At play in the fields of the lord: the role of metanoia in the development of consciousness



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THE EARLIER THEORY: PLAY AND THE

DEVELOPMENT OF THE COGNIZED ENVIRONMENT

Experiential reality is a cognitive and perceptual construction produced by the nervous system, and is constrained in its nature by the internal properties of the cognizing organism. Our experience of both the external world and our own organism are essentially produced by the activities of neural models.3 These models exist within the immensely intricate organization of the cells and fibers comprising our nervous system (Davis et al. 1988), especially those comprising the cerebral cortex.4



Neurognosis

The course by which the nervous system comes to know about the organism of which it is a part, and the environment within which the organism is ensconced, is a well ordered one from beginning to end. The neural networks comprising our knowledge and experience have their developmental origin in initial (what we call) neurognostic5 structures that are present in the cognitively competent fetus and infant (Spelke 1985, 1988a, 1988b) and that manifest an organization which is largely genetically determined. Although there is remarkable selectivity in the developmental reorganization of these early structures, that selectivity itself is neurognostically regulated. Some potential organizations deteriorate, others become active, and still others remain relatively latent and undeveloped (see Changeux 1985, Edelman 1987, Varela 1979). This selectivity is one reason why there is such remarkable flexibility in cognitive adaptation to the essentially turbulent and evolving nature of the organism and the world. There is now considerable evidence that environmental enrichment is a major factor in both pre- and perinatal elaboration of neurophysiological processes in both humans and non-human animals (Renner and Rosenzweig 1987, Diamond 1988).



The Cognized and Operational Environments

The organism and its environment are inextricably linked in an intricate dance, coupled for a lifetime in an increasingly complex process of mutual adaptation.6 In the process of its self-cognization, the organism becomes a relative abstraction to itself. It will to some extent produce a conceptual and imaginal abstraction of its organism from the matrix of its environment (E.J. Gibson 1969, J. Gibson 1979, Neisser 1976, Varela 1979). The organism's model of itself is defined through the emerging complexity of its own internal organization (Piaget 1971, 1985). The principal attribute of the organism's model of itself (including its "body image;" see Laughlin 1990b) is the production and conservation of this self-organization while simultaneously addressing the demands of adaptation to events in its surround.

The entire system of neural models of self and world is self-generating (Laughlin and d'Aquili 1974, Varela 1979, Maturana and Varela 1980; see also Piaget 1971, 1985), and comprises our cognized environment. While the cognized environment is how we know and experience our organism and our world, the system of neurological transformations that produce the cognized environment is part of the very world (our operational environment)7 within which we are embedded and to which we must adapt in order to survive. The operational environment, including our own organism, may be considered transcendental relative to our cognized environment in the sense that there is always more to learn about the operational environment, or anything within it, than can ever be known. By implication, we are each of us a transcendental being that is forever beyond the grasp of complete self-knowledge.

The cognized environment is to the operational environment as a map is to a landscape. This not a static map, but rather is a living, breathing map produced by transformations in the organization of living cells. At a more molecular level of organization, these transformations have their material reality in patterned coordinations, or entrainments,8 among neurons whose initial forms are neurognostic, whose eventual developmental complexity will be variable and whose evocation may or may not be environmentally triggered.


The Empirical Modification Cycle

The process by which neural models grow into an adaptive configuration relative to the operational environment is termed the empirical modification cycle, or EMC (Laughlin and d'Aquili 1974: 84ff; see also Pribram 1971, Neisser 1976, Arbib 1972, Powers 1973, Gray 1982, and Varela 1979 for consonant views). This feedforward process is required for learning, and for transformation of models confronting the flux and ultimately incomprehensible complexity of a transcendental world. This process is one by which models are tested against the operational environment by matching anticipated patterns against those experienced.

Behavior may or may not be a component of the EMC. In some cases the EMC may require physical activity in order to complete its feedback loop; say in learning to play baseball or moving a chess piece. In other cases, the EMC may complete itself without a physical component to the process; say in solving a riddle, willing events in a dream or playing a game of blind chess.9

With respect to the behavioral aspect of EMC operations in general, and play in particular, one of the most important issues we must address is the role of behavior as a phase in the control of perception. William T. Powers (1973) in his book, Behavior: The Control of Perception, has gone a long way in modelling the cybernetic function of behavior relative to perception by showing that, "Behavior is the process by which organisms control their input sensory data. For human beings, behavior is the control of perception" (1973:xi). His thesis is as simple as it is profound, and is worth quoting at length, especially considering its importance to our understanding of play:

All behavioral feedback is negative feedback. Positive feedback models do not behave properly. Negative feedback can be seen as feedback control when the existence of the reference condition [i.e., goal of perception] is recognized, for behavior always tends to resist disturbances of the controlled quantity [i.e., perceptual variable] away from that condition. The reference condition and the controlled quantity can be objectively defined in terms of reaction to disturbances. ...Behavior can be seen as purposive or goal-directed if it is recognized that the purpose of any act is to resist disturbances and that the reference condition describes the goal of behavior. (1973:54)
Behavior is a phase in the neurocognitive loop by which an object of interest is brought before the perceiving subject, and kept there as long as desired despite disturbances produced by other competing objects. It is my claim that this is as true for play behavior as for any other form of behavior. u

Metanoia As Optimization of Development

We are now in the position to say that metanoia may be defined as the subprocess of the EMC by which an organism (1) intentionally enriches its operational environment for the purpose of optimizing the development of its cognized environment, and (2) loosens and expands the range of alternative structures that may eventually produce models. In other words, metanoia is an internally driven enhancement of empirical modification which both loosening the adaptational stability of models and enriches the stimuli with which the models dialogue. The operational environment may be enriched either by increasing the information about it, or by expanding its spatiotemporal range. Incidentally, both ways of enrichment seem to be present and operating by the time of birth in human beings (see Laughlin 1990a).

Thus play behavior, as we commonly use the term, may be viewed as metanoic enrichment of the external operational environment via behavior (Blanchard 1986). Linking play to metanoia allows us to balance our view of play with the recognition of a transcendant context internal to the organism, as well as the more commonly acknowledged Batesonian (Bateson 1972, 1979) "meta-communicational" context external to and between organisms. Metanoia labels the internal frame of reference of play, as meta-communication labels the external frame of reference of play. Certainly one function of the metanoic frame is the "adaptive potentiation" of models to possible future responses to the operational environment (Sutton-Smith 1977).

The enrichment studies noted earlier (Renner and Rosenzweig 1987, Diamond 1988) are crucial to our understanding of the mechanisms of metanoia, but these studies tend to emphasize passivity of the organism in selection of the enrichment or impoverishment of environmental complexity (it is, after all, the researcher who manipulates the rats' environment). With play, however, we are dealing with an active control on the part of the organism over the process of enriching novelty in the interests of the organism's internal drive to optimize cognitive complexity (Tipps 1981). It is methodologically significant that the external enriching activity is easily observed, but the internal loosening of adaptive constraints on neurocognitive organization is not so easily observed. Moreover, it must be said that play is not a necessary condition for the development of models or of the entire cognized environment. But play, especially as conceived in our more current formulations below, is a necessary condition for optimal development of models of the operational environment.

Play is characteristic of the EMC in species neurophysiologically complex enough for feedforward cognitive operations to occur beyond the immediate perceptual field (i.e., all mammals, and a few of the more intelligent birds; Wilson 1975; see also Pribram 1971, Count 1973:86). In such species, play opens-up the transcendental possibilities of modelling the physical and social aspects of the operational environment. Internal cellular organizations are loosened10 in order to better model the world, and the transcendental possibilities of the world are opened-up for modelling. Higher species are capable, within their neurognostic constraints, of a more or less flexible cognized environment (see Poirier and Smith 1974). The more complex and predominant the play characteristic of a species, the more complex will be that species' cognized environment (Welker 1956a, Sutton-Smith 1967, Wilson 1975:164). Furthermore, sufficient play in early life among these species seems to be requisite to the construction of an adaptive cognized environment relative to the physical world (Piaget 1952, 1962, Menzel 1968) and the social world (Baldwin and Baldwin 1973, Harlow 1969).11

Play Plus Ritual Equals Game

In our earlier theory, we explained the evolution of games as an amalgamation of play and ritual, both of which had their precursors in phylogenesis.12 To game is to participate in a ritual involving metanoia (Frederickson 1960:433). Just as play provides a "context" (Piaget 1962) or "frame" (Bateson 1972) within which activities may open-up and enrich the operational environment, gaming provides a more complex and socially standardized frame within which participants may optimize the development of social coordination. Thus games may be considered rituals of mastery (or "models of power;" Sutton-Smith and Roberts 1970). In our earlier work (Laughlin and McManus 1982:54-56) we showed that the amalgamation of play and ritual into gaming was likely present in the neurognostic repertoire of the earliest hominids.




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