Monday, September 28, 2015

Deactivating the Conscious Self-Monitoring Matrix

Hey, there.  It’s been a while.  Missed me?  
It feels a little stupid starting like that, but I am going to keep it because it’s the very thing I’ve been struggling with over the past few days.  Or weeks.  Or maybe the better part of my life.  
I am afraid.  I can’t put it more simply than that.  Fear is the biggest obstacle I face to getting what I want out of life.  It came into focus for me while listening to the radio, on the way to meeting some people from a previous part of my life I hadn’t been in touch with for some time.  
It was the TED Radio Hour.  That was the show I was listening to while driving.  They were doing a show about creativity.  Where does it come from?  How does it work?  Can it be encouraged and nurtured?  I listened closely.  It’s the time of program I enjoy.  
One segment focused on the work of a man named Charles Lamb.  He took creative people, specifically improvisational jazz musicians, and put them in a modified MRI machine which included a piano keyboard.  While having the musicians jam, he took scans of their brains.  He was looking to spot the portions of our brains that “light up” when we’re doing something creative.  
And Mr. Lamb did pinpoint several spots in the brains of these musicians when they were jamming with each other.  But what he found more fascinating were the portions of the brain where activity decreased.  Where, in fact, the brain went dark due to activity being suppressed.  It was in the prefrontal cortex, the portion of the brain where “conscious self-monitoring” takes place.  It is the part of us that is more “us” than else where.  Where self-reflection and introspection takes place.  
It’s also where we tell ourselves to stop doing something because...  Well, sometimes just because.  
Creativity, per the hypothesis Mr. Lamb came up with, isn’t just about the sparkling activity that lights up the other parts of the brain, where new, innovative connections are being made.  It is also about suppressing the part of our brains that tell us, “Don’t do that.  It’ll never work.  I’ve not heard of anything like this before.  I don’t know if I can do this.”  
In writing, this voice is often referred to as the “inner critic.”  It’s recognized that one of the steps a writer needs to take, at least during the important step of getting started with a project, is to silence this voice telling you not to do what you’re trying to do.  
I’ve been struggling with this inner critic recently.  It is the reason I’ve not posted anything on my blog for the past few weeks.  
I’ve thought about expanding the outlook of my blog.  Writing about things I don’t normally write about.  Politics.  Social issues.  Things that could be considered more controversial.  
One topic I wrote about in my blog’s word palette, a document I open to basically jam on a topic, writing out openings, my thoughts and feelings, etc., was that of Kim Davis.  She is the county clerk in Kentucky that refused to give marriage licenses to anyone after the Supreme Court ruled that laws banning same sex marriages were unconstitutional.  She was sent to jail by the judge that ordered her to proceed with issuing licenses.  She’s been released.  Her office is issuing the licenses now that she’s been let out, even though she herself sits in her office with the door closed and the shutters drawn when they do so.  
I’m fascinated by the story and stories like it because it touches on what I see as an increasingly important trend in my country.  Not same sex marriage or even gay rights, per se.  But the shift of the majority in the United States from what it was while I was growing up to something else.  
The problem was that I could never finish a single, fifteen hundred word entry that I was comfortable with publishing.  I kept checking each of the facts I was quoting.  A good practice to be sure.   Then I’d question the take I was planning on presenting, and research that to see if I was on firm ground.  I began to wonder what was it about my point of view that anyone might want to hear, how I could make it more unique, how I could find my voice in this to make a more viable contribution to the debate.  I would counter that argument with one about how I wondered how many people even read my blog in the first place.  What difference did it really make?  Once I got to that point, there really didn’t seem to be much reason to finishing the blog entry and posting it.  If only a handful of people were even going to notice it was there...
Etc.  Etc.  Etc.  The conscious self-monitoring portion of my brain was lit up like a Christmas tree outside the largest shopping mall in American on Black Friday.  I couldn’t get anything done.  I had too many reasons not to.  
I knew what I was putting myself through as I was doing it.  I thought I only had to figure out a way through it.  It was only a matter of finding a good opening, something that I could focus on long enough to push myself past the babbling of self-criticism in my head to get a good head of steam going and get the words out.  Or a good ending.  Write the end of the piece first and keep my attention trained on it, writing out as much as I needed, like a missile weaving and dodging the anti-missile flak being sent up against it, until I hit my target.  
But it is more than a lack of focus or not having enough confidence to approach a topic.  It’s a long-standing problem.  And it’s one that I think won’t go away.  One of the notable quotes I heard in the TED Radio Hour episode I listened to was (something like) this: “Creative people don’t practice (whatever art they work at) in order to keep from making mistakes.  They practice so that they don’t mind making mistakes when they do.”  
And that’s the crux of my problem.  I always mind making mistakes.  I guess the collection of cells in my prefrontal cortex that handle conscious self-monitoring are just bigger, stronger and more robust than most people’s.  They are on the job, ready, willing and able to keep me from doing something “WRONG” and are there to record every moment when I do.  
Good for them.  
I once came up with an idea for a futuristic device that I wanted to write about.  I called it a Personality Assistant.  I was inspired by stories about people with epilepsy having their tremors cured by having implants put into the brain that gave the portion of the brain out of control a little shock.  I began to wonder if you could expand on this to help people with more basic problems and fears.  Someone who was afraid of heights, for instance, could have an implant programmed to stimulate the courage centers of the brain whenever he looked out the window of his high-rise office building.  Someone afraid of asking women out, due to a fear of rejection, could have his implant stimulate those portions of the brain related to social interaction.  Things like that.  
I’m going to be modifying my Personality Assistant.  The modification will make it simpler and more elegant I think.  It’ll have just one function.  To turn off the conscious self-monitoring matrix when I want it to.  
I hope I can write a really good story about it.  One so good that it inspires some scientist somewhere to build one, just so I can buy it.  

Saturday, September 05, 2015

Patterns in the Universe

Last night I had while I am going to say was a scary dream.  Yeah.  That's exactly what it was. 
I was trying to get to sleep after staying up later than I should have.  I had plans to get up around 5:30 AM to join go hiking with some colleagues.  This is something I do most Saturdays.  
I was laying on my side.  I was feeling sleepy, but something kept prompting me to stay awake.  A feeling...  A sense...  I listened for the sounds of...  Something?  Or someone?  
I rolled over on to my back, to give the room a look to assure myself that I was alone in my apartment and that it was safe to go to sleep.  
That's when I saw the face leering at me.  
It was a woman's face.  Round.  Brown skinned.  A mass of black hair was puffed around it like a halo.  And splitting it in half, from her left brow to her right jawline, was a massive, gapping wound.  
I jumped out of bed.  My heart was trying to pound its way out of my chest to escape, bouncing its way to someplace safe.  The room was dark.  The well lit face was gone.  
I had been asleep.  Asleep and dreaming that I'd rolled over to see this face leering over me.  An angry, accusatory leer.  As if I had been the one that had wounded her like that.  A wound that seemed to go all the way to the back of her skull, lined black with dried blood...
Oh-kay...  Ok...  Enough of that, I told myself.  I went to the kitchen and took a swig of sparkling water.  I turned on the TV in the living room.  I sat on the sofa.  I got up and wandered around the apartment some more.  Got another drink of sparkling water, appreciating how the bubbles from the carbonation tried to burn my thirst away as the water flowed down my throat.  I turned the sound on the TV all the way to "mute," and left the TV on as I walked back into my bedroom and got into bed again.  
I must have eventually dozed off, because the next thing I remember is the alarm going off to tell me it was time to get dressed to join the others on the hiking trail.  
It was later, after we finished our four and a half mile hike, and I got back home and ate breakfast, that something connected to the woman's wounded face.  After breakfast, I lay on the sofa, exhausted from the hike and lack of sleep, and took a long nap.  When I woke up, I turned on the TV to help me shake the sleep off.  A documentary by the Japanese broadcasting company, NHK, about the inner workings of ISIS, the terrorist group taking over chunks of Syria and Iraq, was on.  
There came a scene about the people displaced by the violence.  Pictures of the type we see all the time on the news these days.  Children crying.  People huddled in tents, or in other makeshift shelters.  Sometimes just laying on blankets out in the open, arms thrown over their faces to block the burning sun overhead.  
There was a shot of one group of refugees from Syria.  Women and children on a blanket in the middle of a brown, rocky landscape.  The woman in the middle, holding a child across her lap as she sat on the blanket, turned toward the camera.  
Her face was brown, contrasting with the white bandage that crossed it, from left brown to lower right jaw.  The bandage was ill-fitting and you could see the edges of a ragged wound peaking out from underneath it.  
"Crap...  Is this her?  The woman I saw in my dream last night?"  
The answer is no.  Though there were some striking similarities, it was a different woman.  The biggest difference being that while the woman with the wounded face in my dream glared at me in angry, while this woman, somewhere far away in the desert, looked into the camera with eyes as devoid of emotion as a pair of glass marbles.  
But in that moment when I was struck by the similarities, I could understand how someone might believe, if they had had a dream like mine, followed by seeing a scene like the one I'd seen in the documentary, might believe there was a connection between the two.  It would have been easy to convince oneself in that situation that the face in my dream and the woman's in the documentary were the same.  That there was some "reason" why I was being shown this.  The very way that previous sentence is phrased, "...why I was being shown this," implies agency.  Some intelligence trying to bring it to my attention. 
I am, by nature, a skeptic.  But in the evolution of my understanding of how the universe works, I make a point of not describing myself as a "non-believer" or "atheist."  I've had experiences, which I've relayed on this blog in the past, which I can't shake from an emotional basis even while, intellectually, I'm reasonably sure an explanation exists.  
By coincidence (or so I think) my hiking partners and I touched upon this topic as we walked along the trail this morning.  One of them was describing a birthday party she'd attended where a medium had been hired as part of the entertainment.  She described several acquaintances going to talk to her, returning amazed at all that she "knew" about them, their personalities and their past.  
Listening, I recalled numerous studies and articles that I'd read about how human beings perceive and complete patterns they see in the environment around them.  It is part of the tools we developed to survive the harsh conditions our ancestors lived in before we developed tools to reshape the environment to suit us.  When provided with something that is truly random, we'll impose a pattern on it, so strongly does our brain seek to "recognize" the pattern it assumes is there.  This is how we find constellations in the sky at night, or recognize the face of the Virgin Mary in a rust stain on the side of the building.  
Associated with that is our brain's mechanism of attribution, also a survival hold over.  If our caveman hears a rustling in the bushes, it is much safer for him to assume that it is a saber-toothed tiger out to eat him, rather than just the wind moving the branches about.  If it is just the wind, then running away or staying put has the same outcome.  If it is really a deadly predator, then assuming the worst allows you to pass on your genes to another generation.  
The medium at the party uses this same ability, unconsciously I'll say, to "see" her subject's past or future.  A probing statement, like, "I see a ticket..." can reveal much different things if the subject says, "Oh!  Do I win?" rather than, "Oh, no...  Does the judge let me off?" 
My other friend offered her own point of view about how, while she doesn't believe in such things she avoids them because, "I feel them, anyway."  She described a time when she couldn't shake the feeling that "someone or something" was watching her in their house.  When her kids said they were going to change their plans to stay with her, she sent them on their way.  No, she told them.  She was fine.  Nothing was wrong.  Go out.  Go on!  Have some fun.  She'll be fine, she said.  
When they left, she sat on the couch, turned on the TV and gathered up her dog, holding it while she told herself that she was fine.  Everything was just fine.  Nothing to worry about.  She was...  Just...  Fine. 
Maybe if she had turned the sound to mute and tried to get some sleep, it would have worked even better.