Bear in Mind

Exploring the common minds and emotions of people and other animals and their lives together

Restore Our Daemons

Neuroscience and our animal souls

Eileen McCarthy, Midwest Avian Adoption and Rescue Services
Eileen McCarthy
Photo Credit: Eileen McCarthy
In the magical world of Philip Pullman's novel, The Golden Compass, every person has a life companion in the form of an animal called a "daemon." A daemon is a cross between a soul and a best friend. The animal form it takes is a manifestation of the host's true personality. [1]

Pullman's fantastic tale tells the story of a young girl, Lyra, who undertakes a journey with her daemon, Pan, in a mysterious and dangerous parallel universe. In this strange but familiar world, everyone is born with a daemon. Pan's name alludes to the nature of the human-daemon relationship: Pan is short for Pantalaimon, Greek for "all compassionate". [2] This soul-friend may take multiple forms. Pan morphs from moment to moment from delicate moth to mighty eagle to tiny mouse.

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But all is not well for girl and daemon, for there are dark forces at work. Lyra discovers that members of the General Oblation Board are conducting nefarious experiments that sever daemons from kidnapped children. Violently separated, children and their allies wither and die. The book follows Lyra as she and her companions, including a giant polar bear king, rush through a series of adventures to save the world.

Descriptions of the children and their daemons are both enchanting and haunting. They also colorize fascinating new theories of consciousness that have emerged from yet another disciplinary amalgamation: neurophilosophy. Similar to neuropsychology which has married science's left-brain, neuroscience, with its right brain, psychology, neurophilosophy inhabits intersecting borderlands and investigates broader implications of science's forays beneath the skull beneath the skin.

Berkeley philosopher-cum-neuroscientist Alva Noë has proposed a radical new theory. [3] He argues that instead of functioning like a tape playing inside our heads, consciousness is created out of our minds. "Consciousness is not something that happens in us. It is something we do." [4] What we experience is less a byproduct of an industrious brain, than a dancer in dialogue with his environment created in tandem with a matrix of relationships. Similar to Lyra and Pan, our experience of the world is forever accompanied.

Ann Southcombe
Ann Southcombe
Photo credit: Ann Southcombe
Neuroscience has come full circle to its biological roots. Ecopsychologists would agree, pointing out that symptoms on the inside match those without. Social malaise and declines in prosocialty and moral integrity mirror their partnered symptoms in the surrounding environs [5]: birds falling from the sky, pachyderms imploding with psychological pain, and polar bears slipping into oblivion as ice melts and climate shifts. Attachment theorists concur saying that relational dysfunctions propagate like fractals from neurons to neighborhoods. [6] Gaia's culturally–sanctioned abuse lays the path to interpersonal violence within our homes.

In contrast, those who maintain a secure attachment with Mother Nature—elephants, orcas, birds, reptiles, insects, and others indifferently labeled as "biodiversity," as well as tribal humans who doggedly refuse to embrace "civilization" [7]—lack the symptoms of moral decline now gripping industrialized society. [4] Their reality does not seek to sever the thread of life. Their life is not inside; their life is the way the animal is in the world. [3]

Now, even these earth-rooted psyches are collapsing under the relentless weight of human violence; wildlife is beset with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and other ailments of the soul. [8] This comes as no surprise to scientists. Wildlife PTSD is most noteworthy as an unequivocal demonstration that nature's intelligence is comparable to humanity's. Nature no longer tolerates the role she has been assigned: a passive canvas against which humanity recklessly splatters angst and obsessions without consequence.

The good news is that science finally concurs with common sense and sensibility. The question is this: based on this knowledge, will scientists speak out to compel action? For the sake of all, including our children and their daemons, will scientists finally admit that humanity must relinquish its self-proclaimed privilege and begin to live like our animal kin?

 

Charlie Vandergaw and Cinnamon
Charlie Vandergaw and Cinnamon
Photo Credit: C&C Images
[1] Retrieved June 1, 2011 from http://dopetype.wordpress.com/2008/11/22/the-golden-compass-deamo... .

[2] Pullman, P. (2003). The Golden Compass (His Dark Materials, Book 1). Laurel Leaf.

[3] Noë, A. (2009). Out of Our Heads: Why You Are Not Your Brain, and Other Lessons from the Biology of Consciousness. Hill & Wang.

[4] The life is the way the animal is in the world: A Talk with Alva Noë. Retrieved May 31, 2011 from Edge http://www.edge.org/3rd_culture/noe08/noe08_index.html

[5] Narvaez, D. & T. Gleason. (2011). Developmental Optimization. In D. Narvaez, J. Panksepp, A. Schore, and T. Gleason (Eds.), Human Nature, Early Experience and the Environment of Evolutionary Adaptedness. New York: Oxford University Press.

[6] Schore, A. N. (2011). The Right brain implicit self lies at the core of psychoanalysis. Psychoanalytic Dialogues, 21, 75-100.

[7] Survival International. (2010). Progress can kill. Retrieved December 2, 2010 from http://www.survivalinternational.org

[8] Bradshaw, G.A. (2009). Elephants on the edge: What animals teach us about humanity. New Haven: Yale University.

 

G.A. Bradshaw, Ph.D., Ph.D. is the author of Elephants on the Edge: What Animals Teach Us About Humanity.

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