Copyright © 2012 by Steve Perrin

All people on Earth depend on looping engagements with their surroundings for air, water, and food—both intake and elimination, as well as for reproduction. It should come as no surprise, then, that the human nervous system should depend on a similar looping engagement between energy received by the senses and actions directed at the physical environment. Yet we tend to look upon our brains as the whole story on the theme of consciousness without considering the inherent order of sensory stimulation and the ordered serial gestures we make in response.

The job of consciousness is to make our actions appropriate to the situations we judge ourselves to be in. Those situations as told by the energy they relay to our senses are every bit as essential as correlates of consciousness as the relevant regions of our brains. Consciousness requires embodiment in a physical body within a situation that includes air, water, food, and opportunities for sexual engagement. And a brain to boot.

Without brains there would be no consciousness, just as without sensory stimulation and occasions for action, ditto. Nothing new there. We all assume as much. But what we forget to mention is the unbroken circulatory relation between environment and brain on which meaningful perception and action depend.

Our loops of engagement are responsible for the kinetic quality of consciousness, what William James called the stream of consciousness. Memory is essential to our realizing that stream as an ongoing process of situated awareness. Without a glimmer of short-term memory, life would be a blur of one moment of “booming, buzzing confusion” merging with the next without end.

Instead, we are able to fix our attention on the instant, and to develop stable relationships with the many tools or accessories we use to boost the effectiveness of our actions in the moment. We enlist a host of accessory devices in accomplishing our plans—vitamin pills, Doberman pinschers, monkey wrenches, computers, skateboards, Glock handguns, etc., upon which we come habitually dependent in conducting our engagements in order to feel like ourselves. We relate to such possessions in a master-servant relationship as if our engagements gave us the authority to actually own them and determine their use.

A great portion of human law is given to regulating human loops of engagement through legal use and possession of personal property. That is, local, state, and federal governments have an interest in how we conduct our loops of engagement so not to cause harm or undue discomfort one to another. What freedom we have in conducting our affairs is supervised by judicial bodies in assuring we do not inflict mayhem on our neighbors through the use of private automobiles, weapons, animals, toxins, and so on. 

Our relationships with our partners and children are of particular interest lest we abuse those we are most intimate with in our everyday engagements. But, too, those with great wealth can arrange for laws to favor them in particular, so a great many special arrangements are protected by the law, giving significant advantage to those in positions of power and wealth, rendering the law itself unjust in favoring one group above another.

My purpose here is to suggest the importance of our individual loops of engagement by which we act on those who share our life situations, and are in turn acted upon by others. Marriage is a form of engagement, as is education, warfare, commerce, and entertainment. Nothing is more important to each one of us than how we engage our life situations.

Neuroscience would make a significant advance by acknowledging and accounting for the looping engagements by which we conduct our affairs. There’s more to our relationships than we commonly allow. And it lies at the heart of how each one of us views the world through personal consciousness.

Thanks for stopping by. As ever, –Steve

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(Copyright © 2010)

Memory dwells in the past; perception dotes on the here and now; what do we call that portion of consciousness devoted to the future? Expectancy? Anticipation? Planning? Hope? Dread? Worry? Anxiety? Fear? Confidence? Waiting? Probability? Prediction? Prophecy? Fate? Whatever we call it, this cursory list suggests the human mind’s preoccupation with unknowable yet inevitable times ahead.

When you play a video on YouTube, a little slider on the bottom shows where you are on the timescale of that particular microworld. Think what it would be like to have a similar slider showing your position relative to your lifespan. Birth is well behind you; death is approaching. Whoee! Now’s the time to get moving—or drunk.

Fortunately, with life expectancies now seen as a matter of statistical probability, no such little slider exists for any one individual. Which doesn’t get us off the hook. Rather, it puts us in the murky realm of probabilities, where we could be here today, gone tomorrow—or the day after, or ten years from now. The uncertainty of it all is why consciousness spends so much of the brain’s resources trying to get a grasp on the future in so many different ways.

Matthew Arnold paints life as one’s journey on the river of Time, which rises in a snowy mountainous pass as a clear-flowing stream, and draws to the Ocean, ending with:

As the pale waste widens around him,

As the banks fade dimmer away,

As the stars come out, and the night-wind

Brings up the stream

Murmurs and scents of the infinite sea.

Here’s how Emily Dickinson puts it in less flowing, more telegraphic terms:

The Future – never spoke –

Nor will He – like the Dumb –

Reveal by sign – a syllable –

Of His Profound To Come –

But when the News be ripe –

Presents it – in the Act –

Forestalling Preparation –

Escape – or Substitute –

Indifferent to Him –

The Dower – as the Doom –

His Office – but to execute

Fate’s – Telegram – to Him –

Peter Mark Roget was no poet. He remained stodgily prosaic to the end. His goal was reasoned and literal clarity, not some ineffable tone or mood. Under heading 124 Futurity: prospective time, he included these adjectives and adjectival phrases:

Adj. future, not in the present, to be, to come; about to be, coming, nearing  289n. approaching; nigh, near in time, close at hand  200adj. near; due, destined, fated, threatening, imminent, overhanging 155adj. impending; in the future, ahead, yet to come, waiting, millennial  154adj. eventual; prospective, designate, earmarked  605adj. chosen; promised, looked for  507adj. expected,  471adj. probable; predicted, predictable, foreseeable, sure  473adj. certain; ready to, rising, getting on for; potential, on, maturing, ripening  469adj. possible; later, ulterior, posterior  120adj. subsequent.

My point being that conscious largely looks ahead to how the current situation might develop in order to figure out what to do next, and then next after that—that is, how to make the self happen in the world in a manner appropriate to the situation as it might evolve or lead to a different situation altogether. All informed by what we’ve done in the past, our current state of being, and the goals we’ve set for the future. Think of the long-term projects we commit ourselves to. Going to school. Getting a job. Getting married. Having a baby. Developing a career. Building a house. Taking a trip or vacation. Writing a book. Going on a diet. Giving up smoking, drugs, or alcohol. Going to prison. Cutting credit-card debt. Learning tai chi, Spanish, to play tennis or the guitar. The mission of consciousness is to enable us to do these things—to learn to be ourselves as we imagine ourselves being in the future on the basis of what we know now. And then to revise the plan as we move through uncharted regions ahead.

What part of consciousness is devoted to the future? I’d say the whole thing, including memory, including perception. As everyone knows, the future is in our heads, always has been, always will be. Right up there with gods, demons, fears, desires, Mr. Right, Dream Girl, the Na’vi, and Jaba the Hutt.

I write this post to my blog because for three years now I’ve been waiting for a mature spruce tree on the shore of Thompson Island Picnic Area in Acadia National Park to blow down and die. That’s where the idea of a death watch comes from. I knew in 2006 it was going to happen; I didn’t know when. So I’ve been watching that tree, looking to see if it’s still standing every time I drive across Thompson Island in leaving Mount Desert Island where I live. I’ve taken pictures of it from time to time to see if I can catch it listing to port more than it did the last time I looked. After every big storm I’d make a point of checking that tree, which I’m using as a crude gauge to sea-level rise in Hancock County, Maine. When that tree falls, it’s another milestone passed as the sea encroaches on my personal turf.

Over the years, I’ve devoted a fair portion of my mental concentration to that particular tree. I’ve made a project of watching it head into its death. We had a strong wind on the night of February 25, the wind gusting from the northeast at 45 or 50 miles an hour. On the morning of February 26, I looked through my usual gap in the trees for that spruce on the shore—and it wasn’t there. The gate to the picnic area was locked, so I pulled over, took my camera, and walked in. I came back in another storm during daylight on March 1 at high tide—which is when I figured the great tree had fallen at either dusk on February 25th or dawn on the 26th. Here are a few of the photos my consciousness directed me to take showing the final days of that spruce.

(Note: The most dramatic way to illustrate sea-level rise is to take photos of crashing waves at high tide during a storm at full or new moon. The rusty metal rings along the shore are fire rings for barbecuing hot dogs and hamburgers.)

Death Watch 1-3-2007

Death Watch 5-12-2008

Death Watch 1-12-2009

Death Watch 2-26-2010_A

Death Watch 3-1-2010_B

Death Watch 3-1-2010_C

 

 

 

 

 

Death Watch 3-1-2010_D

Death Watch 3-1-2010_A

Death Watch 3-1-2010_E

 

 

 

 

 

Death Watch 3-1-2010_B

Death Watch 3-12-2010

(Copyright © 2010)

When I drive my car, I watch out for bicyclists and pedestrians.

When I bike, I fear I am invisible to drivers and walkers alike.

When I walk, both cars and bikes are spawn of the devil.

I am one person with, in these examples, three different outlooks, depending on my mode of travel. I feel like the same person, only different somehow. My perspective changes, my expectancy changes, my sense of danger changes. Who I curse under my breath and yell at out loud changes. It’s as if I had three different personalities that shift in and out according to how I get around. In a very real sense, I seem to sort other travelers into social bins according to which bin I place myself in at the time.

Perspectives govern how we categorize our worlds of experience, depending on how we perceive our current situation in the world. During the Iran-Iraq war in the 1980s, Saddam Hussein was a friend of the U.S. When, confident of our friendship, he subsequently invaded and occupied Kuwait, he became our enemy, so in the 1991 Gulf War we drove him back into his cage. Then in 2003, bent on regime change, we invaded Iraq, captured Saddam, tried him, and put him to death. All according to how we saw and categorized him at the time. He was still the same man; we kept revising how we looked at and categorized him.

Closer to home, at the recent Rockweed Research Priorities Symposium (see Reflection 184: Consciousness Speaks), I handed around a table outlining nine different perspectives on the harvesting of rockweed. Here is a list of assumptions and goals I associated with the several perspectives:

Perspective

Assumptions

Goals

Economic Everyone has a right to make a living. Sustainable harvests, income, and sales are a must.
Managerial

Regulation and enforcement are necessary to main-tain the resource.

The aim is sustainable productivity, habitats, and harvests over the long term.
Political Strike a balance between jobs & the environment. My vote is for equal opportunity, fairness, sustainability.
Historical Today is rooted in yesterday; tomorrow will be rooted in today. We know more than we did, but not enough to guarantee we do no harm.
Legal Harvesting in the intertidal zone is based on Colonial Ordinances of 1641-1643 in Mass. Bay. Private property, as well as public interest, safety, rights, & wellbeing, are to be preserved.
Cultural Different groups see and do things from different perspec-tives, and speak different languages. Common concerns help different groups work together toward shared goals. A sense of humor also helps.
Scientific Statistical analyses based on adequate data speak louder than words. Sustainable harvest practices are best based on sound science.
Ethical No special interest is to have unfair advantage. Stewardship by all parties is key to a workable mgt. plan.
Aesthetic If it looks good, it is good. Natural beauty is to be preserved at all costs.
All of the Above Be clear, listen well. Stewardship promotes sustainable habitats & harvests alike.

The common denominator allowing all perspectives to work together combines sustainability of habitats and food production with sustainable rockweed harvests in a given location. That is, achieving a fair balance between harvest goals and ecological understanding offers hope that all perspectives can contribute to and agree on a workable and enforceable resource management plan. The aim then becomes to set a level of harvest that would sustain both rockweed production and habitats through a regime of stewardship by all parties.

Which does not solve the problem inherent in each perspective using a variety of terms to characterize rockweed from its particular point of view. “Biomass,” “standing crop,” “marine resource,” “primary producer,” and “public-trust resource” have different meanings to different people in different contexts. A common terminology does not yet exist to enable all perspectives to share a universal view of reality. Common understanding is based on common experiences interpreted in similar ways. Adherents to the separate perspectives seldom share anything close to a common interpretation of the facts. The terms they employ may sound familiar, but the underlying attitudes and experiences are bound to differ in minds trained along different lines of experience.

So perspectives entail personal attitudes, assumptions, interpretations, training, experience, language, and judgments—some conscious, others unconscious. All shaped by, and relevant to, a particular issue or situation as colored by the goals and interests of the parties involved. In the driving-biking-walking example I started with, my common interests include staying safe while inflicting no harm on others. Which translate as different behaviors depending on the horsepower under my control, relative speeds of those involved, spatial relationships, margins of error and safety, reaction times, and level of vigilance—as well as weather and time of day. All subservient to the errand I am intent on accomplishing in good order.

Perspectives, then, are not simple placements in the scheme of things such as the term “viewpoint” might suggest, but are highly complex resolutions of a great many mental factors bearing on a given situation as personally understood or interpreted at the time. Such understanding or interpretation is the basis for how the evolving scene is categorized respectively by the different parties involved. There’s my take, your take, his take, and her take—all on what appears to be the same set of circumstances—but as seen differently by every one of us.

Which dramatizes the fact that we all live in different worlds all the time, depending on how we invest ourselves according to our personal experience, motivation, and level of discernment. Put that way, it is a wonder how any two people might agree on anything. A sense of humor surely helps. Which requires we look down on ourselves dispassionately from above as we struggle to make sense of a particular situation—seeing how everyone is playing the one game by different rules. Getting a detached sense of perspective on ourselves, we can appreciate the humor in our coming at a common issue from different directions. Laughter eases the tension, helping us see ourselves in the heat of engagement, allowing us to ease off and compare notes about why we characterize what’s happening as we do. Getting a fresh perspective on our perspectives, we see where the problem lies, allowing us to back off and make a new start.

Night-before-last I woke at 4:00 in the morning, got up, and wrote down the following:

Perspectives are projections or characterizations reflecting an attitude of expectancy that events in the world will answer to our personal needs and desires. We seem to be engaging situations in that world in the here and now, but are more likely coming from the there and then of our formative years when those attitudes of expectancy were laid down as electro-chemical connections in our brains.

Where we’re coming from, then, is not necessarily where we are now, but where we were in a largely-forgotten former life having nothing to do with our current situation—but everything to do with how we view and engage it.

Despite our credentials, resumes, and experience, we are often not who we seem in making ourselves happen on the world stage. We are that naive and confused kid blindly making his way in light of overwhelming ignorance combined with an understanding based on memorable events during her formative years. In truth, we are winging it more often than not on what we loosely call intuition.

Having written those words, I am transported to the summer day Everett Baldwin and I were tooling around Hamilton on our bikes—which in those days had only one speed—and found ourselves peddling up hill and down to Syracuse some 20 or 25 miles away. I remember being disappointed in Syracuse, expecting more the Emerald City. We stopped at a dingy lunch counter under some railroad tracks, where I asked for a glass of water because I was thirsty. Seeing a clock, I suddenly realized how late it was, and how far we had to go. We got on our bikes and rode home, late for supper again.

That is how perspectives are formed, by randomly defining our home territories, as Thoreau spent a lifetime exploring Concord within ten-mile walking distance of his doorway. That way we find out who we are in the world, and set our expectations accordingly. Literally, by mapping our homeland onto our brains to serve as a reference ever after. When, later, we categorize situations, it is that reference we fall back on—and those early hikes and bicycle trips that made us then who we still are at heart. When we assimilate new experience, those early maps provide the schemas that we assimilate to. And if we experience dissonance in trying to do that, we can either reject the new experience as invalid, or stretch our maps to fit an expanded territory, creating an atlas with separate pages based on different locales. Education, too, and job training get their own pages in that atlas, as do the hard knocks of living a life.

Where we’re coming from is none other than the life we have led up till now. The message is clear: since we’ve survived this far, more of the same is all we need to get ahead of where we are. That is the practical wisdom of perspectives. If more of the same doesn’t work, then retreat, expand your horizons, or try something new. It’s that simple and, upon realizing all that’s involved, that difficult. Our looping engagements with world situations—from biological values laid upon maps in our brains to help us decide how to plan and act on a particular occasion, informed by feedback from what actually happens—are primarily governed by the perspectives we have acquired over years of planning and doing. We each have a repertoire of perspectives appropriate to different sorts of situations, and judgment enabling us to choose which to try first, and which to fall back on when that fails to get us where we want to go.

Overall, conceptual (abstract) and episodic (concrete) memories serve as our personal guides to the future by recommending what to do now in sizing up a situation as an opportunity for getting ahead. The now is a pattern made meaningful by mapping relevant aspects of memory onto it in the most economical way. If that doesn’t work, then we have to do our homework in coming up with a more effortful plan to find meaning in preparing ourselves for effective action. All influenced by cultural norms of what people are likely to do in such situations. And what our mother says we should do, as well as word from our spouses, children, colleagues, and daily horoscope. In general, we achieve clarity by applying tried-and-true perspectives to familiar situations, leading to easy categorizations depicting the nature of reality as we can safely assume it is. Or not, as the case may be.

I often try to diagram these various aspects of perspectivity in relation one to another, and quickly get in over my head because there isn’t room enough on the page to fit all the relevant details. The result is pretty much of a clutter. But that does at least provide some sense of how complex perspectives are—and how miraculous it is that—for good or ill—they inform everything we do. Here is what I’ve come up with for this post.

Where I'm Coming From

We all wear many hats, and change them as often as our situation changes and a new outlook is called for. Everybody in Boston wears a Red Sox cap. Moving to San Diego, they’d have to buy a new hat—that is, learn to love a new team by learning its history and attending a lot of games. Such a radical change in perspective may not be humanly possible. It takes a huge effort even to try to adjust to a new setting with strange cultural norms. No wonder we get stuck in our ways. But just to keep up with changing events, we have to keep trying to avoid falling behind the times. Which catches us in a time lag, like just every pundit who’s trying to go back to the old days when he knew who he was and what was happening.

A lot of people these days are out of sorts because their perspectives are obsolete and they won’t admit it. They’d rather go back than move ahead. But in truth the secret of success in life is not to be found in the Qur’an, the sayings of Ronald Reagan or Confucius. Rather, it is in staying abreast with the times as they are, not as we would have them be. Nothing dates faster than a childhood take on events. Putting our trust in how things used to be may have worked once when the pace of change was slow, but in the twenty-first century, we have no alternative but to try to keep up. If we are not perpetual learners, our destiny is to become obsolete. No one knows when the next earthquake will change everything we now take for granted.

Red Sox Perspective

(Copyright © 2010)

Two weeks ago I got a phone call from a colleague asking if I would give a presentation at the January 14 meeting of the Maine Wildlife Society. He and I have worked together for over eight years on common projects, and share similar environmental values; I said I’d be glad to. He made a couple of suggestions about what he’d like me to cover, basically present a capsule history of projects we’ve worked on together in Taunton Bay estuary. I said I’d like to address the issue of trusting consciousness as a guide to how projects should go, and he said fine. Combining my interests with his, I came up with a rough sketch of a presentation, then set to work bringing it to life or, more accurately, bringing my life to it.

Day before yesterday, after wrestling for almost a week with what to include and what to leave out—ending up with a Rube Goldberg contraption that just didn’t work—I was extremely frustrated, and went to bed in low spirits. Next morning—yesterday—I woke up knowing exactly what I had to do to make it fully my presentation, not an awkward mockup of ideas from two different minds. I took the contraption I’d heaped together, got rid of thirty slides, rearranged the remaining slides in a wholly new sequence, added a few slides to emphasize points I wanted to make—and every slide fell into place. Eureka, I’d done it! Best PowerPoint I’d ever made.

What I’d actually done is trusted my unconsciousness to do the job for me while I was asleep. I showed that trust by paying attention to what was in my head when I woke up yesterday morning. It’s that first fifteen minutes of consciousness each day that I want to talk about in this post. It is precisely then that the actual connections between neuronal groups in my brain show what they’ve been up to during the night. In those first fifteen minutes when consciousness dawns each day, I have a unique opportunity to learn what is actually on my mind as a result of recent mental activity. If I set an alarm and rush to get ready for school or work, I don’t have time to pay attention to the most crucial messages I am likely to get all day. Messages from the parts of myself that make me the intuitively guided person I am meant by nature to be.

If I allow my consciousness to be steered by directives and reports stacked in my in-box at work, or a sequence of e-mails from other minds, or other people’s agendas, in such cases I lose touch with my own mind—and end up leading a life that is not fully my own. We’ve all been in that place, particularly rearing young children, and having to work at jobs largely for the paycheck and benefits. Those days behind me, I feel lucky to have the luxury of lying in bed listening to my own mind at 4:30 in the morning. That’s the most valuable part of my day that I don’t want to waste because it heads me into my day, a day of my own making under the existential circumstances I actually live with.

What came to me yesterday morning was a clear overview of what I’d been doing for the last twenty-four years of my life so that it actually made sense. Not as a random series of projects and events, but as a slow and steady working-out of what I have done in order to be myself in the particular place on Earth I have chosen to live. There in full sense-surround within my mind was revealed for the first time the saga of my being the person I am. It was my story and no one else’s. That’s what a few morning minutes of quietly attending to my own brain had on offer. My PowerPoint was to be an outward and visible sign of that inner vision, which I will summarize here as briefly as I can.

In keeping with my theme, I remember lying in bed in earlier days (before moving to Maine), my body sunk so low I hardly pushed up the covers—I barely existed, even to myself. I was the wrong person leading the wrong life in the wrong place. I couldn’t breathe; I was dying. I had to get out before the life was sucked out of me. [This was well before I knew I had celiac disease, and had had it my whole life.] The upshot was my fleeing to Maine—my mother’s homeland—to write my great book. I lived on a thirty-acre island my parents owned in undivided shares with two other families, in a cabin I’d built in the 1970s, and struggled to reinvent myself.

On Easter Sunday in 1987 I rowed across Taunton Bay to investigate the cloud of smoke I’d been watching for a week, every day shifting a little farther north. It looked like slash (piles of branches from felled trees) was burning, and I wanted to know why. I sensed that circumstances made me the only person who could see the smoke moving north—toward a productive eagle nest that had sent one, two, or three fledglings a year out over the bay for many years.

I found a developer and his crew running a road for a thirty-four-lot subdivision. He claimed not to know the course of the road went directly under the eagle nest. I walked 200 feet along Schoodic Overlook, 1987 the surveyor’s line—and there it was. You couldn’t miss it. I showed up at the planning board hearing on Schoodic Overlook subdivision. Seventeen spaghetti lots (long and thin to have acreage adequate to a summer home, and minimal shore-frontage to squeeze in as many lots as possible) bisected by the road, doubling the number of lots. Several didn’t have soils suitable for septic systems, so down-slope lotsSubdivision Nest pumped sewage uphill—in one case three lots feeding into one septic field. The nest was in lot 11, and an alternate nest built by the same pair of eagles was in a tall white pine on the shore of lot 9. Two eagle nests, the one on the shore producing three fledglings the year before. With surveying and woodswork going on around them, the eagles didn’t produce any eaglets in 1987. I joined with my cousin in opposing the subdivision, and when she dropped out, I went on alone. The development was approved, so I went to the appeals board, which voted I didn’t have standing. By then I had a pro-bono attorney, who filed in Superior Court. On the day that court ruled I did in fact have standing, a deal was announced by which The Nature Conservancy bought the land, enabling the developer to find a parcel with no resident eagles farther downeast, and the land was donated in the first Land for Maine’s Future grant (December 1988) to the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife to maintain as eagle breeding habitat.

Adrenalin pumping for months, I called a meeting of local residents in August 1987 to learn about starting a local land trust. The many who showed up decided to found Frenchman Bay Conservancy, which is thriving in much of Hancock County today. In opposing the subdivision, I got the reputation as being anti-development, so the next major event on the bay was a Penobscot Salmon Net Pen deliberate stealth operation to keep below my personal radar. In 1990, without any public notice, net pens for Atlantic salmon appeared in the bay courtesy of Penobscot Salmon Company in Franklin. I and others didn’t even know what they were. The entire operation was in place by then, the town colluding with the company to keep the project secret until it was a done deal. The operator’s plan was to cut the time it took to rear mature salmon by siting his pens in the sunny, sheltered, and unusually warm waters of Taunton Bay estuary on an outgoing summer tide. First came a hearing before the Maine Department of Environmental Protection, at which I raised several issues regarding impacts on the bay. Again, I was cast with the opposition. The aquaculture operation was subsequently approved, the salmon put in the net pens to hasten their growth—only to die at the rate of 700 a day, killed by receding midsummer tides. Gearing up for the hearing, local residents founded Friends of Taunton Bay (FTB) “to organize citizens for the well-being of the bay and for its protection from all forms of degradation.” Recognizing that eelgrass provides both food and protective habitat for a great many estuarine species, I began a series of aerial overflights to produce a photographic record of the spread and density of eelgrass over the years, which I now conduct on an annual basis.

In 1999, when a replacement for the “Singing Bridge” over Taunton River on Route 1 (the open mesh deck hummed when cars crossed it) was in the works, the then president of Friends of Taunton Bay feared larger boats rigged for bottom dragging would enter the bay, putting eelgrass at risk. The old bridge Singing Bridge had a ten-foot clearance at high tide; the new bridge twice that amount. FTB presented testimony at a hearing before the state Marine Resources Committee in Augusta, asking that such vessels be banned. I presented slides ostensibly showing effects of dragging on eelgrass beds years before. The Maine Legislature voted for a dragging moratorium to sunset in New Bridge five years, and assigned the Department of Marine Resources the job of evaluating potential impacts of dragging on eelgrass in Taunton Bay. That led to an intense program of research looking at eelgrass, horseshoe crabs, juvenile fish, and related issues. My role in the assessment was to track horseshoe crabs to determine their seasonal locations in the bay, and the habitats they occupied. I also initiated a pilot project in collaborative bay management to explore what a localized use-management effort might look like for Taunton Bay.

The report of the Taunton Bay Assessment recommended continuation of the prohibition on unrestricted bottom dragging, and development of a science-based comprehensive resource management plan to sustain the ecological workings of the bay. The man who asked me to present at the upcoming Wildlife Society meeting had conducted the assessment and made those recommendations. The assessment report was presented to the committee that approved the moratorium, and the committee approved the recommended resource management plan, which included provision for a local group to advise the Commis-sioner of Marine Resources on harvesting of marine resources in Taunton Bay. I am one member of that advisory group. As a result, local bay management is a reality in Taunton Bay, a first in Maine, and as far as I know, in the nation.

Aside from being fully myself in doing these things, I have acted according to my lights, strengthening actively used synapses, diminishing underutilized others, changing connections in my brain and the nature of my mind—all by putting my body where my values are, and paying good attention to what my body and unconscious mind have to tell me. Not in so many words, but the messages are there when I wake up, like glass milk bottles used to show up on the back steps when I was growing up. Open the kitchen door and there they’d be.

Living through Schoodic Overlook subdivision, salmon aquaculture pens in the bay, the dragging moratorium, the assessment, the comprehensive resource management plan, the Taunton Bay advisory group—has made me who I am. Preparing to speak at public hearings,  and to act effectively in my local world, I have reinvented myself as the man I am today. We are all unique to begin with, and further refine our uniqueness by the particular actions we take and lives we lead. All made possible by our conscious and unconscious minds as they not only enable, but keep up with our ongoing engagements with the unique life worlds we inhabit.

From early electrical and radio days, we use the metaphor of “wiring” in talking about the complex neural networks of our brains as enablers of our actions and our minds. But that is too rigid an image, suggesting soldered connections that never change, and can’t change themselves. The brain is a biological system—the most complex object in the known universe—which no corporation has yet patented (though I am sure those days are coming). Our neurons are living cells which respond to the circumstances of their existence by strengthening or weakening their myriad interconnections, or forming new connections—or dying off if neglected. And it is our activity that determines the state of our minds, which in turn reflect what we actually do with our bodies. It is no accident my PowerPoint for the wildlife folks is based on the particular events I have been involved in for the last twenty-four years. It includes images of 12 invertebrates, 14 fish, 16 mammals, 50 people, and 54 birds, along with others of settings, habitats, plants, and charts I have dealt with—such dealings as I have grown into and interacted with in the recent course of my life.

Growing and interacting are better metaphors for the way our electro-chemical minds really work. Our cells either stay in touch, or drift apart. Consciousness is a hands-on operation, a matter of axons working with dendrites where they connect at synapses, preparing the way for ionic and chemical flows more fundamental than copper wires allow. It isn’t done for us; we do it ourselves. Unwittingly, yes, but willingly and even willfully through what we do in daily life. In truth, we invent ourselves as we go, both physically and mentally, by performing what we actually do in making a life for ourselves. Where our body is, the routines we go through—that is exactly what we learn. “You are what you eat” is true only for those who dedicate their lives to watching TV, videos, films, and other passive diversions. For the rest of us, we are what we do because doing is what structures our brains and our minds to do more of the same in the future—only better.

Before we get distracted by other concerns, fifteen minutes a day paying attention to what our most recent brain activity has accomplished overnight is all it takes to stay abreast of ourselves. We springboard higher and higher based on our cumulative mental activity as told by the changing connections in our brains. Our looping engagement with this place where we are on the Earth is the master teacher. That inner guide is far more compelling and effective than any author or professor. Instead of hitting the books, it is more rewarding to learn the lessons from what we did yesterday as revealed in the thoughts that greet us as we wake to a new day. Then, getting out of bed, we enter that day as new men and women better equipped to improve the lives we actually lead, not the lives others would have us lead for their benefit.

Unfurl like a squash blossom

 

(Copyright © 2010)

Excerpts from Apollo-Soyuz Test Project, Earth Observations and Photography Experiment, July 1975. Object: To utilize the special capabilities of trained observers (American astronauts of the joint mission) in visually studying and photographing specific Earth features and dynamic phenomena. Personnel: Gen. Thomas P. Stafford, Vance D. Brand, Donald K. (Deke) Slayton. From Farouk El-Baz, Astronaut Observations from the Apollo-Soyuz Mission, Smithsonian Studies in Air and Space, Number 1, 1977.

Revolution 17. Slayton: That looks beautiful there. Just look at those clouds down there. Fantastic. . . . Stafford: There’s a bunch of plankton out there to the east. I can hardly see that from under it. Slayton: Yeah, sure, and you can see the tourists down there, Tom. Brand: I’m not sure I see plankton. I see bottom. . . . Brand: I don’t think it’s the time of year for plankton. It looks too cold down there. Stafford: It’s not there now. Brand: Oh, I see something. Okay, I’ve got one shot of some scum on the water. But it went by so fast, it looked more like trash to me. But we’ll see what it is later. It could be plankton. So much for New Zealand. (132f.)

Revolution 56. Slayton: There it is. Boy! Oh, great! . . . We got everything we want. Say, that stuff’s pretty . . . right there. Brand: See the pyramids? Slayton: Yeah! [laughter] Brand: My God! I think I did. I’ve got to get a map though. . . . Brand: Gosh, look at that! Look at that water. Slayton: I know where we’re supposed to be, but I’m not sure. We’re going too fast. . . . Slayton: Hey, that’s Israel right down there. There’s the Sea of Galilee . . . goddam. . . . Brand: . . . I think I might have seen the pyramids. And now I’ve got to see a picture or a layout of how the pyramids are laid out when we get back, but I saw two specks that might have been pyramids. (137)

Revolution 75/76. Stafford: We’re seeing the coast of Florida go past pretty fast. Capcom [Capsule Communicator]: You should be passing over actually the coast of Mexico there, and Florida should be coming up in just a few minutes. (144)

Revolution 80. Stafford: Dick, where are we at now? Are we heading across Africa? Capcom: No, you’re on ascending pass; you’re just crossing the coast of southwestern Australia. And then you’ll be, of course, crossing Indonesia. Then you’ll get another long pass over the western Pacific. (149)

The astronauts were traveling as such high speed, features on the Earth were visible for only seconds at a time. It is little wonder they were often unsure where they were or what they were looking at. Though they had been trained as competent observers, once in Earth orbit they were frequently demoted from competent to naive observers, especially when confronting features seen from a novel perspective high above a land- or seascape racing past beneath them. To recognize features under such circumstances often proved extremely difficult.

Consciousness is the mental domain within which recognition emerges when a relevant concept is mapped from memory onto a passing percept, giving it—in a fraction of a second—an identity and a name. Since Aristotle, that kind of perceptual recognition has been called categorization. Aristotle thought of it as an objective process, as if a person or thing could objectively declare its own identity; it was what it was. Kant saw characterization as a subjective process through which an observer made sense of his world by bestowing an identity upon it; it was what he said it was. The Kantian view leaves room for metaphor in cases where an observer deliberately casts a novel and surprising identity upon a familiar percept, calling it by other than its literal name to heighten a particular facet of its conventional definition or identity.

A competent observer has a vast repertoire of labeled concepts to cast, like a net, upon her world. Whatever language she speaks, the labels clearly reside in her memory (or her culture’s memory) rather than in objects themselves. Nature is not the labeler; humanity is. Kant wins over Aristotle.

In early posts to this blog, I told stories of mistaking a windblown trash bag for a dying crow, a swept-back TV antenna for a crashing jet, a total stranger for my friend Fred. These are examples of category errors, of matching inappropriate concepts in my repertory of familiar images to a particular percept in my experience. In looking for mustard in its familiar jar, I never though it would be lying on its side on the refrigerator shelf, presenting its round, red top to my gaze when I was actually looking for a jar with a trademark shape seen in profile. The world we see (or don’t see) is the world we look for. That is, the inner, categorical world guides our expectancy as, time after time, we seek to fulfill the unique set of values that makes us who we are as individuals. If astronaut Brand thought he saw two specks below him as the pyramids, it was because he wanted to see the pyramids. In a subsequent debriefing, he said:

I don’t believe now that I saw them. I had the benefit of two passes. The first pass, I saw two little dots that I thought possibly were pyramids. At that point, I wished I had a map of the pyramids on the ground so I could see what they’re supposed to look like. I think probably what I saw were fields or something like that. So, I would say, no, I didn’t see them. (187)

Consciousness is always consciousness of one thing or another. That is, recognition or categorization is simultaneous with perception. We live in a world of significant objects made salient by our respective needs at the time as heightened through the agency of personal attention. If the figure of my friend Fred emerged on a crowded, New York sidewalk in front of me, it was because that figure was lodged in my mind from long acquaintance in Seattle. Knowing he was moving to New York, I transported that figure in my mind and projected it outward onto Fifth Avenue. Voila, that must be him up ahead. Except, as it turned out, it wasn’t Fred.

Intentionality is the term for seeing (hearing, etc.) things with recognition at first glance. It is one of the greatest mysteries of consciousness because, unlike paintings on museum walls, things do not bear identifying labels in the natural world. Recognition clearly implies memory being mapped onto sensory patterns as experience flows through us, much as Vance Brand mapped “the pyramids” onto two dots in the landscape of Egypt.

Intentionality, then, depends on recognition, that in turn depends on a form of conceptual memory by which myriad sensory experiences are synthesized into a kind of schematic or overall pattern derived from what such experiences share in common. In other words, intentionality is seeing the sensory now in terms of a schematized or conceptual then. Receiving Jesus as the messiah depends on familiarity with certain Old Testament prophesies, and mapping the one onto the other, “recognizing” or assuming them to be the same. They are taken to be the same to the extent the perceiver wants them to be the same, as astronaut Brand wanted two dots to be the pyramids. As I am fond of saying, for personal consciousness, expectancy is destiny.

Intentionality is made possible by classes of concepts sorted into bins of personally relevant concepts bearing such labels as Who?, What?, Whom?, Where?, When?, How?, and Why? These categories of categories are the stuff human situations are made of, and in terms of which they can be described and understood. To give one example:

On December 11th, 2009, Jenny Sanford filed for divorce from Gov. Mark Sanford of South Carolina, who had claimed to be hiking the Appalachian Trail over Father’s Day when he was actually shacked up with his lover in Argentina for five days.

If things are seldom what they seem, it is because personal consciousness, in presenting itself to the world through overt acts, is truly serving the values, comfort, and self-interest of the individual person. Consciousness, that is, mediates between the individual, biological person and her sensory world. Percepts, concepts, and consciousness itself are meaningfully categorized to suit the survival interests of the person herself as she views them—which is always a subjective judgment call.

Gerald Edelman depicts consciousness as arising from the interactive correlation between conceptual memory and current perceptual categorization. The memory aspect of consciousness is driven by fulfillment or frustration of values resident in the self, the perceptual categorization by sensory patterns similar in some ways to such memories, resulting in a sense of salience or biological significance. “Primary consciousness,” he writes, arises “as a result of reentrant circuits connecting special memory functions to those mediating current perceptual categorization” (The Remembered Present: A Biological Theory of Consciousness, Basic Books, 1989, page 64). Elaborating later on:

The idea that I attempt to refine here is that consciousness is the result of an ongoing categorical comparison of the workings of two kinds of nervous organization. This comparison is based on a special kind of memory, and is related to the satisfaction of physiologically determined needs as that memory is brought up to date by the perceptual categorizations that emerge from ongoing present experience. Through behavior and particularly through learning, the continual interaction of this kind of memory with present perception results in consciousness. (page 93)

What we learn, that is, reflects significant relationships between prior and current aspects of experience as relevant to homeo-stasis and survival. In addition to perceptual categorization, memory, and learning, Edelman discovers a need to place additional emphasis on a fourth dimension of consciousness, “the idea that two parts of the nervous system differ radically in their evolution, organization, and function,” parts which he calls “self” and “nonself” (page 94):

In richly endowed nervous systems, these portions must be organized differently but also be in com-munication. While neural parts of the first kind . . . operate within developmentally given parameters, those of the second kind . . . operate largely through ongoing exteroceptive sensory interactions with the world, that is, through experience and behavior. The operation of the first set of neural regions is . . . essential to define self within a species by assuring homeostatic regulation in each individual. The second set operates mainly to define nonself [or the world]. (page 94)

As Edelman explains, “It is the discrimination between the self and the nonself portions of the nervous system mediated by the mechanisms leading to primary consciousness” that assigns salience to some sensory events and not others in a situation as perceived by a given individual. Which is why, in the examples I gave at the head of this post, astronaut Brand “sees” the pyramids, and astronaut Slayton next to him scoffs at the idea. In Edelman’s words, “When categorized behavior [seeing or not seeing “the pyramids”] satisfies a value. . . , the inter-actions of self and nonself systems lead to altered synaptic efficacies. . . .” providing “one of the necessary bases for storage in the special memory, correlating value with category and discriminating self from nonself.” (page 98f.)

This is but a smattering of Edelman’s writing on categorization, but an important smattering in connecting self to nonself, concepts to percepts, memory to sensory events, abstract summations of experience to concrete experience in the here and now. I will conclude with one last quote from The Remembered Present:

Primary [non symbolic, non linguistic] conscious-ness may thus be briefly described as the result of the ongoing discrimination of present perceptual categorizations by a value dominated self-nonself memory. Inasmuch as such a memory is built by relating previous perceptual categorizations to values, primary consciousness is accomplished by continual bootstrapping of current perceptual states into memory states. (page 102)

Edelman is talking here about astronaut consciousness as well as your consciousness and mine. Go back and read this post again. And again. It will surely crop up on the final exam—which is none other than life itself. Even if you’re not an astronaut, it may help to be able to tell plankton from bottom from scum from trash.

Categorize this.

 

(Copyright © 2009)

Gerald M. Edelman gives us fresh ways of looking at, talking about, understanding, and appreciating both consciousness and its brain. The importance of these contributions cannot be overestimated. Nor can the difficulty of gaining access to them through his writings. It helps if you have advanced degrees in molecular, cellular, and neural biology. It’s not that he doesn’t write well, it’s more that his radical concepts are couched in so unfamiliar a vocabulary as to require a great many encounters in different contexts before their meanings begin to accrete in solid understanding. He includes glossaries in several of his books, but the entries are so bare-boned that they often raise more questions than they answer.

I tried the total-immersion approach, reading seven books in succession (in order of copyright date, 1978 to 2004), hoping that enlightenment would eventually descend from the skies. Which, in the last three works, by dribs and drabs, it began to. It showed up first in unconscious intuitions I became aware of after waking from a sound sleep. I am not sure how they got into me, but there they’d be at three in the morning as I roused from a bout of REM dreaming. I’d understand things I hadn’t grasped before going to bed. Understand is not the right word. More I’d have a feel for an aspect of consciousness I’d never fully appreciated before. By the end of the eighth book, I could entertain elaborate thoughts and images pertaining to consciousness—again, early in the morning—that previously would have been beyond me, or over my head. I credit Edelman as the source of these new ways of apprehending my own mind, and myself for having the will to stay with his challenging program of thinking out loud in a series of books until he got it right in the seventh one.

I am now in the awkward position of learning from my self-imposed program of study, while not being able to recommend a similar course to anyone else because so much depends on the will, stamina, and hunger of the student. It takes a committed autodidact (self-directed learner) to follow Edelman as closely as he deserves. He is clearly an autodidact himself, and to paraphrase the familiar saying, it takes one to fully appreciate another. As perpetual learners, autodidacts typically lose interest in a program of study once they have absorbed or automatized it. They love grappling with novel aspects of consciousness, not mastery of the old and familiar. Self-respecting autodidacts never rest on their laurels. They are driven to reinvent themselves time and again throughout the course of their lives. Consider the career of William James at Harvard, first as physiologist, then psychologist, and finally as philosopher.

Which is similar to the history of Gerald M. Edelman, distinguished recipient of the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 1972 for his work on the immune system. A molecular and cellular structuralist, he has contributed to the understanding of antibodies, proteins, plant mitogens, cell surfaces, and now the biology of human consciousness. His contributions in this last field center on his theory of neuronal group selection, which sheds light on the origins and workings of both the human nervous system and the mind it gives rise to in a manner consistent with Darwinian principles.

To put these remarks in perspective, I will digress somewhat in giving a brief history of my own self-directed learning. During high school, I read both Stendhal’s The Red and the Black and The Charterhouse of Parma on my own for reasons I can no longer remember. Both books spoke to my age and stage of development at the time. In college I put Crime and Punishment down as the sun was rising over the view of Harlem out the window, knowing I had been through a transformative experience. Ten years later, I stumbled on Thoreau’s Walden, which I don’t remember anyone recommending to me, and I went on to read almost every word he wrote, including, eventually, the two-volume Dover Journals. I still consider myself a late-blooming nineteenth-century man. Visual poet E.E. Cummings brought me into the twentieth century.  Later, in grad school, I spent two semesters with Sigmund Koch in a seminar reading one book, Personal Knowledge by Michael Polanyi. That was the most gripping, challenging, and rewarding course I ever had in school. I took it as an elective, so the motivation was my own. Polanyi’s theme is learning to tell the difference between knowledge and opinion so that you know how you know what you think you know.

Now it’s Gerald M. Edelman who particularly speaks to my age and stage of development in spite of the near ineffability of much he is writing about. He came to his topic (consciousness) from intense study of the immune system, bringing his terminology with him, and when there are no suitable terms, inventing his own. Which makes it hard going for those heading from other directions. But all along the way I have sensed he was theorizing about my personal consciousness as well as his own, so I stuck with him.

Now I am reading an eighth Edelman book, Second Nature: Brain Science and Human Knowledge (Yale University Press, 2006), which offers a summary of his theory of consciousness as a springboard to understanding human knowledge. The first four chapters offer an overview of his thinking on conscious-ness, leaving out details of the arduous, 28-year journey by which he derived it one step at a time. Here is how Edelman describes consciousness itself, the process he subsequently goes on to account for in theoretical terms:

In the awake conscious state, you experience a unitary scene composed variably of sensory responses—sight, sound, smell, and so on—as well as images, memories, feeling tones and emotions, a sense of willing or agency, a feeling of situatedness, and other aspects of awareness. Being conscious is a unitary experience in the sense that you cannot at any time become totally aware of just one thing to the complete exclusion of others. But you can direct your attention to various aspects of a less inclusive but still unitary scene. Within a short time, that scene will vary in one degree or another and, though still integrated, will become differentiated, yielding a new scene. The extraordinary fact is that the number of such privately experienced scenes is apparently limitless. The transitions seem to be conscious, and in their complete detail they are private, first-person subjective experiences (Second Nature, pages 13-14).

In the next sentence things get more complicated when he introduces the concept of intentionality: “Conscious states are often, but not always, about things or events, a property called intentionality” (page 14, my italics). And then goes on to summarize: “As human beings, we know what it is like to be conscious. Moreover, we are conscious of being conscious and can report on our experience” (page 14).

Which I think might lead some to oversimplify the nature of consciousness in that we frequently assume it is of some sort of world apart from ourselves, not recognizing it is the subjective doing of our own brains that underwrite the appearance in consciousness of any such world. To see something “with our own eyes” is no guarantee it actually happens as consciousness depicts it. Our minds are full of phantoms, vampires, ogres, aliens from other worlds, elves, Santas, and other characters we project onto the world as if they were not aspects of subjective consciousness and the bodies and brains which make it possible. It is a fundamental error to mistake phenomena in consciousness for the world as it is—for reality. The sounds of music and colors of art are in us, not the world, which in turn consists of sources, sinks, and patterns of energy that our brains and minds transform into the “objects and events” we are conscious of. It requires another indirect or imaginative transformation to locate them in an outer world.

It is good to remember that language and intentionality refer to concepts and appearances in consciousness, and these map onto the world very much as processes in the brain map onto consciousness. We live at least doubly removed from the so-called real world, so intentionality, in being “about things or events,” makes no claim that they actually exist in any other context than awareness itself. We know this from watching “movies” made from a succession of still images, and the many optical illusions and magic tricks that similarly “fool the eye.”

Which is my way of warning readers to beware of succinct distillations such as even Gerald Edelman might give of his work. When the unfamiliar terms crop up, as inevitably they must in writings about consciousness, we are asked to give the author the benefit of the doubt—particularly when the words flow easily and seem to make sense. Key terms in Edelman’s theory of neuronal group selection include reentry, degeneracy, perceptual categorization, global mappings, dynamic core, phenomenal transform, qualia, among others.

Reentry [to take one example] is the ongoing recur-sive interchange of parallel signals among brain areas, which serves to coordinate the activities of different brain areas in space and time. Unlike feed-back, reentry is not a sequential transmission of an error signal in a simple loop. Instead, it simulta-neously involves many parallel reciprocal paths and has no prescribed error function attached to it. (Wider than the Sky, 2004, pages 39-40).

As Edelman and Giulio Tononi detail “reentry” in an earlier work (A Universe of Consciousness, Basic Books, 2000):

Reentry plays the central role in our consciousness model, for it is reentry that assures the integration that is essential to the creation of a scene in primary consciousness. Integration can best be illustrated by considering exactly how functionally segregated maps in the cerebral cortex may operate coherently together even though there is no superordinate map or logically determined program. . . . The organi-zation of the cerebral cortex is such that even within a single modality, for example, vision, there is a multitude of specialized or functionally segregated maps devoted to different submodalities—color, movement, and form. Despite this diversity, we are aware of a coherent perceptual scene. When we see such a scene, we are not aware of colors, move-ments, and forms separately and independently, but bind the color with the shape and the movement into recognizable objects. Our ability to act coher-ently in the presence of diverse, often conflicting, sensory stimuli requires a process of neural inter-action across many levels of organization without any superordinate map to guide the process. This is the so-called binding problem: How can a set of diverse and functionally segregated maps cohere without a higher-order controller? . . . Binding can occur as a result of reentry across brain maps that establishes short-term temporal correlations and synchrony among the activities of widely spaced neuronal groups in different maps. As a result, neurons in these groups fire at the same time. Thus, reentry correlates a large number of dynamic circuits in space and time. . . . This binding principle, made possible by reentry, is repeated across many levels of brain organization and plays a central role in mechanisms leading to consciousness (pages 106-107).

The tradeoffs between explicit details and broad summations in the different works of Gerald M. Edelman makes it difficult to recommend one particular work as representing his thought in its most cogent form. To those highly motivated to under-stand consciousness, I can at best recommend a selection of three of Edelman’s books:

Edelman, Gerald M. and Giulio Tononi, A Universe of Consciousness: How Matter Becomes Imagina-tion (Basic Books, 2000). This work assembles in readable form the details on which the theory of neuronal group selection rests.

Edelman, Gerald M., Wider Than the Sky: The Phenomenal Gift of Consciousness (Yale University Press, 2004). This summary presents the theory in its clearest form.

Edelman, Gerald M., Second Nature: Brain Science and Human Knowledge (Yale University Press, 2006). The theory is here applied to gain fresh insight into the issue of human knowledge.

I strongly urge any readers with the will to do so to read them in the order given, from detailed account to more general overview. Five other books I have read in addition to those listed above:

Edelman, Gerald M. and Vernon B. Mountcastle, The Mindful Brain: Cortical Organization and the Group-Selective Theory of Higher Brain Function (The MIT Press, 1978; reprinted 1982).

Edelman, Gerald M., Topobiology: An Introduction to Molecular Embryology (HarperCollins Publishers, Basic Books, 1988).

Edelman, Gerald M., The Remembered Present: A Biological theory of Consciousness (Basic Books, 1989).

Edelman, Gerald M., Bright Air, Brilliant fire: On the Matter of Mind (Basic Books, 1992).

Edelman, Gerald M., and Jean-Pierre Changeux, editors, The Brain (Transaction Publishers, 2001).

I have yet to read:

Edelman, Gerald M., Neural Darwinism: The Theory of Neuronal Group Selection (Basic Books, 1987).

Medial View of Brain-96

 

 

(Copyright © 2009)

Consciousness often seems to operate by an either/or law that excludes the possibility of taking any middle position. We are either happy or sad, pro or con, well or sick, calm or stressed, bold or meek. Ironically, debate teams can flip a coin to see which side of an argument they are to present. We act out our lives more like Lear judging his daughters than Hamlet muddling through to a bad end. One after another, heads of state insist on making “one thing perfectly clear.” We avoid ambiguity, uncertainty, mixed messages, and confusion as if they were sexually transmitted diseases. Regarding judgments and opinions, we act as if there were no room for maybe—no middle ground.

Which pretty much reflects the stop/go nature of how our brains operate. Either neurons fire or they don’t, there are no halfway measures. Even at the last instant, a neuron told to fire by every one of its input signals can be stopped in its tracks by a single inhibitory signal. Cancel! Hold everything! Just say No!

Which is not necessarily a bad thing because it assures clarity of both vision and action under stressful conditions. The job of consciousness is to suggest appropriate courses of action in novel situations. Personally appropriate, that is, to the actor’s most basic biological and cultural values. We grow impatient with Hamlet because he simply can’t act on the basis of what he knows to be true, failing to revenge his father’s murder, or if he does act, skewering poor Polonius trembling behind the curtain in his mother’s chamber. In the end, all major players lie strewn about the stage, the intimate world of the hesitant one fallen in ruins.

But if hesitation proves costly on occasion, rash action in the name of clarity can come at an even steeper price. Take the U.S. invasion of Iraq as an example. The shock and awe was intended for Saddam and his troops, but stunned the whole world. Were there truly no alternatives? Indeed, there were many, all stifled by the overriding thrust of consciousness that ruled the Bush administration. When the looting began, we saw that shock and awe was no substitute for planning ahead.

Defending the selective nature of attention as the gateway to consciousness, Gerald M. Edelman addresses the evolutionary pressure to select one action as being the most appropriate among a field of alternatives:

An animal that is hungry or being threatened has to select an object or an action from many possible ones. It is obvious that the ability to choose quickly one action pattern to be carried out to the exclusion of others confers considerable selective advantage. Possessing such an ability makes it possible to achieve a goal that would otherwise be interfered with by the attempt to undertake two incompatible actions simultaneously (Bright Air, Brilliant Fire, pages 141-142).

I picture Bush as an exceedingly threatened animal in seizing upon the Rumsfeldian strategy of preemptive attack in waging war on Iraq. Within a limited circle of minds, it seemed a good idea at the time. Except it extinguished all the uncertainties that a prudent commander would need to consider before making such a move, with the result that a shallow notion poorly thought through was put into effect, with egregious results.

Obama’s sending a surge of troops to Afghanistan appears to be another example that speaks to much the same point. Again, the military mind is out of its depth because there are too many imponderables in the social mix (it certainly is no nation) we call Afghanistan. Echoes of Vietnam are evident in Obama’s thinking, clouding his consciousness, spurring him to rash action as if he could picture the full consequences of such a move. This time, he tells himself, we will not retreat; we will win. But consciousness offers no guarantee of success; based entirely on past experience, it has no way of predicting with surety how things will play out. If I were the Taliban, I would lie low for a year or two, then, when American forces withdraw as advertised in 2011, step into the void supposedly defended by Afghan troops lacking the American commitment to, and fervor for, battle.

Consciousness is far more fragile than we care to admit, often tricking us into making a good show for form’s sake when, in fact, we don’t fully grasp the problem or threat we are faced with. As a result, we decide on an irreversible course of action with no option other than defeat when victory doesn’t rush from the wings on cue.

On the world stage, the loss of a man here or there (because his past experience does not prepare him to deal with prevailing events) is no tragedy. But when one individual’s consciousness is made responsible for the actions of an entire nation, leading to commitment of all its resources to a particular end, even the rigor of six million years of hominid evolution doesn’t equip us for the task of even imagining what an appropriate course of action might look like, much less recognizing it if we ever came across it. Consciousness is always experimental on the scale of one person leading a particular life. If we survive our personal errors of judgment, we have opportunity to learn where we went wrong. But on a national scale, no one mind can be made fully responsible for decisions affecting the whole. Which is why we have cabinets and advisors and staff to supplement the life experience of the so-called Commander In Chief. Who—like Lear misjudging his daughters, and Hamlet wanting absolute certainty—can aspire no higher than to a mortal level of consciousness.

Where the buck stops, that is where one individual’s consciousness makes a real difference on the national scene. That is precisely where Obama is located in the issue of America’s relation to Afghanistan and Pakistan. And India, Iraq, Iran, Israel, Russia, China, and North Korea. His is a daunting assignment, even with the most artful spies and prescient advisors on Earth. Whatever choice he makes, he is damned one way or another precisely because he cannot admit to his human limitations or the frailty of his personal consciousness.

Our form of government calls for leaders with the stature of gods—when there are no gods available to take the position. Fallible as we are, there’s nobody here but us chickens. Men and women with the gift of consciousness and speech—who are bound to make mistakes in novel situations they are ill prepared to deal with. Particularly in situations they have no chance to rehearse as stage actors have because they take place in real time, every performance playing to an opening night crowd.

In the case of sending more troops to Afghanistan, we the senders are united by the commonalities of American experience in this decade; the receivers by their shared experience in Afghanistan and Pakistan. There is bound to be a meeting of bodies carrying weapons, but not of minds. I cannot fathom any mind but my own, as no American can an Afghan or Taliban or al Qaeda mind, and vice versa. In global affairs, it is the minds inhabiting individual bodies leading particular lives in specific places that set the courses of action which determine world events. There is no possible way we can know what will happen as the result of this surge in military commitment. We can know what we want to happen, but that has almost no bearing on what will actually take place.

What is lacking in this campaign is a sense of humility, along with a realization that concepts in the mind are not events on the ground. The best thing we could possibly do under the circumstances is for all concerned to put down their arms and engage one another as fellow humans, children of the one Earth. Yes, we should engage, but as equals, not as one dedicated to dominating (or killing) the other. Consciousness being as fallible as it is in every known instance, it is foolish to put a gun in any hand that might take the life of a total stranger for reasons that are not fully known or considered. Imagine killing someone and then wondering who he was? Was, but no longer is.

Is there no middle ground between victory and defeat? There certainly is. Between me killing you and you killing me, there is the usual middle way of muddling through by playing backgammon together and trading stories about our mishaps and adventures. Of being human together—you being fully you, me being fully me. Acknowledging our similarities, sharing our differences, balancing the two, not letting ideology come between us to distort our relationship.

No, we have not tried that approach. We are better at building walls between people than bridges. At shooting from the hip before we’re sure of the target. America is now a street gang writ large on the world scene, defending its turf at all cost—unto bankrupting the nation both financially and morally. Because that is the way we are taught to conduct ourselves in the world—by flexing our might instead of listening to the other side of the story. Maybe later, when we do hear the story, we’ll apologize for acting so rashly, lay a few wreathes and call it square.

After all, they invaded our territory on 9-11, which everyone knows is a violation of sacred ground. No matter we violated theirs first. So we send out our muscle to teach them a lesson. As long as they run their turf by our rules, everything will be OK by us.

That’s the stuff tragedies are made of because we know it’ll never happen. That’s not how people are made. Lear was Lear, Hamlet was Hamlet. Liberty means living your own life your own way, being who you are till the curtain drops. We’re scripting our own drama as we act in the world, driven by the dictates of consciousness, which are invariably self-serving as best we can picture our current situation. It’s not only a tragedy for those who fall during their mission in Afghanistan, it’s a tragedy for all of us because we’re making it happen. It’s our money that’s paying for this expedition—a million dollars a year per head. That’s the going price for pretending we can teach total strangers the lesson we want them to learn.

Shakespeare has already written a play about a black man deceived by the advice of his lieutenant, Iago. Othello fell for it, not realizing Iago had his own agenda driven by his own motives. “O fool! fool! fool!” he said of himself when disabused, realizing he had been tricked into smothering Desdemona, whom he had “lov’d not wisely but too well.” Another animal driven by fear, he acted boldly as he thought he must, but acted wrongly nonetheless.

Contrail

 

 

(Copyright © 2009)

Last Friday I watched the first episode in the TV series Charlie Rose is putting together about Understanding the Brain. Sit a group of experts around a table, all coming from different perspectives, and you get a poker game with each player being an expert on his own hand, striving to outdo everyone else and take the whole pot. One plays the memory card, someone else the neural underpinnings of consciousness, followed by the social underpinnings, or the genetic underpinnings, then on to brain pathology, levels of brain functioning, round and round, hand after hand. Who wins? It all depends on how you look at the brain, and talk about the brain, and bluff your way by trying to convince the rest that you hold the answer they’ve all been looking for.

I have a game like that floating in my head all the time. Writing my blog or teaching an adult ed class, I have to decide what’s really important to know about consciousness, how it all fits together, how it relates to the brain, to behavior, to childhood development, to life experience, to evolution, to genetics, and so on. How do I lay my understanding of conscious out for others to grasp and compare with their own? Blogging and teaching, I have to engage my audience, not stuff my particular views down their throats. It all has to make sense, or if not, at least point in a direction that seems plausible.

When your conscious mind looks at itself—at its own hand—and is not at all sure what consciousness is, or even what the possibilities are, then the problem is doubly compounded and the best thing to do is fold to cut your losses. Sure, know thyself, but don’t try too hard because it’ll drive you nuts. That’s the feeling I had watching Charlie Rose and his panel of brain experts. Which is similar to the feelings I sometimes have while blogging and teaching about consciousness.

Fortunately, one aspect of consciousness is its flexibility, which allows for improvement and self-correction. Old synapses can be abandoned or strengthened, new ones encouraged. So when I feel I’m not getting my point across, I review my situation and try to see how I can do better. After posting 154 essays on aspects of consciousness, together with teaching my recent adult ed class, I offer a few thoughts intended to unclutter and refocus my mind so in future games I can play similar hands better.

Resolved 1:  Put consciousness in a context of alternative ways to bridge from sensory input to action in the world; that is, show how reflexes, habits, rote learning, and assumptions offer other paths to action with more immediate results at a cost of much less mental effort than required to sustain full-blown consciousness.

Resolved 2:   Remember, since the point of consciousness is effective action in the world, the mind must be seated in the brain somewhere near where sensory inputs connect to motor planning areas—between, say, an incoming pole on the lower side of the temporal lobe near where faces and objects are recognized, and an outgoing pole in the lateral prefrontal cortex where working memory translates sensory inputs into motor responses—an area encompassing cingulate and entorhinal cortices, hippocampus, amygdala, hypothalamus, midbrain reticular formation, and mediodorsal thalamic nucleus. Though the entire cerebral cortex may contribute to consciousness, the mind seems to comes together between the two poles I have mentioned.

Resolved 3:   In everything we do, our values, feelings, and past experiences (memories) moderate the tension between the poles of perception and action. Reflexes, on the other hand, produce hardwired responses that would be slowed and made ineffective if we had to think about it when, say, sand or liquid is thrown in our face. Consciousness develops over time, so is much slower to produce a bodily response. Values come into play, that set of salient priorities which promote our adaptation to whatever situation we find ourselves in. Feelings give a positive or negative tone to the occasion, alerting us to reach out or be on our guard. And memories of past occasions suggest what we might do (or avoid doing) in light of our history of past successes and failures. Where perception and motor planning intersect, values, feelings, and memories are in the vicinity, ready to influence our judgment.

Resolved 4:   Neural correlates of conscious (NCC) aside, the mind is situated in the brain, the brain in the body, the body in a family within a community within one human culture or another, and that culture within the habitats and ecosystems constituting a region within the biosphere of planet Earth. It is often hard to tell which combination of our several layered environments influences us as any one time. It is safe to assume that, one way or another, all of them are impinging on us all of the time. We are creatures of the whole—of Earth, our region, our culture, our community, our family, our body, our brain, and our mind. How we treat any one of them always comes back to us as a sure sign of how we regard (or disregard) ourselves.

Resolved 5:  It is good to remember that consciousness is autobiographical. The history of any one person represents the history of a good portion of the Earth, including plants, animals, watersheds, and cultural communities.

Resolved 6:   Too, our every conscious act reflects our state of mind, which in turn affects every layer we are embedded within. In acting for ourselves, we act for our families, communities, and the living Earth as a whole. We are made of Earth stuff, and can’t help enacting it every day of our lives.

Resolved 7:   Where consciousness is, unconsciousness is not far away. In a very real sense, the goal of consciousness is twofold: 1) to solve problems that affect our survival, and 2) to build facility in solving similar problems so we don’t have to work so hard next time we face a similar situation. That’s why high school English teachers assign term papers, so in college and at work we don’t find writing reports as daunting as we did the first time. In that sense, the role of consciousness is to convert the stages of a complex project into an automatic (that is, unconscious) routine in order to save time, energy, and a great deal of worry. As William James put it in 1890:

We must make automatic and habitual, as early as possible, as many useful actions as we can, and guard against the growing into ways that are likely to be disadvantageous to us, as we should guard against the plague. The more of the details of our daily life we can hand over to the effortless custody of automatism, the more our higher powers of mind will be set free for their own proper work (Principles of Psychology, page 122, italics deleted).

Resolved 8:   Regard the history of human works as a reflection of the history of human consciousness. Every work of the human hand is a work of the mind before that. We are revealed to the world, not by good intentions, but by what we plan and bring about. Action suited to our life situation is the goal of consciousness. Nothing can have more survival value than that. Growing rice, corn, wheat, and other grains is an act of will. Milling them into flour is an act of will. Baking bread is an act of will. All so we can break bread together and be grateful to be alive and receive the gifts of the Earth. Poems and songs serve the same end.

Resolved 9:   Beware the powerful, for they are out to shape our endeavors and our minds to their advantage. Buy this, they tell us; Do that; Vote as we tell you; Trust us, we are your friends. All the rest of us need to do is retire our minds and let them make our decisions for us. Those who control our culture create an infrastructure allowing them to think for us and control our minds. Their goal is to be alive in our stead, to steal our life’s energy so that we must work for them, not ourselves. Free will is the prerogative of the arrogant. Our job (they tell us) is to obey. When the infrastructure of our minds bears their trademark—and it amazes me how often that is true—we are lost to ourselves. Freedom is freedom to think for oneself. To surrender that privilege (it is no inherent right) is to surrender to slavery on behalf of The Controllers, who are happy to co-opt our privilege. Fox News, for example, is not just standing by but actively reaching into our brains to implant its alien new world. As Eric Alterman writes in The Nation of November 9 (page 10):

Fox is not a news organization; it is a propaganda outlet, and an extremist one at that. Is it any wonder that according to survey after survey, Fox News viewers are among the worst informed Americans when it comes to politics, despite their obsessive interest? A recent study by Democracy Corps finds that this audience believes “Obama is deliberately and ruthlessly advancing a ‘secret agenda’ to bankrupt our country and dramatically expand government control over all aspects of our daily lives,” with the ultimate goal of “the destruction of the United States as it was conceived by our founders and developed over the past 200 years.”

The scary thing is that in our own little world, we are the powerful, and it is ourselves we must beware lest we mistake the way the world seems for the way the world really is. Irony of ironies, our own values determine what kind of world we discover around us. We paint that world to our liking, or more often, disliking. Cultural values—religious, political, economic, military, social—make us who we are and set how we act and react. Yet our values are invisible to ourselves and, instead of reflecting how we were raised and our earlier experiences, seem to be properties of the world itself. This tragic error is the root cause of the misjudgments rampant in today’s world. We blame others for our disaffection, and determine to eliminate them as the “cause” of our discomfort.

Resolved 10:   In order to understand consciousness, look to the culture in which it is immersed. And vice versa, to understand culture, study the consciousness of one who is embroiled in it. It is difficult to tell where culture leaves off and consciousness begins. The language we speak is the one we are born to. The gestures we make, the tools we use, the work we do, the manners and ways we take into our personal selves as our very own—are cultural in origin. Every member of a particular culture or subculture shares in similar repertoires of values, and is apt to express some variation on those values. The ways we prepare food, eat, dress, dance, entertain ourselves, make love—are ours largely through imitating or learning from others. We are distinctly ourselves, yet at the same time suppress our uniqueness in order to resemble our companions. We personally exemplify the ways of our culture in almost everything we do, think, and believe. At the same time, we contribute our uniqueness to the texture that makes our culture what it is. It is of us, we are of it. Loops of engagement carry us into the cultural world, and the cultural world into us. The reality we find is an extension of our conscious life; the two feed into each other as if parts of an endless Mobius band feeding into itself. Religion gives us our cultural god, who we then make responsible for creating the natural Earth, which clearly emerged billions of years before anything like culture existed in the human mind. Strange business, yet business as usual because we don’t discriminate very well between the cultural and the natural—between what we make happen and what makes us happen in the first place.

Resolved 11:   Finally, be clear that the basis of good and evil is in us, not the world. Our memories come in two sorts, those giving us pleasure and those causing pain. We have soothing dreams, and nightmares. Our feelings come in pairs of opposites: happiness/sadness, love/hate, confidence/fear, triumph/failure, and all the rest. Our minds color everything that happens either positively or negatively, making sure that whatever happens, we remember it for better or for worse. The world is the world, its seeming goodness or badness depending on how we seize it and take it into ourselves. Similarly, integration and differentiation are built into consciousness—putting things together or taking them apart. Induction and deduction are aspects of mind, moving from the sensory, specific, concrete, and detailed toward the conceptual, generic, abstract, and schematic—and back the other way. And we distinguish between chords and melodies because the qualities of simultaneity and succession are built into our sensory apparatus. Too, relative motions in the world are told by the brain, which for survival’s sake struggles to distinguish personal motions from those of others, the difficulty being that sometimes it’s ours, sometimes the others’, and sometimes both are moving at the same time. Dancing is possible because there’s a beat to the music, and both partners key their moves to that rhythm. Without such a frame of reference, the brain searches for clues to help it decide how to act when everything, for whatever reason, is in flux. We may think it trivial to distinguish our own motions from those of other objects and beings, but if you’ve ever sat in a railway car and compared the relative motion of your car and the one on the track next to you without being able to tell which train is moving, then you’ve had the giddy experience of (your brain) not being able to say whether you are moving ahead (without a giveaway jolt) or the other is silently sliding to the rear.

Reverting to my earlier metaphor, it’s not the hand we are dealt that determines our fate, but how we choose to play it. Consciousness is as consciousness does—as we make it happen. Up till now, those thought to understand how consciousness works have tended to use that knowledge for their personal advancement. Think politics, education, advertising, public relations—think John B. Watson, inventor of behaviorism. It is crucial that the workings of consciousness become widely studied and eventually known, so enabling people everywhere to act advisedly on their own—and their common culture’s—behalf.

Consciousness of Nature

Reflection 149: Blind Walk

October 6, 2009

(Copyright © 2009)

Bending down, I reach into the front-loading dryer and scoop the jumbled laundry into my basket. Back in my apartment, I place the basket on my bed and begin to sort it—underwear in this pile, T-shirts here, sheets there, socks lined up by pattern and color along the edge of the mattress. Finding a dishtowel but no dishrag, I figure it’s hiding among the sheets, which I shake out—there, snug in the corner of the fitted one. I put the piles of clothing I have sorted away and make the bed.

A routine episode from almost any Saturday morning in the past twelve years. I am a creature of habit, and of sorting things into groups having similar characteristics—pencils, tomatoes, bugs, butterflies—courtesy of distinctions I make in my conscious mind. I am a classifier, a categorizer, a sorter into piles. And so are we all, as shown by the way we use language.

‘What is this, class?’ asks teacher reaching into her shoebox, holding up a red toy truck about two-and-a-half inches long.

‘A truck,’ answer the first-graders in unison.

What is it for?

‘Going places,’ says one; ‘Carrying stuff,’ says another.

‘What is this?’

‘A cow.’

‘What do cows give us?’

‘Milk;’ ‘Ice cream,’ says someone in back.

And this?

‘A house.’

‘Are you sure it’s not a store or a barn?’ 

‘It’s where people live.’

Except that teacher doesn’t heft a truck, boat, or house from the box—she is dealing strictly with miniature toys, simplified representations of familiar objects without motors, without internal organs, without windows or kitchens.  She is not teaching the class to discriminate on the basis of sensory details so much as to think in terms of broad categories of utility. She is having her students sort the world conceptually in terms of labeled ideas, not firsthand experience. This is more an example of cultural indoctrination than education.

Then there is the blind walk.

I get permission to take my class of seniors to the grounds of a large, unoccupied home in the neighborhood where we won’t bother anyone. I tell them the idea of the blind walk is to get to know the area, not by looking, but by feeling their way with their hands. I want them to concentrate on touch, sound, and smell—any and all senses except sight. They pair up, decide who is to go first. One is the ‘guardian’ whose job is to make sure the blind-folded ‘explorer’ doesn’t get hurt. Partners are to tactilely explore their surroundings for half an hour, then switch roles, trade the blindfold, and go at it for another half hour. My job is to keep everyone safe and active. At the end, students are to share  highlights from their experience as guardians and explorers, respectively.

For the watcher—me—the exercise turned out other than I had imagined. I presented it in terms of sensory exploration, but my students took that as a challenge to name objects they could not see. In twelve years of schooling, the ability to savor their sensory experience had been stripped from them. These were first graders grown large, but perceptually diminished. They could classify their experience, but not enjoy it. They were eager to identify whatever they came across by touch, but that was all. As soon as they said “pinecone,” “rock,” “stick,” “tree,” “grass,” or “gravel,” they moved on to something else without pausing to explore the feel or smell of what they had touched. Their approach was wholly and uniformly conceptual. Getting the “right” answer was the only thing that mattered. Even warmth from the sun was reduced to naming the source, not savoring how it felt on a particular day in early spring. We teachers had done our job too well, creating students who could sort the world into a standard set of categories—wholly bypassing personal experience, the basis of all pleasure and true knowledge.

As a result of what passes for education these days, many of our children fit themselves to a world of concepts and ideas, not sensory exploration. They get good at sorting things into bins, which has a certain utility, but is also sad because they developed that skill to please their elders. During the course of my life, I have watched an emphasis on concept formation descend through the grades from high school to grammar school to the earliest rungs of preschool. Our children are prepared by society to think and work categorically rather than develop their personal abilities to experience the wonders of this Earth.

My point is that, in the best of all possible worlds, consciousness relies heavily on both sensory and conceptual aspects of experience. To meet the challenges of life we need extensive practice in both realms. To a man or a woman, we are all latent artists and scientists, cooks and judges, poets and talk-show hosts. Lumping things together by sorting, classifying, categorizing on the basis of broad similarities is an essential life skill—but so too is distinguishing between specific features, qualities, and subtle differences. To know a thing, a person, or a field of endeavor requires not only knowing about their general characteristics, but acquainting their specific details as well through personal experience.

Much has been written about the objectivity or intentionality of consciousness, the being aware of things as wholes in themselves rather than in terms of their separate parts, qualities, or details. Consciousness initially renders the world in terms of recognizable units; it takes deliberate effort to analyze such units in terms of their myriad sensory components (hearing individual voices in the symphony of the whole). We are immediately conscious of coherent objects or scenes as overall images or summaries, so not to be overwhelmed by the jumble that William James described in his famous cartoon of infant consciousness as “one great, blooming, buzzing confusion.” In The Principles of Psychology (1890), James writes:

Any number of impressions, from any number of sensory sources, falling simultaneously on a mind which has not yet experienced them separately, will fuse into a single undivided object for that mind. The law is that all things fuse that can fuse, and nothing separates except what must (italics deleted).

The overall effect being to achieve the unity of a scene or an object, a wholeness that must be discriminated into its parts through deliberate effort and refinement of attention. Much has been made of perception as a process for recognizing the world in terms of its fundamental units or categories. Aristotle treated those units of oneness as “modes of being,” as if they were properties of things in themselves. Kant saw them more as phenomena created by consciousness itself in its own terms through the process of apprehending the world. Gerald Edelman presents categorization as a quality of perception dictated by values inherent in the perceiver which are necessary to acting in the world adaptively for the sake of survival.

However we account for consciousness, attention, and awareness, we must allow for two types: 1) concrete, sensory perception, and 2) a more generally applicable type that is less specific and so more abstract and conceptual. Consciousness can balance or move between the two types, from the abstract to the concrete, and back again, encompassing both example and principle, token and type, species and genus, concept and percept. How the brain achieves this remarkable dynamic is not fully understood, but there is no doubt that both types can be joined in the workings of consciousness. Except that education tends to tip the balance toward the summary judgments of conception.

It strikes me that what I was doing in sorting my laundry in the first example above, the first graders were doing in labeling the teacher’s toy truck, and my seniors did on their blind walk—was casting abstract, conceptual expectations onto the world as a kind of outline for what we thought was possible in and appropriate to our respective situations. We then confirmed those expectations as they were fulfilled on those three occasion by acting appropriately to our situations, students calling out the name (as they had been taught) that fit most closely to their expectations as a kind of easy shorthand for the full-bodied (detailed perceptual) experience, and me sorting my laundry into piles I deemed appropriate to my subsequent tasks of putting clothes away and clean sheets on the bed. 

As I have often written, expectation is destiny. We don’t live in the world so much as in our expectations of what that world should be. We make the evidence of our eyes and ears conform to what we want to happen. Our stance toward the world, our fundamental attitude toward reality, determines how we act far more than the evidence of our senses. It as if we were wind-up toys that head off as soon as set on the floor. Education winds us up, life fulfills what we have been taught. That is, it is our preconceptions that drive us, not the existential facts of our lives.

This is the understanding I have been seeking since my first post to this blog in early October, 2008. Taking time off to reflect on my posted reflections, this is what I have discovered. As humans walking our diverse ways, we are condemned to find what our families, peers, teachers, and overall cultures have prepared us to find. We fit the world to whatever model of the world we have assembled over the course of our training. That is our reality. Which our experience inevitably fulfills because—contrary to public belief—perception follows and does not lead the dictates of conception.

Picture humans on their blind walks through life, judging and labeling what they find according to their acquired pre-dispositions, and that is my portrait of the human predicament of days gone by, which is identical to the one we find ourselves in today.

Cormorants

 

 

(Copyright © 2009)

Because each person on Earth is inherently unique, the landscapes we live in depend on where we are situated in our heads. Self-centered perspectivity is the tragic flaw we all share in common. The human predicament is to be one-of-a-kind—yet to act as if we each set the norm. Unrelentingly, we mistake our personal views for the way things are, confounding our limited personal grasp of affairs with universal truth. We are so full of ourselves, we often foist our personal brand of consciousness onto those around us, who, if we are tough enough with them, bow to our shows of conviction as signs of wisdom and power. To wit: patriarchies, chains of command, pecking orders, management and labor. Day after day, we bull our way through one situation after another, or submit and get out of the way.

Our uniqueness is not a matter of degree; it is absolute. Each of us may boast some 23 thousand genes, but they are wholly inadequate when it comes to specifying the one million billion (1 followed by 15 zeroes) synaptic connections between brain cells in our cerebral cortices. During development in the womb and through strong experience, we forge those connections on our own—or don’t if we fail to exercise them actively during infancy, childhood, and thereafter. As Gerald Edelman summarizes the underpinnings of consciousness (“Building a Picture of the Brain,” in Edelman and Changeux, The Brain, Transaction Publishers, 2001):

At the finest scale, no two brains are identical, not even those of identical twins. Furthermore, at any two moments, connections in the same brain are not likely to remain exactly the same. Some cells will have retracted their processes, others will have extended new ones, and certain other cells will have died. . . . There are no absolutely specific point-to-point connections in the brain. The microscopic variability of the brain at the finest ramifications of its neurons is enormous, making each brain unique. (Pages 38-39.)

In managing personal consciousness, each of us is on her own. Our brains are unique, our minds are unique, the worlds we create for ourselves are unique. Quite literally, reality is beyond our reach because we live in our bodies by interpreting signals from some outer world of which we can only dimly and partly be aware. Conjure that world as we may, the results bear our personal signatures for, as projections outward from our perspectives, they are largely our own doing instead of a welcoming of the world as it is. We each place ourselves at the center of our worlds, creating a multiverse of which we are but one facet among seven billion.

Yet hour by hour we rise on our soap boxes and proclaim or act out the truth as we see it—as if it were the only truth there is or could possibly be. If that isn’t a travesty, then it is a tragedy which we enact every every day without questioning whether or not we know what we do, or appreciate the impact we have on those around us or on Earth itself, the planet that has supported us up till now no matter how badly we have treated it.

Which raises an obvious question: Who am I to defy the very point I am trying to make by daring to break out of the fortress of my subjective outlook in this blog? Surely, I am no less tragic a figure than any other. All I can say is: I write for myself and you read for yourself. Perhaps our worlds overlap to some degree. In which case I could claim to be a columnist like Alexander Cockburn, say, who writes in The Nation (October 5, 2009):

Was there ever a society so saturated with lunacy as ours? One expects modulated nuttiness from the better element, particularly those inhabiting the corporate and legislative spheres. But these days insanity is pervasive, spreading through all classes and walks of life.

Or for another example, like Daniel Lyons in Newsweek (September 28, 2009):

[M]ost of what streams across Twitter is junk. One recent study concluded that 40 percent of the messages are “pointless babble.”. . . Then again look at TV: fat people dancing, talentless people singing, Glenn Beck slinging lunatic conspiracy theories. Stupid stuff sells. The genius of Twitter is that it manages to be even stupider than TV. It’s so stupid that it’s brilliant. No person with an IQ above 100 could possibly care what Ashton Kutcher or Ashlee Simpson has to say about anything. But Kutcher has 3.5 million Twitter followers, and Simpson has 1.5 million.

Insanity and stupidity are pandemic. They’re finally getting across as our preferred way of life. We are conjurors all, flaunting vanities from our secret worlds. Whatever became of modesty, humility, judgment, and respect? We’re making a killing by foisting subjective views on a public starved for outrage and comic relief. Think of those trillions of synapses going to waste, now disconnected and lost for good. And we can’t stop ourselves from putting witlessness on display any more than Republicans can stop trying to kick Obama’s chair out from under him so they can smirk when he falls.

The take-home message? If you’re not good at building a better world through discipline and hard work, trash the one you’ve got just for laughs. That’s what we’re doing with our unique set of gifts instead of contributing to the greater good. The tragedy is that in trashing the world, we’re trashing ourselves. Playing our foibles before the crowd, we appeal to the least of our possibilities instead of showing our stuff in meeting the defining challenges of our times. It is we who choose how to make ourselves happen during our brief stay on this Earth. If life turns out a tragedy, so be it: the name on the script is our own.

NASA-Earth-2