(Copyright © 2008)

Humans may sometimes act like pigeons, rats, or monkeys, but those are different species altogether. Our brains offer far more behavioral options than theirs. Lab animals may have written the book on fear responses such as freezing, fleeing, or fighting, but we have interleaved many chapters of our own. Our amygdalae (singular amygdala) are parts of the brain that translate fear into recommendations for action. The word comes from Greek amugdale, almond, because that’s what these brain nuclei looked like to early anatomists. Our amygdalae still come into play when we are under stress, but we are no longer limited to fleeing, fighting, or freezing.

 

Humans have a huge repertoire of tactics for coping with the myriad gradations of fear. Some of us may freeze, fight, or flee on occasion, but, too, we may hum, carry on, bluff, inquire, investigate, seek help, or design and execute a solution that will lessen the tension. We convert the threatening situation into a problem, and then set out to solve it. Our amygdalae have learned a thing or two since we were in our primate infancy as treeshrews, now viewed in hindsight as true founders of all primates, great apes, and humans.

 

Over the intervening millions of years, the pathways between our sensory areas and amygdalae have expanded into intervening cerebral cortices, which vastly increase our options both for defining problems and proposing appropriate responses to them. We have evolved into pigeons, rats, and monkeys with advanced degrees in both memory and consciousness. The result is that highly processed sensory signals from the prefrontal cortex feed into the amygdala, allowing judgment to shape our emotional responses in frightening situations. 

 

Our hippocampi (singular, hippocampus, from Greek hippokampos, sea horse, which it is said to resemble), are brain areas sited beneath the amygdalae. They are essential in formation and retrieval of memories involving strong emotions, and feed into several amygdalae nuclei, providing signals relating to situations in which fear is aroused.

 

I have a well developed fear of high places having no visible means of support. Mountain trails are OK because they are solid. I trust granite. But when there is air between me and the ground, my amygdalae tell me to get out of there a.s.a.p. And my hippocampi make sure I remember the outcome as a warning the next time.

 

Someone tells me how great the Top of the Sixes is, the bar and restaurant in the penthouse at 666 5th Avenue. Stupidly, I decide to check it out. The elevator is OK because I can’t see down. Some 480 feet up, the doors open onto a bar on the right and floor-to-ceiling windows straight ahead. I stride manfully to the windows, glance down 41 floors toward the street, turn, walk back to the elevator, ride down, and that was my trip to Top of the Sixes. Immediate retreat was my only option. But I could see how the bar might sell a lot of martinis to people like me. Lighthouses have the same effect, especially the ones with open grilles or holes in the steps so you can see all the way down. Maine has some great lighthouses, but I’ve never made it up one of them yet. Jet airplanes, of course, terrify me. I remember one turbulent flight over Montana in the 1950s when the plane rose and fell precipitously for half an hour or so. Worst 30 minutes of my life. For some reason, small, single-engine planes don’t bother me. I like riding the wind, as if it were holding me aloft on great wings, like an eagle or hawk. My strongest and most painful memory is taking the elevator up through the arch of the Gateway to the West in St. Louis. In my book the arch was built to smear the reputation of Lewis and Clark. It is run by the National Park Service, which led me to trust it against my better judgment. The elevator is a train of little spherical cars hitched together, so I’m crammed into a hot, airless globe with five sweaty strangers who are probably just as scared as I am. The ride starts underground, and goes up slowly, slowly, creaking all the way. I could picture my progress with X-ray vision through the arch as if I were outside looking in. There’s Steve, the idiot, trapped in his death bubble. After five days—or was it years?—we make it to the top of the arch. The floor curves upward, and has windows on either side. Tricky windows because they are set at an angle so you can look straight down. I go to the center of the arch, take one look down—into emptiness, then a pavement of red bricks—and back to the death cars on bent knees. I get in and wait. And wait. And . . . it takes forever to fill up so we can beam down to Earth. No beam here, just a slow, wobbly descent into hell. If I was in charge of the CIA and wanted to torture terrorists, I would replace Gitmo with Gatemo, and get every one of them to squeal on his best buddies.

 

As far as I am concerned, my hippocampi have done me a service in preserving these edifying moments of truth. In lesser matters, my prefrontal cortices give me more options so I can engineer devilishly clever solutions, but when life-saving measures have to be taken fast, I look to my amygdalae, and so far they haven’t betrayed my trust.

 

What surprises me, though, is how many people seek out stressful situations to put a little excitement in their lives. Without terrifying TV shows and movies, I doubt there’d be much of an “entertainment” industry at all. Stephen King, like Edgar Allen Poe, has made a good living off his amygdalae and those of his readers.

 

All evidence shows that fear plays a major role in human consciousness. Today is Halloween with its gruesome, grisly ghouls, ghosts, goblins, witches, haunts, skeletons, and the rest of that spooky ilk. My suspicion is that modern life tends to be boring for amygdalae that evolved to provide a quick jolt of action in life-threatening situations. Many of us live too far back from the edge to fully employ the defenses we were born with, so we seek out danger (as long as we know in the heart of our hearts it’s only a game). Still, as with treeshrews, our amygdalae are at the core of our consciousness. The proof is in our survival against all odds to this day.

¦

 

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Reflection 15: One-upmanship

October 30, 2008

 (Copyright © 2008)

Yesterday I had surgery to remove a cataract from my right eye. Today I am going in for a follow-up visit to my ophthalmologist. On the way, my designated driver introduces me to her colleague, one I shall refer to as Dolly.

         

Driver. This is Steve. He is going for a checkup after cataract surgery yesterday.

 

Dolly. I know about cataracts. My son-in-law is an ophthalmologist. One of my best friends is an ophthalmologist in Washington D.C., actually an ophthalmologist neurosurgeon, one of only three on the East Coast.

 

What could I say to that? She was not interested in reading my state of mind, she was too busy broadcasting her own state with 250 kilowatts. I thought she must be nervous to introduce herself in such a heavy-handed fashion. Perhaps an only child used to ruling the roost. Assertive at any rate, and quite uninterested in meeting someone not part of the life situation she relied on to structure her interactions with strangers.

 

We have all had experiences like this, speaking at cross-purposes with others tuned to different wavelengths than our own. They commonly underwrite our words with their meanings, and lead the conversation off on their own tangent. When I say we live in different life worlds, I really mean it. Those respective worlds are in our heads, the seat of our identities, where they color everything we do and say. We are genetically unique, neurologically unique, experientially unique—why should we ever expect the Dollys we meet to measure up to our expectations? Or expect ourselves to fit within the envelope of their expectations? We should always ask, “What planet are you from?” Every once in a while we might meet an Earthling who shares the same frame of reference we do. If we merely assume we speak the same language, we are setting ourselves up for certain disappointment.

 

It is not true that our conscious minds run in parallel courses. Extended to infinity, there is no law that says they must meet at some point way out there.

¦

 

Reflection 14: Mindreading

October 28, 2008

(Copyright © 2008)

We generally think of language as a matter of words, but we know it is much more than that. How we deliver an utterance is every bit as important as what we say. Think of Martin Luther King’s “I have a dream” speech and you will know what I mean. The music of language includes pitch, intonation, rhythm, pace, voicing, and other nonverbal aspects. Body language adds to the message. Our stance tells how engaged we are, our facial expressions and hand movements underscore what we say, and as always our eyes speak volumes about our attitude toward our topic, hearers, and speech occasions. Our eyes, after all, are forward extensions of our brains. The light within is the very radiance of our mental activity.

 

Do these factors enter conscious awareness? Not very often. We take them in as part of the message and its occasion without really paying attention to them. If we think we are receiving mixed messages from someone, then we may start looking for discord between the different channels involved in language. But generally we regard them as incidental rather than as essential clues to how we are to interpret a given utterance.

 

We do know that talking with someone on the telephone is very different from speaking with them face-to-face. Without seeing posture, gestures, and facial expressions, it is harder to understand what is being said, and harder to get our own side of the conversation across. “Do you know what I’m saying?” doesn’t really do much beyond make the listener feel like a dope.

 

Written language is even worse in that regard because it deprives us of the non-vocal sounds that are intimately bound to words on the page but simply aren’t there. Exclamation and question marks help, as do commas and periods, but they provide very rude support in helping us block out the message. Mostly we fall back on imagination to fill in the missing parts, so we read with an as if kind of attitude—as if we were witnessing someone actually saying those words. That is, we are left to fill in the gaps for ourselves, and there’s no sure way of knowing if we are reading the situation correctly or not. As in reading poetry, we have to use every clue we are given.

 

This is a kind of language participation that often gives persons with autism a great deal of difficulty. They have trouble reading postures, gestures, expressions, and eyes. Which are all parts of the language occasion or situation. They hear the literal words without all the trimmings that help make it clear what is being said. So their consciousness of language is diminished to a degree. Neuroscientists say those with autism often lack a “theory of mind” that lets them identify with the mental states and intentions of others, so they can’t “read” their minds. Even though few of us are aware such signals are part of everyday language, we are taking them in on some level and our understanding acknowledges that fact. Which is a tricky part of consciousness because we register the effects of those signals without being aware of the evidence itself.

 

We may not know how we do it, but in many situations we are able to read minds. How do we know that we know what we think we know is going on in another person’s head? The short answer is we can’t ever know for sure. But the long answer is that many times we can trust our intuition. Without such an ability, how would we ever feel empathy for another’s condition? How could we ever be with anyone else in spirit? How could we communicate on an intimate level, and so feel connected? Consciousness must be an additive function that doesn’t settle for taking the world at face value but adds an assortment of subliminal signals into a coherent impression beyond what can be experienced directly through sensory channels. And when the signals don’t add up, we become consciously aware of dissonance or mixed messages that put us on our guard.

 

I suspect we learn to read other people’s intentions very early in childhood through imitation of their gestures and expressions in a spirit of play. That way we establish a kind of resonance based on a caregiver’s grasp of our level of understanding, and build on that. In short order we get good at mimicking gestures and facial expressions (for which we are rewarded with feedback such as smiles, giggles, hugs, and kisses), which leads to anticipating what others are going to say and do, as if we could read their minds. Way before our formal schooling, through playful interactions we have laid the foundation for social exchanges we will rely on every day of our lives.

 

Our mindreading skills stem from imagination reinforced by positive feedback. We put ourselves out there and learn from what happens. Taking the feedback to heart, we venture again. And again. These fundamental social skills are acquired by pulling ourselves up by our own bootstraps. Scientists talk about the brain as a computer performing computations based on information received from outside. But really, “information” isn’t informative in this sense because the brain doesn’t have access to the situation in which data becomes meaningful on its own. The information-processing view is laid on our brains by others, but each of us develops consciousness on the inside by making gestures in the world, receiving feedback, refining our gestures, and modifying our behavior in a kind of endless loop of experience that is self-generating and self-improving. We on the inside are always the judge of what is effective and what isn’t. Those around us have as much to learn from us as we do from them.

 

Consciousness is spurred by imagination and a spirit of fun. Forget information. The more merriment, the better.

¦

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Reflection 13: Wallpaper

October 27, 2008

 (Copyright © 2008)

Years ago I wallpapered several rooms in the only house I ever owned. I chose small colonial patterns in blue and rose. By the time I got to the last room, I was a pretty good paper hanger. I started behind the door and worked my way around. As I was climbing the ladder with the second strip all pasted and ready to go up, I saw that I had hung the first strip upside down. It was too late to remove it and start again. I suppose I could have put the second strip on top of the first, but I had just enough paper to go around once. I put the second strip up the right way and went on from there. For a week, that mistake glared at me every time I entered the room, showing me to be the klutz that I am. I retired as a wallpaper hanger. A year later I remembered my carelessness and compared the first two strips. Hung either way, the pattern looked the same. I had to put my nose to the wall to make out the difference. I stayed only a couple of years in that house, but, assuming the room was not repapered, I’ll bet that nobody else ever noticed it either.

 

Consciousness can be forgiving, even after being highly sensitized, unto turning a blind eye. Yes, we can see the world in fine (foveal) detail, but once seen that way, our consciousness tends to rest on its laurels and move on to new challenges. We do our best seeing with the fovea of our retina where light-receptive cells are packed closely together, giving us sharp color vision. We often reserve that sort of scrutiny for novel situations unfolding in new arrays of color, contrast, shape, and motion. Once they become familiar, we conceptualize them, turning particular patterns and colors from images into abstract ideas.

 

If we study it at close range in a gallery, a painting by Jan van Eyck, say, soon decays into one more example from the Northern Renaissance, just as the sensory nuances of the broccoli-cheese omelet I made for breakfast last Sunday—much commented on at the time—have gone to omelet heaven. A colleague once hung a large print of Picasso’s Guernica over his desk. He told me years later he hadn’t looked at it since. Or if he had looked at it, he hadn’t seen it.

 

Wherever I work, I pile new papers on the old ones I was working with yesterday. I’m talking important papers, papers I have read and scrutinized in fine detail because they interested me. Then. This is now. My mind has moved on to new concerns. The old ones, for me, don’t exist. So I bury them, as falling pine needles deck the forest floor, eventually turning into duff, into soil, into their constituent molecules. Decay is a natural process. In consciousness we call it habituation. Getting so used to a thing we don’t even see (hear, taste, smell, feel) it.

 

My desk is a kind of mulch pile of clutter. It calls for a Heinrich Schliemann or some other archaeologist to dig through its layers looking for Troy. People visiting my two-room apartment notice the clutter immediately. I never see it. I build it—on the table, desk, sofa, floor, bed, every shelf in the place—but for me it isn’t really there. Not for my eyes or my consciousness. I live with it every day and wholly ignore it. As some married couples sit across the table as if they were dining alone. They’ve become wallpaper to each other.

 

If over-familiarity dulls consciousness, anticipation and novelty heighten it. Here’s an anti-wallpaper example from my experience on March 7, 1997, as recorded in my 1998 book on hiking the trails of Acadia National Park:

 

Being the first one out after a snowstorm is one of life’s greatest joys. With roads and walkways erased, there are no rules governing where you can go. The world has been made anew, and you are the first to witness its beauty. Usually, creatures of habit that we are, we get out the snow shovel and start remaking the world as it was. But if we resist that urge and give in to the wonder of the moment, we find ourselves made anew as well, as we were as children awakening to a day when school was called off because of a storm. I remember lying in bed without opening my eyes, listening for sounds from the outside world that would tell me what kind of day it was. Better than the scrape of shovels or the whump of loose tire chains clattering against fenders was the eloquence of a town muffled beneath a foot of new snow, the news conveyed by absolute silence. I did not have to look out the window to know a revolution had swept over the world in the night, and I had been dubbed emperor while I slept.

 

Which observer is the true me, bumbling paperhanger or keen-sighted emperor of all I survey? As consciousness would have it, I am both. Either way, I focus on one thing at a time. Shifting my attention from the pattern on a strip of wallpaper to trying to hang it straight, I am apt to lose sight of the pattern and so hang the strip upside-down. Novelty, on the other hand—as in a snow-covered landscape—makes things seen a thousand times appear so various and so new that each cries out for my sharpest attention. In truth, I am emperor of bumbling paperhangers. Sometimes I see sharply and clearly with my eyes, sometimes conceptually with my mind. Experience has taught me it is important to tell the difference between these two modes of seeing.

 

¦

 

Reflection 12: Doubt

October 24, 2008

(Copyright © 2008)

Doubt is a state of mind that brackets or holds in suspension an item of belief. [Is that so?] [Do you expect me to believe that?] [Really?] By decoupling the flow of sensory images from the flow of concepts or ideas that accompany them, doubt disrupts the normal cohesiveness of consciousness. This either baulks consciousness, or perhaps draws attention to the coupling itself, which is usually accomplished out of awareness. Understanding is interrupted, creating a state of either not knowing or curiosity. If the latter, consciousness can then shift into overdrive.

 

The drive to understand what sensory phenomena mean is one of the most basic motivators of consciousness, learning, memory, and behavior. When I wrote a book* about hiking the trails of Acadia National Park on Mount Desert Island (where I live), I always wanted to find out what lay beyond the next bend or over the rise after that. Not merely what was there, but what it meant in relation to what I already knew. I kept transcending the known world—the landscape I was familiar with—in order to incorporate the unknown into the big picture I was sketching out in my mind. For three years in the 1990s, that was my fundamental mode of existence. Pushing ahead. Exploring. Expanding my awareness. Going beyond my current understanding.

 

Essentially, I lived in a state of eternal curiosity, doubt, and questioning. For me it was a great adventure. In the interest of full disclosure, I have always lived like that. I was born with a question on my lips: What next? I will die the same way: What next? In between, I have always questioned my own experience, doubting that I could take it at face value but had to delve behind the obvious, sensory presentation to discover what it might mean. I studied science, the humanities, the arts, education, trying to stand under and support my sensory experience with what it all meant. Here is a paragraph—one long sentence, really—from my essay on hiking the trails of Beech Mountain in Acadia:

 

Picture the hulking naturalist on an Acadian mountain ridge, hunkered down, peering back and forth through bifocals between wildflower guide and puzzling bloom on its midget stem, unable to describe what he thinks he sees in terms the guide will accept, guide holding back the sought-after name until the description is more precise, blackflies looking on at first, then mobbing, then going in for the kill, the naturalist hitting back between swings of attention between book and bloom, bloom and book, blackflies persisting, book resisting, bloom bobbing in the wind, naturalist sticking it out for twenty minutes, then, no wiser than before, fleeing for his life.

 

My effort at making the blossom meaningful was frustrated by my failure to find the proper category to place it in. Now I conceive of that bloom as an example of pale corydalis (C. sempervirens, a member of the poppy family). That is its meaning, its place in the taxonomy of world flowers. But then I knew only its visual aspects of size, shape, color, so could not fit it into my conceptual understanding. Without the name of that concept, it was anonymous as far as I was concerned, and didn’t have a place in my edition of the known world.

 

We generate concepts in our minds through repeated presentations in our experience such that the unique details of any one presentation fall away, leaving only the common features to persist in memory as an abstract remnant. That summary is then given a label or name and filed away for future reference. When I come across the bloom again as a concrete phenomenon in my sensory experience, the concept is there waiting for it, so I am apt to see the concept and not the richly detailed flower itself. This is a kind of shorthand the brain uses to get the most from memory at minimal cost of effort and storage space. The result is we tend to see conceptually or categorically while glossing over the infinitely varied details of what is in front of us.

 

Matching current sensory images to categories stored in memory is one of the fundamental features of consciousness. Doubt, curiosity, and questioning indicate we are having trouble fitting a sensory event to the proper bin in memory and need help with our sorting, as I did in the example above of trying to identify a flower.

 

When scientists think they have fit a class of sensory phenomena to an appropriate category in their understanding, they invite other scientists to duplicate the journey that led them to that conclusion, so to see if both projects produce the same results. If they do, that suggests that they are dealing with a stable representation of a state of affairs in the world and not merely a figment in personal consciousness. Scientists pursue understanding of repeatable phenomena, not one-time events. This leads to concise explanations for, or descriptions of, phenomena in their collective experience, which then are taken as meaningful when viewed from a scientific perspective.

 

The scientific method is one way of dealing with uncertainty. My footloose explorations in Acadia are another. Finding out what others think, asking questions, inquiring of a reference librarian—these are other ways. Or, we can opt to live with ambiguity, uncertainty, doubt, and a host of unanswered questions. Once, as a Cub Scout, I was getting ready to enter my chickens in a pet show when my big brother banged my head against the floor and knocked me out. When I came to, I asked, “What am I doing in this uniform?” I have since wondered if members of the military have ever had occasion to clear that up for themselves.

__________

* Acadia: The Soul of a National Park, formerly distributed by North Atlantic Books, now out of print.

¦

 

 

Children play a lot of games. So do adults. Often without realizing it.

 

A broom handle does not become a gun all by itself; it requires a child’s mind to make it one, to mean or intend it as a gun. In play, a special rule is placed on consciousness to allow such conversions as broom handles into guns, sticks into swords, stuffed animals into pets, dolls into babies. It all depends on adopting an attitude of let’s pretend which allows one concrete, existential thing to stand for another that is more abstract in being present to the mind as a concept or an idea. Playthings and toys allow children to experiment with attitudes and points of view by serving as bearers of experience no less meaningful than the real thing. For the time being, the child does not distinguish between the two modes of consciousness, the conventional and the pretend.

 

In my 1982 dissertation I wrote:

 

To view a stick as a sword takes a point of view in which the meaning bestowed upon the existential shape, “stick,” is that of “sword.” Given the proper attitude, anything can be discriminated as anything else. Chessmen, checkers, even pebbles, can assume the burden of “good” guys and “bad.” If the attitude is one characterized by giving care, then any item or collection can serve as an existential object of that care, be it a scruffy mongrel or a wildflower pressed between the pages of a book. Adults often play as children do, bestowing meanings upon baseball teams and games of cards as if they filled a need for tension or excitement, social contact or a sense of belonging. Songs, films, TV programs, dramas, electronic games, literature—all offer us structures within which to pour our meanings, existential patterns to interpret according to our own perspectives.

 

That’s a pretty sweeping statement and I would write it differently today, but the gist of it is that consciousness, at base, is meaning-making by which sensory phenomena (patterns or images of some sort, visual, auditory, tactile, or olfactory) are apprehended from the standpoint of a particular attitude, so achieving a kind of meaning as if it inhered in the mental phenomena themselves. Thus for present purposes a stick becomes a sword, a lottery ticket a ray of hope.

 

Child’s play is no more trivial than our faculty of imagination. Both are rooted in the attitude of let’s pretend (suspension of disbelief), which is at the heart of consciousness itself. Without it, we have no passport that will allow us to translate past experiences into future actions or preparedness. We know the past is gone and can never come again, but let’s act instead as if the future is an extension of the past so we don’t lose our bearings. Child’s play is above all meaningful, and meaning is at the core of every life situation. And every life history, and every life scenario as it plays out.

 

Let’s pretend the Patriots-Red Sox-Celtics are going to win the championship series. Who among us has not entertained such a wished-for conviction and lived it as a sure thing? Who has not backed candidates for public office? Bet on dark horses and forlorn hopes? Been gripped by a movie or theatrical performance? Married an almost total stranger? Braved public roads confident they would arrive safe and sound? Promised to pay down their mounting credit-card debt before buying anything more? Pledged to abstain from excessive sex, alcohol, tobacco during the coming year? These are all examples of imagination and, yes, pretense. Much of consciousness is devoted to such as if states of mind. Even God is paradoxically on the side of every believer as each one’s invisible friend.

 

Of course we deny all of this. The illusion is totally convincing: our senses open onto the real world, the only world that is. Except that our mental apparatus intercedes for us in every case, rendering colors, contrasts, shapes, vibrations, objects, and other beings as we experience them after the fact. What they “are” in themselves on the far side of the apparatus that gives them to us we cannot know or imagine.

 

I regard the blue I see as the blue of the sky “out there,” even though I know that out there consists not of colors but photons hurling in on me bearing different amounts of energy. I know that out there the sun doesn’t rise or set but serves as a reference point while Earth rotates “beneath” it. I know that my brain has evolved to distinguish motion from stillness, sound from silence, something from nothing—but I have no confidence that the scenes-sounds-scents I am aware of bear a one-to-one relationship to the alleged world on the far side of my senses. I take that world as it is given me in consciousness, knowing full well that the person standing next to me is granted a different version playing parallel to mine. If our histories and expectations differ—as in varying degrees they must—then the feedback we take in is bound to reflect those differences.

 

My consciousness is my consciousness. Yours is yours. We have much to talk about if we are to reconcile the fundamental differences between your world of make-believe and mine. Consciousness is a creative act. The one thing we can be sure of is that neither of us has immediate access to the mystery beyond.

¦

 

Reflection 10: Diagnosis

October 21, 2008

 (Copyright © 2008)

In the mid-1960s, I was in the hospital undergoing a week of diagnostic tests. It was a teaching hospital maintained by a distinguished university. Every day my doctor led students like so many white-clad ducklings to the door of my room, where they ogled me in my bed, and murmured faint quacking sounds out in the hall where I couldn’t hear what they said. I remember my insides being insulted in the most intimate fashion as if I wasn’t conscious or even there. But I was there and remember the week as painful, harrowing, and humiliating. It’s hard being reduced to an experimental subject on a par with a slab of raw pork. Barium enema, upper and lower GI series, Sigmoidoscopy—I remember them to this day.

Worst of all was the consultation at the end of my stay. I reported as instructed to the Great Doctor’s office, a huge, bare room with an ornate desk in the middle facing the door. The room was dark, the only light coming from a green-shaded lamp on the desk, reflecting from my medical folder onto the heavy mass of my benefactor’s jowls from below. “I thought you had cystic fibrosis,” he said, “but you don’t.” Long pause. “What do I have?” “I don’t know, I have done everything I can for you.” I saw immediately it was my fault. I had made him seem unknowing and foolish in front of his ducklings. That was the end of that.

 

Thirty-five years later I found out I had celiac disease, and had had it my entire life. That’s what the Great Doctor might have found if it hadn’t been masked by presumed symptoms of cystic fibrosis. It was all out in the open; he just didn’t see it. Just as I didn’t see the mustard jar when it was right in front of me on the refrigerator shelf (see Reflection 3: Mea Culpa). Instead of mapping my symptoms onto his superior understanding, the Great Doctor had struggled to map his suppositions onto my innards. They didn’t jibe, so the case was closed. Except it wasn’t a case, it was my life, and I went confusedly onward as I had been going up till then, no wiser than before.

 

Consciousness gives us a chance to put our judgments out there in the world. And even more importantly, to evaluate how effective our actions are in accomplishing what we set out to do. It persists in a looping continuum, changing with the feedback we get. That way our true situation grows clearer over time. Our judgment improves, our actions become more appropriate to our circumstances as we come to understand them. Or it can if we let it by taking full responsibility for our awareness as a fallible guess or estimation. Which sometimes, as the Great Doctor illustrates, we don’t like to do.

 

Men don’t like to ask directions of strangers because it seemingly lowers their status. They like to be right all along. Consciousness is anything but rational. It has much to do with my place—my standing—in my social situation. That can have serious consequences in clouding our vision. Professionals don’t like to admit it when they are wrong. They often press on when they might well rethink what they are doing. Carry on Pretending, the Brits might call it, if they made consciousness into a movie. As they could do in producing a documentary about the causes of the current credit crunch, or conduct of the Iraq war. Men bring such things about because they, like my doctor, aren’t paying attention to, or even looking for, feedback. They continue to roll right up to the crash.

 

Women, unlike my doctor, tend to care more about social situations, and about maintaining them in good order. They thrive on feedback (sometimes called gossip), and tuning their judgment to the facts as they come in. They care primarily for and about people more than they care about reputations or status. That’s a gross generalization, but my life experience tells me there’s something to it.

 

As I have said before in this blog, we find what we expect to find. And if we don’t, then we can take that as an opportunity for redefining our search. Consciousness is a rough estimation that can grow sharper through trial and error. In fact, in my case, that’s the only way I have learned anything in my life. By falling on my face, picking myself up, and wondering where I stepped wrong. Then taking care to avoid such missteps in the future.

 

We are all diagnosticians, trying to figure what has gone wrong and how we can fix it. Consciousness has a lot of play in it, room for error. Our merit and survival depend largely on expecting that error, and being prepared to do something about it when it crosses the threshold of awareness.

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Reflection 9: Creativity

October 20, 2008

(Copyright © 2008) 

Consciousness is essentially creative. That’s why we have it, to solve problems we didn’t anticipate. If reflexes won’t get us out of our fix, nor habits, nor training, then we’ve got to come up with something else. Something we haven’t tried before. Something new. Consciousness to the rescue!

 

Imagine the difficulty early peoples faced in becoming conversant with the thousand points of light (Saint Exupéry’s phrase) in the night sky (which from his standpoint in the Sahara Desert, might be almost 2,000). Planets could be distinguished by their shifting positions among the fixed stars, and individual stars could be named (Altair, from Arabic, “the bird”; Rigel, from Arabic phrase, “left foot of the central one”; Betelgeuse, from Arabic, “hand of the central one”). The challenge lay in identifying regions of the celestial hemisphere that could be mapped into consciousness.

 

Constellations were invented to solve the problem of making the heavens meaningful to shepherds, travelers, sailors, and other early star gazers, not to mention the early astronomers and geometers who developed techniques for mapping the heavens onto the mind.

 

How did these pioneers tame the wild heavens? Easily, by mapping their minds onto the stars. They made the strange familiar by taking possession of it in terms of widely known and familiar images fit for the task. Nothing too ornate or complex, just basic outlines, like connecting the dots, in this case the dots being points of light. Here is the paradigm of conscious endeavor. We cast our minds upon the stars, and the stars give us back. . . our own minds! By casting old shapes and meanings onto new phenomena, consciousness brings us full circle. We domesticate nature and call it ours (when exactly the reverse is true—we are as wild as the stars because we are made of the same stuff).

 

The modern constellations (or asterisms, from Greek Aster, “star”) divide the celestial sphere into 88 conventionalized regions, each containing thousands of stars when viewed through a telescope. Many appear to us much as they did to the ancients who named them. Cygnus actually looks like a great swan flying overhead, Serpens flows like a snake, Delphinus leaps like a dolphin, Draco twists like a dragon. These creatures in the sky are all seen from the northern hemisphere. Southern constellations were named millennia later, when navigators were more mindful of the looks of their tools than of animals. They gave us Antlia, the air pump; Fornax, the furnace; Norma, the level; Sextans, the sextant; Pyxis, the compass; along with Microscopium and Telescopium.

 

To track the apparent positions of sun, moon, and planets, early astronomers designated their respective locations along the path they traveled against the stars (the zodiac) by calibrating it into twelve more-or-less equal constellations. Many early cultures made their own versions of the zodiac. The western tradition has given us Aries, The Ram; Taurus, The Bull; Gemini, The Twins; Cancer, The Crab; Leo, The Lion; Virgo, The Virgin; Libra, The Scales; Scorpio, The Scorpion; Sagittarius, The Archer; Capricorn, The Horned Goat; Aquarius, The Water-bearer; and Pisces, The Fish.

 

Clearly, these figures are not in the stars themselves but in our heads. Our ancestors put them out there to solve the very real problem of keeping track of the seasons, not only of the year, but of human life. Consciously deifying sun, moon, and planets, early astronomer-priests gave order to the trials of yearly survival in terms representing the will of the gods. Planets were designated angels (Greek angelos, messenger), messengers of the gods, whose decrees could be interpreted from their heavenly positions.

 

Thus casting their conscious minds onto the stars, priests put on robes of great magnificence, as if their words were backed by celestial authority. We still depict many of them with halos of heavenly light. This is one of the most profound examples of conscious minds turning the natural world to their own purposes. Which is exactly how the presidential election of 2008 will be decided on November 4th. Voters will cast their judgment on competing slates of mortal candidates as if one or another were truly qualified to lead the nation from its sea of troubles. Voting is an act of magical thinking, just like seeing lions and dragons in the stars.

 

That’s consciousness for you. Pure magic. Discovering our preferences and pretenses in the world as if they were external to us and we did not author them ourselves. We make it all up as we go along, and call it truth. What could be more creative than that! 

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Reflection 8: Blogosphere

October 16, 2008

(Copyright © 2008)

Insofar as they are immediate, thoughtful, coherent, and honest, blogs hold promise of creating a cooperative, synchronized interaction between individual worlds of consciousness on a scale far grander than one-way broadcasts in the mass media have ever achieved through dominance and brute force.

 

The emergent properties of such a linked and energetic exchange could function as the collective mind of a world we yearn for but cannot yet imagine. (Neglect for now the global energy consumption necessary to give every creature a voice in such a mind, and the common language we would need to develop to convey personal and cultural nuances beyond the means of stock formulas of expression.)

 

As it is now, blogs add up to a clamorous Babel of noise and opinion. We select the few that speak to-and-for us, and shun the rest. That way, we reinforce our respective mindsets without running the risk of expanding or correcting them. There’s little rhythm to the whole indicating the slightest degree of synchrony. Even crickets manage that as you drive by a field with the window open—as if they were singing with and not against one another.

 

United bloggers stand, divided we fall into cacophony. How do we unite when we are all distinct individuals? By reaching for a higher order of consciousness tuned to our sameness more than our differences. Our differences are often minor variations appended to our commonalities. We are built to much the same plan, share similar concerns and aspirations, face comparable obstacles, speak and use gestures, develop along similar lines, need food to survive, along with air, water, shelter, companionship, humor, resilience, patience, strength, and so on.

 

Where we blog into trouble is in competing for world attention instead of complementing one another in promoting a dynamic understanding of world affairs. This pits blog against blog in selfish self-promotion, not synchronous cooperation. Which boggles the consciousness of most blog surfers, the casual and devoted alike. We can take in only so much, yet there’s so much going on and so much being blogged instant by instant.

 

Categories and tags are meant to cut the problem down to size. As I write, the top ten categories/tags on WordPress.com at this moment are: Politics, News, Life, Music, Family, Photography, Barack Obama, Entertainment, Travel, and Personal. Here is the mirror of our time on Earth. The problem of organizing it into meaningful topic areas is similar to what Peter Mark Roget faced in 1849 when he set out to sort words not by their spellings but according to the ideas which they express. That is, by their meanings. Which he accomplished in short order, producing his Thesaurus in 1852.

 

Imagine doing the same thing for human consciousness by taking on the blogosphere in similar fashion. Consciousness enables us to establish a meaningful relationship between the self and its life situation. What the blogosphere needs is a thesaurus of topic ideas to help bloggers blog in meaningful categories and surfers to locate (and choose between) the postings they are interested in.

 

Thus would be born the world brain, providing timely and orderly access to world consciousness concerning local and global issues on a scale that would benefit even old Earth itself, beleaguered as it is today by its pesky and overly abundant hominid inhabitants.

 

In truth, we are all creatures of our home planet, and are Earthlings in spirit if not in name. By whatever time scale you measure it, we have grown up together on this Earth. We are all members of the Class of 10-16-2008. Many of us were here yesterday; some of us will be here tomorrow. We have that much in common. Which gives us a lot to blog about in synchrony with one another.

 

I choose to blog about consciousness because many of us share that quality to greater or lesser degree. It is something we hold in common, even though we don’t think much about what it is that we share. Without it, we would live on the level of worms, toads, and jellyfish, dependent on reflexes to get us through the day. Consciousness is just one minor category in the theater of all blogs. It is not likely to make the top 100, much less the top ten.

 

We have much to learn about consciousness, and using it wisely to promote lifestyles and levels of consumption respectful of our homeland. Yet its study isn’t a vital part of the school curriculum. Our educational power structure prefers to take charge from the outside, thus overriding our native hunger for self-fulfillment. If we don’t pursue it ourselves, no one else can do it for us. I’m not talking about such theories of mind as are doled out in psychology class, but the real thing studying itself. In the true spirit of Apollo’s dictum, “Know thyself,” such study turns education inside out. With the result that we get beyond taking the world—and ourselves—at face value. The world, we discover, is what we make of it.

 

Consciousness is a high art which, performed with care, feeling, precision—and openness to feedback—leads to self-mastery and social effectiveness. Flourished covertly due to abuse or neglect, it leads us astray more often than not, and can be hurtful to others who get entangled in our self-wrought scenarios. There are lots of mean and angry blogs out there, blaming the world’s ills on others rather than seeking aid for the blogger’s condition.

 

Our bodies and brains have evolved to the hunter-gatherer stage. After that, our genes have had little time to track the growth of cultures which have continued to evolve at a far faster pace. What would a Paleolithic hunter blog about? Sex. Food. Shelter. Climate. Birth. Death. Family. Community. Joy. Sadness. Love. Survival. Same as us, without politics perhaps, or the economy. The point being that as far as my consciousness goes, I am essentially on the Paleolithic level. The evolved Earthling level. My take on my life situation is far older and more out of date than I realize. Me hungry. Me want satisfaction. Not later, now!

 

Whatever our claimed degree of sophistication, we—including all bloggers—are on the level of Paleolithic hunter-gatherers. Consciousness has gotten us that far, at least. Beyond that we are largely on our own, making life up as we go. No wonder the economy is in shambles. We have left it to rank amateurs, those who ride out their hunches and intuitions, taking our assets along with them.

 

Earthlings all, we have much to blog about. If we get our acts together, we can contribute to universal understanding of what it is we are doing. Which is always a matter of translating the sensible world around us into conscious phenomena, funding those phenomena with meanings and feelings, then contributing to the world through motivated actions judged to be appropriate to our immediate life situation. All else—including power and wealth—is hand waving and bluster.  ¦

 

(Copyright © 2008)

Like Job, Samuel Pepys, and Eleanor Roosevelt, Henry David Thoreau would have been a blogger in his day if he’d had access to the Web. As it is, he took pencil and paper with him on his excursions through fields and woods, so logging the progress of his experiences from 1837 to 1862. As in Walden, Thoreau is ever witness to two worlds at once, both to his sensory world and his charged mindfulness of that world. On November 21, 1850, a month from the winter solstice with the sun shining at a slant to the landscape, he wrote:

 

Some distant angle in the sun where a lofty and dense white pine wood, with mingled gray and green, meets a hill covered with shrub oaks, affects me singularly, reinspiring me with all the dreams of my youth. It is a place far away, yet actual and where we have been.

 

In the next sentence he replays the image, trying to get it right:

 

I saw the sun falling on a distant white pine wood whose gray moss-covered stems were visible amid the green, in an angle where this forest abutted on a hill covered with shrub oaks. It was like looking into dreamland. It is one of the avenues to my future.

 

Which opens onto the following comment:

 

Certain coincidences like this are accompanied by a certain flash as of hazy lightning, flooding all the world suddenly with a tremulous serene light which it is difficult to see long at a time.

 

Perhaps he has been nibbling on certain mushrooms, but whatever the reason, on this day Thoreau’s consciousness is flooded as by hazy lightning, requiring great effort to couple the concrete being of the scene with the meaning he has to offer it as derived from his prior experience. Yet he is deeply moved. In fact, in the very next paragraph being and meaning become wholly decoupled and Thoreau finds himself at a loss for ready understanding of his world. He is wholly unprepared to stand under it on the basis of who he is. Which is not a bad thing because it leads to a profound insight into his relationship with the world.

 

I saw Fair Haven Pond with its island, and meadow between the island and the shore, and a strip of perfectly still and smooth water in the lee of the island, and two hawks, fish hawks perhaps, sailing over it. I did not see how it could be when I cease to understand it and see that I did not realize or appreciate it before, but I get no further than this. How adapted these forms and colors to my eye! A meadow and an island! What are these things? Yet the hawks and the ducks keep so aloof! and Nature is so reserved! I am made to love the pond and the meadow, as the wind is made to ripple the water.

 

I am converting Thoreau’s journal entry into a blog because it so clearly reveals the structure of conscious experience in balancing (or synchronizing) concrete sensory input with abstract or conceptual meaning supplied by the observer because that is how we are made. That is the essence of consciousness as selected for over the millions of years it has taken to evolve into the form we employ today. Indeed, each of us is made (has evolved) to understand the world she lives in precisely in terms of the life experiences she has accrued to this day. That balance, then, is the basis for extending our individual streams of consciousness into unknown tomorrows.

 

Above all, we are made to do all this with a strong feeling of love (or perhaps fear, yearning, hurt, anger, curiosity, etc.) that sets the tone for this particular excursion. In consciousness, it all comes together—sensory phenomena, personal meanings, feelings, and a sense that the coherent unity of these different elements represents a fitness to who we are as representatives of our people (tribe, society, culture, species) in this way at this time in this place.

 

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