The focus of our loop of engagement with the world is revealed by current sensory input meeting up with the original impetus that spurred us to action. When the active and receptive ends of our loops connect in our minds, the difference between our intentions and achievements is a measure of our success or failure in our present adventure.

Like old Ouroboros, the mythical serpent circled around on itself so it can bite its own tail, we feel the bite of excitement that tells us what we need to pay attention to in order to better adjust our affairs to the particular situation we are engaged with at the time.

Ouroboros

We learn, not simply by doing, but by purposefully engaging the situations we find ourselves in. Engagement is a matter of perception, judgment, and action all being focused at the same time on the matter at hand.

As I see it, our conscious minds emerge when a comparison between perception and action generates a corrective signal that spurs the next round of action. That comparison produces a polarized (positive or negative) jolt that puts us back on course in what we’re trying to achieve in the world from the confines of the particular black box in which we (our minds) reside at the time.

We conduct our comparisons on several levels of engagement at once, within our brains, in human families, communities, cultures, and the natural world that supports us in every way. We live in ever-changing fields of comparison and polarity inside our personal black boxes, we trying to figure out the world outside our box, the world, in turn, trying to figure out who we are inside that same box as viewed from the outside.

To us, the world is a puzzle; to the world, our mind is a puzzle.

It is through thousands of lesser engagements that we begin to piece our respective puzzles together in gaining a sense of the mystery on the far side of the walls of our box, both inside and outside, depending on our situated perspective. All made possible by our brains, but not wholly contained within any particular brain.

The proof of our success is in the actual doing—the life of engagement—not in the particular goals we have set for ourselves.

 

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Another way of looking at consciousness is to think of it as a result of the comparison between mental possibilities and actualities. Possibilities, that is, offered by the many routes through the neural network making up our potential memory system, in comparison with the actuality of specific sensory traffic as it threads a particular route in and among those almost limitless possibilities.

Sometimes the electrochemical sensory traffic flows by a familiar route and is quickly recognizable. At other times it takes a novel route never traveled before, so must be accompanied by strong emotion if it is to be remembered and made recognizable upon recurrence.

As I visualize it, the routing determines the general type of pattern being engaged, the actual neural traffic determines the experience of the perceiver in dealing with a detailed sensory example of that pattern. The difference between potential route and actual traffic resulting in what we are conscious of.

The duality exhibited by many pairs of concepts is no accident. Good/bad, happy/sad, gravity/levity, win/lose, love/hate, near/far, up/down, easy/hard, and so on and on. In each pair of opposites, one is desirable in a given life situation, the other less so. Such terms are the gleanings of felt and heightened comparisons we make every moment of every day, the waypoints by which we navigate through life.

The space created by these daily comparisons defines us as conscious beings doing our best to correct the errors of judgment and engagement we make in leading our everyday lives. Without such discrepancies and polarities, we’d have nothing to arouse our attention, no need to adjust our heading in life, so we’d lose our way in a fog of raw awareness in the instant, the next instant, and the next after that.

A helmsman relies on his compass in gauging the difference between his actual heading and his intended course; he makes a corresponding correction again and again. His action in turning the wheel is aimed at correcting his heading to align more closely with the course he has charted beforehand. He is conscious of the disparity between heading and course; his consciousness lives in the mental space defined by that difference.

A helmsman is a nautical wayfarer steering his way through a sea of alternative routes from one port to another. We are born to be helmsmen (helmswomen) and wayfarers in our own minds, earning our consciousness by facing into the possibility of being off-course at any moment in any situation. It is the difference between being on or off course in all sorts of weather that determines whether or not we arrive at our port of choice.

In our conscious minds, evolution has endowed each of us with an internal compass to navigate by. Developing the navigational skills to make good use of that compass is up to us individually.

 

 

These heady days of artificial intelligence imply that we have a full understanding of intelligence in its native form. Apparently it has something to do with the ability to solve problems. Or at least to get good grades in school. Or to appear bright, quick, and agile in dealing with mental issues.

We rate individuals on a scale of intelligence where a score of 100 is judged to be normal. I once saw a vanity plate in Harvard square, IQ 205, so I assumed the driver of that car had a higher intelligence quotient than 204. If we can measure it that finely, and can make machines having artificial intelligence, surely we must recognize the real McCoy when we meet it face to face, mind to mind.

But since every person on Earth is unique in having a different immune system, nervous system, upbringing, education, work history, emotional life, reservoir of life experience, etc., I wonder how we can claim to measure intelligence as if it were the same mental quality across all those fundamental variables.

For myself, I find that my performance on a specific task depends on the situation I am in at the time, and also on whether or not I have been in that situation before. My mind is a mix of facets, elements, or dimensions of conscious and habitual experience. These facets come into play in varying degrees and proportions, so that on each occasion my mind is composed to meet the needs of the moment. That is, I find my so-called intelligence is present on a sliding scale. Or, put differently, is composed of different facets as called up in me by different situations.

As I was starting to think of writing this blog, I happened to be reading the 1874 edition of Charles Darwin’s book on human evolution, The Descent of Man. In the third chapter, Darwin compares the “mental powers of man and the lower animals.” I took those mental powers to be an early treatment of what today we might collectively refer to as intelligence. I perked up and paid close attention to what Darwin had written to see how his list of mental powers compared with the one I have been compiling under the guise of dimensions of consciousness or, as I now say, situated intelligence.

In my system I break consciousness into three main divisions: perception, judgment, and action. Perception deals with sensory input to the mind, judgment deals with determining the meaning of such input as a preparation for action, and action itself deals with how we go about forming an apt response to that input. These three divisions of mind connect our continuous loop of engagement with the world so, like the old serpent Ouroborus depicted as biting its own tail, our actions come full circle and we are in a position to compare the bite of perception in the context of our intended action, allowing us to revise our stance in making another round of action unto subsequent perception. That act of comparison is what we are conscious of at the moment so, as I see it, is the fundamental basis of what we call intelligence.

How do my 2014 dimensions of consciousness stack up against Darwin’s 1874 treatment of mental powers shared by people and animals? His point, of course, is that human minds have evolved from animal (primate) minds, so our mental powers are variations on the earlier powers possessed by our ancestors. Those variations can be either elaborations or diminutions, depending on the developmental pressure applied by our need to fit into the particular environmental situations we face from year to decade to century to millennium. Our sense of smell and pedal dexterity, for example, have decreased from what they were in the wild, while our vocalizations and manual dexterity have increased.

Grouping Darwin’s mental powers according to my distinctions between Perception, Judgment, and Action, I discover under the heading of Perception the following mental powers in common: same senses in man as primates, curiosity, anticipation, foresight, dread, danger, attention, distraction, senses of pleasure and pain, memory required for recognition, wonder, and sense of beauty.

Under the heading of Judgment: choice, instincts, intuition, abstraction, conception, association of ideas, episodic memory, cunning, deceit, deliberation, imagination, dreams, emotions (affection, alarm, ennui, fidelity, gratitude, jealousy, happiness/misery, love, magnanimity, passions, revenge, ridicule, suspicion, sympathy), reason, language (cries of pain, fear, surprise, anger, murmurs mother to child, song), self-consciousness, sense of humor.

Darwin glosses entire repertoires of behavior under Action, along with self-improvement. In the following chapter, he deals with the common powers of sociability, social instincts, social virtues, judgment on conduct, and transmission of moral tendencies.

His conclusion in 1874 is that the “intellectual powers” “of the higher animals, which are the same in kind with those of man, though so different in degree, are capable of advancement.” Wayfarers that we are today, up on two legs and following our inclinations, our modern intelligence is living proof of Darwin’s belief.

The question now is, can we transfer that advancement to our machines so that they serve as the next stage in the trend we have begun? Taking us with them, or leaving us behind?

I will follow up that query in my next blog.

Mind cannot be inconsistent with the forces that drive the material universe because that’s the meaning of is, to be or exist as a feature of the All, which includes the affective and figurative as well as the material. Mind is the realest thing there is. Just try living without one!

The beauty of mind is that it gives us both a personal self and a world, invites us to participate, to engage, to selectively peer through the walls of our personal black boxes, to hear, to touch, to taste, to smell. And always to remember what we’ve done.

Without mind there’d be no atoms or molecules to speculate about, to chase down, to combine in new ways; no cell parts, no cells, no tissues, no organs, no organisms, no habitats, no living systems, no culture, no art, music, theology. No sorrow. No joy.

Without mind at the heart of our respective black boxes there’d be nothing at all because, quite simply, we would have no way of knowing anything about whatever was around us. It takes a mind to know anything at all, including how the brain “works.”

The physical brain knows nothing at all, as a car engine or nuclear reactor knows nothing. As artificial “intelligence” knows nothing.

It takes a mind to convert rival signals in adjacent cortical columns into a sense of spatial depth before two eyes peering from different perspectives a few inches apart. A mind to learn through trial and error, discrepancies, disparities, and simple mistakes. A brain can compare signals, but mind is a virtual quality residing in relationship between signals, a quality arising from such a comparison, but not reducible to it, as humans are not reducible to the mud or stellar refuse they are made of.

In our minute portion of the universe, it is our privilege to engage courtesy of the power of reaching out with our minds. No minds, no awareness, no universe to be part of. Instead of grousing that the mind is a fiction, a myth, an illusion, an impossible speculation, I think it would be more productive to find sufficient grace to appreciate the gift of feelings and awareness so we can get on living harmoniously with the colorful and moving impressions they provide us.

The flow of situations through the mind makes up what we call a story, complete with beginning, middle, and end. Each baseball player in a given game lives his own story from the perspective of his defensive position on the field and offensive turns at bat. The story of the game as a whole is a compilation of the stories lived by the individual players (characters) as woven into a coherent narrative binding the high points of separate plays into a pattern making up the flow of collective experience from first to last inning.

The basic organization (plot) of the 2014 World Series as played out in Kansas City (beginning and end) and San Francisco (middle) is based on the conflicting motivations of two teams from different regions each dedicated to defeating the other. Conflict between worthy adversaries is at the heart of every game of baseball (football, basketball, soccer, cricket, chess, bridge, etc.) That is, each game is meant to display the similarities and differences between two teams playing by the same rules under identical circumstances, the score giving a measure of their relative strengths and weaknesses on a particular occasion.

Which is a gross generalization when put into words, while each game of baseball is based on specific comparisons played out on the field: strike or ball, fair or foul, safe or out, left or right, on or off, fast or slow, stop or go, ahead or behind, win or lose. Each game is told by its experiential specifics at the time of play, not its watered-down statistics after the fact.

The drama is in the setting up, enacting, and fulfillment of one play after another in the stream of each player’s consciousness. The game exists in the subjective experience of all in attendance, not in the record books which are dry summaries stacked on shelves.

What we notice at the time are the contrasts that test our expectancies for better or worse, falling short in disappointment or exceeding in joy at the way thing turn out. That’s where the excitement and adventure lie—in the difference between what we expect and what happens on the field. Every play sprouts from the soil prepared by preceding plays. Each game is organic, not factual or statistical. It lives in the minds of those who witness it. Those fully present to each play as it unfolds.

Baseball plays right into the arms of consciousness, which thrives on contrasts, differences, oppositions, disparities, and surprises. Pea soup is an apt metaphor for fog because it’s the same all around us, masking the beacons and landmarks we need to navigate by. Baseball wakes us up. It is nothing but landmarks for navigating the bases, infield, outfield. Keep your eye on the ball and act accordingly. Singles, doubles, triples, home runs—these are the outstanding features of baseball, along with pitches, catches, throws, swings, hits, misses, walks, bunts, stolen bases, outs, and errors. You never know what the next pitch will bring.

In game 7, Mike Moustakas’ triple with two out in the bottom of the ninth sent an electric jolt through every mind in the park. As Pablo Sandoval’s catch a few heartbeats later gave an even bigger jolt, clinching a year of champion pride for the Giants, a year of regretful determination for the Royals.

Those jolts are what baseball is all about. Showing what you can do. Playing to make a difference. Distinguishing yourself in a field of worthy rivals. That is the essential story of our living our lives on this Earth. Not eliminating the competition as in warfare, but bringing it up to your level so you can both do your best, even if at the moment one comes in first and the other second.

349. Mind as Comparator

October 29, 2014

I sent the following tweet recently: News is news because it exceeds or falls short of our hopes, fears, expectancies. Ebola. ISIS. Nobel Prizes. The mind is a comparator.

Consciousness is activated by a discrepancy signal, just as depth perception is activated by the difference between what our left and right eyes see. And our sound location is activated by the difference between what our left and right ears hear. And our balance is established by receptors in our inner ears based on slight differences produced by our turning our heads.

How astounding is that? That consciousness exists in the gap between what we do and perceive. What we expect and what actually happens. The outer cortex of our brains is set up to make just such comparisons between adjacent cortical columns. The result is a discrepancy signal that drives our stream of consciousness.

We pay attention to the exceptional, the unusual, novel, disconcerting, and so on. The fly in the jelly jar. The cherry atop the ice cream sundae. And when night falls and everything is cloaked in darkness, we lose interest in the world because everything is grayed-out. What’s to notice? So we fall asleep from lack of arousal. Only to awaken when sunlight hits our eyes.

There are two sorts of consciousness: good and bad, soothing and disturbing, sad and glad, chocolate and vanilla, and so on. Basically, what pleases us and what displeases us at the time. Emotional judgments. That guide our actions to be appropriate to the situations we find ourselves in again and again. Fight or flight, advance or retreat. Stop or go. Try or give up. What a marvelous system that enables us to survive under a huge variety of conditions.

Pity the poor insects that have a very narrow repertory of instincts and automatic responses. Evolution has blessed us by giving each of us our own mind to make up under the circumstances we are in. If only we were wise enough to make use of that gift.

Copyright © 2013 by Steve Perrin

On My Mind: A New Vision of Consciousness (Lulu.com, May 2013) by Steve Perrin

My latest book is about the structure and workings of consciousness as revealed through many years of personal self-reflection. Consciousness, I find, is aroused by a disparity between two nerve signals, much as depth perception results from a disparity between images at corresponding points on the retinas of our two eyes.

Such a disparity in signals might arise between sensory patterns as remembered in contrast to those currently perceived. That is, between expectancy and actual experience, or between the aim of a deliberate action and the effect it actually produces.

I think of that disparity as a relative “valence” such as that between right and wrong, true and false, good and bad, like and dislike, or attractive and repellant. If the valence indicates, for example, “that our impressions exceed or fall short of our expectations, then we become aroused, pay attention, and make a conscious effort to account for the difference so we can take appropriate action.” I think of a helmsman steering through fog by the deviance of his compass needle from his charted course to illustrate the idea of such a valenced signal

In this regard, I see the brain not as a computer but “as a vigilant comparator looking for the then in the now, and when not finding it, taking pains to update memory through conscious scrutiny.” That comparator is on duty whenever things, for better or worse, do not go as expected. Resulting in our streaming consciousness striving to keep up with events as they actually unfold in round after round of engagement. Our personal experience reflects those eternal rounds of engagement, much as the holding power of a screw derives from the helical course of its ramped threads through the wood into which it is turned.

Our minds have many alternative routes from perception to action that largely sidestep consciousness. Reflexes, mimicry, rote memorization, and habitual routines, for instance, proceed unconsciously according to our expectations. But when things do not go as expected, our minds are roused to take unanticipated factors into account. Personal consciousness is situated between perception and action, where it plays the vital role of supervising our rounds of engagement for as long as we concentrate on a particular task or activity.

The take-away message of my new book is that a course of introspection is advised if we are to take responsibility for the outcomes of our personal views and actions. Since every human mind is unique, only one person on Earth has both the motive and opportunity to acquaint any given mind. Our schooling generally deals with abstractions, concepts, and generalities, leaving the particular workings of our minds for us to deal with on our own. This book provides examples of how we might do just that. “The art of introspection is in accepting whatever appears, not judging or dismissing it beforehand because it does not meet designated research criteria.” I use haiku as an example of “grappling with becoming aware of being aware” during moments that draw “us out of our everyday selves, heightening our engagement with life.”

On My Mind: A New Vision of Consciousness is available at lulu.com. Search “Books” for “Steve Perrin” and you will come to it. The cost is $17.95 plus shipping.

 

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 7 photos.]

The question is, who controls our primary engagements? Do we defer to the customs of our social world and lend (or give away) our power of self-determination to those who are stronger than we are? Or do we keep a tight grip on the helm and steer our own course? Probably a mixture of the two, sharing power when it is to our advantage, and holding it tight when we are sure of the direction we want to head.

We get good at what we actually do over-and-over again, so we develop our engagement skills incrementally, improving them bit by bit through deliberate concentration, attention to detail, practice, and perseverance. It is one thing to attend to our strengths, relying on what we do best in almost every situation. That way we are apt to typecast ourselves in order to bull our way through. It is something else again to admit to weaknesses or a lack of finesse in many of our engagements, and face into (rather than ignore) them as integral parts of our personal identity.

No one excels at every sort of engagement. Quarterbacks are good at what they do best, but are likely to fall short as concert pianists, fashion designers, or aestheticians—which causes them no pain whatsoever. But when they lose the strength, speed, and stamina of youth, they have to face up to some of the less-well developed parts or dimensions of their makeup in deciding what to do for the rest of their lives.

Me, I’m a visual person. I make photographic images. Others are musicians, dancers, mathematicians, holy men or women, dog trainers, philosophers. We are all situated in the lives we live and have lived, but each of us comes with a unique set of baggage. We are fraught (freighted, loaded, burdened) with our histories because those histories are lodged in networks in our brains where they broadcast bulletins from our memories of where we have been and what we have done. Each of us is a unique, situated self. We make ourselves happen according to the dictates of who we are. I do it my way, you do it your way. Taken all together, we make up the world of humanity. Which reflects our strengths and weaknesses without flinching. We are, after all, who we are.

Yet we are bombarded by messages telling us to do this or do that because it would suit someone else’s desires. Vote for V; Buy W; Support X; Give to Y; Avoid Z at all cost. Pleas which I generally ignore as having no impact on my personal situation. I am in charge here, I keep telling myself, I’ll do the deciding. When I have no choices worthy of consideration, I pull back and, from the world’s perspective, go into hiding. But, no, I’m not hiding, I’m consulting myself—my memories, my dreams, my values, my feelings—my life situation—in deciding what to do.

After all, if I don’t steer my own engagements, who am I engaging for? Or more importantly, why am I here if not to be wholly myself? If I’m not myself, who am I, then?

I’ll tell you who I am, at least for this minute, today. I’ve been turning over everything in my apartment, looking for a receipt for a flight I made from Hancock County Airport back in June. Books are being audited, and I’m accountable for that invoice. I’ve looked at every scrap of paper in the place, cluttering the floor and my table with useless bits of paper, the residue of living my life over the course of several months. Ransacking my personal space, without success. One aspect of my situation just now is that I live amid clutter, which I confront in just lifting my eyes from the cursor on my computer screen.

Another aspect is I’m trying to learn not to get angry and take my frustrations out on others who I convert into victims in order to defend myself from blame. When I can’t engage a project as I wish, I sometimes get exasperated and blow up, throw a tantrum, rant and rage—instead of calmly saying, “Houston, we have a problem,” then going about fixing that particular problem. “Take no hostages” may be good advice, but not if it means abusing those around me. Better, I try to treat everyone with kindness and respect, and ask them for help in dealing with the upsetting situations I frequently get myself into. As I asked the clerk when I found my post office box so stuffed with papers, letters, catalogues, magazines, that I had no choice but to rip great gashes in them in pulling them out of the box past the hinges of the open door. I waited in line at the desk, wondering how I could put it so the clerk could hear me. “I’m going to tell you something you already know,” I would begin, “but when my mailbox is stuffed, I can’t get at my mail without shredding it,” would that work? When I got the clerk’s attention, that’s basically what I said. And we ended up laughing together at the image of me tugging on my mail, turning it into sauerkraut, steam gushing from my eye sockets. The essential thing is that he got the message.

A big part of my situation is missing my sons when I don’t see them for long periods of time. That’s part of the background of much of my life these days, that longing for something I can’t have. So this week I was overjoyed to have Jesse come from Boston to celebrate my birthday with my other son Ken at his house. That and my 80th birthday are a big part of my situation this week.

Last evening I watched the first presidential debate of this year’s campaign, and was dismayed to hear Mitt Romney try to shape the discussion according to hollow claims about how many jobs he’d create and not by his record of actual deeds. He seemed to be making his words up on the spot to suit the situation he was in (a high-stakes debate on TV) more than on what he had actually accomplished in his life. But that’s how it is with challengers to incumbents. Incumbents have a record of what they have done during four years in office; challengers run in opposition to that record, so they’ll say anything to paint it as a failure. Obama and Romney seem to be in the same race, but they are speaking from two very different situations, so their strategies truly reflect that disparity. What struck me from the perspective of a voter was the difference between a retelling of history and an imaginative prophecy of the future. I had to read between the lines to hear what each candidate was trying to say from the depths of his personal situation.

When listening to a political speech, ask yourself what is the situation the candidate is facing, and what the strategy he or she has adopted in speaking out of that situation, so accounting for the specific flow of words you are hearing. One thing is clear: candidates for political office speak from very different situations before election campaigns, during party primary races, and again during face-offs between parties, only to end up either winning or losing the campaign, leading to two additional situations—those of the officeholder and the also-ran.

All candidates change their tunes as they progress through the phases of the campaign because they are addressing entirely different constituencies at each stage, each posing a different situation than those addressed before. In their political lives both Obama and Romney have used different voices representing the different placements of their minds at each stage. The ultimate shocker is the voice that rises upon assuming the Presidency, the stern voice issuing from the Oval Office in Washington, D.C., the ultimate locus of power, and the most rigidly constrained by the complex, overlapping situations the President must deal with.

In presidential debate number one, President Obama was shocked because his opponent spoke with a different voice than any he had used up to that day. But that was because the campaign had entered the final stretch, placing each candidate in a different situation, the incumbent playing up his record of accomplishment, his opponent trashing that record while playing up what he hoped to do once he himself assumed office, leaving his personal record of deeds out of the picture entirely.

But getting back to minor details of my current, personal situation, a nagging dimension of my situation at this minute is the rash I get from something in my gluten-free diet I have been unable to identify. No, it isn’t from chocolate made in a dedicated, allergen-free facility, which I have lately tried and given up on. Maybe it’s the salicylates in green leafy vegetables, which I believe would be good for me if I could eat them, but which seem to bring on the rash. Anyway, the rash brings an undercurrent of annoyance and distraction to my situation, which leaves me somewhat dazed and frazzled when it gets really bad.

And so on. That is a fast sketch of my situated self as I sit here trying to write a coherent post on that very topic to my blog. Situations are complicated because at any given moment they tend to be composed of unrelated dimensions which make life more complicated than I’d like it to be—but nothing turns out to be simple. A lot is going on in the network of a hundred billion neurons that host our dreams, thoughts, feelings, values, and perspectives. Each instant of life is more a maze than a tableau, which may change with the next thought and the one after that.

Here are seven images of how I depict my situated self in graphic terms. 1) The first is me having my picture taken with my two sons, Jesse and Ken, at the birthday dinner they gave me this week. The photographer (my partner, Carole) structured the situation by saying, “Use your hands.” We dutifully responded, with this result (below).

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2) The schematic diagrams in the next five slides build to a depiction of a loop of engagement centered on the yellow circle representing the situated self at the heart of all consciousness. The blue circle represents sensory impressions, the yellow circle represents personal situations, the pink circle represents bodily actions, each circle answering a pointed question relative to the situated self (below).

SituatedSelf-1

3) This second diagram depicts the loop of engagement connecting the situated self with both the natural and cultural worlds through an exchange of energy directed outward through bodily actions and inward through sensory impressions in an unbroken cycle through both external physical and internal neural media of transmission (below).

SituatedSelf-24) Formation of sensory impressions (blue circle) requires arousal, directed attention, and expectancy within a given situation, at a given level of sensory discrimination or discernment, leading to recognition if a given pattern is found familiar, and to fear or curiosity if thought strange or novel. Development of personal situations (yellow circle) entails creative imagination, thought, feelings, values, understanding, and dreams—all centered on the situated self or observer.  On the basis of personal judgment, the situated self makes a bodily response (pink circle) to a situation as construed in the light of personal experience, deciding how best to proceed, setting goals, selecting means, relying on relationships, working on projects, then acting appropriately to answer the tensions posed by the operative situation (below).

SituatedSelf-3 5) It comes as no surprise that consciousness flows from looping cycles of behavior and perception, which is entirely consistent with other organic exchanges such as those conducted by the digestive system, cardiovascular system, reproductive system, pulmonary system, and integumentary (skin) system as listed in the lower right corner of the gray rectangle representing the embodied or incarnated brain. Proprioception (sense of the body in space) and interoception (internal sensations such as feelings of satisfaction or dissatisfaction, aches, pains, etc.) both contribute to the makeup of the situated self. The dotted arrow on the left indicates that speech arises directly and efficiently from the self-as-situated without requiring the detailed planning and rehearsal of more fully developed behaviors (below).SituatedSelf-46) Bypassing the fully conscious, situated self, reflex arcs are loops connecting sensory input directly to behavioral output without having to pass through the complex realm of full consciousness where the many dimensions might slow them down. This is also true of rote or habitual routines and ideologies expressing the foregone conclusions of trained or set minds. In these cases, the situation is more intuited or assumed than explored, allowing for an immediate response. The comparison of current patterns of experience against those derived from the past is what drives the loop forward. Memory, then, is here represented in a central position turning momentary patterns into life experiences in the history of the situated self (below).

SituatedSelf-5Every mind, that is, comes equipped with a variety of options for connecting sensory impressions to the motor system generating more-or-less appropriate behavior. We are all capable of being impulsive as well as thoughtful or considerate. Practice and rehearsal assure gradual refinement of slow and awkward responses into fluent and modulated expressions of deep concern. In my own cluttered life, I often discover moments of great beauty coming upon me for a few seconds amid the chaos and confusion I generally endure. Walking to the post office this week, I saw a monarch butterfly land on a cluster of purple asters next to the sidewalk. Instantly, I was there with that butterfly and those flowers. Short-lived though it may be, that is also part of the situation out of which I make myself happen this week. What could I do but whip my camera from its case on my belt and take this picture (below).

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It is sometimes difficult to believe how elaborate the situations are that we develop on the basis of sensory impressions twisted into bizarre shapes—largely our own doing by way of selecting and emphasizing the patterns that our senses make available to us. Since we have no meaning detector, the significance of a pattern is our own addition to the mix. We can scrutinize that pattern, but the meaning we lay upon it is strictly ours through our ability to compare new patterns with others recalled from former occasions, the earlier situations serving as our hold on the new, giving it meaning. So the meaningful world is the understanding we lay on the patterns revealed by our senses. Which is why two people side-by-side can live in such different perceptual worlds—each tailoring it to his or her own needs, fears, and desires. The black newspaper reporter holding a microphone up to his interviewee by the side of the road on Cape Cod was seen by passing motorists as holding a knife at his throat. Same pattern, different meanings. We are captives of the situations we fashion for ourselves.

Which is why I am spending all this time and effort writing about consciousness—to help calm my desperate illusions for one thing, to see how corporations and institutions are putting so much energy into capturing our (my and your) minds for their benefit for another, and so on, in hopes you and I will remain sane, set adrift as we are in this riled and riling world.

If we don’t seek therapy to help us endure, we can help heal ourselves by looking inward to discover where we’re coming from in a given situation, so better to understand the world by understanding ourselves through deliberate acts of self-reflection or introspection. If we feel trapped in our lives and yearn to break free, the same approach applies. The traps often turn out to be self-traps that bear our own patents and trademarks. If we can advance our understanding of ourselves as unique individuals, that is a solid contribution to the human world coming to understand itself, no mean accomplishment. Engaging ourselves, we improve our engagements with our immediate world, so contributing to the larger world beyond.

On that note, I now plan to explore other ways of presenting these views shaped through self-reflection in hopes of engaging a wider audience. Recently, I’ve made this blog my primary workspace, but now feel ready—and even obliged—to reach beyond myself to interact with more than the eighty or a hundred people who follow these posts. At age eighty, I find my life situation is rapidly changing, and I am trying to keep up with my situated self.

So, yes, I’ll be letting go of this blog in turning to other ways of being myself, returning now and then to share moments of beauty or discovery such as that monarch landing on those asters. I hope you will stay well, curious, and active.

In the meantime, I remain y’r devoted friend, –Steve from this one and only Planet Earth