Neuroplastic Apperceptive Consciousness

The Rube Goldberg Machine of Meditation

It has been dawning slowly, achingly slowly over the last thirty years upon the more prepared minds in biology, that nonlinear emergence may not only be peripherally involved in the optimization of biological function, but lie right at the heart of the definition of life. Look at it from the purist Darwinian perspective: life is exploitation - exploitation of energetic surplus, exploitation of every niche, exploitation of every strategic position. If therefore any advantage were to be gained in a complex dissipative system from feedback, resonance, and self-organizing criticality, then surely life at its very roots would have already exploited these advantages. Indeed it’s possible the statement should be reversed: that the key moment was the recursion of self-organizing criticality in the emergence of the genetic facility. In other words the ability to propagate an order parameter while retaining dormant traits: traits optimized not just for one phase but also for some other critical phase - and thus a "lifecycle" of this emergent organism is born. Self-organization is an essential but insufficient sign of life: an avalanche is not yet alive, because while it may exhibit scale invariance and self-organization such that it has "offspring", it does not retain traits and thus cannot adapt. A dormant order parameter is required: a phase transition within molecular noise which produces a recursive critical moment within its own competing varieties of self-organization over multiple phases. Genetics too, may be constituted by something like stochastic resonance…

I am not at all the first to intuit this. You could trace a genealogy back through Hermann Haken, Erwin Schrödinger, Nietzsche, Goethe, Spinoza, Aristotle, and Heraclitus. We are nowhere near the final revelation: more likely we have only begun to peek behind the veil. But for our purposes this can be safely emphasized: feedback and modulation are no peripheral accident in the formula of optimal health. Therefore whatever means we can find of tuning these modulatory functions, should be handled carefully and in general be given a great deal more attention and respect than hitherto. My contention is that not only is the respiratory center in the brainstem one of the principal modulatory powers available to us, but consciousness itself: my theory is that we do not begin to understand consciousness until we ask what its adaptive function could be. For too long, everyone has assumed that self-awareness is a self-evident end-in-itself. There are at least three snakes with tails in their mouths in that last sentence: the presence of that much contradictio in adjecto should give us pause. There is no "in-itself", nor is there "end-in-itself", while "self-evident" is an idiomatic hyperbole, and so is perhaps "self-aware". Perception always implies something which cannot be perceived - Kant taught me at least that much: perspective implies hidden origin. There is awareness, but there is no "aware self-awareness" such as the few consistent and persistent philosophers would like to discuss: this kind of scholastic nonsense already peaked in the likes of Schelling, Hegel, and other Upanishadic wannabes - but at least these types had the decency to draw articulate conclusions where everyone else in our time is content to imply and assume. My kind of reasoning leads elsewhere: there is no "conscious self" to be conscious of. But the next step is not metaphysical despair at the loss of something we didn’t need nor ever possess: these are all shallow, relatively recent postaxial priestly snares, delusions, and consolations. The Buddhists are correct about "anatman", but they are utterly wrong to consistently portray this as some great loss which we can expect to be recovering from for the rest of our lives. Nothing is lost but a little stupidity, a little rigidity, a little unwillingness to learn. Our biological inheritance is functional above all, and consciousness does not have some other mysterious origin. It too must yield to the rule that everything must have adaptive value: therefore the question becomes, what is the adaptive value of consciousness?

My first tentative answer is modulation and optimization of expensive perceptual hardware. The much-neglected vertebrate cerebellum, sitting at the base of your skull, is probably as miraculous a piece of engineering as life has ever produced: the ability to navigate space and time with uncanny precision is what lies there. Therefore I regard proprioception as the fundamental sense, and the one which deserves the most attention - and luckily, the one which seems the most amenable to refinement through meditative practice. How is this possible? Because we are tool users: Homo sapiens has the carefully cultivated ability to extend the proprioceptive network around an inanimate object. The tool in the hands of the master is swallowed by the bodily envelope. To the other animals, our hands are magic, because we have the ability to project the proprioceptive field a few inches past the fingers to incorporate a tool. That’s what a carpenter does with his chisel, that’s what a batter does with his bat, that’s what a surgeon does with his scalpel, that’s what you do with the steering wheel. Meditation as we teach it therefore, is the harnessing of this uniquely hypertrophic neuroplasticity, located especially in our immensely overrepresented hands, to achieve neural modulation: our own perceptual network becomes the raw material, and our apperception the tool. The breath as fulcrum, and apperceptive consciousness as lever: meditation therefore is to exploit human neuroplasticity to achieve refinement of the hypertrophic conscious function, the purpose of which is already a feedback channel, within a living system whose homeostasis is predicated upon various overlapping feedback channels primed at criticality. It is a chain of levers stepping upward in scope - a Rube Goldberg machine of surprising reliability, which requires accuracy, a light touch, and good humor more than anything else.

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