When I read about school committees cutting music, art, sports, and skill-building programs to make room for more math and science classes, I groan inwardly at the thought of how we teach our kids to live conceptual lives in a conceptualized world, as if the world of detailed sensory-motor experience didn’t matter or even exist. As if test scores and right answers are the measures of a good education, not experience, engagement, fascination, or enjoyment.

We teach our kids to “know” what a small, select segment of the adult population already knows, not to lead their own lives and draw their own conclusions from their streams of unique experience. We train for entry-level jobs in favored industries as if we could tell the future, not for leading a life in unpredictable times, which would be closer to what is likely to happen. As once we trained farm girls to tend whirling spindles in textile mills through New England, jobs that no longer exist because we have automated them and shipped them overseas.

This is exactly parallel to our reaching out to new experience from the vantage of where we’ve already been, rather than taking pains to explore what is presently before us. Projecting our remembrances onto the now, seeing in terms of the past—how does that serve as adequate preparation for welcoming a future we cannot predict in advance?

We know that Steve Jobs would have been a misfit in the days of James Watt, Thomas Edison, or Henry Ford. We need to help our children live in a world we cannot see from where we stand today. The task facing every generation is to learn to be open to possibilities raised by novel situations, today and forever.

If we insist on clamping what we already know now onto the minds of the young, condemning them to relive the lives their teachers have already lived, how are they going to find the essential freedom, imagination, skills, and curiosity to lead lives of their own in their own times?

In truth, education must allow for a high degree of uncertainty in how it is to be put to use. Its goal must ever be teaching the young to experience and to think for themselves in the many unknown situations they will surely face. Some of those situations will be similar to the ones we have known, but they will also differ in many respects.

Heading into the unknown with resources that can be brought to bear no matter what, that is the gift of the true education we owe to our children. Making them into copies of employees we need today in our workplaces—that condemns them to a life of frustration and inadequacy in falling short of becoming their own unique selves.

 

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“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.

 

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.

I wasn’t there ten-to-five-thousand years ago, but my ancestors were, and so were yours. All looking up, following the sky drama at night, much as some of us today follow the soaps on daytime TV. The serial motions and relationships between sun, moon, stars, planets, meteors, comets and other celestial lights above the local horizon fascinated the eyes of ancient peoples wherever they stood in awe looking up at the glory of the heavens, wanting to know how it would all turn out and how it might affect the affairs of those in the audience down below.

The procession and wandering of those heavenly lights made a strong impression on everyone who watched them. Patterns were there, and deviations, and thrills, shocks, surprises, and discoveries. Eclipses of sun and moon! Shooting stars! Comets from nowhere that seemed so foreboding! Pure salience without substance, notable, yet beyond human influence. Surely they were signs meant for human appreciation—why else would they be so conspicuous at night when people couldn’t work? They were telling us something, if only we could make out what it was.

What a situation to be in! To be gripped by such a show for hours on end without having any idea what it meant. It was all so glorious and compelling, so secret and mysterious. We—our ancestors—were hooked, engaged by the wheeling display of sensory impressions, yet were stymied in having our yearning to be in on the program rebuffed, our desire to understand unrequited.

Which was a setup for us to stretch our imaginations skyward in scripting a plot that would answer every point of curiosity by creating a situation we would be familiar with in meeting our desire to understand what it all meant to us in daily life.

It was like translating a text in an unknown language by writing down what we wished it would say. We just made the whole thing up, projecting our scenario onto the cosmos, having it say what we would say for ourselves, and calling it the order of the universe. Over thousands of years, we leapt from understanding nothing to “understanding” everything, and called our insights the truth. In the process, we deputized a priesthood to administer the details of such a grand undertaking, and paid them with the firstlings of our fruits and flocks.

Our word divinity (along with Zeus, god, sky, and day) stems from the ancient root dyeu, meaning shining—the primary attribute of each member of the starry procession. To be divine (godly) is to radiate light into our minds so that we abruptly understand on faith what cannot be grasped through observation or experience. Which is what religion claims to do for those with feet of clay and eyes looking skyward. Think haloed saints and starry-eyed celebrities.

Since no culture can bear to discard an idea once entertained by one of its members, we now have any number of tax-free religions and political parties coexisting with astrology, astronomy, astrophysics, and cosmology, all such faiths and disciplines accounting for the human predicament of truly understanding very little with a variety of incompatible methods, terms, and institutions, the entire enterprise of culture vastly confusing the awful simplicity with which our ancestors gazed at the luminous wonders of the night sky.

So does it come to pass that ideas and situations in our minds come to dominate our engagements with one another and with our fragile and susceptible planet, which is why I keep posting to this blog on consciousness in hopes that, eventually, humanity will take collective responsibility for the mess it keeps making of its everyday affairs by looking inward to make sure it is on solid ground before acting in a world it cannot see clearly nor understand very well.

Yes, this is me talking. Y’rs as always, —Steve from Planet Earth

Copyright © 2012 by Steve Perrin

“The landscape is what you see from where you are.” Black Mountain poet Charles Olson said that. He was referring to the landscape of the mind. The world is what you see from where you’re at—i.e., where you are situated. I said words to that effect in my last post, also referring to the landscape of the mind.

Shifting from what we see to what we say, the landscape we speak of depends on where we are situated in our minds. Anything can be—and sooner-or-later will be—said, if we are in a place where we can say such a thing. But what about truth? Is it situational, too? If our words depend on where we are in the landscape of our minds, how can we tell if what we say is worth listening to, or even comes close to being true?

Politicians, for instance, are always in that place inside their heads where they are seeking to please voters and donors so they can get elected, or reelected. If it can be said, they will say it to get somebody’s money or vote. Political speech has to be set in the context of where the speaker is situated in his or her mind. So much for truth.

Poring over the deals made on Wall Street that brought on the Great Collapse of 2008, I conclude that bankers were so bent on making obscene profits that investments they offered to the public were toxic, and they knew it, but offered them just the same because they were insured against failure. And were backed by rating agencies, insurance companies, business schools, regulators, congressmen, and every other member of the ruling elite. So much for truth.

Penn State University was so bent on pleasing alums by winning every game that they created a situation in which a coach could molest little kids without censure. So much for truth.

Fox News, News of the Day, Disney, docudramas, theater, novels, businesses, corporations, public relations, advertising, celebrities, sports, blogs (including this one)—where, oh, where is truth as opposed to fantasy, entertainment, or opinion?

As always, truth is right next to beauty, in the mind of the beholder. That’s where you’ll find it, or more likely its surrogate, opinion. So don’t think too hard or too long. What’s true is that we can’t tell the difference between the two. It is true if you think so. Otherwise, not.

That’s the upshot of my findings after thirty years of study about how my mind works. Speech, perception, understanding—all situated in my unique mind, are necessarily subject to doubt because I’m trapped in my head and can’t get out. Truth is the name of a free-floating concept passed down by our culture, a word we are born to with a meaning we seek to discover ever after. Along with the meaning of justice, honor, freedom, objectivity, wisdom, and god. These are ideas in the mind never to be met face-to-face. What is truth? Where can we find it? Would we recognize it if we ran into it?

What I’m getting at is probably the most shocking thought I’ve ever had. All consciousness is subjective because situated in the fallible awareness of a mortal human being. We do the best we can, and can always try again until we run out of steam—those are our limits. If we don’t have to be right the first time, and successively closer approximations are allowed, we can make a stab, and always try to do better later on. But we shouldn’t obsess or wait too long. What’s true is we are suspended by a filament over a fiery pit, and that thread could part at any time. The one sure thing is that we will die, but we don’t know when. Beyond that, it’s all up for grabs—truth, justice, and the rest.

Given the world we live in, and the nature of our minds, this must be common knowledge. The evidence is everywhere around us: Assad killing his own people and claiming he’s not; the late Muammar Gaddafi, ditto; The U.S. invasion of Iraq on false pretenses; the way Wall Street does its business; the business of politics; the business of the news media; and on and on. If you’re literate and awake, you are familiar with the story.

Our engagements better be snappy or we won’t ever get to them. So we settle for less than perfection, which is our lot because it is the nature of our minds to look out from so small a sample of experience that we are almost totally deaf, dumb, and blind. We are well-advised to do the best we can with what we’ve got in the time allowed. It is highly improbable that we will ever do better than that. Humility is our lot, along with wonder, curiosity, fallibility, and far more than our share of pride in small undertakings.

Much of what passes for truth among us merely shows how finely we’ve been calibrated by our culture, so is not truly our doing. Each of us becomes a bearer of that culture, which we pass on to our children, as they will to theirs. Which is as true of our way of thinking as it is of our manner of dress, food preparation, speaking, getting around, playing, fighting, and so on. What we contribute is largely our urge to get and stay engaged with others as we learned to do in childhood, to be attentive, occupied, and busy one way or another. That’s what it takes to be human. We are the go-go species, always on the move, always up to something, always making beauty or trouble because both are situated in our heads.

As the thinker of these thoughts, I trust my creative imagination to forge a link between the sensory impressions that give me a world and the subsequent actions I will take in adjusting to that world. Truth and opinion are both imaginative products of the situation I think I am in as derived from memories of my past experience. In essence, I make the connection from sensory suggestions of a world to my felt placement in that world, and on to appropriate action by trusting my imagination to come up with a precedent that will apply to this particular occasion.

There you have it: my ongoing loop of engagement with a world I cannot know for sure, relying on imagination as I go—with thoughts more revealing of my situation than the truth. Living ever in the moment, I stumble on, making myself happen through invention sparked by seemingly familiar sensory patterns. The main thing is to keep going from one engagement to the next. From one project or relationship to another. Until I can’t go on, so I’m done. Stymied. Finished. Until then, I do my best to stay situated and engaged, and to be blessed with enough judgment to tell truth from opinion.

I’m glad to be with you today. Y’r friend, –Steve

Reflection 292: Outlook

July 13, 2012

Copyright © 2012 by Steve Perrin

My last two posts have dealt with sensory impressions and their formation in our minds, together with photos illustrating specific visual impressions that have moved me in recent weeks—largely scenes from the natural world.

Today I move on to the impact such impressions have in centering my outlook on particular situations so that I find them meaningful in one way or another. Beyond forming an impression of what I’m facing in the world, that’s the second step I take in engaging my world—developing a sense of its significance to me at the moment so that I can take the third step of acting appropriately in light of my personal situation.

Sensory patterns don’t just come to us through our senses, we shape them to fit our fears, needs, and desires so we see what is important to us. That is, we are motivated to notice certain sensory details available to us and not others because we have found such details affecting in the past. That is what I mean by having an outlook—a certain take on the world because we are who we are by living out our past histories of experience.

After forging a sensory impression, we face the next challenge to our ongoing mental activity in determining what that hard-won pattern might signify or mean in terms of the situation we are engaged in at the moment. So what? we ask ourselves, what difference does it make?

Our sense of being in a situation is based on the positive and negative feelings the pattern stirs up in us, together with the biological values we put into play, and the contribution of memory in recognizing (reaching out to and finding familiar) the pattern before us—all adding to a felt understanding of the situation we are facing as based on our sensory impressions at the time.

Sensory patterns demand to be interpreted as examples of this or that type of experience. We don’t experience the shape or nature of a duck, say, so much as the concrete duckness of a duck. If it looks like a duck, walks like a duck, quacks like a duck, surely it is a duck and nothing that merely resembles a duck (unless it is a decoy, model, or representation, in which case it is something other than what it might seem at first glance).

Outlooks and situations resolve all such considerations by combining them into an understanding of what-is-ness and how-ness and why-ness that includes both the pattern and the perceiver so that their relationship is patently clear and understood as meaningful and significant to the one particular person who is moved to pay attention for reasons of her own because she is who she is.

The pattern emerges within a situation as not just a collection of individual details so much as the inherent relationship between those details (including the beholder’s personal history) so that the situation is grasped and understood as a dynamic engagement pointing the way to appropriate action. If it’s a duck, shoot it; throw it a crust of bread; make sympathetic quacking sounds; point your finger and say, “Oh, look, there’s a duck.”

In my last post (Reflection 291: In the Beginning) I included a photo of a squid. Upon seeing it I instantly realized that, dead or alive, it had been stranded atop a ledge at the last high tide, and would soon be eaten by the first shoreline scavenger who came by—eagle, crow, fox—and if I wanted a photo to add to my collection of life in the bay, I had to make it there and then while the pattern of its pigmentation was still intact. Which I did.

Situations as we perceive them are at the core of our looping engagements with the world. Given our individual outlooks, they are the best we can do in figuring out what sort of world we are facing right now. We receive energy from that world, true, but not the world itself. Based on our habits, expectations, and experience, we piece together one version of all possible worlds, and for the moment, that is the operative reality within which we are to do our stuff.

Situations are what we are able to make of sensory impressions as fleshed-out with our feelings, values, memories, and understandings of what sort of a scene we are likely to be facing. Always, always, always, situations reflect our understanding of what we have gotten ourselves into because they are centered on our personal experience and the outlook we have earned through enduring a lifetime of hard knocks.

Regarding the loops of personal engagement we experience in living our lives, our first task is to form a sensory impression of the world based on our expectations, arousal, interests, attention, and need for clarity at a level of sensory detail. Then a second task is to combine our feelings, values, and understandings into a situation that would make the sensory pattern we come up with meaningful in light of the lives we have lived up to now. Setting up a third stage of our looping engagement in which to act appropriately within the situation we have constructed for ourselves out of bits and pieces of the lives that have gotten us this far.

Round and round we go, engaging first one situation then another, always striving, always learning, always trusting memory and imagination to show us the way. Forming clear sensory patterns, putting them in the context of plausible situations, then acting as we are moved and have the opportunity to do, so advancing on to the next round of our engagement, and hopefully the round after that, making ourselves happen in the world in response to the flow of energies impinging upon us from the world.

So does life, as I see it, flow on. That’s it for now. As ever, y’r friend, –Steve

Copyright 2012 by Steve Perrin.

The art of introspection is in watching what you pay attention to in engaging your sensory impressions. In becoming conscious of the streaming process of ongoing engagement itself, your mind shifts it’s focus from events assumed to take place outside of yourself to processes going on in your head, the true home of your awareness.

Abruptly, you become aware of elements of consciousness you may have missed before by underplaying them as if they could be taken for granted. By following your own mental engagements as they happen, you immediately see that feelings accompany them at every stage of their development. And not only feelings, but values, memories, expectancies, interpretations of sensory impressions, all leading to an understanding of what a given stage of engagement might mean in light of previous episodes of experience.

The thing to remember is that we make ourselves happen as we do; the root of our behavior is inside each one of us, not in the world. We are responsible for directing and shaping our personal attention, which in turn leads to awareness and subsequent action.

Consciousness is the panorama of what’s going on in our heads from moment to moment. Introspection is our personal visit to that panorama here and now.

Elements that can be depicted in that panorama include personal expectancies contributed by memory, sensory impressions (sights, sounds, smells, tastes, touches, aches, and bodily positions), interpretations of sensory impressions, values, positive and negative feelings, hopes, understanding of what’s going on, dreams, thoughts, imaginings, and so on. A lot is passing through our minds at any particular time, all available to scrutiny through personal introspection if we will but engage ourselves.

The reason we often play down all this mental activity (as if it weren’t taking place) may be that no one else can be aware of it because they’re so distracted by their own mental panorama that they seldom think to inquire how it’s going with us. So we tend to dismiss our own inner life as being trivial and unworthy of notice when, in fact, it’s the core of our existential being.

Introspection is all about acknowledging the unique mental life at the heart of our outward and physical presence in the world.

Copyright © 2012 by Steve Perrin

The thrust of consciousness is action in keeping with our personal memories, feelings, values, and concerns.        –myndloop.com

Consciousness is given us to achieve actions in the world that are appropriate to the situation we are in at the time, which we then adjust to the time after that, and the one after that, . . . after that. Which is far more complicated than simultaneous hand-eye coordination in being sequential for the duration of our individual lives. Consciousness evolves from one stage to the next, which points to the key role that memory plays as the platform on which each successive moment of consciousness is based—producing our respective streams of consciousness.

Without having a ready reference to each preceding moment, we could not enjoy the benefits of building a future for ourselves because we would forget where we were in the process and where we were heading. Resulting in the end of consciousness as we know it.

Yesterday I spent time on an island on the coast of Maine where I engaged with loons (which I both saw and heard), hermit thrushes and song sparrows (which I heard only), and an immature bald eagle (which I saw only). I say I engaged with these birds because my separate moments of attention built instant-by-instant across spans of up to thirty minutes. Without memory, I would never have achieved such enduring levels of engaged consciousness.

These engagements included not only the sensory impressions I formed one after another as the loons—there were five of them—called and moved about, but my interpretations of those sensory images as well, along with my understanding of loon behavior, the feelings aroused by that behavior, and my actions in raising, lowering, focusing, and sharing my binoculars with my companion.

I watched two loons circling each other, then diving, while a third loon farther off hooted, then ran across the water (I could hear the pat-pat-pat) leaving a wake of white splashes behind it for several hundred feet. A fourth loon called in the distance, and somewhat later a fifth loon surfaced after a long dive. All on an incoming tide bringing herring and other delectables into the bay. I’d say a good time was had by the parties engaged, including me. Which applies equally to the separate incidents with song sparrow, hermit thrush, and eagle.

Consciousness results from the application of personal attention to these kinds of events over time. Each incident flows from a commitment of attention for the duration of a particular engage-ment. This happens, then this, and then this. So consciousness emerges as a succession of memorable moments. Or, put differently, without memory we would dwell in a fog of disjointed events vanishing into emptiness inhabited only by simultaneous yearning and profound sense of loss, though we’ll never recall what it was that we lost.

All of which leads up to the dream I woke up from this morning. The imagery was not of birds but of some kind of performance I was involved in. A group of us was to deliver a recitation before a dignified audience in what seemed to be a structure such as a church or library. The issue being that I hadn’t memorized my part, and wasn’t sure if I could find it written out somewhere, though I suspected the best place to look for it would be in my room. Which I thought was in a large brick building, but I couldn’t find it anywhere. I wasn’t dressed for the presentation, so was wandering along city streets, trying to get a glimpse of where I lived. I wanted to tell the man in charge of the performance that I was not prepared because I couldn’t find my script or my clothes, but I couldn’t find him. In the dream I was in that stupor resulting from not being engaged with anything. All I had were yearnings I could not direct or fulfill.

Lying in bed, I thought this is what H.M. must have felt like because his anterograde amnesia deprived him of the ability to form new memories after a brain operation to lessen the effect of severe epileptic fits. He was much researched and written-up in the second half of the twentieth century, and you couldn’t study psychology without coming across the story of H.M. He retained memories from before the operation, but was unable to form new memories after that event. He’d go out for a walk, and couldn’t remember where he was going, or where “back” was where he’d started out from.

That was my situation in my dream. I’d lost the ability to form new memories, so wafted about in a fog of uncertain yearnings, feeling terrible the whole time because I knew I was supposed to be doing something but wasn’t sure what it was or how to do it. If being crazy means losing your mind, I was dream crazy in having no way to find the mind and sense of engagement I once possessed but had no way to retrieve. Leaving me wandering around feeling awful among others who seemed filled with purpose.

That’s what my unconscious mind does with my preoccupation with loops of engagement as the source of conscious meaning in my life. The dream was apparently based on my participation in two evenings of PetchaKutcha at Colby College in Waterville, Maine. That’s the connection I made when I woke up. PetchaKutcha (meaning “blink of an eye” in Japanese) consist of twenty slides, each on the screen for twenty seconds, amounting to a presentation lasting six minutes and forty seconds. End of show; on to the next.

On the island surrounded by loons, I’d tried to download a video of my performance in Waterville a year ago onto my iPad, but could only get the twenty slides I showed without the track of what I’d said. That disjointed engagement fed into my growing understanding of how loops of engagement give birth to consciousness, providing a classic illustration of the chaos resulting from not being able to remember, forestalling the possibility of engagement.

The loons, download attempt, PetchaKucha, and concern with conscious engagements all blended into a nightmare in which I lived the agony of being in a coma incapable of sustaining consciousness, along with a pinch of dread at the fear of dying before I finish my work. That is the space in which I live these days, the space into which loons and PetchaKutcha emerge as milestones marking the winding-down of a life devoted to understanding consciousness through self-reflection.

Does it matter? It does to me. I believe that loops of conscious engagement offer a way of understanding why our relationships get so garbled as they often do, leading to conflict and often violent reactions.

America’s disastrous military engagements in Iraq and Afghanistan, for instance, stem from our then leaders’ loops of engagement with what they dubbed “terrorists”—as if a roving band of disgruntled youths sprang up from nowhere like so many mice from old rags with the aim of bringing our civilization down without cause. Indeed, there was cause, but we could not entertain it because we exhibited no curiosity in resorting to blaming that band and their leaders as the original cause of our troubles without seeking out the underlying cause that motivated them. Which in fact extends back to the conduct of American military and industrial personnel in Saudi Arabia, personnel lacking the sensitivity and imagination to anticipate the effect of their carefree dress and behavior on people of another civilization centered on modesty and mutual respect.

The error on both sides was in resorting to violence, which we should know by now is never a solution. Leaving us living in our dreams, disgruntled, frustrated, looking for ways to destroy the other for their presumptions. So it goes, loops of hurt and fury instead of understanding and engagement. Instead of learning from our experience, we perpetrate further damage on our enemies as if they were always wrong and we always right instead of taking responsibility for engaging as equals out of mutual respect.

That, in short, is what I’m up to—trying to promote effective engagements appropriate to our true situation on a planet with low tolerance for chaos, aggression, and unexamined awareness.

The way out of this endless cycle? Checking on our engagements through careful scrutiny of our personal motivations and behaviors. It’s up to each of us individually lest our leaders betray us on their own authority and botch the engagements we carefully build up over a lifetime.

That’s where I’m at; where are you? Y’r friend, –Steve

 

Copyright © 2012 by Steve Perrin

I have mud on my boots. On my pants. On my jacket. On my hands. Today, I know about mud because yesterday I put in a new mooring for my rowboat in Muddy Cove. The chain on the old mooring was worn, so I had to replace it, along with all the shackles that hold it together, and the buoy I attach my outhaul system to. Now that the job is done, I can stand on the shore and pull on a rope and have my boat out on the water dutifully respond to my will.

Here’s a photo of my boat at high tide.

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And here’s Muddy Cove at low tide yesterday, with my bootprints in the mud.

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The white buoy is the new one; the muddy one farther out is the old one I couldn’t undo the shackle on.

Trying to undo rusty shackles left in the mud for five years is hard because I couldn’t see what I was trying to do. The pins had been wired so they wouldn’t loosen up on their own. Using the braille method, I tried to cut the wire, and finally twisted it off, but then couldn’t turn the pin which was rusted fast. So I left the old buoy for another day when I have a hacksaw in hand.

It’s not only that I couldn’t see what I was working on, but moving around in the mud was so hard that I really had to exert myself to do the simplest thing. Shifting one foot took both concentration and strength because in lifting my boot, I was really lifting a huge clot of mud stuck to it by the vacuum hermetically binding me to the medium I was walking in. At each step I had to twist my heel sideways to unscrew myself from the gunk underfoot.

Being both functionally blind and barely able to move, I found it a tough job. But it had to be done, so I applied my full awareness to the task and eventually got it done to the best of my abilities under the circumstances. Such is consciousness. When the going gets tough, the tough grow determined and deliberate in paying particular attention to their engagements.

The point I want to make is metaphorical, so I won’t labor over the image any more than I already have. Consciousness is achieved through great personal effort. We have to put ourselves out in order to perform meaningful actions in the world—which often prove muddier than we imagined they could be. Expressing ourselves through appropriate engagements with our surroundings takes our best effort.

Yes, there are two kinds of people, those with open minds willing to do the work, and those with closed minds who know the right answer beforehand and go through the motions of applying rote solutions to complex situations.

We achieve alignment (or syzygy) between our sensory impressions, our understanding of a situation, and the actions through which we apply ourselves in solving life’s problems—we reach that desirable state only through sustained application of our mental capacities to work toward creative solutions using every skill we possess.

The alternative is to lay rote or ideological “solutions” onto novel situations so we can take credit for trying, at least, if not succeeding in settling one issue or another. The various peoples of the book do this all the time like so many missionaries citing chapter and verse as if every problem had been solved once and for all in days long before any of us were born, or the situations we face came to the fore. But memorized answers are often wide of the mark when applied to the modern circumstances of our lives.

“Go forth and multiply” is no solution to problems raised by there being too many of us living too high on the hog for too long a time at too great a rate of consumption. Mouthing the old words leaves us where we were in the old days, when what we need is solutions to the problems of today.

Old ways of doing things tend to muddy the waters when we are faced with novel situations. Only through application of creative consciousness taking modern circumstances into account can we see clearly toward a viable future. Habitual or outdated solutions to problems in business, finance, politics, religion, education, and other fields of endeavor are often no match for problems we fail to anticipate because our attention has been diverted in the meantime.

The Arab Spring and Occupy movement of 2011 were conducted by citizens rising to full consciousness and seeing the world in a new light. Seeing problems where others saw only business as usual, things as they should be.

Supple exercise of full consciousness is the only way to keep abreast of the times as they evolve into a slew of altogether new situations. If unable to walk on water, we must develop skills, attitudes, and strengths for braving the mud when we need to.

Ironically, schools teach only solutions to old problems, those that teachers can understand because they have lived through them. Formal education teaches to the past. It is in the experiential grasp of the students themselves that new learning should be sought.

I advocate for introspection and self-reflection as guides to the future. That’s why I am writing this blog. Which is much like walking through mud, but I see no other way because firmer ground lies on the far side of our current understanding of ourselves. If we don’t face into our own minds and experience, who indeed has the credentials for leading us into the future? Who else will place the buoys we need to moor ourselves to?

Striving, always striving ahead—that’s what it takes. Nothing less than our full, conscious attention. We are the ones we’ve been waiting for. I say, let’s do it. As ever, y’r friend, –Steve

Copyright © 2012 by Steve Perrin

Everyone is fascinated, captivated, enthralled by the short, happy life of the Titanic, and the story of its maiden (and only) voyage that ended 100 years ago yesterday. Yes, this is the story of great myths, literature, drama. And underneath such symbolic treatments, it is the story of how we are called to consciousness by emergency situations.

Think of Russian sailors trapped in the hull of a sunken nuclear submarine. Think of the Apollo 13 astronauts. Think of coal miners sealed deep underground. Think of bungee jumpers, gamblers, tightrope walkers, and entrepreneurs who profit by taking personal risks. Even pornography horrifies-fascinates us in going beyond anything we can conceive of in our own erotic relationships.

By imaginatively putting ourselves in situations others have faced, we stand to learn how to conduct ourselves when our turn comes to meet the challenge of severe adversity. This is not an effort in logical planning, it is wholly intuitive in expanding our awareness of fight-or-flight opportunities. The wise take note, the careless gape and pass on. In any event, none of us can anticipate what will bring us down in the end.

From my point of view, the sinking of the Titanic illustrates the end of the supposed world order as we know it. We feel compelled to search for some survival advantage to take from the experience of others engaged in such an event. Why else are we given a capacity for consciousness other than to learn such lessons, so to apply them to our own advantage when the time comes?

What is it that arouses us in times of disaster but the disparity or discord between what we desire and what actually happens? It is in that gap that we come to consciousness to grapple with the difference between the best of times and the worst of times. We engage, that is, for the deepest of values—to survive under life-changing situations.

And in everyday life, we are aroused precisely by those extreme situations that are worse than bad or else better than good—putting us beyond the limits of our personal experience that we may transcend our own limitations and thrive under circumstances we have never known or imagined up till now.

In personal consciousness, each of us has a means for transcending our historical life experience in order to survive under the altered circumstances the future will inevitably present to us. We can either bull our way through on the basis of what we already know or believe—or we can incorporate new learning into our repertory of understanding, and so grow larger and more experienced with a greater probability of surviving in the face of unknown challenges ahead.

The sinking of the Titanic is, for each of us, a warning of what may lie before us. Intuition draws us to that incident so that we may learn from it how to cope with similar disasters in which we may be personally involved. Its fascination is not with the fate of those others, whether on the bridge or in first-class or steerage, but with our own personal fate should we ever collide with an iceberg in the North Atlantic—or the personal equivalent of such a disaster when we foolishly place our trust in the unsinkability of our first-person, singular and most precious self.

An alternative to developing such an emergency strategy is to attempt to forestall the future by building fortifications around our respective castles or installing backyard bomb shelters, accruing an arsenal of weapons, or hoarding vast stores of wealth instead of building life-enhancing and life-saving skills we can take with us wherever we go. Aleric took Rome because someone left the back gate open, rendering the city’s massive walls a monument to pride and forlorn hope.

In CONSCIOUSNESS: The BOOK, I offer the image of a helmsman steering his way through fog “by the deviance of his compass needle from his charted course. His mindfulness of that error allows him to turn the wheel to port or starboard to counter the error at each moment as he goes. In that simple image I discover the rise of William James’ stream of consciousness, what others see as successive instants of working memory, and I see as my ongoing loop of conscious engagement” (p. 129).

Consciousness is given us as such a helmsman to guide us in response to the errors we make in judging where we are in relation to where we want to be. The fate of the Titanic illustrates the folly of deliberately cruising through a field of icebergs in the North Atlantic, relying wholly on faith in our carrier’s claim to being “unsinkable,” wagering good money on that claim. It is when we surrender sound conscious judgment to others that we become unduly vulnerable ourselves. That is the Titanic’s message to generations ever after that fatal event.

Every day is Celebrate Personal Consciousness Day that we may make good use of gifts we otherwise may take for granted—with dire results.

Check out the Website I made for my book, myndloop.com, buy the book at Lulu.com, read it, and do what you can to live a long life in full awareness of your inner workings and the fixes you can get into.

Thanks for stopping by. Y’rs truly, –Steve