Reflection 155: Card Game Consciousness

November 3, 2009

(Copyright © 2009)

Last Friday I watched the first episode in the TV series Charlie Rose is putting together about Understanding the Brain. Sit a group of experts around a table, all coming from different perspectives, and you get a poker game with each player being an expert on his own hand, striving to outdo everyone else and take the whole pot. One plays the memory card, someone else the neural underpinnings of consciousness, followed by the social underpinnings, or the genetic underpinnings, then on to brain pathology, levels of brain functioning, round and round, hand after hand. Who wins? It all depends on how you look at the brain, and talk about the brain, and bluff your way by trying to convince the rest that you hold the answer they’ve all been looking for.

I have a game like that floating in my head all the time. Writing my blog or teaching an adult ed class, I have to decide what’s really important to know about consciousness, how it all fits together, how it relates to the brain, to behavior, to childhood development, to life experience, to evolution, to genetics, and so on. How do I lay my understanding of conscious out for others to grasp and compare with their own? Blogging and teaching, I have to engage my audience, not stuff my particular views down their throats. It all has to make sense, or if not, at least point in a direction that seems plausible.

When your conscious mind looks at itself—at its own hand—and is not at all sure what consciousness is, or even what the possibilities are, then the problem is doubly compounded and the best thing to do is fold to cut your losses. Sure, know thyself, but don’t try too hard because it’ll drive you nuts. That’s the feeling I had watching Charlie Rose and his panel of brain experts. Which is similar to the feelings I sometimes have while blogging and teaching about consciousness.

Fortunately, one aspect of consciousness is its flexibility, which allows for improvement and self-correction. Old synapses can be abandoned or strengthened, new ones encouraged. So when I feel I’m not getting my point across, I review my situation and try to see how I can do better. After posting 154 essays on aspects of consciousness, together with teaching my recent adult ed class, I offer a few thoughts intended to unclutter and refocus my mind so in future games I can play similar hands better.

Resolved 1:  Put consciousness in a context of alternative ways to bridge from sensory input to action in the world; that is, show how reflexes, habits, rote learning, and assumptions offer other paths to action with more immediate results at a cost of much less mental effort than required to sustain full-blown consciousness.

Resolved 2:   Remember, since the point of consciousness is effective action in the world, the mind must be seated in the brain somewhere near where sensory inputs connect to motor planning areas—between, say, an incoming pole on the lower side of the temporal lobe near where faces and objects are recognized, and an outgoing pole in the lateral prefrontal cortex where working memory translates sensory inputs into motor responses—an area encompassing cingulate and entorhinal cortices, hippocampus, amygdala, hypothalamus, midbrain reticular formation, and mediodorsal thalamic nucleus. Though the entire cerebral cortex may contribute to consciousness, the mind seems to comes together between the two poles I have mentioned.

Resolved 3:   In everything we do, our values, feelings, and past experiences (memories) moderate the tension between the poles of perception and action. Reflexes, on the other hand, produce hardwired responses that would be slowed and made ineffective if we had to think about it when, say, sand or liquid is thrown in our face. Consciousness develops over time, so is much slower to produce a bodily response. Values come into play, that set of salient priorities which promote our adaptation to whatever situation we find ourselves in. Feelings give a positive or negative tone to the occasion, alerting us to reach out or be on our guard. And memories of past occasions suggest what we might do (or avoid doing) in light of our history of past successes and failures. Where perception and motor planning intersect, values, feelings, and memories are in the vicinity, ready to influence our judgment.

Resolved 4:   Neural correlates of conscious (NCC) aside, the mind is situated in the brain, the brain in the body, the body in a family within a community within one human culture or another, and that culture within the habitats and ecosystems constituting a region within the biosphere of planet Earth. It is often hard to tell which combination of our several layered environments influences us as any one time. It is safe to assume that, one way or another, all of them are impinging on us all of the time. We are creatures of the whole—of Earth, our region, our culture, our community, our family, our body, our brain, and our mind. How we treat any one of them always comes back to us as a sure sign of how we regard (or disregard) ourselves.

Resolved 5:  It is good to remember that consciousness is autobiographical. The history of any one person represents the history of a good portion of the Earth, including plants, animals, watersheds, and cultural communities.

Resolved 6:   Too, our every conscious act reflects our state of mind, which in turn affects every layer we are embedded within. In acting for ourselves, we act for our families, communities, and the living Earth as a whole. We are made of Earth stuff, and can’t help enacting it every day of our lives.

Resolved 7:   Where consciousness is, unconsciousness is not far away. In a very real sense, the goal of consciousness is twofold: 1) to solve problems that affect our survival, and 2) to build facility in solving similar problems so we don’t have to work so hard next time we face a similar situation. That’s why high school English teachers assign term papers, so in college and at work we don’t find writing reports as daunting as we did the first time. In that sense, the role of consciousness is to convert the stages of a complex project into an automatic (that is, unconscious) routine in order to save time, energy, and a great deal of worry. As William James put it in 1890:

We must make automatic and habitual, as early as possible, as many useful actions as we can, and guard against the growing into ways that are likely to be disadvantageous to us, as we should guard against the plague. The more of the details of our daily life we can hand over to the effortless custody of automatism, the more our higher powers of mind will be set free for their own proper work (Principles of Psychology, page 122, italics deleted).

Resolved 8:   Regard the history of human works as a reflection of the history of human consciousness. Every work of the human hand is a work of the mind before that. We are revealed to the world, not by good intentions, but by what we plan and bring about. Action suited to our life situation is the goal of consciousness. Nothing can have more survival value than that. Growing rice, corn, wheat, and other grains is an act of will. Milling them into flour is an act of will. Baking bread is an act of will. All so we can break bread together and be grateful to be alive and receive the gifts of the Earth. Poems and songs serve the same end.

Resolved 9:   Beware the powerful, for they are out to shape our endeavors and our minds to their advantage. Buy this, they tell us; Do that; Vote as we tell you; Trust us, we are your friends. All the rest of us need to do is retire our minds and let them make our decisions for us. Those who control our culture create an infrastructure allowing them to think for us and control our minds. Their goal is to be alive in our stead, to steal our life’s energy so that we must work for them, not ourselves. Free will is the prerogative of the arrogant. Our job (they tell us) is to obey. When the infrastructure of our minds bears their trademark—and it amazes me how often that is true—we are lost to ourselves. Freedom is freedom to think for oneself. To surrender that privilege (it is no inherent right) is to surrender to slavery on behalf of The Controllers, who are happy to co-opt our privilege. Fox News, for example, is not just standing by but actively reaching into our brains to implant its alien new world. As Eric Alterman writes in The Nation of November 9 (page 10):

Fox is not a news organization; it is a propaganda outlet, and an extremist one at that. Is it any wonder that according to survey after survey, Fox News viewers are among the worst informed Americans when it comes to politics, despite their obsessive interest? A recent study by Democracy Corps finds that this audience believes “Obama is deliberately and ruthlessly advancing a ‘secret agenda’ to bankrupt our country and dramatically expand government control over all aspects of our daily lives,” with the ultimate goal of “the destruction of the United States as it was conceived by our founders and developed over the past 200 years.”

The scary thing is that in our own little world, we are the powerful, and it is ourselves we must beware lest we mistake the way the world seems for the way the world really is. Irony of ironies, our own values determine what kind of world we discover around us. We paint that world to our liking, or more often, disliking. Cultural values—religious, political, economic, military, social—make us who we are and set how we act and react. Yet our values are invisible to ourselves and, instead of reflecting how we were raised and our earlier experiences, seem to be properties of the world itself. This tragic error is the root cause of the misjudgments rampant in today’s world. We blame others for our disaffection, and determine to eliminate them as the “cause” of our discomfort.

Resolved 10:   In order to understand consciousness, look to the culture in which it is immersed. And vice versa, to understand culture, study the consciousness of one who is embroiled in it. It is difficult to tell where culture leaves off and consciousness begins. The language we speak is the one we are born to. The gestures we make, the tools we use, the work we do, the manners and ways we take into our personal selves as our very own—are cultural in origin. Every member of a particular culture or subculture shares in similar repertoires of values, and is apt to express some variation on those values. The ways we prepare food, eat, dress, dance, entertain ourselves, make love—are ours largely through imitating or learning from others. We are distinctly ourselves, yet at the same time suppress our uniqueness in order to resemble our companions. We personally exemplify the ways of our culture in almost everything we do, think, and believe. At the same time, we contribute our uniqueness to the texture that makes our culture what it is. It is of us, we are of it. Loops of engagement carry us into the cultural world, and the cultural world into us. The reality we find is an extension of our conscious life; the two feed into each other as if parts of an endless Mobius band feeding into itself. Religion gives us our cultural god, who we then make responsible for creating the natural Earth, which clearly emerged billions of years before anything like culture existed in the human mind. Strange business, yet business as usual because we don’t discriminate very well between the cultural and the natural—between what we make happen and what makes us happen in the first place.

Resolved 11:   Finally, be clear that the basis of good and evil is in us, not the world. Our memories come in two sorts, those giving us pleasure and those causing pain. We have soothing dreams, and nightmares. Our feelings come in pairs of opposites: happiness/sadness, love/hate, confidence/fear, triumph/failure, and all the rest. Our minds color everything that happens either positively or negatively, making sure that whatever happens, we remember it for better or for worse. The world is the world, its seeming goodness or badness depending on how we seize it and take it into ourselves. Similarly, integration and differentiation are built into consciousness—putting things together or taking them apart. Induction and deduction are aspects of mind, moving from the sensory, specific, concrete, and detailed toward the conceptual, generic, abstract, and schematic—and back the other way. And we distinguish between chords and melodies because the qualities of simultaneity and succession are built into our sensory apparatus. Too, relative motions in the world are told by the brain, which for survival’s sake struggles to distinguish personal motions from those of others, the difficulty being that sometimes it’s ours, sometimes the others’, and sometimes both are moving at the same time. Dancing is possible because there’s a beat to the music, and both partners key their moves to that rhythm. Without such a frame of reference, the brain searches for clues to help it decide how to act when everything, for whatever reason, is in flux. We may think it trivial to distinguish our own motions from those of other objects and beings, but if you’ve ever sat in a railway car and compared the relative motion of your car and the one on the track next to you without being able to tell which train is moving, then you’ve had the giddy experience of (your brain) not being able to say whether you are moving ahead (without a giveaway jolt) or the other is silently sliding to the rear.

Reverting to my earlier metaphor, it’s not the hand we are dealt that determines our fate, but how we choose to play it. Consciousness is as consciousness does—as we make it happen. Up till now, those thought to understand how consciousness works have tended to use that knowledge for their personal advancement. Think politics, education, advertising, public relations—think John B. Watson, inventor of behaviorism. It is crucial that the workings of consciousness become widely studied and eventually known, so enabling people everywhere to act advisedly on their own—and their common culture’s—behalf.

Consciousness of Nature

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