Where does it all come from? Where does it all go? What’s over there? What’s in here? What the fuck is that, and what’s it doing on my nose?
Questions, love them or hate them they’re ours, and without them we clever little naked apes would never have invented the sandwich let alone built a large particle collider… two things a chimpanzee stands somewhere between zero and no chance in Hades of ever making. Not because he’s not curious, he is, but rather because the chimp’s interest in something curious typically ends at the first simple answer arrived at. A twig wet with saliva is all the solution a peckish chimp needs to get a feed of termites. The answer satisfies his curiosity; it’s stored, remembered, and repeated. Smelting iron ore, fashioning specialized thin wire and developing non-toxic glues laced with termite pheromones would never enter the chimps 300 cubic centimetre, 700,000,000 neuron brain because a twig and saliva worked just fine the first time. The train of thought ends there, way short of ever considering the wonders of a termite sandwich, and light years from enjoying that sandwich while smashing electrons together looking for the Higgs Boson.
For better or for worse and whether we like it or not no such luxury exists for us naked apes and our colossal 1,400 cubic centimetre, 100,000,000,000 neuron armed brain. We are driven to an ever greater understanding of curiosities regardless of size or cunning, and in his wonderful book, Neurotheology, Laurence McKinney argued that it is an urge which is neurologically imprinted in each and every one of us. His thought followed that although we are born with nearly every neuron we will ever have we enter this world “not at once, but by degrees,” and what’s left after this three or so year-long introduction is a sort of inescapable super massive cognitive black hole that not only drives our curiosity but draws us onto a shadowy landscape where questions of being reside. This is the realm beyond Lewis Carrols Looking Glass, and whether we like it or not in this game we are all Alice wandering around Wonderland.
Here’s how that works:
Much unlike a Christmas tree, 100,000,000,000 cerebral neurons don’t just come online all at once. Neurologically speaking it takes ten months, give or take, for a newborn to even discover that it is separate from its environment. It takes another twenty-four months for that same infant to get a fair handle on that environment, and most importantly, themselves. Before that moment, for the first three years of our lives, our brains are busy in a process called aborization, meaning tree, where oceans of bulbous neurons and their branchlike axons spur on the growth and subdivision of an expanding universe of twiglike dendrites to make contact with up to 50,000 paths each to form a nearly unimaginably complex storage, retrieval, and sequential image processing apparatus. Before this process is complete, for those first 36 months, we do not participate in conscious life as we adults understand it. It’s rather the case that we enter it by increments; small baby steps as connection after connection is made and the brain literally hooks itself up.
Take the case of the vanishing train. The Swiss developmental psychologists, Jean Piaget, noted that until an early developmental stage a child watching a toy train disappear into a tunnel will witness the event and perceive the train to have simply vanished. In the infantile mind, a mind that experiences the world as parcels of constant novelty, what emerges magically from the other side is an entirely new train. Piaget observed that it was only after a sufficient number of the right connections had been made in the infantile frontal cortex, connections that allowed a sequential ordering of events, did a child instinctively glance forward after seeing a train enter a tunnel and wait for it – the same train – to emergence from the other end. He called this ability to predict “conservation,” and it appears in us all bit by little bit. Month after month the dendrites branch out in a massive public works program until finally stabilising at about the 36th month. It is only then when memories are no longer misshaped by brain growth; they can be encoded, associated, retrieved, and reread whenever needed, marking a shift in consciousness where we quite literally leave behind the childlike perspective of cascading surprise and enter a world where events are ordered in time.
And with that begins the age of memory: the age of self.
A reptilian brain does not undergo this process. At birth the brain of a loveable but otherwise quite daft sea turtle is exactly as it until the day it dies; fully formed with every connection in place, happily churning away from minute one to the end. The immediate future is all the turtle has for it does not possess the ability – a sufficiently weighty brain with huge redundancy built in – to sequence images into a conscious chronology of any great length of time. Unlike the sea turtle a chimps 300 cubic centimetre brain does undergo this process of aborization but sporting just 700,000,000 cerebral neurons it takes far less time than his vastly more complex, taller, smoother cousins. It takes us three years and this gap between birth and cognitive recognition of our lives, this gigantic blind spot in our experienced lives, is the source from which McKinney argues tough, taxing and altogether obnoxiously nagging philosophical questions such as “where did I come from” and “where does it all go” originate.
The theory seems entirely logical. We have the birth certificates, sometimes scars, but in most cases mothers to tell us that we were most certainly alive and playing the part of cantankerous housebound terrorist for those first three years, but as we lack all structured memory of that time we are naturally drawn – perhaps susceptible is a better word – to asking questions to the perceived nothingness. The mystery is there, inbuilt and permanent; an unavoidable itch which we simply cannot stop scratching at. By McKinney’s reckoning the longer it takes for a brain to come online the bigger the hole, the bigger the hole the stronger the itch, and the stronger the itch the greater the corresponding attraction – and capacity – to asking questions and solving mysteries.
Now, to be sure, it’s in the actual solving of mysteries where we supremely dexterous naked apes have at times fucked up beyond comprehensible measure. These colossal cognitive errors – mistakes in the interpretation of cause and effect – have given us such magnificent brainfarts as the Flat Earth Theory, faked moon landing conspiracies, and have fashioned the most unique, highly visible, immensely noisy, oftentimes violent, but always unreasonable residue to have emerged in the solar system: superstition, and through it it’s more organised but uglier cousin, religion. But on the upside we, like Alice, have also on occasion nailed it. Sandwiches and large particle colliders are proof enough of that.