Kelly Clancy, in her brilliant article, “Your Brain Is On the Brink of Chaos, Neurological evidence for chaos in the nervous system is growing”, in ‘Nautilus’, July 10, 2014, presents more compellingly than I can that the ‘Brain is not a Computer Stuck on Top of a Body’. She articulates in a very technical way that the brain utilizes a balance between chaos and order for its operations. It does not operate like a computer, feeding into established static bytes.
Chaos and order is the big subject of the universe – the creation of order out of chaos and the eventual return to randomness. This applies to the evolution of inanimate matter as well as all life forms including us. It should not be surprising that the operations of the brain itself encompass these processes. I certainly agree that “the brain’s main function is to protect us, like an umbrella, from chaos.” I propose that the brain not only operates via a balanced relationship between order and chaos on the micro level, but it operates in the same way on the macro level as well, fractal that the brain is.
It is consciousness that protects us from the chaos of our random environment. It gives coherence to actions and meaning by imposing its learned order as it incorporates chaos from the environment. The limbic-cortex creates a play in the theater of the brain. The ‘play’ is a synthetic representational world that consists of a cast of characters, personas, who relate together by feeling, scenarios, plots, set designs, and landscape. (See “The Secrets of Consciousness, the limbic-cortex is organized as a drama in the Brain.”). The ‘play’ constitutes the ‘order’ of consciousness. It gets established in the limbic-cortex over the first three years of life as the child fields his emotional environment and digests it through his genetic temperament. This results in an incredibly complex mapping throughout every aspect of his limbic cortex as a whole. Once established, the play operates as a top-down cortical process which imposes its already established order and form on experience.
We are constantly taking in new and uncharted experience at every waking moment. This is chaos. It is the interplay of chaos and order in the brain’s actual functioning that creates the stream of consciousness as mediated by the hippocampus. Cortical top down functioning allows us to manage chaos by imposing short-cut functionality and meaning to our moment to moment life. Consequently, we experience life through the synthetic and invisible prism of what we already believe. However, that is only half the story as to how the brain operates. If it were the whole story then new experience would be completely filtered and deterministic. Our lives would be Ground Hog Day. And of course it’s not.
It is through the brain’s ability to process chaos by being open to randomness itself, that we manage aliveness. The brain mediates new experience through the hippocampus and sends it into memory. It maps tracks of something new, on an ongoing basis, wiring new pathways all throughout the limbic cortex. This new experience is also filtered by the activated play, and is given meaning by the already established pathways, which extend and color the original play. This happens all day long. The unfixed and open capacity of the brain, filtered by the established order, as mediated by the hippocampus, generates a new, alive, and ongoing illusion of experience on an ongoing basis, a fusion of order and chaos.
New experience does not rewrite the established play. That remains intact via its established neuronal mappings and remains as ‘order’. However, when new experience is too powerful, limbically, it qualifies as trauma. Traumatic experience does rewrite the original play, and establishes a new one, grounded in sadism. The traumatic play then becomes the activated pathway of order and repeats and imposes itself on new experience. The antidote for a traumatic play is mourning. (See “Grief from a death of a loved one is part of life”. It is the biological process of the brain-body for healing recovery from loss”).
By operating in a balanced way between order and chaos, the brain integrates new information with its already stored order, present as the play. In doing so it generates an alive stream, albeit synthetic, in the waking trance. This is as opposed to consciousness in the dream trance. In sleep, the brain does not field new experience, new chaos. It digests the experience of the day in the context of the internal play to free up consciousness to be at its best to take on the next day. Dreaming, in this way, composes its alive stream.
Robert A Berezin, MD is the author of “Psychotherapy of Character, the Play of Consciousness in the Theater of the Brain”