Copyright © 2013 by Steve Perrin   [with 1 diagram]

I’ve been working on my new book on introspective consciousness, so to give you a taste of what’s coming up, I offer this revised version of Toward a theory of consciousness to serve as a kind of summary of the eight chapters. I include Figure 5 to illustrate what I am talking about in pictorial form. Y’r friend, –Steve

TOWARD A THEORY OF CONSCIOUSNESS

Situated-Self-Diag_5_96px

1. Subjectivity. 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. Such circuits acquire characteristics by being turned on, as consciousness must be turned on or aroused. Such effects as resistance, inductance and capacitance arise from the existential flow of electrons within circuits, specifically, from interactions within that flow itself that affect how electrical energy is received, stored, and distributed. They arise from emergent and kinetic (not static) properties of electrons moving through closed circuits under particular conditions. Consciousness is somewhat similar in not being predetermined by the brain. Instead, as I see it, it rises above neural circuitry to interact through consonance and dissonance between its several parts.

Quantum physics incorporates minds into the observations they are likely to make. That is a huge step in the right direction. Insisting that subjective observers remain essentially pure and aloof from their personal observations is an exercise in ideology. Each observer is a multidimensional set of mental variables 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 gather together, it only gets worse, that is, more complicated and less objective, because of the chemistry within and between them. I think a new branch of science allowing self-reflection as a productive and honorable profession based on first-person experience is due to emerge. This will compensate for deficiencies in the practice of neuroscience, allowing a more complete accounting for what consciousness is—and how it arises from the brain—to appear at last.

2. Three questions. 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 extends between sensory receptors and 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 sensory impressions, understanding, memory, comparison, dreams, values, feelings, and imagination. And both of these departments connect to motor areas of mind and brain. The situated self connects via the planning areas of the brain, the province of judgment, decision, goals, projects, and relationships. The sensory department, too, can fire directly (and unconsciously) to the motor area, where impulse and habit can direct personal effort and force toward the world beyond.

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 effective and 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 ever vigilant, not merely the fast, strong, smart, or beautiful.

3. Loops of engagement. 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, stopping the clock, inviting other situations to take over and start a new round, spiral, or helix of engagement. This spiraling (because never coinciding with its exact beginning) 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 continually reinventing ourselves and our worlds.

4. Organ systems. 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 organism 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 buildup of waste products simultaneously eliminated. Voilà: the loop of engagement. The same basic principle applies to our pulmonary, cardiovascular, digestive, reproductive, immune, integumentary, and nervous systems. Looping 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.

5. Polarity. Consciousness is bipolar in nature, having both an interior and exterior pole. The situated self is the inner pole, the virtual or conjectural 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 as driven by the life force, but other than by crying or sucking, we have yet to learn how to engage in order to get more of what we want, and less of what we don’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. Since conception, she has become 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.

6. Trial and error. Every new life is an experiment to see what is effective and what not within the particular niche we occupy 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. Through our parents, the universe hands us our bodily makeup and says, “See what you can do with this.” The rest is up to us.

7. Memory. Memory is the backbone of consciousness. Strong emotion and frequent repetition build stable connections within neural networks shaped by personal experience. Connections that 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 awareness. 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: 1) Spontaneous (or working) memory is fleeting, typically lasting only a few seconds; 2) autobiographical memory can preserve personal episodes for a lifetime as a result of long-term potentiation; 3) conceptual (or semantic) memory is abstracted from the flow of experience to represent persisting types or categories of sensory patterns as based on repeated presentations within a limited range of similarity, facilitating the convenient labeling of specific impressions as concepts approximating one familiar pattern or another.

8. Inputs to consciousness. Three very different inputs support consciousness: 1) materials delivered by bloodflow to fuel the metabolism of body and brain; 2) energy imparted to sensory organs that kindle impressions to be interpreted in light of prior experience as one’s proprietary awareness; and 3) the life force we inherit with our particular genome, the urge to eat, drink, breathe, laugh or cry, heal, rest, have sex, and keep going against all odds. Ambient energy and adequate nutrition are basic substrates of consciousness; reducing availability of either one results in mental impairment and degradation. Consciousness itself flows from the life force, the need to engage, to know what’s happening, to make meaning, to plan and then act, and then to discover what happens next. We call this yearning to engage “soul” or “spirit,” but it doesn’t belong to us as individuals. Rather, it is the endowment we receive by being born as organic beings to an energy-rich planet that gives us a toehold in the universe.

9. Levels of consciousness. Within the brain, two basic routes are available for passage from sensory impressions to appropriate actions: the first is a direct and unconscious route of reflex-mimicry-habit-routine-custom-belief that prompts immediate action on appearance of particular sensory cues; the second is a 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-up our situation 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 mental levels, the unconscious and the conscious, what I have elsewhere referred to as the high road and low road.

10. Animal consciousness. 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 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, scenting ability of dogs, sensitivity to heat of pit vipers, directional hearing of deer, scanning ability of electric fishes, magnetic sensibility of eels, sharks, and birds. We may be fellow creatures, but our respective sensibilities situate us in very different niches in parallel worlds of consciousness on the planet we share.

11. Comparison. Change, difference, motion, and comparison are other basic principles underlying consciousness. Memory not only allows us to categorize sensory patterns, but also to notice what has changed or is different in respect to their former makeup or to a set standard pattern. Comparison of neural signals in, say, adjacent or reciprocating cortical columns creates a sense of relationship (depth perception, symmetry, consonance, dissonance, extension, expansion, proportion, opposition, elaboration, and so on) in consciousness. I view comparison 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 and routine. But if changes are noted, are they for better or worse? We spend much of our mental energy evaluating implications of situations that change and develop.

This suggests to me that consciousness is a form of memory, or, more accurately, a way of remembering in a current situation so that past and present impressions are compared, and any disparity directs attention to discover what if anything can be told by the difference. And, further, how such a difference might bear on our behavior. In other words, discrepancy is viewed within a framework of subjective meaning, enabling evaluation of what difference it makes.

12. Meaning. 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. Meaning is another fundamental principle of consciousness, evaluating the new in reference to the expected or commonplace. 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 by 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.

13. Time and space. Comparisons resulting from our ways of believing and remembering 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 space-time. 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 enacting change. When the cultural calibrators die off, only change will remain, and when individual memory dies, awareness of change itself will wink out.

14. Phenomena. 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 electro-chemical 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.

15. Dreams. 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. Our 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 lie ahead of us. This latent, so-called theory of consciousness is the narrative told to me in my dream-like reflections, and I am sharing with you as a gesture of neighborliness.

16. Introspection. 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, sports, business, 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 progress from dull to duller to dullest. 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 on the nature of individuality and uniform behavior is a forlorn hope dependent on excessive abstraction and generalization.

17. A tale of two selves. 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—subjective and virtual—facing off against each other at opposite poles of our engagements, separated by the membrane that serves as our skin. This is a 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 ever spiraling engagement in the streaming adventure of mental life, giving others the impression we are present and accounted-for. To those others, we serve as the virtual poles complementing their subjective selves as situated in the shadows of their own impressions, dreams, life force, and actions.

That’s it for now. Hang in there, and focus on your issues, not the world’s (which are too much for any of us). –Steve

 

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

Copyright © 2012 by Steve Perrin.       [Including 16 photos.]

Where do Mitt Romney’s non-taxpaying moochers go on vacation? I don’t know about the others, but this September I allowed myself three days to explore Campobello Island in New Brunswick off Lubec, Maine, where I wanted to do some serious mooching. By mooching I mean engaging my surroundings with my eyes and my camera, checking on the situations I am apt to get myself into so I can make a fitting response to what’s going on in my world. My partner was ready to take a break, too, so we drove together through Washington County and over the international bridge between Lubec and Campobello, to the island where F.D.R. took vacations long ago before he got polio.

We spent three days in Herring Cove Provincial Park and Roosevelt International Park, as beautiful an area as I have ever been in. Since this was our only vacation all year, we had some heavy mooching to do if it was going to have to last us for twelve months. I took the makings of three breakfasts and three lunches, she provided three dinners. We tented out in Herring Cove Campground, and did little but explore the whole time.

Since I feel obligated to submit a report to Mr. Romney to justify my existence for those three days—on the off-chance he might approve of how I occupied myself—I offer this accounting of how I used my time. We arrived just at dusk, so set up the tent in a hurry, avoiding low ground where rainwater would collect, and then ate a quick dinner. That was Friday night. The forecast for Saturday was wind and rain by early afternoon, so we started out early in the morning by visiting the beach at Cranberry Point. Yes, there was the Lubec Channel Light, just as the brochure said it would be—looking every bit the giant sparkplug they said it resembled. Carole, that’s my partner, suffered from stomach distress, so lay on the shore with a smooth beach stone in each hand to heal herself. And I walked up and down the beach, photographing the Duck Islands, the waves, clouds on the horizon, a painted lady butterfly, the lighthouse, and West Quoddy Light across the channel in the U.S. of A.

When it started to rain, we visited the Roosevelt International Park visitor center, and spent a couple of hours refreshing our memories of F.D.R.s life and presidency. They had fifteen of his notable speeches piped into a cathedral-style table radio, so it was like old times, reminding me of December 7, 1941, when I first heard of the Japanese stealth bombing of Pearl Harbor. If it hadn’t been for F.D.R., I wouldn’t be the moocher I am today, so I had no difficulty paying my respects to his memory.

When the rain let up, we headed for the northern end of the island to visit East Quoddy Light, which a woman walking her dog told us might be turned into guest accommodations. An adult bald eagle was riling up the gulls on the rocks, looking like he (a tercel one-third smaller than a female) was determined to eat one for dinner. He landed on top of a nearby spruce and balanced himself in the wind by much flapping of wings, then dove off and made a fly-by of where we were standing. I got several photos of that foray, before he settled down on the rocks and just sat there eying the gulls, who mercilessly harassed him by diving at his neck from behind.

You get the idea of how I go about mooching by following my nose to whatever looks interesting. I took 355 photos in three days, and the day I got back, made a 106-slide PowerPoint summary of my brief Canadian engagement, a sample of which I include in this blog. That’s the best way of letting Mr. Romney and the rest of the world know what I was doing by actually posting the evidence of my nonstop engagement with birds, flowers, butterflies, stones, beach art, and my partner Carole. That’s how I justify my existence when somebody challenges me, by showing them what I’m up to.

Whether you’re ready or not, here come the photos: 1) The Duck Islands, 2) Herring Cove with storm clouds, 3) shiny black stone on the beach, 4) the eastern horizon (I’m fascinated by that limit to my existence), 5) a bunch of pebbles, 6) more pebbles, 7) sandpiper on Raccoon Beach, 8) two urchins in sea wrack, 9) a new-hatched monarch butterfly, 10) cliff at the end of Herring Cove, 11) folk art made of the rubber bands lobstermen use to bind lobster claws, 12) a spiral engraved in the sand of Herring Cove with a stick, 13) a totem made by piling up beach stones, and 14-16) constructions such as people leave behind when visiting Raccoon Cove on Campobello Island.

The first ten photos are products my actions in engaging the island, the last six are products of other people’s engagements, left behind for posterity to appreciate, then to succumb to the natural forces ruling all engagements on the island.

Slide1Slide2 Slide3Slide4 Slide5 Slide6 Slide7 Slide8 Slide9Slide10Slide11Slide12 Slide13Slide14Slide15Slide16

That’s the kind of thing I engage with when I and my partner go on vacation. It’s pretty close to my life’s work, engaging the landscapes through which I pass as I go. I see myself as living a life of civility and respect for the wonders of this Earth. At least I don’t make pornographic films, weapons of mass destruction, or money based on bilking others of their life’s savings. I do as little damage as I can, and above all, take responsibility for the workings of my mind because, after all, it’s my mind, and I’m the only one with access to it. My mind directs my behavior, and my behavior affects other people, so I try to set up an exchange of civility as I walk the way of my life.

Oh, yes, this is my 329th post to my blog on consciousness, my effort to understand my personal brand of absurdity so that I can fulfill that last promise to live on peaceful terms with my neighbors by conducting myself as decently, courteously, and respectfully as I can because I know that no one has it easy, and a ruckus from my direction is the last thing anyone needs. Not that I haven’t caused trouble in the past, but I’m getting better by knowing myself up-close and personal, as they used to say on TV, which I know because I was there watching it as recently as twenty-five years ago.

That’s my mooching report for this week. Pretty bland, I would say—especially when compared to the trouble a lot of workers cause by fighting needless wars of aggression, wringing other people’s money out of the economy, keeping people locked up in detention and solitary confinement, shipping jobs overseas, and generally causing mayhem the way politicians and corporate executives like to do to keep folks stirred up and out of sorts so they’ll consume more than they need just to keep the money flowing to the coffers of the well-off and famous.  

Between mooches I work with an estuary and its watershed to keep it in good shape for coming generations, and hang out with remnants of the Occupy Movement in Maine, trying to convert to an assembly for promoting civil exchanges within the local community as opposed to monetary exchanges—as if sports and the economy are all we have to talk about when people get together. How about learning from and about one another, since each one of us is unique and largely unknown to anyone else?

Submitted with humility and sincerity, –Steve of Planet Earth

Reflection 326: Dreamland

October 1, 2012

Copyright © 2012 by Steve Perrin.

When we dream, we can neither act in the world nor receive sensory impressions from that world, so have no ability to engage beyond what we store in memory—lingering feelings, salient experience from the past, a general sense of frustration in being shut out from the world, together with an ability to construct recognizable situations associated with subtle movements of the muscles steering our eyes. And yet to recover our sense of engagement upon waking, all we need is a sufficient jolt of arousal to release our pent-up drive to action and hunger for sensory stimulation. We are the same situated dreamers, now up on two legs and looking about, ready to engage.

Our dreaming and waking self is much the same basic personality under different conditions of arousal. As I wrote in Consciousness: The Book, “To create consciousness, equip our dreamselves with loops of engagement so we become capable of acting and sensing—voila, we recognize our everyday selves” (page 207).

What does not change when we slip into dreamland is our ability to recognize a limited range of familiar situations such as frustration and sexual arousal. In the last paragraph of my book, I make a suggestion stemming from that fact:

I think it important to pay particular attention to your mental state every day upon first awakening, and to the remnants of receding dreams. This will expand your appreciation for the hidden depths of your mind, which are just as much yours as your open-eyed awareness (pages 270-271).

So it is no surprise that I took notice of an opposite view expressed in a short piece by Michael Chabon in the September 27 issue of The New York Review of Books: 

I hate dreams. . . . I hate them for their absurdities and deferrals, their endlessly broken promise to amount to something, by and by. I hate them for the way they ransack memory, jumbling treasure and trash. I hate them for their tedium, how they drag on, peter out, wander off (“Head or Tale,” page 54).

There, I thought, is a man who is uncomfortable with his own nature, his own hidden depths. I tried to imagine what it would be like to live with so strong a source of built-in discontent. It is not only his own dreams that bother him, but the recounting by  others of their dreams—including members of his own family:

At the breakfast table, in my house, an inflexible law compels all recounting of dreams to be compressed into a sentence or, better still, half a sentence, like the paraphrasings of epic films listed in TV Guide: “Rogue Samurai saves peasant village” (ibid.).

That attitude strikes me as so familiar because people generally hate in others what they cannot deal with in their own lives. Which leads religious and political leaders to take often extreme efforts to clamp down on the freedom of all people to be themselves. How does the refrain run? “If I hate abortions, you can’t have one under any circumstances. If I feel overtaxed, you can’t even mention taxation in my presence. If I am uneasy in the presence of foreigners, they should stay in their homelands and not hound me. Spare me your dreams, I’ll spare you mine.”

These are warped ways of engagement, imposing one’s own sensibilities on everyone else—claiming that one’s personal style should be made universal. The harder a man believes in his personal style of engagement, the more intolerant and unbearable he becomes, the more controlling and authoritarian, the more insistent on orthodoxy based on his egocentric life preferences. His engagements with unique others become geared like a bicycle chain entraining them to his will. The universe is not centered on Earth or the sun, it is centered on me, me, me, me! That is the cry of those who have a private fountain of youth in their depths that assures they stay infantile forever. What a sad story. Sad for all of humanity in thinking one can be conscious for everyone else.

“If art were more like dreams,” Chabon writes, “I might ban it from my breakfast table, too.” On that note, he ends his short piece. Is he trying to be funny or ironic? I am not familiar with his work, and don’t find any figurative clues in this short essay, so take him at face value.  [Wikipedia’s entry on Michael Chabon includes the sentence: His work is characterized by complex language, the frequent use of metaphor along with recurring themes, including nostalgia, divorce, abandonment, fatherhood, and most notably issues of Jewish identity.]  We cannot tolerate what we don’t understand because we have not lived it in childhood when our styles of engagement were set spinning. Not just a sad story, a tragic story, with consequences for us all. Such as the mayhem—the cacophony of cries shouted out and enacted on the world stage, human weakness and fallibility masquerading as world truth and god’s will.

How it hurts to write such words. To see the human world implode upon itself because of a set refusal on the part of those who seek power to grow into mature adults. What sane adult would want to have a position of such authority? The general level of maturity is inversely proportional to the square of the human population because more and more children are neglected every day, and so society lacks the depth it requires to teach everyone how to engage with those who are unlike themselves, and so make a shambles of life itself. Truly, it takes a village to raise a child so parents have back-ups when they’re too sick or tired to engage with their own children.

What does it take to want to be president or serve on the judiciary of the United States, Egypt, Serbia, Syria, Iran, North Korea, or anywhere else? It takes a lust for power based on deep felt personal need to control the world because it is such a scary place. To feel that in your bones is to plead the normalcy of your personal fears, needs, desires, and ideal engagements. What I want, every normally intelligent person should want. What’s good for me is good for you, by definition. My definition. Which is the point. Me substituting my will for yours, and calling it a virtue. Putting you in my place—my situation as I see it—and calling that reality.

As we engage, so do we play out our situations in the (supposedly) real world. Shopping, working, making things, fixing dinner, talking, joking, fighting, keeping abreast of the times—all are engagements centered on the situations we are in at the time. Which are very similar to the key situations we find (place) ourselves in in our dreams. Situations, remember, encapsulate the self, his or her outlook or perspective, and the scene or event revealed from that personal point-of-view all in one take on so-called reality. Situations one after another form the loop of engagement along which our daily lives are strung like so much laundry. Life is thus made up of our adventures as seen from the inside. Inside our waking hours; inside our dreams.

I woke up the other day still engaged in my dream, and went about my daily routine as if the dream were continuing, looking upon my intimate world as fantastic, fabulous, bizarre, and strangely wonderful. I had made soup the evening before, and piled bowls, pots, pans, and utensils in the drying rack next to my sink in a mad heap like the dump of discarded parts at a military airbase. I took it all in and accepted responsibility for creating that heap. In the bathroom, I hung my towel—not on the bar where a wet shirt was supposedly drying, but half on an overturned laundry basket, half on a chair while avoiding the pair of pants draped over the back, desperately fitting my need to what little space was available, seeing myself adapt to the chaos and ruin I had wrought by simply living my life the day before. I was partly awake, but my dream state seamlessly continued so that I could appreciate my own engagement as my doing fabricated from whatever situation I found myself in.

Which is where we “come from” all the time, from situations in which we picture ourselves in the act of striving to be glamorous, accomplished, famous, worthy, witty, eloquent, funny, powerful, strong, successful—whatever. We make ourselves happen to fit the situations we create for ourselves. Poor me. Lucky me. Happy me. Neurotic me. Sick me. Sad me. Saintly me. Devilish me. As go our dreams, so goes our day, scene by scene, act after act, one engagement following another. The land of our waking turns out to be an extension of the land of our dreaming, or vice versa. The two are similar because we—our fundamental selves—are one and the same. It’s just that in one state we can engage with the world around us to some degree, in the other we have only our innermost selves to fall back on, our own company to keep in insular privacy.

Landscape as dreamscape, that’s what I’m talking about because that’s what I find by reflection on my own life. Asleep or awake, I’m the same me in two different realms, one where I can engage a shifting world, the other where I have only salient features of my earlier experience, so in a sense am trapped into being who I truly am. If I hate my dreams, as many do—Michael Chabon is but their spokesman—I am in deep trouble, and apt to make it all right by imposing my trouble on those who are not me—which is what writers of “fiction” do for a living.

One afterthought: Horoscopes “work” because they are based on the assumption that the conditions of our beginnings determine our actions ever-after. Which, translated to the influence of the heavens, is a figurative depiction of what really happens. Only, it isn’t the heavens that are all powerful, but our earliest caregivers—parents, not planets, earthly surrogates for those looking down from above.

Enough, already. I’m still y’r brother and friend, enjoying myself immensely, –Steve from Planet Earth.

Copyright 2012 by Steve Perrin.

Speech is an efficient form of action taken in response to a felt situation. The situation—in part or whole—is the message intended by a particular utterance. When an engagement is unintentionally terminated or interrupted, for instance, the resulting frustration may well erupt in a spurt of breath bearing an emphatically voiced consonant sound, such as an oath. Or when the prospect of a pleasing engagement appears, it may elicit an open vowel sound such as “ooh” or “aah.” Displeasure, shock, or fright may be expressed by air emitted through tensed jaw and vocal cords.

Situations are the intimate worlds in which we live and of which we speak (or draw, sing, dance, or make films). They are the center of our mental activity because they form the pivot between sensory impressions on one side and intentional actions on the other. Even if we do not act or perceive, we are situated in our sense of self, which I associate with dreams and memory, and imaginatively locate in my brain’s limbic system (including the amygdala, hippocampus, hypothalamus, and cingulate cortex) where incoming and outgoing nerve signals meet in states of arousal.

When aroused, we tend to make sounds—clapping, groaning, sighing, singing, swearing, greeting—spontaneously broadcasting our felt situations to those within earshot. I have listened to the gurgling barks of harbor seal pups, shrieks of bald eagles back and forth, howls of coyotes, wavering calls of loons, warning cries and treetop arias of countless birds, and imitative burbles of babies in the crib. In each case, the sound is situated in the experience of an aroused living being.

The exchange of excited honks between two groups of Canada geese—those on their feeding waters and those flying in—are a case in point. No sound moves me more than the glad greetings shouted between those two groups. The most wondrous exchange I ever heard was a duet between a loon on the bay at midnight and an answering coyote on land, both equally passionate and melodious to my ears while lying in bed, transfixed for the three or four minutes it lasted, which I took to be no coincidence but a mutual exchange of auditory appreciation between species.

We are in this life together, and make sounds in observance of that fact when our situations overlap.

During my two-and-a-half-year stay on Burying Island (1986-1988), I often muttered words out loud, or caught myself on the verge of “talking to myself,” but I wasn’t really talking, more accurately acknowledging a state of arousal while gripped by one situation or another. Which, I think, is why painters paint, singers sing, dancers dance—to celebrate the situations they get themselves into, and recreate in performance again and again.

When people get together, what do we talk about but the situations uppermost in our minds? Baby passed another milestone, dear one got a job, doggie dug up neighbor’s garden, puss left half a sparrow on the pillow again, the car needs a new muffler, the house a new roof. Sentence-by-sentence, we describe in increasing detail the situations we are coming from because that’s where we live out our days. Which is equally true of conversations at the kitchen table, PTA meetings, or the general assembly of the local branch of the occupy movement.

Speech is an economical form of action by which we can try out our ideas before we irreversibly commit a particular deed. Once the deed is done, it has our name on it and we either have to own it and do our best to live with it, or try to find a way to undo what we have done. With speech, we can apologize for any hurt feelings we may have caused, but with deeds, like George Zimmerman, we cannot make amends by bringing Trayvon Martin back to life.

We, along with our generation, are born to a particular era of coexistence with one another. Each of us lives an individual life, yet we live that life in concert with those around us, and our respective situations may share similar features so that we feel connected in various ways by events taking place in our awareness as we each may personally construe it. In that sense, we may come to feel somewhat like brothers and sisters facing similar challenges, which helps us use speech to become real to one another in grappling with the cast of notable characters and salient events of our time. We may even converse among ourselves with a sense of common understanding, and come to agreement about what needs to be done to improve the situation we live in.

Acting separately, we may be weak, but together we are a powerful force that needs to be reckoned with. Whether that reckoning comes to pass or not remains to be seen. But one thing is sure: it won’t happen without our making a personal commitment to action.

In other words, I am with you as you are with me in this, our time to speak and to act. As ever, I remain y’r brother, —Steve

(Copyright © 2010)

I am ever the hero of my own little drama as I act it out in my head. It can’t be otherwise because I am the author and sole interpreter of the script as it is revealed to me (that is, as I make it up minute by minute). My life is a performance of my story, first concocted in my head, then performed on the virtual (from my point of view) stage of the unknowable world. Picture me behind the door of my mind—the one with the star—posing in my dressing gown before a full-length mirror, mouthing the words I am rehearsing for the grand performance I’m to give in a few moments. If you were lucky, you’d be in the audience. Too bad you can’t make the show because you are rehearsing your own performance before your own full-length mirror in a different dressing room, also with a star on the door.

We are heroes to ourselves because we can do no wrong. Even when we commit stupid or cruel acts, we are automatically off the hook because, no matter how others see us, we appear blameless to ourselves. Self-interest is our only motive, so by definition we have to be right because we can always justify what we do. It is they, those others, who are at fault—they just don’t understand.

Each a hero in her own eyes; what a wonderful system. Perfection itself on two legs, facing the world, looking about for yet more heroic labors worthy of our talents and strengths. Whatever feats others may perform, we can do better. Why waste time pretending to be modest if in all honesty we’re the greatest? I mean, what-is-the-point? Wink, wink; nudge, nudge. If corporations ever got on to the power of categorization so they were able to set the terms in which we all see the world, there’d be hell to pay.

If we manage to do no harm by living our span to the fullest, then a self-assertive life such as I have described in those first three paragraphs amounts to a comedy. But despite our good intentions, we are never as innocent as we claim. Others do without basic necessities so that we may live higher on the hog than they can imagine. Eyes straight ahead, we are only dimly aware of the ruin in our wake. With an automobile, I have killed pheasants, dogs, cats, frogs, salamanders, butterflies, dragonflies, and thousands of others. I have been trained as a killer by the U.S. Army; I don’t doubt that my training was successful on occasion, even well after the fact. But there I go again, blaming my training, while the true killer is the self that I am whose hungers demand to be fed.

Our myopic perspectives and insatiable appetites render life more tragic than comic. Think of the innocents slaughtered in our name (beef cattle, chickens, pigs, goats, and thousands of plants, many of which bear genes similar to our own). We live at far greater expense than we know or choose to bother ourselves about.

All because we categorize and sort the world for personal gain as we imagine it, without consulting others in advance. Selfish and glib, that’s what we are. I know, I am one who has shaped the world to his advantage as long as he can remember. Not deliberately or knowingly, perhaps, but effectively that is how I have lived my life. Following my nose, which means following the dictates of self-interest and personal advantage. The difference between me following my nose and Bernie Madoff following his is he’s in prison and I’m not. Or if I am in fact behind bars, those bars are the steely cage around my consciousness, armoring the very wits by which I survive.

I use such imagery to describe the categorizing aspect of consciousness because we cannot avoid casting our most self-serving concepts upon sensory patterns representing what we can know of the world. With the exception of messages from great corporations, those phenomenal patterns do not come to us presorted and pre-categorized; it is we who bend them to our purposes by seeing them from our unique points of view as recorded in our personal histories of concept formation, cleaned and gutted of telling details, hollowed-out for general utility later on, leaving only husks, not the essence. Categorization—recognizing the “true” nature of things—is not an impartial act; we are invested in what uses we can make of a thing for our personal advancement, so bestow categories on it that will serve us well later on. A spade is not just a spade nor a rose simply a rose; in each case they are functionally what we make them out to be. A spade can kill, a rose ingratiate us with others who will owe future favors.

Machiavelli didn’t come out of the blue; he was the product of his own urge to survive. So, too, de Sade. And Sun Tzu, author of The Art of War, who wrote, “All warfare is based on deception.” I say all survival is based on deception, particularly of the self. To us, our miscategorizations always appear fair and just. The self is in full command of its resources and does not submit to casual scrutiny. You have to infer its self-deceptions from its actual deeds. That makes it all the easier to confound its dictates with truth or reality, subject of my last post (Reflection 197: Backing Off).

Our entire neural apparatus intercedes between the self and its grasp of the world. Our senses don’t deliver the world-as-it-is to our doorstep, they bring us images transduced and reformulated by our sensory system—the world being at least once removed as translated into the neural language of action potentials and flowing neurotransmitters. Which memory scans for familiar patterns in order to categorize what we hear (see, touch, taste, smell) in terms of concepts made meaningful by prior experience. At every step of our life journey we reinvent ourselves and the situation we’re faced with based on patterns we’ve encountered before and the concepts we’ve derived from them. The world as-it-is-in-itself never enters our minds.

No matter how subtle, most categorizations are heroic distortions for personal gain in being consistent with biological values inherent in the self—namely you and me. Our meanings lie ready, waiting to seize on familiar neural signals. The perceptual side of consciousness is concerned with sensory patterns and relationships, and so is more cordial in being ruled by curiosity about, and interest in, what’s out there than by survival at any cost. Categorization answers questions raised by curiosity about the world, but personal aesthetics first decide what’s relevant and what isn’t. I don’t mean aesthetics focused solely on beauty; I mean picking up on sensory patterns and relationships apart from any meaning they may have for us. That is, sensory signals as not yet—but soon to be—recognized and categorized. Such as the tonal makeup and rhythms of a familiar voice or piece of music; the shape, size, color, and motion of a familiar bird; the feel of our fingers wrapping around the steering wheel of our family car; the scent of Spanish rice as Mother used to make it.

The mapping of categories onto sensory patterns, and vice versa, are two of the major achievements of consciousness. Experience and awareness meet in constituting a current moment of engagement with our world. The salience or relevance of the signal can be in attention or memory, but categorizing a sensory episode as a meaningful experience is our doing in either case. We are fulfilled in being simultaneous pattern detectors and categorizers in that moment. When our personal histories coincide with the sensory now, we are on familiar ground and know our options for making an appropriate response to the situation we’re in. The past claims the now, moving our heroic-aesthetic self one notch toward the future.

We are so quick to draw categories from our quiver, we come to think sensory patterns come to us with meanings attached to them, as if they were meaningful in and of themselves. But even if we are in our everyday mode of categorization, we are the ones responsible for bringing sensory inputs and conceptual meanings together. The meaning isn’t in the music or the image, it is in us. Always in us. If the sounds of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony pour out of the radio and there’s no one to hear it, then the sounds go unrecognized, and the radio may be turned on, but Beethoven’s Fifth is not playing. If the sensory-pattern recognizer and categorizer is absent, then for all practical purposes the moment is lost. Think of a car skidding off the road, hitting a tree, killing the driver, with the radio playing relentlessly to his unhearing ears and lifeless body. Is the radio still playing? To one discovering the scene, perhaps, but not to the late driver.

Categorization takes time—on the order of a few tenths of a second. It is possible to live in the gap between pattern reception and the act of recognition that fits it to a category. We can prolong that gap as long as we please by focusing solely on sensory patterns and their internal relationships, dispensing with conceptual meanings as irrelevant—as we often do in listening to music without words, scanning the surface of a painting, savoring scents on a damp day in fall, and walking in woods or along the shore—giving ourselves to our surroundings instead of claiming to know them in advance.

As a photographer for the Information Service at Iowa State University in 1960, I used to photograph boxing matches and basketball games, giving my total attention to the action in the ring or under the basket. I was so engaged in my personal zone, I lived to anticipate what was about to happen because if I waited to find out, it was too late to click the shutter. Peering at the scene through the viewfinder of my camera, living in that space, when the match or game was over, I had to ask to find out who’d won.

Yes, sounds dumb, and it was because I had no use for speech and meaning. Just as when I visit galleries and avoid reading what the artist says about a painting or photograph, or even the label of what I am looking at. I don’t want titles or grand ideas, I want the visual experience, which the title or blurb takes away from me so that I know about the image without experiencing it for myself. In such a case, words are not the issue. They are someone else’s categorizations, and I have no interest in them. Later, perhaps, but not now. Not till I’ve pushed the experience as far as I can take it, exploring the image, noting the colors and their relationships, textures, shapes, angles, brushstrokes, making the image live in me so that I have a personal acquaintance with it. That way, I still see the world through my own eyes. Maybe later, I’ll bother to read what someone else has to say about it.

I still recall being disappointed when I led a group of eleventh graders on an excursion through woods where I wanted them to learn about their natural surroundings by touch, smell, sound—any way but sight (see Reflection 149: Blind Walk). Pairing up, one partner was to assure the safety of the other who, blindfolded, explored her surroundings by hand, ear, and nose. But despite my instructions, everyone made a guessing game of the exercise, the presumed object being to shout out the name of each object encountered. For them, the name said it all; sensory experience was beside the point. Which, I realized sadly, was the result of the schooling we run our children through in making them dutiful inductees into our culture. The label—the right answer—is of the essence; personal experience is not part of the curriculum. I was trying to awaken my students to sensory details they could use to enliven their writing, but had to work harder than I planned to get that message across.

Listening to music without words is one of the best ways I know of to experience the pre-categorical, sensory aspect of consciousness. Jazz and classical music work equally well; ballads less well because the words steal the show. The trick is to give yourself to the notes themselves as they rise and fall in time, noticing their duration, their tonal relationships, the quality of the different notes, the interacting voices of the instruments, echoes and repetitions, larger or smaller leaps than you expect, comparing where you think the music is going to where it actually leads, and so on. That way, you make each piece your own because you have lived inside it in your own consciousness, not merely followed along at a distance.

Abstract painting is a great medium for exploring visual relationships between different shapes, hues, values, textures,  sizes, and orientations of patches of color. It is such Thank you, Franz Klinerelationships that turn different patches into patterns of visual stimulation, elevating discrete sensory differences into an overall design which holds together because its internal workings add to something larger than themselves. Faced with an abstract by Franz Kline, for instance, seen from the right distance, the eye never stops ricocheting around the surface, darting to every corner in search of the next salient feature, knitting the parts into a stimulating and satisfying whole. Don’t take my word for it, words are irrelevant. Just give of yourself in free exploration and see what you find.

If we don’t explore sensory patterns before we categorize them as this or that, we may lose the opportunity because habit is apt to take over and short-circuit fresh perception altogether. I have mentioned in an earlier post the distinguished historian of science who put a print of Picasso’s Guernica over his desk—and never saw it again. We have to make a deliberate effort to notice sensory patterns when we have the chance, or they may well disappear as so much cultural wallpaper. I remember staying home from school as a kid because I was sick, and getting so tired of hearing the same old chestnuts favored by radio stations in Syracuse—in those days The Sorcerer’s Apprentice and Rhapsody in Blue—that I still associate them with canned chicken soup and ginger ale. Try to really listen to Ravel’s Bolero and see how long you last.

No frill to me, aesthetics is the high art of noticing. Of really paying attention to sensory details wherever I find them. Of giving myself to life in order that life will give itself to me. When I don’t make the effort, life glides right past me like so many telephone poles by the side of the road. This is what I mean by “being there,” putting my values where my body is so that I engage what is truly going on from my personal perspective. Sensory exploration is essential to getting the most out of life instead of glossing it prematurely with a dismissive categorization. Seen one, seen ‘em all. No, each individual being or event is unique in the world, and must be experienced to be appreciated. If we are bored with life, we are bored with ourselves for not taking the initiative to first give of ourselves to our surroundings in order to elicit their response.

At the dentist’s office in Bangor yesterday, I read in Time Magazine the news that great things were coming to the so-called third world in the form of first-world TV shows finally getting the global audience they so richly deserve. I put the magazine down and though about the benefits of pre-packaged experiences going by so fast that they amount to missed opportunities for doing something personally significant on the local scene. 

Mass media are the enemy of human consciousness because they are meant to overwhelm us, not engage us. We can’t ask questions or say how we feel. Try writing a letter to Time or Newsweek about their opinionated coverage of world events and you’ll get back a form letter much like the one you get from your Representative or Senator saying how much your letters mean to them. As if words and categorizations were reality itself. In truth, the corporate mass media are dumbing down the world, separating persons from their individual opportunities to have local experiences.

It’s not that, as the voice of corporate America, the media pre-package experience so much as that they pre-digest it for us, too, so there’s nothing else for us to do but sit and watch flat screens the evening through after working all day in a cubicle watching other flat screens. We should be out raising flowers and vegetables; watching birds, spiders, and insects; milking cows; hiking or swimming in the wilds with our kids; using our minds to make something of ourselves instead of letting the corporate media remake us to suit their agendas. For-profit corporate personhood is an assault on the Earth and all forms of life. Corporations are not alive, and know nothing about living beings. Their sole purpose is to make money for their owners, which they do at the expense of not only their owners themselves, but of all living beings.

Heroic conceptual categorizations laid on us by corporations doing our thinking for us, coupled to lazy sensory-pattern detection on our part, is leading us all down the primrose path to global catastrophe. The solution is to reclaim personhood for those who are still individuals among us, destroying the very idea of mass media in the process. The only media that work are intended for individuals, not the masses. We will never do better than face-to-face conversations, personal letters, or phone conversations. That way, we reserve categorization to ourselves as called forth by the aesthetic patterns we discover in daily experience. Once we forget how to do that, the end is not only near, it is behind us, leaving nobody to listen as the pretty music plays on.

Squash blossom soon to unfurl

(Copyright © 2010)

Do we have it in us? Can we back off from our project of building a future for ourselves, leaving room for those around us who are doing the same? Are we so dedicated to our agenda that we can’t appreciate that others are pursuing needs of their own? Who is to declare us right and them wrong? I mean, who aside from ourselves?

The trouble with sticking to corporate agendas with excessive zeal is that it sucks the air out of the room, leaving no oxygen for others to breathe. Is that our goal in life, to assert ourselves to the point that others suffocate in our presence? Are we capable of giving them leeway, some space to breathe? Just enough so they are comfortable in our presence, and vice versa. Are Israelis capable of backing off the Palestinians’ case, allowing them to live on their own without Israeli supervision to make sure they don’t step out of bounds?

The only way Israelis will ever live in peace is to permit Palestinians to do likewise without interference. Not just permit, insist that is their right. Instead of governing by domination, it would be better to step back, adopt a sensible two-state solution, and recognize that sovereignty for one group is workable only if all groups have equal claims to freedom and justice. As it is, Israelis regard Palestinians conceptually, as if they existed in a vacuum—but the vacuum is an emptiness in Israeli imagination.

Why is “the other” so difficult to picture in the mind? We know why the Palestinians are angry, the Israelis took their homeland out from under them by violent means. The Israelis are angry because Palestinians are blocking their agenda, coming between a people and their dream. In some ways, the Israeli dream is similar to the Palestinian dream—to live in peace. Israelis go further and insist on occupying the particular ground that they lost two millennia ago. If the Israelis were to back off, they might discover that both sides want the same thing in modern times. Which would seem to elevate the two-state solution to the level of a win-win compromise. True, neither would take possession of the entire state, but both could have access to it on peaceful terms. Is not living at peace with one’s neighbors preferable to dying an extremist’s death for an unjust cause that is wholly self-serving, and wrongly so?

Passion does not render miscategorizations accurate or fair. Insistence does not transform a claim into a right. Often the wise are those waiting patiently for their opponents to come to terms on their own without being forced. Such a strategy allows those on the opposite side to catch themselves overreaching so that, as in jujitsu, it is they who are shown to be off-balance. Extremists overreach themselves in denying the integrity of those they miscategorize or misjudge. Like hornets, they stir up commotions and alarms to snuff out the slightest hint their cause is any less righteous than they claim.

As for righteousness, no one has defended it better than the Congregation of the Holy Office has protected the doctrine of the Roman Catholic Church. After the fact, that body was advised to categorize Copernicus’s heliocentric theory as heresy, which led to Galileo being forced in 1633 to recant evidence provided by his telescopic investigations in support of the sun’s being the center of the universe as then understood, not the Earth as scripture would have it. Categorized as a heretic, Galileo was placed under permanent house arrest as a threat to the faith. Which is pretty much how Israel treats Palestinians today, categorizing them as threats to the state, so shutting them behind walls of concrete to teach them their place in the Israeli scheme of things.

Undue vehemence in support of particular categorizations of how things stand—or should stand—in the world is rampant around the globe. It comes as a shock to realize that bigotry on behalf of extreme beliefs is not a thing of the past. Bigotry divides people into two classes: those who are with us and those opposed; those who are right and those who are wrong. With the subtext that the right have truth and justice on their side, so are fully justified in censoring the free speech of the wrong by categorizing it as vicious and unfounded lies. That is, one effective way to guard against defamation is to defame your opponent before he is able to frame the debate. Which illustrates the power of our deliberate and conscious minds to use categorization in identifying and destroying at one blow those who oppose us.

Such tactics have become the American way. Consider these examples. 1) Political parties don’t lose elections anymore, they have them stolen by unscrupulous opponents. 2) Once corporations were categorized as persons, they were deemed to have freedom of speech under the First Amendment, which was stretched by activist judges to include the spending of money as a form of free speech—by lining those ducks in a row, the judicial branch singlehandedly undid our representative form of government as described in the U.S. Constitution. 3) Raise the issue of gun control within hearing of the National Rifle Association and you will trigger a tirade by CEO Wayne LaPierre in which absolute heresy is too weak a term for what you are are trying to say (“bullshit” would be his term); instantly you find yourself characterized as an evil terrorist out to prevent decent women and children from defending themselves with firearms, as (he will claim) specifically provided for in the Second Amendment.

Then there is AIPAC (American Israeli Public Affairs Committee), the pro-Israel lobby in the U.S., which claims to level the playing field for all discussions concerning Israel—but comes at such discussions from so aggressive an angle as to tilt the field smartly in its favor. For AIPAC, history is destiny, and modern Israel is seen as “fulfilling a political and historical imperative,” an imperative that makes no mention of Palestine or Palestinians, a place and a people wholly eliminated from the Jewish dream of founding a homeland in modern times. Which raises the issue, when dreams are turned to reality, what happens to those excluded from the dream? Does it matter? In this case, evidently, but not to the dreamers.

My point in this post is that in building a future for ourselves, we all attempt to reify or actualize dreams based on our prior experience, or sacred texts (as in the First and Second Amendments, or the Torah). First we visualize and categorize the kind of future we want for ourselves, then we develop the project of fulfilling our dreams as apt categorizations of reality. That, basically, is how consciousness works in the interest of our individual survival as far as we can push it.

But in realizing our dreams, it is better to include the world in its living diversity, not solely the narrow territory of our personal yearnings as we would project them onto a barren globe. If we don’t work with the lay of the land and the tribes that occupy it, we are apt to impose ourselves roughly in their midst, as Hitler did in Poland, Denmark, Norway, the Netherlands, Belgium, France, North Africa, and the Balkans during World War II. And as the Jews did in 1948—and are still doing today—in what for a time was known as Palestine, and long before that was shown on maps of the time as Egypt, Syria, Canaan, Israel, Philistia, Judah, Persia, Palestina, Jerusalem, Galilee, among other fleeting categorizations.

Given the complexity of human movements and settlements around the Earth, staking a dream claim to any particular area requires a clarity of vision far beyond what the human mind can consciously attain. Columbus claimed the so-called New World as a province of the Old, in one gesture sweeping away the sovereign relationship Native Americans had with the land they lived on. The result is that such campaigns to claim and categorize a place invariably do violence to the historical record, and are conveniently based on the limited views of a small group of assertive people in one place at one time. Such as the Bush administration in deciding to bomb Afghanistan and invade Iraq. Knowing that, as we all must by now, we are well advised to be cautious in mapping ourselves onto Earth’s living surface. At the very least we must allow for those who are already there, since forcing ourselves upon them is bound to lead to resentment and cycles of revenge for the foreseeable future.

It makes more sense to back off from our dreams and develop a live and let-live philosophy that takes other perspectives with other histories into account. Those of us alive today are latecomers to our planet. We may think of ourselves as Adam and Eve in some nouveau Garden of Eden, but the fact is wherever we go, Earth is one giant midden heap consisting of the decomposing ruins of all that has come before us in this place. Excavating for a subway tunnel, we will come across a forgotten palace or perhaps the bones of a saber-toothed tiger. Future excavators will likely dig up the refrigerator we leave at curbside today.

If our minds are so preoccupied they can’t see that each of us is but one point of light in a coruscating multitude, then we are not fully conscious, and our categorizations are apt to be wildly inaccurate because our outreach and intelligence are seriously flawed. Acting as if our judgment were infallible, we head straight for the nearest cliff. Actions we accept on faith to be true and just will surely turn out to be false, unfair, and cruel. To others as well as ourselves and our heirs. Leaving us stunned with massive internal injuries. What we need is largeness of mind from the start, not as a sorry afterthought. The way to achieve that is to resist mapping our personal meanings onto others without consulting them first; just because we can paint them as we see them doesn’t mean a casual sketch is as good as a studied rendition. Our well-intentioned categorizations represent things only as we view them at the time, not as they are. As a rule of thumb, it is safe to assume we haven’t a clue about most things most of the time, and that we know not whereof we rave and rant.

It is better if we do not insist on pushing our agenda to its foregone conclusion. That is, instead of committing to a plan of action, if we back off after our first move and wait to see what will happen. Embarking on a looping engagement with those around us, we remain open to an easy give-and-take with the situation as it develops. We are wise to see what happens before acting again. Consciousness can come to a decision in a fraction of a second, but reacting at that rate, we base the future largely on assumptions we can’t rightly make at that speed. Even after a day or a month, we can’t know very much about conducting ourselves in the world. It takes decades to develop a sense of who we are and what we’re doing—I’d say fifty years at a minimum. Until then, we have only a weak sense of what we don’t know we don’t know. If you are impulsive and can’t wait, then plunge ahead; I promise you’ll learn something new—or will if you keep an open mind.

As it is, Republicans in Congress don’t seem very keen on new learning at this stage of their development. They’re right up there with the hierarchy of the Roman Catholic Church, which hasn’t learned much in 2,000 years of rigid, top-down, authoritarian, paternalistic organization. Nor have AIPAC and the NRA much to show for all the stands they’ve taken because, like Alois Ratzinger (a.k.a. Benedict XVI), they claim infallibility in being so headstrong they can’t learn anything they don’t already know. These are not people you can trust to usher in the future of the world because they are so busily defending their corporate points of view.

“Catholic” means including or concerning all humankind (AHD). Which would seem to require broad sensitivity to grassroots affairs, not a heavy-handed, authoritarian approach radiating top-down from an infallible apex of one man. But once an idea germinates in human consciousness and becomes institutionalized, then it ceases to develop and ossifies as if, like commandments, it is written in stone. The same fate hardens interpretations of constitutional amendments, homelands depicted in ancient scripture, platforms of political parties, colonial attitudes toward native peoples. Like ants in amber, ideas get embedded into agendas and serve as mission statements chartered by law.

I have repeatedly emphasized in this blog that consciousness is a property of individual persons, not corporate bodies. When regarded as if groupthink were the equivalent of personal consciousness, then the weight of collective thought becomes extremely dangerous, as in the case of each of the examples I have provided in this post. When multitudes behave as if of one mind, then mob rule is inevitable. With disastrous results.

Better, we place our trust in individuals who plant flower gardens, go dancing, thrive in the presence of art, music, and poetry. And look to hikers, farmers, sailors, birdwatchers, and athletes of all sorts who move their bodies in joy, not just to win. These people are into the wonder of sensory relationships, not concepts, not what they already know. They are all on the forefront of their lives, doing their best to appreciate and respond to the sensory patterns that dance in their minds. They are likely to have a more accurate take on reality than those who force meanings upon it, who live in worlds where knowing is more important than simply being who they are. If orthodox knowledge is power, stand clear of it. Follow new patterns wherever they lead; patterns are sure signs of life. Concepts are yesterday; percepts are right now.

If you must categorize, take your time. When you don’t, you might find yourself playing the role of a particle collider that creates a vacuum to ensure unstoppable forces coming from opposite directions meet head-to-head.

Heliocentrism

(Copyright © 2010)

Categorization is a neural process connecting a concept in memory with a percept or sensory pattern; the pattern serves as an example of the category, and so takes its name. Perhaps “connecting” is the wrong word to use in describing what happens when concepts and patterns become linked in the mind; maybe “mapping” makes a better fit with the facts, the concept being mapped onto the pattern, or the pattern onto the concept. Either way, one topologically fulfills the other in some fashion, and the category label gets transferred to the pattern itself as an instance of the category. That is a coffee mug; this is a pencil; where are my glasses?; an unusual insect just landed on my sleeve. However it happens in the brain, we can’t get very far in today’s world without resorting to categorizations of the new in terms of the old, the strange in terms of the familiar, the concrete in terms of the abstract.

Think of the names we have for various things, items, objects, entities, articles, doodads, whatchamacallits, thingammies, thingamajigs, thingamabobs, etc. All floating around in our brains, waiting to be called to action when a suitable sensory pattern appears on the phenomenal horizon. Some such pattern may be familiar, but the name escapes us, so we use a term that suggests as much, like thingamajig. But such general categories are appropriate on only an extremely low level of discernment, so are on the vague end of categorizations. At the opposite extreme are categorical phrases such as “the stoneware mug with iron oxide glaze that Carole gave me on my 77th birthday,” which I can apply to only one object on Earth. Between these extremes, we have a continuum of concepts of greater or lesser specificity, including the binomial names used in classifying the biological world down to the species or varietal level (eg. Zostera marina, eelgrass), stopping short of colonies, communities, or particular organisms singled out by individual observers.

Often, we are in too great a rush to spare the time and effort required to categorize the blur of phenomena we move through in daily life, so settle for the appearance of things without feeling a need to sort them into conceptual bins. In my apartment, for instance, I am accustomed to looking at my books and papers according to their location and spatial relationships without bothering to identify them or give them a name. I know them perceptually but not conceptually. That works most of the time, until I have to look for a particular notebook or paper, when I visualize the appearance of what I’m after, and fit it with a name and conceptual meaning on a level of discernment that meets my need at the moment.

Artists typically don’t think about patterns (unless they are conceptual artists), they make and enjoy them for their dynamic sensory qualities. Sometimes critics find meaning in paintings or pieces of music, but often it is a side trip, not the heart of the piece. Sensory relationships need no conceptual explanation to justify their existence. Nothing matters but spatial and temporal interactions between elements of sensory perception as they develop in the mind of the viewer or listener. It is sensory experience in itself that counts, not rational understanding of what it might mean if it were categorized one way or another. The same is true of food, which may indeed be nutritious, but it is the relationships between, and combinations of, shapes, sheens, colors, textures, flavors, and aromas that make a dish or a meal. To some, sex may mean the making of babies, but most partners take care so that is precisely not the issue, which is, rather, a mix of pleasure, closeness, intimacy, caring, love, desire, attraction, curiosity, and a host of other ingredients that draw people together in ways without referential or categorical meaning. A huge part of life is lived aside from any formal quest to lay conceptual meanings on perceptual events.

Take numbers, for example. Numbers don’t mean anything, they just are. Perhaps whatever units are attached to them (grams per cubic centimeter, or people per square mile) calibrate numbers in order to convey meaning, but that meaning is overlaid on them and is not a property of the numbers themselves. By definition, numbers are pure gestures stripped of all meaning. You can use them to count apples or sheep, but the counting itself is inherent in the situation upon which gestures are made, so the totals are significant in relation to shopping or falling asleep, not the tally of gestures.

Mathematics can be applied to anything that can be quantified, but in itself it is a collection of abstract operations performed on meaningless gestures, such as numbers arrayed in a column, row, or matrix. That is, numbers in relationship. But the essence of number is the gesture behind it, the noticing and the act of pointing at one thing after another, giving equal attention in turn to each one, then moving on. I frequently catch myself counting footsteps as I cross the street, treads on a stairway, telephone poles along a road, clouds in the sky—not for any reason other than the business of counting, of making repetitive gestures in my mind simply because I can do it. Do I know what I am talking about? No, haven’t a clue. My conscious mind makes me do it. My motive is innocence itself, I swear.

Numbers are as natural as categorizing sensory patterns in conceptual bins is natural. Categorization is a sign I’ve seen this before, I recognize it, so I know what it is. Numbers are a sign I’ve never been in precisely this situation before, so it’s important I pace it out, or register my engagement in some way. Numbers are a way of reaching out to the world on a human scale. Think how many gestures it takes a bumblebee or a chicken to cross the road. Counting accepts that things exist in themselves as noticeable phenomena; categorization recognizes that things can have meanings bestowed upon them. We have metronomes, and we have dictionaries, each reflecting different aspects of mind.

When I worked in the photo lab at Harvard College Observatory in the 1960s, I worked out a filing system for negatives based on the date a particular work order was received for which photographs were taken. A number such as 651123-6-19 would identify the 19th negative taken for the 6th work order received on November 23, 1965. If each negative was properly labeled and filed, then, knowing the date of the order, I could retrieve it almost immediately. The system worked because I usually had a sense of when I worked on a particular job, and could either browse through the negative file, or refer to the work-order book where each job was listed by date. This is a system for categorizing photographic negatives on five levels of discernment: by year, month, day, job, and individual negative. The system had meaning mainly for workers in the photo lab, and indirectly for the scientists we served, but it proved extremely useful and efficient in identifying a particular photographic image out of thousands which, in their 4×5-inch negative envelopes, all looked alike.

On a much grander scale, the Dewey Decimal System allows librarians to categorize books by subject matter and author’s last name. This system, like Roget’s original Thesaurus, is based on the 19th century ideal of fitting everything into 1,000 categories. In 1876, Melvil Dewey divided all books into 10 subject classes, each class into 10 divisions, and each division into 10 sections, providing 1,000 bins into which books were to be sorted according to their subject matter. Since Dewey’s system is difficult to adapt to new fields of knowledge that have emerged since his day, the Library of Congress uses a different system based on 21 primary categories, and relies on experts to adapt the system to the needs of new fields as they emerge. For end users, a computer search by title or author will produce the catalogue number, which points to stacks where books are shelved in numerical order. It is a library staff’s job to replace returned books in correct order along the shelves.

Such systems of categorizations are product of the human mind—usually, of one mind in particular, after whom the system is often named. The same is true of the periodic table of the 118 known chemical elements, in a previous arrangement called Mendeleev’s periodic table after an early categorizer of chemical elements by their properties, Russian chemist Dmitri Mendeleev (1834-1907). Arrayed in two dimensions, the periodic table ranks the elements horizontally by the number of electrons in the outermost shell of electrons, vertically by the number of electron shells they contain. In terms of their elemental properties, rows are referred to as periods, columns as groups or families. What holds the system together is the fact that the chemical properties of each element can be predicted from its position in the table. That is, each element bears a family resemblance to those above and below it, while sharing a periodic gradient of different properties with those along the same row. It was Mendeleev who first predicted the properties of elements not yet discovered, represented in his array by gaps between elements then known. This example demonstrates the power of systematic categorization, enabling us, if we’ve got it right, to anticipate what we don’t already know.

Imagine such systems of categorization emerging from human consciousness, calibrating the world we live in in terms we’ve acquired through prior experience. Once established, such systems allow subtle variations. There’s literal language, figurative language, nonsense (funny) language, the language of numbers, the language of relationships, the language of love, and so on, all conveying different kinds of meaning in different ways. There’s exaggeration, understatement, emphasis, excitement, and all the rhetorical shadings we can achieving by deliberately modifying how we choose to categorize a thing in the bin of our choosing. English is a mix of words derived from Anglo-Saxon and from French. Many of our curse words stem from Anglo-Saxon, our romantic terms from the French. We get to select which idiom suits our needs at the moment. What’ll it be, gents, liquor or schnapps? Or perhaps a bit of whiskey (Scottish Gaelic uisge beatha, water of life).

Categorization fits identifiable sensory patterns in perception with an overlay of conceptual meaning, creating phenomenal units that seem to be meaningful in themselves. When we look out on the world, we see it largely in terms of the meaningful patterns we are familiar with, not recognizing that it is organized according to a system we carry with us in our heads and project outward on the world. That is, looking onto the world, the view we take in reflects the system of categorization we carry in our heads, making it uniquely our world. The person standing next to us does exactly the same, living in the world she makes for herself.

We give Dmitri Mendeleev credit for inventing the periodic table of the elements as a system of categorization, and Melvil Dewey credit for inventing the Dewey Decimal System of library classification—but we stop short of crediting ourselves with the invention of the worlds we have devised for ourselves according to systems based on our prior experience. We say the world is the world, as if it were the same for everyone, while all evidence points to the fact that the worlds we inhabit are highly subjective and are clearly of our own making.

Similarly, we find great meaning in numbers, not thinking that the significance we find is the significance we project onto numbers in the very act of looking upon them. In themselves they are neutral, empty, ameaningful. Numbers do not convey the meaning of the universe, as scientists claim; they are vehicles for the systems of mind by which we broadcast meaning onto the universe. When we die, the nature of the universe will die with us. The ability to predict the properties of chemical elements is built into the periodic table by the mind that built it in conformity with his own knowledge and observations. Interpolation is not discovery; it is filling a gap between points in an orderly system. Properties revealed by the system are dependent on the gradients we have built into the system by devising it as we did.

A squirrel’s periodic table would account for where the most and best acorns are to be found in the woods. A heron’s system of categorization will map the direction and distance it has to fly to reach the most reliable supply of frogs and small fish. Creatures of all species lay their biological needs on the world, and plot the coordinates of sites that hold interest for them. Mendeleev had a feel for chemical properties; Dewey was interested in locating books on a wide variety of subjects. We categorize our worlds according to our vital interests, because those are the interests that, by definition, have meaning for us. Consciousness is the highly adaptable system that allows each of us to map her concerns onto the world so that she can find what she needs in order to keep going.

Lies are deliberate miscategorizations meant to mislead others. If we don’t want our rivals to discover what we know, we will distort our true categorizations to lead them astray. Metaphors—and figurative language in general—are deliberate miscategorizations for the purpose of emphasizing the true character of a thing as we see it at the moment. I love chocolate ice cream. Well, no, not as I love my children or my partner; I don’t mean that kind of love. I mean that on the scale of how much I like different kinds of ice cream, chocolate is at the top. I didn’t tell an untruth, I was merely exaggerating to give you an indication of how I feel about chocolate ice cream.

Categorizations are a means for laying our values onto the world around us. For seeing the world in terms of who we are at the core. Every act of categorization declares who we are as systematic bestowers of meaning. We make our worlds to suit ourselves, then live in those worlds. When Rep. Joe Wilson of South Carolina blurted out, “You lie!” as Obama told a joint session of Congress his health care bill didn’t cover undocumented immigrants at no cost, Wilson called Obama a liar because, by his system of categorization, illegal aliens would be eligible for subsidized coverage. That was his understanding, and hearing Obama publically declare otherwise, he suffered an episode of cognitive dissonance on the spot. Wilson later apologized for (in my terms) getting his worlds crossed.

This almost trivial episode points to why the world is in the sorry state that it is. Basically, in laying our meanings upon the world, we find ourselves at cross purposes with other layers of meaning on what seems to be the same world. Inevitably, we are the truth seekers, they are the liars. Creating situations that can lead to disagreements, angry gestures, bloodshed, and even to war.

Given the subjective nature of our categorizations, and the serious consequences which false or erroneous categorizations often have, I wonder why meaning-making isn’t at the core of the curriculum in every public and private school on Earth. Our basic assumption—that the home team always represents the good guys who stand for family, justice, and truth—lacks humility at best, and is frequently grounds for perpetrating all manner of skullduggery. At base, the problem comes down to different individuals taking excessive pride in how they cast meaning upon their respective worlds. But teachers don’t deal with that problem any more than parents or influential corporate bodies deal with it. With the result that throughout the world it remains the problem of all problems. Walking in one another’s shoes is no solution because it can’t be done. Our genes, ontogeny, childhoods, rearing, education, jobs, and life experience give us the eyes we turn toward the world. To see through another’s eyes we must become another person. That is the challenge our respective categorizations present to the world.

The only solution I can think of is to pull back from excessive categorizations in order to let glorious sensory patterns rule the day. It is a beautiful world, don’t you think? If we don’t speak the same language, we can at least dance together to the same music. Why must our personal meanings always have the last say? Again, I see this sensory approach leading to a radically different system of education based more on appreciative aesthetics than always being right. Just a thought, but I think it  worth pursuing.

The stuff of which categorizations are made. Periodic table of the elements showing where the various elements that make up Earth and ourselves originated in the universe. Image courtesy of NASA.

(Copyright © 2009)

I taught at Abbott Academy in Andover, Massachusetts, from 1969 until the school folded in 1973. Or was folded.  Those were the days when single-sex schools were judged to have outlived their time, and were fast disappearing from the landscape. Abbott, a school for girls, was folded into Phillips Academy, the boys school up the hill. That last school year 1972-1973 was stressful because I had no idea where I would go from there. I couldn’t get my mind to focus on any kind of future, either practical or fanciful. What did I want to be when I grew up? I had no idea.

Not one to sit around being anxious, I put all my spare time  into my typewriter, not turning out words so much as animalCAMEL shapes built from words. I needed a new discipline, so I invented one to suit myself, combining my interest in wildlife with my visual nature, turning out monoprints typed one letter at a time, creating a kind of bestiary that gave me particular pleasure during an era in my life when anxiety spoiled the view out every window, so I retreated into my head.

As things worked out, Bart Hayes, Director of the Addison Gallery of American Art, conducted a summer program at theELEPHANT   Landmark School aimed at developing the visual comprehension and hand-eye coordination of students with learning disabilities, and I applied my photographic skills to that program during the summer following Abbott’s demise. Which led to my learning to tutor learning-disabled students, and a job at Landmark teaching visual comprehension that lasted the six years until I went for my master’s degree at Boston University. In the meantime, I had a show of my typed animal monoprints at the Addison Gallery, a catalogue from the show, and a brief career as a concrete poet in residence in a number of public schools in Massachusetts.

None of which happened by the conventional route of applying for a job, submitting a resume, going for an interview, and all  OCTOPUS that. It just came together in an unimaginably complex fashion as a result of my inability to cope with the threatening loss of my job teaching English and humanities at Abbott Academy. Strange business, to drop the phrase I picked up from Robert Graves’ essay on Chinese humor—a phrase that so aptly describes so much of what has happened in my life.

I had no way to justify making typewriter animals—I just typed them out in spite of myself. I had no choice: to be me, I had to do it. Feeling guilty and elated at the same time. LION Forbidden games! I knew I was wasting time, except as it turned out, I wasn’t. I got a show, I got a catalog, I got a job. Except I didn’t go out and get them, they came to me sitting in my chair, concentrating on where the type hit the platen. That’s where I lived for almost a year, in that tiny space. The font I lived in was called Prestige Pica 72.  The world spun around me while I sat with eyes focused just there, not really doing anything but imagining grids of letters, offsetting them one way or the other as I moved down the page, starting upper left, ending lower right, one keystroke at a time. For sure I was abusing my fancy IBMTIGER Selectric typewriter, using it for something it wasn’t made to do. Doing something I certainly wasn’t made to do. There I was, leading edge of natural and cultural evolution, turning out images of animals on a machine. Deliberately, patiently, carefully, as if following some plan written in my genes. Putting my conscious mind down on paper—as if that was my job.

Much of what we call rational behavior probably isn’t all that rational. It is simply what we’re used to doing, or to seeing others do, so it makes sense to us. But I couldn’t blame what I was doing on anyone but me. I just invented myself in that particular way at that time in my life. Out of some kind of need to type words in animal shapes one letter at a time. Now where did that come from? Obviously, my mind—and behind it, my brain. My brain made me do it. I was just the medium it used to get the job done. Out of a thousand monkeys typing for a billion years, one might have done the same. The thousandth monkey, that was me.

I couldn’t make sense of it then; I barely can now some 36 years later. But I do know it must have made sense to my LOCOMOTIVE unconscious brain, which turned the urge into action, reducing me to a spectator of my own body doing its thing, sitting there typing. Who was living my life if not me? I certainly wasn’t in control. Dissociation that’s called, the opposite of integration. And I can’t blame an angel or devil for whispering in my ear. As a kind of automatic writing, what I was doing was whatever the universe told me to do in furthering its grand design. That’s how it seemed. But of course it wasn’t that. My brain cells made the whole thing up because it suited them. I lacked order in my life so, craving meaningful order, my mind fulfilled itself using my typewriter. I stayed busy and out of trouble. I got through a rough time.

This just in from insight central: As a kid, I knew my father primarily by the sound of his typewriter coming through the HE-SHE study door. His job involved paperclips, pencils, a stapler, a zinc clipboard without the clip—and that upright typewriter banging away night after night. That’s where I was, in that kind of kid space, not understanding—just being there. I had no idea what he was doing, and I didn’t expect to know. Life just happened like that, you weren’t expected to ask what it meant or why it took that particular form. Only later do you wonder about such things. At the time, not making sense made perfect sense. How else could it have been? It was what it was.

That feels right. Under stress, I was doing what I thought my father would have done. Type away. And the animal shapes? I’ve always been taken with animals. They were probably safer than people. I could always relate to animals—project myself into their skins. Eagles, ospreys, squirrels, muskrats—they lived in my world. They were what they were and did what they did; I didn’t ask questions.

I had the typewriter; I had the paper, I had a motive to get out of my head, I had the anxiety—so I made the time to revert to my child self, following the example my father set, which he had no idea he was setting while doing whatever it was that he did behind the door to his study.

Now my older brother types out plays on an upright typewriter, my younger brother poetry on a computer, and me, I blog my life into existence. Strange business, this having a mind that won’t tell you what it’s up to, but does it anyway.

UNIFORM

(Copyright © 2009)

Emily Dickinson gets my vote for poet laureate of introspectionists. She excels at conveying her world of inner experience through the medium of metaphor. But she is not unusual in being a poet of such inward landscapes. Poetry is the language of consciousness, not of the material world or any of its inhabitants. Long before neuroscientists took on the brain, poets were inwardly probing its most intimate folds and relationships. There, they were close to the origin of words, and so understood them in a personal rather than a social sense. Prose is social and grammatical, poetry personal and idiosyncratic. To understand the poem, you must understand the experience of the poet who, in conveying it, invents her own special language.

It strikes me that if we study rats and victims of trauma to learn about the brain, we ought now and then to study artworks that spring directly from individual brains to gain a sense of what they make possible through the medium of personal consciousness. Any model of the workings of the brain must account for poetry, long in existence in every culture well before neuroscience was invented.

Dickinson’s resume is captured in the following four poems, which I offer here without comment. The essence of poetry is in working with what your are given of the poet’s world and weaving coherent sense from the richness of detail. Please help yourself.

DDD

DDD

The Brain, within its Groove

Runs evenly—and true—

But let a Splinter swerve—

Twere easier for You—

To put a Current back—

When Floods have slit the Hills—

And scooped a Turnpike for Themselves—

And trodden out the Mills—

DDD

DDD

The Brain—is wider than the Sky—

For—put them side by side—

The one the other will contain

With ease—and You—beside—

The Brain is deeper than the sea—

For—hold them—Blue to Blue—

The one the other will absorb—

As Sponges—Buckets—do—

The Brain is just the weight of God—

For—Heft them—pound for Pound—

And they will differ—if they do—

As Syllable from Sound—

DDD

DDD

The Heart is the Capital of the Mind—

The Mind is a single State—

The Heart and the Mind together make

A single Continent—

One—is the Population—

Numerous enough—

This ecstatic Nation

Seek—it is Yourself.

DDD

DDD

The Mind lives on the Heart

Like any Parasite—

If that is full of Meat

The Mind is fat.

But if the Heart omit

Emaciate the Wit—

The Aliment of it

So absolute.

DDD

DDD

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