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Patterns, by Paul Simon and Douglas Hofstadter

In their 1966 album, Parsley, Sage, Rosemary and Thyme, Simon and Garfunkel expressed their youthful feelings about where our country was headed at the time, in songs such as “The Dangling Conversation” and “7 O’clock News/Silent Night,” but they also sang the perennial plaints of youth in songs that could have come from any generation. “For Emily, Wherever I Might Find Her,” for example, imagined the perfect love and began with—

What a dream I had:
Pressed in organdy;
Clothed in crinoline of smoky
Burgundy ;
Softer than the rain.

  And the existential “Flowers Never Bend With the Rainfall” muses about coping with reality and personal confusion—

So I’ll continue to continue to pretend
My life will never end,
And Flowers Never Bend
With the Rainfall.

But the one track on this album that intrigued and impressed me the most was “Patterns,” a philosophical statement that seemed to me at the time beyond Paul Simon’s twenty-something years—

From the moment of my birth
To the instant of my death,
There are Patterns I must follow
Just as I must breathe each breath.

I remembered Simon and Garfunkel singing those lyrics as I recently read Douglas Hofstadter’s latest book, I Am a Strange Loop . Hofstadter, a professor of cognitive science at Indiana University (who, incidently, also taught at the University of Michigan for five years), attempts to untangle the mystery of consciousness and what he calls the “myth” of self. For him, it’s all about patterns.

The title of his book refers to the remarkable discovery in 1931 by Kurt Gödel that the “bible” of mathematical theory, Principia Mathematica, by Bertrand Russell and Alfred North Whitehead, contained an unforgivable paradox. Gödel demonstrated that one could read the “ironclad” propositions in the Principia in a way that created a self-referential loop. The discovery forever destroyed the idea that mathematics is a rigid, closed system, much as Einstein’s discovery of the relativity of physics fractured the mechanistic Newtonian Physics.

These rather esoteric issues aside, the thrust of Hofstadter’s book is that the human mind also contains a self-referential loop, a so-called “strange” loop because it feeds all its information, both external and internal, back into itself. The mind continually modifies itself, attempting to find meaning by associating ideas and perceptions with memories already stored in neural networks. As soon as it does this, it feeds the results back through the loop to create even more associations.

For example, when certain patterns are received through our eyes—say we see a face—the information is compared with memory-stored patterns, allowing us to “recognize” the face as that of a familiar person. This merged information is then compared with other stored information—such as our emotional response to that person, and this affects the way that we respond outwardly. Our response, in turn, is fed back through the loop, around and around, building ever-more complex patterns.

We’ve been doing this since we were born. Everything that we experience in life, whether internal or external, becomes part of an almost infinite array of patterns in our brains. Some patterns are deep-seated and relatively stable; others are tentative and vague and even beyond our ability to consciously recall. Together, they literally define who we are. The process is so ingrained that we are largely unconscious of it. We know only that “Oh, that is Arlene, my friend. I want to talk with her about my brother.”

My friend and my brother are convenient patterns that not only relate to other individuals and categories, but also reinforce the unexamined conviction that I exist. In fact, the “I” in my mind is, like everything else there, an array of patterns—a pattern of patterns. It gives us an impression that we have some influence over our experiences, that they are not simply unrelated events in the universe.

This process of constantly swirling patterns, Hofstadter says, is what constitutes consciousness. Many of these patterns are absorbed from those around us:

“We are all curious collages, weird little planetoids that grow by accreting other people’s habits and ideas and styles and tics and jokes and phrases and tunes and hopes and fears as if they were meteorites that came soaring out of the blue, collided with us, and stuck. What at first is an artificial, alien mannerism slowly fuses into the stuff of our self, like wax melting in the sun, and gradually becomes as much a part of us as ever it was of someone else (though that person may very well have borrowed it from someone else to begin with). Although my meteorite metaphor may make it sound as if we are victims of random bombardment, I don’t mean to suggest that we willingly accrete just any old mannerism into our sphere’s surface—we are very selective, usually borrowing traits that we admire or covet—but even our style of selectivity is itself influenced over the years by what we have turned into as a result of our repeated accretions. And what was once right on the surface gradually becomes buried like a Roman ruin, growing closer and closer to the core of us as our radius keeps increasing.”

For several years, I’ve been exploring what is known and what is guessed at about just what is it that allows me to see and hear and touch—and to somehow get meaning from it all. Paul Simon provides me with words that give expression to my feelings:

Impaled on my wall
My eyes can dimly see
The pattern of my life
And the puzzle that is me.

I used to package up that puzzle, give it a kind of name (like “mystery”) and then go on with my life. Too hard to understand.

Now, here comes Hofstedter with as simple an explanation as I have ever heard. Not that it’s easy to wrap one’s mind around. How does one grasp the idea that “I” am an illusion, an analogy, an abstraction—with no singular “thing” beneath it all.

“The cells inside a brain are not the bearers of its consciousness; the bearers of consciousness are patterns. The pattern of organization are what matters, not the substance. It ain’t the meat, it’s the motion! Otherwise, we would have to attribute to the molecules inside our brains special properties that, outside of our brains, they lack. . . . But if the molecules making you up are not the “enjoyers” of your feelings, then what is? All that is left is patterns. And patterns can be copied from one medium to another, even between radically different media.”

Intuitively, we have trouble with the concept. There’s nothing in our everyday experience that we can associate it with. We can acknowledge that a rainbow is not a thing that we can walk up to and measure. But that’s child’s play compared with acknowledging that what feels most solid inside me—my self—is as diaphanous as that rainbow. We can accept the rainbow as a kind of optical illusion because it doesn’t define us the way the word “I” does. We insist that we can make decisions; we can cause things to happen. Otherwise, who’s responsible for what I do? Who owes my taxes, if my actions are the result of the random firing of a bunch of neurons? Neurons that have no idea I even exist?

But at this point, Hofstedter seems to make sense to me. I recognize that that means only that the patterns he describes somehow click with patterns I already have in my mind. To someone else, they might be completely opaque.

In this sense, I am but a story, a history of experiences. No, not just a story. A continually swirling pattern of neural activity that sees itself and integrates that with incoming sensations to create the story. Never still, always seeking more encompassing patterns by which to make sense of existence, to create meaning, to continue the story. There is no separate thing that sees through these eyes, but only this current pattern of neural activity, this story-in-process.

 

Donald Skiff, April 18, 2007

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