Reflection 27: Clarity

November 24, 2008

(Copyright © 2008)

For me, the sound of Hancock County, Maine in June is the call of the hermit thrush. Cousin of the robin—who sings his heart out in the treetops—the hermit thrush carols close to the ground where he gleans insects in the duff beneath woods of spruce and fir. To hear its call in the near distance is to love the bird at once. I anticipate June for that reason, and dread the approach of August when I know the thrush will fall silent.

 

In the 1970s, my older brother took up the saxophone. He couldn’t commit to one instrument, so on vacation he would bring three—alto, tenor, baritone—to Maine. He usually arrived in early June and stayed through August. That is, he pretty much overlapped the hermit thrush season. So I would often be sitting still outside at dusk listening to an approaching thrush as it caroled its way nearer and nearer—and there would come this brassy blast of sound through the trees that sounded like I imagined a wounded albatross would sound, if there were any wounded albatrosses in Maine. Needless to say, the lone hermit could not compete with that noise and might as well have called it quits. But it kept gamely on, only to have every chorus drowned out by my tight-lipped brother blowing through his hollow tube. I was the one who gave up and went inside. In the morning we would have words, my brother and I. I would point out that the hermit thrush is indigenous to Maine while the saxophone is an import from Belgium. He would call me shithead, and that was that. I give him credit, though, for eventually building a modest concert pavilion on the far side of a ledge that somewhat muffled the sounds he emitted by the time they reached me. Still, I was so sensitized to the sounds he made that even that was not good enough. I wanted the thrush to emerge out of evening stillness without competition. We kept a wary distance from each other for some twenty-five years, while my brother and the thrush would wage duets at dusk while I fumed. He hasn’t come to Maine in recent years, so I have been left to enjoy the thrush doing its thing as often as I have been able to attend.

 

We rely on consciousness to do everything it can to lift meaningful sounds (sights, smells, tastes, textures) above competing inputs that have less or no meaning for us. It does this by heightening the contrast between signals and any noise against which they may play. The ratio of meaning to unmeaning (signal to noise) is a measure of the clarity with which we receive phenomena in awareness. Once the mind decides which voice it wants to listen to, the brain does its best to separate that one from the general din by doing what it can to suppress the others. Consciousness delivers an either-or, this-or-that kind of world. The outside world (which is really a mystery) did not get that way on its own.

 

Suppose for a moment that some people might prefer the voice of a saxophone to the note of a thrush. It might well be possible for them to hear the voice while entirely ignoring the note to the point they do not notice it at all. In my little story(above), the voice of the saxophone had the edge because it was so brassy and the thrush was so soft. My brain was unable to turn tables on my brother and bring out the thrush at the sax’s expense. I heard two competing signals, and could not stifle either one.

 

That kind of situation drives me to distraction. Cocktail parties are hell on Earth because I hear every voice in the room blended into a drone and cannot pick one or another to concentrate on. Even if someone right in front of me is speaking, her voice is lost in the din. That is a characteristic of my individual consciousness, and I have to put up with it. Which is why I avoid situations where people all talk at once. I prefer gatherings where one person speaks at a time.

 

I offer this blog as Exhibit A. Please note that there is only one voice, and that voice is mine. Again, this is not egotism but the only way I can know my own mind, which, in writing about consciousness from the inside, is essential. To write a book, I once took to an island on the Maine coast, where I lived solo for two-and-a-half years—just me and the likes of hermit thrushes, which was fine by me. I have been reflecting on consciousness for so long, it is second nature to me now. I welcome comments on these posts because I can respond to them in the relative calm of my apartment, one by one.

 

It has taken me a lifetime to learn how to manage my consciousness to get the most out of it. And I’m still at it. Through much of my life, I have been distracted by a busy world impinging on my senses, so have had a hard time concentrating on much of anything. Now I live by myself and can sit at my computer, explore my thoughts, and write. Any human voice within earshot distracts me, and so terminates that line of awareness. Even songs with words draw my attention. I prefer Mozart piano sonatas. And best of all, silence. It is no accident I am a secular Quaker and attend silent meetings on most weekends. I don’t go in order to worship, but more to rediscover who I am on that day in that situation. That respectful meditation punctuates my life, providing the clarity I need to enter the coming week (what metaphor shall I use?) . . . on an even keel.

 

The human cerebral cortex is a genius at finding order in chaos by carefully adjusting feedback from one neuron to another in order to maximize the clarity (signal to noise ratio) of excitation in any sensory modality. It does this by increasing the contrast between the signal attended to and any which compete with it. The brain does not process images, objects, or events received directly from the world. Rather, it takes them apart and processes their attributes—colors, contrasts, edges, contours, motions, elements of shapes, and so on—separately. From the retina inward, the world is dismantled into its components, processed in terms of basic characteristics, then reassembled in a way to maximize meaning and significance in the context of the situation that pertains at the time. Another moment, another situation, another meaningful reassembly.

 

Thus our brains work their way through the day. Not that we are conscious of the process. What we become aware of is the end product as informed by our expectations and desires of the moment. Which help sharpen the phenomena we do become aware of in light of our personal interests. What I see or hear is not necessarily the same as what you see or hear.

 

Picture a heronry of two hundred nests, with from three to five juvenile birds in each nest. Picture an adult heron flying in with fish in its gullet, emitting a one note call, graak, to alert its young so their digestive juices start to flow. When this happens, only the young in one nest respond. They perk up and look eagerly in the direction of the call. The rest carry on as before as if they heard nothing. Yet when either of their parents gives such a call, they make an appropriate response because they each receive that signal as a personal notification that dinner is about to be served.

 

Which is precisely what we do. Pick and chose between sensory signals, paying attention to any to which we ascribe meaning. Attenuating such signals, boosting them by treating all others as meaningless noise, we suppress those deemed irrelevant to our life situations. In the process creating a life world distinctly tailored to our personal needs, interests, and expectations.

 

When we are clear about something, we are clear in different ways because we all have different backlogs of life experience and gauge events differently in relation to the perspectives and meanings with which we address them. This often goes unnoticed because our respective ways of attaining clarity are internal matters not detectable from the outside. Until we make some sort of response differing from the ones our neighbors make, giving others a hint that the way we take the current situation may differ from the way they view it themselves.

 

In fact we do advertise the ways we seek clarity in many ways. By supporting one team or another, one political party, one side in a battle, one religious system, one party in court, even by demonstrating a preference for saxophones or hermit thrushes. Because of the way consciousness achieves clarity, in almost every instance we divide the world into two classes: those who are with us and those against. The recent presidential election is a good illustration of the process we undergo in achieving clarity on a national scale. We the people have made up our minds. It took the better part of two years, but we did it. We weren’t clear who we wanted to lead us at the beginning. But we eventually winnowed the candidates down to three, then two, and finally one. The outcome of that process is beyond doubt. Barack Obama will lead us as of January 20th, 2009.

 

The divide between supposedly red states and blue states is all in our minds because it stems from the processes through which our brains seek clarity in enabling us to act consciously and deliberately in life situations as we perceive them. Political parties are not mentioned in the U.S. Constitution. We have them because we the people need help in coming to decisions within the framework of our democracy. In order for our minds to make meaningful choices, it is extremely helpful to engage in a process that narrows the field down to two alternatives. Consciousness thrives on clear choices because that is how the brain works in separating meaningful signals from a background of noise. The higher the ratio between the one and the other, the easier we find it to make up our minds.

 

Which is why we have true believers and infidels, good cops and bad, cowboys and Indians, Shiites and Sunnis, and an endless conflict between Israelis and Palestinians. In the last case, there is no process by which those of either mindset can embrace the two as equal blocks or constituencies and so resolve their differences by one means of achieving clarity or another. The only thing that would allow such a resolution would be to structure a situation such that the two peoples have equal right to consideration by all concerned. But most minds are closed to that option from the start. The contest is over before it has a chance to begin. All that’s left is for each side to throw rocks or rockets at the other in deep-seated enmity as if one side were born wholly good and the other wholly evil. The difficulty of the situation is compounded by the scarcity of land and water in a region where too many people are struggling to survive on minimal resources.

 

The U.S. has just gone through the exercise of electing Barack Obama as president of its national plurality of peoples. All peoples, not just one group or another. That is a tremendous leap of consciousness into the future from a past in which such a thing was unimaginable. Blacks, Native Americans, Spanish, Dutch, English, French, and other settlers have been together here for over 400 years. It took that long for a man of mixed ancestry to transcend his otherness in being elected to the presidency. He is now The Man, not just background noise. Imagine a Palestinian emerging as The Man in a union embracing both his people and Israelis. Until all sides can consciously imagine such a thing happening, it will not happen because the very idea will be suppressed as nonsense.

 

Imagine a state in which lovers of saxophones live in harmony with lovers of hermit thrushes. Is such a state possible. Yes, when the people of each persuasion can celebrate the underlying humanity of the other. And beyond embracing it, become consciously willing to defend that celebration to the death. Until then, consciousness renders one party less human than the other, and no clear accommodation is possible.

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