Saturday, February 9, 2013

Fantastic Voyage

“The meaning of world is the separation of wish and fact.”

 - Kurt Godel

       Today I begin embarking on an adventure - one which I had conceived in a storm of seemingly senseless bits of information - a sea in which I took strange refuge perhaps from my own inadequacy, and perhaps also in a genuine desire to create something beautiful or discover something true.. Whatever my reasons, I was convicted to a purpose: that the mind is an unfolding universe of possibilities, not restrained to the genes we are born with (to an extent, of course), but free to change as it wills, and all the more if we will that it changes. This strange aspect of intelligence was to be the underlying theme of my study.

      When I was in the twelfth grade, I reserved my exercises in profundity to the dark recesses of my mind, merely questions, and no answers.  In fact, I was resolved that there were no answers, and no reason to go looking.  I came to be in my high school library and stumbled on a book called "The Philosophers," the contents of which spanned several grecian and modern ponderers. It was a tattered old thing; it had been passed between many hands before it came to be in my possession.  I never signed it out, but I spent weeks going to the library after school to read.  I suppose it was then that I came to a simple conclusion:  I knew nothing. This was my first realization.

      My second realization was realization itself.  At the time, I never knew that I was tapping into a fundamental aspect of physics, of mathematics, yet, something inside me called out, demanded resolution. The epiphany itself was to be the subject of my study.  I was enthralled at the idea that a system (the mind, being a closed system of bits) could alter itself by introspection.Such a simple conclusion, that someone could "change their minds" and be a different person forever.
   
        I remember seeing the movement in my mind, like a heavy stone falling into a serene pond, forever clothing it in cascading waves.  I suppose the best metaphor would be the Big Bounce hypothesis in cosmological physics - that the universe begins, expands, and collapses, to expand once more.  Yet that new Universe is profoundly different, and we are universes unto ourselves; evolving, expanding, accelerating. 

      The next obvious step was psychology - cognitive dissonance - the 'self' and where it originates, which naturally led me to the physiology of the brain. I was no scientist. I didn't have an electron microscope, or thousands of brain slices. I didn't have an education in the math of brain strucures (or much math at all), but understanding the parts of something isn't sufficient in truly understanding it anyway. Facing the enormity of my failure was maddening. But I comforted myself in the idea that through poetry or fiction, I might tap into this human phenomenon, if not the universal one.

      Then my next realization came, in the form of a Christmas gift from my accidentally perceptive brother: an enormous treatise by the name of "Godel, Escher, Bach: an Eternal Golden Braid, a metaphorical fugue on minds and machines in the spirit of Lewis Carroll" by Douglas Hofstadter, a computational neuroscientist.   I would like to share a quote from the preface which was a profound coincidence (or perhaps not?):

"the 'teetering bulb of dread and dream' that nestles safely inside one's own cranium is a purely physical object made of completely sterile and inanimate componenets, all of which obey exactly the same laws as those that govern all the rest of the universe, such as pieces of text, or CD-ROM's, or computers.. the key [to consciousness] is not the stuff out of which brains are made, but the patterns that can come to exist inside the stuff of the brain.

      This is a liberating shift, because it allows one to move to a different level of considering what brains are: as media that support complex patterns that mirror, albeit far from perfectly, the world, of which, needless to say, those brains are themselves denizens - and it is in the inevitable self-mirroring that arises, however impartial or imperfect it may be, that the strange loops of consciousness begin to swirl."

"And the Word became flesh" - John 1:14

      A few weeks prior to this, I had written a story about a lawyer with a brain tumor, who confronts his demons in a house of mirrors, wherein he is the judge, jury, defense and prosecution. The mirror was always the keystone metaphor for the epiphany.

      For me personally, it was indeed liberating.  I began to learn about formal systems in mathematics, about the strangeness, and the eerie incompleteness, of loops - from a simple fugue to the infinite complexities of abstract structures in the mind and in the cosmos.  When Hofstadter wrote his masterpiece, there was a wealth of information yet undiscovered that scientists have access to today. Considering that fact, Hofstadter had profound insight into the nature of "mind," and at a very young age. I have had the advantage of his intuitive wisdom, and an ocean of information in real-time.

      Since then I have been learning about strange loops - insofar as my capacity for mathematics allows. I've always been more inclined toward poetry, but when truth stares me dead on, it's difficult to ignore it in the face of hand-me-down inadequacies crafted in wasted hours. So I did not give up, and still haven't.  Now the time has come to apply what I have been learning.

     Today I began the first stages of a comprehensive project, which I began researching several years ago with the intention of raising my IQ.  Lyme disease, and all its glorious trappings, was instrumental in preventing me from really digging into this project; in addition to my desperate need to look in a thousand directions at once.  Now I have collected, and I'm not afraid to say, a vast amount of information on the topic of not only strange loops, but the brain and how it works; from the biophysiological to the mental.  I have struggled to understand the relationship between the physical connections of the brain, the epiphany as a physical process, and the growth of brain cells as a mental process.  The question was, how does the epiphany change the physical structure of the brain?

      Until only recently, I had abandoned hope for this project, as the Lyme disease seemed to have spread to my central nervous system, infecting some of my lower brain regions, such as the hippocampus, which is crucial for the formation of memories as well as the production of neural stem cells.
   
       However, now that I am in remission, and with access to a wealth of knowledge on the topic of neurogenesis and the proliferation of neural stem cells, I am fully prepared to embark upon what I call Fantastic Voyage 2.0 - and the journey begins as it did in that first vision, with the birth of a universe - ever accelerating to the point of actuation, the fulcrum, the crack in the levee before the breakwater, and surging inward for rebirth, an epiphany from within and without.

      I will be doing a series of articles describing my fantastic voyage, and I hope it will inspire others to find some truth in themselves. Stay tuned for Chapter 1

"The Brain - is wider than the Sky -
For - put them side by side -
The one the other will contain
with ease -and You - beside-"

-Emily Dickinson

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