Tuesday, May 15, 2018

The Brain and Identity: Breaking Down Barriers of Separateness by Teaching Children a New Perspective

I set out to find a method to mitigate social divisiveness and to locate research that supports a pedagogy based on a neurological perspective of who and what we are. In support of such a perspective, I found much reference material, and I found technological reasons for teaching kids neurology.

The question that I ask is not whether identity can be perceived differently to oneself because of physical and mental characteristics that change over time, but rather whether or not a person considers themselves to be the same person over time and what that self that identity has neurologically in common with everyone else. Despite our differences, can equanimity arise naturally out of the realization of our neurological similarities and possibilities? I think so.

To conceive of the neurological perspective that I propose integrating into the current curriculum as part of science which is already taught as early as first grade, I’ve arranged a video that is more telling than I could do with words.

YouTube Video

The brain is a nonlinear dynamical system that changes somewhat chaotically dependent on the input. Our concept of identity to ourselves and others is malleable. Even though people look different and act differently, others may not be who or what we think of them at the time we are making our judgments. And, they may be different (due to the brain's emergent property) now and in the future both from our perspective and from theirs. It is time to teach grade schoolers our neurological similarities because all of us are the results of our brain's activity.

Final Paper 14 May 2018

The Brain and Identity: Breaking Down Barriers
of Separateness by Teaching Children a New Perspective

According to Jacques Lacan, children become aware of themselves as an object during the mirror phase from approximately the age of 6-18 months (Lacan 503). Our sense of identity develops further through friends, associates, and affiliations. Then come the mid-life crises followed by a search for what it is that we missed and will find in challenging experiences most suited to our personalities. Along the way, through postcolonialism and various literary theories, we are taught to embrace our language and our culture. These critical and valid theories help create "a positive ethnic identity [that] is associated with higher self-esteem and better grades, as well as better relations with family and friends" (The Gale Group). However, a perception of our differences as members of races and as members of cultures becomes accentuated in political discourse known as identity-politics which is meant constructively for consciousness-awareness. The further heightening of our differences along racial lines occurs through the exploitation by political parties and through corporate media that seeks to divide cultures and peoples from one another along partisan lines. How can we maintain stable psychology and be of benefit to those around us when we are isolated and alienated from our attempts at achieving social justice?

Many solutions to the problem of divisiveness in the present may be applied, but as a means to resolve divisiveness over the long term, I propose that we begin teaching grade schoolers what it means from a neurological perspective to be human. An instilled neurological attitude that makes apparent that identity results as a consequence of our brain activity may be relied upon during times of psychological stress, and it may keep projections of our non-integrated identities from falling to the perils of political propaganda and collectivism. If we learn to understand what we are and are not, at an early age, as we grow older, we will be prepared to accept who we are in the present and embrace what neuroscience will bring to our future experiences. The question that I ask is not whether identity is perceived differently to oneself because of physical and mental characteristics that change over time, or whether a person's identity and sense of achievement benefits from cultural identification or not, but rather what does the identity who realizes that they are the same person over time have neurologically in common with everyone else. Despite our differences, I argue that equanimity may arise naturally out of the realization of our neurological similarities and possibilities: if our neurological identities are really who and what we are, then our biological bodies and cultural identification should not encumber our potential achievements.

In support of teaching first graders that the brain is a part of a sensory system of body organs, the article "Young Children's Changing Conceptualizations of Brain Function: Implications for Teaching Neuroscience in Early Elementary Settings" (2010) by Peter Marshall and Christina Comalli details two experiments which suggest that classroom intervention about the brain acts as an "important part of early foundational learning about biology, an area that is currently neglected in early educational curricula" (Marshall 4). The first study suggested that "in the elementary school years children have a relatively limited view of the brain's involvement in sensory activities and feeling states" (Marshall 5). With educational intervention "first-grade children were better able to confirm that the brain is involved in activities such as seeing and smelling" (Marshall 19). No assumption [could] be made about whether the children were able to conceptualize things such as the brain and nose "work[ing] together to carry out a given activity" without further testing. Although, it is reasonable to conclude this is the case (Marshall 19). And, contrary to the author's expectations, the children did not realize that brain function is somewhat dependent on the nature of one's body.

Ethical reasons given by the authors for conducting the two experiments and further "more intensive approaches" were stated as: "If carried out consistently and reinforced by adult conversation and supervision, exposing young children to information about the brain and its wider involvement in sensation and bodily functioning could have a number of implications," such as, "[i]f young children understand that the brain has essential links to all bodily functions, they may realize that it must be protected from harm through (for example) wearing a helmet when riding a bicycle, eating a healthy diet, or avoiding drug use" (Marshall 20). And, "[l]earning about the brain may also help children to understand better and accept those people in their lives who are affected by neurological disorders" (Marshall 20). The authors conclude the claims of their study: "early exposure to the basic concepts about the "'insides'" of the body may provide a useful foundation for when children encounter more in-depth material on human and animal biology in the middle school years" (Marshall 21).

So, it is not outside of reason to conclude that children, if taught and reinforced by adult conversation and supervision, who have identities not dependent on their bodies, will begin to conceive of themselves and others as being results of their neural activity rather than results of their race or culture. The following heartfelt examples are but a few of many that may emotionally solidify the facts of neurology and identity such that grade schoolers will carry these concepts with them into adulthood. One such example is that of 29-year-old Juliano Pinto, a Brazilian man who is paralyzed from the waist down who took the first kick of the 2014 World Cup soccer tournament just by thinking. Pinto afterward commented that his robotic exoskeleton also allowed him to feel the kick (Nicolelis). As many as 36 exoskeleton companies testify to the explosive growth following Pinto's symbolic kick. And, businesses such "as Ekso Bionics and SuitX are beginning to offer lightweight passive designs using metal and carbon-fiber frames that attach to the body or exterior scaffolding for construction and logistics workers" (Coren). Not only are paraplegics able to utilize robotic exoskeletons to replace their natural biological counterparts, but healthy workers use the exoskeletons to temporarily extend their bodies' physical limitations.

Another example is that of Amanda Kitts a daycare owner/operator who lost her left arm in a car crash while driving to one of three daycare centers that she founded. Her robotic arm and hand gave her back the ability to clap while playing with children. That simple act made possible the realization of her identity when the rationalizations for opening the daycare centers culminated in the sound of clapping hands in which she and the children participated. The meaning of the symbolic event took place within Amanda's and the children's' minds even though only one of Amanda's biological hands created the clapping sound/gesture. It was as if she realized herself as being a whole person despite having a robotic arm. (Kuiken).

In the case of Jason Barnes, a below-the-elbow amputee drummer who now uses a prosthetic robotic arm which uses machine learning to enhance human abilities, the question arises whether or not there will come a time when amputee privilege (since Jason is now a more capable drummer because of his prosthetic robotic arm which utilizes machine learning) will be shouted from the roofs as a means to garner social justice for the biologically intact (Barnes). What I mean to suggest quite boldly is that there will come a time when who and what we are biological will cease to be a viable basis for political correctness and identity politics. As our bodies become as malleable as our brains, the basis to our identities will gradually shift away from our biological constraints.

The senses work with our brains to subjectively render the world in which we live, and to some extent, our experiences brought to us by our senses alter what we identify with. But, are our identities something that arises from the way we learn to interact with our senses? In a few instances, deaf people forgo available technological operations that allow them to hear because they do not want to lose their relationship to the deaf community. They prefer to live within the constraints placed on their reality by their biological condition. But, as neuroscience makes it cost-effective to give the deaf the ability to expand their interpretation of the surrounding world through such things as electric vests that pick up sounds and then stimulate the back with patterns in real-time which can then be interpreted by the deaf as words, there will likely be fewer deaf communities. Similarly, the BrainPort for the blind "translates video images into simulation patterns on the surface of the tongue from a wearable video camera . . . Users feel bubble-like patterns on their tongues and interpret them as the shape, size, location, and motion of objects around them" (TRT World). The wearer of the device sees with their tongue, draws pictures, plays basketball and can rock climb. In both of the examples above neuroscience helped to break down the barriers of separateness and made possible realizations beyond biological constraints.

The freeing of identity from biological constraints opens to a neurological perspective from which to see ourselves. We can replace missing limbs with robotic arms and add the senses of seeing and hearing. These attributes of identity are physical. From the biological perspective we are our bodies and identifying with them connects us to the strength of our cultural heritage. But, as the neurological point of view replaces our biological identification with a malleable variable of possibilities, the equation that equals us becomes post-structuralist. This is not to say that we are setting ourselves up for failure by encompassing it. The neurological perspective does not diminish our biological connection to our cultural identity in the way that one would assume. We can rely on our biological identification as always, but in addition to that, we can realize our biological selves as being malleable. Only our perspective changes although to some extent our biological perspective becomes relativized.

Jack Gallant in his YouTube presentation on the subject of decoding the brain describes how neuroscience is capable of decoding images, including the semantic content, from low and high-level areas of the primary visual cortex. Approximations to what the test subject is seeing are decoded and reproduced by computers; the computers read the brain's activity and reproduce the visual images that the test subjects are seeing. He says that within fifty years or so "brain decoding devices that are cheap, portable and very powerful will be ubiquitous." According to Gallant, everyone will have mind-reading devices that read "[a]ll of [our] intentions, [our] desires, [our] attitudes, in fact, things that haven't reached conscious awareness yet" (Gallant). Gallant's neurological perspective makes it possible to copy everything that makes up a person's identity from the biological. And, although the physical body cannot be copied, it can be modified. When we can assume the bodies of online avatars that traverse the Internet to feel the pain and joy of warriors within animated reality perhaps some of the separateness that comes with being an individual stuck inside a race and culture will dissolve.

Regardless of whether or not neuroscience is introduced into the curriculum of grade schoolers, or introduced through their games, through their movies, through the people who children meet in their daily lives such as Amanda Kitts, or through the growing industries cropping up around neuroscience, the perception that our bodies and by extrapolation our races and our cultures are fixed parts of our identities is changing. What that means to an online community of super-powered heroes who sense the cyber-world as if it were real I do not know. But, along with our changing perception of who and what we are the perspectives of identity politics will likely have to change or fall by the wayside. The degree to which media and social engineering's effectiveness propagandizes race and the cultural aspects of our identities as a means to divide us along partisan lines is proportional to our ability to realize the similarities of the resultant of that which arises out of matter mapped as our connectome structures. And, what do we get when we replace our racial and ethnic characteristics that act as a basis to our cultural heritages with malleable simulations shared between all peoples but a more vibrant and creative coexistence that looks away from the past and towards what is possible.

Works Cited

Barnes, Jason. "Jason Barnes Cyborg Drumming Concert|Sci-Fi Meets Nature." YouTube, uploaded by Jason Barnes, 24 Mar. 2014, youtube.com/watch?v=hyervazVvi0.

Coren, Michael J. "Robot exoskeletons are finally here, and they’re nothing like the suits from Iron Man." Quartz, 02 May 2017, qz.com/971741/robot-exoskeletons-are-finally-here-and-theyre- nothing-like-the-suits-from-iron-man/. Accessed 12 May 2018.

Gallant, Jack. "Human brain mapping and brain decoding. | Jack Gallant | TEDxSanFrancisco." YouTube, uploaded by TEDx Talks, 31 Oct. 2017, youtube.com/watch?v=hyervazVvi0.

Lacan, Jacque. "The Mirror Stage as Formative of the Function as the I as Revealed in Psychoanalytic Experience." faculty.wiu.edu/D-Banash/eng299/LacanMirrorPhase.pdf. Accessed 12 May 2018.

Marshall, Peter J., and Christina E. Comalli. “Young Children's Changing Conceptualizations of Brain Function: Implications for Teaching Neuroscience in Early Elementary Settings.” Early Education &Amp; Development, vol. 23, no. 1, 2012, pp. 4–23.

Nicolelis, Miguel. "Miguel Nicolelis: Brain-to-brain communication has arrived. How we did it." YouTube, uploaded by TED, 26 Jan. 2015, youtube.com/watch?v=HQzXqjT0w3k. Accessed 13 May 2018.

The Gale Group Inc. "Identity Development." Encyclopedia.com, 2002, www.encyclopedia.com/children/applied-and-social-sciences-magazines/identity-development. Accessed 12 May 2017.

TRT World. "Blind people can now use their tongues to see." YouTube, uploaded by TRT World, 28 Feb. 2018, youtu.be/1wRoRfub2HY. Accessed 13 May 2018.

Thursday, April 5, 2018

Within the Edge of Meaning

Within the Edge of Meaning
This story is about changes in my identity--what I and others think of myself--as it travels along a path through life toward greater consciousness. I grew up as a machinist in Pittsburgh Pennsylvania. At the age of seventeen, I began my first career by forming some of the hardest metals known into exact shapes. I led, what seemed to me a very mechanical life, as if I were merely an extension of the machines that stood between the engineer's blueprint and the finished product. I cried on many occasions while waiting for the clock to end my shift. I searched for ways to change the feeling of being trapped in a trade. I read much about consciousness in the Collected Works of the psychiatrist Carl G. Jung during my 20s but the conscious change that may occur to a person who reads of the benefits of religious or psychological virtue and who then incorporates those virtues into their life was never my way. I am much better at forming exotic metals into meaningful shapes than I am at having my conscious awareness go through a process of individuation; to form my identity. Although I changed my occupation later in life, I had to repeatedly encounter first hand the very serious reasons for the existence of the virtues before my identity changed.
The Winter fog of Venice shared my hangover as I awoke to the bark of the dogs. My wife Kate owned the apartment building, and her Dogtown Habitat boarding service included me. The morning routine found me wading through the wagging tails, I opened the front door, poured a cup of coffee, made it to the living room table and did what most wouldn’t do. I injected my insulin and began working on the computer. Our websites or email interested me more than usual, and suddenly I realized that I hadn’t checked my blood sugar level nor did I eat anything. It felt low. I tested it at 54 which is 26 points into the dangerous area. I went over to the refrigerator and poured the last of the orange juice. I began eating honey from a jar. As I rechecked my blood sugar, I called out to my wife to let her know that I had a problem. The reading was 42. She raced to me with sugar water. My vision began to appear as patterns; I stood in panic. As the ending to my life approached the water shook from the glass, and I crashed to the floor., The dogs had that quizzical look on their faces. Kate stood in terror.
Certainly, nothing registered as memory while a cascade of electrochemical impulses shot randomly; short-circuiting their way through my brain in search of their next energy source (blood sugar). Afterward, according to Kate, I griddled like bacon in frying pan so hot that I broke my teeth while biting my tongue as I proceeded to bash the back of my head on the floor until it carried me four feet up against the wall. She said, “I made the mistake of putting my thumb in your mouth to keep you from biting your tongue off, and you bit my thumb to the bone.” There was blood all over the walls and some on the ceiling. She later told me after researching generalized tonic-clonic seizures on the Internet and even researching them in movies that what she saw and experienced wasn’t anything like what they show. I said, "I wouldn’t know; I never saw one." And, I didn’t want to see one either. I guess that I didn’t want to see myself as that. At one moment I existed in a world as an identity to others and myself and then within three minutes from the time I realized I had a problem I did not exist. When I returned seven minutes later from the sugar that I consumed, I was different.
But not different enough because after the tonic-clonic seizure I proceeded into a complex partial seizure as my wife kept asking me “Do you know who I am? Do you know where you are? Do you know your name?” and things like that. For a moment I recognized her and with teary eyes said “You are my wife. My beautiful wife.” But, something was still seriously wrong. I, the me, what registers as me to me was only partially there, and something inside of my head was making me disappear. I was very conscious of this sensation; the sensation of the end of everything; of everything disappearing forever; solid conceptualized memories of fighting against the approaching void in my head; disinformation at the end of a billion synaptic connections. Kate called 911, and when the ambulance and police arrived, she later told me that the sounds must have sent me into a flight or fight panic because I just began screaming. The neighbor, an actor on a TV detective program, came over with the police and the paramedics. I tried fighting with the police to get away from them but they tackled me to the floor, and the paramedics and my neighbor held my legs down. The one paramedic injected me with a hefty dose of glucose while they held me to the ground and within a minute I returned to normal.
I signed a waiver not to go to the hospital because it happened twice before, but never like that. About seven years from the time with Kate, I was walking along Abbot Kinney to go videotape a birthday party with a group of musicians and actors, and I yelled out when I noticed I was about to go into a seizure “I’m a diabetic, I need sugar.” The next thing I knew I woke up in the ambulance near a hospital. They checked me out for about a half an hour, and I was OK, so I called a cab and went and videotaped the birthday party. I was only a little late. The first time, which was somewhat significant, happened 13 years earlier. I was a foreman at a CNC production machine shop, and I went into a seizure in the inspection room hallway. It took me a day to remember who it was on my driver license and after three days my amnesia completely went away.
Was I the same person that returned after the seizures, or was I unconsciously allowing life to form me into something horrific but avoidable? At least I looked like the same person after a seizure, but what changed in each of the instances was my identity to the outside world: in the minds of those that saw what happened. After the first seizure, the CA Department of Motor Vehicles revoked my identity as a driver, and although I had my driver's license restored, the incident caused me to think of myself as a member of the disabled. After my last seizure, I didn't consider much about my identity, but the breakdown in my relationship with my wife seemed to be related to her conception of me. I was unpredictable to her and without prior notice and within a few minutes or less I could be gone forever. She had to assume the identity of a wife who shared the deadly complications of another's diabetes. To myself the incidents were a scarlet letter that appeared to only those that knew. The last seizure was severe enough to persuade me to take action, to chose to believe that I am as normal as most, and despite Kate leaving me or maybe because of that too, I made the conscious decision to avoid going down life's path into yet another one.
I quit drinking any alcohol entirely because even small amounts made it difficult to sense my blood sugar levels. I began running for physical exercise, and I started back to college to study English as a means to get my mind back into shape. My experience with non-meaning sent me in search of how meaning arises through the words and symbols of the most excellent writers and thinkers. Everybody is surrounded by non-meaning through either not learning what is known, having never thought about things, or because most meaning is beyond the scope of human consciousness. Not knowing isn’t typically an emergency until it gets up close: inside a person’s head where the border of consciousness meets the void in a seizure for knowledge. Consciousness itself may be likened to a slow-motion complex partial seizure that realizes the ever-present proximity to the void about which it seeks knowledge. The fears and pains of our daily learning experiences are a drawn-out less pronounced fight or flight phenomenon. The neuroscientist Professor Stanislas Dehaene says that a bottleneck in information processing exists at the point of concentration where things outside of that focal area aren't consciously taken in. By consciously working within an area of focus, I am spared the experience of seizure and loss of identity. Maybe it is a focal point that I seek when I run marathons--a place as far as possible away from the void. I like the feeling of being entirely concentrated on the sensations experienced as I run, and I love the feel of the runner's high: a kind of oneness with life. Both graduate studies and running keep my mind and my body exercised and healthy.
Explicating on how the decision to go back to college changed my identity over time helps me remember what I had to endure, what was necessary, for the change to alter who I was to who I am now. Going back to college at 57 years of age presented me over and over again with feelings of doubt as to my identity. I am old enough to be my colleague's grandparent. More often than not my professors are younger than I. I had to think to myself "I'm here to learn and not to startle anyone." I mean, the students are younger than my car. When I'd be in seminar settings with some of the brightest most confident 20-22-year-olds from all over the world at UCLA, I imagined myself as the rest of my peers until I began to doubt and kick myself for being there; as old as I am. And many times, I thought that I was odd and stupid too. I kicked myself a lot back then. But, amazingly after the first year, and after I knew colleagues by performing projects with them, I got over it. Perhaps I had kicked myself in the head long enough that the neuroplasticity of my brain changed the way that my brain works and who I think I am to myself. I realized that on the outside I might look different but the true identity of myself, the electrochemical state produced by my connectome at any particular moment in time, was very similar to others. My father who died of Alzheimer's disease used to say while looking in the mirror, "I look like I always have." Without memories associated to a particular time we appear to ourselves as always. The truth of the matter seems to be that identity to oneself is timeless, and its neural function within the mind is similar to everyone else's. To ourselves we sense that we are the same as we have always been.
Anatomical differences in age, gender, race, and appearances of the body make little difference in the neural functioning that is the basis of identity. I reached the breaking point of identity during the complex partial seizure and brought back memories of a time when what I consider myself to be was being extinguished by millions of misfiring neurons beyond which I could not locate the rest of me needed to interpret the world around me. At that moment, in a crisis of identity which may befall any person, at that moment of truth, we are all alike. It is from that point, from that 

          ekila era ew

          we are alike

confrontation with the unknown, beyond which nothing exists--at that edge where synaptic information is not recognized, where an instinctual fight-or-flight impulse gets triggered, within the edge of meaning where existence electrochemically confronts non-existence--that I’ll not go gentle into that good night. I'll trap my thoughts--the electrochemical potentialities that arise out of matter--in words and broadcast them onto the Internet for all the other electrochemical states of all the other connectomes to absorb such that the light of their meaning may forever travel, mix and change as it passes through the void. So let it be that consciousness and knowledgeable change resides everywhere within the edge of meaning.

The Brain and Identity: Breaking Down Barriers of Separateness by Teaching Children a New Perspective I set out to find a method to mitiga...