Sequencing and Time Stamping

Posted: January 24, 2012 in Consciousness, Narrative

Back to book blogging after an absence of a couple months while my attentions were turned elsewhere.

Picking up The Master and His Emissary again, I was intrigued to read something that jogged a memory from a neuroscience class I took 20 years ago. McGilchrist mentions almost in passing (on his way to other matters of interest) readiness potentials and their relation to sequences of events in mental processing. My memory is that event-related potentials as measured by electroencephalography (wow, that passed the spell-checker!) reveal a latency period following a stimulus. More specifically, the P3 wave (sometimes P300) signalling the onset of brain processing (as distinguished from background noise) is delayed by anywhere from 250 to 700 ms (usually falling around 300 ms, hence the name). The mere fact that it takes the brain a split second (literally) to respond is unsurprising; one would expect response to follow stimulus by some interval. What’s interesting is that the brain time stamps or backdates stimuli to coincide with their occurrence. Maybe that’s not so interesting either, but for my appreciation of consciousness, it’s pretty significant that any moment in the stream of consciousness had width to it and strict ordering of events as measured by scientific instruments down to the millisecond is time adjusted on the fly in human experience. This is more apparent in McGilchrist’s description of hemispheric cooperation in mental processing:

… the right hemisphere contribution … has both temporal priority and ontological priority, since thought is originally ‘largely imagistic and minimally analytic’, whereas by the moment of utterance, it has become ‘both imagistic and analytic and is a synthesis of the holistic and analytic functions’. In terms of the thesis of this book, then, the process begins in the realm of the right hemisphere, gets input from the left hemisphere, and finally reaches a synthesis of right with left. [p. 190]

This is made clearer perhaps on the next page:

[It was] found that the disconnected left hemisphere could not engage with narrative, for two main reasons: it lacked concreteness and specificity in its relation of the story, and became abstract and generic, and it got time sequences wrong and conflated episodes that were separate in the story because they look similar (in other words, it categorised them, and therefore put them together, even though in the lived world their meaning was destroyed by being taken out of narrative sequence). In place of a narrative, it produced a highly abstract and disjointed meta-narrative. [p. 191]

Considering how the stream of consciousness is narrative, a kind of story we tell ourselves even as it’s experienced from inside the story, temporal displacement and decontextualization enabled by built-in mental mechanisms have some far-reaching implications.  It’s reaching, no doubt, to suggest that our politics, as formulated by technocrats, are an incoherent stew of disjointed abstractions (soundbites, anyone?). And it’s a paradox that the worst offenders could hardly be described as analytical, left-brain types.

What may be going on, which is far beyond the scope of McGilchrist’s arguments up to my reading position in the book, is that technocrats, speaking through mind-numb candidates with nice hair and strong jaws, have intuitively or perhaps brilliantly concocted a bizarre meta-narrative that appeals strongly to left-brain categories but never manages to synthesize with the right hemisphere into an overarching narrative. The candidates can turn on a dime and spew inanities because frankly they’re just as flummoxed by words put in their mouths by campaign managers and strategists interested solely in winning elections, not in governing, as the general public, which goes goggle-eyed at the mere mention of iconic words such as freedom, liberty, and democracy, or alternately, family, wealth, and progress. Thus, one can perhaps embrace McGilchrist’s thesis that the Emissary (left brain), which should take its direction from and serve the Master (right brain) because that’s the way it’s structured biologically, has usurped control and is making us, in a word, insane.

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