I have covered a lot of ground in getting this far with my blog telling the inside story of consciousness. I here offer an opportunity to see that journey not as a sequence of hesitant steps, but as an adventure entire in itself. Here are a few bulleted reminders of the stages I have passed through.

  • Consciousness is a collaborative effort between mind, body, and world. It intercedes between perception and action, and can be bypassed by reflex thinking, rote learning, mimicry, habits, routines, prejudice, and ideology.
  • Solving the world puzzle from the perspective provided by our minds is a matter of conjecture based on personal experience, not knowledge, not truth.
  • Perception provides not a glimpse of the world so much as a heightened impression of the world from a particular wayfarer’s point of view.
  • Like Plato, we all share in the common failing of mistaking our personal solution to the world puzzle for the way the world really is. Our beliefs are custom-made for true believers (that is, ourselves, who couldn’t be more earnest).
  • The more ardently we hold our beliefs, the more likely we are to be wrong.
  • Expectancy and recognition reveal the participation of memory in perception.

No matter how finely we resolve the tissues of the brain, consciousness will elude us because it is an ongoing process of engagement between our minds, actions, and the world.

  • Attention is the gateway to consciousness. It is aroused by a delta signal stemming from a sense of discrepancy between what we expect or hope for and what actually happens.
  • From the outset, all awareness is polarized as being either good or bad, desirable or undesirable, satisfying or dissatisfying, right or wrong, true or false.
  • It takes persistence and concentration to explore the forbidden middle ground between the two poles of awareness.
  • The engagements that link us to our worlds couple perception to meaningful judgment to fitting action on one or more levels of nature, culture, community, and family, which in turn affects our attention and stimulates sensory perception.
  • Our engagements are told by the situations they create in our minds as made up of various dimensions of intelligence such as memory, sensory impressions, understanding, feelings, motivations, biological values, humor, imagination, temperament, interest, thought, and available energy (what I refer to as the life force).
  • Language in the form of speech, writing, thought, and comprehension flows from the situations we find ourselves in when we experience the urge to speak or to listen.

As a writer, I have long wondered where words come from. I now feel that our situated intelligence shapes our current situation from the dimensions of personal awareness (or intelligence) aroused in a given moment of experience. In being conscious, it is just those situations that we become conscious of, and subsequently respond to.

  • All life engages its surroundings in an ongoing exchange of matter and energy. It is the job of our minds to monitor how that exchange is going, and to feed-forward to judgment a selection of options for how we might respond. For good or ill—and engagements can strike us either way—we must engage in order to find our place in the world.
  • We are linked and anchored to our worlds by a spectrum of ongoing (often simultaneous) engagements. It is essential for us to keep up with what is happening around us. Hence we live in a world of media all striving to influence and inform us from their respective points of view.
  • Time is a calibrated sense of change that is not of our doing; space is a calibrated sense of change resulting from our own actions. Spacetime is a calibrated sense of change resulting from our simultaneously doing and perceiving at once.
  • Ownership and possessiveness are attitudes toward persons and objects with which we meaningfully engage in being fully ourselves. Money is a tool we use to engage on cultural terms. The law is our culture’s effort to regulate the conduct of our engagements so that each of us enjoys equal freedom and opportunity in pursuit of our personal goals.
  • Freedom is an opportunity to engage the world with full respect for the integrity of each of its inhabitants, whether plant, animal, or human.
  • Baseball, Roget’s Thesaurus, and the stars provide examples of aspects of the world puzzle we are apt to engage with in our search for personal happiness. There is no limit to the importance we project onto such personal engagements as primary shapers of our lives.

I view my personal consciousness as culminating in the image of a wayfarer finding his way among others who are making their own ways for themselves. Our respective journeys are so varied and personal, I identify with each wayfarer in taking on the challenge of finding a way forward from wherever she or he is at any given stage of life.

The task each one of us faces is solving the world puzzle in a meaningful way for ourselves, while respecting other solutions for other wayfarers on journeys of their own.

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Engagements between self and other have been around since the early days of one-celled lifeforms drifting about in their aqueous environments. Which-was-which depended on your perspective, that of cell or other, self or world.

Later on, the issue became control or regulation of the engagement. Again, that depended on your perspective, whether you took the point of view of the cell or of the environment. You had to be in the ongoing loop of engagement, either looking out or looking in.

From the cell’s point of view, the problem was to solve the world puzzle of where you were and what was going on around you. From outside the cell, the problem was to figure out what was going on inside the cell.

The metaphor of the black-box problem applies, from both inside and outside the box. From inside the cell’s black box, the world is a mystery. From outside in the world, the cell is a mystery in a black box. There are two black-box problems: one solving the world puzzle from inside, the other solving the mind problem from outside. I use this metaphor to clarify the problem of consciousness.

In some situations the world seemed to be in control; in others, the cell seemed to be in control. But in every situation, control is actually shared between cell and environment, the balance depending on which is dominant during that particular engagement. That is, on whether the cell needed the environment more than the environment needed the cell, or vice versa.

Why does a cell need its surrounding world? To supply the resources it needs to sustain its internal activities. Why does the world need the cell? To consume the resources it has in excessive amounts.

The goal each way being to achieve a balance that works to the benefit of both self and world, cell and environment.

Cells help the world stay in balance; the world helps cells stay in balance as parts and extensions of itself. They are of the same system. The issue is chemical balance, physical balance, energy balance. All within a shared gravitational field rich in energy. In black-box terms, the solution to the two respective problems depends on resources being available both inside and outside the box. The key to balance is in the flow of life-sustaining engagement between input and output.

As both selves and worlds grew in size and complexity, control and regulation of engagements between them grew more demanding. Cells developed the ability to move about and, simultaneously, to gauge and identify a sense of different regions within their environments.

As evolution progressed, environments grew ever-larger and richer in content, but more challenging at the same time. Living organisms had to take greater risks in order to get what they needed to survive. The task of regulating engagements became more complex and difficult.

In response to increasing pressures, multicellular life evolved alternative strategies for survival. Some lifeforms traded their harbors in the sea for territories on land. Others took to the air. Still others learned to tolerate broader ranges of temperature, salinity, humidity, terrain, illumination, suitable foods, weather conditions, and so on. All in response to the urgings of the life force as fueled by individual metabolisms.

At some point, organisms outran their genome’s ability to prepare them for the difficulties they were to face, and consciousness emerged as a means of adapting to challenging conditions as they might arise. Habitat niches remained all-important, but the range of situations they presented as lifeform populations increased and diversified became less of an obstacle.

Consciousness allowed individual organisms to assess their environments (perception), consider their options (judgment), and set and enact behavioral goals accordingly (intentional action), all the while maintaining an ongoing flow of engagement with significant aspects of their environments (between black-box input and output).

Memory became the base of consciousness, providing a background against which to face into novel situations. Expectancy, curiosity, familiarity, conceptualization, and recognition became possible, simplifying the analysis of highly variable conditions.

Too, the old standard behaviors of reflex action, mimicry, habits, routines, prejudice, orthodoxy, rote learning, trial and error, and other energy-efficient shortcuts in lieu of full consciousness remained as viable alternatives.

But consciousness allowed memory to be linked to a review of alternative possibilities, prioritized according to a choice of criteria, and judgment concerning which choice made the best fit to the current situation.

So did consciousness serve to build on a Paleolithic genome to make it fit to serve in a modern world to which our ancestors never had to adapt.

Consciousness itself is a neurological response to a discrepancy between conflicting aspects of perception. It pointedly draws attention and awareness to unsettling aspects of experience, whether good or bad. When consciousness is focused on a particular problem, all else falls away as irrelevant. The ability to concentrate on a particular issue is the essence of consciousness.

By applying our neural resources to one situation at a time, consciousness makes our awareness both efficient and coherent, screening out all that is irrelevant to its current focus. This ability to rate situations on a scale of importance at the moment is one of our greatest assets in getting through the day one moment at a time.

At the core of consciousness is our situated intelligence that organizes a given situation in terms of the elements or dimensions that make it up. That core of situated intelligence is what we experience as the self, which changes from one situation to another as suits the occasion.

The dimensions of consciousness that might contribute to a particular situation include: memory, sensory impressions, feelings, motivation, values, imagination, understanding, life force (or energy level), humor, temperament, goals, skills, relationships, and many other factors that collectively constitute our minds.

Our situated intelligence stands at the nexus between incoming perception and outgoing action in the precinct where judgment and commitment are possible. It is activated by a gap, inconsistency, or abrupt change in our loop of engagement that rallies attention to that unsettling state of affairs. Our intelligence gathers its assets to focus precisely on that gap or inconsistency (duality, disparity, discrepancy, annoyance, delta signal, disappointment, surprise, shock, etc.) as a rousing alarm that serves to focus our attention, stirring consciousness to life. Here is a matter to be dealt with.

It is the nature of our minds as they have evolved to depict situations in terms of dualities (dichotomies, bifurcations, oppositions, contests, confrontations) and other forms of either-or, yes-or-no, approve-or-reject situations. This is due to the complementary roles of activation and inhibition that our neural networks play in shaping consciousness in different situations.

Our engagements between self and world take place on the four fundamental levels of nature, culture, community, and family, which I have extensively dealt with in developing my views on consciousness in this blog.

The above summary provides an outline of my wayfaring journey in my daily posts to Consciousness: The Inside Story, in, what to me appeared to make a coherent sequence, but probably appeared random to readers who broke into my stream of consciousness in the middle of its development.

Tomorrow I will remind readers where we may have been together as a review of my specific ideas about consciousness as posted to this blog.

What does the American edition of Roget’s Thesaurus (1933) say on the topic of irresolution?

It offers word cluster 605. Irresolution, which includes the Nouns: infirmity of purpose, indecision, indetermination, loss of willpower, unsettlement, uncertainty, demur, suspense, hesitation, vacillation, ambivalence, changeableness, fluctuation, alternation, caprice, lukewarmness, fickleness, levity, pliancy, weakness, timidity, cowardice, half measures, waverer, ass between two bundles of hay, shuttlecock, butterfly, time-server, opportunist, and turn coat.

Then he adds the following Adjectives: irresolute, infirm of purpose, double-minded, half-hearted, undecided, unresolved, undetermined, drifting, shilly-shally, fidgety, tremulous, wobbly, hesitating, off one’s balance, at a loss, vacillating, unsteady, unsteadfast, fickle, unreliable, irresponsible, unstable, without ballast, capricious, volatile, frothy, light-minded, giddy, fast and loose, weak, feeble-minded, frail, timid, cowardly, facile, pliant, unable to say ‘no,’ easy-going.

I was looking for wishy-washy, but that’s listed under headings: 160. Languid; 391. Insipid; 575. Feebleness; and 648. Unimportant.

Often the polarized pairs of headings are based on the same root with a prefix added to one of them: non-, dis-, anti-, contra-, mis-, in-, or un-, as in the following pairs of headings printed side-by-side:

17. Similarity/18. Dissimilarity

23. Agreement/24. Disagreement

27. Equality/28. Inequality

43. Junction/44. Disjunction

46. Coherence/47. Incoherence

58. Order/59. Disorder.

Many other headings are based on different roots:

50. Whole/51. Part

66. Beginning/67. End

102. Multitude/103. Fewness

123. Newness/124. Oldness

125. Morning/126. Evening

127. Youth/128. Age

140. Change/141. Permanence

159. Strength/160. Weakness

164. Producer/165. Destroyer

173. Violence/174. Moderation

210. Summit/211. Base

212. Verticality/213. Horizontality

234. Front/235. Rear

292. Arrival/293. Departure

298. Food/299. Excretion.

Roget contrasts heading 516. Meaning with 517. Unmeaningness, placing them side-by-side in two columns. Comparing the two clusters, you can feel the author’s judgment at work, awarding high approval to one list, rating the other as, well, flapdoodle. I present samplings from the two headings in serial order.

516. Meaning. Signification, significance, sense, expression, import, drift, tenor, implication, connotation, essence, force, spirit bearing, colouring, scope; matter, subject, subject matter, argument, text, sum and substance, gist; general meaning, broad meaning, substantial meaning, colloquial meaning, literal meaning, plain meaning, simple meaning, accepted meaning, natural meaning, unstrained meaning, true, etc.

517. Unmeaningness. Scrabble, scribble, scrawl, daub (painting), strumming (music); empty sound, dead letter, ‘a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing,’ ‘sounding brass and a tinkling cymbal’; nonsense, jargon, gibberish, jabber, mere words, hocus-pocus, fustian, rant, bombast, balderdash, palaver, patter, flummery, verbiage, babble, platitude, insanity, rigmarole, rodomontade, truism, twaddle, twattle, fudge, trash, stuff, stuff and nonsense, bosh, rubbish, rot, drivel, moonshine, wish-wash, fiddle-faddle, flapdoodle, absurdity, vagueness, etc.

Here, I suggest, we have direct evidence of the perceptive mind at work shaping, sharpening, emphasizing, contrasting, and distinguishing the impressions it forms of the patterns of energy it receives from the world, doing its work with a deliberately (and figuratively) heavy hand, ensuring that each sensory impression conforms to the attitude of expectancy with which it is welcomed. Indeed, we recognize exactly what it is we expect to find.

To me, this is a demonstration of how our loops of engagement do their jobs in such a way to reassure us that the world we discover is the same world we seeded our attention and expectancy with in the first place.

In listing his opposing headings in adjacent columns, Roget draws attention to a quality of human thought that frames the mind’s version of the world in dualistic terms (opposing, dichotomous, polarizing, bifurcating, complementary, etc.), so suggesting the basic structure of neural systems based on the two opposing processes of activation and inhibition, which is one of the primary themes I develop in this blog.

Conflict, rivalry, and opposition, I claim, provide the underpinnings of consciousness itself for they are the very qualities that not only draw but shape our attention. And, when we are jaded and expect the worst, they are precisely the qualities that so shock us by their absence that we celebrate an unaccustomed clarity and lightness of heart.

By juxtaposing opposing qualities of mind (as illustrated by his headings of Meaning and Unmeaning above), Roget’s Thesaurus reflects the inherent nature of thoughts he and the rest of us are trying to put into English, and those thoughts reveal the on or off, yes or no, go or no-go nature of our thought processes themselves.

Gridlock, conflict, and warfare are the norms toward which rigid minds tend. Resolution and compromise depend on giving way on some of our most cherished beliefs, allowing room for both inhibition and activation in our mental processes. Idealists, purists, and hard-liners are the polar opposites of pragmatists who do what they must to solve problems and get things done.

Rigid pride in our personal system of belief is the enemy of getting along in a world harboring over seven-billion independent human minds. Some of the flapdoodle we perceive in the world may well be expressions by well-meaning people raised under different conditions than we have been, and so live in different worlds of experience than our own.

444. Double-take on Community

February 27, 2015

Look. And look again. You might not see the same thing two times in a row. When I look at Bar Harbor in winter, I see a small New England town covered in snow (as it is today while I focus on this post). It has that Currier-and-Ives feel about it. In summer I see a bustling tourist town filled to the brim with strangers just milling around wondering what to do next, clogging the sidewalks and streets. There are days (when several cruise ships are in, for example) I wish I could hibernate like Taunton Bay horseshoe crabs for six months of the year—just dig a hole in the mud and retire from the scene for six months. Pretend the tourist season never happened.

The irony being that shop and motel owners are blissfully happy on the very same days that I am down in the dumps. They are deeply invested in the economy of Bar Harbor, and that economy barely limps along in the winter, but runs full-steam-ahead from July through October while I think of hibernating.

 

Bar Harbor in Summer

With a cruise ship in, the streets of Bar Harbor teem with summer visitors.

That double-take is the result of the delta signal in my brain between good times and bad. At either extreme of happiness or deep disturbance, that is the signal that alerts consciousness to pay close attention to what’s going on because we’re sure to be affected one way or the other. If we had fair weather and smooth sailing every day of the year, we’d have no need for consciousness because we could just set the tiller and let the boat steer itself while we didn’t have a thought in our heads.

But that isn’t how our little worlds work. We all have ups and downs, often several times a day. Depending on how we adapt to the situations we are in as they change for better or worse. Those situations aren’t the issue, it’s how we take them from our current perspective. Sometimes the very same situation sets us off in ways that are diametrically opposed. It depends on our mood at the time, what we had for lunch, how well we slept the previous night.

As always, we’re in for the long haul, so slide from good times to bad, or the reverse a few minutes later. Just wait a bit and we’ll get over it. Or so it is to be hoped. Being mortal means we have earned the right to change our minds. To peer out through a new pair of eyes.

I have winter and summer eyes to cast on Bar Harbor, which as a New England coastal community, is always doing its thing. I live here, so am along for the ride, whatever it brings. One thing for sure: tomorrow will be as different from today as Miami Beach is from Helsinki.

 

Card players on the town pier, summer in Bar Harbor.

Card players don’t look up to enjoy the harbor.

How we handle these dichotomies in experience is up to us, depending on how resilient we are. We can reach out with cheery spirits in an active manner to kindle engagements that might be lagging a bit. We can wave to friends and acquaintances instead of turning our backs. We can reach out to start an engagement, shake hands, pat them on the back or shoulder, share a hug, give a kiss, initiate a conversation, share a story, invite friends over for a game or for dinner.

We each have a repertory of gestures that signal our readiness to engage. Nothing is more powerful than an open smile in inviting a trusting engagement. Eyes askance or to the ground signal otherwise.

Even at work where we are expected to do our job, we can do it with a style that includes others in the process we are engaged in. If we seem to be enjoying ourselves, others will want to join in the fun. If we keep our head down, others will skirt our workplace by a good margin.

By synchronizing our actions with those of others, we can make it easier to be ourselves in mutual companionship, even inducing them to join us. Such activities are moderated by our strengths and needs at the time, which we can subtly broadcast in our postures, gestures, facial expressions, and tones of voice.

 

Bar Harbor in Winter.

Body language on skis in wintertime Bar Harbor.

In a very real sense, communities run on the collective body language of their members at different levels of intimacy. To make anything happen, we have to select the level we want to engage on, then show up and give it a try, always being mindful of the level appropriate to that occasion.

The stuff that communities are built of is not bricks and mortar but flesh and blood. And something else: human minds. Each unique, each in a mood of its own. No two communities are the same because their prime constituents are highly specific. For that reason, it is dangerous to generalize about the nature of communities. With a different mix of unique inhabitants, each community is unique unto itself.

Since communities are the warm seas that bathe our minds, we want them to harbor us as contentedly as we enjoy them. Harmony between a place and its residents is the watchword, even if seldom achieved. There it is again, that helical loop of hospitality and gratitude between a one-celled organism and its surroundings.

We humans are no different in depending absolutely on the nurturing engagements we establish with the communal niches that provide for us. Every community is just such a niche in providing water, clean air, food, shelter, work, companionship, and much else.

The polarity of the relationship we establish says it all: this is the good life, I like it, I approve, I want to stay here; in contrast with: this is the pits, I hate it, I disapprove, I can’t wait to get away.

To get clear with ourselves, we intuitively react in such passionate terms. Our minds are made to sharpen distinctions in our minds so we think and feel in bold strokes. Our minds do the heavy shading for us so we won’t miss the point in a wash of subtle tones. Fish or cut bait, stay or move on, help or get lost.

People pay good money to ride on roller-coasters to remind them they are alive in two different ways—up and down, good and bad. Being alive means having choices. Choices and decisions require backing consciousness with sound judgment. Whizzing us up and down, life is guaranteed to deliver just such a ride, testing our judgment on every hill and valley.

Please note: I usually have second thoughts about hibernating for the duration of a summer in Bar Harbor. I may let the throng get me down at times, but I always bounce back and take to the woods for a walk, or Taunton Bay for a row. This year I’ve had thoughts of hibernating under all this snow. Just dig a hole next to my poppy bed and hunker down where the snow will serve as insulation from the chill blast out of Canada. It’s not that bad things never happen. Our paramount skill is in being resilient no matter what comes our way.

That’s it for my posts on the topic of community. Now it’s on to the family level of our engagement with the world, which I will explore from my point of view in upcoming posts.

This post is the last installment in a series about twelve of my engagements with the culture we put between ourselves and nature.

10. Space Junk. Early in 1962, I started work at Harvard College Observatory by setting up a photo lab that eventually expanded to become worthy of the Space Age. I started my fiefdom in a one-room darkroom with walls eight feet apart, which ultimately led to a fourteen-room photo lab suite near Fresh Pond on the outskirts of Cambridge. Apparently there was money for expansion available in those days.

Early on I was handed a remnant from a fallen Russian satellite that had landed piecemeal in northern Canada. No one knew what its function was, but as a novel piece of space junk, it deserved to have its picture taken.

That was a first for me, and the beginning of Harvard’s playing an active role, along with the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory, in lofting research satellites into orbit. With one click of my shutter, my mind went from a dark-wood kind of nineteenth-century awareness into a full-fledged, gold-plated, twentieth century engagement with the new world of space exploration and surveillance.

11. J.F.K. When President Kennedy was assassinated on November 22, 1963, I was in the photo lab darkroom at Harvard College Observatory making prints with the enlarger under the glow of a red safelight. I had the radio tuned to WGBH. When the bulletin came that Kennedy had been shot in Dallas, I called my assistant on the intercom and asked if he was listening to the radio. He was. The horror of that moment was implied in neither of us commenting on what was happening. Suddenly cut adrift from my everyday assumptions, I did what was familiar, so went on with what I knew how to do without thinking, my insides churning all the while. I never felt more cut off from the culture I lived in than I did contemplating that violent act in Dallas. Doubly sealed in my darkroom and in my own thoughts, bathed in red light, I got myself set to enter the new reality under the fluorescent lights beyond my lightproof darkroom door.

12. MIT Chapel. On a Wednesday afternoon in the spring of 1973, I drove my Humanities 3 class at Abbott Academy from Andover to Cambridge to see what we could discover in two hours exploring MIT. Starting on the steps of Building 10, we headed off in different directions to see what engagements we could have and sense we could make of a cultural institution devoted to science and engineering.

A chapel had been added to the campus since my days at the school, so I was curious about what sort of building could acknowledge the ineffabilities of faith in those stark surroundings. On the outside it resembled a red brick pillbox much smaller than I thought it would be. Without windows, which surprised me. Entrance was through a curved archway.

Passing into the interior, I left Cambridge, Mass., behind and entered another world. It was dark, almost black. I left my pupils to adjust at their own rate. Arcs of chairs spread across a circular floor. A larger space than I expected in a pillbox, almost infinite—like the darkness outdoors on a moonless night. Beautifully lit from above by a gentle shower of light descending from an off-center light tube onto a table below. Golden rectangles like leaves hung suspended in the glow as if falling through eternity. I was stunned by the aura of the place.

I sat and savored the ambience. Everything faded except for those golden leaves. I had not a thought in my head. Unlike the granite institution on the far side of Mass. Ave., here was no place for thought. Awe, comfort, and wonder were the currency in this space. Whatever I needed at that moment, there it was. Released inside, not outside of my body.

As my eyes adapted to the shadows, I sensed movement in front of me to the right of the table. I was not alone. A silent figure removing something from a case. Raising it up. Suddenly a burst of music. A violin. Bach. A solo sonata. The voice of that place on that day. Exactly what I needed to hear. What I had come for and didn’t know it. At MIT of all places.

I just sat, wholly open to the dark, the music, the falling golden leaves. I knew exactly where I was, who I was. I was meant for this experience. Nothing else mattered. There was nothing else.

After a time, the music stopped, the figure of a woman carrying a violin case passed up the aisle. Who could she be? Why had she begun playing in the dark after I sat down? But I already knew. She was kin. A fellow wayfarer. Making sense of her brief stay on Earth by doing what she had to do. As I had had to take my class on yet one last voyage of discovery before Abbott (oldest girls’ school in the U.S.) shut for good in a few weeks, to be swallowed by the boys’ school up the street, leaving me out of a job.

What these twelve cultural engagements share in common is that I remember them from the years between 1951 and 1973, each having made its mark on my mind and memory so that it is still available to me today in 2015. Available, I now believe, because of an element of surprise in that things turned out other than I had expected them to.

Each incident of engagement is based on a discrepancy between my expectancy on that occasion and what actually happened. The combination of discrepancy and surprise heightened the engagement itself, making it memorable, for either its positive or negative polarity in comparison to what I was ready for at the time.

These incidents are the stuff of my personal consciousness. The emotionally-charged high points between long hours of my flying on automatic pilot, between routine engagements leading up to the peak occasions marked by disparities such as these.

Why do I call myself a wayfarer? Because I love going beyond where I’ve been before. Exceeding my own expectations. For good or ill, trial-and-error is the name of my game. Taking the next step, and the step after that. Some would call it empiricism. Or experimentation. I call it being a wayfarer driven by heartfelt curiosity, and the conviction that wonders surely lie around the next bend in the trail.

Now, onward to the community level of engagement.

 

Our minds respond to the bite, the pang, the sting, the punch of disparity between the two sides of our engagements with culture. Between what we want to do and what we can actually pull off. We dream big so we can at least make some kind of mark.

Habits and convictions are a drag. The secret is to pursue what we don’t understand. We can run on that fuel forever. The ocean of culture is always bigger than our little puddle of experience. There’s way more ahead than behind us. Surrender? Never! Keep looking over the next hill and around the next bend and down the back alley. We haven’t been there yet to discover those dimensions of ourselves.

It’s easy to believe that culture is largely caught up with what’s wrong with the world, not what’s right. Just turn on the news. Read the paper. Talk with your neighbor. After a time it’s tempting to settle for that world of petty skirmishes and frustrations and disappointments and forlorn hopes.

Bruised and battered, we want to give up. That seems the safest course. If we do nothing, nobody can blame us for doing the wrong thing. If we disengage and don’t venture a thing, we’ll be safe. Quick, hide! Quit the race, the forum, the stage, the soap box, the protest, the rebellion, the call to action. Don’t make waves. Go find a cave in the desert and cherish your lonely illusions. Blame the world for all that is wrong. You know who to name: Everyone but you.

People are no damn good. If you’d never been born, you could have lived in ignorance forever. You had it made. Your big mistake was having doubts and asking too many questions. There are no questions in a cave. Only darkness. Forever. Just shut your eyes and ears—your black box is a kind of private cave. The ultimate shelter. Your own living grave.

But no, disengagement is not the answer. Never the answer. This reflection is about engagement, not giving up. Not hiding, not taking drugs, not getting drunk, not running away, not quitting, not lashing out in anger, not blaming others.

Engagement is aimed at using errors and discrepancies to change things for the better. The helmsman doesn’t blame his compass for getting off course; he has a wheel for correcting his heading. He’s not there to complain but to rectify that specific situation. He is a change agent, not a prophet of doom.

As every cultural wayfarer is an agent of change. Every path leads both the right way and wrong way. It’s not the fork in the road that makes all the difference, it’s the change in your mind—your attitude, your dreams, your understanding, your growth—that matters. Where you are compared to where you want to go. You can get there from here. You are the voyager crossing unknown depths to new shores and continents, not for conquest, but for engagement, revelation, and discovery.

As an Earthling, you claim nothing for God, King, or Queen. Your loyalty is to Earth and your own mind, your designated planet and vehicle of experience.

It would be tiresome to run through all the dangers and failings of our cultural engagements. That would merely catalogue the norm of our fumblings through the ages. We could harp forever on the burning of witches and heretics, sinking of the Titanic, fiery crash of the Hindenburg, America’s so-called Iraq War, or the ruin of Middle-Eastern culture by sectarian strife and hostility. Killing others requires deadening oneself.

I’m more interested in the opportunities suggested by the widening gap between the fullness of our promise and our meager accomplishments. There, now, is something to contemplate and engage to the fullest. A challenge worthy of us all.

My tracking horseshoe crabs in Taunton Bay soon took over my mind. I did my best to think like a horseshoe crab in figuring out which way it had gone from where I’d last heard its signal. As my skills improved over the months, I got pretty good at keeping track of them day-by-day on their separate excursions. But, too, I kept losing them.

Sometimes there would be intervals of several days between tracking sessions due to wind and weather, leading me to become pretty much a fair-weather tracker. As a result I’d lose sight of the ones I’d been following, and had to make a fresh start when I’d next get out on the bay.

We expected the transmitter batteries to run down after two years, but we got a good part of a third tracking season (2005) out of them before they finally died (the batteries, not the crabs, which can live for about twenty years in the wild).

I was surprised to learn how passionate I became about following twenty-six individual crabs in their travels about the bay. I quickly became truly engaged in the project. I cared about finding each crab and I’d worry when I lost track of it. I’d go searching for it until I (sometimes) found it again or got the feeling I’d lost it forever.

My engagement led me to try to connect with each crab. To put myself in its place as if I were the traveler on the bottom trying to figure where to go next. To do that I had to have a good sense of the terrain, the currents, the temperature gradients, the mussel and eelgrass beds—the entire habitat area beneath me that I couldn’t see, but could imagine at high tide while tracking because of my earlier experiences in the same area when the tide was low.

Engagements are a two-way street. If I wanted to hear from my select population of horseshoe crabs, I’d have to pay attention to them. To put myself out there on the bottom where they were. I’d have to make room for their concerns in my agenda. To do that, I’d have to learn to think like horseshoe crabs think. To understand the motives that guided their travels.

Was that possible, or was that my conceit? Well, if I pushed myself, maybe I could do better. After all, I wasn’t tracking for my benefit but for theirs. I had their best interests at heart. Or so I told myself. I’m doing this for you, dear one. And for you, and for you.

I think what I was getting at was a sense of commitment. Not duty to my job, but commitment to another species entirely that happened to live near me. An outlying population of a species that humans could put at risk out of carelessness, out of not knowing where they were or what they needed to survive.

After all, for many years people had shoveled horseshoe crabs into piles to use as fertilizer. Or conch bait. Even some Native Americans put horseshoe crabs under the squash and corn they planted, sacrificing the crabs for the betterment of their crops.

But I felt moved to connect with the crabs I was tracking, to help them thrive. As they had thrived for almost half-a-billion years on their own without my caring assistance. I felt an intimate kinship with horseshoe crabs, and admired the beauty and graceful functionality of their bodies. They can swim legs-down or legs-up, pushing ahead by pumping their gills back and forth. They can walk on the bottom, dig in muddy or sandy sediments, eat bountiful small mollusks, and fight infection with copper-based blood that congeals to heal wounds. They are proven survivors adapted to estuary habitats, largely unchanged for some 400 million years.

My mind goes out to horseshoe crabs, and every sighting thrills me head-to-toe. Being of such ancient design and so beautiful, they have an undying claim on my attention. I am caught in the spell of their attractiveness, and because I will never be able to understand them, there will always be that discrepancy urging me on to further engagements with members of their august species.

I respond by being with them and interacting however I can: tracking their travels, monitoring their breeding populations, photographing them, making PowerPoint presentations to sensitize others to their presence among us, sharing my respect and enthusiasm. I have an extensive library on horseshoe crabs, and samples of their shed shells on the shelves and walls in my apartment. I surround my nest with reminders that they exist in my presence.

Because of my several engagements with them, they have become fixtures in my daily life. And because of the incongruity with other features of my experience, they introduce a sense of discrepancy or discontinuity that prods my consciousness into full wakefulness so that I pay attention to their tenuous placement in the modern world.

That alerting discrepancy makes all the difference in my including horseshoe crabs in the scope of my daily concern and attention. That is why I have tracked them, read about them, traced their line of descent from trilobites, and photograph them every chance I get. Discrepancy is the spark that ignites into allure, inviting me out of my sheltered mind into the world. Even if I am not very good at tracking horseshoe crabs, I have felt compelled to improve.

Horseshoe crabs and eelgrass meadows call me in that way, as do hermit thrushes, song sparrows, fairy webs, and old man’s beard. It isn’t what I understand that makes my world; it’s what I don’t know because it is just beyond my reach. Without novelty, beauty, allure, disparity, and surprise, engagement reduces to habit, and mindless habits eat away the wonder of being alive and alert to discrepancy.

In a very real sense, I am possessed by horseshoe crabs, and as a result, have become possessive of them in return. The root of ownership is in just that sense of possession through engagement. Engagement makes a claim on my attention. Engagement works both ways. I “own” what I engage with, and it owns my interest and attention.

The circle of engagement is complete. Perception leads to action leads to engagement leads back to perception. I have earlier compared that situation to the image of the ancient serpent Uroborus biting its own tail. The point being that such gripping engagement unites its parts into a unitary whole.

Devoted engagement brings its separate elements together into a single event. I am part of horseshoe crab existence in Taunton Bay by tracking their every move; they, in turn, become an integral part of my experience by changing the mind at the core of my being.

No wonder we get possessive of who or what we engage with. Our experience binds us together, and our experience becomes part of our minds, enriching us, making us part of a larger whole. As integral parts of my experience in nature, horseshoe crabs become aspects of my identity. Together, in my mind, we become joined together as an item. We are openly engaged, with all the emotional attachment that implies.

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.

 

Without apology, I can truly state that I am the world’s leading expert on the mental goings-on within my personal black box according to the perspectives provided by my own mind from inside that box. You can make the same claim for yourself.

Other than by my personal understanding as based on my reading in psychology and neuroscience, I have no authority to speak about events taking place on a neurochemical level in any brain whatsoever.

Brain is implicit in mind at every stage of engagement. So too is the perceptual energy flowing through pathways within the brain, energy that reflects its spatial and temporal organization upon being translated into neural terms by our body’s sensory receptors.

Though my view of these processes has been formed during a long course of self-reflection, I generalize here by writing variously in reference to “I,” “you,” and “we” as if I were intimately acquainted with mental events in everyone’s brain (including yours). I do this to encourage readers to take part in the mental exercise I am performing on myself, so to offer other wayfarers an opportunity for self-discovery in light of their own experience. Feel free to modify my offer as you see fit so that your findings are your own.

Personal memory plays in the background of every engagement as called for by the different situations and patterns of stimulation we encounter. This provides a backstory that helps us translate what is happening into the familiar terms of our mental understanding.

The plot runs like this: starting with arousal so that memory is poised to entertain signals stirred by our readiness to pay attention, an inner sense of the current situation we are dealing with focuses expectancy on what is likely to happen.

What we notice in particular is deviations from, or exceptions to, our expectancies. Novel features catch our attention because they have much to tell us in relation to the pattern of what we expected to find, which instantly becomes background to what actually strikes our senses.

Looking up from a hospital bed (where I was having stitches put in my hand after a recent fall on slippery shoreline rocks), I noticed, not the pattern of white netting that attached the curtain around my bed to a track in the ceiling, but the one-inch hole in that netting that formed a black exception to the white regularity of that grid of fibers.

Attention is drawn to the buzzing fly that is a conspicuous exception to the silence around us, to the lightning striking out of dark clouds, to the silhouette of the sole sandpiper running along the tideline, to the stain on the white tablecloth, the cough arising from a rapt audience, the new rattle in our car, and so on.

Expectancy establishes the pattern of what we are used to seeing; attention rushes in to focus on particular details that stand out against the background of those expectations.