Reflection 234: A Brain to Boot

February 20, 2012

Copyright © 2012 by Steve Perrin

All people on Earth depend on looping engagements with their surroundings for air, water, and food—both intake and elimination, as well as for reproduction. It should come as no surprise, then, that the human nervous system should depend on a similar looping engagement between energy received by the senses and actions directed at the physical environment. Yet we tend to look upon our brains as the whole story on the theme of consciousness without considering the inherent order of sensory stimulation and the ordered serial gestures we make in response.

The job of consciousness is to make our actions appropriate to the situations we judge ourselves to be in. Those situations as told by the energy they relay to our senses are every bit as essential as correlates of consciousness as the relevant regions of our brains. Consciousness requires embodiment in a physical body within a situation that includes air, water, food, and opportunities for sexual engagement. And a brain to boot.

Without brains there would be no consciousness, just as without sensory stimulation and occasions for action, ditto. Nothing new there. We all assume as much. But what we forget to mention is the unbroken circulatory relation between environment and brain on which meaningful perception and action depend.

Our loops of engagement are responsible for the kinetic quality of consciousness, what William James called the stream of consciousness. Memory is essential to our realizing that stream as an ongoing process of situated awareness. Without a glimmer of short-term memory, life would be a blur of one moment of “booming, buzzing confusion” merging with the next without end.

Instead, we are able to fix our attention on the instant, and to develop stable relationships with the many tools or accessories we use to boost the effectiveness of our actions in the moment. We enlist a host of accessory devices in accomplishing our plans—vitamin pills, Doberman pinschers, monkey wrenches, computers, skateboards, Glock handguns, etc., upon which we come habitually dependent in conducting our engagements in order to feel like ourselves. We relate to such possessions in a master-servant relationship as if our engagements gave us the authority to actually own them and determine their use.

A great portion of human law is given to regulating human loops of engagement through legal use and possession of personal property. That is, local, state, and federal governments have an interest in how we conduct our loops of engagement so not to cause harm or undue discomfort one to another. What freedom we have in conducting our affairs is supervised by judicial bodies in assuring we do not inflict mayhem on our neighbors through the use of private automobiles, weapons, animals, toxins, and so on. 

Our relationships with our partners and children are of particular interest lest we abuse those we are most intimate with in our everyday engagements. But, too, those with great wealth can arrange for laws to favor them in particular, so a great many special arrangements are protected by the law, giving significant advantage to those in positions of power and wealth, rendering the law itself unjust in favoring one group above another.

My purpose here is to suggest the importance of our individual loops of engagement by which we act on those who share our life situations, and are in turn acted upon by others. Marriage is a form of engagement, as is education, warfare, commerce, and entertainment. Nothing is more important to each one of us than how we engage our life situations.

Neuroscience would make a significant advance by acknowledging and accounting for the looping engagements by which we conduct our affairs. There’s more to our relationships than we commonly allow. And it lies at the heart of how each one of us views the world through personal consciousness.

Thanks for stopping by. As ever, –Steve

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