Orthodoxies and Revolutions in the Science of Human Perception

Science is only beginning to grasp human perception with a combination of neuroscientific, psychological and sociological discovery procedures conjoined to theories of cause and effect, but the evolutionary conditions that gave rise to its modern forms are simple enough to generalize, for the essence of Earth environments has not drastically changed in hundreds of millions of years, excepting a few aberrant events such as the Permian extinction or the demise of dinosaurs at the end of the Cretaceous period.  

Perception is first and foremost constrained by ecological necessity, the demands nature places on organisms as they endeavor to survive in circumstances wedded to photosynthesis, respiration, nutrition, reproduction and more organic fundamentals, an assortment of features that constitute the continuity of present biology with the distant past, and which have held a primary role in shaping physical and psychological properties of lifeforms.  

Existing within this context are the dynamics of sociality buffering congregates of organisms from total subjection to material conditions.  Mass action and then coordinated perceiving augmented satisfaction of immediate need, eventually outstripping these requirements with population-selected behaviors, which are not, however, necessarily a producer of speciation events.  Evolution of both speciating and nonspeciating competition, cooperation and indifference resulted in not only nuanced mentalities with enhanced prediction capability, but also an experience of apparent animacy that rivaled what we in the present day consider to be inanimacy as an evolutionary factor in ecosystems.  

In common scientific terms, the domains that can be referenced to explain the evolution of perception are natural selection, exacted upon what we theorize as material reality, and social selection influencing collectivity, together delineating the bounds of cognitive history and physiology in total.

Ecology, the factors and principles involved in evolutionary interaction of organisms and their perception with environmental conditions, and sociability, those factors and principles related more specifically to population-based dynamics and related perceptions, provide the basic constraints on biological form, determining what it has and has not been possible for species to be in a process of adaptation that molds trait profiles.  This is the broadest account of biologically functional value that can be given, the dual, all-inclusive classes of criteria dictating whether the persistence of lifeforms as we know them is even possible.  This encompasses genotypes, phenotypes, every carbon-based organism, a causality we define as both physical and phenomenal together with the likely arrival of currently supraphysical and supraphenomenal concepts in the future, to which all explanations of life are addressed, with a heavy reliance on methodologies of empiricism.

This functionalist contextualizing holds an important place in conceiving nature, but in relation to the essential contents of theory it is an epiphenomenon: the so-regarded ‘functioning’ of photosynthesis, respiration, nutrition, reproduction and all biological processes is a generalizing of what reduces to the formative morphing of structure as recognized by human minds.  Functionalism is a partial categorizing of structuralism, for causes readily emerge independent of any past or current function, in some cases without ever acquiring a functional role, or reconstituting what we would incline to call function in ways that can be both beneficial and detrimental amongst codependent structures.  When we assess function, we must always determine “functional for what?”  

Judgements of functionality can be difficult to negotiate, for they are arbitrated by a sometimes deceptive foundation of structure themselves, the essence, whatever it is, of our metaphysical preference for particular points of reference, the standards in relation to which we evaluate existence.  Despite an existential veil shrouding total reality from the human mind, even cultural values are not mysterious to the extent of being unsystematizable, as the very possibility of civilization makes evident, but at this stage of discussion the functionality we understand as of ethical implication will be set aside for more scientific concerns.    

In biology, many structures are ancient, refined for tens or even hundreds of millions of years by selection pressures imposed in ecosystems, making them nearly mechanistic in the efficiency with which they operate, the basis for interpretation of them as functional.  The human circulatory system is a textbook example: four chambers of the heart contract in perfect rhythm, with arteries and veins that integrate every organ within a single system of nutrient distribution, ranging from the macroscopic, heavy duty aorta artery to microscopic capillaries infused into every tissue of the body.  Veins, the vessels that return blood to the heart after nourishment of the body’s tissues, contain cartilaginous valves to prevent any resisting backflow in these farther removed, lower pressure areas, and are located closer to the skin surface than arteries to mitigate blood loss from minor punctures, which would be greater with outgoing vessels closer to the heart’s prodigious force.  The most masterful of human engineers could not have designed a better architecture.

This pinnacle of efficiency can be compared with the human appendix, which seems to lack an essential role in sustaining life.  The organ may be vestigializing in some way, perhaps with outdated functionality for meeting dietary demands that no longer obtain, and is often life-threatening to the human organism, becoming infected and requiring emergency surgery to prevent swelling-induced rupture, an event that can endanger the body with bacterial infection as well as cause extreme pain.

Looking at vital structures such as those involved in blood circulation, it seems that selection pressure has honed this physiological system and its broad role in homeostatic regulation to near perfection.  Its efficiency can improve with only days of exercise as the heart and blood vessels remodel themselves for a larger workload, with a well-organized, consistent workout routine providing boosts to mood and the body’s general health.  Hormone secretion, metabolic vitality, even cognitive dynamism seem to be enhanced by the integrating effects associated with a strengthening of tissues and organs that function in nutritional provisions for motion.

In relation to evolutionary pressures, the circulatory system has reached near optimization, exceeding basic reproductive requirements to such an extent that its potential to alter the inherited trait profile of our species via spontaneous collapsing is almost negligible.  Ordinary behavior grants the almost complete majority of human beings sufficient cardiovascular health to reproduce, which passes on a nearly identical trait distribution to the next generation.  However, this mastery of reproduction-related selection pressure means genetic endowments formative to the cardiovascular system may not evolve much in response to contemporary ways of life in developed nations, which could mitigate decades of chronic stress, more sedentary living and unhealthiness in a mass produced diet.  Predisposition for long life has been nearly invisible to humans in most parts of the world until the advent of modern medicine in the 20th century, so adaptations for post-reproductive vigor are mostly lacking, and together with the aforementioned deleteriousness of recent lifestyle factors, declines of aging are onerous on an almost universal scale: weight gain, epidemic heart disease, cancer-producing inflammation, diabetes and more.  Circulatory health as well as most other human characteristics have been substantially disjuncted from prehistoric conditions within which they were suitable for salubrious quality of life.

This impending heart health catastrophe was thwarted by the workout regimen and facilities such as community gyms.  All sorts of professionals spent decades developing fitness techniques and a mainstream niche for exercise, with many citizens making a commitment to at least aerobic routines for maintaining cardiovascular health, frequently as a continuation of physical education and sports programs of the school years.  The negative impact of senescence conjoined to processed foods is still a challenge to stymie, as most individuals must begin to take medications for high blood pressure, high cholesterol, or other aging-related conditions during lifespans that are unprecedentedly long for civilization, but exercise helps curb the exacerbations of food consumption endemic to modern society, burning excess calories that are so taxing to the physique along with accelerating our metabolisms such that toxins are quickly flushed out of the body.  Promoting exercise while striving to improve nutrition as much as possible makes heart disease and all its satellite conditions within our means to contain.

The circulatory system does more than fuel macroscale exertions; its distributing function plays a vital part in immune response and all kinds of biochemical communication between distant regions of the body.  However, despite the intricate variety in processes it facilitates, circulation’s mechanism of action is extremely simple, a piping of aqueous solution streamlined for sustaining human organisms as a reproducing population, in essence parameterized by Earth’s gravitation.  Cardiovascularization subsists in accordance with a narrow set of structural principles: the basic template of muscular pumping, networked tubing, and diffusion across membranous linings does not vastly differ between all warmblooded creatures.  Even mechanisms with a similar role in the much different body plans of insects, arachnids or worms are easily analogizable to vertebrates, with our experience of gravity and a few dissections all we require to intuit the anatomical foundations of substance distribution in macroscopic eukaryotes.  Humans of antiquity would effortlessly assimilate our concepts of blood circulation once the seminal insight of physiology as mechanism had been attained.

This can be contrasted with the nervous system, which presents a greater conceptual challenge in multiple ways.  First of all, neurons transmit electrical signals called synapses, the core mechanism of action and intercommunication in these types of cells, and electricity is an advanced scientific idea, becoming widely technologized only in the 20th century, making neurology one of the more incipient disciplines.  Unlike other parts of the body, electrical surges in nervous tissue produce a supervenient electromagnetic field, and in brains this shows up as global wave signatures correlated to states of awareness.  The functional significance of brain waves for nervous system function, especially the mechanisms of consciousness, is still very much undetermined.  The nervous system contains a staggering quantity of different cell types that dwarfs any other category of tissues, including more than ten thousand kinds of neurons, most of which are densely packed together in the brain as an almost incomprehensibly complex web of connectivity.  This neuronal complexity is amazingly no more than ten percent of the entire brain’s structure, for most of the organ’s mass is comprised of glial cells, and their role is less understood.  The majority of the body is structurally complete by early childhood, with changes in scale as a human grows being far and away the main transitional factor, but the brain is constantly undergoing massive physiological and biochemical transitions, perhaps only rivaled by sex organ metamorphosis during puberty.  These transformations are not simply mechanical like circulation, but reconstitute thought, emotion, personality, socialization, the intricate mentalities and behaviors from which awareness, reasoning, meaning and culture emerge, phenomena that have reached an exceptional enough causation to blanket the surface of the planet with human beings and influence the entire biosphere via technology, every ecosystem on Earth.

Pioneering neuroscience research has produced theoretical concepts ranging from well-established conventions to speculative developments that nevertheless hold much promise for refining our models.  One of the keys in understanding brain structure is investigation of ‘synesthesia’, the wiring together of adjacent neuronal complexes, a phenomenon hybridizing roles of brain regions in ways that can have significant effects on perception.  A good example of the functional importance of synesthesia is Wernicke’s area, a portion of the cerebrum located at the junction of the temporal and occipital lobes.  The temporal lobe is involved in hearing, and the occipital lobe in vision, with this small patch of connectivity responsible for integrating phonetics and the perception of written characters, becoming activated when humans read.  Wernicke’s area is universal to human brains, of course crucial for academic study and the advancement of knowledge.  A rare hereditary defect in this segment of the brain has been found to cause impairment in the acquisition of grammar, and for many decades it was considered the brain’s grammar center, though it has been discovered that many additional locations in the cerebrum are tied to grammatical language.  A couple rarer forms of synesthesia are the cross-wiring of a color detection center in the cerebrum to a nearby region linked with perceiving number, and also to one that participates in experiencing music tonality.  Many humans imbibe music as tonal color, and individuals have demonstrated the ability to do extremely complex calculations in their heads by instantly noting numerical solutions as a particular shade.  Synesthesia can result in some astounding aptitudes, but is sometimes accompanied by deficits in other areas.  The most famous human example of math/color synesthesia has difficulty getting dressed.  

Brains show much variability between individuals, and uncommon structural forms can manifest rare abilities.  Albert Einstein was so renowned for genius in the field of physics that science preserved his brain after he passed away and studied it closely.  Researchers noticed that a region in the temporal lobe associated with spatial perception was larger than normal, which appeared to be filling in free space provided by smaller than average adjacent structures.  This seems to partially account for singular achievements, a reifying of geometrically expressed rate as a spatial substrate of physical reality, the ‘spacetime’ dimension vital to his thought experiments and insights into the relativity of motion.  Simultaneous deficiencies may explain some of his mild eccentricity, which historical investigators have speculated as bordering on what we call Asperger’s syndrome, a high-functioning, verbally proficient form of autism.  He also had a much thicker corpus callosum than is typical, the bundle of fibers in the center of the brain connecting left and right hemispheres.  And his glial cell concentrations were well above average, implications of which are still largely opaque to neuroscientific theory.

Also uniquely characteristic of the human brain when compared to closely related vertebrate species is plasticity in regions involved with higher-level cognition.  This probably accounts for the ability to assimilate complex concepts, in educational settings and elsewhere, which become deeply integrated with behaviors, emotions and perceptions emergent from the whole brain, in acts of reasoning, writing, artistry, or spoken communication.  An additional determining factor in the makeup of human brains is developmental pruning: during a few periods of the species’ lifespan, particularly in the midst of childhood and teenage growth phases, the least active neuronal connectivity disassembles to make way for growth in more frequently utilized nerves, so that conditioning has major impact on functional aptitude, in cognition and elsewhere.  Human beings can deliberately structure and restructure their brains in conjunction with goals and practices, but dormancy is capable of ingraining deficits that are difficult to surmount, though research is far from precisely modeling how all of this malleability and rigidification works.

Beyond synesthesia, some brain tissues connect more distant regions.  An instance is neural fascia recently revealed by brain scans to link the prefrontal cortex, located at the base of the forehead and correlated with personality as well as long-term planning, to additional areas in the brain.  This fascia does not fully develop until humans reach their mid-20’s, probably one of the last brain structures to mature, so it must hold an important function for distinctively adult intentionality.  Most healthy teenagers and children evince plenty of personality and accurate recognition of the means to achieve individualized goals, a capacity that vastly increases as the prefrontal cortex grows, but one of the defining features of adulthood is diminishment of impulsiveness once an environment for actualizing drives has been attained.  The adult personality does not fully succumb to affect as sought after contexts are perceived, while the minds of youths toggle more holistically between prefrontal reasoning and compulsive reaction to cognizances, desires and consummated sentiments.  The young are more prone to display extremeness such as explosive anger, overwhelming sadness, unrestrained enthusiasm, risk-taking, and dejection from failure, for at moments their prefrontal cortexes almost completely submit to an emotional experience, becoming largely incapable of intervening in acts of affective expression.  This leads to greater propensity for abusing drugs, reckless partying, unmitigated cruelty, dangerous driving habits, and derivative anguish or exhilaration.  When excitatory chemicals flood the brain, immature prefrontal connectivity tends to disengage more from behavior, resulting in an on average less subtle, micromanaged form of emotion-laden decision-making and consideration of consequences.

Along more hypothetical lines, some newly uncovered mechanisms of brain function are being tinkered with and analyzed.  Mentioned in an earlier chapter, quantum effects as a feature of molecular bioactivity, a phenomenon completely unknown until the 21st century, are becoming the subject of cutting edge experimentation and theorizing.  High sensitivity of these molecular sites of quantum behavior to trace energy sources and their prevalence in all kinds of sense organs as well as additional tissues suggests a systemic function for reacting to, perceiving and in many cases experiencing conscious awareness of environmental features lying beyond visible light spectrums, sound waves, shock vibrations, and relatively large-scale atomic structure in scent and taste, a responsivity to electromagnetism for instance, which we might traditionally classify as extrasensory.  Molecular mechanisms capable of registering the Earth’s magnetic field have been identified in birds, insects and elsewhere in nature, what has been termed ‘magnetoreception’.  The body’s own electromagnetic field generated by the nervous system and especially brains may also interact with these quantum state chemical reactions as an additional layer of organic causality, possibly offering better explanation for the integrated, fluid holism of qualitative consciousness in contrast to the fundamentally dispersed nature of biochemical particularity as traditionally modeled.

Already touched upon, synchronization in the brain waves of meditators has been recorded with instrumentation, hinting at nonthermodynamic, ‘nonlocal’ phenomena, a modeling of which will probably subvert many assumptions of conventional chemistry, though much more data must be obtained in order to form a solid picture of what is going on.  Scientists are finding mechanisms that transgress three dimensional images of matter, defying billiard ball portrayals of efficient causality, which employ the concept of direct contact between entirely self-contained particles, equal and opposite reactions of the sort defined by classical physics, to describe the atomic and subatomic scale.

Science’s thermodynamic models work well in the majority of laboratory and industrial contexts, but the synthetic nature of mental experience seems to be deeply disjuncted from standard atomic theory with its absolutely discrete nanoscale units and their time-lagged interactions.  The most recent lab work in theoretical physics reinforces our more introspective intuitions, for the notion of atoms is transforming into a model of the basics of matter as more structurally diffuse, capable of exceeding spatial constraints characteristic of macroscopic, sense-perceptual objects, consisting of flowing and perturbing quantum fields that surpass possibilities inherent in theories of chemical bonding behavior between localized particles.  Consciousness, external reality and their growingly well-defined connection seem to destine a reconstituted conceptualizing of the physical, as involving quantumlike properties that contradict the classical paradigm of force interrelationships between collections of fundamental spheres.

Matter is seeming more and more to be pervasively supraspatial, transcending Newtonian physics in many domains of science, with the apparent role of entanglement, coherence, synchronicity, superposition, and retroactive causality increasing.  Despite this trend, the classical model is not to be considered illusion.  Though quantum nonlocality undoubtedly obtains, matter evinces some intrinsically spatial properties that cannot be explained away as an artifact of anthrocentric perceptions.  Phase changes in large aggregates of molecules, from solid to liquid to gas to plasma, take place according to principles of entropic motion with much more affinity to models based on three dimensional particularity than any notion of nonlocality.  It is clear from scientific analysis that as the amount or ‘mass’ of matter increases, constraints on quantum behavior grow in influence, so that for instance complex biochemical systems display salient quantum mechanisms set apart from a general dampening of quantum coherence in the larger scale thermodynamic interactions which surround them.  Classical physics and traditional chemistry provide such effective explanations because phenomenality in its incarnation as macroscopic objects and motions accurately reflects dynamics of our planet’s environments that subsist at similar scaling, with our spatially oriented sense organs such as eyes, ears and noses adapted to complement aggregated mass.  Thermodynamic phenomena may differ greatly under the macroscopic conditions of nonearthlike environments such as those of extremely massive, gravitationally compacted black holes, where it is postulated that subatomic particles are not even capable of forming atoms let alone molecules, but bulk matter never, as far as scientists can to this point surmise, totally dissolves into a nonlocal state.  Structural properties of substances at the macroscopic level look to be deeply consonant with three dimensionality, despite nonlocal coherence.

Consistent violation of Newtonian physics by phenomena of nonlocality in perception, nature and the lab, combined with only partial inhibition of nonlocality by mass interpreted classically, suggests that the most accurate paradigm is one regarding properties of nonlocality in substance as primary.  The more local phenomena we observe as particularized matter, which seem palpably fixed in place relative to light waves, sound waves, vibrations and our own bodies, in interactive dynamics inhering at or near the human scale, seem to then be a subset of possibilities for how substance is instantiated.  Macroscopic masses perceived as particles are modelable as “atomic” only under a partial range of conditions, namely as experienced by humanlike “organisms” adapted to the “chemistry” (bulk properties of substance) of Earth ecosystems.  Science currently theorizes these biochemical ecosystems in relation to some key phenomena enriched by analysis into overarching principles, such as “reproduction”, “metabolism”, “physiology”, “natural selection”, or “mutation”, which give us a fractional but nonetheless workable comprehension of causality that from a historical view seems to hold much promise for persisting progress, though not lacking difficulty.  

So, science has quite an array of accomplished conventions bringing clarity to the awareness of nature, in physics, chemistry, biology and elsewhere, yet some of our more obscure experiences along with new avenues of research strongly intimate that reality is not essentially structured in the way even most modernized modeling has suggested, as a timeline distributed in a matrix of three dimensional space.  Three dimensional objects traveling in apparent sequences, a notion characterizing the core knowledge of molecular chemistry we associate with superstructures such as macroscopic objects or life, is unique to mass and its entropic properties on an earthbound scale, which our sense organs adapted to find reflexively intuitive.  The properties of macroscopic matter, with deep impact on life processes, are one of the main sources for our impressions of stability and mercuriality in the environment, its organic relevance constraining and motivating human behavior as well as that of biology as a whole.  But the structure of matter and bodies on our planet seems to have underlying facets of nonlocality, and the mind taps into this more pervading, quantumlike substrate of causality as it perceives, experiences and is affected by the so-called paranormal.  The causes and effects of our world have demystified facets and also many theoretically unintuitive ones, with human conception laboring greatly to comprehend this diverse manifold as integrated, rationalized consistency.  

Uncertainty has constantly lurked, regardless of how efficacious theories become, teasing us with an ever receding but never lifting shroud of the unknown, thus far always presenting a new challenge just when we begin to settle into an orthodox paradigm, believing mastery is imminent.  Nevertheless, analysis makes huge strides towards better descriptions of reality, evincing a coherent logic of development despite spanning multiple millennia and a variety of cultural circumstances.  Let’s give some thought to where knowledge started, with particular focus on the interplay of evolving matter and mind concepts, how theory arrived at its current stage, and what the prospects are for progress in the future.  It is truly amazing how far humanity has come.

A free download of the book Standards for Behavioral Commitments: Philosophy of Humanism, also available for preview below.  Topics covered include chemistry, biology, genetics, neuroscience, epistemology, the history of Western philosophy, cultural evolution, theory of cognition, ethics and much more.

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