The opportunity to introduce the re-publication of this book fills me with a very deep pleasure. About nine years ago I plucked it from a store shelf, half by accident and half by serendipitous instinct, and I have seldom experienced the kind of excitement it gave me as I read and reread, underlined and annotated. Here was a theory of consciousness that made sense out of everything I had been experiencing as a bodyworker, a meditator, and an inquirer into my own mind, a theory I was most anxious to discuss and explore with all of my students and colleagues.
I had found so little in the currently contending theories of consciousness that was in any concrete way helpful for my understanding of the continual and powerful interplay between body and mind that I had been observing routinely at Esalen Institute and in my treatment room for nearly 30 years; so little that addressed–or even acknowledged–the effectiveness of complimentary therapeutic approaches, so little that spoke to the mystery of consciousness as I actually witnessed it within myself, to the connectedness of things, to the self, the soul, the spirit. Here at last was the missing link, an approach to the bodymind that dismissed neither rigorous scientific method nor the immediacy and validity of my inner subjective world, that could behold all of the delicious ambiguities of mind and matter from the same coherent point of view.
It was with dismay that I then discovered that I had chanced upon one of the very few copies printed before the book was discontinued by the original German publisher soon after its small initial printing in 1991. Last year, again quite by chance, I was given Dr. Brown’s address by a friend of a friend. After contacting him, I approached George Quasha of Station Hill Press, the publisher of my book, Job’s Body: A Handbook for Bodywork. To my joy, George immediately saw the importance of Brown’s research, the clarity of his writing, and the powerful sweep of his conclusions. The timing was right, and he agreed to reprint it immediately. The happy result is in your hands.
Consciousness–the process by which we know things, and know that we know them–has long been the single most confounding subject for philosophy and science alike. For all of the many theoretical attempts to grasp at it, it remains the largest conundrum in the field of biology. Thinking about the thing we are thinking with has consistently proven to be one of the most slippery areas of the unknown, and frequently the source of more confusion and absurdity than illumination.
Just how is it that our perceptual organs produce a picture of the world we are embedded in accurately enough to allow us to successfully function and adapt within it? What are the principles and actual operations of what Gregory Bateson called “a necessary unity” between mind and nature, “the pattern that connects?” Beyond the material fact that we are made up of the same stuff as the rest of the world, what are the underlying activities of our nervous systems that allow us to mirror that world in our minds? And, indeed, what exactly do we mean by “mirror,” or “world,” or “mind?”
Brown has called the phenomenon at the core of his investigations “microgenesis,” the rapidly flickering recapitulation of an individual’s entire past as the context in which each new instant of the now is experienced. He makes explicit his theory’s’ compatibility with some of the basic tenets of Tibetan Buddhism: Each of these moments of microgenesis–literally, “little birth,” or “now-realization”–is the perceptual emergence of an entire self and a world, a continually resurrected self and world that take the place of the ones immediately prior to it, and which die away as immediately to make room for the next. The whole of the individual’s past is continually deposited into the virtual duration present at the rim of a future that does not yet exist, and each of these moments contains the germ of novelty within the current never-before-experienced now. And like the Buddhists, Brown contends that this continuum of conscious moments is all that we can know; the world is present around us and it is what it is, but the only things we are in direct contact with are the shifting contents of our minds. In this sense all perception and knowledge are deeply subjective, while what we have learned to call “objective reality” is a fragile consensus about the similar events of mind upon which we can mutually agree.
In addition to his interest in Buddhism, Brown’s principal influences from Western philosophy include Alfred North Whitehead, Henri Bergson, and William James. There is also a deep affinity in his thought and writing with Maurice Merleau-Ponty, particularly Merleau-Ponty’s tremendous work, The Phenomenology of Perception. He, like Brown, proceeds from the assumption that the only phenomena that can be directly experienced by us are those presented to us by the processes of our own perception. Merleau-Ponty’s concern was to craft a use of language that would capture and express this radical subjectivism in our examination of our own experience of reality and our communications with one another about that experience. And whether by conscious design or merely by the fact of entertaining the same assumptions and concerns, Brown’s writing displays the same initially puzzling but meticulously chosen language which strives to remain true to a vision of reality that is profoundly different than the one our acculturated concepts and use of words conveys.
To be sure, a very real world is presumed by Brown to exist, one that is both coherent in its manifestations and consistent in its principles. His careful clinical attention to material detail is the other powerful perspective he brings to a theory of mind. His clinical research is solidly anchored in the specific anatomy and physiological functions of the nervous system. Many readers might be quite surprised to learn how few currently competing theories of consciousness have little or no concrete basis in neuroanatomy and a clinical understanding of the details of its function. Even Freud himself, who initially declared neuroanatomy to be the necessary foundation of any useful observations about psychology and behavior, eventually abandoned that foundation for purely conceptual entities such as id, ego, superego, Oedipus and Electra conflicts, and the like.
Brown’s theory emerges from many years of clinical research–primarily the observation of neural pathologies affecting perception, language, and memory. His premise (as was A.R. Luria’s, the ground breaking Russian neurologist so often referred to in the writing of Oliver Sacks) was that the distortions in perception caused by specific pathological conditions could yield insight into normal healthy mental processes. By painstakingly observing the shifts in the qualities of perception caused by specific local anatomical and functional disturbances, he was able to deduce what roles in overall consciousness are played by the different layers of neural processing, and thereby derive a clearer model about how our brains normally go about assembling a reflection of a self and a world. The result–microgenesis–is a theory that emerges from a long sifting through a plethora of clinical observations, not one that imposes preconceived concepts and models upon the unfolding of their research.
Perhaps what is most defining about Brown’s research and theory is his focus not only upon the specific anatomy of the nervous system, but even more significantly upon the fleeting and continually shifting combinations of firing patterns that play ceaselessly across the physical structures of the neurons. Brown does not conceive of these firing patterns as local and modular, zipping information up and down, back and forth among circuits connecting various “processing stations,” but rather as global patterns, each one involving the entire brain in a gestalt in which every neuron and every impulse plays its part in each overall brain state and the full texture of each moment of perception. Viewed in this way, firing patterns are not bits of coded information being passed this way and that around a complex circuitry, but are more like an artist’s canvas, each portion of which is simultaneously establishing both the details and the context of the whole.
Furthermore, these global firing patterns differ in a fundamental way from the anatomical patterns that underlie them: They are not material in the same sense as are the neurons that create them. They stand in relation to the physical nervous system in the same way that audible music stands in relation to the piano upon which it is played. With each shift of fingers on the keys, the entire piano changes its texture and meaning, even as the mechanical parts remain materially the same. And every string is freighted with an infinite potential of sound and significance, depending upon the overall context in which it is next struck. The underlying model for the theory is one of process unfolding, rather than computational or linear paths of development.
These firing patterns are rapid and ephemeral, each one lasting a small fraction of a second and constituting the brain state in that instant of ongoing shift and perceptual processing. They can be repeated and habituated, in the sense that I can–or find myself compelled to–return to the same feeling tone, train of thought, or behavior. But due to their enormous complexity they are never precisely replicated, and each apparent repetition has its elements of novelty. There is continuity, but just like the universe the operations of my mind are continually moving on, shifting and changing. And their constant change constitutes the evolving life of the mind.
This is a kind of structure very different from the ones we are used to thinking about. Our notion of the structure of a beehive, says Brown, must be enlarged to include the inter-related activities of every bee within it. A light bulb “on” has a different structure than a light bulb “off.” One of Brown’s central points is that our normal distinctions between “objects” and “processes” is arbitrary, and misses important unifying principles and activities shared by all states of matter and energy. Apparently solid and enduring objects are teeming with shifting energy patterns at the molecular level. “Objects,” he says, “are slowly changing processes. And processes are rapidly changing objects.” And this interpenetration of what we think of as objects and what we think of as processes is where the unity of mind and nature begins: “Growth is the memory of the body. Memory is the growth of the mind. And mind is the freedom from deterministic repetition afforded by the growth of memory,” he states.
The theory postulates a number of general principles in the microgenesis of each discrete brain state which constitutes an instantiation of the perceptual now:
- The global firing pattern of each microgenetic moment does not resemble the complicated circuit charts which represent processing modules interconnected by a dense map of crisscrossing lines, sending messages in many directions at once. Rather, a global firing pattern develops more like the arborization of a tree, branching out at successive levels of development from a core to limbs to branches to leaves.
- The overall neural sequence of unfolding for each of these discrete brain states recapitulates the evolutionary sequence of the development of the human brain. The process of cognition compresses the process of evolution into a brief moment, another source of “the pattern that connects” the development of mind in nature: The cognition of the present moment develops over the same sequence in which evolutionary pressures developed the brain itself.
- This sequence of unfoldment is unidirectional, from depths of brain stem to surface of neocortex, and each one traverses all of the successive layers of brain structure in the same order.
- Each momentary brain state represents the completion of an entire sequence of traversal from depth to surface.
- The theory presumes the likelihood of a small group of “pacemaker” neurons deep within the brain stem, whose steady pulsations initiate each new sequence.
- Each traversal from depth to surface takes place in a small fraction of a second, probably on the order of 10 pulses per second.
- Each tenth-of-a-second unfolding engages the entire brain in one way or another, creating a momentary gestalt that includes all current neural activities, both excitatory and inhibitory.
- Each global pattern of unfoldment is an irreducible quantum of conscious perception, an absolute “now” that has only a virtual, or as James expressed it, a specious duration.
- Each sequence recapitulates the whole personal growth and learning history of the individual–his or her past is traversed in its entirety and deposited at each instant of the now, together with the minute changes that are the result of current sensory experience and motor responses. Most of each sequence is repetitive; since each new actualization is derived over the immediately prior state, which constrains the new brain state to maintain continuity and minimal departure from antecedent states. Meanwhile, each unfolding also contains germ of novelty based on shifting conditions.
- Most of the history of the individual traversed in each microgenesis remains subconscious. Large amounts of qualifying and conditioning information remain submerged below conscious awareness.
- Every moment of conscious awareness lags somewhat behind the stimuli and the neural processes that gave rise to it.
The unfolding of each individual brain state over successive levels of processing proceeds in the following order:
1. Pure Wakefulness
This is a state of arousal without focus or intent, an awareness without any content of image or object. It is reminiscent of a recurring theme in many creation myths: pure potential, the void, the still-point, and the like–the formless matrix or plenum from which all forms will emerge. This earliest stage of cognition is elaborated in the brain stem, and is the initial appearance of a preobject perceptual intimation, the sense that “something” is on its way to “becoming.” The space in which this initial stage of object formation takes place is limited to the boundaries of the body itself. A separate world space has not yet been differentiated.
2. Dream Consciousness
In the initial stage of pure wakefulness, a preliminary intimation of the looming contents of awareness is aroused in the brain stem. Next, these preobject premonitions are passed forward to the limbic structures. This limbic stage is marked by a relaxation of sensory definition, “allowing the forming object to undergo a selection through a system of personal memory and dream work mentation. In this way the object emerges through the life history.”
Because the constraining and defining role of current sensation with regard to the developing object of perception is significantly suspended at this phase, the qualities of emerging images are dreamlike, hallucinatory. The initial separation of a developing self and a developing object-world is achieved, but changes in one are accompanied by changes in the other, indicating that the separation is not yet complete. Dream objects are highly charged with affect related to the self, and they also impact the self in highly charged ways. Self and world-to-be are part of a single image, and have not yet diverged into distinct objects and affects that build up the inner life of mind and the outer world of perception.
Space perception is now extended beyond the somatic surround of the body itself. But it is labile, plastic, and subject to distortions based upon the specific affects and associations occurring in the image selection process. Space and shape are emerging, but the dream images tend to be based upon the meaning of an emerging object rather than its specific form. How we feel about things is a dimension of our perception that develops before we know exactly what they are, and these meanings are tightly linked to my physical and emotional sense of self, to issues that have proven to be crucial to our survival, and indeed to all our past experiences.
Again, in many creation myths, this stage is reflected by the division of light from dark, primal form from the void, outer from inner, emergent from potential, and the like.
3. Object Awareness
During the dream phase elaborated in the limbic system, the developing image/object is imbued with meaning, meaning that arises from establishing its place in the full context of past experience. This next phase of image/object development is mediated by the parietal, or frontal cortex. This is the area of the brain that dramatically increased in size in the evolutionary transition from primates to human beings, and constitutes a large part of our vast storage capacity for memories and associations of categories of objects and events.
Here the developing perception is refined by its comparison to categories of things and events that have been encountered before–this thing that is coming into awareness appears to be like this or that previous example. At this stage, current sensory input is factored back in, after having been momentarily suspended in the limbic dream processing phase. The sensations emanating from my contact with the developing object act as constraints upon the possible developing outlines, further sculpting their affect meanings into specific shapes, sizes, textures and so on. Note that the emerging object is not made up of assembled sensory information, but that sensory information is one of the elements at work in the formation of a specific perception. Overall contexts, feeling tones, and categorical associations also play decisive roles in determining what it is that finally emerges as the current self, object perception, and world surround. Brown states that “perception is largely endogenous and secondarily sculpted by sensation.
This is the stage in which projection plays a powerful role in the emerging perception. Our categories and comparisons from which a type of object is selected are based on past experiences, and as such constitute the contents of my expectations and beliefs about the world. This is why it happens so often that novel occurrences are not even seen, but are merely slid past without notice, reshaped to fit past experience, or simply denied. And this is why we always have to behave in a new reality before we can begin to reliably perceive in that reality. Our beliefs and expectations established by familiar experiences contend with the specific sensory input connected with our current experience, and we form the apparent surface of our world between them. If current sensory information plays a strong role, each new object and event will be perceived as unique in its own way. If categories of past experience are somewhat more dominant, these novelties will be smoothed over into a repetitive sameness of things corresponding to our expectations. If categories and beliefs are strongly dominant, then all new experiences will be systematically trimmed to fit what we have come to think is possible, permissible.
The space into which these developments elaborate is the space of our reach, the space in which my personal actions directly encounter and affect the world. The developing image/object is still largely within me and subject to being altered by my responses to it. It is increasingly differentiated from “me,” but is still not deposited as an independent entity into the surrounding world.
4. Analytic Perception and the Separation of Self and World
As the image/object matures in the categorizing and sensory sculpting processes of the parietal cortex, it passes on to the neocortex where it is developed into a fully developed space of public objects with detailed features that are externalized and given an independent life of their own, no longer altered by the operations of the mind. It is at this stage that what we normally mean by “thinking about things” occurs, our analytical faculties examining the world of objects and events we have deployed around us with the interactions of our spontaneous brain activity and the incoming sensory constraints.
The disconnection of the object from the self is crucial to the deliverance of a separate world to my perception, and each externally resolving perception is a loss of a portion of that self to the object world. To the degree that emotional meaning and self-identification continue to imbue the world and its objects, that world has personal emotional relevance and an animation connected to my humanness. To the degree that this affect is given over to purely analytical relations, that world is progressively devoid of emotional meaning and interactive connection to us.
Remember that each microgenetic traversal of these stages of a developing moment of perception takes place very rapidly, in about a tenth of a second, that the order of these processing stages is fixed, and that most of the operations described above do not occur at a conscious level. Each wave of microgenesis deposits upon the surface of my conscious awareness for that split second, and then immediately decays much like the effect of a “magic writing pad,” making way for the next emerging perceptual moment.
According to the theory, the decay process of each successive wave proceeds downward in reverse order of the traversal towards consciousness, and each decay takes place somewhat more slowly than the onset of the next replacement. This creates a brief overlap, and from this overlap we derive our sense of continuity across successive moments and a sense of duration, of time.
The direction of microgenesis is always depth to surface, potential to actual, unitary to multiplicity, general to specific. The arborizing outflowing of these stages of processing is strongly reminiscent of metaphors relating to a “fountain of consciousness,” a perpetual rising and falling back of repeated moments of now delivering our entire past from the core of our being to the surface of each conscious moment.
Our organized muscular responses and movements also unfold in a similar microgenetic sequence, from depth to surface, somatic core to surrounding space, potential to specific. Their intention and physical expression develop in tandem with the stages of development of our perceptual object world. And, as with each moment of conscious perception, the processes of development for each moment of motor response are largely submerged beneath our conscious level of awareness.
Corresponding to the initial “pure wakefulness” phase of object development deep within the brain stem, the initial phase of our motor responses effect the core groups of axial muscles, primarily those invested deeply around the spine. This is a preparatory firming up of the tonus around my core structures in ways that will be appropriate for the support of the developing action-to-be. The overall shifts in tonus levels and specific preparatory adjustments are based upon our preconscious premonitions concerning the nature of the situation and reaction that is emerging: “Ready….”
During the next phase, sequences of muscle activation radiate from my core to extremities. Similar to the” dream consciousness” phase of perception, these developments take place in an internalized space, with an incomplete distinction between core and periphery, self and surround. And like the initial “wakefulness” phase, this phase is also prior to conscious and observable movement, and is a further elaboration of the preparations necessary to achieve the full sequence of responses which will follow: “Set….”
During phase three, these initial preparations are put into motion, and the ensuing movements are organized around our immediate spatial surround, the space that is circumscribed by our reach. The conscious and observable elaborations of our motor response now begin to physically interact with the world projected within arm’s length around us. As in the “object awareness” phase of perceptual microgenesis, self and world are distinctly separated, but both are still internalized to a degree: “Go….”
Finally, just as we deployed a completely elaborated world that occupies our full extent of our sense of space, and established analytical relations to it, we extend our intentions and our actions into the world at large. We perceive ourselves as an active agent in relation to that world, exploring it, mapping it, and interacting with it.
In his analysis of these phases in the development of conscious perceptions and the organization of motor responses, Brown puts a finger directly on one of my own fundamental concerns as a bodyworker and a therapist: the entire issue of somatics, and the roles played by the physical and physiological conditions of all the body’s organs, tissues, and processes in the development of my consciousness and my behavior.
All of our sensory modalities that announce and give shape and texture to a self and a world are embedded in our somatic tissues. The only things we have direct contact with are the various responses of our own bodies as the world impinges upon them in various ways. All the rest is inference and accumulated experience. In this sense, all perception is proprioception, and all our impressions about our bodies and the world are deeply, radically subjective. This means that the details and the ultimate impact and interpretation of all incoming sensory information is filtered through layer after layer of the body’s tissues as it passes from peripheral nerve ends, up the spinal cord to the brain stem, where the arborization of each microgenetic arborization is initiated. And it also means that individual motor responses and overall patterns of behavior can only be acted out on the basis of the specific conditions of the tissues, and must accommodate any and all strongly habituated patterns of posture and acquired reflexes that currently prevail.
The body, in other words, is the immediate precinct in which the early formative stages of perceptions unfold, so our current experiences of our bodies influence in decisive ways many of the qualities of the world that is finally deposited into my conscious awareness. This confirms something that I have witnessed repeatedly in my private practice and teaching over the years: The ultimate potential of bodywork does not have to do with fixing aches and pains, nor even with their prevention; it has to do with the widening and deepening of the self we are able to possess and the world we are able to perceive, and with the immediacy of our felt relationship to them.
Similarly, our ability to develop useful skills and successful adaptive behaviors depends finally upon the physical conditions of our tissues and our flexibility in being able to adopt new responses and develop new, more productive habits. Disturbances in our sensory awareness of our body image can severely distort the images we in turn build up about the world. Distortions in our beliefs about what we can or cannot, must or must not do, set decisive parameters around what in fact we are able to do.
And all of these formative influences on our feeling, thinking, and acting come most powerfully to bear in the early, preconscious stages of the development of both perception and response. This underscores an idea that I have been encountering more and more frequently in my reading and that corresponds to my own growing conviction: The body is to a large degree the contents of the unconscious, and the specific details of the body’s reactions both to the world of objects and to our inner world of feelings constitute the matrix from which perception and behavior emerge. (Incidentally, the importance of the influence of our body image upon our perception and behavior was described with great insight in The Image and Appearance of the Human Body by Paul Schilder, another active member of the Wurzburg research group.) It seems to me that these observations and the theory of microgenesis have enormous implications for our clinical understanding of the human organism and for the practical improvement of both physical and psychological therapies of many kinds.
Most refreshingly, Brown’s thinking extends well beyond the clinical information and the theoretical exposition of the microgenetic process. To my mind one of the most stimulating dimensions of The Self-Embodying Mind is the broad scope of existential issues and philosophical questions which he is willing to explore as a natural extension of his views on perception. It is in these provocative speculations that the legacy of Whitehead, Bergson, and James encounters the hard data of clinical research, and where deeply subjective meditative concentration conjoins most movingly with scientific method and analysis.
For the most part, neurologists who develop theories of consciousness are unwilling to speak publicly about the immediate, practical, daily consequences of having a mind as an important part of our evolutionary heritage. Subjective points of view and personal beliefs invariably are ushered into such speculative discussions, and these are dismissed by many practitioners of scientific method as either irrelevant or misleading. Hence we get theories of mind as epiphenomenon, mind as an accidental consequence of elaborate chemistry and physics, mind as meaningless illusion, or as a figment of some non-existent imagination–mind, that is, not in any way explained by the neurological data at hand but rather explained away by virtue of the limitations of rigorous objective analysis.
But it is precisely the continual subjective consequences of having the sorts of minds that we do which compel most of us to try to understand them. How might they best help us to survive, to thrive? Why do they wander into enduring labyrinths of willful error or pathology? Why do they torture us, and how might that torture be avoided? What are the mutual misunderstandings and misperceptions that must be negotiated and traversed if we are to genuinely see one another and act in cooperative concert? How can we sort out the kinds of beliefs that undermine and sabotage us from beliefs that empower us to adapt successfully to life’s challenges? How can we best educate ourselves and our children, and what are the ingredients of a life that foster mutual respect and tolerance of differences, that can prompt us to do as we would be done by?
Brown’s research and thinking has been replete with rigor. But his theory is an expansive one, a supple one, and one that does not suffer from speculative contact with the common stuff of our daily conscious and active lives. Indeed, for me much of its scientific significance stems from the fact that it seems to throw light in exactly that direction–the practical and existential issues and events with which our minds are continually confronted, and in the midst of which they have evolved.
While remaining rooted in the data that supports his description of microgenesis, Brown nevertheless does not shy away from confronting elusive but perennially important notions in the history of human experience. There is room here for ideas about what we mean when we talk of the self, the soul, the spirit, about the experience of the divine, about the extension of space and the duration of time, about the kinds of personal vision we call spirituality and the collective experience of it we call religion. There is room for the moral and ethical concerns that are inherently at play in all human interaction, and which for Brown apply to the endeavor of science every bit as much, if not more, as they do to any other human enterprise.
There is room for all the allusiveness, elusiveness, ambiguity, intuition, fragmentation, and kaleidoscopic emotionality that characterizes our normal flow of consciousness and everything else whose inexplicable untidiness so vexes most theoreticians. And for me most important of all, there is room for that most elusive and most continually problematic notion of all–human freedom. Its banishment in our time by the false methodological constraints of materialistic reductionism has been nothing short of catastrophic for both our personal and our public lives, and the ways in which Brown uses science itself to bring freedom back into play is one of the most breathtaking features of this book. Decisive moments of freedom are indeed fragile and fleeting enough to lend an apparent justification to claims that it cannot exist in a world of orderly laws, but Brown helps us to see that in the midst of the continual recapitulation of the past there are also continual flickers of novelty and opportunities for change to be initiated, openings that may be small and brief but which on the other hand are always arriving at the rate of ten per second, each one of which has the potential to actuate another world entirely. “All time,” said William Blake, is contained between two heartbeats, and all space is contained within a drop of blood.” Brown’s theory is about the neurology of this view of things, and encountering it had been one of the few times that I have truly recognized myself in the words of another. It is an example of what Blake called “sweet science,” and I am grateful for what it has added to my understanding, my professional practice, and my experience of my life.
Mill Valley, California
June 8, 1999