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Blogging and ripples

Aug 3, 2018

Speaking of thoughts as ripples, writing a blog post is like creating ripples from the pebble of an initial idea. But there are two basic ways to go from the pebble, to the rippled pattern, to the blog post.

One way is to allow the idea to take shape before writing. The pebble of an idea creates a rippled pattern, and once it's formed, you capture it in written words.

But there's another way I like better. An idea comes to mind and you note it on an idea list. The list contains the pebbles, not the ripples. When it's time to write a post, you type as you're considering the idea. As you write, you witness the ripples that emerge. Sometimes, they don't make a clear pattern, you erase some, and throw another pebble in the water. Erasing and re-creating rippled patterns is what makes writing for communication different from stream of consciousness or journal writing.

The reason I like the second approach better than the first is that you're writing while the idea is newest to you. If you do all the thinking before typing, the rippled pattern can be so well-formed beforehand that it feels stilted when you write it. That's okay if I'm writing a formal essay or a professional article.  But for more authenticity, I don't like to record the ideas too long after the ripples are formed.

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Thoughts and Ripples

Jul 30, 2018

When you throw a few pebbles in a lake, you know that a pattern of ripples will appear. But you don't know what the pattern will look like until it emerges, especially if there's a strong water current or some wind blowing. This is similar to what happens when you think about an idea. The pebbles are the ideas you start with -- maybe something someone said to you, something you read or heard on TV, maybe something that just suddenly came to your mind. What's interesting to me is the fact that you don't know what you're going to think until you've thought it; you don't know what the rippled pattern will look like until it's formed.

In a sense, we're the authors of our thoughts. But we're also the observers of our thoughts. It's not easy to notice this. Pause for a moment before your next thought and notice how in the dark you are about the nature of the next thought that will come to your mind. Enjoy the rippled patterns of ideas that emerge. You created them, kind of.

The Conscious Brain

Nov 4, 2017


When people are not conscious, e.g. those in a vegetative state, their brains show very low levels of neuronal activity.  Their neurons may occasionally respond to stimuli, say a loud sound, but not many neurons, and not for very long.

Those in a minimally conscious state, with only occasional periods of awareness, show somewhat higher and more sustained levels of brain activity.

When we are fully conscious, the things we see, think, remember, and our other conscious experiences, are accompanied by strong activation of the neurons in the brain.

So there’s a relationship between conscious awareness and the activity of brain cells.    As I write this post, I’m picturing a brain.  To do this, I'm activating certain neurons in visual areas of my brain that give rise to the mental image.

But not all neuronal activity gives rise to consciousness. Some neurons, for instance, become active just before you grasp a cup, and determine the position for you to place your fingers as you move your hand toward it. If your grasp is wide, these brain areas will quickly send updated commands to your hand muscles so that you grasp the cup in a way that allows you to lift it, and not drop it. Next time you grab for a similar-sized cup, your brain may instruct your hand muscles to produce this 'narrower' grasp. Lots of neurons in several areas of your brain are activated in order to adjust your hand position, and usually this activity falls outside your awareness. The neurons are activated but they don’t give rise to a conscious experience of adjusting your hand position.

What is the difference between the neuronal activity that gives rise to conscious awareness and the neuronal activity that doesn't.
  • Maybe it depends on the part of the brain that's activated.  There may be some brain areas where neuronal activity is off-limits to conscious awareness. You might imagine these areas to include those that control aspects of body movement; habitual, automatized behaviors; and the kinds of thoughts and goals that Freud envisioned residing within the unconscious.
  • Maybe most of the neurons in the brain are off-limits to consciousness. It could be that conscious experiences are made up of the neuronal signals that transmit information to a privileged brain region, a kind of 'seat of consciousness'.  This area (which some neuroscientists imagine to be in the frontal cortex) would be the stage upon which the drama of our inner-lives (the hopes, plans, memories, regrets, and so on) unfold. 
  • Maybe any of my 100-billion-or-so neurons can contribute to a conscious experience -- so long as the neurons fire rapidly enough, or so long as their activity is synchronized with the activity of enough other neurons in the brain.
There are many other 'maybes' about how neural activity could relate to consciousness. But whichever explanations turn out to be true, the nagging and interesting questions would remain: "Why should neurons in those brain areas, and not others, give rise to a conscious experience?" "What's so special about brain area X that I'm only conscious of inputs to that area?" "Why do neurons have to fire at a certain rate, or in a certain rhythm with respect to other neurons, in order to produce a conscious sensation?"