Chaim Potok wrote: “Life is like the blink of an eye. What is it worth? Nothing. But the eye that blinks — that is something.” Yet Tamami Nakano of Osaka University and her colleagues are discovering the blink is meaningful. Rather than just a mechanical reflex that keeps the eyeball moist and flaps away dust, the blink is one way the brain refocuses attention. According to an article in the Guardian:
“spontaneous blinks are closely followed by two reciprocal brain activity patterns: activation of the default mode network, a widely distributed set of brain regions that comes online when we disengage from the outside world and enter the internal world of memories and daydreams; and deactivation of the dorsal attention network, which includes regions of the frontal and parietal lobes and is associated with focusing attention.”
We don’t merely shut out the external world when we blink. Rather, we engage with “the internal world of memories and daydreams” that are part of the imaginal aspects of psyche.
Nakano & her colleagues’ research resonates with the distinction between “direct thinking” and “fantasy thinking” Carl Jung introduced in his classical work, Symbols of Transformation — a distinction he shared with the American pragmatist, William James. According to Jung:
“We have … two kinds of thinking: directed thinking, and dream or fantasy thinking. The former operates with speech elements for the purpose of communication, and is difficult and exhausting; the latter is effortless, working as it were spontaneously, with the contents ready to hand, and guided by unconscious motives. The one produces innovations and adaptation, copies reality, and tries to act upon it; the other turns away from reality, sets free subjective tendencies, and, as regards adaptation, is unproductive.”
Perhaps focused attention corresponds to direct thinking, whereas the blink somehow supports fantasy thinking. (Such speculation!)
Jung was concerned with actions when he seemed to denigrate fantasy thinking by describing it as “unproductive.” Jung saw fantasies and dreams as quite purposeful. He also believed they were as important for the evolution of psyche and society as “pragmatic” aspects of mind.
Searching for a thing’s purpose is not straightforward. Dominant paradigms and discourses, the epoch lived in, the culture inhabited, and even the language spoken all influence how bodies and psyches are used — including the blink of an eye and the imaginal aspects of psyche.
In the modern, globalized world, where time is money and multitasking rules, rapid refocusing has become central to staying both economically viable and socially connected. I wonder if the more we quickly and frequently change focus, the greater likelihood we alter our relationship with the imaginal. Dreams and fantasies could start to influence us in new ways, and perhaps even take on new purposes.
What if by some evolutionary twist, the more we refocus, multitask, and engage in mediated ways of perceiving, the more we become dependent on the imaginal for deciphering “reality” than, say, on body sensations or other embodied ways of receiving information from the environment? If so, it would be adaptive (both as individuals and as a collective) to find methods to distinguish when we are directly engaged with the external world and when we are acting more from an imaginal state, including being lost in fantasies.
Adam Lanza’s blurring of the distinction between the fantasy worlds created by violent video games and the real world consequences of mass murder underscores this point. (Jane Stevens does a great job of looking at potential connections between Adam Lanza’s actions in Newtown and the adverse childhood experiences that may have contributed to his mental state.) Since generally we are not learning how to relate to the imaginal contents of our minds, conditions are ripe for obscuring differences between the real and the imaginal. Furthermore, the web, marketers of video games, as well as producers of other forms of virtual reality (including the military’s use of video games for training) exploit the lack of reflective awareness on imaginal states of mind.
The blurring of the imaginal and realty is witnessed with suicide. Suicide can be thought of as literalizing an imaginal need for a new sense of self, if not an entirely different way of being in, and perceiving, the world. According to Judith Herman:
“Long after the event, many traumatized people feel that a part of themselves has died. The most profoundly afflicted wished that they were dead. Perhaps the most disturbing information on the long-term effects of traumatic events comes from a community study of crime victims, including 100 women who had been raped. … Rape survivors reported more ‘nervous breakdowns,’ more suicidal thoughts, and more suicide attempts than any other group. While prior to the rape they had been no more likely than anyone else to attempt suicide, almost one in five (19.2 percent) made a suicide attempt following the rape.”
When there is a history of trauma, it is not uncommon to feel trapped in one’s mind, stuck in a way of life, or straddled with a sense of self for which escape is not readily apparent. In the case of chronic forms of abuse, psychological “rebirth” sometimes involves literally escaping harm. More often, as Herman pointed out, the impact of abuse lingers, and becoming anew requires leaving behind the sense of oneself as victim. For some, starting over means grieving lost innocence and safety, or acknowledging that the need to change one’s life is not because one wants to, but because of another’s selfish and destructive behavior. Thus, suicidal ideation is sometimes a rageful state that all too often becomes a literal killing of the self when a critical engagement with the imaginal, along with grieving what has been lost, could lead to a new self and a new way of life.
I know connecting homicide, suicide, the imaginal, and the blink may seem a bit of a stretch. When making these connections, an observation by Gregory Bateson came to mind. Bateson saw all life as part of an ecological “cybernetic” system in which the small is writ large, and what appears as large-scale phenomena can often be observed in a similar pattern on the most microscopic level. (Another example: The Madelbrot set and the characteristic of “self similarity”.) Patterns upon patterns produce symmetry and synchronicity across nature, society, our minds, and our bodies, and somehow each unique life interlocks, contributing to conformity across collective structures. What is the cause and what is the effect is often impossible to decide. Perhaps William Blake put it best —
To see a World in a Grain of Sand
And a Heaven in a Wild Flower,
Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand
And Eternity in an hour
— a more enlivening reason to stop, think, and reflectively imagine before we act.
Bateson, Gregory. 1972. Steps to an Ecology of Mind. New York: Ballantine Books.
Herman, Judith. 1997. Trauma and Recovery: The Aftermath of Violence—from Domestic Abuse to Political Terror. New York: BasicBooks.
Jung, CG. 1956. Symbols of transformation. Translated by R. F. C. Hull. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
Nakano, T., et al. (2012). Blink-related momentary activation of the default mode network while viewing videos. PNAS, doi: 10.1073/pnas.1214804110
© 2013 Laura K Kerr, PhD. All rights reserved (applies to writing and photography).