Reflection 87: A Mind of My Own

April 8, 2009


(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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