A LIFE OF COWBOYS AND INDIANS
These are the thoughts of David Eagleman, who is more on the technical side than the scientific. What he says is a little different from what science says, but his delivery is dynamic.
The magic of the brain is that it doesn’t care where the data come from because everything inside the brain is represented by little electrochemical spikes running around. Every neuron in your head is popping off between 10 and hundreds of times per second. The brain doesn’t know if the data come from photons or air compression waves picked up by the ears or mixtures of molecules picked up by the nose and the mouth. It just figures out how to establish feedback loops to send commands to muscles that change the input in particular ways.
But in theory, every experience you’ve had is getting mapped and stored into your brain. That’s not just the strength of connections between neurons. It goes much deeper inside the cells. The exact distribution of channels, the exact biochemical cascades, all the way down to the nucleus of the cell in which genes are getting expressed. All of these things represent your history in the world. In theory, maybe in 300 years, you could read out somebody’s brain.
This is a time when the search for knowledgec — and then understanding it — is pushing out into ideas we’ve never had before because that’s what we’re built to do. After decades of brain-worship prompted by a high value put on logic and fact, someone asked, “What about the rest of the body? Is thought only in the brain?” The embodiment movement resulted.
Another force has been realizing the deep assumptions in the way we talk that control the way we think. We speak of semantics and then Whorf had this premise that because our Euro grammar is all about subjects doing verbs to other subjects, we see everything as objects in boxes we should do things to. He suggested the Hopi idea was a system of forms of verbs in which we could participate rather than controlling and lots of people fell in love with that idea.
So now the brain is seen as the dashboard for a whole-body experience based on sensations as we participate in the world — a reciprocity that makes us who we are, but always dynamic, adapting, partly a matter of renewing ourselves and partly a matter of the world changing us. So as we regret certain kinds of people, at the same time we wonder what on earth made that them way.
Another growing edge is that we realize we have put enormous weight on individuals by valuing our separateness. I do this, though it’s nearly impossible since each of us has a throng of people in our memories. Lately I’ve been wondering about the mostly female Edwardian women who were my brilliant and dynamic high school teachers.
I say Edwardian because they were mostly near retirement in 1957, which meant they were born when the agricultural 19th century was just about to face the 20th century desperate chaos of world war and industrial transformation. Many of them were “old maids” or lesbians in a world that didn’t have that concept except in ancient times often censored. Some had lost male lovers to war.
My own life was shaped by a man born in 1914 and therefore a WWII soldier who never saw combat or Europe but who was just beginning a grand aspiration to be a bronze sculptor in the ironic time that memorialized heroism in terms of the genocidal elimination of the world of the prairie indigenous people. He was on both sides but in spite of being white, his environment made him a version of indigenous and called him to portrayal and ceremony.
Going back to the idea of the brain as a dynamic process, identity as sensory interaction with the world/place, and Edwardian premises of what society should be like, I wanted to write and took this man as the subject. At the time of “living the research” in such an intimate way that I was actually married to him for a while, I changed both of us.
What I was really living through and thinking about wordlessly was the changing times. In building our own foundry, we were conscious that we were touching the beginning of human relationship to environment in the Bronze Age. At the same time Bob was celebrating a way of life, he was participating in the destruction of it.
Now that I’m decades past and though I was as immersed in the “cowboy art” boom and the celebration of individuals in TV shows based on strong charismatic men, I also witnessed the end of that “trope” based on forces that we would come to mock and tear down. Bronze monuments of equestrians are easy to tear down because they are masses perched on thin legs. We can’t quite leave it alone.
Bob’s assumption and of most people in his world was that he was doing something heroic that would make him rich and famous. At his death his accomplishments were torn apart in auctions, sales, conversions of property, and waves of newcomers who were like rodeo stars who had never ridden a horse to herd cattle. Assumptions are processes that come and go. Individuals must live in warring communities.
The question for me is what does the solitary woman do when she writes in a way influenced by the Edwardians — just leaving the natural history classifying and collecting world for a new wave interested in prying open the cupboards and searching surprises or even taboos. What audience wants to know about it, what community? After decades of Dionysian abandonment has eroded many taboos, how far into the erotic, the indigenous, the personal, the French/Algerian theory of it all can I go without exceeding my limits?
I never thought Scriver bronzes would be less than precious. I never thought there would be so many books that no one wants. I never thought that sometimes I’d sit here in the cold dark before dawn and wonder what it was all about. That’s dynamic, provoking, and going on. It’s a participation.