497. Afterword

April 30, 2015

Cultural ideas (memes), once they become widely accepted or have even gone “viral,” develop a strong resistance to change. The idea of “artificial intelligence,” from a fanciful oxymoron (contradiction in terms because no one knows what authentic intelligence might be), has become the watchword of a burgeoning industry and is here to stay until it is replaced by the Next Big Thing that becomes culturally contagious.

I have used the word “inertia” to describe a cultural idea’s resistance to change. Once popularly accepted, it leads a life of its own. That is, once its collective memory achieves a critical mass within the human population, it becomes a contributor to our everyday system of belief.

Even after gravitational force, evolution, genetics, DNA, and both galactic and stellar evolution became fixtures of our cultural view of the universe (thanks to Copernicus, Galileo, Kepler, Tycho, Newton, Darwin, Franklin-Watson-Crick, and tens-of-thousands of others), the anthropocentric notion that humankind is the central focus of a god-driven universe persists, as if the sun and stars were still believed to revolve about us—we who give meaning to godly creation simply because we are born to that tenacious meme from our mistaken point of view.

Cultural inertia is a disease more deadening than ebola or dengue fever. It kills off tender minds of both children and adults well before their time. That is because the basis of perception is recognition enabled by memory, not any sensory impressions formed in the instant. We see largely what we have seen before and are familiar with. We grow uncomfortable when beyond the range of our past experience. Novelty in our eyes may capture our attention, but that doesn’t mean we accept, like, or understand it.

Ideas that become part of our general culture are usually put forward by groups that stand to profit from their acceptance. Economic theory flows from those who stand to make money, not from the host of disadvantaged others. Military theory flows from those who fight wars at a distance. Theology flows from those dependent on entire flocks of believers. Penal theory is proposed by those outside prison walls. Art theory blows on the winds of change, novelty, and aesthetic outrage.

Why am I reminding you of this? Because we are all heavily invested in our personal experience, existing as we do at the leading edge of our beliefs. And that edge is always pro or con, positive or negative, for or against—in a word, polarized. There it is, a double-edged sword at the heart of our beliefs. And that makes the world we live in polarized as a result of our thrusting our particular edge outward in our actions, frowns, smiles, and gestures of rejection or acceptance.

There are two sides to every truth, meme, and conviction. We’re either for-or-against it because that is how our minds work, balancing pros and cons, activations and inhibitions, two sides of every question. Yes or no. Yea or nay. Go or stop. Stay or leave. Fast or slow. Cold or hot. Sweet or sour. Brave or chicken. Rich or poor. Smart or dumb. Guilty or innocent. All or nothing.

We frame our options for doing anything at all in two columns, pro and con. Then we list the reasons for taking a particular action against the reasons for not taking it. We add up the two columns. The one with the most checkmarks wins. Yes, we are that simple minded.

Our muscles either flex or relax. What signal should we send? Uncertainty or hesitation leads to disaster. Timing is of the essence; the enemy is fast approaching. Now is our chance to decide. What should we do? How do we vote? Count us in or out? Subtlety is for wimps. Real men and women know right from wrong in any situation, and always do the right thing. Or, that is the popular myth.

Choices, nothing but choices. That is precisely why we have minds that engage with events and make decisions what to do. No matter how we decide, once we go one way or the other, we face another decision, which invariably leads to a train of others after that.

What if you had turned left and not right that day you met the girl who became your girlfriend who became your wife who bore your children who now have children of their own? What if, what if, what if. But you didn’t turn left, you turned right, and that has made all the difference throughout your life.

Speaking of what ifs, picture your genealogical tree for the past five generations, from your parents to their parents to their parents to their parents to their parents. Your parents to your great-great-great-grandparents. That’s a century’s worth of your family and recent genetic heritage, 126 people, all making countless decisions every day of their lives, all those decisions contributing to you and your specific genome. Not just contributing to, but focusing on you. If any one of them had lived differently, had gotten sick at the wrong time, had gone off to war, had fallen off a horse, had run a red light, had served chicken (with hidden bones) and not roast beef for dinner—where and who would you be today?

Think about it. Without consciousness that can weigh options and make decisions, and act on those decisions by tensing one set of muscles while relaxing others—none of us would be who we are today.

Yes, consciousness makes all the difference between living as a person and living as a mushroom, or even another person in our own family-community-culture-precinct of nature. What if we’d been born on another planet circling another sun in another galaxy? Wherever we are, consciousness is our guide every millisecond of every day of our lives.

How ironic is it, then, that we barely understand our own conscious processes, our own intelligence, our own opinions, fashions, fads, annoyances, habits, routines, prejudices, and orthodox beliefs? Our schools are all aimed outward into the world of memes, ideas, and traditions, not at the minds we bring with our lunchboxes and faithfully present to our homeroom teacher when we answer “Here” when she calls out our name.

Instead of fighting wars or trying to make a killing on Wall Street, why aren’t we all doing everything we can to understand our own minds to avoid doing more harm than good in the world?

Why, in particular, do we cling to ways and beliefs we don’t understand, yet commit ourselves to out of personal and cultural inertia? As if we were automatons or robots or zombies or idiots?

I’ve said it before and will say it here one last time: Know Thyself! Why else are we here?

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496. Storylines

April 29, 2015

In this last post to my blog on consciousness, I want to clinch my argument that loops of engagement are evolution’s gift to us all by providing evidence of the many ways we engage our surroundings every day of our lives.

First of all, let me remind you that humans are a species of storytellers. For most of our history, we have survived by telling stories around places of fire that offered us comfort and warmth. Stories have beginnings, middles, and endings. From the opening “Once upon a time,” to the concluding “lived happily ever after,” one thing leads to another by a particular order of events. This happens, then this, then this, making up the succession of engagements in the time and place of particular characters of which a story is told.

We all want to hear what happened to the little girl when she walked into the woods to visit her grandmother. Or to the brother and sister when invited into her home in the forest by an old woman. We are driven to sit still and listen, even if we’ve heard the tale many times. We become captivated by the unfolding of events according to the plots we are all familiar with. Once the story is told, we can’t wait to hear it again. To live it again. To experience the drama again. To feel the tension in our own bodies as if it were our own story being told.

Stories are narrations of specific engagements we can identify with. It makes little difference if they are fact or fiction or documented history. What they offer is to put us imaginatively in someone else’s shoes so we can share what life feels like to be them on particular occasions. That is powerful magic.

We gauge that magical effect by how closely it follows our expectations. We don’t like it if the happy ending turns sad. Or the tragic ending turns sickeningly sweet. Details of character and form and plot are what we remember because they govern how we feel at different times during the narration.

That is, we listen to stories to see how they measure up against our own life engagements. Do they expand or diminish our horizons? Do they hook us or turn us off? Shaggy dog stories lead us on and on and on, leaving us stranded right where we were at the beginning, making a mockery of our expectations, as in a bad joke.

Sheer violence draws some crowds and offends others. The news is made up of episodes of rape followed by shark attacks by beheadings by school collapses by tornadoes by typhoons by earthquakes by forest fires by nuclear disasters by collisions by busloads of schoolchildren tumbling end-over-end into ravines. We are surrounded by the shock and awe of chaos every day of our lives. Which makes us glad for the humdrum lives we actually lead—until disaster strikes in our midst.

Whether real or fanciful, our engagements are writ large in films, operas, ballets, plays, sporting events, songs, and every other aspect of our culture. What is a musical score but the latent storyline of audience engagement? What are songs, lyrics, poems, paintings, travelogues, biographies, adventures, novels, recipes, jokes, anecdotes, videos, picture puzzles—what are any of these media of intense concentration but opportunities for meaningful engagement?

What are everyday conversations around the watercooler at work or table at Starbucks but occasions for human engagement? What is syntax but the turning of a felt situation into a sequence of words that others can experience in a meaningful way?

Think of the milestones of life: learning to walk, talk, dress yourself, count, spell, write. These are the essential engagements of civilized human life. Think of getting engaged, getting married, building a house, having a baby, getting a job, getting a better job, having another baby, putting on a new roof, getting a divorce, traveling to Maine or Alaska or Italy or Cambodia or Kenya or Tierra del Fuego—all major episodes of engagement that connect our minds to our surroundings in specific ways according to certain narratives, schedules, and itineraries.

Plots and stories: that’s what life is made of. Birth to death, beginning to end, experiences strung together on the storylines by which our lives are told. That’s what we are to one another, tellers of stories, enactors of stories, recallers of stories, garblers of stories, forgetters of stories.

We are companions in storytelling, believing, doing, leading our lives. Our commonalities of engagement bind us together; our differences split us apart. Either way, our stories-narratives-engagements make us human. To be a blank slate is to be sub-human, a kind of zombie. Even animals engage. We know that by watching their eyes, smiles, tails, the hairs on the back of their necks. Some in greater detail than others, more consciously than others.

Even trees engage sunlight, rain, snow, wind, and predators, so engage their habitats and survive differentially. Are they conscious? I would say in their own way. In the way of life on Earth in its local precinct of the larger whole that supplies the matter and energy by which Earthlings can be said to live by bridging the gap between inside and outside.

My blog is devoted to the inside picture of our human engagements with one another and the outside worlds we share in common. Perception, memory, comparison, judgment, goals, actions—all play their parts in telling the story of consciousness that makes us possible.

Our stories tell who we are in doing, going, being, seeing, playing, writing, singing, dancing, shopping, driving, knitting—engaging—as we do by living the lives that we do.

To me, consciousness is the story that begins and underlies all other stories. It is the story of all stories. If we ignore it, can we claim to be alive on that most fundamental of all levels?

I have no doubt that the pains I have taken in these posts to tell my version of the story of consciousness have been—if uninvited—necessary for me to live as myself. By telling it, I am paying my dues to the planet that has given me birth, and shared its energies and resources so that I could be conscious in this particular day and age.

As I see it, I owe the Earth nothing less than this account of my mental endeavors. For me, finishing that work is, indeed, a happy ending. The best I could have hoped for because, with the recent deaths of my two brothers reminding me of the imminence of my own, I haven’t been sure I could do it until now.

As I wrote in my post 394 on New Year’s Day, 2015, “Happiness is being the person you most want to be, doing the things you most want to do.” I followed that with “Happy New Year, everybody!”

Now, 102 posts later, I say: May your own story reach the ending you have strived for all these years.

Because that (your own) ending may be in doubt, I feel an unplanned afterword coming on. I refer you to my next post.

Thanks for engaging my words and ideas to the extent you have been consciously interested.

How do we see our inner selves without subterfuge?

After thirty years of wayfaring as directed by my own mind, I have come to realize that I can turn my attention from my footsteps to the mind that is plotting them in advance to suit itself.

Mindfaring, that is, reveals the same journey from inside the black box that shelters its workings from view, workings that become evident by turning my attention back on itself.

What that takes is a mindset of self-reflection that makes such a turn not only possible or desirable, but essential in opening onto the next stage of my journey. The true adventure is not in the world; it is in my own head, the only adventure I have immediate access to if I but choose to take it on.

As I now see it, my mind hosts my situated intelligence in engagement with its world. It is the navigator essential to the art of wayfaring itself. Minds are evolution’s gift to those who remember the impact of patterns of energy from previous rounds of experience, then act appropriately in the now. We all build our minds by noticing, comparing, judging, and acting as we make our way day-by-day, dreaming our way night-after-night, remembering the highly-charged and often-repeated moments for future reference.

In drawing this series of posts on consciousness to a close, my last suggestion to those who read these words is that you develop your mindfaring skills by noticing what you pay attention to, and how, when, and why.

That is, by placing yourself-as-subject at the focus of your own engagement. Also, by tracking what you remember, and what brings that to mind. And by appreciating the respective dimensions of each engagement, as well as how those dimensions collectively frame the flowing situations that shape your inner life and outer actions.

Too, when you act, I suggest that you notice the depth of your concentration at the time so that you feel the true power of your awareness. And as you engage the worlds of nature, culture, community, or family, that you track the situations developing in the core of yourself as you move ahead.

In particular, be aware of your successes and setbacks, and how they feel on the inside. I predict that in short order you will be reaching toward the world with greater confidence (based on more solid self-understanding), and be less-dependent on the world to do your work for you.

In short: know thyself from a neutral perspective, then practice that knowing on a daily basis. Learn to know others, then engage with them on caring, respectful, yet familiar terms.

Strive to balance despair with hope, fragility with durability, forethought with spontaneity. Live a sensitive and an intentional life, being ever-mindful of the personhood of those around you, and the planethood of Mother Earth. Steer clear of nicotine, alcohol, and other mind-altering or numbing drugs.

If you do this, you will become a true mindfarer, which may not be your measure of success, but is sure to keep you gainfully employed for many years, and bring you closer to yourself and to those with whom you actively engage.

As for myself, with one more post to go, this is my penultimate try at depicting my mind. In the end, I strongly believe in setting the stars free from their ancient bondage to illusory gods; with Roget, I believe in striving to know my own mind; and I also believe in practicing like a baseball player to do the best I can in the time I am allowed with whatever tools I’ve got, even if only a ball and a stick.

These are distinctly low-tech efforts, based not on artificial intelligence (AI), but the real thing.

It is time for me to move on. After adding one last post, an outline of my journey in writing this blog, and an abstract after-the-fact, I am gone.

Nothing matters. Everything matters. Both statements are true to equal degree. Clearly, our job as individuals is to pick and choose the engagements that are most meaningful to us. Which puts us in an awkward position because those around us want us to engage in ways that are most meaningful to themselves. 

It is the nature of mindfarers to occupy public spaces where such conflicts are out in the open. The only thing we can do is pay attention to the forces acting on all of us and select the issues we as individuals find most personally meaningful, letting go of the others to be dealt with by those who choose to do so.

We each serve as helmsman of our own ship, correcting our course as we go. The choosing of a course is why we are here, how our ancestors got us to this point by navigating under their own stars. We owe it to them to do the same under the stars that shine most clearly for us.

As to the relation between mind and brain: consciousness is not contained in either our brains or minds but in our engagements as they couple perception to meaningful judgment and on to purposeful action in nature, culture, community, and family. Our minds do not fit neatly into our brains but extend to include our sensory and behavioral engagements as well.

You might expect an octogenarian to issue generalities of that magnitude. But as a unique individual, I am at the core of my own generalities. I am speaking for myself, trying to use fitting, encompassing words to do so.

However you take my words, your unique person is at the core of those same words as they speak to you as you know yourself. I read them my way; you read them your way. The main thing is to maintain our intelligent judgement as we consider our own minds.

Those in the truth-seeking professions—philosophy, psychology, history, anthropology, theology, forensics, and law, for example—already know this. Each person is primarily out for himself, and can justify whatever act she commits in the name of private (not public) service.

To simply act on our beliefs is not good enough. We must catch ourselves sharpening, emphasizing, distorting those beliefs for personal advantage. Throughout this blog, I have drawn attention to the self-serving nature of our mental processes. In rounds of self-reflection, it is essential to keep a neutral perspective.

Robert Bly advises us to follow our bliss. Thoreau says to follow our dreams and imagination. I say we should engage as we must the situations we get into as the ones having most to teach us, while remaining somewhat remote as if we were truly impartial, not agents of our own beliefs and opinions. It is that critical faculty that is essential to self-reflection. Without it, we become little more than lobbyists or apologists for our subjective beliefs.

As children we do as we are told because our parents are not only bigger and stronger, but also likely to be wiser than we are. We have neither the strength nor the wit to resist. But as adults, to do as we are told binds us to the will of others who have not lived our lives or thought our thoughts, so are addressing their own motives from their own perspectives, not ours.

Too, those others are likely to be dealing with situations different from those we face at the time. The problems we work on are best answered in the context of our unique repertory of personal options.

To ask what Jesus (Gandhi, Nelson Mandela, Mohammad, et al.) would do assumes that we understand the situation he was in when he did what he did, and that that situation is the same as the one we are facing today. Which, given the vagaries of time and place, is a highly questionable assumption.

We learn most from situations we analyze and address as our own. When we make mistakes, as we surely will, they are our personal mistakes, leading to our personal learning. The essential thing is to engage our inner selves without subterfuge.

The brain is a facilitator. It enables perception, meaning, judgment, and action as an ongoing flow of engagement. Its genius is in guiding selection of what we pay attention to, evaluate in comparison to other options (that is, judge), and subsequently act upon.

When a routine is effective, the brain makes it easy for us to do more of the same. We come to think in terms of routines in our repertory so we don’t have to keep reinventing the wheel. The essence of consciousness is in turning new problems into effective routines we can count on when one such problem comes up again.

Speech is a tremendous saver of brain space, whenever possible substituting fine muscle movements of jaw, tongue, and lips in place of gross movements of trunk and limbs. Language is a code for reducing the brain space we need to get by with, using a limited set of words over and over again in new contexts, always with new shades of meaning.

Which is what Peter Mark Roget did in producing his Thesaurus. And Plato did in pondering the parallels between the stars in their heaven and the activities of people on Earth below. He was working on that question for the rest of us, and did his best to come up with a workable understanding.

The Timaeus is a record of the trouble Plato went to on our behalf. As every World Series game is a record of the skill and effort players on each team expend on behalf of their fans in particular, and all fans of stellar performances beyond them. The same is true for Olympic athletes. And outstanding thinkers and doers of all kinds.

Individual minds matter. Consciousness matters. Brains matter. Engagements matter. Families matter. Communities, cultures, and nature matter. All as aspects of a planet that matters in a solar system that matters in a galaxy that matters in a cosmos that matters. Not to fulfill a set of universal laws, but to make an effective response to conditions and situations that come up and need to be dealt with.

None of these levels of interaction and engagement are governed by rules or laws. Each is determined by the energy available and forces bearing on fraught situations of every size and nature throughout the whole system.

We are all parts of that system: particles, nuclei, atoms, molecules, bases, chromosomes, amino acids, proteins, cell walls, plasma, organelles, organs, organ systems, organisms, species, genera, families, orders, classes, phyla, kingdoms, life, planets, solar systems, galaxies, universes, and whatever lies beyond.

We can do nothing but respond to the situations and conditions that put pressure upon us in every ways from every direction with whatever energy is available. We strive to do the best we can under those conditions in those situations.

And what we do best is engage the world around us on as many levels as we can manage because that is what we have evolved to do because we don’t have a choice. Either we make it or we don’t. The system will go on without us.

We are the leading edge of a spreading and evolving wave of energy that spurs us to be who we are in our own time and do what we find it best to do. That is our job; our only job. To be good citizens of the precinct of the universe we find ourselves in at the time—on the playing field, in the library, out at night ogling the stars in their sky.

So, yes, minds, brains, bodies, engagements—all matter, whether we understand them or not. The particular piece of the puzzle I have claimed for myself is nothing less than the challenge of understanding my own mind as well as I can.

This blog is the best I can do. It is my performance in the last play of the last game of the World Series for mindfarers. There will be Series after this one, with fresher farers as players.

Having come this far, I can’t add anything to this discussion with myself that I haven’t said several times over. I will move on to whatever conclusions I can take from my journey this far.

492. We Engage or We Die

April 24, 2015

My claim in this series of posts is that consciousness is not fully contained within the brain, but is a distributive property achieved by an organism’s collaborative engagement with its planetary environment.

Take the brain out of its normal range of ambient stimulation, as in solitary confinement or other forms of sensory deprivation, and consciousness suffers a morbid decline. In a depleted environment, consciousness develops to a lesser degree.

Those who survive in depleted sensory environments learn to engage with ants and spiders crawling in the corners, or to fall back on the store of memories they bring with them, building upon them by planning what they will do when they get out.

An Sang Suu Kyi, the Burmese opposition leader, suffered fifteen years of reduced engagement under house arrest; Nelson Mandela survived twenty-seven years of confinement in three different prisons, actively pounding rock into gravel during the day, later playing football, gardening, reading, studying for his law degree.

No matter what conditions we live under, we find ways to engage—or we die. The other night I was falling asleep and became aware I could not lift my head or move my body. Yet my mind was dimly active. I distinctly remember my last, fading thought, “Friends, I feel I am slipping away,” that is, dying. That’s what death is: a state of non-engagement, forever. Not just unconsciousness, but utter oblivion.

Engagement brings us to life. It is precisely what it means to be alive. To be both perceptive and active, with judgment thrown in between them, if we’re lucky.

We engage to build models of our situations in the outside world by analyzing the patterns of ambient stimulation delivered by our sensory receptors. That is, by finding meaning in those patterns, gauging our options, then judging which option is best as a guide to making an appropriate response.

The problem being that the inner realms our minds create on the inside are never accurate models of the world we inhabit on the outside. Our attention is highly selective, so we can only take in ambient patterns in fragmentary form. Our inner models are made of bits and pieces, dribs and drabs, not replicas of the world.

So we do a lot of guessing, estimating, and interpolating in trying to piece together the world puzzle, the big picture of what’s going on that is likely to affect us. Our sensory abilities may be amazing, but the world is always more complex than we can imagine. We must commit ourselves to a lifetime of continuous engagement or we’ll never keep up.

As babies, we are in way over our heads, so require nurturing care from others on a twenty-four-seven basis. That is called parenthood. But if our significant others stick with us, our situation gradually improves, and eventually we learn to stand on our own by backing our engagements with commitment, concentration, and dedicated campaigns of perception-judgment-action for ourselves. We stumble around a lot at first, but slowly straighten up and set our sights on far horizons.

Life is a matter of matching our inner possibilities to the possibilities offered by the world. Consciousness, together with loops of engagement, are our most basic tools for accomplishing that feat. All of which is made possible jointly by our minds, brains, and worlds working together.

That is my crucial point in this blog. We can’t do it by ourselves—survive, that is. Our success is a collaborative effort between mind, brain, and planet. It takes a planet to evolve a brain, and a brain to evolve a mind. In the brief window of life available to us, we are beneficiaries of all three. If, that is, they truly engage in mutual interaction from one moment to the next, one situation to the next. Encouraging us to evolve throughout our lives, infant to senior, getting better day-by-day at whatever it is we are doing with our fleeting gift of life.

As I pointed out in the dissertation quotes I bulleted in post 488, “I Am Not Making This Up,” the nuts and bolts of engagement are made possible by the workings of the limbic system as a finely-tuned comparison between perception and memory, between the present state of the hippocampus as compared to a coded remnant of earlier experience. That comparison is at the heart of our loops of engagement.

If that comparison between present and past results in a disparity, then consciousness springs into action to get a more detailed picture of the situation through further exploration. That’s what trial and error is all about, figuring out a way to get a better fix on what’s going on in order to make a better, more appropriate response. All solutions are pending, not certain.

That’s what learning and education and experience are all about. Our growth and survival depend on doing better under highly variable conditions. There’s no way ahead but to take the plunge, make a mistake, and try again. And again. And again.

I’ve got one more post to go before ending this discussion. Then it’s on to my final conclusions, and wrapping up this blog as a whole.

Engagement is not a trade-off, a simple alternation of give-and-take. It is founded on paying attention to input and output simultaneously, all (or much of) the time, so there is no major gap between them, no lull in attention to both self and world.

When we get on a roll, that’s what happens. We are in the moment totally, not separating input from output but seeing both as integral parts of the same state of mind. We are with it, whatever it is. We are mindfarers so fully engaged with our surroundings that we become an integral part of the scene wherever we are.

As mindfarers, we want our companions to win along with us, not go down in defeat. Each needs to win in her own way. If Israelis and Palestinians fight until only one is left standing, they both lose. Neither side can sacrifice its integrity to the other.

Mindfaring (finding our inner way) is a matter of coordinating our lives with our surroundings, as in dancing, as in music, as in a good marriage, as in sports governed by rules. It is being both with ourselves and with the other, not in spite of.

It is a matter of being together with someone or something else. Of being yourself in a scene or setting that is wholly itself at the same time, so your engagement is mutual, both on an equal footing. Each plays her part, not going off on his own. It is an extension of a state of mind that embraces our partner in engagement, whether person, place, or thing.

Such engagements are fundamentally different states of mind than opposing, conflicting, fighting, defeating. There are times when you must run for your life, and times you must run toward your life or it might get away from you. Mindfaring is running toward, not away. It is seeking, not avoiding. Moving ahead, always ahead (seldom in a straight line). In company with respected companions. Along a path that leads to a natural culmination of the going itself.

Mindfaring is powered by the dimensions of intelligence (experience or consciousness) that make up the situation we are in at a particular point in our life engagements. Those dimensions are qualities that, taken collectively, give structure to a particular moment of awareness and experience.

Such dimensions reflect the balance between the affective roilings and turnings-over in our minds or, in neural terms, along the axis between the midbrain reticular formation and the prefrontal cortex via the limbic system (including amygdala, hippocampus, thalamus, hypothalamus, and septal nuclei)—all in response to the signals derived from our ongoing engagement with our surroundings that spark our intelligence, judgment, and subsequent actions.

Here is a diagram from page 275 of my 1982 dissertation, Metaphor to Mythology, that illustrates neural pathways in the brain that support our engagements with the world.

Schematic of Loops in the Brain

Sensory pathways in the brain, sensory input on right, motor pathways on left, limbic system lower center, loops of engagement suggested by dotted lines.

In experiential terms, those affective roilings and turnings-over in our mental innards include arousal, memory, expectancy, attention, sensory impressions, recognition, understanding, imagination, meaning, thought, feeling, emotion, biological and cultural values, humor, comparison, polarity, attitude, and judgment, all abetted by our goals, relationships, projects, selection of tools, skills, language skills, speech, gestures, and overt action, among other dimensions that come to the fore in specific situations.

How does this bear on the relationship between mind and brain? We are each born to our respective worlds of nature, culture, community, and family, all of which challenge and feed our minds on a daily basis, so we become part of them, and they part of us as a kind of reference system that, as we engage with it, defines our uniqueness in our particular time and place in our Earthly career.

Our brains process the endless stream of signals resulting from our engagements, but leave nature, culture, community, and family outside of ourselves where we can draw upon them as needed in particular situations.

The situations we find (or put) ourselves in are temporary configurations of the dimensions of our intelligence as affected by the roilings and turnings-over spurred by our ongoing engagements. They morph into subsequent situations as modified by the ever-changing flux of our experience.

We don’t lug all our memories around with us as an accumulating store of baggage, but develop neural networks capable of recognizing familiar patterns of traffic flowing through them. Our brains excel at pattern recognition, nesting ever-finer concepts together on a great many levels of discrimination. Our brains give us a capacity to recognize patterns as having been met before, not to store those patterns in finest detail.

That is, our brains are no bigger than they need to be to process the engagements we set up between our adventurous insides and ever-changing outsides. What is outside stays outside as a facet of nature, culture, community, and family. When we die, we die to them. They stay behind; we don’t take them with us.

The brain is not a filing cabinet or a closet full of old clothes. It is a director of traffic from perception to action via an experienced and intelligent self that serves as a situation evaluator in matching incoming sensory impressions to outgoing gestures, speech, and actions.

490. It May Seem Hokey

April 22, 2015

Life is not a given or a right; it is a process of building ourselves to our own specifications. And supporting others in building themselves to their specifications, not ours.

I am thinking of the life process as an opportunity for engaging the world around us, and inviting that world to engage us as we go. That way, both self and its world meet their respective requirements by making adjustments for the situations that come up along the way.

So do we grow into ourselves, by adjusting our steps to current conditions, here leaping hummock-to-hummock, there by stepping carefully stone-to-stone, crossing rivers when we come to them by whatever means we can devise while staying in touch with our minds and surroundings, engaging them, inviting them to engage us.

All that wrapped in one mental process that guides us on our way—that’s what I mean by mindfaring. Each finding and going her own way, as driven by a life force as a personal prime mover. Creating a sort of engagement based on an attitude encompassing both equality and fairness for all who go with us in our time and place. An attitude that promotes sharing, taking turns, and striving out of respect, along with a sense of personal responsibility for everything we contribute to a particular engagement.

That’s the state of mind I’ve come to by writing this blog up to this point. I did not have plans to say what I have just written. The words have flowed from the situations I’ve worked myself into day-after-day, from the day I started out until this minute, today.

I am a creature of this very moment. A creature with a past, yes, but building toward a future that will be an extension of the journey I have made so far. That is the upshot of what I now refer to as mindfaring, the process of living life with an attitude of trust, intelligence, interest, curiosity, adventure, openness to what happens, and striving to go beyond that.

Since all learning is essentially self-learning, mindfaring comes down to learning about self while being mindful of others. Other people, other creatures, other ways, other things, other ideas, other universes unto themselves.

What I’ve just put before your eyes is an example of the thought process I’ve been going through in real time in synchrony with my fingers typing on the keyboard of my computer. It may seem hokey that the word I was searching for was based on a word (wayfaring) I’ve been using all along, but the point is that my usage was based on a nonverbal kernel of thought, not the actual word, which I was using intuitively without a definition in mind beyond the cluster of felt meanings that I have suggested.

What I’ve been doing is putting legs under that kernel to give it a particular kind of flexibility and mobility in the situation I found myself in during the process of trying to depict the state of mind that has been driving this blog all along. The process of inner discovery I’ve put before you is what I’ve been getting at in trying to describe the workings of my mind.

So there you have it, Exhibit A of my mind engaging with itself in as concise a summary of self-reflection as I can put into words.

Mindfaring, I discover, requires engaging yourself and your surroundings at the same time. It is simultaneous an opening-to and a taking-in. In that sense, it means truly connecting with the world beyond your bodily perimeter while also connecting with your inner self.

The trick to engaging is being both attentive and purposeful at the same time. Attentive to what you are perceiving and purposeful in what you are doing. That way you set up a continuous loop of engagement so that input affects output, and output affects input, your situated intelligence and judgment in the middle position maintaining an exciting and effective relationship between the incoming and outgoing parts of your mind.

By my black box metaphor, engagement is told by both input and output terminals being active together in real time, not by matching set responses to signals coming in.

489. Word Cluster

April 21, 2015

Knowing yourself flows from engaging yourself. That is, from your situated intelligence monitoring the actions you take in the role of subjective doer in engagement at the same time with sensory impressions you form in the role of objective perceiver.

At the core of each mind is the situated intelligence that seeks understanding as a state of mind in particular situations encountered during engagement. The understanding sought is to be found by examining the situation in which questions arise.

Those situations themselves are qualities of mind produced by the accrual of experience, which has broadly served as the subject of this blog. Situated intelligence is our agent for knowing the world by reviewing the situations our external environments stir up in us, those situations constituting the inner reality we actively engage with, no matter what else is going on around us.

What a marvelous system it is that we are given at birth and learn to use by living the life that we do. If we but question ourselves, we can trace an answer to how we ourselves frame the question under influence of the experiential situations that spur our engagements and experiences.

Others at our sides will do the same task their own way. Since questions do not pose themselves, the source of all questions is the situated intelligence at the core of our being. The essence of knowing is found by appealing to the interest and curiosity of she who wants to know. Where else can we look but to our own situations as we construct them in our respective minds?

This blog is probably as close as I will ever come to solving the mystery posed by my own mind as viewed by myself. One of my chief learnings is just how few people are concerned with the issues I raise here, most, apparently believing that answers lie in the material world, not their own minds.

I find that the dictum “Know Thyself” is dead to the world in which I find myself alive. As a culture, we are fixated on the brain as the source of all knowing, not the mind that works in conjunction with its own brain during engagements with nature, culture, community, and family to produce the miracle of consciousness.

But consciousness is more than a miracle. It is humanity’s cumulative response to the myriad challenges we are born to. The many facets of mind are the answer to the questions that Earth poses, not the material answer, brain. We have to earn our minds by applying them to the problems we face in just getting through the day, every day.

My chief discovery in writing this blog is a growing awareness of the quality of mind that makes my engagements possible with others and with the world we share together, a quality I don’t really have a name for. Sympathy and empathy are too overburdened already.

The word I am looking for takes the form of a word cluster that, as yet, has no heading. The cluster includes striving, hope, intelligence, wonder, confidence, durability, fragility, respect, responsibility, worthiness, persistence, and trust. These words refer to the mental tools I apply to myself every day. Gather them together and they all fall under the heading . . . what? What is the common denominator that makes effective engagement even possible?

Whatever it turns out to be, that missing heading captures the set of conditions that collectively enables engagement by self with non-self, first-person with world. It is a kind of regard that embraces self and others as being equally worthy and responsible at the same time. It balances durability with fragility, hope with despair, planning with spontaneity.

It is within the aura of that cluster of words that productive engagements can take place, that perception can spur meaning, judgment can spur action, action can spur engagement and subsequent perception.

Does such a word exist as would serve to head that cluster of terms referring to mental conditions? If not, I will have to invent one that fits the need I am alluding to. A word that defines the social contract by which it is safe, desirable, exciting, and gratifying for me to engage you—and you to engage me—in such a way that we will both be changed for the better. As Venus and Serena Williams engage their tennis opponents and take the game itself to a higher level for the benefit of all concerned. As life-long learners turn all experience into a positive good. As contests and rivalries blossom into win-win situations.

I am putting a positive spin on the heading I want because the cluster commonly refers to conditions that favor productive engagement, not isolation, violence, cruelty, distain, disaffection, and all the qualities of disengagement. Engagement enhances the survival of both parties in mutual interaction. It is positive and life-sustaining, not negative and life-stealing-away.

Enmity belongs in the cluster that is opposite to the one I am seeking, as does hatred, as does anger, as does violence. I am searching for a term that includes aspects of Earth, other planets, the sun, the whole shebang. It’s the old problem of a universe that contains both good and evil, angels and devils, heaven and hell. If they are polar opposites, I am emphasizing the pole that favors life and creativity, not death and destruction. Not ruination. Like Ozymandias, we all overextend ourselves and die in the end.

I am looking for a heading that is the opposite of entropy and “the universal heat death.” A term that opens the way to possibilities yet unachieved, not possibilities foreclosed.

The essence of the word I want is that it refers to a process that is ongoing, that has a future, that leads to hope, not regret, not despair. Clearly, I am not talking about using others for my personal advancement. Or about imposing myself on others. Or making myself dependent on others.

I am looking more for a sense of balance between respective durabilities and fragilities, hopes and fears, worthiness and failings. Trust and intelligence come pretty close, as long as they are mutual, and are joined in a process that evolves into a future. I am not seeking a gift that is given once and for all, nor for something either foolishly ventured or demanded.

Equality is of the essence here, between subject and object, so that both are not only taken into account, but can change places at any time. As sharing, turn-taking, and equality are the essence in sports.

Yes, I am looking for something that takes skill, cooperation, commitment, and concentration. Just like any sport you could name—baseball, soccer, track and field, cricket, speed skating, and all the rest (competition without needless violence).

Including everyday wayfaring, making our own way one step at a time. How does that translate to the situated intelligence in our minds that governs our ongoing engagements?

Mindfaring! Not wayfaring. That is, inside the mind, not outside in the world. That’s what I’ll call the heading I want. For, indeed, it takes properties of mind to run effective and ongoing engagements. We are all responsible for making our separate ways. They take place on the outside, but are governed on the inside of our respective black boxes. No one can do the job for us. We are all on our own.

How would that look as the heading of a word cluster (arranged in alphabetical order)?

Mindfaring

  • Action
  • Confidence
  • Desirability
  • Durability
  • Engagement
  • Equality
  • Excitement
  • Fragility
  • Gratification
  • Hope
  • Intelligence
  • Judgment
  • Meaning
  • Persistence
  • Planning
  • Respect
  • Responsibility
  • Safety
  • Spontaneity
  • Striving
  • Trust
  • Wonder
  • Worthiness

That’s my first stab at the clusters in my personal Thesaurus for the qualities of inner life that govern our engagements with the world. If I had another life to live, I’d work on listing the other 999 headings. But I don’t, so I won’t.

We all know the clusters of words that make life a series of failed engagements. We hear them on the news every day. That work has already been done.

It is the building of a platform for self-knowledge that requires doing. I propose that mindfaring is the way for those who choose the future.

In a very real sense, what I’m working from in writing this blog is the aftermath of writing a doctoral dissertation in 1982 as a grad student in the Humanistic and Behavioral Studies Department of Boston University’s School of Education. It took decades for me to shake off the academic tone I adopted in writing a 625-page book that, as far as I know, no one has read all the way through except me.

More particularly, I am working through the lessons I learned in writing Chapter 5, Pheromones to Phenomena, which dealt with the workings of the brain as understood at that time (largely based on animal studies). When I go back and read that chapter, I find what I wrote then is still true for me today. Not that my growth was stunted from then-on; more that what I hit upon in that chapter about the neural underpinnings of perception, judgment, and memory still serves as an excellent model for the mind revealed to me through introspection.

Of course we find in the world largely what we expect to find, so it sounds like I am indulging in a self-fulfilling prophesy. But that’s not what I mean. What I wrote then about the nature of consciousness still helps me to understand my mind of today. If it didn’t, I wouldn’t be writing this blog.

Not that I literally remember those thoughts from yesteryear. They surprise me every time I go back and read them. It’s the unspoken sense of concentration and commitment that drove me to write the dissertation that sticks with me. Now reduced to an intuitive feel for the topic I am writing about, a kind of silent presence in the background that guides me twenty-three years later.

I began Chapter Five, Pheromones to Phenomena, with the radical switch our species had to make from reliance on our ancestors’ sense of smell to living in a higher world with almost no smell at all. When we stood up on our hind legs, our jaws and snouts lessened, and we had to compensate for what we lost by rapidly developing our senses of vision and hearing, along with the ability to control muscles governing balance, posture, stance, and precise movement of our fingers.

It is the experience of thinking those thoughts that I retain to this day, not writing about what gradually happened to the amygdala, hippocampus, cerebral cortex, and other perceptual systems in having to adapt to a world without pheromones.

I was wholly engaged with my topic when I wrote my dissertation letter-perfect (with White-out) on an IBM Selectric typewriter, and it is what my brain has done with that engagement that I carry with me today, not the actual words and citations.

I know because I went back and read Chapter Five: there it all was in splendid detail. When I practice introspection in writing about the foibles of my own mind, that process is backed up by the deep concentration I put into clicking away at my typewriter day-after-day for over two years. And into scouring the sources I read in the years before that.

The difference between then and now is that today I am trying to write in English appropriate to a blog aimed at a general audience, not academic English as suited to dissertation committees and peer reviewers. It has taken this long to shed old habits learned in school, and as you can tell from reading these posts, I am still trying to overcome a natural bent to make simple things sound complicated.

Are my ideas now out-of-date because they are descendants of ideas I wrestled with in grad school? Or even earlier? I’ve written about the important role memory plays in perception, so that the words I write today go back to the language I babbled when I was an infant. Are my words as old as I am? I say, no, because I see myself as a trainable who can adapt to changing times. Words do change, but not as fast as people do. By reading a few notes, we can still make sense of Chaucer and Shakespeare, if not Beowulf—all far older than I am.

So what did I write in my dissertation? Here are some samples from Chapter Five of Metaphor to Mythology (Ann Arbor: University Microfilms International, 1982). In these excerpts, because olfactory bulbs (smell receptors) in our ancestors have such immediate access to the hippocampus and limbic system, the interactive components that make up that system are featured, including hippocampus, amygdala, and hypothalamus. I am using these bulleted quotations to illustrate the specialized world I inhabited in grad school.

  • The entire cortex is an evolutionary derivative of the sense of smell (page 259).
  • Our erect posture, by distancing our olfactory receptors from the sources of smell, has deprived us of the benefits of pheromonal [olfactory signal] communication, so it is not surprising that we have increasingly come to rely on non-chemical means for integrating our internal state with our environment (page 260).
  • The limbic system operates basically as a “selection unit” to determine the biological value of sensory information in relation to various organic drives, and then functions to facilitate the storage of information deemed relevant to successful functioning of the organism (page 263).
  • The regulation of cognitive function shifts away from the processing of pheromonal signals to the identification and evaluation of cues in the visual and auditory modalities. What remains constant, however, is the crucial role of the hippocampus (and the limbic system in general) in learning, memory, communication, and social organization (page 264).
  • The interpretation of neurological studies often relies heavily upon the twin concepts of the internal and external milieu. . . . homologous to one-celled animals in which a semipermeable membrane separates an “inside” from an “outside.” The internal milieu represents the equilibrated chemical innards that constitute the life-sustaining works of the organism; the external milieu being the sum total of all ambient stimulation an investigator can imagine to be impinging upon its sensibilities (page 268).
  • [Hippocampal] function is related to the enduring consequences of a comparison (seeing one signal in terms of another, a kind of seeing-as) between two different classes of sensory input—one primarily sensory, the other . . . facilitated by precedent episodes of similar experience (page 277f.).
  • Under novel circumstances it would be the hippocampus that would effect a comparison between perception and memory, emitting a signal that would be proportional to the non-familiarity of the sensory signal, and leading to exploratory behavior designed to acquire a more coherent and detailed version of that signal. Comparisons resulting in a high degree of registration would enable the animal to make a response on the basis of an assumed identification to which the existing repertoire of behaviors would more likely be both adequate and appropriate (page 280).
  • Since an animal’s sensory stimulation will vary in accordance with its own locomotion, it is essential that some mechanism be available to distinguish between self-generated and environment-generated variation in sensory input. To accomplish this, signals that exhibit covariation with proprioceptive input from muscle spindles and receptors in tendons and joints must be credited to the organism itself and subjected to inhibition in order to determine the coherent pattern of sensation that can be attributed to stimuli in the environment (page 282).
  • The normal animal lives neither for the moment nor for the past, but is able to compare the two and make an appropriate response to adjust the difference. It is able to find meaning in its phenomenological milieu and, when it can’t, to embark on a series of excursions that will enable it to discover appropriate meanings for novel phenomena. And if those meanings are repeated often enough, or are important enough, then the normal animal is capable of remembering them (page 283f.).
  • The hippocampus, as a novelty detector, directs its output to several important destinations: to the hypothalamus, the custodian of the internal milieu; to the midbrain reticular formation, regulator of arousal and wakefulness; to the prefrontal areas in which so many separate signals are coordinated; and to itself, via a kind of reverberating feedback loop that turns momentary stimuli into enduring potentations that influence its own activity. In each case it acts like a switch that turns another operation on or off, depending on the disparity between the signals it receives. From its central location it influences motivation, arousal, sensory coherence, interference, memory, meaning, and behavior (page 284).
  • Since the business of memory is survival (by making lessons learned in the past available on suitable occasions in the present), it is not surprising that these survival-related functions form the core of many of our strongest memories (page 286).
  • The hippocampus (and its associated network of connectivities to related areas) thus makes it possible for repeated episodes of similar sensory signals to exert a systemic influence that renders them familiar and—beyond that—meaningful. Such signals are more readily “welcomed” by the perceptual system because they “speak” to prior experience, to the heritage of the perceiver. And, since they address not an identical replica of themselves but an abstraction derived from multiple repetitions (or approximations) over time, their reception occurs within a framework of historical reference that equates their existential pattern of sensory stimulation with something already in the perceiver’s possession, with a referential meaning that is already an aspect of the perceiving apparatus itself (page 292).
  • Sensory signals, . . . are like keys that acquire a meaning by being inserted into certain locks that anticipate their configuration; sensations are different from meanings in the same sense those keys are different from the locks that they open. And, to continue the simile, the hippocampus is the locksmith who adjusts the lock to fit those keys that are repeatedly or forcefully imposed upon their workings (page 292).
  • The salient feature of context-related memory is the influence it exerts upon the process of perception. . . . Its primary function is to direct attention toward those aspects of a situation that are most likely to prove pertinent to the motivational state of the individual perceiver. It is a reaching-out for perception on the basis of an authority vested in the ongoing interaction between self and world as it has been achieved in the current (or immediately prior) situation. Thus does experiential meaning, once unlocked, strive to perpetuate itself by [putting] itself forward on the basis of its recent successes, attempting to discriminate a world that would fulfill its current promise as if foretold as a kind of destiny—like a lock awaiting to be fulfilled by a certain key(page 295).
  • [I]t is no accident that our ideas nest within each other so conveniently, that our understanding is hierarchical in nature, allowing the most venial notion to coexist with our highest ideals, the mundane with the celestial, the profane with the sacred. For all its complexity, the paramount achievement of the brain is the selection and synchronization of its ongoing processes so that mind is characterized by a coherent flow of ideas that provides a continuous rationale for purposive behavior (page 301).
  • [Our] strategy [is] to present ourselves to the world from the security of our heritage of personal experience, and to weld whatever patterns we discovery firmly to the structure we have already built. The world we see is the world we have learned to see. That is the genius of our species and the secret of our survival: the world is always contingent upon the way we present ourselves to it—upon the way we have learned to seize it. No miracle is more profound because, instead of granting us eternal wisdom, it challenges us to pursue every opportunity for learning, and to remain open to the worlds that others have discovered for themselves (page 317).

So, no, I’m not making-up these posts as I go along. They are deeply rooted in my life’s cumulative endeavors and experience. That is, in the flowing situations in my innermost parts that give meaning to my life.