Tag Archives: consciousness

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Islands of Isolation

The present moment has created more self-isolation than most would like.  We know what it means to be alone with one’s own thoughts. Chatter with others may be in short supply. But our consciousness can easily take the chatter inside.  We may share a common culture and lineage, and we can build bridges to each other, but can our reservoirs of self-reflection ever be made transparent? 

Climate scientists warn that it will be just decades until areas of South Florida will become a watery archipelago. The level of the sea rises about one inch a year in Miami Beach, inundating streets that some residents continue to believe are flooded by water main breaks.  Even in denial, those residents must sense that a chain of islands makes continuous connection with the rest of the community an insurmountable problem.

Interestingly, communication scholar John Durham Peters makes the same observation about human communication (Speaking Into the Air, 1999).  We are, he says, our own islands of consciousness, forever separated from others.  We may share the same culture, but we can never fully know another person’s world.

All of this is Peters’ way of reminding us that we have oversold our abilities to make things right through communication.  He notes that problems of connecting with others are “fundamentally intractable.”  Our attempts at doing so creates a “registry of modern longings” that can never be satisfied.  Disappointment is a natural part of the effort.  As Peters notes:

Our sensations and feelings are, physiologically speaking, uniquely our own.  My nerve endings terminate in my own brain, not yours.  No central exchange exists where I can patch my sensory inputs into yours, nor is there any “wireless” contact through which to transmit my experience of the world to you. . . .  In this view, humans are hardwired by the privacy of experience to have communication problems.

                    Edward Hopper’s Nighthawks, Wikipedia.org

Of course the theme of humans physically together and psychologically apart is universal, reflected in everything from Edward Hopper’s lone figures in the painting, Nighthawks (1942),  to virtually any film or play that treats individuals and relationships in all of their complexities.  The tensions inherent in coupling and adapting are shot through most country ditties about loneliness as frequently as recurring film narratives of abandonment.

This perspective only seems pessimistic if we believe in a kind of communication that is so stipulative or stripped of complexity as to be uninteresting. I can say with great accuracy that the Ketchup in our household is in the refrigerator, and know I can be understood.  But who cares?  The things that usually matter–feelings, values, aspirations and needs–all hide more easily out of sight. Could it be otherwise when we engage with other living souls with different life histories, memories, fantasies and fears?

Another part of our common over-optimism about communication is that advances in technologies are themselves reasons to mitigate communication confusion. Our devices make it possible to talk or text through every waking hour.  But, if anything, opportunities for sending and receiving messages only increase the chances to see the differences between us that remain.

The trick here is to accept the challenges that human complexity creates, without descending into the view that the outside world is mostly a mental mirage. To fall into that trap is to deny the chances that are still possible when words, images and music make sometimes durable bridges to others.

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“Brain” or “Mind?”

                        Times Higher Education

Sometimes neuro-science needs to give way to more useful explorations of an individual that can be derived phenomenologically.

The study of human communication always calls into question the kind of language that will be used to describe a specific person or message.  This discipline has a long tradition of describing someone’s expressed intentions, verbal habits, and preferred appeals in their own words. And the language is description is usually pretty close to the ground, as when a scholar in political communication characterizes Barack Obama’s rhetoric as “cautious,” “detail oriented,” and prone to strings of qualifiers.  Of course we would need to know more.  But its clear that verbal demeanor obviously has something to do with the personality and character of the whole person: what is going on in their mind.

Over time, all of us gain insights into how others think and what they say by noticing the forces that have pressed in on their lives. This is a basic life skill.  When we say we ‘think we know another’s mind, we are expressing confidence that their particular history and life circumstances have made them at least somewhat transparent. We use this process to gain a sense of who another person “is,” and to make predictions about how they might react to events yet to unfold.

These core starting points are now more frequently being challenged by another class of analysts aspiring to be students of human behavior. More cognitive neuroscientists believe the keys to human conduct lie in mapping the organ of the brain; that human behavior can be understood in the aggregate rather than through the signature style of the individual.


Interest in the human brain risks outpacing what should be the continual human project of understanding the person as the possessor of a mind.


To be sure, the organ itself is awesome: composed of some 100 billion neurons (!) and incalculable numbers of potential neural pathways that can form consciousness and thought.  Thought itself is an astonishing process that allows nearly infinite sets of unique “circuits” and combinations. And, without doubt, we need neuroscience to learn how various centers function, and how the brain learns, ages, or is altered by biological or foreign agents.

But to study a brain is not the same as learning the features of someone’s mind. The sciences naturally aggregate data, looking for valid universal causes and applications.  And there’s the rub.  Interest in the organ risks outpacing what should be the continual human project of understanding the person as the owner of a unique consciousness. To my thinking, it is useful to know that the ear captures and sends impulses to the auditory cortex.  But my interest begins to flag if someone wants to track how the reception of, say, Beethoven’s Sixth Symphony spreads to other neural ‘circuits.’  It would be foolish to claim that nothing of interest could be learned.  But it still strikes me as the equivalent of trying to enter a door through the cat door. It would be more useful want to know a person’s reactions, their feelings and images the music evokes in them.  I short, I’d be interested in what they have to say about the experience.  Those insights would come mostly from queries about their prior experiences, making studies like MRI brain scans of people listening to music seem hopelessly reductionist. At some points, the sciences based on biological observation need to yield what can be learned from phenomenology of human experience.  The scientific method tilts toward not noticing individual uniqueness. And yet it’s our individual attitudes and dispositions that best explain why they behave as they do.