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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

17. Similarity/18. Dissimilarity

23. Agreement/24. Disagreement

27. Equality/28. Inequality

43. Junction/44. Disjunction

46. Coherence/47. Incoherence

58. Order/59. Disorder.

Many other headings are based on different roots:

50. Whole/51. Part

66. Beginning/67. End

102. Multitude/103. Fewness

123. Newness/124. Oldness

125. Morning/126. Evening

127. Youth/128. Age

140. Change/141. Permanence

159. Strength/160. Weakness

164. Producer/165. Destroyer

173. Violence/174. Moderation

210. Summit/211. Base

212. Verticality/213. Horizontality

234. Front/235. Rear

292. Arrival/293. Departure

298. Food/299. Excretion.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

To engage Peter Mark Roget’s mind as directly as possible, I sought as early an edition as I could afford of his Thesaurus, which turned out to be the 1933 American edition (as enlarged by his son, John Lewis Roget, and grandson, Samuel Romilly Roget).

Both editors had deep respect for their father’s/grandfather’s brainchild as realized in the editions he brought out between 1852 and the marked-up copy of the 1855 edition he left at his death in 1869. In effect, the 1933 American edition transports the reader into the mind of a man born in 1779 during the American Revolutionary War, enabling us to see how one man of those days went about sorting his “ideas,” “feelings,” “views,” “conceptions,” “emotions,” “thoughts,” and “sentiments” under the formal one-thousand numbered headings of his own devising.

My interest here is in the meanings of words as they spoke to Peter Mark Roget in his day and place (19th-century England). Collectively, those words map his semantic field into six grand Classes of meaning, further subdivided into twenty-four Sections, those Sections into 112 Subsections, in turn divided into 1,000 Headings containing word clusters made up of words and phrases with overlapping meanings. This four-tiered system of verbal classification furnishes, in Roget’s own words,

on every topic a copious store of words and phrases, adapted to express all the recognizable shades and modifications of the general idea under which those words and phrases are arranged.

In looking through those headings today, we can scan the logical structure of Roget’s mind as he experienced it in his own day. It is ironic that most users of the Thesaurus ignore the systematized meanings as Roget laid them out, and prefer to work backwards from a familiar word listed alphabetically in the index and search for a suitable synonym within the headings listed there.

That is, modern users of the Thesaurus skip the context or situation within which a word is to be used, and go straight to the lowest level of classification, the heading that identifies a cluster of more-or-less synonymous words which they quickly scan and choose among.

So much for Roget’s labors of deriving those generic headings within his elaborate hierarchy of all possible meanings. What he offered the English-speaking world was similar to the method by which meanings were made available to his mind according to the experiential situations they answered to at the seat of his intelligence. What that world took from his efforts was very different from what he offered. His users now take the situation that a word is to be used in for granted, and select the word most appropriate for use in that situation, bypassing Roget’s overall system of word classification.

Only after-the-fact does our intuitive syntax become grammar as a subject in school. Only after he struggled a thousand times to come up with the perfect word apt to his thoughts did Roget come up with a system for classifying meaning to make the job easier and more transparent for himself and for others.

We learn by doing and striving to do better, faster, with less waste. So do we grow into the selves we become, but could never have predicted beforehand where we would end up. So did Roget leave us a map of his mind without having the slightest intent to leave any such map.

No one taught him to build a cluster of words around the common idea they all represent, such as under Heading 320, Levity, he associates feather with dust with mote with down with thistledown with flue with cobweb with gossamer with straw with cork with bubble with float with buoy with ether with air. He opened his mind and that cluster rose up within him because his mind had already sorted those words as being related one to another.

Filaments of common meaning as flow through his collective experience made him do it—create all those clusters of words. It was not a rational exercise. Start to finish, it was wholly experiential and aesthetic in that he had lived that flow, and his mind had simply mapped the currents flowing through it. That is, it was those mental currents themselves that were shaped by the structure of the neural tunnels through which they were channeled in his brain.

Currents and processes in the brain determine the nature of mind. Is that true? Is his brain responsible for Roget’s system of classification, or is his mind, or his experience? How do we come by the orderly systems we rely on to classify, rank, relate, distinguish, select, and compare our percepts and concepts? Where do taxonomies come from, anyway? How are signals routed through the labyrinth in our brains?

The answer is, I don’t know. What I do know is that the ability to make meaning—the fitting together of chunks of awareness or experience according to one system or another—is so prominent a human trait, we take it for granted as a quality of human thinking and intelligence.

Some give credit to rational or logical habits of thinking, but I don’t think it can be that simple. It is commonplace to group percepts and concepts by any quality or feature we can imagine. Then to put such groups or collections in ordered sequence by any number of criteria—size, shape, color, texture, function, time, date, age, topic, rarity, weight, effectiveness, and so on.

If we grow up among trees, say, are our neural networks any different from what they would be if we grow up among snowflakes, mountains, or sand beaches? If so, are our thoughts and ideas any different as a result of the nature of the world we acquire at birth? Are fish thoughts more fluid than bird thoughts (which might be said to be flighty)? Certainly our thoughts and experiences would differ to some degree, but would our neural networks be different? Our meanings? Our intelligence?

If we had seven or sixteen fingers, would the numerical system by which we put things in sequence be different? What if we had three eyes, or nine eyes like horseshoe crabs? We know that crows can count up to about seven, how high can jellyfish count? What sort of alphabet would snakes develop if they had a vocabulary?

I am on a roll of thought in this post, and sense that it could continue for a long time. I like to keep each post to a reasonable length without getting carried away, so will arbitrarily put down my foot and say I will stop here, almost in mid-sentence. I can feel my thoughts rolling onward, but I will pick up the thread in my next post.

465. Roget’s Thesaurus

March 24, 2015

It was in 1852 that Dr. Peter Mark Roget (1779-1869) published his

Thesaurus of English Words and Phrases,

classified and arranged so as to facilitate the Expression of Ideas

and assist in Literary Composition.

As I view it, that book gives us a portrait of his mind striving to map meanings onto words in English, a task he began early in life to support his own writing, and completed well after his retirement from medical practice in 1840.

In 1805 as a young writer, he first compiled for his own use “a system of verbal classification” that he later believed would be useful to all who take care in selecting words to suit their intended use in particular settings. Throughout his life, Roget kept his mind active in pursuit of a wide range of interests. The Thesaurus is but one of his many accomplishments—the one for which he is cited today, even if its author is only dimly remembered.

I am of two minds regarding Dr. Roget and his Thesaurus. I admire his identifying a thousand categories of meaning in his own mind, and then systematically sorting his personal vocabulary of words and phrases among those headings. As one who takes his own mind seriously, I identify with him in making that effort.

But, too, I feel almost claustrophobic in wending my way along the quaint and weedy pathways he treads among the meanings and feelings he discovered within himself so long ago. His era is not my era, his reverence for Latinate expressions not my reverence, his verbal style not my style.

I cringe at many of the word clusters he amassed from terms he believed to share a core sense of meaning. I find myself silently dusting off and editing his lists, which, fortunately, others have done overtly in updating his now antiquated original to suit the needs of changing times.

But even so, I feel pinched in reading through earlier editions of his Thesaurus as I try to get as close to the man as I can from my remote perspective in the twenty-first century. Mine is a labor of, if not love, then of fellowship with a kindred wayfarer on his then journey through a now forgotten inner life.

Some would claim “we are all one” and it should be no labor at all to enter the mind of another. Tich Nhat Hahn has declared “We are here to recover from the illusion of our separateness.” I have heard it said that “We can escape from the self-imposed prison of personal isolation by deconstructing through personal meditation the bonds imposed by the delusion of selfhood.”

But endless repetition of the mantra “We are all one” does not make it so. As a convinced separatist, I believe that each of us is born either with or to a unique genome, immune system, neural network, memory, lifelong accumulation of experience, dream life, and succession of daily engagements, which taken together confirm each of us as a unique and separate experiment for which he or she is wholly responsible for perfecting, much as Peter Mark Roget was born to the task of refining his system of verbal classification precisely for the lifetime he was granted.

If I meditate, I am struck by the cacophony of thoughts and feelings—the psychic Armageddon—that would result if our fundamental separation turned out to be delusionary, a mere construction and convention of the culture we live in.

In my view, the workings of evolution depend on us responding differentially to the forces acting upon us; we tailor ourselves to the niches we occupy for the sake of survival. If we all thought and acted as if we were of one mind, we would self-destruct in an instant.

Instead of solving our common problems, deconstructing our individual minds would bring about the end, not only of personhood, but all humankind. Only discrete selves can take responsibility for their actions, and join cooperatively with others who are doing the same as led by their respective—and demonstrably separate—points of view.

My discomfort at approaching Dr. Roget’s mental processes too closely is a faint shadow of what might happen if we knocked down the walls of separation between our individual minds. Imagine having access to others’ minds in such a way that we could witness their thoughts and feelings from the perspective of our unique life experience!

That thought doesn’t bear thinking. I value Roget’s Thesaurus as the compilation by another man of his semantic struggle to ensure that his words reflected his personal thinking, as he hoped the words of others would reflect theirs. He was out to provide each of us with a tool that would do just that in each case. I find his effort—if worn and musty in places—to be not only admirable but remarkable in creating a set of word clusters that provide partial access to the workings of his subjective mind while, at the same time, are broad enough to allow the rest of us to do somewhat the same.


409. Earthlings to the Core

January 19, 2015

In the most basic sense possible, our minds are features of the natural world, so our perceptions, judgments, and actions are natural as well. Any claim that our thoughts might be unnatural or immoral is nonsense. We are what we are, and that is an outgrowth of the planet that supports us.

We are Earthlings to the core, made of Earth’s materials, thinking Earth’s thoughts. As are ants and termites in building their nests and tending their eggs, as are amoebas, birds of paradise, slugs, snakes, and rhinoceroses, all in our respective stages of genetic development and evolution.

As outgrowths of the Earth, there is an inside and an outside to each of us. Outside is our environment, source of all that we need to live on the inside of our outermost layer, our skin, hide, or integumentary system.

Both historically and individually as fertilized eggs, we begin life as one-celled organisms separated from our surroundings in utero by a semi-permeable membrane that allows a selective exchange of materials and energy across the boundary layer between inside and outside.

Food and oxygen flow outside-in to sustain our metabolism and rapid development; waste and carbon dioxide flow in the opposite direction, inside-out.

From the beginning, we live in a state, not only of exchange, but of active engagement with our natural environments, trading what we no longer need for what we need to live and thrive. The story of life on Earth is the story of life’s natural engagements.

As natural creatures, we cannot live without the essential resources Earth provides us—food, air, water, shelter, warmth, and protection in their various forms to preserve what Thoreau called “the vital heat” of our bodies as generated by complex metabolic processes we each sustain for a lifetime.

We live by the grace of our biological mother’s metabolism (governed by her—not our father’s—maternal line of mitochondrial DNA), first in the womb, and after birth until we are weaned, and even ever after that while our families and cultures feed and provide for us, until the day we die.

In that sense, we never outgrow our natural mother’s care and bodily warmth; it is built into the structure of every cell in our bodies from conception on.

After birth, our respective cultures, communities, and families offer us a range of choices for diet, shelter, clothing, the purity of the water we drink and air we breathe, so the choices we adopt reflect their several influences in modifying how we choose to meet our biological needs.

In speaking a dialect of one language or another, adopting a particular style of dress, favoring particular foods, and living in certain types of housing, we show that our essential genetic makeup is covered by a veneer of cultural, community, and family conventions and habits suited to the local climate and terrain.

Without doubt, we grow into ourselves as creatures of not only nature, but also of culture, community, and family as well.


403. Number People

January 12, 2015

Some of us are music people or food people. Others are visual arts people, TV people, sports people, booze people, film people, word people. This is not simply a matter of choice but more a matter of experience. We get good at what we do most often and with greatest concentration.

Number people use numbers a lot because they find them meaningful. They understand numbers, and use them to express themselves on important subjects. Scientists, statisticians, financiers, mathematicians, sportscasters, astrologers, and many others build worlds around themselves by relying on numbers in everyday life.

Numbers, that is, are one of the ways people engage with the world around them. We are born to cultures having a heritage of numbers, and we have the option of immersing ourselves in that or some other heritage as our primary means of expression and understanding.

In that sense, numbers are one of the ways we use to fit into and anchor ourselves to a world of our personal choosing. Our aptitude with numbers affects our making such a choice. So does our exposure to numbers, our education, our job, our early childhood experience with numbers, and so on. As we count on our fingers, so do we become—finger counters, who grow professionally into some of the fields I have mentioned above.

Numbers are an aspect of the language we are born to. They allow us to make meaningful sounds and gestures in situations where we want to tally a set of separate items or perform some mathematical feat such as measuring, adding, subtracting, and so on.

The genius of numbers is that each one has a unique but memorable name as part of a system we carry with us wherever we go. A system that serves as a kind of lens we use in viewing the world. We can speak or write those names in referring to the purely quantitative aspect of whatever we are directing our attention to in a given situation.

The sounds and symbols of numbers differ from language to language, but their numerical value remains in the same sequence in each language. As long as the sequence is unbroken, the concept of numbers is limited only by the the practical needs of its users. No number is too large or too small to imagine as long as it keeps its place in the number series embodied in our everyday usage.

Infinity seems to be a number, but being beyond the farthest reach of the number series, it is a concept that violates the concept of numbers as forming an unbroken series. Infinity is a supposition, not an actual number. In being beyond reach, it is a contradiction in terms, not an actual number that has a particular place in a sequence.

Zero, too, seems to be a number, but we use it as an imaginary threshold between nothing and something, or the dimensionless divide between positive and negative somethings as a kind of placeholder to remind us of the break or discontinuity we are inserting into our conventional system. The letter n stands for any real number that might occur beyond zero in the direction of or toward, but not including, infinity.

Numbers originate in the human mind as immersed in one culture or another. That mind is based on activated and inhibited pathways for conducting neural impulses, which allow for sequence, addition, multiplication, integration, subtraction, division, differentiation, and other numerical operations.

Too, the mind is based on comparison between signals in different parts of the neural network. Numbers, that is, are not so much in the world as they are in the mind as products of the same neural capabilities for engagement as allow for the production of gestures and speech.

Numbers are abstractions from primary experiences having their characterizing qualities deleted—qualities such as redness, coldness, roughness, motion, size, direction, and so on—leaving a residuum of purified quantity devoid of particular qualities.

Numbers play a prominent role in our many engagements with aspects of our natural environment. Our poise during those engagements depends on the feedback we get in comparing our sensory impressions with past impressions or with our intentions in acting as we do. Did we hit the target or are we low and to the left? By how much? How much thrust do we need to launch a million-ton rocket toward Mars? What is the Earth’s population of ants?

In the practical use of mathematics, we must consider the instrument that employs numbers in a particular situation. Invariably, that instrument is the human mind (not the so-called mind of God or of the universe) which depends largely on memory and the flow of sensory energy from perception to judgment and on to action as key portions of our engagements with the world.

The power of numbers is not in the order of the universe we discover in using them as a tool of our minds; that power is in the educated, dedicated, and systematic workings of our own minds. The laws of physical motion are laws of our perceiving, not of discovery. Of description, not causation. Saying that the universe is inherently based on mathematical principles is like saying the Creator must speak English because his work is so aptly described by our English poets.

More wonderfully, we should applaud ourselves for learning how to use both numbers and our minds to advance our personal grasp of the world around us. When our species dies off, that grasp will go with us, leaving an undescribed universe behind on its own.





402. Expletives!

January 10, 2015

Following-through on my previous post: The question is, can we avoid becoming creatures of our technologies by controlling our urge to revel in the thrill and novelty of the latest electronic gadget we don’t need?

As I said, the world we live in is shaped by our subjective opinions and motivations. The lesson of my study of mind is that each of us is responsible for the workings of her own. When it comes to saving the planet through yet more technology, let believers beware. Particularly believers in technologies that boast of being artificially intelligent. Our numbers are already far too large for our planet to bear at current levels of consumption and life expectancy.

We talk a lot about saving the world, but it is our actions in that same world that count. Speech saves effort, but it can also interrupt and divert us from more meaningful engagements requiring bolder action. So to continue on the topic of action I will briefly speculate on the origin of the movements of breath, tongue, lips, and teeth we call speech.

We justly pride ourselves on our skills in speaking, reading, writing, and comprehending, the very skills that separate us from our animal neighbors and ancestors. Speech has evolved as a kind of substitute for exerting ourselves by flexing our larger muscles. It is far more efficient to gently release air through our throats and lips than it is to lunge forward while making threatening gestures with raised arms brandishing sticks. It is also less risky.

It is humbling to think that the origin of speech might have been in uttering expletives whenever our ancestors’ engagements were thwarted or went awry. That is my belief, largely resting on observation of my own behavior in dealing with my tired old computer, which is programmed to do its own thing, and so pays no heed when I want it to do something else.

My vulgar outbursts wrest attention from all ears within range. I shout curt obscenities at my laptop when it goes off on its own, but having no ears (mine is an older model), it ignores me and sits there doing its thing whereas I paid good money for it to do my thing. Why else would I buy it?

Why, indeed? I mean to use my computer to facilitate my many projects depending on use of words and pictures. All my writing, all my photographs, all my illustrations are on my computer. Books, articles, PowerPoints, slide shows, pechakuchas, notes, lists, random thoughts, address—my entire creative output all stored on my hard drive.

So when I can’t get at them because my computer is busy doing something else—installing updates, scanning every file, printing pages I didn’t ask it to print, posting inexplicable error messages about not being able to do some task it thought up on its own—I get—how shall I put it?—upset. Mad. Angry. Finally furious after not being able to get through to it to get it to stop what it’s doing and do what I want it to do.

By nature, I am a very calm person. I have confidence in making that judgment. People are amazed at my not getting upset in situations that would have driven them batty. But when engagements requiring my deep concentration are interrupted, I have trouble restoring the focus that my balance of mind depends on. I am forced to switch my mind to some irrelevant task. I am on a roll, but can’t continue.

Imagine my distress. Which requires some kind of outlet as a stand-in to release the energy that I was putting into the project I was focused on. So these sounds come out of my mouth. Not words that fit the sentence I was writing when so rudely interrupted, but sounds out of nowhere. Shit. Fuck. Chert, click, runt, frump, fart, muck, flack, blat. Expletives. Sudden explosions of sound that bear the burden of my frustration and annoyance.

That, I believe, is the true origin of language. Or at least a contributing factor in drawing attention to the urgency of some issue or another. In this case, an issue with a negative valence giving evidence that breaking into an ongoing engagement is wrong, bad, undesirable, annoying, perturbing, frustrating, immoral, unsettling, etc., and ought to be against the law.

In the opposite situation (consciousness thrives on opposition, remember), when I am caught unaware by something surpassingly pleasing that gives me pause, I say, like astronauts ogling the Earth from above, Wow! Oh boy. Amazing. Beautiful. Stunning. Beautiful. Gorgeous. Hallelujah. Hooray. Lookadat! Or some cooing expletive suitable to such an occasion. In which case the issue of expression is to release a gasp of sudden joy, happiness, surprise, wonder, satisfaction, insight, gratitude, and other such utterance suggesting a positive valence that gives approval to an engagement that is right, proper, good, desirable, affirming, pleasing, enjoyable, and essentially positive in deserving to be called to everyone’s attention.

It is in those two opposite situations—the rude interruption and the affirming revelation—that I discover a burst or rush of sound issuing from my throat as if I had invented language on the spot for that very occasion. Extrapolating, I identify with my primitive ancestors who had the same uncontrollable urge so long ago.


374. Brain Talk

December 4, 2014

Brain talk is full of words like data, information, computation, processing, knowledge, and other terms of that noble family of academic abstractions. But seldom do we live up to the expectations of the scientists and engineers who treat the brain as if they had designed it themselves by rational means, which they didn’t and never could.

Such terms are descriptors of what neuroscientists want to find, not necessarily of what’s there in the brain to discover. That is, neuroscience is salted with metaphors meaningful to those who study the brain, but many of those same terms are wide of the mark set by instinctual users of particular brains as tools for conducting life as a work-in-progress at every stage.

Most of the mass of the brain is made up of axons (connectors) that lead from one nerve cell nucleus to its terminus, not the nuclei, cortical columns, and synapses that actually perform so much of our mental work. It is the chemical flow between nerve cells that brings minds to life, as facilitated by the travel of ionic potentials from cell bodies to their extremities.

The flow of neurotransmitters across synaptic gaps between nerve cells at myriad points of connection enables those chemicals to get to the right place at the right time to activate or inhibit a comparison in synchrony with other signals so that simultaneous connections are sustained between different regions of the brain, furthering the coherent neural traffic we experience as mind, awareness, or consciousness.

Mind is not confined to the brain but reaches through skilled action to the outer limits of the body and, beyond that, via traffic through nature, culture, community, and family, to the cascade of energy impinging on our sensory organs.

Our minds acquire language and numbers because they are born to language and numbers as two of the cultural media in which they are immersed. They acquire a genome and genetic heritage by being born to particular parents who, at conception, consist of one man and one woman who inhabit a particular niche (nest) in the physical world.

Mind is a collaborative function of brain, body, nature, culture, community, and family. It is the seat of our organic intelligence together with  the many situations and active engagements that make up our lives. I think that to call it a computer or data processor is to miss the point of what the mind actually does and how it operates.

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.

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