Feeding (3): Somma

Is there a brain?

That there is a nervous system, that’s for sure, and it extends through the whole body. It concentrates remarkably in the skull. Crossroads and cells multiply there. But there remains, for the most part, a vast network of connected fibers. The key element of the nervous system is not the neuron as a cell body, but its ability to produce extensions of a length approaching a million times that of the cell body. The neuron is a machine to weave more than to think. It is the fabric that thinks.

We could thus see the brain as a very enlarged ganglion, where the neural tissue is particularly tight and connected. Rather than a thinking organ, it is a concentrator of the activity of a system extended to the whole body. The loss of this large ganglion is not necessarily fatal if the section intervenes above the brain stem. See the story of Mike, a chicken who lived 18 months without his head.

And the head without body?

Is the opposite possible? Does a brain continue to function completely disconnected from the rest of the nervous system, as in SF movies where it floats lazily in a jar, engaging in pure telepathic activity?

The importance of sensory impulses is cardinal. There is no known situation where there is consciousness without sensory afferents. A quadriplegic with an upper spinal cord injury no longer perceives his musculo-cutaneous body but retains the presence of other organs. In locked-in syndrome by bridge injury, the person keeps the consciousness of his body in space, despite the absence of any control. It is likely that a brain totally isolated from the body could keep consciousness, because it has excitatory nuclei capable of awakening neural networks. But we are not sure.

My consciousness is looking for itself

If afferents are essential to the completeness of body image, consciousness appears to be endowed with independence. Thought can float freely in abstract spaces, without any reference to the body. It appears only in this extraordinary concentration of networks. At least it recognizes itself only there. Let us not forget that it is consciousness that seeks itself, and not something external to it.

It only really recognizes itself in educated networks, not just in brain tissue. It is anatomically present almost entirely at birth, but the consciousness it shows is not ours, adult. It is even more embryonic than in other newborn animals. We represent a ‘human’ consciousness in anticipation, only by the development prospects that await it.

From neurons to concepts

If the neuron is a machine for weaving nerve fibers, the assembled neurons are a machine for weaving conceptual levels. They add layers of meaning to sensory regularities. At the top the consciousness thickens with richer and more synthetic contents. A table is no longer just a collection of regular visual lines but an object entangled with multiple daily activities or even a family history. I use for this addition of conceptual layers the term ‘surimposition‘ because the next one does not exist without the previous one.

Neural networks flesh out the reality perceived by each of us, divided between self (processing of intrinsic sensory afferents) and non-self (extrinsic afferents). Separation is based on the ownership of intrinsic afferents. They are given from the outset, identitarian, capable of direct feedback (hormonal response, reflex motor). While the extrinsic afferents are posterior, and ungovernable. They must be dealt with through complex representations to find effective answers.

Somma, at the crossroads of body and mind

Separation is a self-organization of the nervous system. The self is very quickly in place, raw, identity, functional. The newborn is a huge Self. Gradually, the chaos of sensory stimuli is organized in turn and forms a Non-self of increasing meaning. The variety of external information deepens the complexity of the Non-Self and eventually makes it surpass that of the Self. The two poles are constantly interacting and reshaping each other. They are the source of independent intentions, especially implicit in the Self, explicit in the Non-Self. But we understand that this independence is very relative, given the influences they exert on the representations of the other.

This is the importance of the notion of Somma, the crossroads between these influences. Somma is the space where autonomous images of the body and kaleidoscopic images from the outside mix. Somma is almost purely corporeal at birth, and purely psycho-cultural in pathologies like anorexia, body dysmorphic disorder and fan-attitude, where the person undertakes radical surgeries to look like a celebrity or a plastic doll. The psyche has taken control of the somma.

Between natural and cultural

The somma can be seen as a cursor between implicit and explicit intentions. When the somma is close to the implicit, the behavior is considered instinctive, natural. When it is close to the explicit, it is considered cultural, “psycho-somatic”, this term having a pejorative connotation because of the many possible psychological deviances. But it is only the counterpart of the “somato-biological”, also rich in variations due to genetic diversity.

The genetic heritage is given to us. Physiology whose raw data is processed directly by the brain. The body image is the result, the output of neural analysis. The formed representation cannot act backwards, it has only limited feedback. The surimposition of conceptual levels creates the increasing independence of consciousness, but in turn prevents it from acting directly on its basic neural micromechanisms. The way to act on one’s bodily processes, for consciousness, is to construct specific representations about them.

Schizophrenia of body image

Are these representations of the body part of the Self or the Non-Self? This is where an almost universal schizophrenia begins in contemporary societies. Models of bodily functioning emancipate themselves from intrinsic sensations. The former belong to the Non-Self. They are learned from science, but more often from pseudo-sciences. Increasingly certified, endowed with an aura of absolute truth, they are able to replace intrinsic sensations, which belong to the Self.

This schizophrenia greatly complicates medicine today. The practitioner is commonly dealing with a patient whose speech about his symptoms does not correspond in any way to what he feels. His own interpretation, gleaned through readings, networks, internet healers, mysticisms of health, manages to obscure the direct bodily experience. Barrier very difficult to cross by the downward direction, teleological. Intentions are not easily replaced. The expert’s speech (suppose it is right) fails against the wall of self-diagnosis, of increasing solidity.

The practitioner must first use the upward direction, question the body through the clinical examination, thus access the information concealed by the person, or on the contrary dismantle those invented to support self-diagnosis. It is easier to shove it in this direction. Nevertheless, the modern doctor must resort to devices. His hands and eye are rarely enough to convince, even affirming their objectivity. They must rely on tools that are now more famous, incorruptible machines such as MRI.

The conflict of ontological representations

At this stage of our thinking, we can understand that most of the problems of body image are conflicts between higher concepts. Biological, ontological pathologies are easy for the doctor to correct, within the limits of current science. Ontological disorders of the diet could be managed without interference, directly from objective biological data. But it is the ontological conception itself that is now the subject of conflict.

Cultural memes are actively involved in this conflict. This is the subject of the following article, the feeding heckled in the whirlwind nature / culture. 

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