Reflection 32: Slap My Face

December 3, 2008

(Copyright © 2008)

Humanity, thy name is delusion. We love to fool others, and to be fooled ourselves. Why else would we watch TV, go to the movies, or take vows plighting our troth (whatever that means) “till death do us part”?

 

The most glaring way we fool ourselves is in believing that personal consciousness depicts events in the real world. As if our entire mental apparatus did not come between us and that world, skewing it, distorting it, shaping it to fit our personal fears and desires.

 

·        We can never break free from our personal experience. It intercedes for us every time.

·        We can never know another person’s mind.

·        We can never even know our own minds.

·        Our life worlds are all founded on speculation and conjecture.

 

Welcome to the lot of humanity. The human condition. Welcome to this blog. I cannot claim to have any definitive answers. But I am willing to wrestle with how we make meaning for ourselves. How we build entire worlds from figments and fragments.

 

So far I have looked at episodes of experience when I have been proven wrong. Such as the time I mistook a trash bag for a dying crow. A TV antenna for a crashing jet. A man on the street for my old friend Fred. A squeaky hinge for a cat underfoot. I have also looked at times when I failed to see a vase of sunflowers or a mustard jar right in front of me. And other occasions when I didn’t know my own mind.

 

By examining the traps my consciousness sets for me, I hope to become more discriminating in telling the difference between fiction and nonfiction. Much of the time, we don’t make that distinction. We switch from news programs to talk shows to soap operas to situation comedies, take them all in as if they were equally real. They may be experientially equivalent, perhaps, but none of them is “real,” not even the news. All have been filtered through other minds, which right away should raise red flags in our own.

 

The sense of smell offers the clearest example of where we go wrong. We smell pizza, we take it there is pizza in the world around us. Molecules of oils and spices actually waft onto sensors in our olfactory bulbs. But there the real world ends and subjective reality takes over. Those sensors transform the presence of molecules into ions passing through membranes into the interior of nerve cells. Those cells become electrically charged relative to their surroundings, and that charge travels down the length of the cell’s axon. No pizza molecules here, just ions passing through channels into nerve cells. When the sequence of ion movements ends at an axon terminal, it triggers release of chemicals known as neurotransmitters, which cross gaps between nerve cells. Again, no pizza here, just standard bodily chemicals drifting from one cell to another. Eventually such events spur secretion of saliva and the expectation of eating a slice of pizza with pepperoni, mushrooms, and green peppers. “I’ll have a slice of the pepperoni,” we say.

 

It is a mystery exactly how that happens. But there is no mystery how molecules set the process in motion. Molecules which may rise from a hot pizza, or which may have been concocted in a research lab and sold in a bottle labeled, Eau de Pepperoni. Vanilla extract smells like the real bean, but doesn’t taste like it when you drink it (as I learned when very young). You may not want to know some of the ingredients in perfumes you use to make yourself alluring (hint: the word musk stems from the Sanskrit for testacle; castorium comes from anal sacs of the beaver).

 

Marilyn Monroe and Elvis Pressley are represented by ionic action potentials coursing along nerve fibers in our brains. Accompanied by hormone secretions as appropriate. No little photographs stored in memory, no reels of film. Our brains take the world apart, transform it into flowing ions, hormones, and neurotransmitters—and never put it back together again. What access we have to the world is told by the flow of such chemicals. Period. Do an autopsy. No Marilyn, no Elvis. Just chemicals.

 

Most of what makes up the outside world is never represented in consciousness at all. We simply take it for granted it is there, and that assumption is all the evidence we have for that world. When I drive the eighteen miles to Ellsworth, I may be aware of certain stretches of road where I must make a decision, but for the most part I pass through it unaware because my mind is thinking of other things. How was my trip? you ask. Uneventful, is all I can say. I can’t even remember what I was thinking about.

 

Assumptions, habits, routines—these bypass consciousness without making themselves known. That’s how we get through most days, on automatic pilot navigating through the same old, same old. Consciousness comes into play when we have to make a decision, ask a question, use our judgment. It comes at our bidding when we find ourselves in an unfamiliar situation. Most times we don’t bother, and carry on as usual. We get up as usual, eat breakfast as usual, go to work as usual by the usual route, come home as usual, eat as usual, watch the usual shows, check the usual blogs, go to bed at the usual time, and dream the usual dreams. Where have we been all day? What did we do? You know, the usual.

 

I remember a story in the Maine Times (now defunct) about a man who’d left a great many (80 sticks in my mind) grandchildren when he died, and was related to just about everyone in his small town. The editor thought there’d be a story in the man’s life. But what the reporter found in interview after interview was that the old bird liked to cruise the main street of town in his pickup truck, driving back and forth, back and forth. End of story. No one had anything to say about him good or bad. He died as he had lived, a nobody to the end.

 

Scary story, because it goes against the grain of what we keep telling ourselves. Against what we want to believe. In my own case, my conscious life falls between the times I am obviously wrong and know it, and the times I am operating in a situation so familiar I can trust my body to a behavioral routine that never enters my awareness. When the music stops, I clap.

 

Which is why I am writing this blog. To keep myself awake, like slapping my face when I’m driving while tired. And to remind you to slap your face. To ask questions. To both wonder and ponder. That’s the only way I know to get better at this consciousness game, by not taking it for granted. By not assuming it presents me with any such thing as the real world. At least I know where the blogging part of my day has gone. 

¦

 

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