424. Why Taunton Bay?

February 5, 2015

Why do members of a small, fringe band of horseshoe crabs live in cold, rocky Taunton Bay when they could be living it easy in Delaware Bay with its much warmer waters and sandy shores? Having monitored horseshoe crabs in Taunton Bay for several years, then witnessing the horde of breeding crabs in Delaware Bay in 2005, I couldn’t help asking that question.

 

Horseshoe Crabs in Delaware Bay

Breeding Horseshoe Crabs on the Warm, Sandy Shores of Delaware Bay

Or, put differently, what draws horseshoe crabs to Taunton Bay in the first place? Why are they here?

I’d lived as a guest of Bob and Mary McCormick on Butler Point for several years after leaving my camp on Burying Island, and laid out a monitoring site divided into 10-meter sectors that wrapped around a point of exposed granite ledge and boulders where horseshoe crabs faithfully came ashore to breed every spring when water temperature reached 56 degrees Fahrenheit (13 degrees Celsius). Patches of sand and gravel were far between around the point, yet that was the soil the crabs needed to lay their eggs. The rest was ledge and fields of glacially-rounded cobbles and boulders.

 

Ledges in Taunton Bay

Ledges and Boulders at the High Tide Line in Taunton Bay

A common saying has it that horseshoe crabs breed in the light of the full moon in May. If that is true, what is it about the full moon that brings them to shore? Could it be the extra light at night? The gravitational pull when moon, sun, and Earth are lined up in syzygy?

In Taunton Bay, breeding horseshoe crabs show up in the daytime at high tide. The shore is so treacherous, I’ve never checked for them at night. But that seems to rule out the light of the moon as the spark that sets off the breeding season. And at full moon, the tide is low at 6:00 a.m. and p.m., high at noon (and midnight), or an hour-and-a-half later in Taunton Bay due to the constriction at Tidal Falls.

 

High-tide line, Butler Point.

Rocky Shores of Butler Point Where Horseshoe Crabs Come to Breed.

It makes more sense to me that water temperature reaching the threshold of 56 degrees is what brings the crabs ashore to lay their eggs. And that the moon’s effect is in drawing an incoming tide over flats and rocks and ledges warmed by the morning sun, sharing the sun’s heat with the water as the tide rises, so warming the water to a maximum at high tide, when the crabs come ashore to breed for a period of a couple of hours.

In my thinking, breeding crabs are attracted to particular sites by the heat given off by sun-warmed ledges and boulders, then imparted to incoming tidal waters, and has nothing to do with the sparsity of suitable breeding habitat, which the crabs find by relentlessly searching and digging wherever they go along their favored breeding sites, no matter how ledgy and stony.

 

High Tide Line, Egypt Bay

Horseshoe Crabs Love the Warm Waters that Cover These Stones & Ledges.

Other horseshoe crab breeding sites in Maine feature sandier shores than does Taunton Bay, where the crabs are hardy enough to eke out a living under stern local conditions in spite of short summers, cold waters, and harsh habitats.

What Taunton Bay does have to offer is two shallow sub-embayments, Egypt Bay and Hog Bay, where incoming waters are warmed by sunlight falling on mudflats and ledges from low tide to high, briefly achieving warm conditions such as are a regular feature of Delaware Bay much farther south where millions of crabs breed on an annual basis.

 

Horseshoe crab breeding habitat, Taunton Bay

Horseshoe Crabs Eke Out the Gravel Between These Boulders & Ledges.

That is my hypothesis, achieved by observing and thinking about why horseshoe crabs have established an outlying population this far to the north of their usual spawning grounds across the world. I offer this as an example of my ongoing engagement with horseshoe crabs. They have established a beachhead in my consciousness, and I carry them everywhere I go, thinking about issues they raise on sleepless nights, dwelling on the predicaments they face, wondering why, against all odds, they cling to two exceptional habitat areas in Taunton Bay.

You might well ask, Who cares? I can only reply, I, for one. Because I engage horseshoe crabs on a daily basis, and have made them part of my life by paying attention to them for much of my time on this Earth. Our regular engagements become parts of our lives because so firmly rooted in our minds through our frequently acting and perceiving in unity.

By engaging, we make lives for ourselves. Those lives are what we are. Each different by nature and by passionate engagement. As we are expectant, observant, attentive, and active, so do we become. No two the same.

Me, I’m taken with horseshoe crabs, eelgrass, rockweed, deep woods, rowing, walking, hiking, and similar natural activities and engagements with my home planet. And now with consciousness as my basic tool for conducting those engagements. As you are taken by the aspects of that same planet as they affect you and draw out your lifetime engagements.

So are we all, products of the lives we actually lead, because those lives are in our minds to live out as we do. We can’t help it. That is our destiny. To be ourselves because it is beyond our abilities to be anyone else.

Advertisements

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

377. The World Inside-Out

December 8, 2014

In our heart of hearts, we dwell at the center of our respective little worlds. The same worlds we have painstakingly built for ourselves over the years. The worlds we wholly believe in because we live in a black box that would never lie to us. Or allow us to lie to ourselves. We have only the facts of our little life to go on, along with our little beliefs, our little experience, and our little openness to the world.

I carry on like this because I’m trying to point out that, for everyday purposes, our minds are poorly equipped to deal with delicate shades and subtleties. Our sensory systems substitute boldness for accuracy. Not better to see what is out there on the far side of our senses, but more to impose our grasp of such a world as conforms to our inner remembrance and belief—the doctrine by which we live.

Because we reach out of our black boxes with expectations driven by personal memory, we perceive the world inside-out, not outside-in.

That is, our engagements are more apt to be driven by what we already know than by questions, doubts, or uncertainties. Stuck in our ways, beliefs, and extreme convictions, we seem to be parodies of any thoughtful, curious, rational beings we might imagine. We are stuck in ways we have learned in the past, busily imposing that past on the present and future.

Our credentials stem from the fact that we have survived to this point, so must be doing something right. Let’s get this rig moving full-throttle ahead, back to the future, indeed.

That sketch of our minds is bothersome because so counter-intuitive. Is that the best we can do? Will our demise as the result of sectarian strife in a warming world be the monumental achievement we have been working toward all this time?

Not necessarily. We have other options. The obvious one is to become better acquainted with our minds in their respective black boxes so that our actions are governed by a truer understanding of how we bend the world to our will, with ever more dire consequences.

If we can trace our self-destructive behavior to our unwittingly self-centered attitude toward others and the world, then we may gradually come to see that same world as the source of all benefit on every level of our existence. Caring first for the natural, biological world that provides for us, and from which we derive our well-being, then we may find better ways to care for ourselves than taking what we want and running to get away with it.

Once we assume responsibility for the state of our sheltered minds, we discover the errors of our ways, not those of the world.

 

If mind is a collaborative function of brain, body, nature, culture, community, and family, what may not be obvious is that human consciousness is a largely edited version of both internal and external reality.

Our minds sharpen, clarify, emphasize, and inhibit as they go, creating models of the great world, but not an accurate rendition of that world itself. Evolution may have brought us this far by allowing us individual discretion, but the specific situations each person is born to are subject to unique, non-genetic influences that shape each life world in idiosyncratic fashion.

With the result that the world each of us lives in is unlike any other in finest detail. The more the brain sharpens and emphasizes the signals it processes (a necessity for survival based on fast and appropriate action), the less the inner world of awareness can be assumed to portray the world itself as it might exist on the far side of our senses.

Our minds leap the hurdle of non-representation by sampling our surroundings as often as possible through rapid deployment of as many loops of engagement as we can sustain on different levels of awareness. This allows each mind to update its input as frequently as it can, and so judge its situation and govern its behavior accordingly.

But such rapid sampling comes at the high cost of rendering a world as more of a précis than an accurate representation. We see what we see, and don’t what we don’t. To sense sharply and clearly means we see boldly and schematically. Our sensing becomes warped without our knowing because we see what we see so clearly that we take it as the true state of worldly affairs rather than our rash stab at portraying such a world.

We create a world that suits our purpose of the moment, which is all the more believable because memory recognizes that world not as it is but insofar as it conforms to our beliefs as based on personal experience. The world we are likely to find is the world we seek in keeping with our background of expectations.

That is, we see through the filter of the history behind us, making the now conform to the then out of habit rather than updating the past. We are gold standards unto ourselves so it makes sense to judge world situations by the performance of our own eyes (ears, nose, grasp, memory, and so on).

Successive approximation is the name of the game we play with our minds. Sometimes we are right on; other times close. Often we are dead wrong without a clue which way to turn. We muddle through, and if we are smart, learn from every engagement to do better.

 

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.

 

We live by setting goals and striving to achieve them.

Roughly speaking, our first life goal is to grow into competent human beings. Our second is to discover who we are and what we hope to accomplish. Our third to make a livelihood for ourselves by developing and practicing our skills. Our fourth to find a partner and establish a family. Our fifth to support the community that in turn supports us. Our sixth to reinvent ourselves in our maturity to fill the gaps we may have missed. Our seventh to go beyond what we have achieved to see just how far we can go before we die.

To live such a life, we set a series of goals, then strive to achieve them through a course of successive approximations. We probably won’t end each stage where we thought we would, but we’ll reach some equivalent we had not imagined for ourselves. We pull ourselves up and ahead by working as hard as we can, stage after stage, always within the situations we meet along the way. The steepness of our climb may vary, but we advance in proportion to the attention we focus on our personal journeys, and the effort we put into our daily engagements.

To achieve our grand life goals, we work toward lesser goals day-by-week-by-month-by-year-by-decade. Our days are largely consumed in setting and trying to meet the expectations we impose upon ourselves from morning to night: getting out of bed, taking a shower, getting dressed, fixing breakfast, getting kids off to school, going to work, making appointments, attending meetings, shopping, and so on.

Our daily routines are based on deciding on and then attaining the goals we set for ourselves on any given day as a matter of course. In this, we are primarily responsible to ourselves in conducting our life activities according to the master route map we have drawn up for living our lives, which in practical terms we live one step at a time.

Our life is our life, the one we have imagined for ourselves and then work to achieve. Lived not on some grand, idealistic scale, but worked out detail-by-detail in one project after another, all adding up to the life we actually live through a series of engagements to which we devote our attention and effort as best we can, hope after worry after wish after bias after desire after want after need after duty after whim after commitment after question after doubt after whatever motivates us at a  particular time and place.

So do we invent ourselves one step at a time, each slip, stride, leap, or shuffle adding to the journey of a lifetime.

 

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.

In novel situations, we lack preparation for what we are likely to perceive, so lack the proper orientation for making sense of what is to follow. We can be slow to catch on to what’s happening because perception has to start cold without a boost from memory providing glimpses of likely situations.

When Pierre Monteux premiered Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring on a French ballet program in 1913, the audience had never heard anything remotely like it, so was famously outraged at having sounds and rhythms they were not prepared for thrust upon them. They had no way of engaging such music, so rebelled against it because their expectations were thwarted and few could find a way into it, or let it into them. Now, a hundred years later, audiences seek out that same music because they find it so exciting.

We may be expert at seeing what we are trained or accustomed to see, but seeing the novel and unexpected means having to learn our way through solving problems by extensive training or trial and error, which takes careful attention, scrutiny, and double-checking our surmises. If we are lucky, we have been prepared by experience to be cautious in just such situations, to put ourselves out so we can take our environments in. Institutions and situations that prepare us for doing that make up the bulk of our educational and job-training systems.

 

“Reification” is a five-dollar word that means turning an idea in the mind into a material thing. The verbs “specify,” “objectify,” “incorporate,” “substantiate,” “materialize,” or “realize” might serve as well (though that’s not how we typically use them). In the case of misidentifying Fred, what I did in my mind was reify, “impersonate,” “incarnate,” “or embody” a stranger as my friend.

Watching plays, films, and TV serials, we believe in the characters so much that we forget they are actors playing roles scripted in advance. We are completely taken in, or rather, take ourselves in, wanting to believe in the plot as an actual event unfolding before our eyes. The reification of God from being a concept in the human mind to the so-called creator, prime mover, and ruler of the universe serves as the archest example of the elevation of an idea from subjective to objective status in the history of the world, which exhibits the power of the human imagination in believing what it chooses to believe.

We do not simply look at a scene and see what is laid out before our eyes. Perception is a creative act, a fitting-together of details into a pattern we are prepared to recognize. Prepared by having seen it before many times or accompanied by strong emotion so that we build pathways in our brains by strengthening the synapses that link them together to form a route blazed with recognizable features (color, size, shape, contour, motion, texture, location, etc.). If a particular array of features can be recalled as a unit, then we are likely to remember it when we meet it again. Expecting to see something in a certain locale, we open our minds to just that thing so we are more likely to see it when we come across something that might resemble it.

The key point is to have something in mind before we come across it, in mind as a particular structure within our neural network of interconnected neurons and cortical columns. Expectancy gives priority and ready access to just that mental structure, saving a huge amount of time and effort in suiting ourselves to our worldly environment and, conversely, that environment to us.

 

356. Believing Is Seeing

November 12, 2014

When my family moved to Seattle in late August of 1947, I was eager to see the Rocky Mountains for the first time. As we drove west through flatlands in eastern Colorado, I expectantly peered from the back seat through the windshield, but saw only low clouds blocking my view of any mountains. The clouds grew taller as we approached, and for half-an-hour I grew more desperate to view the Rockies. At last, when I began seeing trees and valleys among the clouds, I realized that I had seen the Rockies all along, but their being snow-covered in late August prevented me from recognizing what I was looking at. Had it been winter, I would have seen them sooner. My summer expectations got in the way of my seeing.

It’s not so much that seeing is believing as just the reverse: believing is seeing (or hearing). “It’s true if you think so,” says Italian dramatist Luigi Pirandello. We see “what our prejudices presume to be there,” says Thoreau. Travelers on Cape Cod once reported a black man holding a white man at knifepoint by the side of the road, a scene that turned out to be a reporter from a local radio station holding a microphone to the lips of a man he was interviewing. In going through old National Geographics from the nineteen-teens and twenties, I have come across photographs of bare-breasted African women nursing babies under the title, “Black Madonna,” suggesting a verbal veil of social acceptability to make the image suitable for a prudish and mostly White middle-class readership.