“To know that you do not know is the best.”
― Lau Tzu
|Lincoln Stoller, PhD, 2021. This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International license (CC BY-NC-ND 4.0)
The Default Mode Network (DMN) is a group of brain regions that show lower levels of activity when we are engaged in a particular task, but higher levels of activity when we are awake and at rest. The hypothesis is that these form a system that is active in our normal, resting state.
“Imaging research (has shown) the Default Mode Network to be overactive in depression and related to the amount of rumination. So we thought that disrupting excess Default Mode Network activity (using psychedelics) might lead to a reduction in depressive thinking.”
— David Nutt, PhD, neuropsychopharmacologist.
We’re told the DMN is a collection of pathways that govern our self-image, our autobiographical memories, and our deeply ingrained beliefs. The DMN is offered as the neurobiological seat of the “ego” in the brain. This sounds great, and maybe it’s true, except that there is no neurobiological source of or explanation for our self-image, our autobiographical memories, and our deeply ingrained beliefs. So what is it?
The Default Mode Network concept has been invented in order to assign something useful to what brain images show. They show a matrix of connections normally active when you’re not doing anything. It is another picture of consciousness as a mechanical system that can be understood in terms of nerves.
While the default mode network is a vague notion, it implies that illness arises when this network is troubled or distressed. Removing irritants, infections, stressors, and assaults will enable our DMN to recover. The solution: return to a healthy, relaxed state. Just as depressing thoughts were the source of your depression, so distressing thoughts will be seen as the source of your distress. Restore the DMN. Return things to normal.
There are alternative interpretations to those observations that underlie the DMN. The alternative to which I subscribe is that these brain regions correlate with brain function, but are not the cause of it. These active and inactive regions are a symptom of being conscious and aware. They cannot be the cause of it because we don’t know what they do. This is not a simpler or more complex interpretation, it’s just different. It says that you don’t explain anything by waving your hands at the mystery.
I’m always amazed that anyone can speak other languages, especially bad ones like English. Speaking a language takes so much work and only achieves a moderate level of clarity. I argue that using language to communicate limits our understanding more than it enables it. I am surprised we have not found some way to communicate better. I feel that helping to create a better means of understanding, something beyond language, is part of my work.
I have decreasing faith in languages. Much of what people do that makes us different from other animals resides not just in language, but in what we do with it. Other animals have languages too, and some of them appear to be complex. Dolphins are suspected of communicating in three dimensional pictures. Elephants are suspected of communicating emotions. Rats laugh. Most mammalian languages include declarations in the present tense. It is a measure of the weakness of our own use of language that we cannot understand, or translate into our own language, meanings expressed in these other sorts of languages.
Human language reduces perceptions to abstractions. Our language erases everything but the abstraction. Our reality is based entirely on abstraction and we behave as if our ideas are real. We become elated or depressed, and we’re driven or restrained by the reality we ascribe to our abstract concepts.
For example, consider our concept of debt. First World progress is driven by the issuance of debt, yet the concept is understood differently by different people. Most don’t understand the larger implications of debt, debt financing, fiat currency, and money. What does it mean when governments and banks “issue” money? Does it mean what a few economists think, or what people do?
“… the experience of the self is always a defeat for the ego.”
— C. G. Jung
Reality is what Jung called the numinosum, it is both the reality of things and the human experience of them. For Jung, this is all about how it makes you feel. For me, feeling is a rheostat: it goes up and down and on and off. There is no one numinosum, there is a multiverse of numinosa. If you break out of your notion of what’s real, you’re still contained in your culture’s notion of what’s real.
Both of these are enforced by a set of rigid rules about how to use language, and I mean any human language, not any particular tongue. One language is only different from another in proportion to the differences between the cultures that use them.
We reduce this to epiphenomena, which are pictures to which we assign motivation and consequence. We depart from the description of what we perceive to the concepts we ascribe to it. These concepts reflect what we or others can do with things, so that the meaning of things turns into a meaning that depends on what can be done with these things, and not of the things themselves.
A stick becomes a tool for what we have in mind. A gun, while only a metal object, is more importantly the action that’s in the mind of who possesses it. There is the concept of a gun, the thought of a gun, the word “gun,” the use of the word, the inanimate object, it’s potential as a weapon, and the gun when it’s actually used. We perceive each of these differently and their differences are essential to us. The actual object, while it may conjure foreboding, is of minimal importance when stripped of these additional meanings.
Objects have implied meanings in animal languages too. For most animals a stick is a stick but a predator is a threat. Like us, animals also learn to associate consequences to new objects. It’s not clear whether they learn new associations with new objects, but it’s not clear that we do either.
Through language, we foster an agreement. We call this agreement culture and live only in a fractional world that we understand within our culture. As complexity increases, and our understanding decreases, we harden the boundaries of culture and become more threatened by other cultures.
As our world becomes more complex and interrelated our existing language becomes less effective and more confused. You will notice that when your conceptual understanding becomes confused you quickly lose control not only of your world, but of your own sense of self. Your sanity is a much more fragile construct than you might realize, and this is why you go to such length to protect it, even to the point of killing yourself in the process.
You have been taught to understand the great tragedies in history. You are taught that bad people cause bad things. You have been taught caricatures. You are taught that there is good and bad, and you are protected from the bad by thinking good thoughts and by repeating the thoughts of good people. By following society, government, religion, and science you can tell the good from the bad.
This is to protect you from the chaos of not understanding, and from creating misunderstanding in others. In truth, bad people are just like you, and you like them. People just like you and I created the great tragedies of history. These tragedies come about quite naturally. All you need to do is see the future you’ve been taught is right, and work to accomplish it most efficiently.
Your life’s problems have something to do with this: too much language. Too much reasoning. Too much thought. This could be seen as excessive rumination which is taxing the DMN and bringing you down.
According to the conservative point of view, if you restore the neutral, balanced, non-engaged state natural to the DMN, then things will get better. According to an emergent point of view, if you restore the neutral, balanced, non-engaged state natural to the DMN, then you will retreat to your old ways of knowing. The question is, is your dysregulation simply an accident that needs to be undone, or are you encountering novelty that needs to be understood.
We seem to think using language, and language does not serve our deeper needs. It does not serve our needs when we are emerging to a new understanding or are encountering a situation that requires a new understanding. So we get stuck… in language… and thinking.
My general approach, my “first thought” in just about every case, is to work to get beyond language. Some people can go beyond language more easily than others. If you’re a scientist then you will try to fix your thinking using more thinking. If you’re a holist, then you will try to fix your thinking by opening your boundaries. If you’re like most people, then you’ll try to fix your thinking by getting sick or freaking out but, of course, you won’t admit it that you’ve lost it.
I find that most people, not all but many, benefit from talking. It’s more that they relieve themselves of the need to think by thinking out loud, and then they can try something else. The talking is a process of taking off your clothes, except in the case of talking there is nothing underneath. More like taking off your skin so that you can move to another level. In that other level, there is no body and not much mind, only spirit. You can then become a self-observer and you travel inward.
I prescribe a certain amount of talking, but only enough to get to the point where you feel it to be useless. At that point, you appreciate that your thoughts are leading you in circles. It’s at that point that you might recognize that they’re getting you nowhere.
The next step is to see yourself as a whole and integral being outside of your story. This is a critical step. It is the step that takes you outside of language. As a first step, you move into a world of emotion. This is a larger and more fluid world. It can be frightening, threatening, or repellent depending on what’s in it and your preconception of yourself. Some people create perpetrators, others create monsters, and still others make themselves into victims.
These are all reactions to what is unknown, they are the reactions of fight, flight, or freeze. It is popular in the psychology world to say these are reactions to trauma, this is Gabor Mate’s reaction: all illness is due to trauma. I think this is both too simple and has not gone far enough. There are dysregulating traumas and there are re-regulating traumas and they must be recognized as distinct.
When your parent hits you, that’s a dysregulation trauma. Your needs are correct and their response created damage. When the environment hits you, that’s a re-regulation trauma. Your needs are damaging and the environment’s response is correct. When your government hits you, that’s a combination of both kinds of trauma. Your needs are partly correct and partly to blame and the government’s response is partly correct and partly damaging.
It’s not enough to recognize your response and call it trauma. We do that because of the paucity of our language. Our concepts are too limited and, by using our constricted language, we enforce our own suffocating boundaries.
How to get beyond the limits of your language? Stop using it. How to get beyond the constraints of your thinking? Stop thinking. If you don’t start looking for an alternative, you won’t find one.
“If you do not change direction, then you may end up where you’re heading.”
— Lau Tzu
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