I can still hear the way my mother laughed when she would tell her favorite stories about her children. I’m sure there is some very specific emotion that comes out at such times. One of my favorites involves me dealing with mental imagery before my brain had much experience categorizing the variety of visual phenomenon that we encounter in day to day happenings. The story goes like this…when I was a very young child, I saw my reflection in the bottom of a glass of milk I had finished drinking. Apparently, I yelled out in fright, “There’s a man in the bottom of my glass!”
What in the world was he doing there? It’s fun to share these stories and wonder together what the mind of a child is like. How is it different than the mature mind after the brain has quieted down from all of the exponential growth that occurs the first few years out of the womb? During these early years various neural pathways are growing in coordination with stimulation from the outside world. They shape how we respond to our own emotions and determine our style of communicating about what is happening in our lives. Evolution has set things up to have our brain grow outside of the womb and forestall maturation until about school age to let this happen. Unlike other animals who are well on their way to adulthood by at 6!
John Bowlby, the founder of Attachment Theory called the best fit between the child and the environment the environment of evolutionary adaptedness. While there is room for shaping of the brain based on the environment we grow up in there are a set of particular resources in our environment that will help us mature optimally based on millions of years of natural selection. Among them is a set of biopsychosocial resources that allow us to socially collaborate around meeting our needs.
You don’t have to go far to hear from neuroscientists these days who will tell you how much of your behavior is not determined by you consciously. The brain science about all the processing that happens out of our awareness that primes us for certain choices can be daunting to take in. Add to it the role of genetics which also may seem to determine everything and why bother trying to make a conscious difference in our lives! Freewill is even seriously questioned as a reality.
So, why have consciousness at all? Why grow up to see a man in the bottom of my glass and know it’s not me? Did it matter whether or not my parents talked to me about the imagery I noticed and helped me determine if I was hallucinating or not? Not only does the brain take it’s time maturing before school age but there are two other major growth spurts when we are middle school aged and again prior to young adulthood. If all that mattered was that the brain do its thing then we might as well have stopped maturing when most other animals do. When they can fight, flee, and freeze at various points when dealing with predators.
The type of brain growth later in development is particularly focused around making connections between disparate regions of the brain. It seems to make sense that we humans will spend quite a lot of time as adults, “making connections”. Not only within our mind’s eye but between ourselves, our history, and our desired future. This type of processing may be derived from unconscious substrates but its hardly exclusively determined by them.
Indeed if there is a place we can exert some influence on how to best make it in the world it’s through optimising our capacity to be aware. To be aware of not only our present, but our past, and anticipated future. This type of consciousness is uniquely human, intentional, and influential, even down to the very neurons that are working hard everyday to organize our behavior. The imagery that we create of ourselves and others on a personal as well as cultural level will also determine our success in life.
While Donald Hebb was applying his insights on neuroscience/neurobiology to what he observed in educational settings, he noticed that environments that were perceptually and motorically stimulating supported the development of the brain and subsequently the way the mind functioned. In particular, an environment that is socially stimulating seemed to promote learning and the acquisition of the capacity to accurately simulate what was happening in the world. On the other hand, Hebb noticed in his research that sensory deprivation could lead to poor pre-frontal lobe or “executive functioning” and at worst hallucinations.
Now imagine decades of science focused on studying brains out of the context of a self (personal) or relationship (interpersonal) environment. What if those brains were rat brains as well? After all, the neuroscience seems to indicate our brain is in control and self-consciousness doesn’t matter a whole lot right? How you feel about the yourself and the world and how you came to feel that way doesn’t matter and if it did it would only be a product of some brain chemicals that are out of balance. Besides, it’s all programmed by our genes anyway. Your personal and social history would be a waste of time to explore, let alone your cultural history.
So just sit back and go with the flow right? We can develop some chemicals to fix your brain if it becomes “out of balance”. Let’s say you find yourself addicted to drugs or alcohol. We can solve that. Let’s get your brain to produce chemicals that make you feel good so you aren’t reinforced by the alcohol or drugs and you will be all set. Your brain will do the rest!
Well, I sure am glad my parents discussed the man at the bottom of my glass with me rather than take me to the pediatrician to balance the chemicals in my brain so that I could tell that it was just my reflection! As it would turn out they spent a great deal of time discussing many life events that would cause me to feel frightened, angry, or shocked and provided an environment within which I could makes sense of my conscious experience and sort out problems by staying connected to myself and those around me. They shared their personal history and taught me about the cultures they came from. Where they couldn’t do this I would seek out psychotherapy as an adult and consciously help my brain sort out what it needed to so that I could understand why I might find myself stuck in overly angry, anxious, or frozen state when trying to work life out.
I would even come to learn about my temperament and genetics and the unconscious mind. The knowledge that I wasn’t personally in control all the time helped me take control of what I could and let go of what I couldn’t. My father left me with one of his favorite poems that would become one of mine. “Invictus” by William Ernest Henley.
“Out of the night that covers me,
Black as the pit from pole to pole,
I thank whatever gods may be
For my unconquerable soul.
In the fell clutch of circumstance
I have not winced nor cried aloud.
Under the bludgeonings of chance
My head is bloody, but unbowed.
Beyond this place of wrath and tears
Looms but the Horror of the shade,
And yet the menace of the years
Finds and shall find me unafraid.
It matters not how strait the gate,
How charged with punishments the scroll,
I am the master of my fate,
I am the captain of my soul.”