That pain in my head

Here’s one of the latest scientific ideas: consciousness is the attention you pay to your own internal monologue. It ‘happens’ because you’re aware of the meaning of words, and you have sensations attached to them. You pay attention to plenty of things, of course – what you see, what you hear, or that rumbling in your stomach. But these can’t become ideas until you put words on them. Once you put words on them, they undergo the fantastic mathematics of multiple permutations and associations – and you’re a ‘thinking’ being.

The idea is, when somehow some mutant ancestor first articulated a couple of audible noises that her boyfriend understood (“not now!”) – she produced in his mind a set of provocations which he controlled himself. His brain was fully equipped to synthesize and coordinate, but external objects were stubbornly intractable. Suddenly, here was a set of objects (words) he could not only perceive but rearrange – and the rearrangements became new objects as well. All by himself, he could think, create, and express new meaning (“now! now!”).

His expressions seemed to exist by themselves; to cause events. He taught them to his kids. And we were off.

The science is about decoding what’s called the ‘interface,’ the place where all our external stimulations are transmuted into that exquisitely personal sense of ‘I am feeling this.’ Most of us begin and end with ‘I am feeling this,’ without paying attention to the fact we’re largely replaying recorded word arrangements inherited from someplace else. Apparently it’s quite revolutionary to modify these arrangements (that first dialogue remains an important one).

So am I really feeling – this?

I recall Sam Clemens’ observations on what people call ‘work.’ He noted some folks claim writing books is work. He differed, and I agree. Digging ditches is work. Writing books is something else.

So perhaps with pain. Physical pain hurts. I get that. But emotional pain? Sure, it shares a lot of conscious distress with the physical stuff, but it’s never clear it means anything. I might as well have made it up. Maybe I did. Or maybe it was just handed to me.

I don’t say this lightly. Unless you are truly on the fringe, I’ve known as much inward suffering as you have.

But still, until a hundred or so years ago, the basic fact of everybody’s physical life was physical suffering. Maybe not for a few almost artificial years in youth, but usually even then. It was just fucking hard to live. The fact of life really was physical suffering. So you find out a lot of the ‘truth’ the culture hands to us is just that: the ‘truth’ of suffering. But is it the truth? Really?

 

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