349. Mind as Comparator

October 29, 2014

I sent the following tweet recently: News is news because it exceeds or falls short of our hopes, fears, expectancies. Ebola. ISIS. Nobel Prizes. The mind is a comparator.

Consciousness is activated by a discrepancy signal, just as depth perception is activated by the difference between what our left and right eyes see. And our sound location is activated by the difference between what our left and right ears hear. And our balance is established by receptors in our inner ears based on slight differences produced by our turning our heads.

How astounding is that? That consciousness exists in the gap between what we do and perceive. What we expect and what actually happens. The outer cortex of our brains is set up to make just such comparisons between adjacent cortical columns. The result is a discrepancy signal that drives our stream of consciousness.

We pay attention to the exceptional, the unusual, novel, disconcerting, and so on. The fly in the jelly jar. The cherry atop the ice cream sundae. And when night falls and everything is cloaked in darkness, we lose interest in the world because everything is grayed-out. What’s to notice? So we fall asleep from lack of arousal. Only to awaken when sunlight hits our eyes.

There are two sorts of consciousness: good and bad, soothing and disturbing, sad and glad, chocolate and vanilla, and so on. Basically, what pleases us and what displeases us at the time. Emotional judgments. That guide our actions to be appropriate to the situations we find ourselves in again and again. Fight or flight, advance or retreat. Stop or go. Try or give up. What a marvelous system that enables us to survive under a huge variety of conditions.

Pity the poor insects that have a very narrow repertory of instincts and automatic responses. Evolution has blessed us by giving each of us our own mind to make up under the circumstances we are in. If only we were wise enough to make use of that gift.

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