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.

 

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.

 

 

Questions, always questions. Setting goals is absolutely no guarantee that we will fulfill our dreams. Hopes, wishes, desires, and all the rest are states of mind that spur us to action. Achieving goals requires that we have the right stuff to stand on the three-tiered podium at the end. At the Olympics, finishing fourth puts us at ground level. Merely making the effort doesn’t count. Medals are precious because rare; they aren’t given out for sweat, good intentions, excuses—for anything less than peak performance.

Mental events, too, are won by those who have bested their rivals. Striving, competition, cooperation, and comparison are at the heart of our mental activity, conscious selves, and engagements with the world. From observations of my own mind, I find that comparison between goal and attainment, or past and present achievement, generates a signal as an urge in my brain that sets a particular engagement off on yet another round of action, which triggers another round of both perception and judgment. That urge gradually fades only to the degree it brings me closer to my goal.

Our engagements driven by perception, judgment, and action are more circular than linear or, more accurately, helical like a coiled spring or inclined plane wrapped around a drill bit in that our rounds of mental exertion never bring us back to exactly where we were when we started, but somewhat displaced; hopefully, closer to our goal.

Mental comparisons generate signals in proportion to the disparity between goals and accomplishments, between where we were and where we are now, between remembrance and current perception.

With consciousness, the gap’s the thing. The gap between images cast on the retinas of our left and right eyes, giving rise to depth perception. Between sounds as heard by our left and right ears, producing a sense of distance and direction. Between motions in opposite directions as told by sensors in our left and right semicircular canals when we turn our heads, generating a sense of a counterbalance within a gravitational field so we don’t topple over.

Consciousness—what we are aware of—is not found in neural signals themselves but in the disparity, discontinuity, or discrepancy between two signals in, say, adjacent cortical columns. Comparison between columns creates a polarity or duality that tells the difference between them, consciousness residing precisely in that gap along a scale of what might be expected for good or for ill. For bringing us closer to or farther away from our goal.

So do we achieve tier one, two, or three on the podium, our reward for the care and effort we put into our engagements, the Olympic event we call life.

 

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.

Consciousness is told by the difference between a sink of dirty dishes and clean dishes put away. Between smooth and rumpled sheets. Between a world free of or ravaged by Ebola. Between doubt and certainty. Joy and sorrow. Hope and fear. Sickness and health. Win and lose. Full and empty.

Consciousness arises in the delta signal that tells the difference between old and new, good and bad, pain and pleasure, wisdom and ignorance. It flows from comparison between like and dislike, acceptable and unacceptable, music and noise, here and there, beauty and disarray.

I am speaking of the gap between two opposing states of awareness. Between expectancy and actuality, hill and hollow, straight and crooked, dead and alive, high and low, weak and strong, rich and poor, tall and short, you and me.

Memory allows us to make such comparisons so, strange as it seems, memory is essential to consciousness in the present moment. Memory is the background of all that happens in the now. Consciousness resides in the flow between states of mind as a virtual state in itself. It is there in the mind but not in the brain as a distinct entity. It is nothing you can point to but something you have to experience. Like the flow of a river or flight of a bird.

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.