Copyright © 2012 by Steve Perrin

Every morning when I wake up, I have to reinvent myself in conformity with whom I thought I was when I went to bed last night. I use a variety of tricks to help me gain a sense of continuity in my life.

This morning, for instance, I awoke from a particularly intense dream in which I was lost and couldn’t find my way back. In my wanderings along gusty city streets I came across men working on a flimsy scaffold suspended from the roof of a building. I watched as the wind seized the scaffolding and floated it free of the building, hurling it into the street blocks away, where the workers’ blood splattered the pavement.

There was much more to the dream, which I vividly remembered, so I lay in bed replaying what I could recall of my adventures. Then I got up and gradually shifted from my nighttime to my daytime self, which I found to be hard work because I was still in my dream. Ah, I discovered my socks and shoes more-or-less where they should be; that was a good sign. And my boots. The pruning shears I had gotten ready last fall and hadn’t used in five months. On my table I discovered several notes to myself about what I wanted to work on today. I didn’t remember writing them, but there they were so I could set my sights by them in picking up where I’d left off when I went to bed.

Out of habit, I bent down to inspect the kitchen floor for ants, which I’ve been feeding all winter. My strainer was in the drying rack next to the sink where I’d rinsed it after scrubbing five pounds of potatoes. The scene in the kitchen looked vaguely familiar, and I reaffirmed the connection I’d had with that room yesterday. Slowly, I began to make breakfast, filling the kettle, heating water, taking a mug off the shelf.

Gradually, I headed into the day—clinging to dream fragments all the while. The crib notes I’d left on the table scrawled on the back of an envelope reminded me that this was the day I was to attend a joint meeting of the Ellsworth and Mount Desert Island Occupy groups for training in group process and consensus building. I was to redo my senior college schedule, call the local newspaper, proofread a draft watershed handbook, make an appointment with an audiologist, and so on. Slowly, slowly I began to feel like myself as traces of the dream receded.

This illustrates what it takes every morning to crank up my loop of engagement so I achieve a sense of continuity in my life and coherence in mapping out my day in more-or-less orderly fashion. Every day I am faced with the challenge of reinventing myself so I appear familiar to myself and know who I am. If a tsunami had struck in the night and the world I woke to was topsy-turvy, I would be an entirely different person without shoes, boots, notes or relevant thoughts. I would be distressed because I wouldn’t have a sense where I was or what to do.

I still remember the day my three-year-old son pulled the handle of a pan on the stove, tipping a stream of boiling water down the length of his left arm. My fingers just wouldn’t dial the phone as if they’d never done it before. I shook all over, and had to force my fingers into the little dial holes until I got the numbers in the right sequence. Once in Eastern Washington State when I was heading off into the bush to urinate, a rattlesnake slid across my path—abruptly the urgency left me and I didn’t have to go any more but turned on my heels and got out of there.

If getting married, building a house, finding a new job, getting into a new school, all require a strong and enduring engagement with what is relevant to such matters, think of the havoc that getting divorced wreaks on that commitment, or moving out of a house, being fired, or having a baby in tenth grade, or kicked out of school. In such instances we have to invent ourselves anew, taking on entirely new identities because our drives and values have been proven no match for the lives we actually lead.

When a loved one dies, we are left behind to suffer the loss, not just for a day or a week, but forever—the rest of our days. When a woman I know was in her eighties, she had a blood clot that moved from her hand to her heart, her lungs, and her kidneys. Her children wouldn’t let her go because they had lived with her for their entire lives and couldn’t imagine life without their mother. So the woman had quadruple-bypass surgery, was on dialysis and oxygen for a year, and lay in bed building up debts she lacked the money to pay until her body called it quits on its own because her children couldn’t let go of an engagement that was fundamental to their most basic identities.

Whether dreams or major events in the course of our lives, our engagements in life are not frills; they are fundamental to our sense of identity and well-being. They define us and make us familiar to ourselves so, as long as they continue, we know who we are. The tools and accessories we employ in maintaining those loops—breast implants, good looks, hair color, muscle strength, cars, homes, clothing, vocabularies, professions, medications and all the rest—become valued possessions in enabling us to be who we dream of being, and we defend such possessions because our personhood depends on them.

Until the tsunami rolls in, the earthquake or mudslide takes our home, the tornado strips us of every possession—and we are left to fend for ourselves with only two bare hands to use in clawing for our survival.

All that was clear to me this morning when I groggily reinvented myself in the wake of nothing but a dream. Imagine what Syrian rebels are going through these long days, the people of Greece, Mexican immigrants without passports in Arizona, people whose homes are being foreclosed in every state, pre-tsunami residents of northeastern Japan, Palestinian refugees from so-called Israel, and quake victims still without housing in Haiti. My car almost died when its timing belt frayed last year. Think what you face when your fundamental engagements in life shred to a full stop and your perceptions and actions become wholly disjointed and nonfunctional.

What can we do but be grateful for what we have? And not crave more than we need to get by with grace?

That’s my thought for today. More later. Y’r friend, –Steve

Reflection 239: Findings

March 5, 2012

Copyright © 2012 by Steve Perrin

CONSCIOUSNESS: The BOOK  summarizes 30 years of my first-person effort to describe and understand my own mind. The book itself is the record of my thinking about my own thinking. Starting with this blog in 2008, it has taken me four years to put my findings all together in written form. What did I learn from that effort?

In no particular order, here are some of my main learnings:

  • My brain knows nothing; my mind knows all.
  • Without memory I would know nothing.
  • Consciousness compares past patterns of experience with present patterns of arousal, using the former to get leverage on the latter.
  • The act of comparison releases feelings of novelty or familiarity, kindling laughter or tears, polar feelings of this is good or this is bad.
  • That polarity arouses consciousness so it can recommend an appropriate behavioral response to the situation that brought on the feeling.
  • Neutral feelings are blah and do not arouse high levels of consciousness. Routine gestures will do the job, driven perhaps by assumptions, habits, or prejudices.
  • Expectancy is the leading edge of memory in a recognizable or familiar situation.
  • Surprise, novelty, or lack of understanding can alert consciousness to pay attention to the telling details of an arousing situation.
  • Perception, categorization (interpretation), and understanding go together when I try to wrap my mind around a salient situation. My past reaches out through the medium of expectation to grapple with what is currently happening. I try to fit novel events into conceptual bins (categories) in order to assimilate the new to the old and familiar.
  • If I can’t fit a sensory pattern into a conceptual bin I already have, I have to accommodate by stretching an existing bin to allow a metaphorical extension, or even create a new concept for what is happening (this is called learning).
  • Attention, memory, and action are stages in my looping engagement with my sensory world.
  • I can only receive signals based on energy and matter through my senses, not knowledge or information. My sense of smell and taste acknowledge actual molecules from the outside have found their way inside my nose and mouth. What I make of such signals is strictly my doing, not the world’s, not some sign of universal truth.
  • Consciousness receives patterns of energy. It’s assignment is to interpret what that pattern means, determine its significance, and to channel the results forward in my mind as the basis for appropriate action through an immediate physical response or a project accomplished over a period of time.
  • That is the basic functioning of my end of my loop of engagement with my unknown surroundings. The far end courses through the world around me, which in turn sends signals back to my senses, which I need to diagnose and interpret in order to adjust my initial understanding of my current situation, leading to a refined course of gestures aimed at making an increasingly appropriate response.
  • Round and round I go, alternately hitting the ball, seeing where it goes, and fielding it the best I can when it comes back—or not—whichever proves to be the case. My life is a game of action and response governed by reflexes, habits, prejudice, or conscious reflection.
  • My culture does its best to calibrate my sensibility so I interpret set routines the way my mentors and teachers do. That way, I become a member in good standing with those around me. What I know is what they know because they are the ones who have taught me how to respond to a repertory of set cues.
  • Which often does violence to what I have come to understand on my own through personal experience. Creating a tension between my original self and my community, causing me to seek some kind of rationale for explaining and justifying the difference.
  • Self-determination is the most authentic and powerful of all values and motivations. If I don’t act out of the full weight of my personal experience, then I am acting as others would have me act, and I end up doing the bidding of those others for the sake of social conformity—often at great cost to my personal identity.
  • Each person on Earth is a unique individual. His or her childhood rearing is unique, schooling is unique, work history is unique, emotional history, genetic makeup, neural network, autobiography, feelings, values—all unique. If we don’t act for ourselves, who, then, are we acting for? Working for? Living for?
  • Consciousness matters. Personal consciousness as driven by the unique history of our individual lives in the regions of the Earth we have experienced most directly—that sets who we are. Who we are drives how we behave. How we behave determines what we do. What we do provides a base for others to respond to us. How others and the world respond completes our personal loops of engagement. By which we judge how well we fit to our time and place on Earth.
  • We each employ a different set of tools or accessories in conducting our engagements. We wear hats and sweaters, which are our hats and sweaters. They are our personal property because our looping engagements depend on them—on our cars, dwellings, computers, cooking utensils, pets, spouses and partners, children, parents, friends—and all the rest. It is no accident who we choose to live with, what pets we have, where we live, what hat we make or buy. They all tell us something about how our consciousness engages our surroundings.

That’s some of what my book deals with from a first-person, singular point of view. Not only a single point of view, but a unique point of view. As you are unique in the point of view from which you lead your life. The upshot being that our diversity is our strength because it determines what we have to offer one another.

That’s part of the story. More later. Y’r friend, –Steve

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

Reflection 233: Ownership

February 17, 2012

Copyright © 2012 by Steve Perrin

The loops of personal engagement by which I see us reaching out to our worlds through various gestures, and those worlds reaching in to us as parties responsible for such actions as we have taken or are considering—these loops exist in our brains as molecules, ions, neurotransmitters, and pulsing electrical charges coursing across cell membranes and through networks of nerve fibers. Wholly oblivious to this rush of neural traffic, we entertain only a flow of sensory phenomena through our minds, which we duly interpret, understand, emotionally probe, compare, remember for a time, and even feed forward to the planning areas of our minds. In due course we answer the world by making a physical response appropriate to our grasp of the situation we think we are in. (CONSCIOUSNESS: The BOOK, p. 112.)

I was not thinking about ownership when I wrote those words, but it strikes me after the fact that in owning anything at all, it is because we regard a great variety of things as extensions of our mental domain as established by our personal engagements with our surroundings. We use those extensions as accessories: tools, cars, vitamin pills, clothing, tobacco, liquor, partners, pets, etc. We treat them as essential to our interactions with the world, and come to rely on them because they help us define who we are. Without them, we are unsure what to do and how to proceed, much as a robin is lost outside its territory.

I didn’t encounter what I’d call an ego during my 30-year bout of introspection, but I did meet a sort of slavish devotion to my loop of engagement—which amounts to much the same thing. I sometimes get so engaged that I forget that there are other ways of doing things than I am used to, which may well make me come across as woodenheaded or set in my ways. Without my glasses or favorite winter shirt it is easy for me to feel lost. My loop is broken, requiring new methods if I am to carry on as before.

My glasses are crucial parts of my daily routine, as are the clothes I wear, the food I eat, the pills beside my plate, my laptop, and the three books I am concurrently reading. I feel these items are necessary to my well-being. I own them. They are mine because they render me recognizable to myself. Take them from me and I’m not sure who I am, much as the Koch brothers would be lost without their family fortune, or the robin without its own worm.

Ownership, accessories, loops of engagement—there you have an alternative scenario for a good deal of human behavior. I thought you’d want to know so you could try it out as a new way of looking at your own behavior.

Yours for an interesting today and a better tomorrow. –Steve