Exploration of I-function Empowerment
In my current reality, my I-function is disempowering. At this moment, I want nothing to do with myself. I do not want to be the storyteller. I do not want my own construction of reality, but rather I desperately want to be free from my own experience of things. Why do I feel so limited and negative? Why can I not deal with what is out there? In my head, destructive pictures are being composed and self-deprecating thoughts are being concocted. Of course I hate this reality. Of course I want empowering images of what is out there and empowering ideas infiltrating my head. In this current state, more than anything, I want to feel like I did those mornings running up the mist trail struggling to breath, feeling warmth from a slowly rising sun, aching body, calculating .8 miles to the footbridge, feeling like eternity, yet mindlessly running and running in chase of a fixed destination – a waterfall. It is the same strenuous trail I first hiked with my Dad when he finally determined that I was old enough. It is the same trail I hiked with the first boy I ever really loved. It is the same trail my Mom ran up every morning when she began a relationship with Yosemite. Perhaps these reasons underlie my felt connection. Despite the lack of sound explanation, I fell for the excruciatingly tiresome trail, the wooden footbridge, and the magnificent Vernal Falls because of the experience that transpires when I land on the footbridge in the wake of morning: the mist sifts down to the bridge settling on my sweat soaked body, dancing rainbows refract off of the wet, mossy rocks, and gallons of water gallop into a pool of water fiercely rushing underneath me. In this reality, I am completely captivated. The spiritual effect I experience in the presence of Vernal Falls has been unmatched by any other natural thing I have beheld in the material world. I cannot recall my experiences with Vernal inducing any life epiphanies, but rather engendering a sense of inexplicable empowerment.
The empowerment has now faded. In fact, the experience is so distant that it seems almost unreal. I can no longer feel what it felt like. All I know is that I want the feeling back, similar to yearning for the love of a past lover. Right now, my I-function is unable to recreate the empowerment I felt in the presence of Vernal. Instead, it has taken one of its teasing turns toward a tumultuous and tiring mental trauma. The worst part is that I feel I only have myself to blame. My I-function, my own internal working script of myself and my world, created this current reality, right? Why? If only I could gain control of it and steer it back on track. If I cannot redirect it, then maybe I can turn it off. If not this, then maybe I can silence it to give myself the impression it is off. I just want to be empowered. I want to feel good. Who doesn't? M question, then, is under what circumstances does the I-function enhance our human experience? Further, what environment will ensure (or at least facilitate) its empowerment?
Option 1: Keep it Intact
The I-function undoubtedly has the ability to increase one's scope of the world. By engaging in this course, Neurobiology and Behavior 202, we are presumably engaging and challenging our I-function by exploring and creating new explanations of personal and shared realities. For example, prior to this class, I envisioned the nervous system as being a "stereotyped stimulus response machine." I thought of the nervous system as receiving inputs and then generating predictable outputs in response to the series of inputs. Presently, I possess a different, more indeterminate story of what is actually happening. Now, I realize my brain is "wider than the sky" and has the colossal capacity to build and revise models of the world by generating outputs and observing the resulting inputs. My nervous system has created a new story of what it is actually doing. It has become increasingly aware of its distinctive and individualistic qualities – its ability to construct, reconstruct, evaluate, and reevaluate its models of the world. Since most of what is happening is a result of outputs, it follows that one cannot control all of the inputs. One cannot create an environment of fixed inputs generating corresponding predictable outputs because the nervous system does not operate in such a linear, well-defined fashion (Grobstein, 2002). The brain is a complex, creative agent and we have labeled a source of this creativity as the I-function. We have designated the I-function as being responsible for the "conscious" activities of the brain, the experience of "seeing", and the individual interpretations of what is out there. My ability to conceive of this I-function and to compose ideas concerning its significance is indeed a process that is occurring within my I-function. Thus, my I-function has empowered my ability to conceive of both the world and myself in new ways. Viewed from this perspective, the I-function seems to be an empowering agent. I realize my reality is a non-reality. I realize a non-reality may be my reality. I realize the breadth of experience left to be had because my nervous system has a limitless ability to construct multiple realities of the world. Without the I-function we would not perceive the depth and color in these land art images (http://www.jeanpaulbourdier.com/) or the bodies in this photograph (http://www2.arch.ced.berkeley.edu/people/faculty/bourdier/Assets/Images/Body/body001.jpg). Without the I-function, Einstein would not have discovered the equation for the speed of light, Wright would not have constructed his unique architectural creations (http://www.cmgww.com/historic/flw/photo.html), Dickinson would not have written the “Brain is Wider than the Sky” (http://serendip.brynmawr.edu/bb/reflections/upa/UPApaper.html), and Grobstein would not have coined the term I-function. Clearly, the I-function provides human beings with astounding capabilities. In Einstein's own summary of observation, "Physical concepts are free creations of the human mind, and are not, however it may seem, uniquely determined by the external world" (Grobstein, 2003). Our mind has freedom to create stories of the world. So, what happens when our own summary of observations of the world is constraining and limiting?
Option 2: Let it go...
Depression is a condition that constrains and disempowers. Counseling, increasing personal awareness, searching for the source of the issue, and/or taking antidepressants are viable approaches to deal with feelings of depression. However, in individual cases, these tactics seem futile. According to Dr. Clark Martin, nothing had an effect on his depression until he had his first psychedelic experience. Scientists are now exploring the potential use of hallucinogens for treating mental disturbances and "illuminating the nature of consciousness". For Dr. Martin, the experience transpired as he lay on a couch listening to classical music and contemplating the universe: "All of a sudden, everything familiar started evaporating...imagine you fall off a boat out in the open ocean, and you turn around, and the boat is gone, and then the water's gone. And then you're gone." This suggests that Martin was able to experience the illusion of himself not experiencing the experience. He describes the experience as if his ego and body had vanished, followed by the disappearance of his personal worries and insecurities, and then the disappearance of his sense of self. Post-psychedelic experience, he felt a heightened sense of empathy, control, empowerment, and human connection. This may be likened to religious, spiritual, and/or self-transcendent experiences in which it seems as though the human brain is capable of experiencing "unitive" states – states where the boundaries between the self and the material world dissipate and are replaced with a larger state of consciousness. It has been suggested that spiritual and hallucinogenic experiences allow individuals to transcend their primary identification (their story of themselves) and experience an ego-free (I-function free) state (Tierney). It seems as though the I-function momentarily drifts away permitting an undefined, self-transcendent experience to transpire. Then, it restarts and renders itself positively transformed and prepared to accept life and its inconsistency.
Another scenario where the I-function may constrain is instances of fear. Ron Kauk, acclaimed Yosemite climber, makes climbing looks like a fluid and graceful dance. However, after some rushed moves, he admits: "God, I hate getting like that, when I freak out and get scared. I can't do anything right" (Moses). Other climbers admit that their own minds are dangerous impediments. It has been said that "Climbing is not a battle with the elements, nor against the law of gravity. It's a battle against oneself." As Warren Harding hammered the last bolt and staggered over the rim of El Capitan, it was not at all clear to him "who was the conqueror and who was the conquered." He did, however, recall that El Capitan appeared in much better condition that he was (Wikipedia). Battling oneself and conquering personal fears and anxieties are all common themes in the realm of climbing. So, how do they conquer the vertical world? It seems reasonable to suggest that climbers rely on central patterns generators (CPGs), unconscious patterns of activity, embedded in the nervous system that permit the body to produce fluid and reliable movements without conscious brain processes. I was sharing the concept of CPGs with a climber and he referred to CPG reliance as being “in the zone". In the zone, one climbs with a blank mental slate. Beta, the recollection of moves, vanishes from the mind, and one relies on CPGs and their interaction and connection with the rock. Yet, the mental slate does not indefinitely remain blank during a route.
Climbers have reported, and I myself have experienced, empowering moments on a route. The view of the valley, the exhilaration of being so high, and the sense of having this deep connection to the material world inspires a heightened sense of awareness. The I-function, thus, empowers. However, situations suddenly surface when the I-function interferes and must be quickly turned off (or tuned out) in order to pull the move or send the boulder. The state of mind strongly influences the quality and success of the climb. Climbs once completed with fluidity, climbs that once felt natural and motionless, have the potential to feel brittle and inelegant given a stressed mind state. Climbing is similar to meditation, yoga, and hypnosis – activities where the mind achieves a period of "emptiness" (See Brenner and Varney). In this period, the I-function is seemingly off and one relies of patterns of unconscious activity, i.e. "tacit brain processes" (Grobstein, 2003). The period of emptiness is followed by an increased sense of empowerment. If one cannot achieve the emptiness, one cannot achieve the ensuing empowerment. However, I think rock climbing and other extreme physical endeavors differ from practices where one is internally inducing the silencing of conscious activity such as in meditation, yoga, and hypnosis. In rock climbing, one pursues the external and unpredictable natural world - a world that is unquestionably empowering, but also undeniably scary, in order to achieve an internal awakening. The connection to the rock, an external obstacle, induces an I-function transformation. When I look at El Capitan, I cannot help but become scared by the prospect of being stuck on that monstrosity; however, it would make my life if I did conquer it. I wonder if rock climbers are not somewhere on the brink of a sublime experience.
According to philosopher Edmund Burke in A Philosophical Inquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful, authentic sublime experiences are triggered due to the element of fear. To be designated as a truly sublime experience, the experience must entail some modality of terror, astonishment, and pain. For Burke, the sublime is "that state of the soul, in which all its motions are suspended, with some degree of horror". Therefore, any experience that induces a state of "internal discord" followed by full engrossment of tacit brain processes may be considered sublime. Interesting enough, sublime phenomena have been connected to the natural world. Thoreau described boundaries between the self and nature, which when dissolved, may facilitate our understanding of us and our place in the world. It was suggested by Marciniak that sublime experiences lie somewhere in between the "intangible gap between consciousness and the material world". Marciniak questions: "What if, when we enter the sublime, we are somehow caught in a zone between mental stratospheres?…If the range of the sublime experience begins at infinite and extends to infinitesimal, when we lose all sense of math and logic, are we somehow lost in the universe, oscillating between levels of strata, floating or vibrating in a space not yet defined in the brain?". I question whether the sublime experience is the complete dissociation of the I-function due to the overwhelming nature of the experience. Is the brain no longer able to accommodate the experience? In response, does the I-function go into permanent hiding to save itself or is it perpetually lost?
Unfortunately, many individuals that undergo a sublime experience no longer possess control over their mental activity. In the absence of this extreme, I would suggest that the sublime exists on a spectrum and correlates to, as Marciniak explored, the activity of particular brain waves. The theta state, when the I-function is most disengaged and the brain is open to mystical stimuli, is the state where tasks become automatic and mental disengagement is achievable. The beta state, however, occurs when the brain is overly aroused by external stimuli. In this unstable state, the body is catapulted into a state of insuperable stress. Perhaps one must overcome an internal mental threshold to experience the sublime. While many of us never reach a place of complete disengagement and the inability to regain mental functioning, it is clear that we may adjust or dampen our mental activity under undesirable conditions of fear, stress, and depression to accommodate the particular experience. We accomplish this through various modes some being meditation, drugs, and nature, but also through ways of which we are not aware. It seems as though our I-function may take a transient rain check, thereby allowing the nervous system to have some rejuvenating relief from experiencing itself. Therefore, it appears that the I-function may turn off or at least provide us with the illusion that it is off.
Option 3: Tune it Out
The key word here is illusion. In the above instances, except for the extreme sublime scenario, the I-function seems to have been momentarily silenced. During this silence, the unconscious nervous system appears to take over after which the I-function returns, hopefully anew. Why is this valuable? Well, sometimes, I think we just get sick of ourselves to the point where we need to recreate our story. Sometimes our current story is too convincing and we become trapped by it. So, we go in search of revamping it with hopes of extending our scope of possibilities. Periods of stagnation oftentimes feel deadening – so deadening that hallucinogens present a promising alternative. Tuning the I-function out is not a wild idea. We tune it out all the time and for each of us, it is a unique experience. Some pursue seemingly constructive measures – meditation, hypnosis, spiritual outings, exercise, and excursions in the natural environment. For others, the desire to turn off the I-function is manifested very differently. Some pursue seemingly extreme measures - climbing up rock faces and taking hallucinogens. Some pursue seemingly destructive measures - isolation, cutting, drugs, gambling, obsessive, controlling, and compulsive patterns of behavior. Some try it all and rely on various combinations. Some never get a grip on it and end up choosing its demise. My intention is not to be morbid, but to rather explore the importance of gaining some awareness into this function that is sometimes an amazingly brilliant, empowering component to our lives with the capability of enhancing our perspectives and creating new possibilities. Yet, because it has so much power, such infinitesimal capabilities, I believe moments arise when its power is so empowering it may disempower. Regardless of the I-function's disempowering states, I believe that most of us do not wish to rid ourselves permanently of our role as the storyteller and/or negotiator of our own reality. I believe that most of us do not want to completely give up our unique experience of "seeing". I know I do not want my idea of myself, Tessa, to completely disappear. I know my narcosis, my intensity, and my interpretations may lead to empowering situations, which is one reason I have never opted to take antidepressants. However, there are times when enough is enough and I want nothing more than to turn off my experience, but I just can’t. I realize that my control over this function is limited and probably influenced by the tacit brain processes of which I am not aware.
Option 4: Tackle it?
Even though the workings of the I-function are partially uncontrollable, it is not a futile endeavor to try to overcome disempowering situations. So, how do we go about trying to tackle and transform the I-function? Again, I reach a place of no conclusion and no certainty. This is probably due to the natural inconsistency and ambiguity of my own reality. Everything we think of as being is a mere hypothesis (Grobstein, 2003). What I interpreted as love yesterday, I now interpret as pollution. What I interpreted as a empowering yesterday, I now find limiting. I am in constant flux because my interpretations are in continual flux. Currently, I feel like my mind is a mess. However, this investigation of the I-function has not led me to a dead end, but has instead led me to new understandings of myself and of the world. I realize that I do possess potential to transform disempowerment, although I currently have not stumbled upon a solid solution. Yet, I do believe that part of my empowerment has its foundation in the natural environment as I feel it does for other people. Part of my empowerment seems to have involved severing the boundaries between the self and nature as described by Thoreau. It is my guess that one's environment may be a source of constraint and negativity; however, the environment that one is in, is actually a story of where one is. The environment is not in itself existing without our control, but instead existing partially within our control. In fact, it exists because the I-function determines it exists. Furthermore, it exists to the extent that the I-function decides it will exist. It is a trip that I am seeing what I choose to see. This realization is one of the most empowering stories I have ever created, but it overwhelms me. This is probably the reason why I, and many others, find comfort in the idea of a soul or of something that exists beyond one’s self, because it is difficult to see and comprehend life as a series of personal subjective realities. Vernal falls, Yosemite, the natural world – the world that I attribute to my spiritual sense and idea of soul – is one of my stories. Bryn Mawr College, suburbia, academia – the world that I attribute to my stress and stagnation – is one of my stories. The stories are my reality, but they are not in actuality reality and they are not not reality. The stories do not follow any predetermined, predictable plot. The stories are partially self-determined and because of this I possess power to determine the design of my own life.
The following pieces of poem by Federico Garcia Lorca were introduced by Professor Grobstein in a conversation regarding chance, meaning, and evolving systems (Grobstein, 2010):
¿Por qué nací entre espejos?
El día me da vueltas.
Y la noche me copia
en todas sus estrellas.
Quiero vivir sin verme.
Líbrame del suplicio
de verme sin toronjas.
Why was I born among mirrors?
The day spins around me
And the night copies
Me in all its stars
I want to live without seeing myself
Free me from the barrenness
Of seeing myself without fruit
I believe, to some extent, that each human experience is a struggle. Part of this struggle may be attributed to the presence of the I-function and I think this poem reflects that idea. The I-function knowingly constructs this completely subjective reality, while also knowing that it has limitations on what it can and cannot achieve. Sometimes the barrenness is inescapable. Sometimes the experience is fruitless. Thus, it becomes apparent that our stories not only stem from the I-function, but from the influences of the unconscious processes of our second, more unpredictable nervous system. The duality creates conflict because the storyteller grasps that he/she may not actually exercise complete control of the story. While the story may be altered, the I-function cannot do arbitrarily anything it desires. If it could, we would all be everlastingly empowered. The I-function, then, is at best a negotiator possessing the skills to notice and relax constraints. Nevertheless, I believe its negotiating abilities have the potential to enhance and empower human experience, human connection, and the human connection with all other forms of life. For these reasons, the activity of the I-function deserves our exploration.
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