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Awake

February 25th, 2010 Leave a comment Go to comments
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For this trip, I just show up some place and see what I can do for lodging, food, exercise, and entertainment without prior arrangements. This has been delightful and works well here. It also introduces a nice bit of randomness since my first choice is not always available. One thing which requires advance booking is Kapiti Island permit from the Department of Conservation for each of the North and South end.

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I secure permits for the North end of one day and the South end on the next. The island is beautiful, filled with exotic birds not found anywhere else on the planet or at best found in only a few places. The bulk of this post will have little to do with my travels on Kapiti and instead focus on scientifically tested and philosophically posited interactions in our brain.

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One of the most commonly sighted birds on the island is the weka which looks something like a cross between a dodo and a chicken. It is a medium sized flightless brown bird and looks delicious. The weka birds have learned humans can be a source of food. All of the human gathering points have wekas crawling about ready to snatch up bits of sandwich bread, filling,  or broken off bits of fruit.

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I am walking up the trail on Kapiti and a smallish black and grey bird, which I later find out is called a toutouwai, seems to want to be my friend. The bird enters my path and examines me, seemingly inviting me to walk forward. As I do, he gets out of my way and follows me along the path for a bit. The movement and attention does not feel like the weka beggars and instead feels much like a street vendor that pretends to be your friend since they want something from you. Later I find out that the toutouwai follow humans since our feet pull up some dirt and forest detritus to expose bugs underneath which the diminutive toutouwai then eat with ease without expending the effort of digging through the leaves.

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As I climb the final ascent of my trip up the Trig track, I contemplate my interactions with the birds and the meaning of adaptation. The trail is very steep and as I ascend an especially precarious series of steps, I contemplate goats and the ease with which they climb and descend steep and rocky mountains. Goats are born with a proportionally large amount of brain space dedicated to climbing these treacherous terrains. The goat does not think about how to climb the hill — the highly parallel part of their brain perceives the track and a tiny ledge appears as a massive platform while a loose rock which is immediately and simultaneously identified as a dangerous spot. This all goes on without thinking about the mountain face. There is no way a goat could serially process all possible steps up a mountain and think about which path is best. The goat just exhibits goatiness without thought or care once they have trained as young goats on their initial rocks soon after birth.

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All of these animals exhibit a conscious adaptation. A conscious adaptation is a willful major behavioral adaptation manifested inside the lifetime of a single being. To achieve this conscious adaptation, the parallel part of the brain (limbic) must be trained by the serial part of the brain (neocortex) to accomplish a task. Given the way the neocortex works, there is simply no way it could successfully navigate the constant stream of information and environment to achieve complex behaviors such as running across a field without falling, playing a non-trivial musical instrument well, or typing an essay on a computer keyboard.

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How do you actually run across a field? Do you consciously instruct your right leg to lift and command your left leg to push off? Of course not. Running is something that most people learn by training their limbic brain to execute the process in parallel. Furthermore, because there is no direct connection between the neocortex and the motor control nervous system, all motor activities are controlled by the limbic brain leaving the neocortex in the position as a trainer for the highly parallel limbic system. Therefore, all activity is performed unconsciously.

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At times, it may seem that we are conscious of everything we do and we are on some level if we try. Think of eating with chopsticks. Pay attention as you grab a bit of stir-fry broccoli and you have a nice illusion of conscious control. Remember the first time you used chop sticks and could not control the chop sticks sufficiently to grasp a tasty morsel. The neocortex is incapable of processing enough information to get the balance, pressure, and timing required to actually operate the chop sticks. It is a process, slowly or quickly, of training the limbic brain to achieve desired results — plopping that tasty morsel whole in your mouth.
This process of training goes on unconsciously and without or ability to control. The neocortex thinks a thought, which influences nearby nerves in the limbic brain to respond and process that information the way the neocortex commands.  This is empirically discovered by repeating an activity you think about consciously and note that over time your skill improves. This goes on for everything we think about. When we love, we train our brain to love and when we are cruel, we train our brain to be cruel.
This observation can be employed for our benefit. Do you want to be more loving? Focus your attention on loving and it will come. Do you want more joy in your life? Spend some time every day focusing on the joyful moments in your life and you will train your parallel brain to feel more joy. This can be applied to any conscious adaptation you wish to make in your brain. Though not some panacea of awesomeness, this will not for example cure depression or PTSD, it can be used to generate positive benefit within a short period of time which may alleviate depression or other ailments. How long does it take to learn to play a musical instrument? That is about how long it will take for you to see positive benefit. Make that conscious adaptation a habit and soon it will be something you never think about much as the goat never really thinks about climbing the mountain.

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Taking this to the next level, can we consciously adapt our limbic brain to be aware? This sounds like the halting problem for the human brain. How would we really know if the limbic brain is aware? Can it be verified? I think the answer is ‘no’ and I also think that training your limbic brain to be aware can have positive benefit. Practitioners of mindful meditation will recognize this though they tend to focus on the self and ignore awareness of their surroundings and those around. The state of being aware of the self, others, and surroundings is awake — in every sense of the word, fully awake.
The training can start today, and you can do it in your everyday life. As you walk down the street become aware of the buildings or nature around. Note the features and observe things like signs, leaf shape, animals, whatever is nearby. If there are people nearby, become aware of their emotional state. Note their intentions and what they are looking at. Notice how this makes you feel with a curious detachment from the actual state. Especially notice those that are aware of your observations.
Once the limbic brain is trained to be awake, and the practitioner becomes skilled, a world of awareness opens which is difficult to visualize prior to being awake. Once awake, subsequent trainings will be easier since the limbic brain will be able to offload the heavy lifting our neocortex does today.
Once awake, take this to the next level again and awaken those around you. Give the unconscious sleepers around you a gentle and loving nudge or grab them by the shoulders and shake vigorously. Awaken now since only good can come from this.

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  1. pst
    March 4th, 2010 at 02:46 | #1

    Well, this probably works as well for higher functions that you wouldn’t necessarily think of as limbic brain functions. You mentioned playing musical instruments but it also may be part of the effect one gets when one is in “the photography zone.” I know that after a week or two of working, my seeing ability goes into overdrive and, all of a sudden, my brain is constantly thinking in terms of potential art images.

  2. March 4th, 2010 at 03:04 | #2

    Nice observation pst. I think “being in the zone” is symptomatic of the end result of limbic training.

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