It’s been a great privilege to have spent some time interviewing Cole Bitting, the author of the FABLE blog (see review here). Cole has written some really great posts and has an interest in the intersection between neuroscience and literature. Here’s a transcript of the interview.
JM Thank you for agreeing to take part in this interview.
CB I’m glad to contribute
JM Firstly whereabouts are you based?
CB I’m in St Louis .. we missed much of the snow that has buried a good part of the country .. still it’s cold
JM How did you get into writing the blog?
CB I work with people in crisis so I have a background with trauma. My blog Fable is the forum for translating my experience and the studying I have done into written material and material for speaking. Maybe I can offer an analogy to explain my focus. So the youngest kid knows when you push a rubber ball of a table it will fall and bounce. He has an intuitive sense of physic, right?
When we are in school, we study how objects move and it makes sense and is easy to grasp (at least for a while). Then what happens? As older students, physics suddenly stops making any sense whatsoever, right? What was obvious became mystifying. Just as we have an innate, intuitive physics, we have an innate, intuitive psychology. In the last thirty years or so, science has studied the complexity of human nature (a somewhat taboo subject 60 years ago or so). This science has now gone way past intuitive, it’s like advance physics. So I write to try to make the advance study of human nature somewhat intuitive. It offers great insight and guidance for living life, but if it is too complex, too hard like advanced physics, no one will relate or care except for the scientists themselves.
JM This is important, I agree. To make the science understandable. I’ve found a number of your ideas on the blog very interesting. In your first post, you talk about the three gifts of consciousness – perspective, ownership and agency. Can you tell us a bit more about each of these?
CB Funny, this topic is one of next I want to flesh out. I think to set the stage for this discussion, we need to think about two different points-of-view. Our nature one is our first-person POV, the central character in our stories, the person having moment-to-moment experience. The second POV occurs when we look at the system which creates our sense of experience – our first-person POV. So think of it as a form of watching what goes on when we’re having an experience.
Right. Part of my writing (when I use the triangle images) focuses on ‘what goes on when we’re having an experience.’ The simplest explanation, is that our body changes in the presence of any significant object, and these relationships give rise to experience.
CB So the perspective you are asking about is the perspective on the relationship between the body and the object which gives rise to experience. This perspective is different from the one where we are inside the experience. The second perspective is intuitive, the first is advanced physics. Any questions about perspective before I move on?
JM Sure, i’ve got two questions. The first one is what is the place for internally generated experiences (e.g. in a sensory deprivation tank) and the second question is this second type of perspective a meta-narrative?
CB Most of our experience is actually internally generated. When I use the word ‘object’ we all think of a physical thing. But really ‘object’ is a lazy word for 1) a neural representation (a brain image) which 2) evokes a change to our body. A snake is an object and so is the notion of snakes on a plane. Both cause physiological change – the heart races, maybe we grimace or act a little more agitated. Most of our experience is from reviewing past experience and preparing for upcoming possibilities. None of these objects are objects in an external physical sense, but they are ‘objects’ in a sense that they map to a ‘image’ in the brain. At the moment at least, I’m trying to describe basic machinery, what occurs that give rise to experience. So in that sense, it’s the opposite of ‘meta,’ it’s ‘proto.’
JM ok. I’d like to clarify this last point if I may. When we have an experience, the act of taking a step back to think about the experience itself I think of as a little bit sophisticated. Do you think this is something that is important for lots of other experiences and we do it automaticcally
CB I’m trying to come up with an analogy here.. Let’s consider ‘narrative’ as a simple story. So ‘proto’ would be the relationships between the objects which we describe with sentences. We are so used to talking in sentences and framing one thing – our embodied self – as the subject – we don’t really see the relationships which give rise to sentences. Sentences are intuitive, but diagramming the grammar of sentences is hard. I have to laugh, my worst grade every in English was during the school year we had to diagram sentences. I think I was 11 at the time. A ‘meta narrative’ would be when we creatively analyse the sentences and the story and then offer sense-making explanations. So perspective really is a way of objectifying the pieces of the system which creates experience. Without consciousness, however, we cannot have perspective. I’ll toss in one interesting aside.. since our system of experience is both combinatorial and recursive – a language of images – what we see at the proto level is likely very representative of narrative and meta-narrative.
JM Can you say a bit more about recursion?
CB I’ll give you one example: “Hofstadter’s Law: It always take longer than you expect, even when you take into account Hofstadter’s Law.”
JM oh yes I see this is a paradox akin to Descartes idea of the inner homunculus
CB yes .. it’s turtles all the way down
JM and ownership?
CB After ownership, you’re welcome to ask the homunculus question.
I describe experience in this simple form: body-as-it-was, object, body-as-it-is. Both body and ‘object’ sound like physical entities. And intuitively they are. Within the brain, however, they are not physical object. They are a collection of neural patterns which map to both the body and the object. The neural patterns are basically mental property. We own them.
JM Why is mapping to the body important?
CB Our body is the ubiquitous part of our experience, and like a fish not noticing water, our experience has limited awareness of the body. Sure we might notice if we are hungry, but relatively speaking, that’s a big event in the body. When I mentioned ‘snake’ earlier, you probably had no experience of any change to your body because of the sight of the word ‘snake.’ Because body-change is part of every moment of experience, and body-state hardly ever changes, this constancy, this mapping of events through the body, providence a stable reference, like having a camera fixed in one location. This stability gives rise to the sense of self.
CB I’m groping for a clever way to connect this to ownership.
JM So i’ll just summarise to see if I’ve understood it properly
We have two types of experience the first is the experience of the objects – real or internal
We have a second experience of the experience these are all represented in the brain as patterns of neural activity which are accessed through our mind
part of these experiences are from the body which provides a predictable type of experience which acts as an anchor
we develop a sense of ownership as a result
CB So the mental images we ‘own’ (of the body and of the object) have very complex relationships and give rise to a very personalized experience. So if ownership is about an actor and a script, we own the playhouse, the actor and the script. Too often we feel we are the actor rather than the playhouse.
JM Ok and the playhouse is the experience of the body. So effectively we sculpt the experience and call it ‘I’?
CB ‘meta’ is where all the useful metaphors are. But maybe the best way to think of it is: it’s objects all the way down, just like turtles. We rarely recognize the body as an object or the system of body-objects as an object, because our natural point of view for recognizing things comes from these objects. But only when we see everything as an object, we can start making sense of our peculiar psychology, and we can exercise agency over all the objects, not the ones found only within the narrative itself.
JM That’s very interesting
CB Now to agency.. we can manipulate all of the objects. And here is were we go ‘meta’ in a sense. We have to have a mental object before we can have agency. So part of my writing is to objectify the body-object and the system of experience. The more visceral our sense of these objects, the more our natural, innate behavior in engaged. And here is where I draw the connection to trauma, self-development and well-being.
JM Very interesting. I’d like to finish off with a few more questions. Have you been influenced by William James?
CB Indirectly, yes. When I think of systems of experience, Antonio Damasio is the greatest influence and he draws on William James a lot.
JM How did you get interested in Damasio
CB Trauma is a body-based challenge. The books and literature cited Damasio so much, I just went to the source.
JM Which work by Damasio influenced you the most?
CB He has a long list of peer reviewed articles, but when I’m looking for a sense of the overall picture, I usually turn to two books – The Feeling of What Happens first and Looking of Spinoza second.
JM What are your thoughts on Descartes Error?
CB That’s an important book too, because in a way, it brought the neuroscientific study of emotion and consciousness out of the closet and transformed it into mainstream science. A lot of the ideas he uses in Descartes Error are continued in the later two with the benefit of more study and more criticism. I have to remind myself of my goal: I want to write about the science of our complex human nature so that it makes intuitive sense to someone interested in ‘personal development.’ Within that broad goal, I write on specific topics – trauma and posttraumatic growth, resilience and well-being.
JM Well Cole thanks very much for doing this interview
CB Thanks so much 🙂
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