Copyright © 2012 by Steve Perrin

Here follows an excerpt from a manuscript I’m working on, One Man’s Mind.

Memory is the gravitational force that binds consciousness together into a coherent stream of experience. Strong emotion and frequent repetition build stable connections within neural networks shaped by specific episodes of personal experience. Connections which aren’t used don’t persist. Memory gives us hope, dread, expectancy, recognition, sameness, familiarity, and a sense of the future, among other aspects of human experience. Memory allows us to look for more of the same, as well as for what is new, novel, different, and mind-expanding.

Consulting my own experience, I recognize three primary types of memory: Spontaneous (or working) memory is fleeting, typically lasting only a few tenths of a second; autobiographical memory endures as a result of long-term potentiation; conceptual (or semantic) memory is abstracted from the flow of experience to represent persisting types or categories of sensory patterns as based on repeated sensory presentation within a limited range of similarity, facilitating the convenient labeling of specific impressions as concepts approximating one pattern or another.

Two very different inputs support consciousness: 1) materials delivered by bloodflow to fuel the metabolism of body and brain, and 2) materials, force, and/or energy impinging on sensory organs to kindle sensory impressions which are interpreted in light of prior experience as one’s proprietary awareness. Ambient energy and adequate nutrition are basic substrates of consciousness; reducing availability of either one results in mental impairment and degradation.

Within the brain, two routes are available for passage from sensory impressions to appropriate actions: 1) the direct and unconscious route of reflex-mimicry-habit-routine-custom-belief that prompts immediate action on appearance of particular sensory cues, and 2) the longer and slower route of conscious consideration that entails reflection, judgment, and decision in arriving at a plan of action situated in subjective life experience. Both impulsivity and consideration are available to us in every situation. We choose between them on the basis of our self-awareness as actors in a world largely of our own making. If we size the situation up incorrectly, that is our call and our error. If we want to be sure of doing the right thing, we must examine the situation carefully to increase the probability that what we do is appropriate to the specific set of circumstances we are in. I refer to these two options as being on different levels of consciousness, the conscious and the unconscious.

Other kinds of consciousness become apparent from observation of animal behavior. In many species, individuals are apt to be differentially affected by sensory stimulation (depending on genetic, dietary, experiential, physical, developmental, and social variables, among others), and to exhibit idiosyncratic behaviors as a result. Speaking more generally, different species, too, live in different sensory worlds, and appear to be conscious in a variety of ways. Humans lack the lateral-line receptors of fish that detect the relative motion of water against the two sides of their bodies, allowing them to orient themselves in a current, and to detect unmoving objects at a distance. We don’t have the hearing sensitivity of bats, the scenting ability of dogs, the sensitivity to heat of pit vipers, the directional hearing of deer, the scanning ability of electric fishes, the magnetic sensibility of eels, sharks, and birds. We may be fellow creatures, but our respective sensitivities situate us in very different niches in parallel worlds of consciousness on the planet we share.

Change, difference, motion, and comparison are other basic principles underlying consciousness. Memory not only allows us to note sensory patterns, but also what is changing or different in respect to their former makeup or to a set standard pattern. Comparison between neural signals creates a sense of relation-ship (depth perception, symmetry, consonance, dissonance, extension, opposition, and so on) in consciousness. I view com-parison between current and prior impressions as firing up consciousness itself in proportion to the disparity detected. If nothing has changed, there’s no need to pay attention and we can get by on habit. But if changes are noted, are they for better or worse? We spend much of our mental energy evaluating implications of changing situations.

This suggests to me that consciousness is a form of memory, or, more accurately, a way of remembering in a current situation so that the past is compared to present impressions, and any disparity directs attention to discover what if anything can be learned from the difference. And, further, how such a difference might bear on our behavior. In other words, what does this discrepancy mean in subjective terms? How are we to understand the difference it makes? Meaning is another fundamental principle of consciousness.

Each individual stream of consciousness is unique and available to only one specific animal or person. In that sense, each conscious being has a proprietary interest in its ongoing experience within its experiential niche, and is personally responsible for actions based on that experience. Each of us survives on the strength of how well we interpret the flow of energy through our sensory portals in light of our prior experience. The meaning of a sensory pattern is not conveyed by the pattern itself but in how we subjectively construe it. It is invented on the spot, not given by others. Meaning is a product of assimilating sensory impressions to the existing order of subjective understanding, or if that doesn’t work, of expanding that order in such a way to accommodate novel impressions.

The aim and purpose of consciousness is to achieve behaviors appropriate to one’s actual situation in a world that cannot be known in itself—a logically impossible task, but one we attempt at every waking moment. Mind is an emergent property of the brain, but the workings of the brain in terms of the eletrochemical traffic flow through idiosyncratic neural networks are very different from the workings of the world outside our bodies, so sensory impressions are not simply representations of the world but point-for-point creative renditions in what amounts to a singular universe within consciousness. In practice if not in convincement, we all are dedicated phenomenologist because phenomena (appearances, impressions) as rendered by our sensory apparatus are what we have to go on, not things in themselves. Since each being is unique, its stream of consciousness is unique, and the world it construes for itself is unique—its actual situation being a matter of conjecture and imagination based on the evidence of its senses in light of its situated understanding.

Science, I think, traditionally underplays the value of introspection as a message from the interior of one person. The art of introspection is in accepting whatever appears, not judging or dismissing it beforehand because it does not meet designated research criteria. The arts, on the other hand, along with the humanities, diverse human cultures, athletic and military engagements, and other factual or fictional endeavors celebrate individual differences, and play them up as valuable in themselves for distinguishing us one from another in admirable ways. If we were all the same, we would be zombies, and life would be dull, dull, dull. Any unique being cannot be a zombie because one-of-a-kind zombies are oxymorons, contradictions unto themselves. Zombies have surrendered whatever it is that makes them individually distinct. In a world composed of unique individuals, insisting on consensual agreement is a forlorn hope.

By definition, consciousness is subjective; it cannot be fit into a framework that insists on objectivity. The locus of the unconscious may be the brain, but the locus of consciousness is the mind, enabled by the brain, but not identical to it in part or in whole, as an electrical circuit is not identical to the copper wire it is made of. Inductance and capacitance arise from the flow of electrons within circuits, specifically, from interactions within that flow itself that affect how electrical energy is stored and distributed. They arise from emergent and dynamic (not static) properties of circuits as depicted on the drawing board.

Quantum physics incorporates minds into the observations they are likely to make. That is a step in the right direction. Insisting that subjective observers remain essentially aloof from the objective observations they claim to make is folly. Each observer is a multidimensional set of parameters engaging the world in a variety of ways simultaneously. Results depend on what he or she had for lunch, whether he or she is well-rested, when he or she last had sex, and so on. When two or more scientists get together, it only gets worse, that is, more complicated and less objective, because of the chemistry between them. I think a new and honorable branch of science based on self-reflection as a productive and honorable profession based on first-person experience is due to emerge. This will compensate for defi-ciencies in the practice of neuroscience, allowing a more com-plete accounting for what consciousness is, and how it arises from the brain, to appear at last.

In everyday practice, consciousness addresses three tacit questions: 1) What’s happening?; 2) What does that mean to me in my present situation?; and, 3) What should I do in response? Perception fields the first question, the situated self takes the second, and action resolves the third. At the risk of oversimplifying, I visualize the mind as being divided into interconnected departments or modules corresponding to this tripartite model. The perceptual department of mind ends at the hippocampus, which facilitates the formation and recall of memories. What I call the situated self is at the heart of consciousness, with access to awareness, memory, understanding, comparison, dreams, values, feelings, and imagination. And both these departments connect to motor areas of the mind. The situated self connects via the planning area of the brain, the province of judgment, decision, goals, projects, and relationships. The sensory department fires directly to the motor area and action itself where personal force is directed toward the world.

But the story doesn’t end there, for by being caught up in a program of action, perception is set to gauge what happens next in order to follow-through on its commitment to appropriate action, revising or even countering its initial assessment. Few actions are ends in themselves; most are stages in an ongoing progression of continuous activity. As in tennis, the game isn’t over once you serve the ball; you immediately position yourself to hit it again as it whizzes back over the net, and then again, and again. If you want to eat, you provision your pantry, decide what to have, prepare it, cook it, serve it, eat it, and wash up afterwards—and repeat the performance a few hours later.

I visualize personal consciousness as a process of ongoing activity which modifies our felt situation as we go, morphing time and again into a wholly new situation, which we fail to address at our peril. Survival is somewhat like tennis: we’ve got to keep our eye on the ball at all times. A rhinoceros could rumble out of the bushes any moment or, more likely, a child could chase a ball into the road ahead. The prize goes to the vigilant, not merely the fast, strong, smart, or beautiful.

The succession of perception, situation, action never ceases. I picture consciousness in terms of never-ending looping engagements by which any given action immediately initiates a subsequent round of perception-situation-action until the situation itself is no longer relevant, stoping the clock, inviting other situations to take over and start a new round or spiral of engagement. This spiraling series is far more than a succession of working memories or hand-eye coordinations; this is how we make ourselves happen in the process of continuously reinventing ourselves and our worlds.

Humans did not create consciousness all by themselves; they inherited it from their distinguished ancestors who, even on the cellular level, discovered that the membrane setting an org-anism off from its immediate environment had to be permeable in both directions, in and out. Exchange (interaction, give-and-take) was the rule, not the brilliant exception. At every scale, metabolisms need to be fed from the outside, and the build-up of waste products simultaneously eliminated. Voilà: the loop of engagement. The same basic principle applies to our pulmonary, cardio-vascular, digestive, reproductive, integumentary, and nervous systems. Engagements do not exist apart from the organic world; they are the heart of that world. So it should be no surprise that they are at the heart of consciousness as well.

Consciousness is polar in nature, having both an interior and exterior pole. The situated self is the inner pole, the conjured or virtual world being the outer. When we are born, we have no idea what we are getting into. We consist of an inner pole that has only its discomforts and satisfactions to go on, but other than by crying, has no idea how to engage in order to get more of what it wants, and less of what it doesn’t want. Mother holds us in her arms, sharing her bodily warmth, her milk, her love, whispering softly, “Don’t cry little baby, stick with me and all will be revealed.” We do, and it is. She becomes the primal “other,” the outer pole of our existence, the first world we engage with. Our lives are the histories of the engagements that follow.

Every new life is an experiment to see what is effective and what not in the particular niche we are located in by means of our perceptions and actions. No one else shares those exact perspectival coordinates; we are in this life to discover how far we can travel via this singular point of being. On our deathbeds we realize our journey is done, the next leg is up to those who survive us via their own points of being. The experiment never comes to an end; it is what we share with all others of our kind to see if we can’t figure out what will work to keep us going, and what won’t. We have only our passionate beliefs to go by, there are no universal directions, guidebooks, gurus, recipes, magic potions to help us. We are condemned to a life of learning by doing and believing, hoping our subjective awareness will prove sufficient to the task.

Comparisons resulting from our ways of believing and re-membering lead to detection of discrepancies, which are changes since we last looked (listened, touched, tasted, sniffed). Perceptual changes noted by a passive observer (as when sitting still listening to music) are changes in time; by a moving observer (riding along in a car or bus) are changes in space; by an active and moving observer (dancing, climbing a tree, bushwhacking through woods), changes in time-space. Time and space aren’t out there coursing through the universe, they are in us as a sense of calibrated change. Our culture provides the calibration; we provide the awareness of detecting and promoting change. When the cultural calibrators die off, only change will remain, and when individual memory goes, change itself will wink out.

Dreams and reveries are variations of consciousness in which we are shut off from the world of conventional action and stimulation, but can nonetheless simulate sensory impressions courtesy of random eye movements and fixations that activate neural pathways to stir up fleeting images from memory as if we were fully awake. Dreamselves cannot engage, for they can neither perceive nor act, so we must make do with memory, letting our dreams themselves illuminate the journey of the self we are, without being situated other than in our personal histories. As potential perceiver and potential actor, the dreamself is at the core of the waking self. We do well to pay close attention to our dreams as informants about the history of our core selves all the way back to infancy when, indeed, our deeds and impressions lay ahead of us. This so-called theory of consciousness is the narrative told to me in my dreams, and I am sharing with you as a gesture of neighborliness.

The upshot of this narrative is that we are heavily invested in our subjective consciousness as the lived edition of our personal survival—that tale of two centers facing off against each other as opposite poles of our engagements, separated by the membrane that serves as our skin. Tale of two selves, for the virtual world we imagine is largely fleshed out by our own experience as we remember it, so is an extension of our situated perspective as a kind of alter ego accompanying and complementing us in our experiment to see if we can’t get some things, at least, right. Which we all manage to do as demonstrated by our spiraling engagement in the streaming process of mental life, giving others the impression we are present and accounted-for. To those others, we serve as the virtual poles complementing their inner selves as situated in the shadows of their own impressions, dreams, and actions.

End of excerpt from One Man’s Mind. Happy holidays!  –Steve from our one and only Planet Earth