Thursday, May 7, 2009

Seducing Jihad (2)

Understanding How We Function: Perceptions, Categorizations And Habits

How humans understand and make meaning of their existence is a deeply profound process. In Imagining Religion, Jonathan Z Smith made a strong case that scholars in academia invent religion. He posits, “Religion is solely the creation of the scholar’s study. It is created for the scholar’s analytic purposes by his imaginative acts of comparison and generalization. Religion has no existence apart from the academy.” This is an intriguing thought that seems to run contrary to our common understanding of religion. It does not mean, however, that religion does not exist: instead, this notion paves the way and mode of thinking of how we understand and perceive what we term as “religion” or the “story” of faith. What becomes abundantly clear is that religion is an extremely complex subject which does not, and cannot, exist or be understood on its own as a sui generis category. It is surprising therefore that we are less conscious of and are unaware of this continuous invention that we make on a daily basis. In trying to unravel this “story” of faith, religion will have to converse with its environment, context, socio-history, socio-politics, socio-economics – and the deeper we ponder over it, it soon become clear that the surrounding environments affecting it are indeed endless. As religion is also constituted from a personal experience and understanding, equally important is the knowledge of how our physical body process that understanding and meaning making. What we see, understand and perceive as “religious” are effects at a subconscious and bodily level which shaped what and who we are.

The studies on color are fascinating in this regard as it can point towards understanding how our physical bodies (via our vision) works, the way we perceive, categorize and make productive meaning of ourselves and our environment. Using color as structurality and metaphor in cultural and religious studies is a productive way to understand religion in general, and for the purposes of this paper, the place of jihad within Islam, in particular. At a cursory level, we are conscious of and discern the various effects of color on ourselves. For example, we have been conditioned to accept that blue connotes calm and tranquility, red reflects anger and restlessness, and purple conveys the notion of royalty. In fact, the interpretation extents to how we comprehend religion: green is associated with Islam, yellow is associated with Buddhism and red is associated with the Mayan priests. How this identification becomes ingrained in us is a fascinating process.

Victoria Finlay’s Color: A Natural History of the Palette is instructive. She posits that colors exists only through our minds interpreting the vibrations around us, and because our brains cannot find a useful understanding of them, it translate these interpretations into concepts like “objects”, “smells”, “sounds” and of course “colors”. What is more fascinating is her thesis on how colors are formed. As objects are in themselves “color-less”, they reflect colors as wavelengths or electrons are rearranged in “transition” – absorbing and rejecting some wavelengths to form a certain color-image in our brain. To explain this process through a very simplified example, we see the color green on an apple through two distinct processes: firstly, out of a universe of electro magnetic waves, the eye can only detect a very small portion (between 0.00038 and 0.00075 millimeters) which our brain categorized as “light”, with an astounding ten million variations within that minute vibration. If our eyes can see the whole spectrum, that light appears as “white” but if some wavelengths are missing, it is perceived as “colors”. Out of that category of “colors”, the chemical colors appear as green because it absorbs the red and orange wavelengths from the white light around it, whilst rejecting the green wavelength bouncing it back to our vision through our cortex – hence our eventual perception of the apple being green. This intriguing study leads me to think of colors, and of ourselves, in four main ways:

(a) that just like colors, our environment exists so that we may perceive, translate and understand them. By themselves, they hold little meaning until they are ‘discovered.’ The next question for me is how;
(b) that there are immense amount of information out there that our brain are not able to digest them all. Hence, to a large extent, we perform selective perceptions and create categories of our environment and our existence to ‘reduce’ these vast information for a working understanding of their meanings; 
(c) that we are in a constant state of co-constructing and co-communicating with our environment to continuously make meaning of existence; and
(d) that because we are structured biologically in a rather similar way, to an extent, these translations of our environment hold a similar structural understanding which relates and connects us.

Such close interaction and interdependence is referred to as “enaction” in Varela, Thompson, and Rosh’s The Embodied Mind: Cognitive Science and Human Experience and states that “color categorization in its entirety depends upon a tangled hierarchy of perceptual and cognitive processes, some species specific and others culture specific. They also serve to illustrate the point that color categories are not to be found in some pregiven world that is independent of our perceptual and cognitive capacities. The categories red, green, yellow, blue, purple, orange – as well as light/warm, dark/cool, yellow-with-green, etc. – are experiential, consensual, and embodied; they depend upon our biological and cultural history of structural coupling.” Therefore, in addition to having a common biological structure that translates similar understanding as seen in Finlay’s studies above, we clearly do have a fairly embedded sense that categories reflect the world as it is separate from us and that members of a common category all share the same distinctive trait.

Another captivating concept relevant to this paper is that of neuroplasticity to illustrate the malleability of our brain. It helps to explain how we structure our perception of color and its structurality to understand the place of jihad in Islam. Norman Doidge’s The Brain That Changes Itself is an enlightening look at how neuroplasticity in our brain, which promotes change, can lead to both rigidity and repetition in our brains. He cites the work of Pascual-Leone who uses “Play-Doh” plasticine – a very impressionable and malleable matter – to describe how our brain function: that no matter how frequent we repeatedly perform a function, they cannot be an exact repeat performance every time. In his words, “"if you start out with a package of Play-Doh that is a square, and you then make a ball of it, it is possible to get back to a square. But it won't be the same square as you had to begin with. Outcomes that appear similar are not identical. The molecules in the new square are arranged differently than the old one. In other words, similar behaviors, performed at different times, use different circuits.” To protect the brain, as according to him is being so easily altered, from endless changes, he used the metaphor of sliding down a winter hill. As we repeatedly slide down that hill, we create tracks that are so embedded on the slope that it becomes difficult for us to avoid. Out of convenience, for the need of comfort and security, and being creatures of habit, we slope along as close to those established tracks as much as possible. In such a case, those tracks are not genetically determined anymore. Rather than resulting in a state of chaos due to our malleability, our human nature as creatures of habit always complexly strive to be as close to established norms as possible, something it finds definable and familiar, though not necessarily similar. How we are made to be so is a densely scientific and biological explanation beyond the scope of this paper.

Relating back to how our brain function, those mental “tracks” that get laid down can lead to habits, good or bad. Once a habit is established, it becomes very difficult to amend – although not impossible. This is because once habits are formed, they become really convenient, efficient and comforting that as they are entrenched through the passage of time, they become increasingly difficult to change. A major roadblock of some kind is necessary to help us change our habits, perspectives and understanding. This concept enables us to acknowledge that not only is our brain physically growing and developing but it is also continually being trained and shaped as we go along. From the reading of Doidge’s work, this leads me to the conclusion that our brain’s malleability, adaptability, growth and change does take place throughout our entire life cycle, or at least, that it has the potential to do so. This change is closely interconnected with our experience, our environment and through our conversations with them.

This concept of brain plasticity is powerfully connected with the kinds of experiences we may describe as cultural or religious. Our brain becomes deeply patterned through enormous repetition of sensorimotor activities – it is the seat of our kinesthetic selves which through high repetition defines the way we associate and perceive our culture and our concept of religion. It is only through a rigorous, repetitious, kinesthetic process that we can re-condition how we situate ourselves in a new set of meaning making. Hence, our agency to either be or not to be of a certain established construct rests heavily on these brain patterns rather than a definitive conscious choice.

Fortunately, we realize that our brains are more than equipped to create stories and have the mission to do so in order to explain and justify the world we live in and the actions we take. Michael Gazzaniga’s Nature’s Mind illustrates this through his experiment of connecting the shovel with the chicken shed. This gives us another dimension of richness with how we can understand the functioning of our brains, how we relate to our environment and make meaning of our existence.

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