Tuesday, November 1, 2011

The Personal Map

From the beginning, reading “Infinite Jest”, I’ve been fascinated by David Foster Wallace’s use of the phrase, “ eliminate his/her/your map” to refer to death. At first it seemed like a kind of slang- the obscure phrase that a particular in-group will use to define themselves with private language. But the more I thought of it, particularly in relation to all of the brain science I’ve read, the more it seemed like he had struck upon the one truly unique feature of every human being’s individual self. From the beginning we create our own inner map of the world that includes not just all we’ve done and experienced but also how we feel about it. And what we recognize in our surroundings, spring from memories seen in the places of our lives, which clarify the meaning of the experience that’s conveyed by the feeling. We map not just where we are, but all we know in time and space. Since my father’s lost so much of his memory, I’ve found that when we do discover remembered areas it’s always in relation to places. Talking this week about weddings, he couldn’t remember my brother’s until I mentioned Hiss Avenue. The reception was in the back yard of my sister-in-law’s childhood home and given the scene Dad’s memory came drifting back to what a great guy her Dad was and the boat her brother Woody built and their fish pond. This place in his map still had its connection to the sights, sensations and feelings of his past experience and I could tell he enjoyed remembering and re-experiencing his connection to life. He got his mind moving by finding a way into his map.
This map, primarily in the hippocampus, but riding up against the parietal lobes (where we are in space) on one side and the feeling centers on the other, establishes our sense of ourselves in space/time and personal meaning. Where we are forms the core of who we are. The brain is full of maps that correlate one kind of experience with another. The map is the hub of what we know, the hippocampus the trigger point of all the rich associations spread throughout the brain.
This is a concrete reality and not a metaphor, but as a metaphoric image it helps us comprehend the notion of an Akashic field, where all the information of all that’s happened and been thought continues to accumulate, enriched by our very own thoughts in the here and now. Though an ancient idea its appeal is growing. New experience adds to the field and enables us to tune to information already there. In a state of flow the field of information moves through us unobstructed, but filtered through our individual frequency. I used to resist the idea that what’s experienced by me as my mind is not necessarily all in my head. That the modification in my brain as I have new experience might be simply expanding the reception of my tuner. Like a radio filtering out a particular broadcast to pull in we receive information through our highly sophisticated personal brains. Likewise we send it out, add what we know to the field of information. This is the model proposed by Rupert Sheldrake. That even our own memories aren’t in our brains but are in the information field impressed with those experiences and the shape of the energy that rippled from it; this was an idea that was headbashingly difficult to take in when I first read it. In his book, “The Sense of Being Stared At,” Sheldrake writes, “Trying to understand minds without recognizing the extended fields on which they depend is like trying to understand the effects of magnets without acknowledging that they are surrounded by magnetic fields.” Broadening our idea of what constitutes mind will require images to shape a new model of how we conceive of it.

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