Subjectivity and Objectivity in the Brain

She shows how the film forces the viewer to give up what she calls the “objective” tendency to distance emotionally from the Holocaust by immersing him in the experience of Saul, a Sonderkommando at Auschwitz forced to assist in mass murder. Saul, who has numbed himself to the atrocities of which he is part, becomes obsessed with providing a proper Jewish burial for a young victim. On another level, she notes that the Holocaust itself took objectivity to inhuman extremes, treating people as “pieces” in a giant machine. And she further argues that Saul’s own objectivity—his numbness—was undercut when he encountered the dead boy.

I am sympathetic to her argument about the film, which, for subjective reasons of my own, I have not yet seen. But while she admits that the distinction between subjectivity and objectivity is a “crude opposition,” she incorrectly portrays science and technology as fundamentally objective: there is a great deal of subjectivity involved in how scientists generate and test hypotheses, and even more in how their discoveries are translated into technology. And she leaves out what neuroscience has to say about values. An understanding of consciousness and values is beginning coalesce which supports the idea of an inseparable interplay between subjectivity and objectivity in human thought.

In his book Wider Than the Sky (the title is from an Emily Dickinson poem), the neurobiologist Gerald Edelman refered to the ascending tracts in the brain which utilize specialized neurotransmitters as “value systems” because they facilitate responses necessary for survival. In addition to the dopamine reward system, which we have discussed, they include the neurons of the locus coeruleus, which release norepinephrine; the serotonin neurons in the raphe nucleus; a number of cholinergic nuclei; and the histaminergic system of the hypothalamus.

At another level of analysis, two weeks ago I discussed Jaak and Jules Panskepp’s explication of the basic neurobiology of empathy. They showed how seven primitive response systems, which operate at nonconscious levels, feed upward to higher levels and eventually to full cognitive empathy. These basic survival systems can, to my reading, be considered building blocks of values. The systems are: seeking/desire, rage/anger, fear/anxiety, lust/sexual, care/maternal nurturance, panic/grief, and play/physical social engagement. The value system circuits Edelman describes contribute to these survival systems.

While I am only beginning to tackle the extensive literature on the neurobiology of consciousness, it seems clear that neural information from the senses and from memory are both combined and abstracted by a multileveled system of connections, some of which are bidirectional. This process of analysis is value-guided and survival-biased by the basic systems the Panskepps and Edelman describe.

The cognitive and emotional experience we call consciousness emerge from nonconscious systems that evolved to promote survival of individuals and groups. The dazzling capabilities and stunning limitations of the messy human brain are simultaneously subjective and objective.

Further reading: Gerald Edelman, Wider than the Sky: The Phenomenal Gift of Consciousness, 2004.

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