§5. The Triad in Physiology


385. Granted that there are three fundamentally different kinds of consciousness, it follows as a matter of course that there must be something threefold in the physiology of the nervous system to account for them. No materialism is implied in this, further than that intimate dependence of the action of the mind upon the body, which every student of the subject must and does now acknowledge. Once more a prediction, as it were, is made by the theory; that is to say, certain consequences, not contemplated in the construction thereof, necessarily result from it; and these are of such a character that their truth or falsehood can be independently investigated. Were we to find them strikingly and certainly true, a remarkable confirmation of the theory would be afforded. So much as this, however, I cannot promise; I can only say that they are not certainly false; and we must be content to trace out these consequences, and see what they are, and leave them to the future judgment of physiologists.

386. Two of the three kinds of consciousness, indeed, the simple and dual, receive an instant physiological explanation. We know that the protoplasmic content of every nerve-cell has its active and passive conditions, and argument is unnecessary to show that feeling, or immediate consciousness, arises in an active state of nerve-cells. Experiments on the effects of cutting the nerves show that there is no feeling after communication with the central nerve-cells is severed, so that the phenomenon has certainly some connection with the nerve-cells; and feeling is excited by just such stimuli as would be likely to throw protoplasm into an active condition. Thus, though we cannot say that every nerve-cell in its active condition has feeling (which we cannot deny, however) there is scarce room to doubt that the activity of nerve-cells is the main physiological requisite for consciousness. On the other hand, the sense of action and reaction, or the polar sense, as we agreed to call it, is plainly connected with the discharge of nervous energy through the nerve-fibres. External volition, the most typical case of it, involves such a discharge into muscle cells. In external sensation, where the polar sense enters in a lower intensity, there is a discharge from the terminal nerve-cell through the afferent nerve upon a cell or cells in the brain. In internal volition, or self-control, there is some inhibitory action of the nerves, which is also known to involve the movement of nervous force; and in internal observation, or visceral sensation, there are doubtless transfers of energy from one central cell to another. Remembering that the polar sense is the sense of the difference between what was before and what is after a dividing instant, or the sense of an instant as having sides, we see clearly that the physiological concomitant of it must be some event which happens very quickly and leaves a more abiding effect, and this description suits the passage of a nervous discharge over a nerve-fibre so perfectly, that I do not think we need hesitate to set this phenomenon down as the condition of dual consciousness.

387. Synthetical consciousness offers a more difficult problem. Yet the explanation of the genuine form of that consciousness, the sense of learning, is easy enough; it is only the degenerate modes, the sense of similarity, and the sense of real connection, which oblige us to hesitate. With regard to these two degenerate forms, I am driven to make hypotheses.

388. When two ideas resemble one another, we say that they have something in common; part of the one is said to be identical with a part of the other. In what does that identity consist? Having closed both eyes, I open first one and then shut it and open the other, and I say that the two sensations are alike. How can the impressions of two nerves be judged to be alike? It appears to me that in order that that should become possible, the two nerve-cells must probably discharge themselves into one common nerve-cell. In any case, it seems to me that the first supposition to make, for scientific observation to confirm or reject, is that two ideas are alike so far as the same nerve-cells have been concerned in the production of them. In short, the hypothesis is that resemblance consists in the identity of a common element, and that that identity lies in a part of the one idea and a part of the other idea being the feeling peculiar to the excitation of one or more nerve-cells.

389. When we find ourselves under a compulsion to think that two elements of experience which do not particularly resemble one another are, nevertheless, really connected, that connection must, I think, be due in some way to a discharge of nerve-energy; for the whole sense of reality is a determination of polar consciousness, which is itself due to such discharges. For example, I recognize that a certain surface on one side of a certain boundary is red, and on the other side is blue; or that any two qualities are immediately contiguous in space or time. If the contiguity is in time, it is by the polar sense directly that we are conscious of a dividing instant with its difference on the two sides. If the contiguity is in space, I think we have at first a completely confused feeling of the whole, as yet unanalyzed and unsynthesized, but afterward, when the analysis has been made, we find ourselves compelled, in recomposing the elements, to pass directly from what is on one side of the boundary to what is on the other. I suppose then that we are compelled to think the two feelings as contiguous because the nerve-cell whose excitation produces the feeling of one recalled sensation discharges itself into the nerve-cell whose excitation makes the feeling of the other recalled sensation.

390. The genuine synthetic consciousness, or the sense of the process of learning, which is the preeminent ingredient and quintessence of the reason, has its physiological basis quite evidently in the most characteristic property of the nervous system, the power of taking habits. This depends on five principles, as follows. First, when a stimulus or irritation is continued for some time, the excitation spreads from the cells directly affected to those that are associated with it, and from those to others, and so on, and at the same time increases in intensity. Second, after a time fatigue begins to set in. Now besides the utter fatigue which consists in the cell's losing all excitability, and the nervous system refusing to react to the stimulus at all, there is a gentler fatigue, which plays a very important part in adapting the brain to serving as an organ of reason, this form of fatigue consisting in the reflex action or discharge of the nerve-cell ceasing to go on one path and either beginning on a path where there had been no discharge, or increasing the intensity of the discharge along a path on which there had been previously only a slight discharge. For example, one may sometimes see a frog whose cerebrum or brain has been removed, and whose hind leg has been irritated by putting a drop of acid upon it, after repeatedly rubbing the place with the other foot, as if to wipe off the acid, may at length be observed to give several hops, the first avenue of nervous discharge having become fatigued. Third, when, from any cause the stimulus to a nerve-cell is removed, the excitation quickly subsides. That it does not do so instantly is well known, and the phenomenon goes among physicists by the name of persistence of sensation. All noticeable feeling subsides in a fraction of a second, but a very small remnant continues for a much longer time. Fourth, if the same cell which was once excited, and which by some chance had happened to discharge itself along a certain path or paths, comes to get excited a second time, it is more likely to discharge itself the second time along some or all of those paths along which it had previously discharged itself than it would have been had it not so discharged itself before. This is the central principle of habit; and the striking contrast of its modality to that of any mechanical law is most significant. The laws of physics know nothing of tendencies or probabilities; whatever they require at all they require absolutely and without fail, and they are never disobeyed. Were the tendency to take habits replaced by an absolute requirement that the cell should discharge itself always in the same way, or according to any rigidly fixed condition whatever, all possibility of habit developing into intelligence would be cut off at the outset; the virtue of Thirdness would be absent. It is essential that there should be an element of chance in some sense as to how the cell shall discharge itself; and then that this chance or uncertainty shall not be entirely obliterated by the principle of habit, but only somewhat affected. Fifth, when a considerable time has elapsed without a nerve having reacted in any particular way, there comes in a principle of forgetfulness or negative habit rendering it the less likely to react in that way. Now let us see what will be the result of these five principles taken in combination. When a nerve is stimulated, if the reflex activity is not at first of the right sort to remove the source of irritation, it will change its character again and again until the cause of irritation is removed, when the activity will quickly subside. When the nerve comes to be stimulated a second time in the same way, probably some of the other movements which had been made on the first occasion will be repeated; but, however this may be, one of them must ultimately be repeated, for the activity will continue until this does happen, I mean that movement which removes the source of irritation. On a third occasion, the process of forgetfulness will have been begun in regard to any tendency to repeat any of the actions of the first occasion which were not repeated on the second. Of those which were repeated, some will probably be repeated again, and some not; but always there remains that one which must be repeated before the activity comes to an end. The ultimate effect of this will inevitably be that a habit gets established of at once reacting in the way which removes the source of irritation; for this habit alone will be strengthened at each repetition of the experiment, while every other will tend to become weakened at an accelerated rate.


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