(Copyright © 2009)

 

Pain is an advisory that something is wrong and needs to be addressed. Sometimes it’s more a word to the wise—it would be best to avoid similar situations in the future. It is such a bummer because the message arrives after the damage has been done (Don’t break your neck again!).

 

Even my 14-year-old car can do better than that. It has gauges, warning lights, and a buzzer that signal me about leaving my key in the ignition switch, oil and gas levels, engine temperature, electrical system, doors that are open, air bags, and seatbelts—all of which, if annoying, are not painful. If we could bring out a new model of the human body, I’d recommend making some revisions to the pain-perception system along the lines of warning signals like these.

 

What led me to blog about pain as an aspect of consciousness is that it’s been keeping me awake for a week now, and last night almost did me in when three sources of pain converged all at once. Last November I wrenched my side taking my boat mooring out of the water, and have periodically felt sharp pains shoot between my pelvis and groin. Since about the same time I’ve had a serious itch from my neck to my knees, perhaps a kind of eczema brought on by central heating in an unusually long and cold winter. Then about a week ago I twisted my leg, bringing on separate pains in my right rump, thigh, and shin.

 

For a week I’ve run through a Kama Sutra of sleeping positions, trying to find the magic posture that would calm all three pains at once. But it eluded me, so I’d flinch here and flex there to fine tune my discomfort—which always made it worse. Turning to find relief that never came, I kept winding the sheet and blanket around me, so I’d get up and remake the bed. After polishing that routine three or four times an hour, I looked at the clock and found I’d been thrashing around for six hours and still hadn’t gotten to sleep.

 

I’m pretty earnest about managing my troubles, so put my whole self into finding some solution to the problem. When I couldn’t, I felt like Job and his boils, or a tortured figure by German painter Mathis Grünewald. “Why me?” turned to “poor me,” and I just sat in the dark heaving from my exertion, utterly defeated.

 

It wasn’t only the pain but my added emotional response to being wholly thwarted in finding a way to beat it that brought me to the brink of what little sanity I had left. If there was a switch in my pain circuit, I’d just check now and then to see if it was still there—like checking the oil in my car. But that isn’t how pain consciousness works, so I’m stuck having to listen to a klaxon raging in my head with no way of shutting it off. In childbirth, at least you’ve got a baby to show for your pains.

 

In a vending machine at the laundromat this morning, I saw the headline on a story about a woman with rheumatoid arthritis: “Prevailing over PAIN,” the last word printed in red. I’ve never had serious pain like that. Mine has always come from wear and tear, with a few hard knocks now and then. After writing about my sleepless night, other painful experiences began cropping up. Like the time I wasn’t paying attention and pounded my thumb instead of the roofing nail I was aiming for. That wasn’t so bad because the sore thumb paled besides having a new roof.

 

I had a long bout with bursitis from carrying a heavy tripod on my left shoulder for several years. The exercises I did for that were worse than the bursitis because I had to push into the pain to get beyond it. Fifteen years later, I wrecked my neck on the same side by seating the shaft of the hydrophone I was using to track horseshoe crabs always in the same place, the crook where neck muscles attach to the shoulder. After two years of listening for sonar signals from a moving boat—the shaft driven into my neck the whole time, I couldn’t turn my head without severe pain. It took three years of exercising every day to free up my neck. In both these instances, I never felt a thing until the damage was done. Then the pain came on to remind me what a fool I’d been.

 

Dreaming of entering the Boston Marathon played out as much the same story. I got up to running eight miles a day, but then my left knee told me it had other plans. The knee was so painful, I took five minutes in easing my way in or out of a car. I limped with a cane for several months, but the knee healed itself and that was the end of my brilliant racing career.

 

Which reminds me of the year I walked on a bum foot, and took two aspirins every four hours to manage the pain. Another dumb cluck story. I was a part-time employee at Acadia National Park in Bar Harbor. Helping to set up an office for the Maine Acadian Culture Project in Madawaska, I hefted the downhill side of a bulky, steel storage cabinet up the stairs, and next day had shooting pain along the sole of my left foot. Which didn’t go away. I went to a foot doctor (a charlatan it turned out), who said the pain wouldn’t last. But it did. So, on my own authority, I adopted the aspirin routine. The pain did go away, but only after a year. In the interim, I developed a sensitivity to salicylates, which are in almost everything we eat. As a result, variety in my diet has been much reduced even beyond the severe restrictions imposed by celiac disease.

 

The next time I felt the same pain—after lifting my boat onto a platform to get it above the tide—I went to the other foot doctor in town, who said I had plantar fascitis, which he treated effectively in a matter of weeks.

 

Like sight, smell, or hearing, pain is a percept, a sensory experience, often enriched by emotional overtones. Similar to senses of touch, pressure, temperature, or position, it arises from receptors distributed throughout the body, in this case producing an unpleasant sensation warning of danger, physical injury, or organic malfunction.

 

Too, pain can affect different people with different backgrounds and sensitivities in a variety of ways. Some appear to be more tolerant to it than others. But in every case, pain is a significant aspect of personal consciousness. By way of proof, inquire of yourself about the role and significance pain has had in your personal life. Your memory may not respond right away because memories of uniquely painful experiences sometimes get archived. But in time they will come back, recall of one opening the way for others.

 

One thing is clear: your pain is your own. You feel it, others don’t. Nor, other than in a compassionate sense, do you feel theirs. I had a teacher once who doubled up upon sneezing. Recovering, he told the class, “Now I know what childbirth feels like.” Not very likely. In giving birth, every woman creates her world all over again. Which, as far as she is concerned, is the world, the only one she knows. Men may assist at childbirth, but afterwards, though awed or excited, they go on much as before with no sense of what it would take to push a grape—much less a grapefruit—between their pelvic bones into the world.

 

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(Copyright © 2009)

 

First drafts reveal a writer’s mind at work in real time. Subsequent edits lessen the integrity of that first record even if they might improve its orderliness. It is risky taking polished writing as evidence of a writer’s creative process. In Thoreau’s case, he frequently reworked his journal entries, and perhaps made changes suggested by others. So in trying to reconstruct his mental state from evidence provided by a paragraph in Walden, I am in danger of skidding on black ice. Upfront I am forced to admit that the Thoreauvian mind I point to may be a pure fiction, or at best a hybrid of my consciousness mixed with his.

 

For starters, I offer this single sentence from the section on shelter in the first chapter of Walden where Thoreau recounts gathering materials and preparing the site for his famous cabin in the woods: “The house is still but a sort of porch at the entrance of a burrow.” The reference to all houses—the very idea of a house—is the heart of the sentence. “A sort of porch at the entrance of a burrow” is the arrow Thoreau aims at that heart to show how he intends it to be experienced. But without any supporting context, it seems farfetched and anything but clear. Some might claim this to be metaphor, but if it is, it is failed or ersatz metaphor because it lacks the setting necessary to allow interpretation.

 

Language, like consciousness itself, is situational. Its use and meaning depend on the setting in which it occurs. Without a grasp of that setting, words seem to tumble from the sky into minds ill prepared to receive them in the spirit the writer intends. This one sentence is not a metaphor at all—it is gibberish—because it is stripped from any situation which might make it meaningful. To remedy that deficiency, I here provide the relevant paragraph within which it is set. After telling how he got the planks and nails for his cabin, he goes on to describe in concrete detail his digging of the cellar hole:

 

I dug my cellar in the side of a hill sloping to the south, where a woodchuck had formerly dug his burrow, down through sumach and blackberry roots, and the lowest stain of vegetation, six feet square by seven deep, to a fine sand where potatoes would not freeze in any winter. The sides were left shelving, and not stoned; but the sun having never shone on them, the sand still keeps its place. It was but two hours’ work. I took particular pleasure in this breaking of ground, for in almost all latitudes men dig into the earth for an equable temperature. Under the most splendid house in the city is still to be found the cellar where they store their roots as of old, and long after the superstructure has disappeared posterity remark its dent in the earth. The house is still but a sort of porch at the entrance of a burrow.

 

Here in a single paragraph are five of the chief ingredients of consciousness: motivation, perceptual details, feeling, conceptual meaning, and sense of order and progression (verging on the aesthetic). Motivation: need to store winter food in a year-round dwelling. Sensory details: side of hill, sloping south, woodchuck hole, sumach [we now do without the h] and blackberry roots, organic soil, size of hole, down to a layer of fine sand, shelving sides, dampness, two hours time. Feeling: pleasure in doing the job right, that is, in the traditional manner for the practical reason. Meaning: in hot climes or cold, in rural areas and cities, food preservation depends on root cellars with an equable temperature. Aesthetics: the recounting of the experience from details through feelings and understanding to grand consummation.

 

Only on that carefully laid foundation does Thoreau lay down the metaphor tying his experience together in one image: The house is still but a sort of porch at the entrance of a burrow. Without proper build-up, that sentence is merely a puzzle driving us to wonder what it means. Coming at the conclusion of the paragraph, we don’t have to wonder because we have been with Thoreau all the way as he shaped the image in his mind. It immediately explodes into our minds as a revelation or culmination on three fronts at once: his conscious experience of digging a root cellar, his writing about that experience, and our effort to share that experience through his writing.

 

The essence of creativity is to unite key dimensions of human consciousness into a coherent experience in which others can participate. When sensory patterns, feelings, and meanings combine, they can reach a critical mass that releases a burst of energy—not just in our brains—but throughout our bodies. Nerve signals and hormones confirm something of life importance has just occurred and is continuing to resonate here and now. Writing can convey that sense, as can music, art, dance, film, and other media of conscious excitation.

 

The paragraph quoted from Walden illustrates how aspects of consciousness can be brought to bear on one another in relationship to incite experiences larger and more meaningful than the sum of their parts. This is more than a matter of delight and entertainment. This is how we make sense of the world from our unique points of view. When the pieces fit, we feel we understand what is happening as participants in the event. Group energy and order are conveyed to us, and we reciprocate as best we can.

 

There is more to metaphor than meets ear or eye. It is an invitation to make meaning in new ways. This keeps the process of making meaning in sharp focus, where it cannot be taken for granted. As participants, we must do our part to keep the making of meaning in new ways alive in our experience. This alertness prevents meanings from becoming permanent fixtures of language—much as the dead are permanently dead, never to rise again. Dead languages fixed for all time kill the drive of their speakers to make meaning on their own.

 

If all has been said and written before, what’s the point of saying anything new or original? Of going beyond where we are now? Those who cling to past ways and expressions do not live in this world—the world of today. To claim that all wisdom is contained in the works of Plato or Aristotle, say, or the Qur’an, Torah, or Christian Testament is a denial of personal participation in the ongoing challenge of conscious life. When speech loses its novel, figurative quality, it ossifies into a literal form in which words are taken to mean exactly what they say and nothing more, as if the ancients had thought everything through for all time.

 

If that should happen to be true, how can anyone alive today hope to contribute to solving the problems yesterday has bequeathed to us? How can we direct our creative energies to undoing the mess people have made to now of living on planet Earth? No, if global warming, energy, poverty, healthcare, economics, and militarism are to be dealt with, it is up to those of us alive today to focus consciously and deliberately on the problems of today. In his time, Plato had his turn, followed by Aristotle, Jesus, Mohammed, Thoreau, and all the rest. Now it is Barack Obama’s turn to unify the diverse constituents of modern-day consciousness, and so confront them. Not for us, but with us all the way.

 

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(Copyright © 2009)

 

Given that I see things that are not of this world (cedars as men, trash bags as dying crows, TV antennas as crashing jets, clip-art cats where there are no real cats), and do not see things that demonstrably are present in this world (jars of mustard, sunflowers in a vase), I can only conclude that much of consciousness is speculative in nature. In charting the mysterious world, the mind often models events as a distorted version of the true situation. No map can accurately present the territory; no mind reveal the world as it is.

 

Enter Michael Gazzaniga’s left-brain interpreter to explain how it is that consciousness can carry on with less than complete or reliable information. No perfectionist, it does the best it can in interpreting the evidence available to it. As always, the object is to come up with a plan of personal action suited to its best estimate of the current situation. In view of the feedback resulting from such action, the interpreter will modify its estimate and try again. Through a series of successive approximations, it develops a narrative of the stages by which it overcomes obstacles in reaching its final goal of appropriate action.

 

On the grandest scale, this narrative becomes an account of the hero/heroine’s journey through the Valley of Trials to the ultimate victory against evil, and his/her triumphant return. On a lesser scale, it answers such prosaic questions as, “How did work go today, Honey? or “What did you do in school?” In any case, the narrative consists of the emotionally-charged high points of consciousness attempting to make sense of its world through a series of challenges laid out in the dimensions of personal time and personal space.

 

Even Einstein’s space-time continuum is a tale told by his left-brain interpreter grappling with his placement in two worlds at once: the universe of his creative consciousness attempting to model its situation in personal-organic-conceptual terms of time and space, and the details of a calibrated physical universe it infers to lie beyond itself. From my perspective, Einstein projected his mental calibration from one setting to the other, confounding his personal situation with a mysterious surround which knows only change but nothing of time and nothing of space.

 

Conduct the following thought experiment: Units of measurement are creations of the human mind referenced to arbitrary standards. Before humans evolved, and after they become extinct, can time (referred to any standard at all) be said to exist? Can space (referred to any standard at all) be said to exist?

My own conclusion is that absent consciousness, variables such as duration, distance, and change persist in an uncalibrated state as usual, but the artifacts of measurable time and space become irrelevant and inapplicable. That is, along with beauty, music, color, number and other indicators of mental relationships, both time and space exist as we know them solely in the mind of the conscious interpreter, exactly where thought experiments reside.

 

Workings of the human mind encompass a great many operations, including attending, feeling, perceiving, conceiving, remembering, relating, planning, expecting, understanding, inducing, deducing, inferring, supposing, extrapolating, interpolating, comparing, categorizing, prioritizing, speaking, listening, speculating, imagining, and so on. Twenty-four/seven, this mind of ours is a very busy place. One thing it can’t do, however, is provide a clear perspective on any so-called real world. In every instance, the best it can do is speculate about such a world on the basis of insufficient evidence.

 

What consciousness does best is play games because games have a limited number of rules, and the human mind thrives in situations characterized by clarity and order. If there are too many rules, we forget them and get confused; if too few, we get bored. The moves in chess are about right. The ten commandments verge on too many. Solitaire has too few to sustain attention for long. Drawing cards from a shuffled deck (as in Monopoly, Trivial Pursuit, or almost any card game) keeps down the number of details to be held in mind while, at the same time, enlivening play. Games of chance are engaging because, if the possibilities are large, the actualities are few and very clear. You either win or lose.

 

Born speculators, whatever the game, we always play to win, which says a lot about consciousness. It’s as if the point of consciousness were to play games. Which, given the vagaries of our left-brain interpreter, it usually is. We are risk takers, inhabiting the gap between the possible and the probable. Life is boring if we always bet on a sure thing. Gaming is in our nature. Gaming the market, gaming the environment, gaming relationships—all for what we can get out of them (hopefully, without losing our shirts).

 

Even science involves hypotheses which may not pan out. Doubt and uncertainty are the backbone that gives science its character through disciplined speculation. There’s never enough evidence to be absolutely sure of anything. There’s no such thing as 100% certainty.

 

Including human judgment, which is intimately involved in gauging the imaginativeness of the left-brain interpreter. Truth or fiction? When the evidence is skimpy, it’s hard to tell. But we have to do something to avoid being seen as wimps, so barge ahead on what little we know. If we win, we are likely to win big. If we lose, well, that’s why we hedge our bets.

 

We often live as if life were a multiple choice test. My advice is always go for the longest, most detailed answer. The others are probably fillers to pad out the options. At least that’s what I speculate.

 

We live in the tension between getting it right and getting it wrong. Thank you, Judgment, Interpreter, and Imagination for the rollercoaster ride.

 

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Reflection 93: Angels

April 22, 2009

 

(Copyright © 2009)

 

We are prone to leaping to conclusions on very shaky evidence. That is how our minds work. We tell ourselves stories to account for phenomena we only dimly understand. The first time I heard oldsquaws (long-tailed ducks) at night, I thought someone had opened the window on revelers at a New Year’s Eve party. The nearest house was over a mile away. I listened to the horn-tootlers for a while, rolled over, and went back to sleep. If I hadn’t seen and heard the ducks the next week, I’d have born a grudge against my dear neighbor.

 

Often, we believe what we can get away with, particularly in circles of like-minded friends. Testing the stories we tell ourselves requires careful observation and diligence. It is far easier to get by on what we think we know and let it go at that. We are impressionable to a fault, believing what we want to believe, not doing background checks on those who inform us, or questioning their motives, much less our own. We raise innocence to the level of gullibility, and are as overly trusting of others as of ourselves. Geniuses at making leaps of faith, we put a familiar face on the unknown and mysterious. We know what we believe and believe what we know.

 

Take angels, for instance. We have a word for them, therefore they exist. Angels are mentioned in the Bible, the Qur’an, Persian mythology, and The Celestial Hierarchy attributed to Pseudo-Dionysius (5th century C.E.). They are portrayed as supernatural beings mediating between God and man in the monotheistic religions of Zoroastrianism, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam.

 

Angels clearly have a history. They have been evolving in the human mind for over five millennia. In the beginning, there were messengers, which is what both Hebrew mal’ak and Greek angelos mean. Divine messengers from the heavens above. It was the vision of the sun, moon, and planets as messengers of stellar divinities in the night sky that sparked the origin of Sumerian beliefs in Mesopotamia, the same origin to which we can trace the roots of many of our modern beliefs.

 

The appeal of angels—heavenly bodies interpreted as divine messengers—was in serving as designated agents responsible for bringing affairs on Earth into accord with those in the starry realm overhead. That is, “On Earth as it is in Heaven,” or, “As above, so below.” That is powerful magic, bringing human conduct into line with the will of the gods. Such is the origin of astrology, knowledge gained through study of the stars. And beyond astrology, of theologies postulating the existence of divinities floating in the sky.

 

Angels are supernatural beings, figures that would shock us if we met them on the street. The company they keep is confined to the fabulous tales we spin in our heads to account for events we don’t understand. They have staying power in serving to explain that which cannot be explained, or which might be explained in less colorful ways.

 

The band of supernatural beings we believe in but never expect to meet face-to-face is surprisingly large. Start with the little ones, the clever, mischievous, magical scamps the likes of brownies, elves, fairies, gnomes, gremlins, imps, leprechauns, pixies, sprites, and trolls.

 

Then there are the big scary ones like giants and ogres. The ones with mixed body parts: Chimeras (lion-goat-serpent hybrids), harpies (women with the tail, wings, and talons of hawks), lamia (women-serpents who suck blood), mermaids, monsters, sphinxes (lions with the head of a man, ram, or hawk; or winged lions with the head of a woman), satyrs (bawdy goat-men), and werewolves. And the disembodied ones: banshees, bogeys, haunts, ghosts, phantoms, shades, specters, spirits, and spooks.

 

Not to forget cupids, demons, devils, dragons, genies, ghouls, hobgoblins, houri (dark-eyed virgins of Islamic paradise), poltergeists (noisy ghosts), vampires, witches, and warlocks. And for good measure, incubi (male demons that have sex with sleeping women), and succubi (female demons that have sex with sleeping men).

 

Through the years, a great many tales have been told of such beings to explain or justify specific aspects of human experience. Not all such agents are as outmoded as many of these. Who does not believe in Santa Clause to some degree, the Easter Bunny, Mother Nature or Mother Earth, Father Sky, various saints, the Tooth Fairy, Jack Frost, Ronald McDonald, Aunt Jemima, Betty Crocker, the phoenix, Hamlet, Huck Finn, Scarlet O’Hara, Don Quixote, Raggedy Ann and Andy, Sherlock Holmes, Bugs Bunny, Lassie, Archie and Veronica, Popeye, Tarzan, R2D2, Zorro, and a host of similar figures from art, literature, comics, film, theater, and TV?

 

Mickey Mouse and Garfield are as real to us today as Barack H. Obama, Charles Lindbergh, Oprah Winfrey, Humphrey Bogart, and Kim Jong-il. Aside from immediate family, a child’s world is often peopled largely with characters from books and television. How could a child not believe in Big Bird, Barney, teddy bears, Barbie, Ken, or the Cat in the Hat?

 

Our minds are filled with images of creatures we can name yet stand for beings we have never met in the flesh. We take the world we live in largely on faith. Virtual reality existed in human consciousness long before the Internet claimed it for its own. We can name these creatures, describe them, tell of their deeds, and swear to their impact on our lives. Fictitious beings are every bit as real to us as firemen, astronauts, or the president of the United States. In many cases, more real because they play a larger role in our lives and require a greater share of our attention.

 

How is it possible that fictional figures can be as real to us as natural beings of flesh-and-blood? The answer is shockingly simple. Both the natural and supernatural exist on equal footing in the same place—personal consciousness, the domain of all human experience. Unless we probe our beliefs, and test them, we have a hard time telling the difference between live and make-believe creatures. Figures in consciousness do not come flagged as real or unreal. Dreams seem every bit as convincing to us as the checkout girl in the supermarket. We are all subject to illusions and mirages—a trash bag flapping in the wind taken for a stricken crow, a stranger mistaken for an intimate friend, a friend in novel circumstances reduced to a stranger.

 

How can we tell if an object in conscious experience is real or unreal? That is, if it exists in the world or only in our heads? We must put our experiential loops to work on the matter and test our impressions. Do others see what we have seen when they stand in our place? What do the rest of our senses say? If we come back later, does the phenomenon reappear? Can we interact with the phenomenon by engaging it in some way? If we act upon it, does it respond?

 

Doubt is our greatest ally in probing items of belief. Anything can be believed for a time because it is the nature of belief to defend itself. Doubt cuts through such defenses. How consistent is this phenomenon with the rest of our experience? Is it an exception for which we must make special allowance—such as creating an entire realm governed by exceptional rules? Is it excessively complicated, or deceptively simple? Even the most respected authorities are wrong on occasion. No one’s consciousness is right all the time.

 

Take angels, for example. How many angels can fit on the head of a pin? We all know what pins are because we have been stuck by them often enough. They are small, slender physical objects made of metal, pointed on one end, flattened on the other. How big are angels? What are their proportions? What are they made of? How would you describe one? We say fluttering candle flames indicate the passing of angels; is that a reliable test? Mentioning angels in the same sentence as pins or candle flames doesn’t make them real. We are mixing categories of experience here, as if both were equally verifiable, pretending the attributes of one extend to the other. Which they don’t and they can’t.

 

Mythology begins within us in our left-brain interpreters. When we act out our fictitious beliefs as explanations for things being as they are—which we do in waiting for Santa, playing the Tooth Fairy, telling tales of storks delivering babies, or expecting the natural world to serve the human economy—that’s when the stories we tell ourselves can get us into trouble. That is when hesitation, skepticism, double-checking, doubt, and further research are called for before we act out our stories. Let’s pretend is fun on occasion, but a steady diet can wreak as much havoc as a suicide bomber.

 

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(Copyright © 2009)

 

Everybody knows that schools are for educating our children. Very well, what does that mean—educating? The word stems from Latin educare, to lead out (e-, out; ducare, to lead or draw). Education, then, suggests a process of leading our children into the (adult) world. Which is pretty much how it works, adults setting the curriculum and walking children through it stage by stage, supervising development of relevant skills as they progress. The process is a bit like running a steeplechase with ever-higher hurdles and broader water jumps.

 

This view of education rests on a great many assumptions. For instance, that adults know what is good for children in general and each child in particular at every stage of development. That adults can anticipate what sort of world their children will grow into. That all children should strive toward the same goals. That the understanding and skills valued by adults are exactly the sort their children will require when they mature. And above all, that children need to be taught by adults and can’t be trusted on their own to learn about the world they are growing into. That is, education is a top-down (or outside-in) rather than a bottom-up (or inside-out) process. The basic fear is that left to develop their own resources, children will turn feral and become too wild for civil society.

 

Yet every child learns to talk within a language-speaking community without being taught how to do it. She acquires language through imitating the speech she hears around her without requiring instruction in syntax or grammar. And to walk-skip-jump-run within an ambulatory community, and be social within a sociable community, and play games and exhibit curiosity and have fun and observe her surroundings—driven by her own motives and curiosity in company with peers and adults, all without reference to any syllabus or curriculum, all shaped by examples but not taught by instruction. On their own, children are born learners. What they require to develop skills is clear examples of others using their bodies in disciplined ways. Those others could be dogs running, birds building nests, people living their lives.

 

An alternative to education (leading out) is introduction (leading in; intro-, within; ducere, to lead). Introduce a child to new experiences and he will incorporate their features on his own according to his interests, abilities, and readiness. Will he get what he is supposed to get from such experiences—that is, what adults want him to get? Perhaps not. But by considering phenomena within his own consciousness (and not that of his teachers), he is likely to get what excites him and he is ready for. The world he grows into will prove to be an outward expression of his personhood. Nobody’s minion, he is his own man.

 

What I am suggesting here is a course of introduction to the many facets of consciousness as an alternative to cognitive (subject-matter) education as it has evolved in today’s world. Mothers encourage their children’s development by interacting with them—by introducing them to activities that each can enjoy on her own level of challenge. Such participatory learning is mutually exploratory and engaging on all sides. It’s not the subject matter external to themselves that children must learn but the processes necessary to living a life.

 

What I recall from my own schooling is counting holes in ceiling tiles over and over, or looking out the window waiting for the day to be done. Teachers instructed from the front of the room; students did as they were told while sitting in their seats. Whether mental or physical, there was very little mutual engagement. If there was joy or excitement in the classroom, it was discovered apart from and despite the daily lesson plan.

 

Consciousness has many rewards, one of which is behavior judged appropriate to the situation that arouses it. Consciousness, that is, is participatory in shaping behavior in light of sensory feedback through a series of successive approximations until the desired level of performance is achieved. That loop is partly internal, partly external, and the reward is a sense of self-satisfaction at having met a challenge on the desired level of performance. It is not the teacher’s job to hand out gold stars because she is external to students’ loops of consciousness. What counts is each student evaluating her own performance by her own standards, and keeping on until those standards are met. Then raising them still higher.

 

In the schools I attended, power was reserved to the teacher at the front of the room. This disempowered students from the first day of classes to the last, sending the message that education was something done to students, not something they did for themselves through active participation. Classroom situations in such cases become a kind of dare. Teacher says, “Be quiet and do your work;” those in her charge reply in effect, “Make me learn if you can.” This dynamic is played out year after year until graduation day, when students think they are being set free, only to enter the workforce and encounter supervisors who control their performance much as teachers did in the classroom.

 

The most important thing children need to learn is how to manage the left-brain interpreter lodged in their brains and from which there can be no escape. That is, they need to base their judgments and self-accountability on convincing evidence, not opinion, prejudice, whimsy, dogma, or a factoid or two. Not partial evidence selected to support preexisting opinions, but sufficient evidence on which to base informed courses of action.

 

On whose authority should that course be adopted? The only authority consciousness heeds is personal authority—the authority inherent in each person as a unique individual. Citing external authorities is only the beginning. The issue is not what they thought then (courtesy of their left-brain interpreter) but what I think now (courtesy of my own interpreter) because I am the actor in every instance of my own behavior. If I pass the buck to Galileo, Newton, or Einstein, then I am acting on their behalf and am not my own person. Which is unwise in light of the fact that my survival is at issue, not theirs.

 

The key thing for us all to learn is to question what our left-brain interpreter is trying to tell us. Its motives are always suspect because it is operating within a larger situation that may well corrupt its narrative, resulting in spin, not truth. Are we trying to please someone? To undercut someone? To be outrageous? To take the easy way out? To appear to know more than we do? We can’t trust anyone else to guide us but our own judgment based on our cumulative life experience. Every action we take in the world is a product of that judgment. More than any other facet of consciousness, it makes us who we are.

 

So what are schools for? Nothing less than taking our budding judgments through their paces. That is, introducing us to different sorts of challenges, letting us evaluate and try to meet them, letting us fall short, letting us pick ourselves up and try again. In brief, letting us find our way by exercising and developing our personal judgments, along with the skills necessary to turn them into effective behaviors. That requires paying close attention to the interpreters of events in our heads, which are fully capable of waylaying us at every turn, causing us to base our actions on less than a full grasp of the facts of our current situation.

 

Only by doubting our own motives, opinions, and actions can we surpass our childhood selves and become reliable contributors to meeting the many challenges before us. Doubt, not accepted knowledge, is the key to exercising good judgment in the world of today, which is far different from the world our teachers’ knew in their day. This requires us to exercise our most basic piece of equipment—the individual consciousness through which we view so-called reality, but really serves as the seat of our interpreter, our judgment, our authority, our convictions, and our expectations—the inner reality we project outward in reinventing the world to suit ourselves.

 

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(Copyright © 2009)

 

All the world’s a stage,

And all the men and women merely players:

 

Shakespeare got that right. But he goes on to develop the theme of seven acts or ages as if that were the essence of life’s drama. From my point of view in writing this blog on consciousness, the acting out of personal scripts in each scene (situation) by the players themselves is the heart of the metaphor. That’s where the moment-to-moment drama takes place. The overall intent may be to impress the audience, but interactive relationships between characters are the means for revealing the inner tensions that drive the plot. It is the rise and fall of those tensions which support the drama. Underneath it all is the interplay of personal consciousness acted out in full public view.

 

In an earlier post (Reflection 87: A Mind of My Own) I wrote:

 

Consciousness is an integrated synthesis of many parts . . . . Our left-brain interpreter takes all those parts and weaves them into a story that binds them together into a coherent narrative. Whether factual or fanciful, it is that internal story of which we are conscious. All of which may or may not shed light on any so-called real world.

 

That is, internal stories concocted by our respective left-brain interpreters provide the script each of us plays out on the world stage in the company of our fellow players—all following scripts of their own.

 

Which sounds like it may produce a very confusing drama with each player scripting her own actions. And looking around, that is exactly what we find. Bernie Madoff reading from his own script, Rush Limbaugh his, Rod Blagojevich his, Jimmy Carter his, Palestinians and Israelis respectively their own, Democrats and Republicans theirs, and so on. There is no master scripter; each of us is privileged (or condemned) to follow the cadence of her own inner voice.

 

Whether looking into various crises such as that of credit, energy, health care, climate change, world trade, wealth distribution, overpopulation, or any of the rest, we find individual players acting out their personal narratives as if in each case they were delivering a monologue with the stage to themselves .

 

Storytelling is the name of the game we are playing. In the belief that what’s good theater for me is good theater for all, a gross distortion of Adam Smith’s invisible hand has become the doctrine of free enterprise in our nation and now around the world. This applies not only to the wealth of individuals and nations, but to any sort of human enterprise. What following the dictates of self-interest produces is chaos, period. The heralded state of harmony never arrives.

 

The problem being that in denying any sensible checks on the stories we tell ourselves, they wander on endlessly without feedback from other points of view. Research on split-brain subjects reveals just how strained and bizarre such stories become without input from even the other side of our own brains, much less other people. As Pieter Brueghel has shown, when the blind lead the blind, all are deceived and end in the ditch.

 

Tales spun by consciousness need impartial editing before being played out in life. As you like it—or laissez-faire—is not a sufficient check on personal action. Behavior based on monologues leads consciousness to gallop unbridled through public affairs, causing the tumult of these days. Signing statements, for example, which excuse the executive from having to observe legislation passed by Congress, distort the law of the land into a parody of itself. Having two laws, one for the executive, another for everyone else, is wily chaos attempting to pass as good order.

 

All due to letting our left-brain interpreters of events have their way with us and the world. Can it be that simple? I believe it can. Michael Gazzaniga locates our personal interpreters in the left frontal cortex of our brains. As The Brain from Top to Bottom (http://www.thebrain.mcgill.ca) puts it:

 

When a person with a split brain is placed in a situation where the two hemispheres come into conflict, she may use her left hemisphere’s language capabilities to talk to herself, sometimes even going so far as to force the right hemisphere to obey the left hemisphere’s verbal commands. If that proves impossible, the left hemisphere will often rationalize or reinterpret the sequence of events so as to re-establish the impression that the person’s behaviour makes sense. It was this phenomenon that led Gazzaniga to propose that there is an “interpreter,” or “narrative self,” in the left frontal cortex not only of split-brain patients but also of all human beings (Can States of Consciousness Be Mapped in the Brain? Advanced level.)

 

I believe Gazzaniga is on the right track because I can observe my own interpreter at work when it goes beyond the evidence to produce an explanation for things it doesn’t truly understand: to wit, this blog. I can produce a theory to explain any phenomenon that catches my attention. Usually, I realize I am transcending my own limitations, so don’t force my opinions on others. But when I sacrifice good sense to vanity or self-deception, then I can watch myself spinning a yarn for the impression it makes. Which is not necessarily a bad thing. Making up bedtime stories can be both fun and entertaining. Where does fiction come from if not our left-brain interpreters? But in the service of fraudulent or self-deceptive motives, the interpreter can quickly take us out beyond our depth.

 

When I am unsure of myself, I fall back on trial and error. “See if this might work or suggests a different approach,” I tell myself. Most of what I have learned in life has come from making mistakes and correcting them. If my interpreter isn’t up to a situation because it lacks the necessary data, then it makes a stab at understanding what’s going on and—right or wrong—always learns something that can be useful next time around.

 

What gets us into trouble is pretending we know more than we can know—about the market, terrorists, Iran, creation, the will of God, or even ourselves. Actions based on insufficient understanding for the sake of self-importance, illusions, power, wealth, or personal advantage are sure to get us in trouble. Which is why the human world is in the sorry state that it is from too much pretense and self-righteousness.

 

My approach in writing this blog is to come at consciousness every way I can think of based on my personal experience. Yes, I am spinning a yarn. But at the same time I am gathering evidence from my own life that bolsters my understanding. Writing every post has taught me something about myself. If I never made the effort, I’d still be as dumb as I was at the start. All knowledge is self-knowledge, and if we are not perpetual learners, then we risk passing ourselves off as smarter than we actually are. There’s a lot of that going around these days.

 

Which is why I pay special attention to the care and handling of my personal interpreter. Even the FBI and CIA don’t know what thoughts are passing through my head. I am the only one who can pay attention to my inner processes. If I don’t, I miss the opportunity of a lifetime, because I am not privy to the workings of anyone’s consciousness but my own. If I don’t live up to my own self-set standards, no one else will do it for me. So here I am, having the adventure of my life in full public view. That way lies transparency, light and understanding. We know what lies the other way: been there, done that. Just look around at the mess we have made for ourselves and our home planet.

 

It is time to take a new direction. Namely, to heed the oracle and finally get to know ourselves inside-out. That way lies hope, eventual mastery, and true understanding. To get there, we have to develop prototypes for the new man and new woman. In my own small way, that’s what I’m working on. I’m trying as hard as I can to put Gandhi’s wisdom into practice by becoming the change that I seek.

 

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(Copyright © 2009)

 

Through studies of split-brain subjects, Michael Gazzaniga has proposed that normal consciousness is informed by two separate cognitive systems, one in each hemisphere of the brain. Further, he posits a left-brain interpreter having access to language processing centers largely denied to the right brain, which normally constrains interpretive activity via the corpus callosum (the bundle of nerve fibers running between cortical hemispheres, and severed in split-brain subjects).

 

It is the interpretive module on the left side of the brain that shapes possible interpretations to be consistent with sensory details provided by the right side of the brain. If, as in split-brain subjects, those details are not available to the interpreter, then it is largely free to come up with a narrative consistent with its own understanding and mood. As Gazzaniga sees it, the left-brain interpreter, deprived of right-brain input, “confabulates” a narrative in such instances (Chapter 94 by Kathleen Baynes and Michael S. Gassaniga, in Michael S. Gazziniga, Editor-in-Chief, The New Cognitive Neuroscience, Second Edition, MIT Press, 2000).

 

Perhaps this is the source of many acts of imagination on the part of whole-brain subjects unconstrained by access to the facts and relationships of a particular situation, or inhibited by logical or emotional duress in taking a stab at the truth. The left-brain interpreter is equally employed whether generating fiction or nonfiction, animated cartoons or documentaries.

 

One issue in consciousness is how the left-brain interpreter binds the two main parts of a haiku into a coherent narrative supported by (or accounting for) both the sensory and conceptual aspects presented in a given poem, including the time of year in which it is set. The interpreter, by its own devices, provides a rationale for the poem being a fulfillment of the author’s intention, every detail supporting the overall narrative.

 

The process of writing or reading haiku provides a glimpse of the left-brain interpreter at work, either coming up with elements that go together, or piecing together an interpretation that “explains” the finished work. I have read thousands of haiku and written many hundreds. Which certainly does not make me an expert, but does provide a basis for understanding what is involved in either creating or understanding a particular example from among the millions composed every day around the world. I offer the following five of my own as illustrations of one man’s left-brain interpreter at work.

 

late autumn now

keys to forgotten doors

clink as I walk

 

Placement in “late autumn” sets the mood for what is to follow, which is likely to be more somber than upbeat. “Keys to forgotten doors” is a concept with haunting overtones. That sharp “clink” jars the mind as the sensory note at the heart of the poem, which is made sorrowful by the pointlessness of a sound produced accidentally by merely walking along—that is, living a life to no purpose.

 

fall strollers

he, hands in pockets

she, holding flowers

 

No skipping or jumping here, just strolling along. Perhaps shuffling through leaves. Caught neither here nor there between the mood of high summer and low winter. We know which way the seasons are flowing, so immediately place the strollers in context of what is ahead, what left behind. Represented solely by their hands, he and she are in relationship, but as distinct individuals. He is dour and inward, she lighthearted and appreciative. There is a sense they’ve lost something, and are perhaps still together by habit more than choice. Or, they find strength in complementing each other, so are perfectly content. The flowers would be asters, perhaps purple. They are the sensory center of the haiku, and make her the dominant figure because more active than he. This is more her poem than his. He must realize that. Maybe he wrote it.

 

fall camping

get up to . . .

Milky Way, Orion!

 

In Maine, fall camping is ever an adventure entailing wool sweaters, open fires, wood smoke, and down sleeping bags. Also heeding nature’s call at night as well as in daytime. And the unexpected discovery of bright stars shining through cold air blown down from the north. The clarity of fall constellations always comes as a revelation, the essence of fall camping. Maybe you see a moose, or discover icicles on the face of a cliff. You love your companions; everything tastes good; every moment is filled. You gotta live this life.

 

November

all vanes point

north

 

By itself, “November” speaks to all that has gone before in the year, and the short time remaining. More than anticipation, it emphasizes remembering. The name speaks of penultimate things—not ends themselves but preparations for ends. Not cold, but preparations for cold. Cold in the context of warmer days behind us. Like accusing fingers, “all vanes point” where? North! The vote is unanimous. That’s where winds originate this time of year. North is responsible. North is to blame for the descending chill. For hard days to come. November is the hollow category to which the pointing vanes add sensory detail to constitute a meaningful interpretation within consciousness. My interpreter made me do it.

 

five below

no apples on the bough

purple finch

 

Whether Celsius or Fahrenheit, five below is cold. It’s winter, or close enough. That sets a harrowing shiver to the spine. Too late for apples. Those days are long gone. Prospects are limited. But what’s this?—a purple finch. What a surprise on a day like today. All puffed up against the cold, rounded—like an apple. Even better, this is a living being, a denizen of winter. Joy in hard times personified. If he can make it, so can I. So can we all. Come to think of it, winter hosts many such signs of hope. Five below and so what! Look, there’s a blue jay. Chickadee. Redpoll. Red crossbill. Pine grosbeak. I hope spring doesn’t come too soon; I want to savor this.

 

If your interpreter spins a different narrative on any of these, I invite you to leave a comment. Thanks.

 

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Reflection 89: My Day II

April 13, 2009

 

(Copyright © 2009)

 

Yesterday I wrote articles for Friends of Taunton Bay Newsletter. Today I was going to start writing a new post to my blog right after breakfast. First, though, I had to do laundry. Which I did. But taking clothes out of the washer to put in the dryer, I noticed a blue film on the base of the rotor. What’s that? says I, testing the film with my finger. Wax. A layer of blue wax. I knew immediately what it was, and where it came from. I have dry skin, so to avoid itching, I rub an emollient on my chest, arms, and legs to soften the skin and preserve body moisture. One of the ingredients in the emollient is microcrystalline wax. Which gets on my shirts, pants, and T-shirts. Into the wash. Onto the rotor. Where it will stay until I find some way to remove it.

 

I have written in earlier posts that consciousness is given us as a means of dealing with unprecedented situations by turning issues of experience into appropriate behaviors. That is, to solve problems, if not verbally, then through relevant actions in the world. Well, here was a situation I had never been in before in my life. I live in town housing and share laundry facilities with over 90 other people. Who wants to load laundry into a washer coated with blue scum?

 

What to do? I ask at the desk for Tim, the maintenance man. He’s not in today. Then I’d like to talk with someone else. Through the door, I see John, who used to be the maintenance man but has a new job. Can I speak to John, please? He comes out and I tell him what happened. He tells me to put an “out of order” sign on the washer. I tell him I’ll go on line to search for something that will remove wax. Which I do—both make the sign and do a search for wax removers. First scrape off as much as you can, I am advised. Then clean with rubbing alcohol, denatured alcohol, dry cleaning fluid, or WD-40. I have WD-40, but can’t see myself spraying it inside a washing machine. I’ll go to the drug store and buy some rubbing alcohol. First, I scrape as much of the wax as I can with a dull knife. Which takes a while because it’s hard to see and get at the vanes on the rotor.

 

Of course it is snowing. The temperature is 33 degrees, but the snow isn’t supposed to turn to rain until afternoon—another four hours. I put on parka, hat, gloves, and head out. Sidewalks are coated with snow and I keep losing traction. I practice my winter one-step, which requires full attention, so I make slow progress. First to the grocery store, but I find only booze, no rubbing alcohol. Then the drug store, which claims to be open, but only partly, because it’s being remodeled. I creep to the other drug store, which has rubbing alcohol, 75% or 93%. I go for the 93%. Because of my celiac disease, I avoid contact with alcohol. I need rubber gloves. Back to the grocery to buy gloves. Then home.

 

Only to discover the washing machine churning away. I think it’s another resident making a statement by ignoring the “out of order” notice. Turns out it’s John, running a dilute solution of alcohol to dissolve the wax. Which it doesn’t.

 

While the washer is going, I check my e-mail and tend to several tasks I have under way. Which takes more time than I expect. When the washer stops, I get paper towels, pour out rubbing alcohol, and apply elbow grease. Which works, but not very well. John removes the nut holding the rotor in place, so I lift it out and scrub away. First the base of the rotor, then the vanes, then the stem. It takes almost an hour. I put the rotor back, and run an empty load with heavy-duty detergent. That ought to do it.

 

But I still have a problem. How am I going to do my laundry? The rash I get from dry skin hasn’t gone away. The microcrystalline wax controls it, but doesn’t cure it. I can’t go through this every time I need clean clothes. So far so good. I’ve solved the immediate problem. That is, consciousness has dealt with the novelty of the situation and gotten me this far, but I have no idea what to do next time I need to do laundry.

 

I haven’t been to the dermatologist for two months. I call his office and make an appointment for next Tuesday. Maybe he’s seen patients in this fix before. Beyond that, I wonder about disposable clothing I can wear and throw away. About not wearing clothes at all. About wearing worn clothes I was going to throw out anyway. About wearing yucky clothes coated with wax. For the indefinite future—maybe forever. Time to work on something else before I go batty.

 

It’s one o’clock—an entire morning wasted, my concentration spent. The only thing left to me is to write a post about how consciousness saved half the day at least. I wrote a post called My Day on November 4th—Election Day 2008. I’ll call this My Day II. Then I’ll make dinner, answer e-mails, and teach my adult ed class on The Great Outdoors at the high school. Consciousness under control of normal expectancy, that’ll make my day feel less hectic than it has been up till now.

 

¦

 

 

 

 

(Copyright © 2009)

 

Something I’m supposed to do flits into my mind for a tenth of a second, then is gone and I can’t remember what it was. I try to recreate the situation that brought it to mind, but often can’t figure what that situation might have been. This happens all the time. So I make lists of things to do. As I get something done, I cross it off. And keep adding new items as they come to mind.

 

Is my consciousness failing? Am I on the skids? I don’t know, but I think I’ve always been like this—even in school. I’ve been a listmaker ever since I can remember. I was so square in high school I got into the habit of writing down lists of each night’s homework; my version of pleasure being to cross each one off as I finished it. Now I have scraps all over my apartment reminding me of things to do—some are six months old. I’ve never gotten around to reminding myself to throw old lists away.

 

Here’s a list I found this morning. It seems to be about three weeks old. Old enough for me to have checked off almost everything on it. My handwriting isn’t that neat so I retype it here:

 

ü Negs to Eric Fri  [re. scanning of aerial photos]

ü 10:00 Kate McDonald  [re. drymount eelgrass poster]

ü John Sowles re poster  [fyi e-mail]

ü Newsletter Articles  [aerial photo, shorebirds, update]

ü send Hilary blurb  [e-mail poster abstract for program]

ü bank deposit  [royalty check]

û Charlie Todd eagle report e-mail  [no reply]

ü 2008 aerial mosaic w. S. Sjoberg  [re. membership perq.]

ü TBAG update  [re. January advisors meeting]

ü e-mail Jon Lewis summer meet, July 9 [re. program]

ü Shorebirds—J. Sowles, Margi Huber  [re. monitoring]

û Eric digitize aerials Fri.  [duplicate reminder]

ü floss  [shopping]

ü bananas  [“]

ü onions  [“]

ü Dove  [“]

ü cashew butter  [I’m allergic to peanut butter]

ü corn thins  [I’m allergic to wheat]

û bananas  [duplicate reminder]

 

Since my lists depend on jotting down items as I think of them, they have a free-form feel that transcends any kind of order or priority. I include just enough detail to remind me of what I mean, and that’s good enough.

 

What interests me about such lists is their relationship to consciousness. I generate them almost at random, whenever I think of something I want to do and am afraid I’ll forget. Such lists are made out of a sense of duty or responsibility, not passion. If they were driven by passion, I would remember them. Without that extra oomph, items tend not to outlast the duration of short-term memory. If I don’t write them down within seconds, they’re gone.

 

To get them back, I have to recreate or simulate the situation in which each item is important. If I can recall that setting or context, then very often the item springs to mind without further prompting. It’s just that I keep jumping from one situation to another faster than working memory can keep up with me. So various unremarkable items fall into the cracks in-between like so many crumbs.

 

Several of the items I wish to remember are leftovers from various meetings I have attended. The 7th item concerning Charlie Todd is a reminder to e-mail him about the breeding success of eagles in Taunton Bay for the 2008 season. Charlie is an endangered species biologist for the state, and he is the best source of current information because he flies over most of the eagle nests in Maine several times a year and knows what he’s talking about. He is also extremely busy. The editor of Friends of Taunton Bay Newsletter asked me for an eagle update at our February meeting. Once such meetings are over, I tend not to think of them until the next one. So I make notes to myself to do what I said I’d do to avoid showing up a month later empty-handed.

 

The Jon Lewis item 3 below Charlie Todd came from the same meeting. I was to ask him if he would talk us through an underwater video he made for an oyster aquaculture lease application. I’d seen the video at an aquaculture lease hearing, and suggested it as the basis for a program at our annual membership meeting in July. Here I am trying to be responsible once again. If I don’t write such requests down where I will see them, I never think of them again because I’m on to something else.

 

So goes everyday life from chore to chore. At least some days that’s how it seems. Left to steering my own consciousness toward activities that are meaningful to me, I would dispense with everything else in order to concentrate on jobs I am passionate about. Those I remember on my own because the flow of my life is all the situation I need to keep them at the front of my mind.

 

What I see now is that to-do lists create a wholly new situation expressly for the sake of remembering an assortment of items relevant to a variety of situations having nothing to do with one another. Things-to-do becomes a meta situation subtending all lesser situations. My consciousness came up with that strategy on its own. Yours probably did, too. How creative is that! And it works. Putting everything down on one list creates a situation that prods our minds to act. It works because there is an emotional impetus associated with putting something on that super list. Which makes it easier to recall later on. Too, there is satisfaction in the act of crossing items off one by one. Amazing, how consciousness monitors itself.

 

To-do lists, then, are definitely in the feedback loop by which consciousness engages the mysterious world. Even though my personal habitat—my apartment—is a mess, I get a lot done on various fronts because of such lists. Jotting things down involves physical effort and discipline as an aid to remembering them. And seeing the list provides visual input that serves the same purpose.

 

In The Mind of a Mnemonist, Luria gives details of situations his patient, a memory expert, creates in order to remember incredibly detailed series of things to recall. He visualized street scenes in his mind, and draped visual clues to encounter as he would stroll along, encountering one clue after another. Trouble was, he cluttered his mind with such scenes and could never get rid of them. Me, I merely clutter up my apartment, then conveniently lose each list under layers of new lists. Either I’ve seen to every item—or it’s too late now to remember what I haven’t done.

 

¦

 

 

(Copyright © 2009)

 

What have I learned from posting 86 reflections to this blog on topics related to consciousness viewed inside-out? A lot, I would say. I devote Reflection 87 to a few such items.

 

For one thing, science is unlikely to provide a grand overview of consciousness by working on it from the outside as an object of study. Consciousness is not an object but an experience. No matter how much we learn about “the” brain—as if there were only one—by studying individual brains (in animal or clinical studies, say, or studies of bloodflow to particular areas of the brain while human subjects engage in assigned tasks), it is not possible to generalize findings to the population at large with much confidence. Consciousness and brains are two different things, as are soups and the kettles they are made in.

 

For another, consciousness is situated in brains situated in bodies situated in species situated in immediate environments situated in ecoregions situated in a biosphere situated in a solar system situated in a universe. Up and down the hierarchy, a study at one level is influenced by—and affects—each of the others. Our initial assumptions may comfort us by constraining our field of study to a reasonable size, but the question remains, do we know what we’re doing? Which applies to me as well as to everyone else.

 

In any given instance, consciousness involves a nested series of feedback loops that bias findings in ways that cannot be told. Anticipation and expectancy play key roles in both actions and perceptions contributing to consciousness. Human experience as a whole entails acting in a world that cannot immediately be known without participation by the knower, and feedback from that world must be interpreted in light of what that knower knows and intends, including her unconscious assumptions, mindset at the time, and situated expectations.

 

Consciousness is an integrated synthesis of many parts, including attention, motivation, concrete sensory images; cognitive structures such as concepts and ideas; feelings; autobiographical, situational, and semantic memories; understanding, anticipation and expectancy; judgment; and behavior; among others. Our left-brain interpreter takes all those parts and weaves them into a story that binds them together into a coherent narrative. Whether factual or fanciful, it is that internal story of which we are conscious. All of which may or may not shed light on any so-called real world.

 

The lives we live influence the structure of our minds, allowing billions of neurons and synapses to waste away while other billions are made stronger and more interconnected. From conception, we are each unique in many ways. For starters, our genome is unique, as is our rearing, education, job training, medical history, mental chemistry, life experience, luck, and so on. We may all be members of one species, but as individuals no two of us are the same nor can we be expected to perform like anyone else. Our personal consciousness is as unique as each one of us. Which means we each inhabit a separate world of experience.

 

Since our personal consciousness is unique, engaging other equally unique minds is harder than we might suppose. It is not to be taken for granted that speakers of a common language have access to common minds. Each mind is most uncommon, no matter how many languages it commands. Rather than rushing to walk in another’s moccasins, which sounds good but is impossible to do, a better approach is to walk together side-by-side toward a mutually agreed upon goal. Reaching out to one another must be done carefully and deliberately, paying careful attention to feedback received during the engagement. Free speech does not imply free understanding. This must be earned the old fashioned way, through mutual respect, careful attention to detail, taking small steps, and persistence.

 

Yes, we can change—or at least shape—our outlook, our world, our experience, our consciousness. To do that requires we change the makeup of our brains by loosening old connections and strengthening new ones. Which will require a minimum of, say, ten thousand hours of concentrated effort. We can all outdo ourselves, but we have to propel ourselves from the inside, not be forced from without. Others will try to prevent us from deviating from the plans they have made for us, but finding ways to do our own work is part of the effort required to transform ourselves into the persons we passionately desire to become.

 

And lastly, I have learned that the greatest rewards in life flow from getting our acts together in our own consciousness, earning us the sense that all parts of our minds are working together toward the same end, which is the end we set for ourselves and work wholeheartedly to achieve. Nothing is more exciting than to experience ourselves as a symphony of separate parts working in concert. The good news is we can make that happen. The tougher news is we are the only ones who can. It may not happen tomorrow or even next year, but—with a little help from our friends—we can do it.

 

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