Plasticity and Imagination


The understanding of the brain’s activity conveyed by popular scientific writing misses much of the continuum of thought and consciousness. We are fascinated at the supposed correspondence of anatomy to function shown in the images of radioactive glucose uptake. We are astonished at the ability of a handicapped woman’s brain driven to interact with an implanted electrode to move a remote arm, and we should be. Yet we do not recognize we have all been through an even more complex process when we learned to speak. In all the excitement of new technology and innovation, we miss the general principle of plasticity underlying the development. We leap from cell physiology or anatomy in the brain to the many surfaces of language and consciousness, and yet do not recognize how we force our understanding of root neurological processes through a narrow linguistic filter, and do not see what does not match that conceptual expectation. There is a pattern here that we cannot prove with science and cannot understand without imagination.

We are accustomed to contrasting the right and left hemispheres: the right as oral, holistic, and creative, and the left as visual, sequential, and analytic. This is a simplistic and misleading analogy influenced by the left hemisphere’s bias for dichotomy (either / or) and the visual anatomy of the supposedly split brain. Actually, left hemisphere dominance emerges from an always present non-verbal whole brain ground under the influence of language, alphabet, and print.

There is a lot going on in our brains before we use language. The preverbal brain is shaped by emotion, language, media, and culture before we speak. And after we have language, we lose track of all this preverbal activity because the compressed surface of language conceals it from conscious thought. But the preverbal does not cease because we speak.

You wake up and you don’t know where or who you are. You’ve forgotten everything. You are cold, wet, and hungry.  But you are thinking, and thinking with words, ‘cold’, ‘wet’, and ‘hungry’ among other sensations. Or maybe not. Animals seem to think – how? What are words? Are whales and dolphins using words? Is a dog’s growl a word? These questions lead to others.

When does the perception (cold) in the brain become a percept (sensation or emotion interpreted or understood) and then become a word, a thing named (the left hemisphere kicks in) to be uttered, and shared? What preverbal thought still goes on in our very verbal heads? How is our preverbal thought shaped by experience, language, and media environments? How do these changes in pre-verbal thought shape our perceptions, behaviors, and, in the aggregate, our culture? To begin to answer these questions, we must think about brain activity in a holistic, unspecialized manner, not merely matching anatomy to supposed function. We must think in terms of communication, an active interchange within the brain between its parts, with the senses, and with language as the active interface between the inner and outer world.

We are hampered by our common understanding of communication. We still think of communication in terms of source / message / channel / receiver, the classic Shannon-Weaver model. This view limits communication to the linguistic surface; it does not describe the deeper levels of communication in most interactions. The Shannon-Weaver theory of communication corresponds to Aristotle’s efficient cause. Both are simple and sequential: “the firecracker exploded and I jumped.”

Consider the effects of a mother’s presence, touch, or voice on her infant. Our verbal mind jumps to the word ‘Love’, of course; and satisfied moves on. But wait: what does this love feel like? Warmth, safety, intimacy, anxiety? What is its tone: stressed, affectionate, playful, or indifferent? What is the rhythm of the mother’s language? That ‘mother tongue’ is the vehicle which shapes the child’s brain, and that initial wiring of the nervous system shapes the way the child experiences the world. Can we call this qualitative experience a ‘message’, as in the Shannon-Weaver model? I don’t think so. Yet clearly there is an active, ongoing exchange between mother and child that must be described as communication.

By contrast, the many immeasurable environmental effects of a mother’s presence on her infant correspond to Aristotle’s formal cause. As an environmental ground enveloping the child, the experience undeniably shapes the infant’s nervous system, but it is impossible to find the one-to-one, sequential correspondence to simple cause and effect. The preverbal infant brain desires to understand emotion and percept, and then to connect, to share with its mother and others. “Share” here is both passive and active; it means both to participate and to influence.

Let me be bold here: this double-edged intent in the infant to understand and connect is the earliest manifestation of imagination. With these primary experiences in the ground of the present, the infant nervous system imagines, or ’wires’ if you will, itself into the shape it needs to communicate effectively with its mother and its environment.

I hear the outcry: this is unscientific and unquantifiable! While we readily recognize the infant’s desire to bond with its mother, we balk at calling that reach ‘will’ or even less, ’imagination’. We look for the detached objective phrasings of science, something like “long distance projection cortical neurons”, which limits its insight to anatomy and a narrow view of function, or efficient cause. Yet plain empirical observation of the phenomenon demands we make a broader attempt at explanation, and there is a ready vocabulary. The thought begs two questions: When does imagination begin? We don’t know. At a certain time cells divide, a pacemaker cell begins to beat, and we can see the infant heart beating on ultrasound at about five weeks. You cannot see the beginnings of speech because there is a long prodromal phase before mother understands ‘ma ma’. Surely speech begins when the infant’s nervous system first begins to shape itself toward speaking. We know the child in the womb responds to its mother’s voice. And the second question: must imagination be verbal? The answer to the second is clearly no, as we all think with sense and image at times, often about matters we do not have words for.

Now consider another medium, music. The musicologists and anthropologists can tell us much about the importance of music throughout human history. This is an interesting surface. But let’s turn to an example of therapy for an indication of the affective effects of music.

Dan Cohen, a social worker, has brought music into nursing homes on iPods as therapy for Alzheimer patients. Withdrawn patients wake up, tell stories, move, and even stand to dance. The recent documentary ‘Alive Inside’ about Cohen’s program shows the dramatic affective change music brings. Apart from the benefits to the Alzheimer patient, we can generalize that the music has effects beyond melody and rhythm for all of us. Music speaks to emotion, rhythm, proprioception, and movement. It touches and reinforces deeply personal associations within each of us, and most of them are preverbal. It is impossible to define the ‘message’ in Gene Krupa’s opening drum solo to ‘Sing, Sing, Sing’ for a WWII veteran, or the opening cadenza of the Who’s Baba O’Riley to a 70s adolescent. But you can bet that both retrieve the feelings of the moment, as adolescents soaked in hormones, excitement, and uncertainty. This is communication without a discrete message; this is communication as an experience, lived once to the full, and relived again every time the song is heard.

If this is so obviously true of music, consider the effects of the many forms of media on the plastic nervous system of the infant trying to make sense of the world, fated to become a child of his time, whatever the dominant media make his time to be. Remember that science has found that plasticity, neural remodeling, continues in varying degrees throughout our lives. Finally, consider how the aggregate shaping of many neural systems by media influences its culture. This is the same formal cause the child responds to. We, just like infants, adapt to understand and connect with our world. In the plastic preverbal nervous system of the infant, we can see how dramatically cultures are modified under the changing influence of language, alphabet, printing, radio, TV, computers, and now burgeoning digital technology.

The preverbal does not cease with language acquisition. The formal effects of media hit here first and with the most profound influence before utterance. Those effects are then interpreted, named, uttered and shared, in the truest form of en masse, in language and culture. The bias of this primary experience is not yet language; humans turn it into language.

The process of brain shaping is easy to see in preverbal children. This is harder to see after we acquire the dense interactive veneer of language. The shaping goes on with changing intensity throughout our lives. Consciousness among beings with language goes back and forth in each moment between the abstract superficial verbal constructs of the left hemisphere and the preverbal whole brain. We cry “Mom!” and we get much more than her definition and image. Here is where reason and concept meet emotion and percept, where words have a complex formal cause.

In like manner, all media loop back in the users to preverbal roots in experience and percept. Language, distinguishing one thing from another and naming it, also splits the whole brain into right and left. The alphabet and later print tilted consciousness even more toward the left hemisphere. First, the alphabet creates abstraction and detachment with meaningless phonetic symbols, and enforces the discipline of sequence as these ‘letters’ form words. The hunter’s scanning the field for game changes to following the line of letters. Then print turned the soft curving manuscript letter into a reproducible letter with a sharp, high definition edge.

Even more profoundly, print makes writing into a much more common medium with mechanical rather than handwritten reproduction. McLuhan has described literacy’s growing cultural influence as the principal formal cause of private point-of-view and individuality. These consequences of print use on the individual nervous system are independent of its content or message, and that participation shapes the preverbal roots of experience in predictable ways. And once the use of a medium reaches a critical mass in a culture, even the non-user is affected by the ripples of its influence as formal cause throughout the society. I do not have a smart phone, or even a cell phone, but I am nonetheless immersed in its changing social pattern which has its own effect on my own preverbal experience.

The abstracted specialized thought of the very literate or scientific may not seem to loop back into the preverbal. Instead, this thought appears to stay at the linguistic level of concept and definition. (Here is a paradox: in the terms of this discussion, the ‘higher’ intellectual concepts of language are shallower; depth is pre-verbal.) This is itself a subjective illusion, and evidence of the perceptual bias of literacy. The concepts indeed return to the preverbal, where they are recognized and perhaps strike a familiar chord with expected abstraction and sequence. In short, the loop back to the preverbal brain for the literate looks first for a confirmation of the status quo, a preverbal home.

This phenomenon explains the resistance among all cultures to new ways of perception and thinking. McLuhan pointed to this resistance with his discussion of cliché and archetype. The thought returning to its preverbal roots may find expected confirmation and stability in the brain’s neural arrangement. Or the return of the verbal to its preverbal roots may encounter an unexpected dissonance when the external context has changed. Immediately, this disharmony or incongruity between the surface and the brain’s deep work creates distress. Take the dissonance back to the surface where language should share and connect with the larger culture, and the user’s social identity seems out-of touch, out-of-tune. And pushed hard enough, threatened. Meanwhile, at the preverbal level, the mind’s drive to understand and share kicks in, the nervous system strives to change, to accommodate the unusual experience, and a new sensibility begins to be created as the brain adjusts its circuits.

Eliot was right in his Tradition and the Individual Talent, more right than has been appreciated. Yes, literature, especially poetry, loops back and forth between the preverbal and the linguistic surface of the moment. For the artist, the one awake and paying attention (‘the antennae of the race’—Ezra Pound), this is as much feed-forward as feed-back, the source of poiesis, or making new, for the artist and the culture as well. Here’s the rub: there is no reason to think this back-and-forth between verbal and preverbal is unique to artists. This movement of thought between the verbal and the preverbal may be most obviously expressed by artists, but the same movement occurs in all of us.

The tradition Eliot refers to in the literary realm, the continuous shift in sensibility in arts as cultures change under the influence of media, is also the infant’s and his parent’s as well. That awareness of changing sensibility goes back at least to the pre-literate and then literate Greeks. The Greeks experienced the transition from orality to literacy over several centuries, and their Classical literature is full of clues about the changes in cultural sensibility that literacy brought. The Romans who followed them adapted Greek thought for their more literate Latin culture. With attentive hindsight, we can understand and adapt Greek and Roman thought for modern insights.

Hence the significance of the McLuhans’ use of Aristotle’s efficient and formal causes. The experience, the bias of the alphabet and print creates a bias toward sequence and simple cause-and-effect, Aristotle’s efficient cause. This bias also creates a bias for concept and abstracted definition, figures without a ground. This dense linguistic veneer suppresses the preverbal. This superficial understanding rooted in concept definition and efficient causality is not an effective approach to understand the effect of many environmental causes on an infant’s nervous system or a culture. Modern media ecology is simply Aristotle’s formal cause dressed up in the fashionable systems garb of the environmental movement. That ecological concern with environmental influences applies equally to the natural environment, infant neural systems, and media cultures.

At the other end of this literary tradition, McLuhan used Finnegans Wake as a probe of the preverbal roots of the present. Its Classical roots have been explicated in Eric McLuhan’s own dissertation, The Role of Thunder in Finnegans Wake. The McLuhans have shown how Joyce was fascinated by changing human technologies and their transformational effects on human experience and culture. Speech, writing, print, telegraph, radio, and even television all appear in its pages. Finnegans Wake, treated as a text built around identified concepts and multi-lingual definitions, is a collection of chicken scratching, as its matriarch Belinda the Hen knows. But read aloud (as intended) with imagination, and interpreted with the tools of the whole literary tradition, Finnegans Wake becomes an always-new etymological exploration of the preverbal roots of the present.

McLuhan was right to suggest that the synaptic wiring of the human mind IS NOT stable but is in constant flux, as the mind seeks to understand and connect. Plasticity in a particular individual does slow with age, and requires more saturation and repetition to change – but it does not ordinarily disappear entirely until late in life. We are mistaken if we treat plasticity as only an interesting scientific phenomenon, a process within an individual brain, and insignificant after infancy. We are also mistaken if in the effort to create technological therapies and investment opportunities, we overlook the general principle beneath the discoveries. We must not let the bias of our conscious conceptualized language and scientific process conceal the preverbal actions of the whole brain.

The infant cannot make sense of his world with Aristotle’s efficient causality alone because the world the infant appears in is not simple cause and effect. The child’s brain must take on formal causality to the best of its ability, responding to endless and simultaneous inputs, and make sense. In fact, the infant almost has no choice – he will adapt to the elements of the environment he finds himself in. The infant brain’s will to understand and connect creates continuous acts of imagination, driving the brain to format itself for connection with its mother and its cultural and media environment. The infant’s initial act of imagination leads to the artist’s expressive feed-forward into poetry, painting, and all forms of arts. In like manner, we cannot understand media in terms of efficient causality alone. Like the infant, we must use imagination to understand all media as formal causes in the aggregate on our languages, arts, and cultures. To do so is just common sense.

(Photo credit: J E Theriot, Flickr)

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About the Contributor

Howard Wetzel

Howard Wetzel
Howard Wetzel has been a hospital-based RN for more than three decades. He was introduced to the McLuhans in the early 70s, and has continued an active dialogue with Eric McLuhan since. He is an independent thinker with interests in health care, arts, theology, and media studies. He is interested in the impact of media on cultures and the Church in history and in the present. 

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