Bees And Flowers: An Essay By Extropia DaSilva


What is going on in the brain as we create and understand narratives? Imaging studies have identified areas of the brain that appear crucial to this ability. The medial and lateral prefrontal cortex are responsible for working memory, something that helps sequence information and represent story events. The cingulate cortex is evolved in visuospatial imagery and may be connecting personal experience with the story to add understanding. Identification of characters’ mental states seems to be the responsibility of regions such as the prefrontal cortex, temporoparietal junction, and temporal lobes. Patterns for story processing differ from those of other related mental tasks, such as paying attention or stringing together sentences for language comprehension.

Sometimes, the brain shows very little difference in patterns of activity, even when one would think it would. Apart from people with certain forms of dementia, we all have the ability to recall the past and imagine the future. We also have the ability to tell one from the other. If I imagine a birthday party, for instance, I do not confuse this fantasy with an actual party I attended. Conversely, if I recall a party that I did attend in the past, I know that what I see in my mind’s eye really happened and is not just imaginary.

The fact that we can so easily distinguish memory of the past from imagining the future might lead one to expect different patterns of activity associated with the past and the future. Indeed, that is what a team lead by Kathleen McDermot expected to see when they recorded the brain activity of subjects as they recalled or imagined a common experience. But, what they found was that both tasks produced very similar brain activity. McDermot remarked, “we really thought we were going to see a region that was more active in memory than in future thought. We didn’t find that”. This evidence suggests that our personal past and future are closely linked in the brain.

Why is that? Well, in and of itself, the ability to recall the past is not evolutionarily useful. It only becomes so once you can also plan for the future. Remembering how hungry you were last winter is advantageous only if it convinces you to store away food you find in a current season of abundance in preparation for the coming winter. Our capacity to remember the past evolved to help us imagine and plan for the future. One of the main functions of memory, therefore, is to shuffle scraps of the past around in novel ways to project possible futures.

This constructive nature of memory is believed to be the reason why we are prone to false memories. Professor Elizabeth Loftus wrote, “I’ve spent three decades learning how to alter people’s memories. I’ve even gone as far as planting entirely false memories into the minds of ordinary people — memories such as being lost in a shopping mall… all planted through the power of suggestion”. A simple way to demonstrate false memories is to show a person a list of words such as ‘pillow’, ‘doze’, and ‘sleep’. S/he can be easily tricked into remembering that the word ‘dream’ appeared on the list as well. However, people do not make the same mistake with unrelated words.

What this type of fallibility shows is that your memory is not a flawless action replay of an event that really happened. Instead, we only have the ability to remember bits and pieces of our past; to recall the outline of things rather than exhaustive details. We may feel as though we remember certain events fully, but what the mind actually does is imaginatively fill in missing details to construct plausible — but not necessarily accurate — accounts of what happened. Earlier, I asked whether the child a person remembered was ‘real’, or whether it was the character that person anticipated roleplaying tomorrow. We can see now that both are a blend of fact and fiction. A memory is not a flawless action replay, but merely something that captures the gist of what happened. The future, meanwhile, is created in the mind by shuffling scraps of the past around in novel ways.

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About Extropia DaSilva

Taking today's technological proof-of-principles and theoretically expanding their potentials to imagine Sl-meets-The-Matrix is my bag, baby!

  • Whew. Lots to think about 🙂 I should say, right from the start, that your use of my own poor little self as some kind of “personality” to make a point is a bit skewed. As I keep repeating, about only 200 human beings read my blog every day (the rest are ‘bots gathering statistics). My blog rank on Technorati keeps falling. The number of regular readers has declined over the years, continuously so. And so on… but alas, it’s your essay 🙂

    I have to admit that this is one of the most interesting essays you ever wrote, for lots and lots of reasons. One is clearing out the idea of human beings as “narrative beings”, a concept I only had from Terry Pratchett’s books, and which I did mostly disregard as “fiction”, even if on his partnership with Ian Stewart and Jack S. Cohenon on Science of Discworld II: The Globe, this thought is echoed over and over again. It’s interesting to see someone tie this concept — that we humans are, mostly, storytellers — with the notion (or “illusion”, as some oriental philosophies would say) of the self as an invented narrative, which, of course, fits quite well in the overall concept that reality is a perception of our senses — in a way, we tell to ourselves the story of the perception of reality (and of others). I definitely favour that argument, too 🙂 In fact, it has strong and powerful consequences, and, ironically, it is a “theory of the universe” (and not only of the mind!) in the sense that “the universe is a collection of stories about what we perceive”. Science is a story, too.

    Even more intriguing were the quotes from scientists explaining the notion of self as “fragments of stories” that we assemble to, well, become “ourselves” — but that those same fragments can quite easily be assembled to create imaginary characters in fiction. Or, well, on virtual worlds. Eons ago, I wrote something not unlike that: the notion that our self is a dynamic thing that is assembled from several personality traits and that it can get “reshuffled” pretty easily when you’re younger, less so after your teens — except, of course, if you’re under the influence about some kind of drug, narcotic, stimulant, or, well, through brain damage and/or surgery. In fact, although I didn’t realise that at the time, it’s exactly because of this ability of the “ever-changing self” that drugs are able to deal with mental disorders like bipolarity or the more common depression — we can artificially “shut down” some areas of the brain, and become “different” in that way.

    Granted, if you start reading oriental philosophy or anything the classical Greeks have written 2500 years ago or more, this won’t be news. They always said that the notion of “self” was purely delusional — just a story that we tell and share with others.

    Starting from this assumption, it naturally follows that if someone can tell your story well enough, they become you. This is, in fact, one of the most worrying aspects of electronic identity theft: creeps being able to impersonate your self as good as you, and, well, use that for illegitimate (or criminal!) purposes. This is a serious crime. One that is hard to prevent. So, if the authorities already worry about identities being stolen, and incorporate that in the body of law that protects our societies, it’s obvious that “identities can be copied” (or, well, roleplayed, since that word is quite well loaded). I missed some typical examples on your essay: e.g. things like Sherlock Holmes or even Charlie Chaplin’s Charlot that became stereotypes, but whose “stories” will be immediately recognised by anyone — and we can, of course, use many more examples. Are vampires real? No. So why can anybody (in the Western world at least) define what a vampire is with excruciating detail to the point that everybody in the audience will immediately know what they’re talking about?

    So, I’m obviously not “surprised” by your essay — just surprised, in fact, about the many ties you found between (apparently) different research areas, all of them pretty much saying bits and pieces, but you managed to bring them all together under a consistent idea. Gosh, I just realise that this is exactly what you said that an essay actually is — bits and pieces, floating around, gathering into the same “story”. Nothing is new, just recycled — “newness” comes only from the insight of saying which pieces should be assembled together, and which should stay out of it. Uncanny. Very nice work, Extie 🙂

    Lastly, I always find your ideas about “immortality through avatars” amusing. Oh yes, they’re not so “obvious” — the transhumanists and extropians are usually more worried about the “mind uploaded to computers” issue. You, on the other hand, minimise the importance of the technology by itself, and point to a far easier route for “immortality”: having other people roleplaying your self (and, after all, what better “machine” to upload your mind to — a human being, which are the best known examples of “mind-running” computers that we know about? And hooray, they already exist, work fine, and we have 6.3 billion of them around!).

    The issue you always arise is the “why would someone like to roleplay me?”, and, of course, this is where we get religious — or perhaps mystical would be a less loaded word. You seem to imply that only “famous” people would likely be roleplayed by others — thus preserving their immortality. In real life, this is, to an extent, true. Sherlock Holmes, for instance, is probably the archetypal detective that has been mostly roleplayed ever, just because, well, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle was famous and his stories became even more famous. A minor detective on an even minor book of an unknown author might never be picked up ever again. Similarly, Plato has roleplayed what Socrates might have said, because, well, Socrates, even if he hasn’t ever written a single word (that we know about), was “famous” — more famous than Plato at least. Examples abound.

    On the other hand, of course, you make a good argument that “unknown” people (in the sense of “less famous”) might be “easier” to roleplay because there is little known about them, and fewer friends to “fool” (in the good sense). That argument is definitely true; the question, of course, arises:

    If you have unlimited abilities to create your own self — either in real life or, well, in virtual worlds — why should you be compelled to roleplay someone’s self? That’s something I still don’t get 🙂 I might imagine one scenario: claiming to be “Charlot” in 2009 might be far better for a performer to get an audience, than, well, claiming to be himself. Elvis impersonators are more “famous” than the real persons that impersonate them — just, well, because they impersonate “Elvis”. So there is some good argument to say that famous people (whatever “famous” might mean in this context…) will be good candidates for roleplaying. After all, mentally deranged people are keen to say they’re reincarnations of Cleopatra or Napoleon, but never of John Doe, anonymous goat keeper of a rural dwelling on the highlands 🙂

    And finally, of course, I might add some things of my own 🙂 If I’m personally not that keen about releasing so many information about my real self — and God knows I give enough hints — does that mean a) I have something to hide; b) I’m aiming for immortality, as you suggest, by forfeiting the link with my real self, so that someone else might pick up the mind-patterns of “Gwyneth Llewelyn” in the future; c) I’m just having fun roleplaying someone; d) none of the above.

    Ha! I wish it were an easy answer 🙂 And, of course, the answer is different depending on the year you ask me 🙂 It might make a whole essay one day, but suffice it to say that by disconnecting my virtual self from my real self, I’m just making a simple statement: human beings are worth by what they say and do (you might say: “the story they tell”), not because of who they are, where they’re born, how old they are, what they’re studied, what cool friends they’ve got. If there is a simple lesson I’ve learned is that I, as a person (and that is true of every human being on Earth, even if most will disagree with me 🙂 ), am worth very little. It’s just my ego that makes me think otherwise. Everybody else is way more important than me. However, we tend to “tag” people relatively to our social status, wealth, friendship, knowledge, studies, and, well, colour of skin, age, gender, religion, whatnot. I dislike “tags”. I’m just another one of the 6.3 billion human beings in existence — nothing else, and nothing more. My virtual projection into Second Life, the cute-ish red-headed avatar that walks around with a smile, a glint in her eyes, and a flower in her head (has nobody ever wondered why?), is just tabula rasa — take me for what stories I spin about myself, not for my, uh, “credentials” or “authority” that comes from immaterial and transitory things that I might have accumulated elsewhere in real life. These are completely irrelevant to what makes me a human being. And by voluntarily discarding all those “real life tags” I allow everybody in SL (and elsewhere) to tag me from scratch based on what they experience.

    Granted, this might have been my reasoning, but it has a major flaw: as time passes by in SL, I accumulate new tags 🙂 That runs, of course, against my original intentions (just an hour ago, I logged in to OS Grid, and the first guy I met there just asked: “Hey, are you the same Gwyn that blogs a lot?” *sigh* There goes my theory!). I’m sure that there is a lesson to be learned there, too. The good news, of course, is that as SL grows and grows, I become less and less relevant, and that is a Good Thing.

    And of course, there would be an easy way out, e.g. getting different avatars, different names, all the time, so that I could avoid the tagging. Alas, that doesn’t work at all. Imagine a tourist visiting a nice, peaceful, fishermen’s village at the coast. She won’t make an impression if she stays just a few days around and talks to people. She will be quickly forgotten once she leaves. But if she remains in the village for years or decades, she will be accepted by the community, and, even if they remember that she might once have lived elsewhere, she’ll be “part of it” now, and will be treated according to the way she presents herself. In a sense, that’s my idea of Second Life, strongly influenced by Philip’s own idea of “SL as a country”. I’m an immigrant here in SL, but after so much time has passed, I feel that I’m accepted now, and can contribute back to the community as well. Starting afresh every day — juggling among alts — defeats that purpose.