371. The Olympic Event We Call Life

December 1, 2014

Questions, always questions. Setting goals is absolutely no guarantee that we will fulfill our dreams. Hopes, wishes, desires, and all the rest are states of mind that spur us to action. Achieving goals requires that we have the right stuff to stand on the three-tiered podium at the end. At the Olympics, finishing fourth puts us at ground level. Merely making the effort doesn’t count. Medals are precious because rare; they aren’t given out for sweat, good intentions, excuses—for anything less than peak performance.

Mental events, too, are won by those who have bested their rivals. Striving, competition, cooperation, and comparison are at the heart of our mental activity, conscious selves, and engagements with the world. From observations of my own mind, I find that comparison between goal and attainment, or past and present achievement, generates a signal as an urge in my brain that sets a particular engagement off on yet another round of action, which triggers another round of both perception and judgment. That urge gradually fades only to the degree it brings me closer to my goal.

Our engagements driven by perception, judgment, and action are more circular than linear or, more accurately, helical like a coiled spring or inclined plane wrapped around a drill bit in that our rounds of mental exertion never bring us back to exactly where we were when we started, but somewhat displaced; hopefully, closer to our goal.

Mental comparisons generate signals in proportion to the disparity between goals and accomplishments, between where we were and where we are now, between remembrance and current perception.

With consciousness, the gap’s the thing. The gap between images cast on the retinas of our left and right eyes, giving rise to depth perception. Between sounds as heard by our left and right ears, producing a sense of distance and direction. Between motions in opposite directions as told by sensors in our left and right semicircular canals when we turn our heads, generating a sense of a counterbalance within a gravitational field so we don’t topple over.

Consciousness—what we are aware of—is not found in neural signals themselves but in the disparity, discontinuity, or discrepancy between two signals in, say, adjacent cortical columns. Comparison between columns creates a polarity or duality that tells the difference between them, consciousness residing precisely in that gap along a scale of what might be expected for good or for ill. For bringing us closer to or farther away from our goal.

So do we achieve tier one, two, or three on the podium, our reward for the care and effort we put into our engagements, the Olympic event we call life.

 

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