Reflection 133: Bird Consciousness

July 24, 2009

(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



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