446. For My Eyes Only

March 2, 2015

Early on in childhood, I developed a strong sense of what was family fare and what was not. If my parents had never mentioned or even alluded to such things, that made me hesitant to make the first move. If my brothers hadn’t spoken up, I was sure to keep mum. There was a strong code of forbidden topics based on conjectures that my parents didn’t want to hear about matters that they couldn’t or didn’t want to talk about. Mimicry was safe; taking the initiative was scary.

In my early years I had a recurring nightmare, which I never shared with anyone, not inside my family, not outside. It was my secret.

In the dream, I was slowly slipping toward a glow in the lower right of my visual field, the rest of the field being a featureless black. The thrust of the dream was a deep, rhythmical beat in the background, relentless force moving my body, and a strong sense of helplessness in resisting movement that was not of my doing. When I woke up, I would be crying.

I could feel that dream coming on with a kind of pressure and sense of dread. I suffered that same dream periodically (weekly, monthly?) for several years, then after some time I realized I wasn’t having it anymore, but could still recall the details and the intimate horror at will. What sticks with me today is the feeling of that dream coming on, my being helpless to stop it. Relentless dread, that’s what I felt. Of being in the power of something I couldn’t understand because it wasn’t like anything else in my experience.

Later, when I was several years older, I had another recurring nightmare that conveyed much the same feeling. I could tell from the opening scene how it would play out, and, again, I couldn’t stop it.

In that second dream, I would crawl under a brick wall at the back of a building into a dark room with a pitted, earthen floor. From that room I would go into the streets at night when everyone was asleep, enter the house of a stranger, go upstairs into a bedroom and kill (I’m not sure by what means) a sleeper picked at random. I escaped by retracing my route back into the earthen-floored room and then crawling under the wall into daylight.

Two feelings always accompanied that second dream: the horror of what I was about to do—and then actually did—and the fact that no one would ever know that I had done it. It was my guilty secret.

Once begun, both dreams unfurled true to form, and I could not avoid the fear of what was sure to happen. I mention the two dreams together because they both incited the same feeling of helplessness and horror in facing into their respective inevitabilities. I was trapped and couldn’t help myself.

Looking back, I see both dreams as variations on the same theme. It was their unwinding to a sure end that they had in common, though the details were very different. I see the first dream as meant for a younger audience, the second for an audience familiar with village life and language. In the first the action was done unto me; in the second I was the actor responsible for what I did.

I never told anyone in my family about such dreams. They were for my eyes only, a note passed from me to myself.

Writing this post brings to mind another secret from early adolescence that I kept from my family. When I was a sophomore in Seattle’s Roosevelt High School, we’d often drive into the Sierras on a Sunday afternoon to visit Snoqualmie Falls, Lake 22, or some other scenic destination. On one return trip on a sunny spring day, my father let me practice my driving skills on the winding, hilly road through the mountains, steep cliffs rising on the right, an abrupt chasm dropping beyond the roadside barrier on the far left side of the road.

I remember realizing in one instant as I drove that if I made an abrupt turn to the left and crashed through the steel barrier, my entire family, including two dogs in the back, would be wiped-out. It was a moment of realizing the responsibility I had in my hands in learning to drive. I was horrified to find myself thinking such a thought.

Needless to say I didn’t turn the wheel on impulse, but the thought did occur to me. I’ve been a reasonably competent driver ever since. But that sudden connection in the depths of my brain when I was fifteen was both a realization and a warning. Had I been more of a risk taker, I might have veered briefly into the other lane just to give my family a scare they would never forget, reminding them of the truely intimate power I held over their lives.

I see child soldiers and young terrorists armed with automatic weapons as succumbing to such impulses because the brutal climate in which they live paints pulling the trigger in a favorable light that differentiates heroes from losers. Getting past that point in my growing up has made all the difference. We see every day in the news stories about those who swing the other way when opportunity arises.

Perhaps unwittingly, families convey nonverbal attitudes that are the forge in which children are worked into the shapes they will assume as mature adults. As I said in my previous post, families matter. Children learn to talk in a family setting; they also learn when to stay silent.

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Wayfarers all, what are we but course correctors, ever vigilant to steer ourselves clear of reefs all around? To find our way through the uncharted seas ahead?

I view emotions as signaling the relative success (positive or negative, good or bad) of our engagements in furthering the journeys we are making for ourselves. Positive emotions such as joy, happiness, and a general well-being confirm our progress, while disorders of engagement as marked by frustration, anger, anxiety, grief, fear, and loneliness signal that we are lost to ourselves.

Emotions tell us how we are doing in making our rounds of engagement. We are fearful of or angry at those who thwart or interrupt us, and smile upon those who cooperate and help us on our way.

Darwin pointed to this duality of emotions at the core of our being:

As all men desire their own happiness, praise or blame is bestowed on actions and motives according as they lead to this end; as happiness is an essential part of the general good and the greatest-happiness principle indirectly serves as a nearly safe standard of right and wrong (Charles Darwin, The Descent of Man (New York: Merrill and Baker, n.d. [text c. 1974], page 699, my italics).

Better or worse, right or wrong, good or bad, happy or sad—so do we wend our way every day of our lives as guided by a compass of emotion that tells us whether we are on course or not toward the great end of happiness. Darwin wrote of the greatest-happiness principle as a moral force in the context of moral instincts and behavior, but I think the principle applies to our every engagement, with our innermost selves—the intelligence situated at the core of our being—as the judge of our relative failure or success.

What I am saying in this series of posts is that we steer our way through our life’s engagements by a compass that gauges the duality of our happiness and success on an emotional scale. And further, that the space between the poles of that duality is precisely what we are conscious of as we go along.

Nowhere is that duality more evident than in our dreams, which highlight our yearnings as regarded from a perspective of helpless inactivity imposed by sleep during which we cannot connect our intentions to our actions by any means. In that sense, dreams narrate the drama of our good intentions—and inevitable failure to go where we wish to go and do what we wish to do.

Here is the verbatim report of a dream I had on December 4, 2013, that reflects the state of my mind when my loops of engagement were stymied time after time, yet I remained at the helm with my raw feelings exposed. A wayfarer without navigation skills, I couldn’t engage in a meaningful way with the situation I found myself in, so things inevitably went from bad to worse.

I am hired to operate a big electronic machine. I have two assistants to work with me, but no one has explained how the machine works, so I feel strong pressure to explain it to my helpers, but I can’t live up to that responsibility. I have the machine moved outside to be where other machines are. I wait for instructions, which don’t come. To get back in the building, we all must climb up the forty-five-degree slope of the loading dock made of slippery metal. The climb is arduous. After climbing the ramp twice and slipping back, I say I won’t do it again, so am shown an alternate route up the back wall of a dark room where my superiors are meeting around a table. I hear my name mentioned as I scale the back wall to reach a narrow (horizontal) cupboard door at ceiling level that I must crawl through. It leads to a kitchen shelf in an adjoining room where two men are preparing food. I apologize for getting in their way, but imagine the meeting’s view of my legs sticking out of the narrow opening as I barely squeeze through it. I have a strong sense of the direction I must take to get back to work along a metal-lined walkway up a steep slope and along slippery rocks. I wear boots and keep slipping back, making no headway. I wake up while slipping back once again.

To me, that is a clear portrait of a mind that is driven to act, but can’t act effectively because it can’t engage in a meaningful exchange with significant features of its surroundings. That mind is my dream mind, pursuing happiness, but being thwarted at every turn because I have no means of enacting my intentions.

It is precisely the feel or texture of such thwarted adventures that fuels the bulk of my dreams. There is no on-the-spot revision or change of course, no learning from experience. Each such dream situation depicts a series of errors without correction. My dreams are one-dimensional, relentlessly rushing on from situation to situation without any course adjustments whatever.

I find myself navigating without judgment—because as helmsman, I can’t turn the wheel, or it is broken. It is always a relief to wake up and return to my senses, to effectively engage my world once again by getting up, washing my face, and performing such a simple task as making breakfast. That, I discover again and again, is a source of true happiness in being both conscious and in control of my destiny.

 

379. Wayfarer In a Black Box

December 10, 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

In the terminal moments of a dream I had on the morning of March 10, 2014, I found myself loaded with gear in both hands, struggling up a crowded escalator. I met a series of obstacles at every level, but could not find my way to a particular street, which I could reach by traveling north, while again and again I found myself forced to move off in other directions. I was determined to get to that street, but events in the dream kept turning me aside.

My awakening mind linked that dream to similar dreams of being thwarted in a lifelong series of similarly wayward excursions.

When fully awake, I had the distinct thought that such dreams are models of my mind, much as my mind, in turn, is a model of my world. It struck me that what evolution has wrought in the physical network of the brain is a tool to be used for modeling the world in navigational terms such as goals, journeys, routes, destinations, distances, maps, obstacles, distractions, pathways, landmarks, wayfaring, migrations, and so on.

We are primarily a mobile species that conducts its business by standing on two legs and walking toward specific destinations as goals. Our minds are made to support such a lifestyle. When immobilized and desensitized by sleep, what else would we dream about?

During breakfast I made four pages of notes in a steno pad detailing such a vision. It made sense at the time. It makes sense to me now. Animal life is . . . well, animated, always on the go. It moves about in search of food, water, mates, shelter, vantage points, and so on, as well as to avoid dangerous places, enemies, competitors, rivals, harsh conditions, and fearful situations.

Animals have appendages that enable them variously to crawl, creep, walk, run, gallop, scamper, hop, leap, fly, glide, slide, slither, float, drift, paddle, swim, dig roam, and explore their way about their habitats. They make or adopt paths, trails, routes, flyways, tunnels, home ranges, migrations, forays, escape holes, dens, nests, warrens, and other artifacts to accommodate their travels and activities.

To accomplish such feats, animals have brains that coordinate the movements of their bodies and appendages, enabling them to move about and thrive in the habitats to which they are suited. Minds, to the degree they have achieved them, allow those animals the spontaneous coordination of sensory inputs with motor outputs in the construction of engagements intended to fit individual animals to the environments and situations they encounter in the course of meeting their needs and desires, either instinctively or as informed by memory of such efforts in the past.

In the particular dream I mentioned at the start of this post, I could not coordinate my sensory impressions with any kind of meaningful action because sleep results from the uncoupling of just those two capacities, leaving my goals unsupported by any means of attaining them, which is my plight in a great many of my dreams. Leaving me laboring mightily to accomplish the impossible in being stymied in my search for a route leading where I want to go.

If wayfaring is the essence of consciousness, as I believe it to be, then dreams leave me in a present state without the backup of memory to remind me how I might have found my way in the past. In dreams, I am only half-human. I have access to selected desires and a rapid succession of images, with no way to join the two in a successful effort to do what I want to get done. My brain may be sufficiently awake to maintain my innards in a state of semi-automation, but my mind is left to twiddle its figurative thumbs for lack of any ability to move, depriving me of the essential quality of animate life.

 

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.

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

Reflection 328: Pandemic

October 5, 2012

Copyright © 2012 by Steve Perrin.

When overwhelmed by the wackiness of today’s “civilized” world, I often view my own consciousness as a theater of the absurd. What I see is one crank after another bantering about his eccentric view of the world being the one and only view that everyone else should take as a revelation of true reality. Tyrants do it, political leaders do it, holy men do it, as do newscasters, pundits, businessmen, bankers, economists, entertainers, making it seem that a tsunami of craziness has swept over us in the night, engulfing us in a flood of absurdity.

My defense against this flood is to look upon today’s reality as a kind of dream where the conventional social order is overturned in a wild Saturnalia of anything goes. If it can be thought, it will be thought by someone, somewhere. If it can be said, ditto. If it can be done, double ditto. Which is much like many of my nightmares, and creates a sense of frustration similar to how I, powerless in my sleep, react to those dreams.

Except the current pandemic of self-seeking wackiness is no dream. It is the most brutish kind of reality where every man squares off against all others for himself alone to see what he can get by forcing his burden of craziness on the rest of us.

The Supreme Court of the United States of America has assigned the status of personhood to corporations, thereby granting the right of free speech and free spending of money to for-profit entities out to make a killing from the rest of us mere mortals by transferring our personal wealth to their coffers as quickly as possible. That is no way to run a world, and since there’s only one world based on potential consciousness, that is no way to run this world, the one we’ve been born to.

I dream of the possibility of a world based on decency, courtesy, and respect—a world where citizens are civil one to another, and do not base their engagements solely on power and money, that is, on what they can get from others and from the Earth.

Our current passion for competition comes from a false reading of Darwin’s message. We are one human family among our fellow plants and animals, without whom we would not be here. We are not the top dog, the essential nation, the leader of all tribes. Above all, we are not “man-the-wise.” Whatever happened to empathy and humility? Where did we go wrong in selling our souls for (temporary) personal advantage?

We are a primate species, born of a long line of expert tree climbers and leapers, come down to earth, now risen up on two legs and looking for trouble, which we seem to thrive on. Yet we are all mortal beings, heading for certain illness and death, born of woman, conceived by a man and a woman, who were both conceived by male and female going back to the beginning of primate life. The lady in France who said (in French) “I am not a mammal” had it backwards. Because she worked for a company that made baby formula, she imagined herself as a superior being independent of her animal roots. In deep denial, she was being absurd. It is that fatuous quality that now defines us and sets us against who we truly are.

This year’s Republican presidential primary race pitted one candidate against all others, each making preposterous statements based on his or her personal life experience as if it was the basis of universal law. Personal conceit (which I see as a form of ignorance) mixed with a hunger for money ignites the absurdity I see all around us. A pandemic of absurdity, where no one has his feet on the ground but is issuing nonsense out of his mouth as if it came from the Delphic Oracle—from the Priestess herself. Or from Fox News, the Koch brothers, Karl Rove, some infallible Pope or Ayatollah—from ideologues to the Tenth Degree.

We have become the laughing stock of all species, or would be if we didn’t wreak so much waste, havoc, chaos, and misery in our wake. This is what the 13-billion-year history of the universe has brought us to? This has been our destiny all along?

Don’t you believe it! This current pandemic of absurdity is an anomaly, a product of personal avarice and lust for power, a temporary state of affairs brought on by a lapse of judgment in choosing our way in the world based on how we wish to engage one another, seeing others as dupes and fools, not our equals, not our Earthly brothers and sisters.

We are suffering through a breakdown in human engagement, a parody of personal virtue gone musty and rotten. We are using one another as personal property to be used, gutted, and discarded. This is the new slavery, the purchase and abuse of those thought to be lesser beings because of their relative poverty and weakness. Imagine the bundling of mortgages imposed on people who cannot afford the homes they buy because that intentionally unbearable debt adds up to big money to be claimed by those who see the total amount but not the people who owe it as if it were only money, not bundled human lives.

Where, oh where is civility? We are not here to be at our neighbors’ throats, or to do our worst, not our best. We are at the forefront of the history of the universe, ready to engage those who have come with us on the basis of our equality as living beings, not as dispensable victims. If I did not believe in civility, I would be embarrassed to be an American. Instead, I think we have only lost our way because of the worm of self-serving power and profit that has bored into our heads—and we can be healed and set right again in a New Age based on civil engagements that encourage decency, courtesy, and respect.

As it is, we are allowing ourselves and the Earth to be sold short of what we are truly worth—the only seat of consciousness that we have yet discovered—or are ever likely to discover—in the universe. If we keep on as we are going, where will we find the worthy examples to lead us back to our senses? Civility is fragile, the product of eons of collective respect, striving, and cooperation. Are we going to sit by and watch it be taken from us by a vain and wealthy elite that wants to run the world solely on its own terms? We deserve a better fate than that.

As I see it, the only alternative is for us to achieve the civility I am talking about by building it into the heart of our own lives and engagements, thereby refusing to go meekly along with the self-appointed elite, who are really the most forlorn, desperate, and pitiable caricatures of what humanity can be. What choice do we have but to remain staunchly ourselves?

Respectfully, y’r friend and brother, –Steve from Planet Earth

Reflection 327: Dream Talk

October 3, 2012

Copyright © 2012 by Steve Perrin

Where do words come from? We talk from the situation we are currently in—which shapes the vocabulary and syntax of the moment. And situations are the chief characteristics, not only of our wakeful moments, but also of our dreams. So when we part our lips to make sound gestures with minimum effort, in a sense we are speaking out of our dreams. Day dreams and night dreams—they are structured the same; it’s just that in one we can act and perceive, in the other we can’t.

Reveries (what we call daydreams) are a transitional stage of awareness in which we enter a kind of waking trance, neither perceiving nor moving while engaged entirely with our own thoughts. I remember watching a teacher of aesthetics stand apparently looking out the window for five minutes, but truly lost in his own thoughts, ignoring the class he was supposedly teaching. Then he snapped to, and out of the blue informed the class that he could go on indefinitely comparing and contrasting a cigarette with a piece of chalk. Was that what had held his attention for five minutes, that profound revelation? But here I am using that example thirty-two years later, so perhaps I learned something from his trance after all. He was dreaming, but was not asleep. I didn’t think in terms of situations at the time, but now I appreciate his distraction as an example of precisely what I am talking about in this post. My teacher was firmly situated in his thoughts, memories, and feelings, even though none of his students had an inkling what was on his mind until he spoke afterwards.

Situations are highly structured on three levels, the sensory, conceptual, and affective. The sensory level is based on impressions derived from ambient energy impinging on our receptive organs, more-or-less modified to emphasize qualities we recognize as being familiar because we have met them before. The conceptual level is draped over the sensory level by the meanings we assign to its various qualities, creating the illusion of sensory qualities and images being meaningful in themselves, even though they are fraught with our personal life experience. The affective level of a situation conveys how we feel about it in terms of our wellbeing at the time (generally expressed by such sounds as either “mMMm” or “yugk!”). If it promotes our subjective wellbeing we regard the situation in a positive light; if it degrades our wellbeing, we take it negatively. Either way, that affect spurs our engagement. If neither positive nor negative, we take a wait-and-see attitude and regard it as neutral.

Words, I now believe, flow from situations as we have put them together in our own minds by layering feelings onto meanings onto significant patterns of energy as translated into nerve impulses by our receptive sensory organs. It is the flow of those impulses through neural networks in our brains that generates what we experience as our unique conscious mind. Words are labels we have learned to put on recognizable arrangements of signals in our neural networks. The store of such labels we have available to us originated and developed in the linguistic culture we grew up in, but through selective use over many years we have adopted a personal lexicon from that store to be applied as serving a useful purpose in particular life situations.

We can assign various speech roles to different aspects of a particular situation. What we are attentive to serves as the subject of our thought on one or more of the three levels of situational structure—sensory, conceptual, affective—whichever combination is particularly salient or notable in our minds at the time. We use a verb to relate that subject to a particular object of significance, singling out the relationship between the two as worthy of notice and emphasis. We can qualify subject, verb, or object by inserting modifiers as suit our purposes on a particular occasion. And so on, the situation as we have constructed it in our minds serving as the deep structure giving rise to a particular utterance within a given occasion of special interest.

My situation right now is governed by my striving to put into words feelings and relationships I experience within myself in response to the question “Where do words come from?” with which I opened this post. It is something I feel and see within my mind more than something I know or have learned. I am in a situation of discovery more than of reliance on agreed-upon facts. There are no facts of life, only processes and events. I see dreams in my mind as represented by a horizontal squiggle cut off from the possibility of extension—of sensory input on one side or of physical action on the other. The dream is isolated between those two impossibilities, unable to act or be acted upon. 

Immediately above that dream line I see another squiggle representing a state of wakefulness with sensory reception and motor action restored as possibilities connected to my dream—now my waking—situation. Those revived connections on either side of my former dream situation make all the difference between being free and being trapped in my own mind. Free to receive sensory stimulation, free to act on the situation as I have constructed it from my mental raw materials. Open to the world on both sides, that now is the freedom of personal engagement with a world of my own choosing to which wakefulness invites me: freedom to write or speak, freedom to read or listen.

Between the upper and lower squiggles as I imagine them, my situated mind stays much the same. It’s just that all sorts of enticements, checks, and balances exist on the upper one to lessen my isolation so that I feel included as a member of the world at large, not confined to my own mental cell. The urge to speak takes on new meaning in the presence of possible hearers (or in this case, readers). In thinking, there’s only me, so I can easily get lost without anyone hailing me back. In acting on both the urges to speak and to listen, I discover that my felt situation corresponds to a world inhabited by others similar to myself with whom it is possible for me to freely interact. That, now, opens me to a new world of possibility for social engagement.

What an awkward way to talk about an experience that many people enjoy on an intimate level through personal engagement with others! We just open our mouths and words pour out, cock our ears and words pour in. Why make it sound so difficult?

But it wasn’t easy in the beginning when we first learned to talk, and spent many years expanding our vocabularies and understanding. That was hard work. And perhaps the most important work of our lives in learning to engage effectively with other unique people different from ourselves. On that extended stage, a great many things can go wrong so that our engagements get muddled, our situations made more difficult to figure out.

I will speak personally. My father’s mother died the day after giving birth to her only child. Who was to hold him? To nurse him? To instruct him by example in the ways of possible engagement? Of mimicking, of responding, of taking initiative, of smiling and cooing back? For whatever reason, many a child has wandered off at that vulnerable age and never had the privilege of experiencing the primal situations leading to exactly what I am talking about in this post because that situation was disrupted in his or her case, and s/he had to be rescued or else lost to the world. Think infants in orphanages receiving minimal care, surviving, but rarely engaging, barely being taught to engage. Living in a gray fog of neglect as a primal life situation. Think abandoned children, abused children, neglected children.

As I understand it, when an infant, my father was nursed for a time by another woman in town, and within a couple of years his father married his dead wife’s best friend, a widow with three children of her own, so domestic stability was somewhat preserved. He was lucky—and I and my two brothers are lucky. But even so. Even so, I wrote in 1973,

Laura Gale Perrin died the day after giving birth to her son, my father. He never knew her, his mother. I never knew him, my father. Will my sons ever know me? [The original of these lines appeared in a grid of eleven lines of eleven letters each (without spaces or punctuation), producing a cryptic 121-letter grid in Elite type meant to hold tight to the substance of what it was trying to say.]

I see a progression here from dream to waking situations, and then from from felt to expressed situations. So does the self learn to know itself in stages by reaching deep into the unknown to grasp what then becomes known. My inheritance has been an acute case of New England reserve that perversely whets my passion to recognize and unreservedly understand my own mind, in the process becoming the adult parent of myself.

So by facing into the dream and waking situations behind our speech do we become our own woman or man, mature individuals bent on improving upon the world to which we were born. Where do words come from but our efforts to surpass ourselves in giving voice to the situations we create as expressions of our own minds?

It takes a village to raise one child because no single exemplar can do the job. We need many models to learn how best to present and conduct ourselves in the countless situations we get into in the course of living a full life. That is, how to engage as who we are in the act of becoming more than we dream we can be. Self-transcendence is the name of that game, and we’ve been at it every day since birth, no matter how mean our origins, accepting challenges, not limitations—dreams, not so-called realities.

That is an example of what I mean by dream talk. Dipping deep into the well of what life has given us to improve our felt situations day-by-day, and keeping at it, year-by-year. In the process whetting our curiosity and will to surpass ourselves in improving our personal situations, and beyond that—the world of nature and its scion, humanity.

It all begins with a dream of what might be possible, and then giving expression to that dream by acting it out in broad daylight, serving as an example for others desiring to do the same.

Thanks for listening. I invite you to leave a note. As ever, I remain y’r friend and brother, –Steve from Planet Earth

Reflection 326: Dreamland

October 1, 2012

Copyright © 2012 by Steve Perrin.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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