(Copyright © 2009)

Solving problems is a big part of consciousness and, consequently, failure to solve such problems is another big part of consciousness. Failure can lead to a range of responses, including confusion, denial, anger, blame, depression, leading eventually perhaps to acceptance, learning, and even trying a different approach. Very few conscious acts bring about results as intended. Trial and error is often how consciousness works, leading to unintended consequences, revision, and trying again. When we go back to the drawing board, we give consciousness another run at the problem.

The leveling of the Twin Towers on 9-11-2001 was a defeat for America’s collective consciousness because we never saw it coming. The entire nation went into shock, and then mourning. It was a particular defeat for the collective consciousness of the CIA that had responsibility for keeping the president informed so he could mobilize forces under his command in warding off just such attacks. The resulting confusion throughout the highest levels of government led to a so-called war on terrorism in which conventional warfare was waged against an unconventional enemy, leading to an asymmetrical situation in which terrorists had the advantage because they knew the Afghan terrain and we didn’t. Anger and blame-casting led to our invading Iraq as a scapegoat for our leaders’ being caught napping, and things rapidly went from bad to worse, leading to the looting of every civil and cultural institution in Iraq that might have helped stabilize a sorry situation. Our same leaders failed to see Hurricane Katrina bearing down on New Orleans, or if their radar showed it coming, their consciousness failed to register the threat in that situation, resulting in another blow to governmental consciousness and in the consequent disillusion, despair, and humiliation unleashed by yet another profound defeat for an administration unable to protect its citizens on their own turf.

That’s an extreme example of what can happen when consciousness misjudges a bad situation. The worse the situation, the more stress it causes, making for hasty decisions to show we’re on top of things—when we’re not. Ask anyone going through a divorce and they’ll often blame their former lover for the break-up, reserving all virtue to themselves. A divorce is a defeat of consciousness, neither partner being sufficiently vigilant or having the skills to work their shared troubles through. Who expected it? Who dealt with early signs of stress? When dreams collapse, they tend to shatter precisely because we want them to last forever and a day. Just like the Twin Towers, just like New Orleans. Things aren’t supposed to fall apart. Not in Dreamland they aren’t. In sports, you always go for the championships, not the league cellar. Every song written or sung is aimed at the top twenty, not anonymity.

As anyone can tell you, the human condition is a lopsided mix of  victories and defeats, the victories spread every now and then to keep hope alive. The seat of that mix is our personal consciousness, noted for its highs and its lows. Our attitude toward life ranges from jubilation to despair. That is the nature of adventures, and certainly life falls in that category. Much of it spent as the Lewis and Clark party spent its mission to the Pacific coast—slogging ahead. The daily grind is the norm, punctuated by victories and defeats much like those mountains and valleys on the horizon. Hope springs eternal, yet the wise keep an eye out for weather.

Consciousness can be bested by the situation we’re in, or by our own mismanagement of what it is trying to tell us. Danger is ever present within consciousness itself as well as in the material world. Gerald M. Edelman spoke of consciousness as a “world model,” so in that sense the model may be defective or the modeler lax. Think how often we defeat ourselves because we try to outsmart our own consciousness by being too clever by half.  Indeed, the mighty keep falling one after the other with no one to blame but themselves, each a classic example of consciousness abused and defeated for the sake of gulling a spouse, a staff, a few friends and clients, or a nation. “Well, dear, I’m off to hike the Appalachian Trail; see you when I get back.” “The record speaks for itself: a return of 15% on your investment; tell me where else you can get that?” “It’s a slam dunk!”

We are capable of making spectacular errors in misreading consciousness as a model of the world, as well as the lesser miscalculations we settle for in everyday life. Here’s a homely example from my own life last weekend:

I am in spruce-fir woods digging a slit-trench for a latrine. Over the past 40 years I have dug three such trenches, so have an idea what the soil and the job will be like. First outline the trench in the top layer of duff made of fallen needles, then dig into the light brown soil with occasional stones and boulders, down three feet or so to the blue-gray clay laid down 12,000 years ago by the last glacier. The site is near a large glacial erratic boulder on top of a slight knoll decked with a sparse covering of moss amid dark trees in every direction. What is that boulder resting on? I should wonder, but put it out of my mind. Witch hazel spreads nearby. I have the shovel, Carole the bush-whackers to cut through roots we’re certain to find. I’ve been planning the trench for several weeks now, having finally chosen the site. I define the two ends of the trench, then lift out the duff. Piece of cake. This shouldn’t take long. I connect the ends, then begin to dig down in earnest. A few flat pebbles here and there, but the digging is easy. Scrape, scrape—more pebbles. Little flat ones, like layers of ledge. I ask Carole to pick out the stones when I hit them. We go for an hour or so, scraping away, making two piles, one of stones, one of soil and small pebbles. It’s been raining every day for almost two months; a nearby lightning strike and loud crash of thunder send us back to the cabin. We’ll finish the job in the morning.

After breakfast, we return to the trench, which now looks like the beginnings of one. Carole, eternal optimist, says we’re down two feet—more like seven inches, give-or-take. Dig, dig. Scrape, scrape. The little flat pebbles aren’t getting any scarcer, as I had hoped. In fact, they seem to be packed closer together. Maybe my imagination, but they block every thrust of the shovel with a wall of rock effective as any boulder. Carole scrapes them out of the way with the swipe of a flat stone, and I toss what I can get on the shovel onto the pile of dirt. Soon we’re scraping more and tossing less from the trench. Maybe it’s rotten rock from a deeper ledge, I think to myself. The closer we get to the ledge, the denser the pebbles. I picture little flat stones like a school of fish clustered together. Both Carole and I are determined to get the job done, so we ignore the pebbles and dig and scrape away. After two hours, we’ve gone maybe two inches deeper. And piled up a growing heap of stones. I imagine digging through sandy soil, as I have sometimes done on the far side of the clearing. That’s more what I had in mind. We keep at it another half hour, with diminishing returns. Then we strike hard stuff—the actual ledge, down nine to ten inches. So much for a latrine in this location. We made a go of it, but the site turned us down. We gather our tools, and I go back to prospecting for another site.

In the spring of 1951 I rowed with the MIT freshman crew in the national collegiate regatta on the Ohio River in Marietta, Ohio. The school year was over, but the crew stayed in Cambridge to practice, and didn’t head home until after the race. My folks lived in Seattle at the time, so Ohio was on the way. I’d take the train from there to Chicago and points west. We had a fast shell in the Pocock, named after its maker, and we’d gotten pretty good at both port and starboard oarsmen matching their strengths to keep it set up on its delicately poised keel. I was the stroke, not strong but generally dependable to set the pace the coxswain called for. We’d won only one race all season—against Rutgers on the Raritan—but we were hyped to show the world what we could do. We were positioned in the middle of the river next to Navy, both of us getting a boost from the current. We led most of the way, but near the finish the cox called to up the stroke—and I couldn’t swing it. I was just out of gas. So the University of Washington freshmen passed us—and that was the end of the season. Except I got to ride all the way to Seattle in the same railroad car as the winners. They were flying high while I was dragging as low as I ever felt in my life to that time because I blamed myself for the loss. I’d taken a big bite of defeat and chewed on it for three days. Every time I went to the toilet I had to pass all those smiling faces. Hardly life threatening, but I savored the humiliation all the way home.

Thirty years later I suffered the biggest defeat of my life when my son Michael committed suicide on his 22nd birthday. That, too, was my doing. I’d gotten divorced from his mother in the 60s when Michael was five years old. He didn’t thrive after that, even though I had him and his little brother on weekends until his mother remarried and moved to California, then Italy. He met a nice man on a park bench in Milan, and was into drugs after that, eventually heroin. He returned to the States, had a nice girlfriend, but was in and out of detox. He called me the Sunday before he died and told me, “Papa, I know what I have to do.” I knew what he meant, and said “We have to get together.” He said, “It’s too late.” “Don’t do anything drastic,” I said. He hung up, and I spent several days tracking his friends down to find out where he was. If they knew, they didn’t tell me. I warned the police to watch for a despondent kid, but they didn’t find him either. On his birthday I got a call from the police at eight o’clock in the morning. They’d found him, shotgun in hand, on a bench in the park near the duck pond. It had rained in the night, and his blood had washed into the pond. I went to the mortuary to view his body laid on a slab, face reconstructed, skin yellow.

That was 28 years ago. If he’d lived, he’d be 50 now. I cry writing these words. I still hear that telephone call, still see him on that slab as if it happened this morning. Still feel the defeat, mine and his, both together, inseparable, as his mother must feel her pain inseparable from his.

Every life has much to teach us, something important to make our own. That’s why I’m writing this blog—for Michael’s sake. Because he never felt free or strong enough to live out his own life. I take responsibility for that, and live my own life with that in mind every day. Every moment of consciousness is the entirety not only of someone’s “world model” but of their innermost life—memories, feelings, victories, defeats.

Michael

 

 

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(Copyright © 2009)

Overwhelmed by life? That’s a sure sign that your consciousness is on overload. Too many issues are calling for immediate attention. You can’t do everything at once, so you turn in on yourself and do nothing at all. We’ve all been in that place, hoping the storm will pass, but when we stick our heads up and look around, we find our situation more calamitous than it was before. We’re stuck. Can’t do anything, can’t get away. The tension is unbearable.

But not hopeless. There are things we can do. Like face into the storm. Jot down every complaint screaming for attention, every job requiring immediate response. Which ones are most urgent? Which can wait? Prioritize, making sure to put first things at the head of the list. Then gird for action, start at the top and work our way down. Prioritize other claims as they crop up. Being sure to take care of ourselves so we don’t lose it. Eat, sleep, take a lot of deep breaths. . . .

Sound like an advice column in a newspaper? They all say the same thing a thousand different ways. Collect yourself. Keep calm. Walk, don’t run to the nearest exit. Take one thing at a time. Concentrate. Do what you can, then move on. You can’t be all things to all people. Stay centered. Be yourself.

Moderate stress keeps you going, but high stress can unravel you. If you want to meet other peoples’ needs, you really have to put meeting your own need to reduce stress at the top of your list. Delaying or denying only create more stress. What can you do for yourself right now that really helps you get yourself together—your consciousness all in one piece so you don’t feel so frazzled?

Voice from above: “Simplify.” Who said that? You did. You felt it all along. To simplify your life, there are two obvious but opposite approaches you can take: 1) move to a higher plane of consciousness by concentrating on generalities, not nagging details, or 2) narrow your focus to fit the amount of energy and attention you can spare for emergencies. That is, act locally not globally, personally not universally.

On the higher plane, you can afford to enjoy a sense of ironic humor by dealing with such empty generalities as peace, hope, love, kindness, generosity, and happiness. What me worry? If people would only be nice to one another. Love is the answer to all questions. Flower power! Everything is simple when you view it from a distance. Throw your cares to the four winds. See how tiny they look scattered around the horizon like that. Stress begone! It’s all in your mind. Let the universe take control while you read your book. Think cosmic thoughts. Grand thoughts. Huge, momentous, significant, meaningful, eternal thoughts. There, you see, nothing to it. You can make it happen by rising above the plane of woe to attain the plane of conceptual indifference.

On the other hand, you can zoom in close to the details of what really counts in your life. A hobby, say, your pet, or maybe your collection of baseball cards. That way, you screen everything else out—all those troubles that stir up so much stress. Zoom in really, really close. Go to the hairdresser. Watch the game on TV. Do today’s sudoku puzzle. Trim your fingernails. Eat a bowl of Rice Krispies. Walk the dog. Find a fault. Sharpen a pencil. Empty the trash. Wash dishes. Sort your penny collection. The main thing is to clear you head of all but the simplest, most basic thoughts—the ones you neglect in the busyness of everyday life. Go for it. Tend to trivial affairs. Be petty through-and-through. Think inconsequential thoughts. Pay close attention to minute, detailed, insignificant affairs. Simplify, simplify, simplify down to almost nothing, and then some. Let go of everything but the whim of the moment. Forget duty and responsibility and caring and work. Play. Have fun. Life is not a sack of coal; see, you had it wrong. It’s a bowl of cherries. Here, have another. Make the big, bad world go away. We’re all just motes of dust anyway. Be your mote to the hilt!

When stress hits, you have the option of filling your consciousness with thoughts big or small. That’s as simple as I can make the problem of coping with life’s stressful complexities. Live on the highest level of generality you can attain, and watch all problems morph into the few universal concepts you most prefer. Or reach for the deepest level of sensory detail you can achieve, and watch your problems disappear, never to distract you again. Choosing to live at one extreme of consciousness or the other is guaranteed to lower your stress level and make your problems shrink if not vanish.

Which sounds absurd, but that’s how a great many people choose to live—on the top or bottom edge of the awareness consciousness makes possible. Philosophers and holy men tend to inhabit the rarefied atmosphere at the upper limit of conceptual consciousness, while trash sorters seek the steaming piles of detritus at the lower limit, eyes peeled for unsuspected treasures. Either way, life seems simpler and more meaningful than riding out the tumult in the middle.

Having set up the foregoing framework, let me now come to the point of this exercise.  Whether we live with our heads in clouds of deep abstraction, or feet on the trash heap of what’s concretely possible in real life, how we choose to manage our personal consciousness is not a given but is up to us to decide. The more we explore the possibilities our minds offer,  the easier we can shape consciousness to our liking. If we wait too long, it becomes almost impossible.

High-enders tend to be those striving to see the big picture—people drawn to conceptual schools of thought, to religion, politics, and the like where abstractions are king and values are whispering advisors. Low-enders are those caught up in the details they encounter in leading a life—trades and crafts persons, accountants, bureaucrats, medical professionals, farmers, and other of a practical bent preferring to deal with nitty-gritty particulars. Here the senses rule the mind and the big issue is doing the job right.

Then there’s the vast middle ground I haven’t mentioned of simplifying consciousness by drawing support judiciously from both extremes. In my own case, I strive to connect my feet on the trash heap of particular details to my head in the mists of abstract ideas by bridging back and forth through the body of my personal consciousness in its fullness of both concrete experience and encompassing thought. My method in this blog has been to have each end respectively inform the other, linking rarefied concepts to particular details in each post—or at least as often as I can. That way, my feet are placed in line with my head, providing as much support as they can. Such is my goal. Which reduces stress internally through opposites seeking engagement with each other, not externally by one pole deliberately avoiding its opposite, as I have caricatured such a situation in setting up the framework I established at the start of this post.

What I’m saying is that consciousness offers more ways of being in the world than many of us witness during our formative years, and if we rely unduly on one mode or another because that’s what we see our teachers and role models doing, we sell ourselves—and what our minds are capable of—short of full realization. The danger lies in getting accustomed to using our minds in limited ways, which effectively solders the wiring of our brains to favor those ways, making exploration of alternative mental strategies unlikely if not almost impossible. Set in our ways, we come to believe consciousness offers no alternatives, so it ossifies in our case, restricting the breadth and variety of our mental powers. Thinking there’s no other way, we turn into simpleminded ideologues defending our views to the end. The longer we carry on, the worse our condition becomes. To get out of our ruts, we must radically retool our minds, a job that gets more difficult with age. In the end, we have little choice but to settle for the limits we impose on ourselves.

Those who follow these posts know that I have often drawn a distinction between two activities within consciousness, concrete sensory perception and abstract concept formation. I visualize concepts as being built up over time through exposure to a series of similar but not identical percepts, so retaining the similarities but excluding the differences. The result is a categorical envelope (mammal, airplane, person, tool) that serves as an idea lacking sensible content. When a percept is matched to an appropriate concept, form and content combine in a meaningful perception (a particular mammal such as that porcupine in that tree, a photo of a Ford Trimotor airplane, the actor John Wayne, the needle-nosed pliers I thought I’d lost but found in my pocket).

Between the limits of concrete and sensory consciousness lies the vast playing field of perception where the two terminal extremes combine in episodes of meaningful experience. That is where our personal reality is played out, sometimes closer to the conceptual end of the field, other times the sensory end, weighting consciousness toward one extreme or the other. Consciousness, then, is seldom a matter of strictly conceptual or sensory experience as I have parodied it here, but a combination of both kinds of experience as suited to the phenomenal situations in which they occur. There are occasions when concepts are called for, others when percepts are required to illustrate concepts. Some of us tend to lurk near one end of the field or the other, seldom venturing out to the midline where a balance between the two is called for. That is, we develop a mental style favoring either sensory images or abstract ideas, and don’t realize the full potential of the consciousness we are endowed with.

My goal in writing this post is to encourage others to explore and utilize the full run of the middle ground of their consciousness where percepts and concepts meet on equal terms to form a reality favoring neither one extreme nor the other. When the going gets tough, we don’t have to hide in our minds, we can deal effectively by employing the full range of our mental capabilities. In times of crisis such as the one we live in today, it is essential to review both the ideas and facts—policies and deeds—that got us into this situation. In the great game of consciousness, the aim is not to score more goals than the other guy, but to achieve the most balanced play of reality possible under current conditions. That is the true art of consciousness, combining two simple views to form a convincing and serviceable reality as a basis for appropriate action. When that happens, the crowd springs to its feet with a jubilant roar of approval.

Right on!

 

 

(Copyright © 2009)

If feelings are involved, consciousness creates a record of itself in memory. And those same memories inform consciousness for the rest of your life. You don’t need to take notes, it’s all there in the shadows of your mind, a ready reference when required. An amazing system! Yet we seldom think what it means—that every stream of consciousness is autobiographical. The world you live in is the world you make for yourself by living your particular life. No one else lives the same life, so yours is historically unique. What makes sense to you won’t make the same sense to anyone else because your frames of reference are different in the most intimately personal way. When we die, our frames of reference—our histories—die with us. Each of us is irreplaceable. We get our one run at life in this universe, and that’s it.

I keep thinking of all the questions I could have asked my mother about her life in Maine—but never did. I am stuck having to view her as my mother when that role was only a bit part in her history. I know almost nothing about her personal memories, the intimate historical details she lived out every day, giving her an identity, making her who she was to herself. Who was that woman? Besides being my mother, she was that female stranger I lived with until, at seventeen, I went to college 3,000 miles away from her home near Seattle. It was her home, not mine. I only lived there; she ran the place.

Does anybody remember Jean Shepherd’s riff on mothers as sink creatures? Shepherd was a radio personality—basically, a storyteller or narrator of personal history—from the late 1940s to 1977. His nighttime program, as far as I could tell, was wholly unscripted. He’d start talking about some minor event from childhood in a steel town in northern Indiana, developing his theme as he went. Usually in there somewhere was a rhapsody on his mother standing at the kitchen sink. Peeling potatoes, washing dishes, filling the coffee pot—that was her role in his life. Like a woman in a Vermeer painting staring out the window—as far as we know that’s all she ever did—so she stands through the ages, seen through Vermeer’s or Shepherd’s eyes, creatures of the respective kinds of consciousness as cast on them by others who see something in them.

We know so much about ourselves and so little about anyone else—even our closest companions or blood relatives. What do spouses really know about their partners’ inner lives? So physically close and mentally remote, it’s hard to tell. My bet in most cases is not very much. When he claims to be hiking the Appalachian Trail, how do you know he isn’t hanging out with his Argentine sweetie? Besides being bed, dinner, and parenting creatures, what else would we want to know about those we care for? My answer: the full history of another’s conscious inner world.

The outlines of consciousness are sketched by our genes, each of us making proteins and metabolizing our food a little differently, so we all deviate somewhat from the basic human norms for body, consciousness, and behavior. From there, exposure to social and cultural influences takes over and we begin compiling our respective personal histories. What nature roughs out, our individual cultural engagement finishes in fine detail. Unique experiences persist in episodic memory; repeated experiences with overlapping features persist as concepts in semantic memory. Our stories develop both ways at once, specifically and generically, concretely and abstractly, the two in combination culminating in meaningful lives simultaneously rich in sensory detail and overall meaning.

If members of our family and social group get around by walking, then we become walkers as well; if they ride mules, horses, carriages, motorcycles, or public transportation, then we do likewise. Our mirror neurons make it seem natural for us to follow the example of what people do in our part of town. If we grow up without experiencing airplanes, iPhones or stone tools, then they are not part of our personal consciousness or the history it lays down. My grandfather used wooden tools, my father used metal tools, I use electrical and electronic tools. Mothers can cook with open fires, wood stoves, electric stoves, microwave ovens—or not cook at all if somebody else is up for the job. Not many sons would dub their mothers sink creatures today—nor would many mothers permit what sounds like a slur. Tooling around in an SUV is more like it, or toting a briefcase to work. 

These days, cultural ways change so fast, it is hard to keep up. I used logarithms in school, a slide rule in college, a mechanical desk calculator at work, and now a photon-powered electronic calculator. My early film cameras were variations on a black box with lens on one end, film on the other. Then I got a 35mm rangefinder, followed by a 120 twin-lens reflex, later a 35mm single-lens reflex. Now I’ve gone digital and abandoned black-and-white photography altogether. Whatever happened to pens and pencils? Typewriters? Linotype machines? Newspapers? I remember them all as essential parts of the world I grew up in. A good many parts of my consciousness were shaped to their use, parts now obsolete. If you don’t keep up, you become obsolete yourself because your mind is tooled to times gone by. Corporations can suffer that fate (think General Motors, Bell Telephone, IBM, Sears), or even once-great nations grown too full of themselves (France, England, Russia, the U.S.A.).

Language certainly changes over time. As a kid, I read six or seven Dr. Dolittle books from the library. Wanting to reconnect with those days, I planned to reread them—but got only to the third page of the first one I picked up. Hugh Lofting wrote in a stuffy style intended for a world gone by, now largely extinct. As the Hugh Lofting part of me is extinct. I recently had a similar experience trying to reconnect with Ralph Waldo Emerson. In today’s world, Thoreau has a touch of the archaic, but he is too original a mind to be classed with the dinosaurs. So is Walt Whitman. And Thomas Paine. As for the classic texts of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, efforts to keep them alive through heroic efforts are so desperate and extreme, it would be better to shut off life-support and retire them to the Museum of Outworn Cultures so modern consciousness can deal with current problems such as overpopulation, excessive consumption, the collapse of capitalism, global warming, wars without end, among others we have yet to develop ways of thinking about or vocabularies adequate to suitably framing so we can come up with workable solutions.

To draw a few examples from the history of my personal consciousness as recorded in memory, I offer these as determinants of modern history as this blogger has lived it:

  1. The 1937 crash and inferno of the hydrogen-filled zeppelin Hindenburg in landing at Lakehurst, New Jersey after crossing the Atlantic—I remember the spread in the rotogravure section of the Syracuse Post Standard.
  2. Admiral William Byrd’s bright red, six-wheeled, crevasse-proof Snow Cruiser being driven in 1939 along U.S. Route 20 en route to New York and ultimately Antarctica, where it promptly got lodged in a crevasse—I yearned desperately to be that shirtless guy stretched out in the sun along the sloping engine hood.
  3. The film version of The Wizard of Oz changed me forever by setting the standard for what entertainment could be—I loved the story, the characters, the sets, the music, the visual effects, the colors.
  4. Racing ahead of the family after the Sunday movie, turning on the radio, hearing serious voices tell of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor—me telling my parents something bad had happened.
  5. The Life Magazine cover photo during the war showing the head of a German soldier roasted alive in an armored vehicle in North Africa—the first time I remember being drawn to look again and again at something so horrifying.
  6. The school assembly called the day FDR died in 1945, me sitting in tears on a folding chair at the end of the row, being told school would let out early—which I knew wouldn’t do any good.
  7. Walking along a gravel road at scout camp in August, looking up at the blue sky, wondering what an atomic bomb was—I’d never heard of one before the raid on Hiroshima made it into the newspaper.
  8. Walking by Symphony Hall on Mass. Ave. in Boston, seeing door ajar, walking in on an open rehearsal, sitting in back under the balcony, seeing Pierre Monteux conduct the Boston Symphony in Hector Berlioz’ Symphonie Fantastique—I suddenly realized what music was all about, and that LPs didn’t capture half of it.
  9. The turbulent era of the 1960s with war in Viet Nam, flower children, the pill, racial violence, drugs, JFK’s assassination in 1963, RFK’s and MLK’s in 1968, and civil strife throughout—my father died, I had two children got divorced, remarried, changed jobs, every day demanded total concentration just to stay even, this was not the world I grew up in.
  10. In the late 1970s I took three courses with Sigmund Koch at Boston University, the one truly inspirational teacher I had in college or graduate school, a man big enough to critique the entire field of psychology at mid-century—he showed me what applied consciousness could do.

My conscious history is a tale of anxiety and revelation, which may be true for others as well. Evolution sets us up for such a life, we and our times do the rest, culture following through on what nature and our heritage have begun in our genome. Consciousness isn’t just for the moment or the day, it’s for a lifetime. Very little of it goes to waste. Coming to us in scraps, we stitch it together into the coherent tapestry of our outlook so that expectancy rewards us with a future containing more of the same. Which sometimes it doesn’t, so we settle for another round of anxiety, hoping for revelation. Consciousness, such as it is, steers every life to the end, creating the history of ourselves as individuals long before the history of a people or the world is even imagined, much less recorded.

Sailboat-72

 

 

(Copyright © 2009)

By “bird consciousness” I mean my inner experience of birds rather than whatever it is birds might be conscious of in their own minds. My consciousness of birds is challenging enough without venturing onto the slippery slope of what kind of world birds make for themselves.

To set the stage: yesterday I rowed to the island where workers were replacing the roof of the stone cabin my father built in 1941. The old roof had leaked on and off for almost 70 years, so my brother in Hamilton decided to fix the problem with a new one made of modern materials laid down by professionals. He was paying the bill; I wanted to get a few pictures of work in progress to show him what the job looked like.

On the island, I revert to my island self, camera ready, ever on the watch for the state of the tide, wind direction, shore erosion, wildlife, fallen trees, approaching storms, and other concerns. I talk with the roofers, take a few pictures, walk the trails. Everywhere I see and hear birds. Song and white-throated sparrows, loons, winter wrens, hermit thrushes, cormorants, ring-billed gulls, crows, red-breasted nuthatch, even an adult eagle in the nest. I am at home among old friends and close neighbors.

But blogging about consciousness as I do, I find the island less simple than it used to be. What is it about that flitting shape that says red-breasted nuthatch? What about those calls announces hermit thrush or loon? These are labels for interpretations of shapes, motion, coloring, size, sounds, settings, and expectations all pointing to one bird and not another. Conceptual birds at that. Birds in my head. Is that where they are? Are they stimuli which I recognize?  Representations of stimuli? Percepts by themselves? Percepts joined to concepts so I am able to identify the class they belong to? I came over to talk to the workers and here I am roaming the trails, talking to myself.

Such is my life these days. As both investigator and subject of my own introspection, I find little firm ground to anchor my boat to. I am ruled by mixed metaphors. Like the Indian clubs I wrote about the other day (see Reflection 131: Feedback), everything is up in the air. I am back with Aristotle trying to figure the relation between thinker, thought, and the thing thought about. How do words jibe with nonverbal experience? When I see a bird, what am I really seeing? Bird on branch? Representation in my head of bird on branch? Sensory or phenomenal bird on branch? Sensory and conceptual bird on branch at the same time? Fulfilled expectation of bird on branch? If not a mess, my bird consciousness seems at least more complicated than in the old days when a bird was a bird was a bird, always and forever.

It’s like trying to make sense of lichens that have the nature of both algae and fungi. I saw a lot of them yesterday on the island. Or slime molds—I saw bright yellow swarms of  them, too. Slime molds boast two different natures—fungal and animal. They crawl about the forest floor like so many amoebas—or massed mushrooms! It depends on how you look at them. Slime on the move, it can flow through tightly woven silk, then set spores and make more of the same stuff. Animal, vegetable, mineral? Hard to say. With free-floating nuclei not separated by cell membranes, they have herd and individual mentalities at the same time. After blogging about conscious-ness for nine months now, that’s how I feel about my own mind: hard to say what it is, where it is.

We talk about birds all the time as if they were up in the air, out on the water, or right here on the land. Yet every bird we see is clearly in our minds at the same time. Not all in one place but spread throughout in a great many separate representations—over 40 for visual aspects alone. To us, those collective representations are what the bird is. We don’t have immediate access to the bird itself that somehow bypasses our sensory apparatus, and there’s no little homunculus in a screening room watching the show. No, the bird can’t be in our eye as an upside-down optical image—that’s only the beginning. It’s there all right, but pixelated by individual photoreceptors which convert it to brain language in terms of ionic flows and neurotransmitters. From there on, for us, it’s existence is strictly electro-chemical.

Yet somehow birds are emergent properties that flit about consciousness as if in the aviary at the Washington Zoo. How do they get there by such a long route as if beamed down in an ion transporter at this very instant? Will I ever understand? Is it possible to understand? Does it make any sense to try to understand? What would happen if I just accepted the fact that consciousness happens, and let it go at that.

Then what would I blog about? My children, my day, what I had for lunch, or ideas other people wrote about without consulting me? No, at this stage of my life, I am called to blog about consciousness. That is, to enable consciousness to blog about itself. And consciousness, being an aspect of the universe, to give the universe a chance to blog about itself. That seems to be what I am doing. I didn’t ask for this, it’s just the position the universe has put me in, so I’m bent on meeting the assignment the best I can.

Start again. My topic today, class, is bird consciousness. Consciousness of birds, not by birds. One thing I know, it’s all in my head. Another thing is, my brain makes it happen, helped along by the rest of my body, and the situation I’m in as I construe it, along with my experience of that particular bird. So the bird image, meaningful as it is, is not alone. It exists in a situation that favors observation of birds—like me walking along a wooded trail where birds are apt to appear. I’m familiar with birds. I’ve been watching them for years, training myself to identify them from minimal clues. Lilt of a wing, coloration where I expect it to be, familiar call—these are in my head because I’ve taken pains to put them there. The bird is the end result of my learning to see birds as I have trained myself for many years.

So consciousness isn’t given out fully formed and operational but is learned bit-by-bit over a lifetime. Largely by trial and error. I’ve made a lot of blunders and misidentifications. But with the restricted set of birds I am apt to see on the island, I’m not all that bad. Even with sandpipers, which are notoriously hard to tell one from another. Some sandpipers. Some of the time when conditions are favorable.

So there’s more to consciousness than simply opening your eyes or your ears. Consciousness is learned by doing. It hoists itself by its own bootstraps, getting better at it every day. In my case, it doesn’t just happen to me; I make it happen. Not just because it’s there, but because it’s important. To me. At the time. I set the standard of achievement. That’s what it means to be me. Consciousness is self-determining because any particular person is self-motivated and invested in the results. Like riding a bicycle or rowing a boat, consciousness is a skill. We have to learn to avoid the pitfalls if we want to get it right.

Let me talk about rowing. It’s ready to mind because I rowed to the island and back yesterday. It’s always an exercise in navigation, getting from A to B across a mile of waves and currents, my back to my path through the water, which is every bit as hard as it might seem. Like consciousness, rowing is a learned skill. Yesterday, for instance, I could see where I wanted to land a mile away from where I launched, but there were three tidal crosscurrents I couldn’t see but knew from experience were there to be dealt with. The challenge was figuring which direction to head out, taking those currents into account, in order to end up where I wanted to be on the far side of my crossing. The currents I would be rowing across moved at three different speeds, so I had to average their speed and width in choosing my initial heading, otherwise they would sweep me well past my landing of choice. Normally, I would factor-in wind strength and direction as well, but the wind was light so I could focus on the currents, which at the time of my crossing were at greatest strength. To make a long story short, I adjusted my heading every few minutes in light of what portion of my trip lay ahead—ending up right where I wanted to be with minimal expenditure of effort.

A lesson that applies to consciousness as well. You have to prefigure it if you want to get it right, taking feedback into account the whole way. We get good at those skills we practice the most. Taking consciousness as a given, we find it full of surprises we aren’t good at anticipating. We often get it wrong without realizing it. As in baseball, if we don’t see the drop or curve coming, we swing and we miss. Seeing consciousness as an acquired skill, we do our best to navigate the crosscurrents sure to throw us off course.

In a very real sense, consciousness is what we make of it. Like the jinni in the bottle, it will grant the wishes we lay on it. In speaking of pitfalls and crosscurrents of consciousness, I am speaking metaphorically, which is the only way I have of giving my inner workings some kind of shape I can deal with. Even neuroanatomists have the same problem in naming parts of the brain: the amygdala looks like an almond (which is what the word means in Latin), and the hippocampus like a seahorse (ditto). We paint the brain as a “computer” with the job of “processing information” for similar reasons. Are there really “representations” of stimuli in the mind as Aristotle claimed (so-called “likenesses of things”), or did he put them there for us? Would we ID “reality” if we saw it, or is that just a name we use to mask our ignorance? I suspect consciousness works the other way round, reality fulfilling the vision we entertain beforehand in experience and then cast on the world. That is, reality is what we make of it through consciousness.

If that is true, then much of the sense brain science makes of the brain is literally that—a manmade balm to suit the preconceptions brought to the study of the brain and its mind. Inadvertently but dependably, is it possible the conceptual tools we use are salting the mine even as we dig? Is there any way to dig without hitting upon the preconceptions with which we advance? That seems to be how consciousness works, tailoring our findings to our circumstances, the situations we find ourselves in as we construe or imagine them—and then make them come true. That is certainly how fiction works. Are works of nonfiction any different as far as consciousness is concerned?

To bring these heartfelt conjectures to a conclusion of sorts, let me tell you what just happened. For months now I’ve been piling papers and magazines I want to save on the little table at the end of my bookcase, balancing each addition very carefully so not to disturb things. Next to the pile is a packed bin of stuffed file folders on one side, a stack of mounted photos and posters too big to fail because too big to file. As I was writing the last sentence of the paragraph before this one, the whole construction let go and is now heaped on the floor. Like what I’ve been saying about consciousness, it was all my own doing.

Ring-Billed Gull-72

 

(Copyright © 2009)

Recently, I attended a talk in Hancock, Maine given by William Crain, professor of psychology at CCNY. He spoke on reclaiming childhood, which has been depleted if not lost due to inroads by modern media and demands of modern education, so-called. We are depriving our children, he said, of many of the fundamental benefits of childhood on which their subsequent maturity will depend. Crain touched on childhood arts, play, and sensitivity to nature. A spirited discussion ensued, addressing issues in modern parenting and early education. At one point I found myself saying something to this effect:

What unsupervised outdoor play and exploration stimulates in young children—beyond adventure and discovery—is a sense of personal ease in being one’s self. Confidence and self-assurance flow from owning your own self-directed experience. That is, from pleasing yourself. Which is very different from what happens in schools where teachers dole out praise for desired performance, and children become fully dependent on someone else deciding when they are doing the correct thing the proper way in the right spirit. Pleasing others makes you socially acceptable; pleasing yourself makes you a real person. The two are not the same, and lead to wholly different personalities later in life.

I am reminded of what happened after the Russians lofted Sputnik on October 4, 1957. As a nation we were aghast that the Ruskies had gotten so far ahead of us in space technology. Educators panicked and vowed that the elementary school curriculum had to be juiced up with more math and more science. Set theory became the thing, along with exercises in concept formation. Grade school was given a shot of grad school ideas, and childhood itself was sloughed off as . . . well . . . childish. The result is homework and burdensome backpacks in grade one, but not children who are smarter or any more competent.

Crain’s slides took me back to Depression era days in Hamilton, New York, where I roamed springtime hills in search of runoff flowing from rainfall and melting snow. Using twigs and pebbles, I built canals and dams and boats for hours on end. I suppose it was play, but it was my job at the time—what I did for a living—for I was actively building my life by developing an intuitive sense of flow, gravity, energy, and progression of the seasons. Yes, I came home sopping and muddy—but wiser and more accomplished than when I set out. Happier, too, in being intimately engaged with my native habitat, my particular place on this Earth. My folks had no idea where I’d gone, and didn’t worry about my coming to harm. My father had grown up in rural Vermont, mother in coastal Maine. After-school surveillance wasn’t an issue. True, they didn’t know where I was, but they understood nonetheless.

As I got a little older, my experiential approach to hydrology soon led to major discoveries in paleontology. It made sense to go home by following the intermittent streams I played in as they joined other streams coming off the slopes, growing larger, cutting channels then gullies into the local bedrock, rushing toward the valley where I lived. From time to time I’d pick up a rock from the stream, turn it over, and find the shallow form or impression of a creature looking like a giant sow bug. My eyes turned from the streambed to the black walls of the gullies, which were built up in layers of shale. On Saturdays, when I had more time than I did after school, I’d pack hammer and stone chisel with me, and go at those walls of shale, and the secret life forms they held—shells, sea lilies, trilobites! My friend Norman’s father was a biologist who knew about such things.

My real schooling in those days took place outdoors, not in closed rooms with blackboards, flags, clocks that had Roman numerals, and cloakrooms in back. Earth was my classroom and teacher, aided by anybody who could put what I’d found into some kind of perspective. Sixty-five years later, I’m still the same kid in hot pursuit of horseshoe crabs, sandpipers, wildflowers. Now I think more in terms of watersheds than small streams, the progression of the seasons than fixed days of the week, but I’m the same child whose consciousness has grown large in the never-ending flood of personal adventure and experience that is my life and no other’s.

What a difference it makes to follow your own course of study instead of having to fulfill others’ ideas of what you should be doing with your life. Whatever I am, I am my own person, so respond my own way as best I can. Schools fill your head with what other people want you to know, so you become an agent for a sector of society that henceforth has dibs on your body. It’s like a credit-card debt you will never be free of because you unwittingly took it on when you were too young to realize what you were doing. Graduation is the beginning of payback time when you are expected to perform at the job for which you’ve been trained. Getting a job and supporting the economy have become so routine in our culture that we have come to believe that’s how life is meant to be lived. You are made to feel selfish and unpatriotic if you even dream of plotting your own course. To be a good citizen is to devote your life’s energy to fulfilling the dreams others lay upon you. Forget your own bliss and get on with what you have been programmed to do. It’s that simple. And that crazy.

Sanity lies in taking your own consciousness back from those who have stolen it from you. In being your own person in your own life in the place where you are. The price you pay is in being responsible for your own actions because you can’t blame your boss, your folks, your spouse, or your kids for your being who you are in doing what you do. If you aren’t comfortable with what consciousness presents to you, you can always change your ways—it’s your call, as long as you do it without inflicting harm on others in the process. This is the opposite of the jihadist way based on such a narrow under-standing that all blame for things going wrong can be cast on designated enemies you are entitled to blow up in self-righteous fury. No one in his right mind would fight in a war if he didn’t believe those he killed were lesser beings than himself, deserving of slaughter like so many ants. This requires adjusting consciousness to think in terms of the good and the evil, those deserving to live and those begging for death.

But if you are on good terms with your own mind, you know that others are striving to be on good term with theirs as well, and all face the same struggle in achieving a life that is considerate, fair, just, and the equal of all others. No one can hand you such a life, you must earn it on your own, and support others in striving to earn theirs. Do they teach that in school? They pay lip service to fair play, but the hidden agenda is always the home team’s got to win. If the umpire calls a foul against your side, he is clearly blind. The other side is always at fault—it’s their nature. But by being on your own, you realize others are too. If you take advantage of them, they will return the favor fourfold. If you treat them fairly as equals, ditto because they identify with you, as you have shown you do with them.

Give and take is the nature of a mutually beneficial society. Fixed minds and ideologies are a curse upon the collective consciousness of the whole. Schooled as a group to believe the same doctrine, we lose sight of truth itself. Educated (led out) as individuals each on our own, we share our respective excitements and learn from one another as equal participants in the adventure of life. Individuals contribute to society as they are uniquely qualified to do, enriching it by giving the gift of one self to all, which the all will reciprocate, each in his or her manner.

Reclaiming childhood means taking the risk of reclaiming consciousness for each individual. That encourages each one to be his or her unique self all the way. It means giving up the myth that under the skin all are identical. We are valuable one to another precisely because we are unique and have something to offer that no one else has. Genetically we are distinct, as we are situationally, experientially, and existentially. No one is more essential than another, all are equally valuable.

That is where this riff on reclaiming childhood for ourselves has taken me. Equality itself is attainable through our diversity, as are fair treatment and true social justice. In thinking all must be educated the same to be treated the same is a fundamental error because it cannot be true. No two of us are alike; each is unique. A true education would address our personal constellation of interests and abilities, and nurture them to find where they lead. An education that closes a person down for the sake of group unity is no education at all. We all need encouragement to open ourselves up so we can blossom in youth and come to fruition in maturity. As our individual if imperfect selves, not clones of some perfect—and wholly fictitious—ideal.

We’ve tried no child left behind and it hasn’t worked. How about moving every child to the fore of his own life and see how that goes? Children are unique individuals when they are born, and are such in school. Respecting and nurturing that individuality just may be the key to facing the growing number of problems our numbers and lifestyles are causing in today’s world. It’s time for a new take on education. I suggest we place our trust in the expansion and development of individual consciousness and see where it takes us. That is, base education on who and where our children are at the time of learning and not impose lessons despite who and where they are as we so often do now. The sandbox, playground, back yard, and stream gully are all places of learning. How about retiring the school board and trusting our children to show us what they can do on their own as their budding consciousness means them to do?

Herring in a Bucket

 

 

Reflection 131: Feedback

July 20, 2009

(Copyright © 2009)

Three posts ago (Reflection 128: Woody Allen Consciousness), I dealt with four aspects of consciousness in which (through introspection) I claimed to see anxiety as a common feature, and the amygdala as playing an implicit role in that anxiety. I sent a copy of that post to Joseph LeDoux, leading authority on emotional consciousness (whom I had quoted), and in return he sent me a short note, and the draft of a manuscript he’d written on emotional coloration of consciousness. LeDoux’s reply read:

Thanks for the note. Interesting ideas. But my view is that the amygdala [is] not really involved in conscious fear or anxiety, at least not directly. The arousal that it generates contributes but the amygdala itself seems to be non-introspectable. I’m attaching something that came out last year in a book called Frontiers of Consciousness (Ox U Press). The attached is an unedited version of the ms, but is basically what was published. Thanks again. Joe

Talk about anxiety, I was anxious upon reading the note, and even more anxious upon reading the attached chapter, which amounted to a complete review of emotional consciousness, citing 351 sources from the relevant literature. LeDoux was generous in dubbing my subjective ideas “interesting,” but there was no question he had the peer-reviewed facts on his side. Still, I felt the reason I sent the post to an expert in the field held true: there was a place in consciousness studies for introspection as a supplement to animal research, philosophical musings, functional imaging, psychoanalysis, cultural anthropology, the arts, and any other human activity shedding light on the mind. I’d said in my initial email that introspection and basic brain research were tunneling into the same mountain from opposites sides, hoping to meet in the middle, or by a different metaphor:

In addition to studies of neural substrates of consciousness, I firmly see a need for a sandwich approach which will inform such studies by coming from above—not from the substrate but the real item itself—because I think consciousness, as an emergent property, will never be found in the neurons themselves because that’s not where it lives. So that’s what I blog about, for whatever it’s worth.

Having read LeDoux’s chapter three times now, I am impressed both by the amount of research that has been done—and the amount that still lies ahead. In truth, much of what we know today about emotional consciousness is based on informed yet conjectural interpretations of basic research. The field rests largely on claims and arguments. A close reading reveals phrases such as “are believed to be,” “are often considered,” “may be,” “might be thought of as,” “my proposal is,” “I will argue that,” “is likely to,” “probably occurs,” “much debate exists,” “perhaps,” and so on. Knowledge is harder to come by than we commonly suppose. The essence of science (that is, of knowing) is doubt and skepticism, which is why on-going research is so necessary. Current knowing invariably rests on a flurry of assumptions, beliefs, and conditional assertions. Only when the flurry dissipates does knowledge stiffen into certainty—always an illusion to fill the break until flurries fly again.

Science, like religion and philosophy, is an edifice in need of constant maintenance. My image is of a juggler whirling Indian clubs in the air, dropping one here or there, picking up others, diligently striving, balancing, laboring, watching, paying careful attention, always appearing the same yet never quite the same two cycles in a row. In a moment of laxity, the clubs spill in a heap—until gathered and set in motion with renewed vigilance. Such is every human endeavor. Such is medicine, the stock market, technology, the Internet, blogging, and consciousness itself—the ultimate human endeavor.

I juggle my consciousness as best I can, as you juggle yours. Taken together we form a spectacle of jugglers whirling our clubs en masse while knowing distraction or exhaustion or simply missing a beat will make us drop one or more. We can’t keep going forever. Sooner or later. . . . What, me anxious?

But back to emotional consciousness. Essentially, it is whatever aspect of mind we pay attention to that bears emotional overtones expressing how we feel at the time. In picturing the amygdala responsible for feelings of anxiety, I am the arch-conjuror reaching farther than I have any right to on the basis of evidence—but reaching anyway because that is my nature. If I don’t reach farther today than yesterday, what’s the point of going on? Done reaching, I am finished. Where’s the adventure in that?

I sent my 128th post to Joseph LeDoux because I felt I had made a discovery—that anxiety is behind a large part of consciousness. I have claimed that consciousness is given us to solve novel problems that evolution has no leverage on, and anxiety is what turns a situation into a problem. Anxiety is a sign we are invested in a particular situation and care about the outcome. Interpreting the phenomenal situation is a problem if we want to get it right. Adopting the right idiom of consciousness in addressing the situation is a problem in itself reflected in how we present ourselves to the world. And lastly, applying an appropriate elixir (or fudge factor) in order to fit our way of thinking to the situation is a forth-order problem. All involving anxiety because we’re not sure of ourselves or the outcome we desire. And implicating the amygdala as the neural seat of emotional consciousness, so I claimed—which is where I overreached myself. In correcting me by saying, “The arousal that it generates contributes [to feelings of anxiety] but the amygdala itself seems to be non-introspectable,” LeDoux is asserting the position he took in Synaptic Self where he wrote:

While individual brain regions and networks make distinct contributions to the processes that together constitute anxiety, anxiety itself is best thought of as a property of the overall circuitry rather than of specific brain regions (Viking, 2002, page 290).

In his chapter in Frontiers of Consciousness, LeDoux makes it clear: “Amygdala processing in humans occurs unconsciously.” Summarizing, “Indeed, amygdala processing meets most of the principles of automaticity—that is it is independent of attention and awareness.” So, like Hamlet sensing a presence behind the curtain in the queen’s bedroom but not knowing it is Polonius, I had no way of identifying the amygdala as the source of the anxiety associated with problem-solving in self-examined consciousness. As part of a network, the amygdala itself is not subject to introspection.

I stand corrected. Which I take to be a demonstration of cooperation between neuroscientists on one hand and us introspectors on the other.

Putting Heads Together

 

(Copyright © 2009)

Based in Kaiserslautern, Germany between Korean and Vietnamese Wars, I served as a still photographer for the U.S. Army Signal Corps 1956-1957. With an ear for the local idiom SP-Kaiserslautern-1957 (having studied German for two years), I was sometimes mistaken for a native speaker and, off-duty, did my best to look like one. With 30 days of leave a year, I traveled around France, Italy, Holland, and much of the wine-growing region west of the Rhine River. On foot, I roamed the hills around Kaiserslautern whenever I could, while most of my Army buddies played cards, went to the PX, or movies on base. Putting my conscious mind where my body was, I think I got more from my military experience than those of my buddies who carried on as if they were still in the States.

I bring this up because I see so many people hiking the trails of Acadia National Park jabbering away as if they were back wherever they came from. That is, their minds are anywhere but where their bodies are at the moment. Which is why I published ACADIA: The Soul of a National Park in 1998—to show some of what might be discovered by actively exploring the trails along the way instead of manfully striding to the top of the mountain and then back to the car. The point being that we have to actively reach out to the landscape if even a portion of it is to register in consciousness. Looking is the greater part of seeing; without it we are functionally blind.

Which good old Thoreau said almost 150 years ago (Henry David Thoreau, “Autumnal Tints” in Excursions, 1863):

Objects are concealed from our view, not so much because they are out of the course of our visual ray as because we do not bring our minds and eyes to bear on them; for there is no power to see in the eye itself, any more than in any other jelly. We do not realize how far and widely, or how near and narrowly, we are to look. The greater part of the phenomena of Nature are for this reason concealed from us all our lives. (Page 350f.)

I picture that visual ray shooting out of our pupils, intercepting the scene, reflecting it back into our eyes so our brains can get at it. No ray, no sightline, no reflection, no seeing. I think digital photography is a good reminder that we have to take pains in aiming our cameras (or cell phones) at something if we want to view the image on the LCD monitor. That much is obvious. What we sometimes forget is that the same is true for seeing with our own eyes. Thoreau again:

There is just as much beauty visible to us in the landscape as we are prepared to appreciate,—not a grain more. The actual objects which one man will see from a particular hill-top are just as different from those which another will see as the beholders are different. The Scarlet Oak must, in a sense, be in your eye when you go forth. We cannot see anything until we are possessed with the idea of it, take it into our heads,—and then we can hardly see anything else. (Page 351.)

That last sentence says it all: we see from the inside-out—not simply what is there waiting to be seen. We need motivation to direct attention toward that which we want to see before we see anything at all. Exceptions to that principle usually demonstrate that, as the frog is programmed to see the hawk, we come programmed to see certain things such as flesh of the opposite sex, food, threats to our children, and shiny new cars. Well, maybe not all of us appreciate the cars, or opposite sex for that matter. Aside from such salient visions, learning and effort are generally required to appreciate the sight of most things nature and culture have on display. Some of us will notice them, many will walk right by. Thoreau says, for example:

In my botanical rambles I find that, first, the idea, or image, of a plant occupies my thoughts, though it may seem very foreign to this locality,—no nearer than Hudson’s Bay,—and for some weeks or months I go thinking of it, and expecting it, unconsciously, and at length I surely see it. This is the history of my finding a score or more of rare plants, which I could name. (Page 351.)

If you don’t have a mind for rare plants, you’ll never have an eye for them, either. Thoreau’s next sentence: “A man sees only what concerns him.” (Page 351.) Expectancy is destiny. True for us all. We generally see only what we have an interest in seeing in the world around us. To see more, we have to develop an interest in seeing more. We have to be trained—or train ourselves—to see what we’re missing.

I have found that it required a different intention of the eye, in the same locality, to see different plants, even when they were closely allied. (Page 352.)

Thoreau got that right. It takes “a different intention of the eye” so see anything we are not accustomed to look for in our surroundings. Intention is the key word in using our eyes. And ears, and fingers. The nose is different. With molecules actually settling on our olfactory membranes, we smell them whether we want to or not. Where smells have their own characteristic insistence, sights and sounds are more matters of intention on our part. Which is why we generally see what we are familiar with, as long as it’s not upstaged by a more commanding presence. Parents in the audience single out their children in the chorus and have eyes only for them, even though others may be better performers. Attention is in the eye of the beholder.

Which raises the question, if we want to learn to see or hear more than we do now, how do we upgrade our intention? That, of course, is one thing schools are for. If you missed what you wanted to learn then, there are always guide books to trees, butterflies, seashells, birds, music, wines, and just about everything else you want to gaze on, taste, or listen to. Or you can get an advanced degree in intentionality in any number of disciplines such as astrophysics or restaurant management. Of course there’s always the library, bookstore, Internet, museum and any number of institutions to help you live out your desire to see more along the road of life itself. What these aids can’t do for you, however, is the work of applying their message to your particular situation. You’ve got to put in the necessary ten-thousand hours on your own (see Reflection 75: Ten-Thousand Hours).

I got my first camera when I was four years old for a box top and a quarter. I put in ten-thousand hours taking pictures of my brothers, dogs, friends. I became a photographer in the Army, and a photographer’s assistant on the New York scene when I got out. I worked as a photographer at Iowa State University, Harvard College Observatory—and am still at it. I have fulfilled my visual intentions many times over. Then I got into teaching photography at Phillips Academy in Andover, and had to put in another ten-thousand hours learning to be a teacher. Which I really pulled off by teaching learning-disabled students at Landmark School in Beverly, MA. By then I knew classes were a myth of convenience; each student was an individual learner on his or her own. I could spot left-handers and hook-writers and cheek-resters across the room. For any given assignment, I found ways each student could learn from it what she or he needed to learn. I felt pretty good about putting my teaching intentions into practice. Then, thinking I knew how to do it, I turned to writing—and had to start all over with yet another stint of ten-thousand hours devoted to learning how to write by writing the same thing over and over again.

And so it goes. When teacher says, “Listen up, class,” she means for every student to hear her words exactly as she intends them, with no exceptions. But that’s wishful thinking. We are who we are, no two alike. We listen according to our training, experience, motivation, and ability—and are sure to hear a different message than teacher intends. The same goes for looking at pictures, movies, videos, Websites, graffiti, or masterpieces of art. The apprenticeship never ends; there’s always more to see than our eyes can relay to our minds. Seeing is a matter of exploring the possibilities by expanding our visual intentions ad infinitum.

Living in cities as most of us do, what can we see in nature? Sometimes, very little. The story is told of a family from Philadelphia coming to Mount Desert Island for a two-week vacation—and leaving after two days because there was nothing to see. The great outdoors was wholly beyond them. As Thoreau said, “The greater part of the phenomena of Nature are . . . concealed from us all our lives”—and he was talking about rural Concord Massachusetts in the mid-nineteenth century. If we are out of touch with nature today, we are in B-I-G T-R-O-U-B-L-E because nature is what provides our toehold in the universe. My own studies show that sea level is rising on the coast of Maine even as I write these words. Looking blindly from the picture windows so dear to our hearts, we do not sense the dangers lurking off the end of the dock. We don’t feel the crosshairs lined up on our chests, the laser beams steady on our brows—because our intention is to ignore them. La, what is the North Atlantic to me, or am I to the North Atlantic? That double-ended query tells the whole story. Out of touch with nature, we are out of touch with life itself. As I said, expectancy is destiny.

11x14 Camera-72

 

(Copyright © 2009)

Here’s a look into another conscious mind beside my own, that of pianist Karl Paulnack, Director of the Music Division at the Boston Conservatory. The excerpt, used by permission, is from a welcome address he gave to parents of incoming students at the conservatory on September 1, 2004. My interest in presenting this piece is the undercurrent of musical consciousness echoing through these words.

~ ~ WHY MUSIC MATTERS ~ ~

One of the first cultures to articulate how music really works were the ancient Greeks . . . [who] said that music and astronomy were two sides of the same coin. Astronomy was seen as the study of relationships between observable, permanent, external objects, and music was seen as the study of relationships between invisible, internal, hidden objects. Music has a way of finding the big, invisible moving pieces inside our hearts and souls and helping us figure out the position of things inside us. Let me give you some examples of how this works.

One of the most profound musical compositions of all time is the “Quartet for the End of Time” written by French composer Olivier Messiaen in 1940. Messiaen was 31 years old when France entered the war against Nazi Germany. He was captured by the Germans in June of 1940 and imprisoned in a prisoner-of-war camp.

He was fortunate to find a sympathetic prison guard who gave him paper and a place to compose, and fortunate to have musician colleagues in the camp, a cellist, a violinist, and a clarinetist. Messiaen wrote his quartet with these specific players in mind. It was performed in January 1941 for the prisoners and guards of the prison camp. Today it is one of the most famous masterworks in the repertoire.

Given what we have since learned about life in the Nazi camps, why would anyone in his right mind waste time and energy writing or playing music? There was barely enough energy on a good day to find food and water, to avoid a beating, to stay warm, to escape torture-why would anyone bother with music? And yet—even from the concentration camps, we have poetry, we have music, we have visual art; it wasn’t just this one fanatic Messiaen; many, many people created art. Why? Well, in a place where people are only focused on survival, on the bare necessities, the obvious conclusion is that art must be, somehow, essential for life. The camps were without money, without hope, without commerce, without recreation, without basic respect, but they were not without art. Art is part of survival; art is part of the human spirit, an unquenchable expression of who we are. Art is one of the ways in which we say, “I am alive, and my life has meaning.”

In September 2001 I was a resident of Manhattan. On the morning of September 12, I reached a new understanding of my art and its relationship to the world. I sat down at the piano that morning at 10 a.m. to practice as was my daily routine. I lifted the cover on the keyboard, and opened my music, and put my hands on the keys and took my hands off the keys. And I sat there and thought, does this even matter? Playing the piano right now, given what happened in this city yesterday, seems silly, absurd, irreverent, pointless. Why am I here? What place has a musician in this moment in time? Who needs a piano player right now? I was completely lost.

And then I, along with the rest of New York, went through the journey of getting through that week. I did not play the piano that day, and in fact I contemplated briefly whether I would ever want to play the piano again. And then I observed how we got through the day.

At least in my neighborhood, we didn’t shoot hoops or play Scrabble. We didn’t play cards to pass the time, we didn’t watch TV, we didn’t shop, we most certainly did not go to the mall. The first organized activity that I saw in New York, on the very evening of September 11th, was singing. People sang. People sang around fire houses, people sang “We Shall Overcome.” Lots of people sang “America the Beautiful.” The first organized public event that I remember was the Brahms Requiem, later that week, at Lincoln Center, with the New York Philharmonic. The first organized public expression of grief, our first communal response to that historic event, was a concert. That was the beginning of a sense that life might go on. The US Military secured the airspace, but recovery was led by the arts, and by music in particular, that very night.

From these two experiences, I have come to understand that music is not part of “arts and entertainment” as the newspaper section would have us believe. It’s not a luxury, a lavish thing that we fund from leftovers of our budgets, not a plaything or an amusement or a pass time. Music is a basic need of human survival. Music is one of the ways we make sense of our lives, one of the ways in which we express feelings when we have no words, a way for us to understand things with our hearts when we can’t with our minds.

Some of you may know Samuel Barber’s heart wrenchingly beautiful piece “Adagio for Strings.” If you don’t know it by that name, then some of you may know it as the background music which accompanied the Oliver Stone movie Platoon, a film about the Vietnam War. If you know that piece of music either way, you know it has the ability to crack your heart open like a walnut; it can make you cry over sadness you didn’t know you had. Music can slip beneath our conscious reality to get at what’s really going on inside us the way a good therapist does.

Very few of you have ever been to a wedding where there was absolutely no music. There might have been only a little music, there might have been some really bad music, but with few exceptions there is some music. And something very predictable happens at weddings—people get all pent up with all kinds of emotions, and then there’s some musical moment where the action of the wedding stops and someone sings or plays the flute or something. And even if the music is lame, even if the quality isn’t good, predictably 30 or 40 percent of the people who are going to cry at a wedding cry a couple of moments after the music starts. Why? The Greeks. Music allows us to move around those big invisible pieces of ourselves and rearrange our insides so that we can express what we feel even when we can’t talk about it. Can you imagine watching Indiana Jones or Superman or Star Wars with the dialogue but no music? What is it about the music swelling up at just the right moment in ET so that all the softies in the audience start crying at exactly the same moment? I guarantee you if you showed the movie with the music stripped out, it wouldn’t happen that way. The Greeks. Music is the understanding of the relationship between invisible internal objects.

I’ll give you one more example, the story of the most important concert of my life. I must tell you I have played a little less than a thousand concerts in my life so far. I have played in places that I thought were important. I like playing in Carnegie Hall; I enjoyed playing in Paris; it made me very happy to please the critics in St. Petersburg. I have played for people I thought were important; music critics of major newspapers, foreign heads of state. The most important concert of my entire life took place in a nursing home in a small Midwestern town a few years ago.

I was playing with a very dear friend of mine who is a violinist. We began, as we often do, with Aaron Copland’s “Sonata,” which was written during World War II and dedicated to a young friend of Copland’s, a young pilot who was shot down during the war. Now we often talk to our audiences about the pieces we are going to play rather than providing them with written program notes. But in this case, because we began the concert with this piece, we decided to talk about the piece later in the program and to just come out and play the music without explanation.

Midway through the piece, an elderly man seated in a wheelchair near the front of the concert hall began to weep. This man, whom I later met, was clearly a soldier—even in his 70’s, it was clear from his buzz-cut hair, square jaw and general demeanor that he had spent a good deal of his life in the military. I thought it a little bit odd that someone would be moved to tears by that particular movement of that particular piece, but it wasn’t the first time I’ve heard crying in a concert and we went on with the concert and finished the piece.

When we came out to play the next piece on the program, we decided to talk about both the first and second pieces, and we described the circumstances in which the Copland was written and mentioned its dedication to a downed pilot. The man in the front of the audience became so disturbed that he had to leave the auditorium. I honestly figured that we would not see him again, but he did come backstage afterwards, tears and all, to explain himself.

What he told us was this:

During World War II, I was a pilot, and I was in an aerial combat situation where one of my team’s planes was hit. I watched my friend bail out, and watched his parachute open, but the Japanese planes which had engaged us returned and machine gunned across the parachute cords so as to separate the parachute from the pilot, and I watched my friend drop away into the ocean, realizing that he was lost. I have not thought about this for many years, but during that first piece of music you played, this memory returned to me so vividly that it was as though I was reliving it. I didn’t under-stand why this was happening, why now, but then when you came out to explain that this piece of music was written to commemorate a lost pilot, it was a little more than I could handle. How does the music do that? How did it find those feelings and those memories in me?

Remember the Greeks: music is the study of invisible relationships between internal objects. The concert in the nursing home was the most important work I have ever done. For me to play for this old soldier and help him connect, somehow, with Aaron Copland, and to connect their memories of their lost friends, to help him remember and mourn his friend, this is my work. This is why music matters.

What follows is part of the talk I will give to this year’s freshman class when I welcome them a few days from now. The responsibility I will charge your sons and daughters with is this:

If we were a medical school, and you were here as a med student practicing appendectomies, you’d take your work very seriously because you would imagine that some night at two a.m. someone is going to waltz into your emergency room and you’re going to have to save their life. Well, my friends, someday at 8 p.m. someone is going to walk into your concert hall and bring you a mind that is confused, a heart that is overwhelmed, a soul that is weary. Whether they go out whole again will depend partly on how well you do your craft.

You’re not here to become an entertainer, and you don’t have to sell yourself. The truth is you don’t have anything to sell; being a musician isn’t about dispensing a product, like selling used cars. I’m not an entertainer; I’m a lot closer to a paramedic, a firefighter, a rescue worker. You’re here to become a sort of therapist for the human soul, a spiritual version of a chiropractor, physical therapist, someone who works with our insides to see if they get things to line up, to see if we can come into harmony with ourselves and be healthy and happy and well.

Frankly, ladies and gentlemen, I expect you not only to master music; I expect you to save the planet. If there is a future wave of wellness on this planet, of harmony, of peace, of an end to war, of mutual understanding, of equality, of fairness, I don’t expect it will come from a government, a military force or a corporation. I no longer even expect it to come from the religions of the world, which together seem to have brought us as much war as they have peace. If there is a future of peace for humankind, if there is to be an understanding of how these invisible, internal things should fit together, I expect it will come from the artists, because that’s what we do. As in the Nazi camps and the evening of 9/11, the artists are the ones who might be able to help us with our internal, invisible lives.

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(Copyright © 2009)

I’ve posted about consciousness being situational in nature (Reflection 80), about the left-brain interpreter module deciding the meaning of events (Reflection 86), about idioms of consciousness providing ways of being in the world (Reflection 124), and about elixirs of consciousness adjusting “reality” to our way of thinking (Reflection 127). What I’ve not mentioned is where such activities might be seated in the brain, for if they are aspects of consciousness as I claim, that’s where their stories would necessarily begin. It strikes me that these four modes of consciousness have something in common, but I’m not sure what that something might be. This post is about my search to find out. As usual, it points to discovery through coincidence or by accident—and beyond that, to the mind revealing itself in strange ways.

My first step was to consolidate my thoughts on situations, interpreters, idioms, and elixirs in one place to make comparison easier. How to do that? I thought of a matrix laid out with the four aspects of consciousness lined up in columns and possible functional substrates listed in rows down the side. The word matrix stems from the Latin meaning a female animal used for breeding—basically, the female principle in reproductive mode. That’s just what I needed, something to stir my creativity. I listed the functions of each aspect as briefly as I could:

  • Situations—provide the context or framework of consciousness
  • Interpreters—develop meaningful stories or narratives accounting, rightly or wrongly, for awareness
  • Idioms—are ways of being in the world according to one acquired discipline or another
  • Elixirs (fudge factors)—adjust understanding to accord with fundamental beliefs in order to produce a desired effect.

Reading what I had written, I felt a jab of anxiety. What could they possibly have in common? Nothing sprang to mind. So I went on, off the top of my head listing broad functional regions of the brain where facets of consciousness might arise or at least be involved: perception, conception, memory, expectancy, feeling, planning, judging, speaking, acting, and so on. Then I took an hour to break down each of the four aspects in terms of what I knew about different functional areas of the brain. And went to bed. This on the day before my son’s birthday.

For two hours, I lie awake in the dark, wondering what to do. Basically, worrying. It all started so innocently. Days ago, I’d left a message on my son’s answering machine, asking how he’d like to celebrate his birthday. I said Carole and I would be happy to provide a floating meal to be eaten whenever and wherever he chose. If Friday didn’t work, maybe Sunday. Just give me a call. Days rolled by with no response. His birthday is tomorrow. What to do? After installing a bilge pump in my boat, I stop by my son’s workplace. It turns out both his mom and I (long divorced) are pestering him about his birthday. He’s working toward a show on Saturday and feels cornered with no place to hide. So he disappears by not taking calls. Anyway, after encouragement from his wife, my son agrees that Monday is doable. We agree to meet at the boathouse at noon. He’ll see if his brother can come. I call Carole to ask if Monday is OK with her. It is. I will bring turkey loaf, mashed potatoes, and ice cream; she’ll bring asparagus and bake a cake. So it seems settled.

Yet here I am at 2:00 in the morning, worrying how to pull it all together. Catsup. I don’t use it, so don’t have any. Buy catsup. Bring salt and pepper. How keep the turkey loaf and mashers warm while rowing across to the island, the ice cream cold? How many potatoes do I need? What if rains? With the battery for the bilge pump in place, how can I fit two other people in my boat? Where will I brace my feet without jarring the pump? And that’s only for starters. I progress to more serious anxieties, dwelling on times things hadn’t worked out in the past. I spend two hours reviewing my life—marriages, divorces, relationships. And in the back of my mind—the consciousness matrix and what it has to tell me. I run through the four aspects of consciousness, their possible placement in the brain. Everything is problematic—life is problematic. Eventually I get back to sleep.

When I woke up, I saw immediately that the four aspects of consciousness all deal with attention, arousal, and anxiety. They are all ways of putting energy into coping with stress. Situations are situations precisely because their parts are at odds, and so kindle anxiety. Our interpreter modules provide answers to questions that stir anxiety (I recall a write-up of Michael Gazzaniga’s work in which a split-brain patient begins his answer to a question about his interpretation of an experimental situation by saying, “Oh, that’s easy” or something to that effect, which I now see as compensating for anxiety). Idioms of consciousness focus attention on discrete topics, reducing anxiety by narrowing the field of concern. And elixirs of consciousness serve to deal with anxiety more than truth, as students are anxious to fulfill assignments by coming-up with right answers by hook or by crook. Shelley Smithson’s piece in the June 29, 2009 issue of The Nation, “Radioactive Revival in New Mexico,” provides this example of using God as a magic elixir to help things turn out as desired:

[Marita] Noon, . . . a Christian motivational speaker before becoming a self-proclaimed “advocate for energy,” says God put uranium in New Mexico so that Americans can wean themselves from Middle Eastern oil and Russian uranium.

Consciousness appears to be largely a means of dealing with situations in which doubt, uncertainty, and consequent anxiety predominate. The amygdala is involved in each of the aspects of consciousness I am focusing on, shaping relevant strategies for converting motivating stress into productive behavior. In The Emotional Brain (Simon & Schuster, 1996), Joseph LeDoux writes:

The amygdala is like the hub of a wheel. It receives low-level inputs from sensory-specific regions of the thalamus, higher level information from sensory-specific cortex, and still higher level (sensory independent) information about the general situation from the hippocampal formation. Through such connections, the amygdala is able to process the emotional significance of individual stimuli as well as complex situations. The amygdala is, in essence, involved in the appraisal of emotional meaning (page 168).

And it is certainly the emotionally meaningful aspects of consciousness we pay special attention to and, thanks to the hippocampus, remember. As I have said, consciousness is given us to solve novel problems, including those in a cultural, not natural, context. I have reached that conclusion the long way round, by using my late-night anxiety as a means of studying anxiety itself. Anxiety about loose ends hanging from my wish to celebrate my son’s birthday kept me awake. So anxiety was an integral part of my mind at the time.

Schools are hotbeds of anxiety. Every test, lesson, and assignment is a source of stress. Even sports fire people up, both players and spectators, all traceable to anxiety. What we learn is not content so much as how to deal with tensions that force us to learn how to proceed through difficult tasks that upset us at the time. Through exposure to various subject disciplines, we learn to cope with related life situations. We acquire the idioms educated people use to surmount their problems. We learn how to do research, how to listen, how to express ourselves, how to solve problems—how to accomplish tasks others assign to us. All based on suffering anxiety and applying techniques that diminish it.

Sitting down to write a post, I am nothing if not anxious. Usually I am anxious in a way shaped as curiosity about an issue I am involved with. But every creative endeavor starts with stage fright of one sort or another. Am I up to the task? Do I have the skill, energy, and desire to work this through? I remember Hector Berlioz writing in his autobiography about dreaming a piece of music in specific detail, but knowing how difficult it would be to ever get it performed, not writing it down. The music came to him in his sleep two nights in a row—then never again, scuttled by anxiety over the trouble it would cause later on.

When dirty dishes pile up in the sink, we become active in a constructive way—or else make ourselves scarce. These are two different ways of dealing with stress, by coping or refusing to cope at all, by fighting or fleeing—as I fled from the lady with the torn jaw and cheek on a street in London 50 years ago (see Reflection 119: Man and Dog). Our amygdalas help us decide which strategy to select. Schooling trains us to face into challenges directly. When we tire of that, we go to the movies—the funnier, the sexier and more violent, the better to distract us from our worries. We can learn from the emotional fixes we get into, or maybe get high or drunk. We can deal, or try to escape.

I heard Terry Gross interview Woody Allen on Fresh Air this week. His view is that life consists of one anxiety-producing situation after another. Each of his films deals with a different episode of the human condition as he sees it:

TERRY GROSS: So, may I ask, what are some of the real problems that making movies distracts you from?

WOODY ALLEN: Well, they distract me from the same problems that you face or that anyone faces, you know, the uncertainty of life and inevitability of aging and death, and death of loved ones, and mass killings and starvations and holocausts, and not just the manmade carnage but the existential position that you’re in, you know, being in a world where you have no idea what’s going on, why you’re here or what possible meaning your life can have and the conclusion that you come to after a while, that there is really no meaning to it, and it’s just a random, meaningless event, and these are pretty depressing thoughts. And if you spend much time thinking about them, not only can’t you resolve them, but you sit frozen in your seat. You can’t even get up to have your lunch.

So it’s better to, you know, distract yourself, and people distract themselves creatively, you know, in the arts. They distract themselves in business or by following baseball teams and worrying over batting averages and who wins the pennant, and these are all things that you do and focus on rather than sit home and worry.

Woody Allen is a good example of someone who reduces anxiety by immersing himself in his work—adopting a way of being in the world, an idiom, that he has the drive and skill to maintain while working on exactly the same types of problems that he finds so overwhelming:

WOODY ALLEN: [M]aking a movie is a great distraction from the real agonies of the world. It’s an overwhelmingly, you know, difficult thing to do.

You’ve got to deal with actors and temperaments and scripts and second acts and third acts and camera work and costumes and sets and editing and music, and you know, there’s enough in that to keep you distracted almost all the time. And if I’m locked into what would appear to be a painful situation because half my movie works, let’s say, and the whole second half of it doesn’t work, or a character in my movie is terrible, you don’t believe the love story or something, these are all problems that are, or generally are, solvable with reshooting, with editing, with thinking, diagnosing what’s wrong. And they distract you from the real problems of life, which are unsolvable and very painful problems.

Also in the problems of moviemaking, if you don’t solve your problem, all that happens to you is that your movie bombs. So the movie is terrible. So people don’t come to see it. Critics don’t like it. The public doesn’t like it. This is hardly a terrible punishment in life compared to what you’re given out in the real world of human existence.

Working our way through anxiety-producing situations may be the essence of life if it teaches us how to accurately diagnose situations, train our interpretive facilities to identify what’s really going on, adopt idioms giving us mastery over a small slice of life, or develop cons and scams for beating the system one way or another. Consciousness offers us a range of such powerful survival techniques to apply in particular cases. Members of congress try most of them—inevitably disillusioning their constituents by the deviousness of their means for maintaining their public image while abusing the power of their office. But there are no good guys—or gals—it turns out, only those with a will to live and thrive. In the big leagues, innocents, idealists, and dreamers get eaten alive. No one is larger than life, for life is run by consciousness, and that as everyone knows can get pretty seamy.

Am I more jaded than the next person? Naive, perhaps, but not jaded. I haven’t given up on humanity just yet, thought I have my doubts. I still believe consciousness is worth studying, but it sometimes takes a strong stomach. I figure that if our record is ever to improve, we are going to have to come to terms with ourselves. Evidence points to the fact that we are selfish bastards always seeking to advance our personal cause at others’ expense. More likely, we are doing the best we can under extremely difficult circumstances to figure out what is going on in and around ourselves. In truth, I think we are half  babes in the woods, half hungry wolves—innocence and cunning wrapped in the same fleece.

Besides anxiety signaled by the amygdala, other neural-based features shared by situations, interpreter modules, and both idioms and elixirs of consciousness include: a strong sense of cohesion through time, expectancy, reliance on sensory feedback, executive judgment and decision-making, motor planning, and execution of specific behaviors. Thus the amygdala relays messages to several higher areas of cerebral cortex, which ultimately shape and execute behavior, and look to subsequent feedback from appropriate sensory areas. This is an extremely rough sketch, but to me the keystone of this activity is the potential danger or opportunity available to the conscious organism as signaled by the amygdala. The follow-up details appear to be a function of individual judgment and decision-making based on learning, prior experience, and current expectations.

Consciousness, it seems to me then, is not based on prowess and ego so much as on stress and anxiety. If that is true, it would appear to be one of our best defenders within cultural situations which natural evolution could never anticipate. In rising to consciousness, each of us is on her own, doing the best she can to cope with situations that might well undo her. Going solo, we have a great many options for dealing with such situations. Diagnosing more-or-less accurately what’s going on in a given situation is one of them. Interpreting ever-changing relationships in meaningful terms is another. Adopting the idiom and special expertise of one favored discipline is a third. And applying magic elixirs or fudge factors in order to view situations in terms of a predetermined ideology no matter what is a fourth option among others I have not considered in this post.

In dealing with personal fear and anxiety, evolution hands the choice to consciousness—namely us. Whether we deal on the basis of greed, faith, evidence, prejudice, or aesthetics is up to each of us personally. In selecting the choice we prefer, we reveal who we are. The scary part is realizing that how we choose determines the wiring of our brains by strengthening the synapses involved. We become the creatures of our prior choices. Which is why growing up is so hard—think of the child soldiers of Africa. “Survival of the fittest” is shorthand for those who make the best choices under the circumstances being more apt to make it than those who select poor choices for whatever reason. Life requires endlessly dealing with anxiety as evolution intended. If we flub-dub around, we are apt to be dead.

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(Copyright © 2009)

My freshman year in college, I learned about what were nicely called “fudge factors” in math class. You’d do your homework, of course, and compare the answer you got with the one in the back of the book. If they were different, you’d simply adjust your answer by a fudge factor that would make it come out right.

Fudge factors are as old as the hills. And as new as today. When I feel lightheaded and can’t think, I say it’s the new or full moon, or low atmosphere pressure, or something I ate, or I’m having a bad day, or I’m just not myself, or I got up on the wrong side of the bed. Whatever is not going right can be explained by one kind of fudge factor or another that when applied, helps me adjust to the circumstances I’m in.

In the Second World War, when airplanes didn’t perform as they should, it was blamed on gremlins, ill-tempered little  beings who loved to gum up the works. Gremlins were fudge factors that marked problems until an explanation could be found. Kilrokilroywasherey played a somewhat similar function during the war as Allied Forces advanced through Europe, showing up in the damndest places as a little face with a big nose peering over a fence drawn above the slogan, “Kilroy was here.” Wherever you went, Kilroy always got there first, making foreign parts feel almost familiar to troops far from home.

Fudge factors are some of the first principles of consciousness. We are so earnest in wanting things to turn out right, we enlist them to do the heavy lifting of making events as they turn out conform to our hopes and basic assumptions. If we believe in a supreme being, then everything that happens expresses the will of that being. God hurled Hurricane Katrina at New Orleans to punish the city for its errant ways. Nothing is neater and tidier than that trick. Or for good or ill, whatever happens is a matter of luck. If you luck-out, you win; if you don’t, you lose. Either way, the assumption holds. Similarly, if you believe in astrology, you can’t go wrong. Whatever happens in life is a function of alignments and relationships between planets at the moment of birth (or conception). The system is so complicated and subject to subtle shadings of influence, everything ends up being a function of every possible effect, proving the worth of the system. Astrology works particularly well in hindsight so once knowing the effect, you can give proper credit to whatever cause you select.

Consciousness comes fully equipped with the latest fudge factors. Whatever you believe, you can justify; whatever you justify, you can believe. I believe ecosystems run all life on Earth. Wherever I look, there be ecosystems. Interfere with ecosystems, you interfere with life in that place. If life goes wrong, look to the ecosystems that support it. Neat, simple, and maybe even partly right. But ecosystems are never the whole story; they are the rationale by which I make sense to myself, my personal fudge factor in reconciling my understanding with the facts. “Ecosystem” is shorthand for a complex biological system beyond my comprehension. “Watershed” is of the same order in, as I say, receiving, storing, and distributing the water on which all life depends. When I look on a landscape, I see watersheds. Ah ha, see there! Moisture flowing through the land, bringing it to life—just as I said it would.

Or you could say of an event, it was fated to happen. In northern climes, snow generally melts in March or April, so the landscape seems fated to restore itself shortly thereafter. Fate is one of the oldest fudge factors because it explains everything. Whatever happens is fated to happen. Thus it is written in the great book of time. You don’t need to understand biological systems to give all credit to fate for how things work out. Que sera, sera. Whatever will be, will be—as if it was all written out beforehand, as somebody or something knew it would turn out.

Mother Nature is also a common fudge factor. I’ve heard a great many fishermen credit her with masterminding the migrations of fish, the relative abundance of species year to year, ups and downs of thermometers and barometers and tide gauges, and so on. Mother Nature works through natural cycles of dearth and plenty, bad years and good. Exploitation of resources has nothing to do with it. What happens is what she wants to happen. If a fishery gets depleted, you just turn to another—usually lower in the food pyramid. If a fishery recovers somewhat, you say “I told you it would, you’ve got to have faith in Mother Nature.”

Of course Mother Nature is the female counterpart of God the ultimate Father. We seem to like our fudge factors to take on a human guise so we can relate to them up-front and personally. Instead of seeing God as a creation of the human mind, we turn the notion on its head and see God as the creator of the universe—including the human mind—who controls everything that happens. On that assumption, there are no mysteries anymore because God is the ultimate cause, and you just trace everything back to him. That way you feel you understand everything when in fact you understand nothing. God is just a manner of speaking—a verbal figment whose only meaning is the ritualized suite of behaviors we perform when we mention his name. That, and the attitude of submission we assume in abandoning our quest to understand the workings of the world. Those who pose rational arguments against claims for God’s existence are wasting their time. The concept of God is not rational. Like any fudge factor, God is an expedient to deploy when you haven’t done your homework. God is a cop-out, not an answer to a serious question.

In minds where God holds forth in broad daylight, the Devil frequently lurks in his shadow. God is assigned the job of making good things happen, the Devil of bringing destruction and disaster wherever he can in his capacity as ultimate gremlin. The Devil puts a face on entropy, and makes it intentional in fulfilling a preconceived purpose. Ascribing consciousness to gods, devils, gremlins, elves, and even Uncle Scrooge makes them all agents of ourselves—the projectors—as if we fully understood what was going on. This demonstrates the weakness in Bishop Ockham’s razor by which the simplest explanation is likely to apply. Nothing is simpler than projecting consciousness into fictitious beings—yet even though it makes us feel good, it leaves our preconceived assumptions absolutely intact. Fudge factors mock true learning and intelligence by the shoddiness with which they are applied. We may entertain them with good-humored affection—as Kilroy was held by G.I.s in World War II—but in truth we are kidding ourselves if we take the joke seriously.

Fudge factors transform dross into treasure, which is what alchemists tried to do in transmuting base metals into noble ones. They serve as a kind of philosophers’ stone for rubbing tarnish off one thing, making it shine like something else as if mere friction could turn lead into gold. In that sense, fudge factors are elixirs of the mind for turning the annoying into the acceptable, the bad into the good, the not-so-good into the perfect. Fudge factors and elixirs are underlying principles whose falsity and absurdity are not taken into account because only the seeming results are what matter. They are lies we tell ourselves in striving toward little-t truth.

Science, on the other hand, messy as it is, relies on evidence, not magical explanations. If it has a magic elixir, it is likely a supposed dependence on reason rather than hunches, trial and error, persistence, and sometimes luck in being in the right place at the right time to witness a particular phenomenon. Scientists often employ the human faculty of insight—an exercise in informed imagination—which nobody truly understands, but can sometimes lead the way to discovery. The difference between insights and elixirs is that one comes from inside the problem itself as an organic extension, while the other is laid on from the outside to make it work out in an acceptable manner, so confirming prior belief. Science, then, is capable of moving forward; fudge factors always send us back where we were. At its best, science is progressive, while reliance on magical thinking is regressive, allowing us to think we are moving ahead while we are actually stuck in our tracks.

Attitude is the key to choosing between magic elixirs and true insights. Do we insist on claiming to know, or are we willing to live with the fact that we don’t? If we fall in the first class, pride and rigidity are our undoing. If in the second, disbelief and humility are our burden. The difference is told by the fabled race between tortoise and hare. Hare bounds effortlessly ahead, then sits on his haunches and gloats. Tortoise digs in with each claw and lurches in a direction he can’t fully appreciate—until he crosses the finish line first and discovers where he was headed all along. Those who leap lithely without fully challenging themselves are apt to fall behind; those who pull themselves along by doing the work required to go one step at a time will eventually cover more ground than those who advance by fits and starts.

Either way, the issue is to find a way of dealing effectively with our current situation as we construe it in consciousness. I mean the italics to emphasize the difference between, on one hand, thinking we already know the world as it is, and on the other, assuming responsibility for shaping that world by means of rigorous probing of personal experience. Elixirs and fudge factors provide ready answers as if we knew what we were talking about, providing immediate comfort in a false sense of security; taking trouble to investigate why we see things as we do commits us to a much more arduous path which, in the end, can lead to surprising and even profound insights into our true situation. The choice is ours to make, the understanding ours to earn.

Fudge factors and elixirs are the easy way out. In life, there are no answers in the back of the book because the book has never been written. Lead cannot be transmuted into gold no matter how hard we wish it so. Put differently, each of us must write her own book by living her life as best she can. That’s why I say attitude is so important in exploring consciousness. We can seed it with what we already know—and learn nothing. Or we can live with doubt and uncertainty by questioning everything we do. One way leads backward, one forward.

I opt to move ahead by studying how I visualize my own situation in the world, how I construe it, shape it, formulate it, depict it, describe it, concoct it, characterize it—all on my own. Without resorting to fudge factors, elixirs, gods, angels, devils, or easy answers of any kind. Life, in the end, is the result of how we live. It does not exist as an abstract entity we magically fulfill by being born. Life is neither this nor that—it is precisely what we make it for ourselves from our own inner stuff. Life is the process of making sense under the circumstances we find ourselves in, which we can only interpret as best we can, and then reconsider in light of what happens next. There are no right answers; there is only what we do.

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