Engagements between self and other have been around since the early days of one-celled lifeforms drifting about in their aqueous environments. Which-was-which depended on your perspective, that of cell or other, self or world.

Later on, the issue became control or regulation of the engagement. Again, that depended on your perspective, whether you took the point of view of the cell or of the environment. You had to be in the ongoing loop of engagement, either looking out or looking in.

From the cell’s point of view, the problem was to solve the world puzzle of where you were and what was going on around you. From outside the cell, the problem was to figure out what was going on inside the cell.

The metaphor of the black-box problem applies, from both inside and outside the box. From inside the cell’s black box, the world is a mystery. From outside in the world, the cell is a mystery in a black box. There are two black-box problems: one solving the world puzzle from inside, the other solving the mind problem from outside. I use this metaphor to clarify the problem of consciousness.

In some situations the world seemed to be in control; in others, the cell seemed to be in control. But in every situation, control is actually shared between cell and environment, the balance depending on which is dominant during that particular engagement. That is, on whether the cell needed the environment more than the environment needed the cell, or vice versa.

Why does a cell need its surrounding world? To supply the resources it needs to sustain its internal activities. Why does the world need the cell? To consume the resources it has in excessive amounts.

The goal each way being to achieve a balance that works to the benefit of both self and world, cell and environment.

Cells help the world stay in balance; the world helps cells stay in balance as parts and extensions of itself. They are of the same system. The issue is chemical balance, physical balance, energy balance. All within a shared gravitational field rich in energy. In black-box terms, the solution to the two respective problems depends on resources being available both inside and outside the box. The key to balance is in the flow of life-sustaining engagement between input and output.

As both selves and worlds grew in size and complexity, control and regulation of engagements between them grew more demanding. Cells developed the ability to move about and, simultaneously, to gauge and identify a sense of different regions within their environments.

As evolution progressed, environments grew ever-larger and richer in content, but more challenging at the same time. Living organisms had to take greater risks in order to get what they needed to survive. The task of regulating engagements became more complex and difficult.

In response to increasing pressures, multicellular life evolved alternative strategies for survival. Some lifeforms traded their harbors in the sea for territories on land. Others took to the air. Still others learned to tolerate broader ranges of temperature, salinity, humidity, terrain, illumination, suitable foods, weather conditions, and so on. All in response to the urgings of the life force as fueled by individual metabolisms.

At some point, organisms outran their genome’s ability to prepare them for the difficulties they were to face, and consciousness emerged as a means of adapting to challenging conditions as they might arise. Habitat niches remained all-important, but the range of situations they presented as lifeform populations increased and diversified became less of an obstacle.

Consciousness allowed individual organisms to assess their environments (perception), consider their options (judgment), and set and enact behavioral goals accordingly (intentional action), all the while maintaining an ongoing flow of engagement with significant aspects of their environments (between black-box input and output).

Memory became the base of consciousness, providing a background against which to face into novel situations. Expectancy, curiosity, familiarity, conceptualization, and recognition became possible, simplifying the analysis of highly variable conditions.

Too, the old standard behaviors of reflex action, mimicry, habits, routines, prejudice, orthodoxy, rote learning, trial and error, and other energy-efficient shortcuts in lieu of full consciousness remained as viable alternatives.

But consciousness allowed memory to be linked to a review of alternative possibilities, prioritized according to a choice of criteria, and judgment concerning which choice made the best fit to the current situation.

So did consciousness serve to build on a Paleolithic genome to make it fit to serve in a modern world to which our ancestors never had to adapt.

Consciousness itself is a neurological response to a discrepancy between conflicting aspects of perception. It pointedly draws attention and awareness to unsettling aspects of experience, whether good or bad. When consciousness is focused on a particular problem, all else falls away as irrelevant. The ability to concentrate on a particular issue is the essence of consciousness.

By applying our neural resources to one situation at a time, consciousness makes our awareness both efficient and coherent, screening out all that is irrelevant to its current focus. This ability to rate situations on a scale of importance at the moment is one of our greatest assets in getting through the day one moment at a time.

At the core of consciousness is our situated intelligence that organizes a given situation in terms of the elements or dimensions that make it up. That core of situated intelligence is what we experience as the self, which changes from one situation to another as suits the occasion.

The dimensions of consciousness that might contribute to a particular situation include: memory, sensory impressions, feelings, motivation, values, imagination, understanding, life force (or energy level), humor, temperament, goals, skills, relationships, and many other factors that collectively constitute our minds.

Our situated intelligence stands at the nexus between incoming perception and outgoing action in the precinct where judgment and commitment are possible. It is activated by a gap, inconsistency, or abrupt change in our loop of engagement that rallies attention to that unsettling state of affairs. Our intelligence gathers its assets to focus precisely on that gap or inconsistency (duality, disparity, discrepancy, annoyance, delta signal, disappointment, surprise, shock, etc.) as a rousing alarm that serves to focus our attention, stirring consciousness to life. Here is a matter to be dealt with.

It is the nature of our minds as they have evolved to depict situations in terms of dualities (dichotomies, bifurcations, oppositions, contests, confrontations) and other forms of either-or, yes-or-no, approve-or-reject situations. This is due to the complementary roles of activation and inhibition that our neural networks play in shaping consciousness in different situations.

Our engagements between self and world take place on the four fundamental levels of nature, culture, community, and family, which I have extensively dealt with in developing my views on consciousness in this blog.

The above summary provides an outline of my wayfaring journey in my daily posts to Consciousness: The Inside Story, in, what to me appeared to make a coherent sequence, but probably appeared random to readers who broke into my stream of consciousness in the middle of its development.

Tomorrow I will remind readers where we may have been together as a review of my specific ideas about consciousness as posted to this blog.

Memory is at the heart of learning through trial and error. We are born knowing very little; it’s all uphill from there. Families give us a leg-up by not having to be feral children dependent on instinct. They give us enough leeway to own what we learn.

And what we learn is what to expect next time. Expectancy, recognition, identification, meaning, and understanding are gifts our sheltering families make available to us. Leading to judgment, which opens the way to appropriate behavior.

All courtesy of the families that give us room to fall on our face, pick ourselves up, and have at it again. Getting that one more chance makes all the difference because we remember the last time, and vow to do better. Our efforts add up as we go. Practice makes, if not perfect, at least for improvement.

Families give us the chance to engage through successive approximation, so that what we aim at, we eventually attain. Not trial and error just once, but again and again, showing incremental improvement each time. If we put in our ten-thousand hours of consciously appreciating those decreasing increments, we find ourselves right where we wanted to be two years ago. Courtesy of memory, room for experiment, the wisdom of patience, and the willingness to try.

Join all of the above to the life force that urges us on from every one of our cells because we need to do something with all that energy our mitochondria provide, and we have the formula for success via one earnest attempt after another.

Knowing almost nothing in particular at birth opens the door to the possibility of adapting to unanticipated conditions and situations. If we were born fully equipped with everything we needed to know, the first surprising change we encountered would throw us off our stride. We’d have no way of coping with novelty, and it would be our downfall in the end, which would come sooner rather than later.

No matter how trying family life can be, real life is far worse. Family life is a trial run for the time when we must face every challenge on our own by standing on the two feet we were born with and that our families have encouraged us to develop into an asset. Thanks, Mom; thanks, Dad; we owe it all to you. Oh, yes, and to the kids who grew up alongside us, no matter what pains they were to us at the time, or we to them.

Families are our first schools. In that sense, we all start out being home schooled. What do we learn? To be ourselves. To speak our native language. To engage. To babble, then invent our own patter. To discover meaningful speech. To understand others. To understand ourselves.

It all begins at mother’s breast while we are fed, warm, and safe. She smiles; we smile. She laughs; we laugh. She oohs; we ooh in response. Then we ooh meaningfully at the sight of her smile. She giggles; we giggle. Peek-a-boo!

We sense we’re onto something. We play off against her; she plays the same game. Back and forth; forth and back. There’s no stopping the banter. Then the flow of talk. Her turn, our turn. Then the full exchange, the loop of engagement of perception and action at the same time. She playing her part; we playing ours. Equally engaged. Paying attention. Watching, listening. Being watched; being listened to. Taking turns. Conversing. Being ourselves with each other. Not alone anymore. The biggest discovery of our lives. Or not, if there’s nobody to play the game with to get us started.

 

My tracking horseshoe crabs in Taunton Bay soon took over my mind. I did my best to think like a horseshoe crab in figuring out which way it had gone from where I’d last heard its signal. As my skills improved over the months, I got pretty good at keeping track of them day-by-day on their separate excursions. But, too, I kept losing them.

Sometimes there would be intervals of several days between tracking sessions due to wind and weather, leading me to become pretty much a fair-weather tracker. As a result I’d lose sight of the ones I’d been following, and had to make a fresh start when I’d next get out on the bay.

We expected the transmitter batteries to run down after two years, but we got a good part of a third tracking season (2005) out of them before they finally died (the batteries, not the crabs, which can live for about twenty years in the wild).

I was surprised to learn how passionate I became about following twenty-six individual crabs in their travels about the bay. I quickly became truly engaged in the project. I cared about finding each crab and I’d worry when I lost track of it. I’d go searching for it until I (sometimes) found it again or got the feeling I’d lost it forever.

My engagement led me to try to connect with each crab. To put myself in its place as if I were the traveler on the bottom trying to figure where to go next. To do that I had to have a good sense of the terrain, the currents, the temperature gradients, the mussel and eelgrass beds—the entire habitat area beneath me that I couldn’t see, but could imagine at high tide while tracking because of my earlier experiences in the same area when the tide was low.

Engagements are a two-way street. If I wanted to hear from my select population of horseshoe crabs, I’d have to pay attention to them. To put myself out there on the bottom where they were. I’d have to make room for their concerns in my agenda. To do that, I’d have to learn to think like horseshoe crabs think. To understand the motives that guided their travels.

Was that possible, or was that my conceit? Well, if I pushed myself, maybe I could do better. After all, I wasn’t tracking for my benefit but for theirs. I had their best interests at heart. Or so I told myself. I’m doing this for you, dear one. And for you, and for you.

I think what I was getting at was a sense of commitment. Not duty to my job, but commitment to another species entirely that happened to live near me. An outlying population of a species that humans could put at risk out of carelessness, out of not knowing where they were or what they needed to survive.

After all, for many years people had shoveled horseshoe crabs into piles to use as fertilizer. Or conch bait. Even some Native Americans put horseshoe crabs under the squash and corn they planted, sacrificing the crabs for the betterment of their crops.

But I felt moved to connect with the crabs I was tracking, to help them thrive. As they had thrived for almost half-a-billion years on their own without my caring assistance. I felt an intimate kinship with horseshoe crabs, and admired the beauty and graceful functionality of their bodies. They can swim legs-down or legs-up, pushing ahead by pumping their gills back and forth. They can walk on the bottom, dig in muddy or sandy sediments, eat bountiful small mollusks, and fight infection with copper-based blood that congeals to heal wounds. They are proven survivors adapted to estuary habitats, largely unchanged for some 400 million years.

My mind goes out to horseshoe crabs, and every sighting thrills me head-to-toe. Being of such ancient design and so beautiful, they have an undying claim on my attention. I am caught in the spell of their attractiveness, and because I will never be able to understand them, there will always be that discrepancy urging me on to further engagements with members of their august species.

I respond by being with them and interacting however I can: tracking their travels, monitoring their breeding populations, photographing them, making PowerPoint presentations to sensitize others to their presence among us, sharing my respect and enthusiasm. I have an extensive library on horseshoe crabs, and samples of their shed shells on the shelves and walls in my apartment. I surround my nest with reminders that they exist in my presence.

Because of my several engagements with them, they have become fixtures in my daily life. And because of the incongruity with other features of my experience, they introduce a sense of discrepancy or discontinuity that prods my consciousness into full wakefulness so that I pay attention to their tenuous placement in the modern world.

That alerting discrepancy makes all the difference in my including horseshoe crabs in the scope of my daily concern and attention. That is why I have tracked them, read about them, traced their line of descent from trilobites, and photograph them every chance I get. Discrepancy is the spark that ignites into allure, inviting me out of my sheltered mind into the world. Even if I am not very good at tracking horseshoe crabs, I have felt compelled to improve.

Horseshoe crabs and eelgrass meadows call me in that way, as do hermit thrushes, song sparrows, fairy webs, and old man’s beard. It isn’t what I understand that makes my world; it’s what I don’t know because it is just beyond my reach. Without novelty, beauty, allure, disparity, and surprise, engagement reduces to habit, and mindless habits eat away the wonder of being alive and alert to discrepancy.

In a very real sense, I am possessed by horseshoe crabs, and as a result, have become possessive of them in return. The root of ownership is in just that sense of possession through engagement. Engagement makes a claim on my attention. Engagement works both ways. I “own” what I engage with, and it owns my interest and attention.

The circle of engagement is complete. Perception leads to action leads to engagement leads back to perception. I have earlier compared that situation to the image of the ancient serpent Uroborus biting its own tail. The point being that such gripping engagement unites its parts into a unitary whole.

Devoted engagement brings its separate elements together into a single event. I am part of horseshoe crab existence in Taunton Bay by tracking their every move; they, in turn, become an integral part of my experience by changing the mind at the core of my being.

No wonder we get possessive of who or what we engage with. Our experience binds us together, and our experience becomes part of our minds, enriching us, making us part of a larger whole. As integral parts of my experience in nature, horseshoe crabs become aspects of my identity. Together, in my mind, we become joined together as an item. We are openly engaged, with all the emotional attachment that implies.

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

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

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