The Mirror’s Heart

January 20, 2011

“…mirrors and copulation are abominable, since they both increase the numbers of men.”

– Jorge Luis Borges,  Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius

I have been reading a great deal on the subject of animal behavior recently. Particularly Konrad Lorenz, who contributed a great deal to many fundamental tenets of the field.  I find the subject of innate behavior patterns, what most people would subsume along with a number of related phenomena under the general term ‘instincts’, to be intellectually thrilling.  Some of the deepest lessons about our experience and our motivations are there.

I am fascinated to learn that the characteristic posture of military ‘attention’ – broad shoulders, chin erect, etc. – is also the precise posture adopted by chimpanzees when they feel their group is threatened.  However, because they retain much body hair that we’ve lost, in them it actually functions in concert with the raising of body hairs on the arms, laid flat against the body with elbows outward, to give a larger appearance.  The behavior has taken on a social significance readily understood, and innately responded to, by other members of our species, despite that the physical facts that led to its evolution no longer exist for us.  Another fairly similar example would be the baring of teeth to give a ‘savage’ or threatening expression, despite that biting is not a particularly common form of violence between members of our species these days (although this policy may be one we want to collectively reconsider, as biting does obviously hold a certain appeal).

Until recently, I have managed to read much on the subject without having any emotional responses other than the thrill of acquiring knowledge and discerning relationships, free of any perceived moral or philosophical burden.  Instinctive behaviors have many features.  They are as innate as a species’ physical appearance, entirely unlearned, and therefore the drive to perform them exists regardless of the situation the organism finds itself in.  Thus, in environments other than the one the organism evolved in (such as human captivity), one may observe animals execute very complex and specific sequences of movements with no purpose whatsoever.

It seems to take two forms.  One is where the absent ‘releasing object’, the thing or situation that would typically induce the instinctive behavior in an animal, is substituted for something else.  In captive environments, instinctive behaviors otherwise directed toward parents are often directed towards the human captors.  Later on, courtship and breeding behaviors are also directed toward humans.  If the species is introduced to others of its own kind, it will often not be able to perform any of its social roles with them.  It will literally fail to recognize its own species.  But the releasing object may often enough be substituted for some inanimate object. Animals can be compelled to fight with, or court, or attempt to defend, many objects that vaguely resemble a member of their own species, or prey, or a predator.

The other form it can take is so-called ‘vacuum activity’.  There is an innate energy to perform instinctive actions.  When they are performed, an animal (including us) is gratified, and the energy is used up for a time.  When they are not, the drive increases, and increasingly less and less of an appropriate stimulus is necessary to compel the instinctive behavior.  Eventually, if absolutely no relevant stimulus is ever presented, the behavior simply erupts in vacuo.  During the threshold lowering phase, one may witness a bird attempt to build a nest out of increasingly unsuitable materials, lacking the physical environment wherein suitable materials could be found.  However, if there is simply nothing to even make an attempt with, eventually one may see a bird simply build a nest out of nothing at all.

Aggression is certainly an instinctive behavior pattern, with a great many fixed, unlearned motor patterns for fighting existing in a number of species.  In humans, there seems to be little left of our instinctive aggressive motor behaviors, although we do retain the aforementioned ‘intention movements’ such as baring teeth, which do have a biological function of communicating aggression.  And of course, it is hard to make very much sense at all of human history unless one concludes that there appears to be an innate drive towards violence in general within our species, even if we no longer commit these acts of violence with instinctive fighting behaviors.

In some fish species, males placed in an aquarium with only a female will, lacking any other males with whom to have combat, experience a threshold lowering for the elicitation of the fighting drive until they eventually simply kill their female tank mate.  In some species of the genus Geophagus, this can be prevented by placing a mirror in the tank.  The male’s own reflection will elicit the instinctive aggressive motor pattern, and the female will live.

It was when reading this that I lost my previous sense of pure thrill in the quest for understanding, and felt myself disturbed in some very distinct and difficult to characterize way.  There is some appalling significance I think I detect in this seemingly innocuous fact, some vague but fundamental disturbance I experience that could be likened to briefly realizing you’re dreaming and trying to wake yourself before forgetting and resuming your dream.  The fish is bound to a heroic struggle in which all of its will and purpose is directed into combat, into the only moment that ever mattered, raging against an enemy its own presence creates on an impervious and passive glass surface.

I think I suspect that I am like this fish.  I am possessed of some tremendous energy I do not really understand.  I feel ceaselessly driven toward something with an often-painful fervor, I feel as if my internal state would make far more sense if I was fighting the most pitched battle of some terrible lifelong war.  When dangerous, violent, or potentially catastrophic things used to happen to me, I would suddenly feel possessed of some great self-knowledge I otherwise lacked.  I would feel reconciled.  When I got shot at while inadvertently trespassing on someone’s land in New Mexico some fifteen years ago, I thought it was one of the most beautiful things that had ever happened to me.  Now, nothing even really changes.  I got hit by a car on my bike a few months ago.  I remember thinking I could be greatly injured as we collided, then I remember getting myself up and putting myself on my bike.  The guy stood there stammering some nonsense by his car and seemed surprised that I didn’t seem flustered or affected.  I rode away as he stood there, looking confused.  As I rode, I wondered why I couldn’t find it within me to react with some drama, and I felt like it was probably because, in my mind, there is some ill-defined struggle of far greater significance raging already.

But there is also a disaffection within me.  I think I am waiting for something to happen.  I walk on the railroad tracks, I feel my feet moving repetitively, and feel the blood in my body and my heart moving in concert with my feet and I think I am a tiny part of some larger organism who I propel forward with my movement.  I study intensively, I am constantly trying to refine my methods for coming to know things, I sit huddled in blankets and warm clothes in my cold room and do math problems.  I walk through the forest and I try to hear what all the different plants are saying.  I am suddenly possessed of the need to sing, often for hours, in continuous, delirious outpourings.  But something is missing.

I suspect that all the experiences I am having are not truly fundamental.  I believe everything I perceive is real.  I am certainly not someone with an ideology that the world is an illusion, and therefore meaningless, because of some spirit world that is the only thing that is real.  I loathe such paradigms.  The world is real and I love it.  I just suspect that I don’t see all of it.  I get the sense that the intense, and difficult to define, drive that consumes me would perhaps seem petty, or perhaps finally make sense, if I could see the world better.

The other day I was trying to imagine how a mathematical procedure that I have yet to study would work out.  I found myself thinking about the correspondence in nature to the very basic concept of a series of numbers.  Of course, most of the things we count with numbers, i.e. segregate as distinct from one another, don’t have any inherent relationship with the numbers we give them.  Perceiving things as separate is at least partly a result of simply our particular mental modules, which are programmed not to comprehend endless complexity, but to reduce information to manageable quantities.  You can always perceive things at greater or smaller scales.

For a moment, I thought I understood something.  Then it was gone.  What is strange is that when I think of it now, I seem to remember myself thinking this while I was walking down a very steep road through the forest, but it was a place I’ve only been once, and was on a bicycle.  It was a fleeting moment, and at some point it was incorporated into a false memory, albeit a beautiful one.  I thought I was becoming aware of something, and then it was gone, like a dreamer who briefly becomes aware that they are asleep before resuming the course of their dream.

Perhaps when we look up into this vast and omnipotent sky, searching for a god, or cursing malevolent gods we perceive therein for afflicting us, or praising them, we are looking into something like a mirror.  Perhaps it reflects not our image exactly, as it does for the fish, but some aspect of our mental character, or our souls.  Perhaps someday our gaze will pierce its reflecting surface and we will see something beyond our present limitations; we will see the heart of the mirror and the dark secrets it harbors behind the light.

“Modern man likes to pretend that his thinking is wide-awake. But this wide-awake thinking has led us into the maze of a nightmare in which the torture chambers are endlessly repeated in the mirrors of reason. When we emerge, perhaps we will realize that we have been dreaming with our eyes open, and that the dreams of reason are intolerable. And then, perhaps, we will begin to dream once more with our eyes closed.”

– Octavio Paz,  The Labyrinth of Solitude

3 Responses to “The Mirror’s Heart”

  1. Renèe A.D. Says:

    Truly, a fantastic post Scott. I look forward to reading more…

  2. Amanda Says:

    Are you aware of Lacan’s examination of the mirror self? A summary of it is found here:

    • Oh no, I hadn’t. Many thanks… I remember reading a very brief reference to it some years ago.

      There is also, although I never read a detailed paper on it, supposedly some research that shows
      that when we watch someone else do something, there’s neurological activity in our brains as if
      we ourselves were doing it… which I would say I definitely experience.

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