The Neuroscience of Care

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I am teaching an on-line class, based on my first book, Sustainability by Design: A Subversive Strategy for Transforming our Consumer Culture. We are currently discussing the centrality of Being and care to flourishing. Flourishing and authentic Being are virtually synonymous. Both have the essential meaning as attaining the full human potential in the processes of life. Humans are constrained by both nature and nurture. Our genes set some limits on what we can do. Men, so far, cannot bear children although the current status of gender may change this. Very short women would find it exceedingly difficult to find a spot on the US Olympic Basketball team. Nurture, that is, cultural constraints, also set limits. One’s possibilities are largely limited by what can be found in the culture. While it is possible to create innovative identities and cultural artifacts, most individuals do not venture beyond what is already present.

Achieving the full nurtural potential depends on authentically choosing from the culture’s possibilities freely and owning whatever the choice turns out to be. Few individuals are up to this challenge, selecting their possibilities inauthentically by conforming to something they spot out there. In practice, it would be virtually impossible to distinguish between two people, one authentic and the other not, acting in identical patterns, but only the authentic one would be exhibiting Being or, as I write, flourishing. One difference between the two modes is the range of possibilities available to enact one’s choices. The inauthentic mode limits one to conforming with the norms as the source of action ultimately comes from outside. Conversely, authenticity has no such limits; anything is possible. Virtuosity in any form comes from this mode.

Care enters the picture as another way to think about Being. The main source for the connection between the two is in the work of Martin Heidegger, who wrote that human Being is grounded upon care. Humans are creatures that care about themselves and the world around them. He came to this conclusion solely through philosophical inquiry. Today, we can add evidence based on knowledge of how the brain works to his finding. The rest of this blog is a very brief discussion of the relationship of care to human cognition. All humans exhibit the structure of care in their normal behavior, but the source of the choices entering can be either authentic or inauthentic. In other places, I have argued that the current modernist, consumerist culture of most so-called advanced nations inhibits authentic existence, replacing it with a desire to obtain satisfaction through acquisition of goods (having) instead of acting out of care (Being). The result is the absence of flourishing. But that’s another story to be found in my work elsewhere. The rest of this blog attempts to expand the understanding of how care relates to human cognition, starting with the idea of consciousness.

Consciousness is always being conscious of something. If you do not perceive anything, you are not conscious. When conscious, we pick out something from the tremendous quantity of signals that are bombarding our sensory organs to focus our attention on as the target of our next intentional action. In essence, this is what caring is all about. We may resort to unconscious body means to realize the intentions. An example. I wake up in the morning, lying in bed. I hear an alarm. I focus on the alarm clock and decide to get up. Deciding is a word used to represent the formation of an intention. I could have decided to switch off the alarm and go back to sleep. But now, I use my muscles to switch off the alarm, get up, and walk towards the bathroom. I wash up, shave, brush my teeth, and get dressed.

If I am like most people, I declare, unconsciously, that I am now up and ready to bring something else into my attention for subsequent intentional action. All the bodily motions between my decision and my declaration of completion come from that part of the brain that has stored my responses to past experiences with the same context and “knows” what to do whenever it is aware I have decided on some particular target for action. I do not “think” about these in the usual sense of thinking, but my brain is working, using memory to pick out the steps that have worked for me in the past. Overall, I have converted an image of the future state I intend to bring forth (being “up.”) into the reality of the present moment.

This is the way I think about caring. Caring describes the whole process I just set down. Awareness (consciousness of something), selection of a future state that involves what I have just focused on (intention), appropriate steps to get there, declaration (conscious or unconscious) that I have done it. And, then, one goes on to the next intentional act, indefinitely. Here’s the quote from Husserl I used in one of my earlier blogs.

In every action we know the goal in advance in the form of an anticipation that is “empty,” in the sense of vague, and lacking its proper “filling-in,” which will come with fulfillment. Nevertheless we strive toward such a goal and seek by our action to bring it step by step to concrete realization. (Husserl, E., Formale und tranzendentale Logik, Halle, Niemeyer, 1929.)

That which has become culturally routine behavior lacks an image of the future and is based on behavioral norms that perhaps once worked in bringing society closer to its implicit vision, but now are producing more and more negative unintended consequences and less and less movement towards the underlying ends.

Similarly, the process as conceived by another philosopher, Alfred Schutz, is paraphrased as:

Action, then, can be conceived of as a dialectical relationship between the present and the future. While it is grounded and to a degree constrained by experience and the past, it is still open to alternative possibilities; there are still elements of choice of actions. Perhaps there is not the complete unrestrained freedom of the existentialist, but simultaneously there is not the complete determinism suggested by ‘naturalistic’ social science. The major point is that the purpose of action is change: it is formulated to negate in some sense that which is existing.” (My emphasis)

It should be pretty clear by now, that only humans (maybe a few other animals can do parts) have the brainpower to do this. It should also be clear that language is essential to this process. I need some symbolic way of knowing that I want to get “up.” Without language, we cannot make intentional choices. Other life forms are missing the ability to decide what to do. They become aware of some incoming perceptions and react in the same way every time. They (except for other creatures with relatively large brains) cannot learn.

This is the underlying observation that led Heidegger to claim that care is what makes us human, contrasted with other species. We are aware of the world and convert our perceptions into meaningful images/descriptions that form the basis of our subsequent intentional actions. Heidegger also wrote, “Language is the house of being.” Being here refers to the acts of care that are uniquely human. In order to distinguish humans from other species, he used the word, exists, only for humans. He wrote,

The being that exists is man. Man alone exists. Rocks are, but they do not exist. Trees are, but they do not exist. Horses are, but they do not exist. Angels are, but they do not exist. God is, but does not exist.

The first two quotes illustrate the importance of time to care. Caring (intentional) actions convert the present situation to one that is envisioned as the end point of the action(s) to be taken. Heidegger’s magnum opus is titled, “Being and Time.” One last point. The specifics of caring actions depend on the object that is singled out for attention. Any meaningful object can be the target. And since, for Heidegger, meaningful objects are all distinctive objects, that is, things that have been encountered along one’s life history that have stood out against the whole panoply of worldly context. Distinctive means that they have some unique character that arose through one’s interactions with them. Thus everything in the world that one understands as a distinction is a possible target for caring. This is the basis for Table 10 in Sustainability by Design. And also for the claim that care is what makes us uniquely human.

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