maybe even because of it. On the other hand my Alfred is what my favorite memory expert Endel Tulving would call an anoetic organism. He doesn’t know why he does what he does, he just does it.
As far as I can imagine I’ll never be inside Alfred’s mind to know if he experiences his self as a self, but I would guess he remembers and does things informed by memory but without knowing or knowing that he knows.
So he is anoetic or not-knowing. On the other hand I have a self and I know I have a self. That makes me autonoetic or self knowing. Alfred just does what he does, loving or not. The dog I grew up with may have been noetic, meaning she has more advanced memory and some primitive sense of self, so she knew (had knowledge of herself and the world) but did not know that she knew. Maybe, that is why her love seemed more advanced than Alfred’s?
Dolphins, elephants, and primates are closer to us in this way. Unlike dogs, they all see their own reflection and may have a greater experience of self. Take look at primatologist Frans De Waal’s work. It helps us understand how different brains, memory systems, and states of consciousness matter when it comes to empathy among different species.
Do we sense and feel what it is like to interact with species that have different qualities of consciousness? If we do, would the conscious experience of someone with autonoetic consciousness have any survival value? Would it make a difference to lack the experience of interacting with others who are experiencing it?
I like to talk to Alfred and I feel like he pays attention when he wiggles back and forth at my dancing finger. I remember what it was like to nuzzle up with my golden retriever and how responsive she was if I were distressed. I’ve had dogs cry when I’ve left them after a visit. A chimpanzee would be even more responsive. But what would a world be like where people just did nice things because that’s what they do? What if we all displayed empathy born out of deeper understanding of history?
It was a human face Tom Hanks painted on the volleyball in “Castaway”, my favorite film of 2000, directed by Robert Zemeckis and written by William Broyles Jr.. After surviving a crash landing Chuck Nowland is left with no human contact for four years! He emotionally survives by interacting with the volleyball and imagining conversations they have between them. When I talk to Alfred I find that I do the same. While he wiggles and flits about I imagine what he is thinking and animate him by saying aloud what he might say if he could speak. We like to get feedback. It helps us feel emotionally held and secure in a way that a one way interaction is unable to achieve. But is there more to human connection than feedback? Does the quality and content of the feedback matter?
It’s easy to mistake a pet for a human because when we imagine more of an inter-subjective experience than is really there. If you have spent any time using the intelligent personal assistant “Siri”, or any everyday artificially intelligent technology, you probably know the felt difference in communicating with knowledgeable technology. Not only is Siri able to talk back but it is now able to add a bit of apparent inter-subjectivity. While Siri requires me to tell it what my address is, once it has it, it will respond when I say “take me home Siri”, in a way that feels more like I’m with someone who knows me.
So before we get too comfortable with resigning ourselves to a life of intimacy with only dogs or artificially intelligent robots, perhaps we ought to take a look at what we would be missing? Just ask yourself what it is like when someone who lives in time connects with you.
When we can share where we have been and where we see ourselves going, we are communicating with an awareness of our own past, present, and future. This type of extended consciousness is uniquely human and creates the possibility for a deeper connection with each other. When another person senses, feels, and knows about our own past, present, and future and communicates back to us some of what they know, our capacity for intimacy has just become greater.
Our autobiographical self is co-created through sharing stories with others we can trust, weaving together a coherent, narrative of where we have been, that can be used to organize where we would like to go. When we sense that it is safe to connect in this way our interpersonal connectivity enhances our personal connectivity and this psychosocial climate supports our sub-personal (brain) experience of connection. That’s right, our interactions with others, and our own thinking about ourselves (non-physical connections) can change the brain (physical connections).
The felt experience of being in time is not unlike what we feel in our most mindful state. Those of us in the west have learned a great deal about mindfulness from eastern traditions. In addition to the mindfulness revolution that has swept the western world there were philosophers like Martin Heidegger who have taught us about the mind and consciousness.
Martin and his colleagues talked about having an intentional attitude toward the mind to study consciousness. Not intentional like, on purpose, but meaning, non-judgmental, dispassionate. When we can just observe the contents of our mind we develop an attitude that promotes connection between our brain, body, & self. This gives us a sense of being in time.
Philosophy of mind philosophers call our first person experience of time, phenomenal time. Phenomenology has to do with our first person subjective experience. Phenomenal time is contextual. We experience all three aspects of time or none. Past, present, and future are woven together allowing for mental time travel! This gives life a feeling of moving forward, because time moves forward. When clients come to see me for psychotherapy a common complaint is, “I feel stuck in my life/relationship/parenting.” Like things are not moving forward.
As a practitioner of a psychotherapy that focused on processing memory, I see how memory, phenomenal time, and motion are connected. As we collaboratively process points of disconnection within relationships, the self, and the brain, the body responds becomes more flexible to act in accord with our intentions.
I think the feeling of being with someone who is “in time” may be what philosophy of mind philosophers call qualia. Qualia refers to “the way things seem to us” as in our own subjective experience of something. Its an important term because each organism has a unique nervous system that allows for species specific qualia. Dolphins have a part of their brain no other animal seems to have. What type of qualia do they experience as a result that no one else does? Is it possible that sensing and feeling that we are “in time” with one another has a function?
Alfred helped Batman move forward in life following the tragedy of losing his parents to violence. Their autonoetic bond was a source of crime fighting creativity and innovation. Batman and Alfred’s unique talents were integrated with real world problems and opportunities to participate in life on a larger scale.
One of my favorite real world examples of this is in the world of music. Jack White is the personification of history in motion. The epitome of individualism in personal style, yet Jack emanates all of the remnants of blues and rock masters through the ages.
Jack and his former wife Meg White started out as a duo, “The White Stripes“, and turned rock and roll upside down. They took a minimalist approach that usually involved just drums, guitar, and vocals. Out of that collaboration they wove together beats and melodies from rock and the blues in a completely revolutionary way. The evolution of their artistry can be followed in their music, stage performances, and even in the clothes they wore.
What I am most enamored by is the way Jack’s music collaboratively evolves and nonetheless expresses a definite “Jack White” imprint. He has an integrity and consistency that is born out of a deep understanding of his predecessors and his own contributions that produce new musical forms previously unheard of.
If you know your music history you can see shades of blues greats like John Lee Hooker, Muddy Waters, and B.B. King in Jack, along side, rock legends like Jimmy Page of Led Zeppelin. From the guitars he plays to working with Meg and countless other collaborators, Jack knows how to create a climate of personal and social innovation that is quite uncanny.
Jack has gone on to fuse jazz and his own drumming into his music and as a music producer of other bands. Who would guess he would one day appear alongside Alicia Keys on the title track of a James Bond movie! He is the eptiome of the functionality of autonoetic consciousness. The product of which is innovation that connects people around meaningful work. There is something unquestionably soulful about this. He is clearly not just doing it because it’s what he does.
Alfred Pennyworth isn’t just a good caregiver to Batman. Sure he’s quick with a smile and takes care of the laundry, but more than that he knows Batman is dealing with the eternal grief of losing his parents and that deep down he is a bad ass super hero. So, Alfred helps him with his crime fighting and listens to how it’s going.
It’s easy to just do good and ignore where we have all come from. Or to do bad and likewise not pay attention to what is going on. This is especially true when it comes to what we do to each other. Being in time is about not dwelling in any one aspect of time but letting the information and energy flow as we surf along the wave of consciousness that is both personal, collective, and evolutionary.
I think we become most misanthropic when our experience with others lacks the depth and context our autonoetic, autobiographical self. Not unlike Batman and Alfred, we all have a story to be told and chapters yet to be written. We may not like what we find when we dig deeper into our selves or others. However, it’s just that reality that we are all more grey than solidly any one shade that gives us our immense capacity to create and share!
“The sun and the moon never change
They just rearrange but not in the new day
Gold exchanges for silver
And a light on the river gets carried away
On and on, on and on
On and on, on and on
I lift up my head and I wonder
Just who it is calling, calling my name now
I trip on my way and I blunder
My head hiding under a blanket of shame
High and low may I go
Where God only knows just where I am going
High and low may I go
But God only knows just where I am going
The people around me won’t let me
Become what I need to, they want me the same
I look at myself and I want to
Just cover my eyes and give myself a new name
The stones in the sky never worry
The don’t have to hurry, they move in their own way
But I have to choose what to do
How to act, what to think, how to talk, what to say
On and on, on and on
On and on, on and on
– Jack White