Brain Salad Surgery
Many thanks to GAIAC and AE2O in Porto for organizing Rainbow of Desires workshops in Portugal last month.
There are times in workshops where I find myself rambling on about the newest discoveries in cognitive neuroscience and have to stop myself from going down the rabbit hole and get on with the ‘processes’ which are so much better a learning tool than stumbling around in a desert of words. Nevertheless, the findings of eminent Portuguese neuroscientist Antonio Damasio and others are I think very relevant to Theatre of the Oppressed, and to our understanding of perception, will and action (amongst other things).
In approaching the subject I related two stories which help me to think about some of these discoveries. The first concerns the making of a salad.
I was making a salad and was rummaging in the salad container at the bottom of the fridge to find out what ingredients I had to hand. There was a lot of lettuce and spinach and under that a small plastic tray of radishes. As you do, I squeezed one to test for freshness. This radish was mushy. Yuk! There was an instant physical and emotional reaction of disgust and revulsion. I dont recall having tasted a rotten radish but my imagination, nevertheless, conjured from my memory of a sensory image of ‘radish’ and combined this with experiential knowledge of food at the appropriate state of decomposition. This sensory image even before I was conscious of it, had initiated a physical reaction in the mouth and on the tongue to simulate what would happen if I put this radish in my mouth.
Curious to justify my reaction with a closer look, I removed the tray from the salad compartment and to my surprise found that the radish was in fact a small tomato, among the radishes. Its slight squishiness was completely acceptable for such a vegetable. It was edible and non-threatening to my homeostasis and my physiology returned from amber to green alert. My brain, or I had made a category error and it got me thinking what other errors could I be making, ones that one day, in a flash, I might discover.
What assumptions am I making? What phenomenon do I take for granted without even considering the possibility of challenging their veracity? In a way, through the Rainbow of Desires techniques we are reaching deep into the salad compartment of the psyche and pulling out the various vegetable personages to sort out which are passed their use by date and which are fresh and taste good. Brain Salad Surgery anyone!
My second story relates to a time when my ex-partner would prod me in bed at night and tell me I was snoring. It became such a custom that I was able on some level of consciousness to study this procedure and noticed something very strange.
I wouldnt fully wake up from the prod and the announcement of the snoring, but my mind would trace sluggishly through a lexicon of words similar to snoring snorting, stroking, snorkelling, smoking; tying to make sense not of what it meant so much as what I should do in relation to this solemn word that was piercing the dark night. What was the appropriate action to take? What function did I have in relation to the expectation enfolded in the word? One after the other, in serial processing, word sounds would present themselves as possible matches to the sound I was hearing&skiing, snooker, soldering,
The curious thing is that I never arrived at a match, or an understanding of the word. I would either fall back asleep or turn over and go back to sleep. The second response being the correct action because apparently then I stopped snoring. In the case of the second response I acted before I knew why I was acting, in fact without knowing why I was acting even after having acted.
My theory is that in my semi-conscious state my social self had not been awakened so no context and therefore no meaning could be constructed for the sound or was even sought for the sound, however my core self was awake and in the interest of preserving equilibrium, much like Pavlovs dog, was presenting a conditioned response (occasionally). My social self did not wake up because that would have meant fully being awake so the core self was delegated the role like an electronic device on standby.
That the social self did not wake at all meant that there was no ascribing of cause and effect to an individual who chose to turn on his side. There was no centre of narrative gravity that reasoned and justified after the act. Brain imaging has revealed that something called top-down processing is happening all the time in our brain. There is a mechanism that transposes the order of events to make it appear as if the self had sanctioned or premeditated an action that had already been enacted by the body before any reasoning had been engaged.
How much of our actions in the waking day is a conditioned response which we play back to ourselves as an act of our heroic will? Is this a category error which we can verify? How do we squeeze that radish?
Im not saying we are zombies, although to some extent we are asleep. But, as mentioned in previous posts, we do have the capacity to bring awareness to these mechanisms and catch top down processing in the act. To catch the Wizard of Oz controlling the handles that operate the pyrotechnics of consciousness, even as he insists that we pay no attention to the man behind the curtain. Rainbow of Desires, by embodying our mental images is in some way deconstructing the conditioning, decoding the enigma of our behaviour, and in its way making a revolution of sorts in the psyche by exposing the top down processing and making a case for bottom up processing&to listen to the body more.