362. Minds in Black Boxes

November 19, 2014

Metaphorically, a black box is a kind of generic puzzle container. You try to solve a puzzle you can’t see directly, using clues you can discover by any means short of actually opening the box. In that sense, a wrapped birthday present is a puzzle you can size up, heft, shake, listen to, bend, sniff, turn upside down, and so on to gain a sense of what’s inside. A wrapped soccer ball would respond differently to manipulation than a pair of dumbbells in a package of the same size and proportions.

I first came across black-box problems during my brief stay at MIT over sixty years ago where they took the form of electrical circuits containing various arrangements of resistors, capacitors, and induction coils sealed in a box with only input and output terminals outside the box. The challenge was to determine the structure of the circuit hidden within the box by observing how it transformed a range of electrical inputs into outputs exhibiting specific characteristics.

Those were the days (early 1950s) when behaviorism with its stimulus-response paradigm reigned in the psychological world so that rats in mazes and animal behavior in general were treated much like black boxes as input-output systems observable only from the exterior. Human behavior was seen as a response to external environmental situations and manipulations, and fully understandable as a transformation of ambient stimulation.

Psychology and neuroscience have come a long way since then, yet still cannot account for minds as higher order systems emerging from molecular and cellular brains.

My approach turns the black-box problem on its head. The minds of scientists and the rest of us are not outside, pondering the box, but are themselves firmly seated within an opaque container surrounding their embodied minds, a figurative “box” allowing multiple circuits of engagement with family, community, culture, and nature through our personal input and output terminals (perception and bodily behavior). The minds we so desire to explain are the very tools we use to explain everything else as if mind were the absolute standard of understanding and judgment. Uncritically, we want it both ways.

“Objectivity” is a subjective judgment we make within our very own black box when we’ve convinced ourselves that we know what we’re doing. Which accounts for the common conceit that what I think is indeed true while what you think is a gross distortion or misconception.

Each of us looks upon her world from just such an idiosyncratic point of view from within her personal black box. Making the world (not the mind or the self) become the problem. Any reality beyond the confines of the black box we are born within (the semipermeable skin that contains our organic self) is an experiential hypothesis, not an absolute given. From our point of view, the world is the puzzle to be solved, not the mind, the seat of our situated intelligence, which determines the perspective from which we each construct our own worlds



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

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

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


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

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

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

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


356. Believing Is Seeing

November 12, 2014

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

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

While once taking dishes out of the drainer and putting them away, I stepped back to get around an open cupboard door—and heard the yeowl of an angry cat accusing me of stepping on its tail, and “saw” that very cat, gray, calm, and unaccusing, looking up at me from the floor for several minutes after the event, when, in fact, I hadn’t lived with a cat for over twenty years, had no cat at the time, and had merely brushed the cupboard door so that a hinge, which had never made a sound, squeaked at me, which I immediately interpreted as the yeowl I had heard, the entire event being a fiction created in the instant on the basis of the activation of a pathway in my brain that had been laid down years ago when I had in fact stepped on several real cats, none of which had been gray, long gone but apparently not forgotten as patterns of sight and sound lodged in my brain.

(I wrote that in one sentence because in my mind it is all one continuous incident.)


My understanding of my own mind rests on committing my mental resources to working through the run of situations that arise and evolve in daily life. That commitment is what I mean by engaging the world beyond the limits of my bodily envelope.

Baseball offers one such medium of engagement based on the commitment to engage another team by playing a certain role both offensively as a batter and defensively as pitcher, catcher, infielder, or outfielder in a manner that conforms to the rules of the game.

Jazz offers another medium of engagement for playing a particular instrument in rehearsing and performing in a certain traditional style or idiom of music. Ballet is a third medium, and so on through a host of others including poetry, literature, theater, film, art, gardening, politics, religion, finance, science, technology, education, and so on. All opening me to various ways of performing in my daily engagement with the world, and so surviving the best I can as the sort of person I am.

All media are disciplined ways of being conscious in the world, and of engaging accordingly, perceiving in certain ways, judging in certain ways, performing in certain ways. What all such media of being conscious share in common is the commitment to and expression of mental situations as they arise and evolve. Those situations themselves are largely shaped by the medium chosen for their apt expression. Some situations are appropriate to ballet, jazz, or baseball, respectively. Others require treatment in media offering other disciplined ways of being oneself.

Fueled by a range of emotion, memories, biological values, understandings, imaginings, impressions, beliefs, and other dimensions of personal experience, our situated intelligence—what we gloss as our inner selves—guides and coordinates our judgments, actions, and perception in engaging the world in a manner we find personally appropriate, meaningful, and satisfying (or to some degree not).

We are as we engage, and engage as we discover ourselves situated within the dimensions of our lifelong intelligence, training, and experience. That’s life. The adventure, journey, odyssey we commit ourselves to for precisely one lifetime.

The flow of situations through the mind makes up what we call a story, complete with beginning, middle, and end. Each baseball player in a given game lives his own story from the perspective of his defensive position on the field and offensive turns at bat. The story of the game as a whole is a compilation of the stories lived by the individual players (characters) as woven into a coherent narrative binding the high points of separate plays into a pattern making up the flow of collective experience from first to last inning.

The basic organization (plot) of the 2014 World Series as played out in Kansas City (beginning and end) and San Francisco (middle) is based on the conflicting motivations of two teams from different regions each dedicated to defeating the other. Conflict between worthy adversaries is at the heart of every game of baseball (football, basketball, soccer, cricket, chess, bridge, etc.) That is, each game is meant to display the similarities and differences between two teams playing by the same rules under identical circumstances, the score giving a measure of their relative strengths and weaknesses on a particular occasion.

Which is a gross generalization when put into words, while each game of baseball is based on specific comparisons played out on the field: strike or ball, fair or foul, safe or out, left or right, on or off, fast or slow, stop or go, ahead or behind, win or lose. Each game is told by its experiential specifics at the time of play, not its watered-down statistics after the fact.

The drama is in the setting up, enacting, and fulfillment of one play after another in the stream of each player’s consciousness. The game exists in the subjective experience of all in attendance, not in the record books which are dry summaries stacked on shelves.

What we notice at the time are the contrasts that test our expectancies for better or worse, falling short in disappointment or exceeding in joy at the way thing turn out. That’s where the excitement and adventure lie—in the difference between what we expect and what happens on the field. Every play sprouts from the soil prepared by preceding plays. Each game is organic, not factual or statistical. It lives in the minds of those who witness it. Those fully present to each play as it unfolds.

Baseball plays right into the arms of consciousness, which thrives on contrasts, differences, oppositions, disparities, and surprises. Pea soup is an apt metaphor for fog because it’s the same all around us, masking the beacons and landmarks we need to navigate by. Baseball wakes us up. It is nothing but landmarks for navigating the bases, infield, outfield. Keep your eye on the ball and act accordingly. Singles, doubles, triples, home runs—these are the outstanding features of baseball, along with pitches, catches, throws, swings, hits, misses, walks, bunts, stolen bases, outs, and errors. You never know what the next pitch will bring.

In game 7, Mike Moustakas’ triple with two out in the bottom of the ninth sent an electric jolt through every mind in the park. As Pablo Sandoval’s catch a few heartbeats later gave an even bigger jolt, clinching a year of champion pride for the Giants, a year of regretful determination for the Royals.

Those jolts are what baseball is all about. Showing what you can do. Playing to make a difference. Distinguishing yourself in a field of worthy rivals. That is the essential story of our living our lives on this Earth. Not eliminating the competition as in warfare, but bringing it up to your level so you can both do your best, even if at the moment one comes in first and the other second.

Consciousness is told by the difference between a sink of dirty dishes and clean dishes put away. Between smooth and rumpled sheets. Between a world free of or ravaged by Ebola. Between doubt and certainty. Joy and sorrow. Hope and fear. Sickness and health. Win and lose. Full and empty.

Consciousness arises in the delta signal that tells the difference between old and new, good and bad, pain and pleasure, wisdom and ignorance. It flows from comparison between like and dislike, acceptable and unacceptable, music and noise, here and there, beauty and disarray.

I am speaking of the gap between two opposing states of awareness. Between expectancy and actuality, hill and hollow, straight and crooked, dead and alive, high and low, weak and strong, rich and poor, tall and short, you and me.

Memory allows us to make such comparisons so, strange as it seems, memory is essential to consciousness in the present moment. Memory is the background of all that happens in the now. Consciousness resides in the flow between states of mind as a virtual state in itself. It is there in the mind but not in the brain as a distinct entity. It is nothing you can point to but something you have to experience. Like the flow of a river or flight of a bird.

349. Mind as Comparator

October 29, 2014

I sent the following tweet recently: News is news because it exceeds or falls short of our hopes, fears, expectancies. Ebola. ISIS. Nobel Prizes. The mind is a comparator.

Consciousness is activated by a discrepancy signal, just as depth perception is activated by the difference between what our left and right eyes see. And our sound location is activated by the difference between what our left and right ears hear. And our balance is established by receptors in our inner ears based on slight differences produced by our turning our heads.

How astounding is that? That consciousness exists in the gap between what we do and perceive. What we expect and what actually happens. The outer cortex of our brains is set up to make just such comparisons between adjacent cortical columns. The result is a discrepancy signal that drives our stream of consciousness.

We pay attention to the exceptional, the unusual, novel, disconcerting, and so on. The fly in the jelly jar. The cherry atop the ice cream sundae. And when night falls and everything is cloaked in darkness, we lose interest in the world because everything is grayed-out. What’s to notice? So we fall asleep from lack of arousal. Only to awaken when sunlight hits our eyes.

There are two sorts of consciousness: good and bad, soothing and disturbing, sad and glad, chocolate and vanilla, and so on. Basically, what pleases us and what displeases us at the time. Emotional judgments. That guide our actions to be appropriate to the situations we find ourselves in again and again. Fight or flight, advance or retreat. Stop or go. Try or give up. What a marvelous system that enables us to survive under a huge variety of conditions.

Pity the poor insects that have a very narrow repertory of instincts and automatic responses. Evolution has blessed us by giving each of us our own mind to make up under the circumstances we are in. If only we were wise enough to make use of that gift.

348. Situated Intelligence

October 29, 2014

Situated intelligence refers to the makeup of the mind in any particular situation. It is the structure of the mind as assembled from the collective dimensions of consciousness active at that moment. Those dimensions include some mix of sensory impressions, understanding, imagination, emotion, values, drives, humor, judgment, memory, and so on.

Whatever its composition, situated intelligence drives and regulates the loop of engagement coursing from perception through meaning and judgment to action in the world, and back to the next round of engagement beginning with expectancy, attention, and sensory impressions.

Situated intelligence is what we refer to as the self, I, ego, and so on. There is no homunculus keeping an eye on the world; there is only the assembly of particular dimensions of mind as briefly constituted in a given situation. In a few milliseconds that structure will evolve as the situation develops, our judgments will shift, and we will act more or less appropriately to the next stage of awareness. William James referred to this progression as the stream of consciousness.