Nora, my Bernese Mountain Dog had many endearing traits; she would amble over and lean affectionately into my legs and I enjoyed having her lie down on my feet under my desk (although she had no concept of her size and frequently knocked over the computer tower on one end and the waste basket on the other). One day she selected the passage from the kitchen to the front hall and methodically turned herself around like an aircraft carrier at sea, backing through the doorway. Like Melvin Udall (Jack Nicholson) avoiding sidewalk cracks in As Good As It Gets, Nora repeated this surprising performance every time she came to that spot. When we moved to another house she selected another doorway and then extended her methodical approach to every door in the new house.
The neuroscientist Antonio Damasio noted in his book Descartes’ Error that: “the reasoning system evolved as an extension of the emotional system.”1 “Descartes’ error” was his attempt to separate mind from body. So my dog’s reasoning as applied to the doorway evidently involved mapping her emotions onto her reason (such as it was) and integrating them with sensory input from the world. “Feelings,” Damasio wrote, “are the sensors for the match or lack thereof between nature and circumstance,” and are “...just as cognitive as other percepts.”2 As we juxtapose our inner (body) landscape to something in the world, “feelings end up being ‘qualifiers’ to that something....”3
Damasio posits a kind of ensemble4 of synapses (connections) between neurons that we construct, and that our brains then readily recall like prefabricated conceptual units. Moreover, these bundles of synapses are distributed all over the brain; “there are no single ‘centers’ for vision, or language, or for that matter, reason or social behavior. There are ‘systems’ made up of several interconnected brain units.”5 We retrieve knowledge in a “distributed, parcellated manner, from sites in many parallel systems.”6 These systems interact dynamically with each other and with sensory input from the world this is how we form our “knowledge” of the world.
Each of the roughly 10 billion neurons7 in the brain has between 1,000 and 6,000 synapses, so we have more than 10 trillion points of connection8 and on that scale there will be unpredictable aberrations. We not only construct reality out of sensations, formed into perceptions as preconstructed clusters of connection and meaning, but we can also manipulate this machinery in others. Speaking about a patient with pain from a cramped hand in an amputated limb, the neurologist V. S. Ramachandran wrote that “there is so much interaction between different brain centers, like those concerned with vision and touch, that even the mere visual appearance of an opening fist can actually feed all the way back to the patient’s motor and touch pathways, allowing him to feel the fist opening, thereby killing an illusory pain in a nonexistent hand.”9
Damasio points to Germany and the Soviet Union during the 1930s and 1940s, to China during the Cultural Revolution, and Cambodia during the Pol Pot regime as “sick cultures” 10 that exploited the normal machinery of reason and emotion with terrifying results. Now we can also point to America in the second decade of the 21st century where, as Timothy Snyder chillingly lays out (with scholarly precision) in his book The Road to Unfreedom,11 Vladimir Putin has systematically created a playbook for Donald Trump, inventing “enemies” and manufacturing “crises to solve,” as a means of consolidating dictatorial powers. Reality is a learned construction. It is not simply a matter of the brain receiving signals from the world but a trained process of making connections that continually rewire our brains. The man who rails against “fake news” is the one who creates it, and like my big, loveable dog, half of the American public seems to be learning—from Putin, through Trump and Fox News—to go through the door backwards.
- Antonio Damasio, Descartes’ Error (NY: Penguin Books, 1994), xi-xii.
- Antonio Damasio, Descartes’ Error (NY: Penguin Books, 1994), xix.
- Antonio Damasio, Descartes’ Error (NY: Penguin Books, 1994), xviii-xix.
- Antonio Damasio, Descartes’ Error (NY: Penguin Books, 1994), 241-2.
- Antonio Damasio, Descartes’ Error (NY: Penguin Books, 1994), 15.
- Antonio Damasio, Descartes’ Error (NY: Penguin Books, 1994), 84.
- V. S. Ramachandran says there are 100 billion neurons in the brain. V. S. Ramachandran and Sandra Blakeslee, Phantoms in the Brain (N.Y.: Harper Collins Quill,1998), 8.
- Antonio Damasio, Descartes’ Error (NY: Penguin Books, 1994), 28-9.
- V. S. Ramachandran and Sandra Blakeslee, Phantoms in the Brain (N.Y.: Harper Collins Quill,1998), 54-5.
- Antonio Damasio, Descartes’ Error (NY: Penguin Books, 1994), 178-9.
- 11. Timothy Snyder, The Road to Unfreedom (N.Y.: Tim Duggan Books, Random House, 2018).