492. We Engage or We Die

April 24, 2015

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What we do know is that people are good at identifying similarities and differences; at sorting things into collections, classes, or categories; at putting things in sequence according to a number of qualities; at discovering relationships of all sorts, including symmetry and complementarity; at associating or connecting different things or ideas.

People are particularly good at comparing one thing to another, then acting meaningfully according to the differences and similarities they find.

We put dishes away in the cupboard in the “right” place; use proper syntax as we have been taught by example; file documents by topic, author, date, length, or any number of other criteria; look words up in the dictionary; find articles in the encyclopedia; distinguish between luggage passing on an endless belt at the airport; grade papers good or bad, pass or fail, or by letters from A to F; buy clothing that fits; wear certain colors together and avoid other combinations; buy cars by distinct yet ineffable characteristics; purchase stock issued by one company but not another; construct taxonomies; justify whatever we do as reasonable; and so on endlessly, finding meaning in life by acting in particular ways at particular times in particular places—and not others.

Here I am spelling and putting words in sequence as if they weren’t words at all but thoughts and ideas flowing through my mind.

How do we do it? Find meaning in all these different ways of doing things? It comes with the territory of being human. With the culture we were born to, the community we live in today, the family we grew up in, the ways of the natural world we are extension of.

What I know today is that I somehow put one word after another in writing such paragraphs as these, judging by function, role, topic, emphasis, rhythm, and what I am trying to say on the basis of my personal experience. I don’t think so much about how I do it, I just do it. In a more-or-less orderly fashion.

The order is the thing, so that others will decipher letters put down in certain groups in a particular order and derive a sense of meaning from that pattern of serial parts grouped into wholes.

Throughout this blog, I find the metaphors of helmsman, wayfarer, and navigator to be particularly apt and meaningful in reference to my sense of my own mind. So I ascribe pathways and routes to my thoughts as if they were travelers within a network of interconnected highways and byways within my mind and brain.

Talk of maps, too, seems proper and germane. These images feel right to me as I try to find words to use in writing about my own mind. To me, thinking feels like navigating, like finding my way.

I visualize my consciousness as forming a certain terrain with uplands and lowlands I pass through as I write. Does my study of watersheds reflect or echo that terrain, or perhaps determine it? Which comes first, my outer or inner landscape?

Again, I don’t know. Is there a connection between them? I say, yes. Metaphors are products of mind and brain; they don’t come out of nowhere. They are useful in describing the indescribable in terms of the known and familiar, the abstract in terms of concrete examples.

I am dealing here with mysteries that have baffled people since the first human thought coursed through the first human mind. The basic idea is a flow of minor thoughts gathering into a river of thoughts, into grand ideas on a larger scale, built up from lesser streams, rivulets, and observations collected into an overall flow, route, path, or journey.

Do I know what I am talking about? No—but I certainly have a feel for the coursing of my mind, and the best I can do is try to put that feel into such words as I depend on in writing this blog about navigating, voyaging, journeying, wayfaring through my mind, the adventure of whatever lifetime I am allowed.

Roget started with meanings and developed clusters of words that he identified as being related to one another—by finding similarity to or difference from or gradation of—to a repertory of different meanings he recognized in his mind, which he numbered according to his system of classification from 1 to 1,000.

In so doing, he captured the order of his mind on paper. As I am trying to do in my last days by writing this blog on the terrain I discover in my own mind as if I were a wayfarer passing through it. I have sent an introspective probe into my mind, and this is the final report of my findings.

One prominent feature of his mind reflected in Roget’s magnum opus is the notion of duality (dichotomy, opposition, negation, polarization, bifurcation) and other such close couplings of related pairs of meanings and ideas. He found the sense of unity as composed of two distinct parts in relation to each other so compelling that pages of the Thesaurus are printed in two columns to allow such pairs to be juxtaposed in print to capture the effect they have on our minds.

In his Introduction, Roget writes: “There exist comparatively few words of a general character to which no correlative term, either of negation or of opposition, can be assigned.” Counting up the opposed pairs in my 1933 edition, I discover that 78.6 percent of the 1,000 headings are paired with an opposite member.

That is an astounding statistic; mine, not Roget’s. He merely captured it as a prominent feature of the way meanings are stored in his mind as polar couples. Is he just being contrary? No, he is simply echoing the dichotomous structure of his neural network in being home to two sorts of processes, those that activate, and those that block, squelch, or inhibit. Our minds are built of either/or decisions, go or no-go, yes or no, either-or, win or lose—maybe gets lost in the shuffle as an unsuitable or unworkable prospect that is simply not helpful in any real life situation where coming up with a proper response is crucial.

Uncertainty means hesitation means vulnerability. Speak up or listen, don’t stand there muttering to yourself. Either close the door or keep it open. Fish or cut bait is the issue, the only issue by which you will rise up or fall of your own weight.

The issue is always survival, not hedging, not vacillating, not beating around the bush. People are maybe’d to death every day because they can’t make a judgment by the time it comes due.

 

412. Introspection

January 22, 2015

My understanding of my own mind is based almost exclusively on introspection—looking within. The gleanings of that inner search are the topic of this blog. The issue is, how do my findings stand up against your view of your own mind?

In 1953, Edwin G. Boring, professor of psychology at Harvard, wrote a detailed history of introspection. In it he included this seemingly dismissive summation:

[L]iterally immediate observation, the introspection that cannot lie, does not exist. All observation is a process that takes some time and is subject to error in the course of its occurrence (A History of Introspection, Psychological Bulletin, Vol. 50, No.3, May, 1953, page 187).

Rather than as a dismissal, I take those words as a challenge to study, through introspection, the errors I make in my everyday perceptions. That study has led to discovery and development of the ideas on which this blog is based. Those errors include such incidents as the following.

  • My being struck by a bicyclist going against traffic on a one-way street because I failed to consider that possibility in advance.
  • Driving at dusk in the rain, seeing two motorcyclists putting on black raingear at the side of the road as two cows, in dim light the flicking motion of putting an arm into a sleeve looking to me like the abrupt swishing of a tail.
  • Seeing a dying crow, apparently hit by a car, feebly lifting one wing, which turns into a black trash bag fluttering in the wash of passing cars.
  • Catching a glimpse of sunlight striking the shape of an airplane about to crash into the roofs of Bar Harbor, which at second look turned into a ridgeline TV antenna with swept-back elements.
  • Happily running after my high-school friend Fred walking up Fifth Avenue in New York, only to find an imposter mimicking Fred’s gait while wearing Fred’s characteristic raglan-sleeved overcoat, scarf, hat, and heavy Cordovan shoes.
  • Me, the famous noticer and photographer, not seeing a vase of Mexican sunflowers at the head of the stairs while retrieving my camera so I could go on a walk with my partner. How did you like the sunflowers, she said. What sunflowers? I said.
  • Clouds, nothing but clouds. I am peering from the back seat of the family car as we drive through Eastern Colorado on our way to Seattle in August, 1947, looking for the Rockies, seeing only clouds. Which, half-an-hour later, become snow on the very mountains I yearn to see, but am blind to because I’m not used to snow in late summer.
  • Glancing up icy Holland Avenue, seeing a man applying pressure with his hips, moving side-to-side, scraping paint off his house in midwinter, a scene that abruptly morphs into a cedar tree blowing in the wind.
  • As a budding archaeologist, carefully scraping soil off a human skull I’ve uncovered on the Nespelum Indian Reservation along the Columbia River in 1950, I twist my toothbrush carefully to clear an eye hole under the heavy brow. “Whatcha’ got there, Steve? Looks like some kind of turtle,” says my supervisor, who has come to check on me.
  • After five minutes of hearing a husky voice shout “Fa, fa, fa,” in the middle of the night, I finally realize he’s shouting “Fire” in a Boston accent, so rush to the phone to dial 911.
  • Screening the photos of granite quarrying I’ve just taken, I really like the one of lighting the torch powered by diesel fuel and compressed air with flames shooting six feet out of the long pipe. I’m so excited about the prospect of PhotoShopping them, when asked if I want to delete all the photos from my camera, assuming I’ve saved them to my hard drive automatically, as I always do, I deleted them—only to realize that I had not, in fact, saved them to my computer.
  • I felt extremely uncomfortable when the lecturer on sex education looked directly at me all during her talk. Afterwards, I asked why she singled me out. “You look just like my son,” she said.
  • And so on.

In explaining to myself how I could make all those mistakes, I got to know myself in a wholly new way by taking full responsibility for everything that happened, including my take on the context of what was going on. It is that personal take on consciousness that I am sharing in this blog.

The serial division of inner experience into perception, judgment, and action makes sense to me, as does the ongoing experience (stream of consciousness) idea which unites them with worldly aspects of consciousness into one continuous loop of engagement. I view that loop as being driven by a valenced sense of disparity (toward gravity or levity, say, good or bad, yes or no) between what I intend to do and what actually happens, providing a conscious sense of the degree and direction of refinement I need to make in order to bring about a desirable relationship with my surroundings.

Now that I am turning my attention to the external portions of my loops of engagement on the four parallel levels of Nature, Culture, Community, and Family as I depicted them in my previous post (No. 411), I want to stress the fact that I am in no way privy to the world as it is, so am still reliant on introspection to present my internal views of what I think the world is like from my current perspective.

As always, all I have to work with is my side of the story. This is precisely the point that I believe many people miss in conducting their lives as if they had cornered the market in Truth. I know nothing of truth. Truth is a concept. What I have available to me is consciousness as an ongoing process that never comes to rest.

Imagine a blog with no end. A blog that continues forever, always hedging, modifying, improving, changing. That is the story of philosophy and every other human activity. Plato’s reflections are only one of the blogs of his day.

I am merely putting my oar into the waters of changing perspectives. I’ve reached a crucial turning point, so I want to be clear that my method will continue to be the same, even though I am taking on a new dimension of my topic. As before, so from now on: introspection is my guide and navigator.

I’m still the same old wayfarer, on a new phase of my journey.

 

410. Outer Reaches of Mind

January 20, 2015

Engagement is a crucial concept in my approach to consciousness. I use it in almost every post. But what does it mean to me when I use it?

We each have an inner life of the mind and an outer life in the world around us. The inner life begins with perception and consists largely of what we make of incoming sensory impressions, as well as judgment upon what we take those impressions to mean against the background of our experience.

That inner life leads from judgment to outgoing action in the world as our response to previous incoming impressions.

The inner life of the mind from perception to judgment and on to appropriate action makes up half the story of consciousness. The outer half is what happens in the world as a result of our taking the actions we do throughout the day.

That outer half of consciousness narrates how the world responds to what we did and, equally important, relays that response to us so that we can grasp the effects of our actions. Which we do by comparing that incoming response against our outgoing intentions in order to gauge the effectiveness of what we did.

That comparison generates what I call a delta signal in our brains that tells us whether or not we accomplished our earlier mission. If the delta signal bears a positive tone, it tells us we are on the right track. If that feedback is negative, we interpret it as telling us to try harder, or take a different approach.

What we are conscious of in such a loop of engagement is precisely the delta signal that bridges the gap between what we tried to do and what actually happened. That is, consciousness depicts and assesses the high and low points of the relationship between our inner self and the world around us. It tells us by way of the feeling within us whether we are happy or sad, glad or mad. In light of our intentions, happy is good news, sad is bad news.

That psychic relationship is what I mean by engagement. It prompts awareness of what we did in comparison with what actually happened, and stimulates an affective response to guide us in making our next move.

Consciousness is the inner venue where that awareness takes place, including the crucial feeling tone accompanying that awareness.

Given what I have just written, with this post to my blog I change my focus from the inner world of perception-judgment-action that has occupied my preceding posts to consider what it is in the outer world that we engage with. From now on I will be taking on the other half of consciousness, the half that does not reside in our brains, and cannot be found there no matter how hard or long we may search for it. We may discover our view of the world, but not the world as it is in itself, which is our partner in engagement.

To help you picture the many partners we might engage with in completing the outer half of our personal consciousness, I ask you to visualize the following maps all superimposed on one another.

  1. A map of the GPS locations of every cellphone in the world.
  2. A map of all the roads, highways, and byways in the world.
  3. A map of all the sea lanes across the oceans of the world.
  4. A map of all the flight paths between all the airports in the world.
  5. A map of all the server farms supporting the internet throughout the world.
  6. A map of all the capital cities of the many countries in the world.
  7. A map of all the grains of sand on the surface of the beaches of the world.
  8. A map of all the catalogued stars that can be seen from the world.
  9. A map of all the uncatalogued stars that can be seen from the world.
  10. A map of all the trees in the world.
  11. A map of all the postal codes in the world.
  12. A map of all the street addresses in the world.
  13. A map of all the country and area codes in the world.
  14. A map of all the TV and radio stations in the world.
  15. A map of all the places where photographs have been taken in the world.

That massive skein of the sorts of places we might engage with in one lifetime of consciousness is surely a complementary match for the most complex system we know of in the universe—namely, the human brain.

My focus in this blog now shifts from the makeup of individual minds to the engagements we actually or potentially might make with the world in one lifetime. My aim is to suggest the other half of consciousness that does not reside in our heads, but is ours to selectively engage with at any time.

403. Number People

January 12, 2015

Some of us are music people or food people. Others are visual arts people, TV people, sports people, booze people, film people, word people. This is not simply a matter of choice but more a matter of experience. We get good at what we do most often and with greatest concentration.

Number people use numbers a lot because they find them meaningful. They understand numbers, and use them to express themselves on important subjects. Scientists, statisticians, financiers, mathematicians, sportscasters, astrologers, and many others build worlds around themselves by relying on numbers in everyday life.

Numbers, that is, are one of the ways people engage with the world around them. We are born to cultures having a heritage of numbers, and we have the option of immersing ourselves in that or some other heritage as our primary means of expression and understanding.

In that sense, numbers are one of the ways we use to fit into and anchor ourselves to a world of our personal choosing. Our aptitude with numbers affects our making such a choice. So does our exposure to numbers, our education, our job, our early childhood experience with numbers, and so on. As we count on our fingers, so do we become—finger counters, who grow professionally into some of the fields I have mentioned above.

Numbers are an aspect of the language we are born to. They allow us to make meaningful sounds and gestures in situations where we want to tally a set of separate items or perform some mathematical feat such as measuring, adding, subtracting, and so on.

The genius of numbers is that each one has a unique but memorable name as part of a system we carry with us wherever we go. A system that serves as a kind of lens we use in viewing the world. We can speak or write those names in referring to the purely quantitative aspect of whatever we are directing our attention to in a given situation.

The sounds and symbols of numbers differ from language to language, but their numerical value remains in the same sequence in each language. As long as the sequence is unbroken, the concept of numbers is limited only by the the practical needs of its users. No number is too large or too small to imagine as long as it keeps its place in the number series embodied in our everyday usage.

Infinity seems to be a number, but being beyond the farthest reach of the number series, it is a concept that violates the concept of numbers as forming an unbroken series. Infinity is a supposition, not an actual number. In being beyond reach, it is a contradiction in terms, not an actual number that has a particular place in a sequence.

Zero, too, seems to be a number, but we use it as an imaginary threshold between nothing and something, or the dimensionless divide between positive and negative somethings as a kind of placeholder to remind us of the break or discontinuity we are inserting into our conventional system. The letter n stands for any real number that might occur beyond zero in the direction of or toward, but not including, infinity.

Numbers originate in the human mind as immersed in one culture or another. That mind is based on activated and inhibited pathways for conducting neural impulses, which allow for sequence, addition, multiplication, integration, subtraction, division, differentiation, and other numerical operations.

Too, the mind is based on comparison between signals in different parts of the neural network. Numbers, that is, are not so much in the world as they are in the mind as products of the same neural capabilities for engagement as allow for the production of gestures and speech.

Numbers are abstractions from primary experiences having their characterizing qualities deleted—qualities such as redness, coldness, roughness, motion, size, direction, and so on—leaving a residuum of purified quantity devoid of particular qualities.

Numbers play a prominent role in our many engagements with aspects of our natural environment. Our poise during those engagements depends on the feedback we get in comparing our sensory impressions with past impressions or with our intentions in acting as we do. Did we hit the target or are we low and to the left? By how much? How much thrust do we need to launch a million-ton rocket toward Mars? What is the Earth’s population of ants?

In the practical use of mathematics, we must consider the instrument that employs numbers in a particular situation. Invariably, that instrument is the human mind (not the so-called mind of God or of the universe) which depends largely on memory and the flow of sensory energy from perception to judgment and on to action as key portions of our engagements with the world.

The power of numbers is not in the order of the universe we discover in using them as a tool of our minds; that power is in the educated, dedicated, and systematic workings of our own minds. The laws of physical motion are laws of our perceiving, not of discovery. Of description, not causation. Saying that the universe is inherently based on mathematical principles is like saying the Creator must speak English because his work is so aptly described by our English poets.

More wonderfully, we should applaud ourselves for learning how to use both numbers and our minds to advance our personal grasp of the world around us. When our species dies off, that grasp will go with us, leaving an undescribed universe behind on its own.

 

 

 

 

I see comparison as the common feature of a great many of our mental operations. In fact, it looms in my mind as the essential function of the brain in leading to consciousness.

It is not any particular signal that matters so much as the difference between signals in adjacent or linked cortical columns that sparks and maintains both attention and consciousness, particularly as a comparison between present and former perceptual events. I think of such mental comparisons as producing a delta (Δ, δ) signal in proportion to the Difference, Discrepancy, Disparity, or Displacement between corresponding signals originating in different but closely related regions of the brain

I call these virtual signals because they can only be appreciated from a vantage point that looks upon the relative discrepancy as being meaningful in itself.

Such delta signals are the determining feature of three aspects of consciousness I have already mentioned: binocular vision, binaural hearing, and motion detection in semicircular canals on opposite sides of the head.

I have also provided the image of the helmsman (read helmswoman) at his/her wheel gauging the delta signal representing the discrepancy between the desired and actual heading of the vessel as told by its compass, leading to his/her compensating for that difference by turning the wheel an equal degree in the opposite direction. So do we correct our wayfaring courses every day of our lives.

In The Descent of Man, Darwin himself depicts humans as possessing a moral compass: “A moral being is one who is capable of reflecting on his past actions and their motives—of approving of some and disapproving of others; and the fact that man is the one being who certainly deserves this designation is the greatest of all distinctions between him and the lower animals.”

In that quote, Darwin holds the key to consciousness in his hand, but never quite inserts it into the lock, so diverting his readers to moral considerations rather than to the human mind as a whole. He continues:

I have endeavored to show that the moral sense follows, firstly, from the enduring and ever-present nature of the social instincts; secondly, from man’s appreciation of the approbation and disapprobation of his fellows; and, thirdly, from the high activity of his mental faculties, with past impressions extremely vivid; and in these latter respects he differs from the lower animals.

From my perspective, what he calls “the high activity of his mental faculties” is not merely a factor but is the essence of consciousness itself resulting from comparative judgments of past and present states of awareness. Darwin continues:

Owing to this condition of mind, man cannot avoid looking both backward and forward and comparing past impressions. Hence after some temporary desire or passion has mastered his social instincts, he reflects and compares the now weakened impression of such past impulses with the ever-present social instincts; and he then feels that sense of dissatisfaction which all unsatisfied instincts leave behind them, he therefore resolves to act differently for the future—and this is conscience (New York: Merrill and Baker, n.d. [text c. 1874], page 698, my italics).

Moral considerations aside, Darwin had stumbled his way to the gateway of consciousness, but was distracted by the moral preoccupation of his Victorian days from actually discovering the true nature of the mind. Just as we helmspersons seek guidance from inner compasses, so do we learn by trial and error, adjusting our behavior to compensate for the many ways we mislead ourselves time and again.

I have frequently said that my true education has been based not on remembering what I have been taught but by going off as led by my own lights, getting lost in the Slough of Despond, then, wiser for my slogging, fighting my way back.

This is the essence of empiricism, learning the lessons, not of ideals or of theory, but of concrete sensory experience.

Which is precisely what our minds provide us via our loops of experiential engagement. Namely, our displacement as the result of a specific course of action by which we discover where our effort has taken us. We don’t look out on the world so much as on what’s right or wrong with the world, to which we direct our attention.

We are all learners by doing. If we don’t make the initial effort, we are stuck exactly where we were before, with no sense of how to correct ourselves. Mind is our means of making successive approximations in approaching the goals we hope to achieve.

If we make a foray, at least we learn whether or not that is the way we want to go. Standing still doing nothing, our learning, as always, is in direct proportion to our effort.

390. Vivre la difference!

December 27, 2014

Mental judgments, the very stuff of consciousness, are based on either-or comparisons. On summing good points and bad points to see which tally is more convincing. Comparison of possibilities is one of our primary means of survival because, as I see it, it is the method that our nervous system is dedicated to.

In these posts, I have already pointed to the role of comparison in such vital functions as depth perception, directional hearing, and maintaining our balance. Simple acts such as steering a boat by a compass are acts of comparison, in this case between our charted and actual headings, the difference—the dis-parity—between them indicating the degree and direction of the course correction it is our duty to make in order to reach our destination.

The disparity between two signals is what we are aware of, not either one or the other by itself. As the French say regarding the sexes, vivre la difference! because it is precisely such relative differences that elevate us into states of awareness.

Consciousness is all about relationships, not things in themselves. About how the present stands up against expectancies grounded in bygone days. About how engagements turn out in comparison to our original intents. About how jokes defy our expectations. About how perceptions gauge the fit between our intentions and the concrete results we actually achieve.

Our primary approach to judgment is to assess how a given turn of events fits with the situation we find ourselves in. That is, fits our purposes and engagements at the moment. Trial-and-error is the gateway to consciousness. Let’s see if this works or it doesn’t.

Is the glass half-full or half-empty? That depends on our perspective, which further depends on our situation. If we want more to drink, it’s half gone; if we’ve drunk all we want, it’s half-full. Being situational, consciousness comes in two polarities, encouraging or discouraging, affirming or negating, good or bad, considered or rash, wise or foolish. The sharp differences heighten the clarity and emphasis of the comparisons by which we decide our course between the well- or less-traveled roads ahead.

Comparison can be a measurement to a standard, or a simple judgment of the similarity and difference between any two things or events. We quickly notice the wrongness of the wasp in the jam jar, the rightness of the cherry atop the sundae.

I remember a teacher of aesthetics once remarking that he could discourse endlessly on the comparison between a cigarette and a piece of chalk (he then having one in each hand).

Being a highly visual person, I find symmetry and other comparative relationships in the features of almost everything I see and photograph. It is the tension or balance told by such graphic relationships that I notice more than the things in themselves, which are often incidental. I remember a faculty wife whose face was so perfectly symmetrical that I found it painful to look at her because, without any disparity, I had no comfort zone within which to admire her beauty.

Standards often turn out to be what we are used to, so are rooted in personal experience and opinion. I get tired of cold days in February so think a daytime temperature above freezing is just fine; a skier would find it too warm. Men and women vary widely in their primary, secondary, and behavioral sexual characteristics and preferences, yet convention has it that men are men and women are women, period. Only recently in America do we provide a few boxes to check for those who don’t fit either stereotype.

We are often optimistic or pessimistic about world affairs, reflecting polarized judgments about how things are going from our point of view. Optimists are prone to seeing virtues where pessimists harp on faults. Pollyannas find good in everyone; fault-finders thrive on what’s wrong. Some people shift moods between extreme states of mind: euphoria and depression, bursts of creativity and bouts of despair. At New Year’s we resolve to improve ourselves, and promise to do better next year. If sins didn’t call for either penance or forgiveness, church attendance would crash overnight.

Such polar attitudes toward comparative differences shed a clear light on the nature of consciousness. Of which I will say more in my next post.

 

379. Wayfarer In a Black Box

December 10, 2014

Our animal nature as go-getters casts a revelatory light on the function of our minds, our personal prime movers and shakers. In some circles it may be an unforgivable slip to mention the existence of free will, but what is it that is missing in states of sleeping and dreaming if not precisely that, the will that serves as navigator and wayfarer-in-chief when we reawaken?

Self-guided locomotion is the essence of our animal existence. Going to school, going to work, going to the bank, going to jail, going to dinner, going shopping, going home, even going to sleep.

Our distrust of free will is a shadow cast by the ideology of behaviorism on the entire discipline of psychology. If I were a psychologist or neuroscientist, I would look first at the link between perception and behavior for the neural structures that account for the effective coupling of the two. What I find at that location in myself after thirty years of introspection is the deadly duo of judgment and meaning imposing law and order on my wayward thoughts, so bridging the gap between input and output, converting sensory impressions into decisive actions in the world.

Emotions, values, understanding, and memory would feed into that coupling, along with an ability to compare goals against accomplishments as a gauge of the relative success or failure of earlier attempts to coordinate the two.

Mind in its black box as model of the outside world—that is the image I awoke with from my dream on March 10, 2014 (see post 378). Every person’s neural network is different due to formative and experiential factors governing the structure of such networks in finest detail. The job of each mind is to provide a unique model of, and way into, the world as it steers its own course through life.

Our minds guide our steps through successive life engagements in response to relevant sensory experience, remembrance, emotions, values, judgments, imagination, goals, expectancies, and other motivators active for one lifetime.

No mind is merely an autopilot. All serve as finely-tuned, experiential systems creatively bridging the gap between the integrity of a singular organism and its familial, communal, cultural, and natural environments at different levels of resolution and discernment.

The upshot being the powerful influence of mental characteristics and accomplishments on the reproduction and survival of individual bodies and brains, as well as on the cultural and genetic traits they share with their descendants. Shazam! So-called natural selection has stolen credit from individual self-selective engagements run by the situated intelligence at the core of each of our individual minds.

All that from one dream. Backed up by hundreds of earlier examples. And by the flurry of ideas in my mind as I waken unto them yet again. The image of a wayfarer in a black box is as good a metaphor as I have hit upon for what it feels like to be me.

It is no accident that in the 1990s I wrote a book based on sixty hikes in Acadia National Park over a period of five years. I billed the book as an effort to describe “the soul of a national park,” but it was more a portrait of my soul in the mid-1990s when I took those hikes and put that book together. I see it now as an extended metaphor for the park from the perspective inside my black box at the time.

And looking further back to 1982, I see the doctoral dissertation I wrote at Boston University’s School of Education, Metaphor to Mythology, as a portrayal of the mind of the same wayfarer at an earlier stage of his journey.

 

374. Brain Talk

December 4, 2014

Brain talk is full of words like data, information, computation, processing, knowledge, and other terms of that noble family of academic abstractions. But seldom do we live up to the expectations of the scientists and engineers who treat the brain as if they had designed it themselves by rational means, which they didn’t and never could.

Such terms are descriptors of what neuroscientists want to find, not necessarily of what’s there in the brain to discover. That is, neuroscience is salted with metaphors meaningful to those who study the brain, but many of those same terms are wide of the mark set by instinctual users of particular brains as tools for conducting life as a work-in-progress at every stage.

Most of the mass of the brain is made up of axons (connectors) that lead from one nerve cell nucleus to its terminus, not the nuclei, cortical columns, and synapses that actually perform so much of our mental work. It is the chemical flow between nerve cells that brings minds to life, as facilitated by the travel of ionic potentials from cell bodies to their extremities.

The flow of neurotransmitters across synaptic gaps between nerve cells at myriad points of connection enables those chemicals to get to the right place at the right time to activate or inhibit a comparison in synchrony with other signals so that simultaneous connections are sustained between different regions of the brain, furthering the coherent neural traffic we experience as mind, awareness, or consciousness.

Mind is not confined to the brain but reaches through skilled action to the outer limits of the body and, beyond that, via traffic through nature, culture, community, and family, to the cascade of energy impinging on our sensory organs.

Our minds acquire language and numbers because they are born to language and numbers as two of the cultural media in which they are immersed. They acquire a genome and genetic heritage by being born to particular parents who, at conception, consist of one man and one woman who inhabit a particular niche (nest) in the physical world.

Mind is a collaborative function of brain, body, nature, culture, community, and family. It is the seat of our organic intelligence together with  the many situations and active engagements that make up our lives. I think that to call it a computer or data processor is to miss the point of what the mind actually does and how it operates.