To play the speech game you have to take turns. There’s a beat to it. You have to enter the rhythm. Say something, wait for a response. Pulses of meaning going both ways. Your turn, my turn, your turn, my turn. Incoming, outgoing, incoming, outgoing. Perception alternating with action again and again.

I am with you; you are with me. We are together. Two worlds as one in alternation. Subject and object combined as one. Agent and recipient forming a unity. Acting, being acted upon. Speaking, listening. I hear you; you hear me. I see you listening to me; you see me listening to you. All joined by a thread of meaning without end.

Your words spark something in me; my words spark something in you. Together, we create something new. Something different from either of us alone. We expand each other. Our mutual understanding grows larger. You build me; I build you. We are a dynamic duo in a relationship. That relationship is bigger than me, bigger than you. It is the two of us being bigger than ourselves. Creating a world we can both live in. A world of our own making and to our own liking. A world of shared understanding we can’t live without.

Families create spaces where such things can happen. People can get to know themselves in the company of others whom they trust. That company and those spaces are powerful. Like traveling through space to visit another planet. If you learn such ways in your family, you can try the same method outside with others.

I have a family behind me; you have a family behind you. Let’s get together to see what happens. See if we can make it work for the two of us. We’ll start slowly, taking turns. You go first. Then I’ll go, then you again. We’ll compare families. Compare worlds. Discover new planets. Off into the universe of possibilities before us. Whooee, this is fun. I’m having an adventure. How about you?

Engagements aren’t only with people. They can be between people and animals, animals and animals, people and things, people and places, people and weather, people and music, people and art, people and games, people and ideas, people and fantasies, people and dreams.

The common thread is a flow of action unto perception, perception unto action, again and again, for as long as it lasts. Each round sets the stage for the next, and the next after that. As each day leads to the next, each week, each month, each season, each year, each life leads to the next. The flow is the essence of engagement, the moving ahead. The wayfaring, the adventure, the prospect of discovery. Anything but the same old, same old. Orthodoxy is the death of engagement.

Under the spell of a biography of Charles Proteus Steinmetz, as a kid I unwound countless transformers to see how they were put together to solve the problem of electrical energy being wasted as heat in the magnets that stored that energy from cycle to cycle. The solution was to build transformers out of thin insulated layers of iron to break up the currents stealing energy out of the system.

I was entranced to find how such an idea itself could be transformed into a design that solved a problem. In a word, I was engaged. As I have been with one thing after another my whole life. One discovery after another, one project after another, one challenge after another. Each discovery leading to a new challenge. The flow never stops. One engagement leads to the next. As one footstep moves us ahead on our wayfaring journey. Who know where it will take us?

Once the process of engagement is discovered in childhood, there’s no telling where it will lead. To the knitting of mittens. The baking of apple pies. The washing of cars to look like new. The repair of roofs. The discovery of vacuum tubes. The discovery of transistors. The discovery of planetary disks around stars throughout the Milky Way galaxy.

Like footsteps one after another, our engagements lead us on and on. Once the process of engagement is discovered in childhood, there’s no telling where a given thread will lead. Our families give us a start, the rest is up to us on our own. Forming ongoing relationships, raising families, working on projects, making discoveries—being ourselves all the while.

What else are we here to do but discover who we are and the range of engagements we are suited to? The rest—doing the work—is up to each of us individually. Together, we will build the new world our children will grow up in. As generation by generation, our ancestors once built the world we inherited at birth.

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Our minds are proposed in the womb, then disposed during subsequent engagements after birth for the period of one lifetime.

It is in the care of families that our minds develop perceptually from arousal, expectancy, and attention on to the formation of sensory impressions, their recognition, naming, categorization, and understanding.

Then in that same care that we apply those minds situationally in supporting our personal judgment, resulting in our setting goals and planning actions through projects and relationships as aided by tools and skills to actual enactment of specific courses of behavior.

Families are the medium in which we thrive (or not) as we learn through trial and error to piece these dimensions of mind together in coherent order to serve in our varied engagements with a world we can only construct and interpret for ourselves because, snug in our black boxes, we can never know it directly as it might be in itself.

Our parents, brothers, sisters, and extended families offer examples to illustrate the mix of skills, priorities, and attitudes by which we learn to live. Keeping clean is one ingredient in that mix, along with such qualities as being careful, paying attention, learning to talk and listen, recognizing when we’ve had enough, cleaning up after ourselves, playing fair, having fun, sharing, controlling our tempers, and caring for one another.

Through family living, we forge the commitments and responsibilities that bind us together as a unit, along with the many social skills that invite or promote successful engagements with others. Within the shelter of our families, we develop along the dimensions of mind that we exercise the most in our engagements one with another. We apply many of those same dimensions to engagements with events outside the family, or supplement that set of dimensions with others we find lacking at home and strive to develop on our own.

Our intimate families are the nests or niches that provide the protective spaces in which we grow into ourselves through the interplay of our mutual engagements. Family engagements are seldom one-way-streets, but depend equally on the mental qualities and actions of all members taken together.

Families may create the conditions of our personal growth, but that same growth challenges our families to develop along with us. Each family can be seen as a school of fish all swimming—or flock of birds flying—together. Or as a cohort of confederates joined in common cause. And yes, a can of worms wriggling en masse, each affecting all the rest.

Families are group projects dedicated to personal fulfillment and development of all members simultaneously. Individual commitment and responsibility are spurred by such dedication on a variety of levels as each member respectively attains them.

At the same time, families contain many specific personal experiences not shared with other members. In fact, I often found myself yearning to get away from other members so I could be myself and not somebody’s child, rival, or underling. I will expand on that aspect of family life in my next post.

 

With memory always in the background, the flow of sensory stimulation proceeds—courtesy of arousal, curiosity, expectancy, and attention—from sensory receptors to the formation of sensory patterns (impressions or phenomena if not formal patterns) in conscious awareness.

Interacting with memory, those patterns are judged to be either recognizable or novel. If recognized, they are welcomed into one family or another of sensory experiences and given the family name (that’s a dog, a cat, an elephant, etc.); if novel, they are either skipped over as strangers, or given extra scrutiny in order to fit them to the closest family resemblance that makes them meaningful.

At which point we cease engaging perceptually with that incoming pattern of energy and shift to dealing with its conceptual meaning, giving it place in our hierarchy of meaningful understandings of how named patterns of energy fit together within the structure of our experience of such patterns as we are able to sort and recognize them as being related one to another.

In my view, personal consciousness asks three questions during the processing of incoming sensory stimulation:

  1. What’s happening?
  2. What does that mean in the context of my current situation?
  3. What, if anything, can I, or should I, do?

The first question is framed  by the mental department of sensory perception. The second question is framed by the department of personal meaning in the here and now. The third question is framed by the department of action appropriate to the answers given to the first two questions.

I gather those three parts into the process of situated intelligence, which, given our current situation, comes up with a judgment on how best to proceed so that our response fits with our understanding of just that particular situation. Our intelligence, that is, is not a general property we possess so much as a sense of familiarity in dealing with certain types of problems (predicaments) due to our training or lifetime experience.

No one is a match for all problems. That is why we specialize as mathematicians, tennis players, welders, diplomats, street sweepers, and so on. And why our skills improve with dedicated rehearsal, practice, and performance over and over again.

For five years I used this blog as a scratch pad to get my thoughts on consciousness in shape to put into a book. Then a second book. In that limited sense, it worked as I intended it to, but not as a blog. So now I’m making a new start with all that I’ve learned crammed into my head, which will slowly leak out in a series of much shorter and more pointed posts.

Consciousness–the linking of perception to action through the medium of personal judgment–is the story I now want to tell. And how those actions fare in the outer reaches of Nature, Culture, Community, and Family–our collaborators in creating the mental space in which we conduct ourselves as wayfarers.

All animals are wayfarers, back to the original one-celled ones that first sprang from the primal ooze. We are wayfarers in being go-getters of the food we need, the oxygen, the water, the partners, groups, and everything else we need to survive in our environmental niches. And then need to get rid of when we turn all that good stuff into waste. Life commits us to one long engagement with the world outside our external membranes, wherever we find ourselves on our travels.

Consciousness is the agent of our engagement that keeps that two-way traffic going across our outer membrane for one lifetime. Because we keep changing our locales and situations with every move we make, our minds have to provide us with a flow of what’s going on so we can judge whether it is good or bad for our welfare, and act accordingly by moving in or backing away.

Since we get only scanty coded messages about where we are and what’s going on, we don’t have a very complete sense of our situation at any particular time, so have to make a lot of guesses to fill in the gaps. Mostly we’re wrong and have to correct our estimate, but sometimes we do the right thing and score big, which is encouraging and keeps us going a little bit longer.

Consciousness, then, is about doing the best we can with what we’ve got in the time we’re allowed. When we are born, we don’t know anything but how to suck, poop, burp, and cry. If we make it through the first seconds because somebody takes us in hand and sees to it that we are fed and kept warm, then we may make it through the first minute, hour, day, or even longer. Engagement with our immediate surroundings, as I say, is our first task if we are to make headway as wayfarers to our second day, next month, and even through our first year.

But you know this already, or you wouldn’t be here. You’re already a wayfarer first-class, working your way ahead every day of your life. Finding what you need, eliminating what you don’t. It’s that simple, and that hard.

More later. Take care in everything you do. And above all, have fun.

Sincerely, Steve from planet Earth.

Reflection 318: Self-Engagement

September 12, 2012

Copyright 2012 by Steve Perrin.

As I picture it, my mind consists of three parts operating in sequence: 1) a sensory or perceptual part that develops a felt understanding of my current situation in the world, 2) a visualizing part that represents that situation as interpreted from my personal point of view, and 3) a behavioral part devoted to planning and executing a course of action in fitting response to the situation I believe myself to be in.

The situation I create for myself on the basis of sensory evidence as I interpret it is the central feature of my conscious mind. I do not live in the material world so much as in an internal milieu I create for myself by giving personal meaning to the public energies impinging on my senses. The situation I live in is my version of the world as I take it to be. The world-as-it-is-in-itself is far too complicated for me to grasp; there’s too much going on at once. I can only deal with a simplified version that can bear the burden of meaning I thrust upon it. The raw energy I confront may be in the world, but the patterns I recognize and understand in the light of my prior experience are mine alone.

The same is true of the actions I take in response to felt situations—that response is my personal response to my situation as I am able to construe it. My actions are a function of the personal skills and abilities I have developed by living my personal life history of trial, error, practice, and rehearsal.

Perception, situation, action—these are the essential stages of awareness that in tandem make up my looping engagement with the energy-rich yet unknowable-in-itself world I live in. The interpreted world I construct for myself from patterns of energy selectively drawn from my surroundings—and emphasize by my fears and desires—shifts from one situation to the next, leading me to act as I do in making myself happen in the world as subjectively represented in the flow of situations through my internal milieu.

No, I do not live In the real world. None of us does. We live in inner worlds of our own making. We move from one situation to another as we can make out familiar patterns in the raw energies the world sends our way. Start to finish, life is a creative adventure we strive to make the best of in one loop of engagement, then the next, and the next.

We are driven by the valence of the feelings each situation kindles in us as we engage ourselves: good or bad, positive or negative, pro or con, hope or dread, carrot or stick. So are we propelled forward by the situations we find ourselves in, avoiding pain, seeking relief and happiness, engagement after engagement, loop after loop.

In my next post, I will offer my recent engagement with with wildness as an example of my creating a series of situations in which to make myself happen by acting in familiar ways through my chosen medium of photography.

Until next time, I remain y’r friend and brother, —Steve from Planet Earth

(Copyright © 2009)

Enough words. Time for pictures. These are slides from the PowerPoint I showed on the last day of my adult ed class on consciousness at MDI High School in Bar Harbor. See for yourself.

1-Consciousness 2-Consciousness

3-Diver Ed

4-Quaker Ladies

5-This Body 6-Sensory World

7-Consciousness-Self

8-Loops of Engagement

9-Echo-of-thought

10-Engagement  

Steve Perrin

(Copyright © 2009)

The “It” in the title refers to my understanding of my personal consciousness as made up of various processes which I am able to identify through self-reflective experience. In the order they come to mind (not the order in which they kick in), they include:

1. Arousal informs me I am more awake than asleep, definitely not in a stupor or coma.

2. Alertness seems to be an attitude preparing me for paying attention. I sense something’s up—or might be up.

3. Attention is a kind of outreach I direct or extend via my senses—looking, listening, sniffing, tasting, touching, or heeding what my body has to tell me. Attending to comes before consciousness of. That is, expectancy precedes its fulfillment in perception.

4. Expectancy is a kind of pre-viewing or pre-engagement made possible by my point of view at the time as informed by my values, interests, concerns, and feelings. Expectancy is situational in that it arises from what has gone before, in either the immediate or remote past. Memory is clearly involved in projecting the familiar onto the current scene of the now. Expectancy is largely abstract (less detailed than actual perception) and conceptual, that is, derived from a set of earlier perceptions, but lacking the concrete particulars of any one of them.

5. Fulfillment of expectancy (or not, as the case may be) is a flash of recognition by which the object of my attention is identified as that which I was looking for, so that consciousness acquires intentionality in being consciousness of . . . one thing or another. Specific details in the now give substance to the abstract envelope of expectancy as if the two aspects of consciousness—abstract expectation and concrete perception —came together in a fulfilling, mutual engagement.

6. That engagement has a quality of salience representing the degree to which my motivated expectancy (hopes, fears, desires) is being met in the current episode of awareness—at an appropriate level of discernment. Enabling me to make a judgment confirming or disconfirming this is what I was looking for, or had in mind in the first place.

7. The comings together of concepts and percepts lead to a sense of understanding, of my self standing under (supporting) this new instance of consciousness, taking it in, reaffirming my grasp of (or relationship to) the world, conveying a sense of my being of that world, providing a strong sense of affirmation that my grasp is appropriate to my situation.

8. If my expectations are fulfilled in a new or surprising way, then surprise and novelty play roles in consciousness, stretching my understanding in order to accommodate or incorporate an instance I did not anticipate, challenging or perhaps enlarging my understanding. This gives me the option of fulfilling my expectations by habitual application of a tried-and-true response to account for, discredit, or dismiss this unanticipated episode of experience. Or, on the other hand, of opening myself up to new experience in such a way that expands my grasp of the current situation. (Note: This is what I was laboring over in my last post, Reflection 151: Error Signals, that effort prompting me to simplify the matter and place it in context in today’s reflection.)

9. All of which can culminate in new learning, or reaffirmation of my prior understanding. At this stage, clearly, memory is involved. Earlier synaptic connections are affirmed, or perhaps an effort to establish new ones as a basis for improving the effectiveness of my actions in the world is made possible.

10. All leading up to reaffirming or improving my being in the world through planning leading to effective action by equipping me to make myself happen more aptly in light of my circumstances, which is the point of being conscious in the first place.

In the order I present them here, that’s: arousal, alertness, attention, expectancy, fulfillment, salience, understanding, novelty, learning, and action. In addition, I would stress the roles of perception, conception, and memory as major players in consciousness, for a baker’s dozen of topics to whirl in the mind much as jugglers whirl Indian clubs in the air. Any scientist of the mind could probably double or triple that number, but that’s as many as seem particularly relevant to me today in keeping this reflection as straightforward as I can make it.

Consciousness as a Machine, by Rube Goldberg

 

 

Copyright © 2008

 

The day stretches ahead of me. All that time. How fill the hours?

 

Had breakfast, washed dishes, did laundry, made a start at my solstice card list, and it’s snowing. What next? Winter solstice on the 21st, the true New Year’s Day. A group of us usually hike up Cadillac Mountain Road, weather permitting. That’s a ways off. First, John and Seth are coming from Boothbay to talk about eelgrass in the bay. I’ve made my eelgrass PowerPoint, but haven’t run through it. Got to do that. Carole’s coming tonight and I want to buy carrots and make rice. Oh, and transfer funds from savings to checking to cover my credit card payment. And blog about consciousness of time and space. And check NOAA weather.

 

For now, that’s today’s to-do list. In its own way, each item is important. What’s most important? I’ll go to the bank after the post office gets the mail up—usually by 10:30. That gives me an hour and a half. First, check the weather. Make blog notes. Shop when I go to the bank. Keep my solstice card list handy to work on between times. Do the PowerPoint later. Try to get to the blog.

 

O.K., have at it.

 

Not so fast. I check my blog and find a comment from Laura, which I respond to. Then I check my stats, and find two links to porn sites. Am I linked to them or are they to me? How do I get rid of links like that? I e-mail WordPress support to find out. Then I run out of printer ink. And so it goes (“it” being this given day in my life). Planning is one thing, doing another. Things just come up and need to be dealt with. With everything changing, I find it hard to know my own mind.

 

One thing about time, it always runs out. If I start over, it runs out again. What is this flow we call time? As if it were so many grains of sand in an hourglass. When we run out of it, we flip the timer. Until that last hour when we can’t. The metaphor of “the arrow of time” makes it sound like some sort of trajectory, but whether meant in a thermodynamic, cosmological, or other sense, it is a misnomer. It is not time that flows over us so much as change itself. Time is an Earth-bound measure of change. Earth-bound because found only in the human mind, and, as far as we know, humans are bound to their double-planet, Earth-moon system. Time, arrow and all, is in our heads.

 

I think time and space together are the essence of consciousness. We are conscious at this time, in this place. In our current situation. We may be recalling past events or anticipating future ones, but we are doing so at this current moment of consciousness, here and now, the one, ever-changing moment we are allowed.

 

Rather than being principles of consciousness, time and space are derivatives of consciousness. I’d say change is the founding principle on which consciousness rests. Either the world (my situation) is changing in awareness, I am changing, or both are changing at the same time. Time is the signature of myself the observer (the world is changing before me); space is the signature of myself the actor (I am changing the world). When I am both observer and actor (in the ongoing feedback loop in my brain that is consciousness itself), time and space inform me as a participant (in that loop).

 

(Note to self: look at locations in the brain where incoming sensory phenomena are given meaning (interpreted) as a basis for appropriate action—there would be the neural substrate of this consciousness that I am.)

 

Time and space flow from the interaction between sensory awareness and past experiences as made available by recall. Fitting the two together is the effort after meaning we know as human consciousness. Which enables us to act appropriately (or not) in our current situation.

 

In my little booklet Eartheart (Addison Gallery of American Art, 1973—long out of print), I included an image based on the text, “Time is an arbitrarily designated standard of change against which other changes can be compared or measured.” The apparent motion of the sun relative to our Earthly observing station has long served as the standard by which we gauge other changes. Obelisks and sundials translate solar motions into moving shadows, which can be cast on calibrated pathways—giving us the current time of day. Rotating hands on clocks and watches mimic solar movements in different degrees of fineness. Digital timepieces are programmed to step to the same beat.

 

But time is not contained in such instruments. Contrary to Einstein’s famous thought experiments, a mechanical clock in space without an observer is nothing more than an assemblage of springs and gears. The seat of time is in our heads. Where it serves as a standard for calibrating changes we apprehend in the world. Time gives meaning to such changes by referring them to the apparent motions of the sun, moon, and stars. That is, to Earth’s rotation on its axis once each day as divided into practical units found useful in scheduling and measuring human affairs. 

 

I can look in The Old farmer’s Almanac and find out when the sun is predicted to set in my locale. Then I can drive up Cadillac Mountain (when the road is open) to Blue Hill Overlook and watch the sunset from there at that time. A surprising number of visitors do just that when they come to Acadia National Park each summer. Then as soon as the sun drops below the horizon (or the horizon rises to cover the sun), people seem to think the event is over so they drive off to dinner. But the best part of the sunset experience is ahead as the clouds change in turn from gold to orange to red to deep crimson to blue to black.

 

That progression of colors reflects the essence of time in human consciousness. In them time is not just a series of numbers on a clock—which is merely one way of calibrating human awareness of changes in our environment—but it is the sequence of changing phenomena in our minds that is the point. We watch sunsets to have such experiences. Acquired through experience, time is a tool for enabling us to be in the right place at the right time.

 

Or by a different time scale, we can climb Cadillac Mountain on the winter solstice to see the sun, on its trek along the horizon, at its southernmost limit, which serves as the experiential turning point between the old year and the new. With the sun at its lowest arc in the sky (because Earth’s northern hemisphere is turned farthest away from it on this day), days are short and nights long. But exactly at that time, hope wells up in consciousness because from then till the beginning of summer there’s only one way to go and that’s up as sunrise inches its way northward along the horizon toward—first colder—then warmer days ahead.

 

Winter may be a time of hardship and scarcity, but it is the road we must take if we want to make it to spring and summer beyond. Much as to reach those promised tomorrows, we must give today our best shot. Which is why time is our greatest invention and most valuable asset. It is possibility itself. Possibility for careful attention. Possibility for discovering meaning, for effective and rewarding action, for reflecting on the outcome, and then for trying again.

 

The second most important question we can ask ourselves is: What’s happening in my world today? The most important question is: What am I going to do to help things along? Hour by hour, day by day, we mind our situations, then act out the stories of our lives.

¦

 

(Copyright © 2008)

I have written about seeing phenomena that are not real (dying crow, crashing plane), and not seeing phenomena representing real objects (mustard jar, sunflowers). Today I write about seeing a phenomenon correctly, but misconstruing or misinterpreting it.

 

I am walking along a bustling city sidewalk in late fall. Jostling crowds of people are moving in both directions. Through a brief gap, I see a familiar figure swinging along ahead of me. I know immediately who it is, an old friend I haven’t seen is several years. The gait is right; the overcoat is right, the hat is right. Yes, even the scarf. Fred! The jolt of recognition gives me a burst of speed as I stride to catch up with him. I weave through the crowd, which has abruptly become an obstacle course. He keeps on and I follow behind, making slow progress. It takes me several minutes to get directly behind him. Should I call out? Grab him by the shoulder? Race by and present myself? I pull up next to him and raise my arm above his shoulder . . . and quickly drop it to my side. Wrong nose, wrong mouth, wrong chin. I’ve been chasing a stranger. A wave of disappointment stops me in my tracks. Now, where was I going?

 

When he briefly taught at Harvard, E.E. Cummings sometimes wrote the comment on student papers, good but poor. Here on a city street I found myself right but wrong. From the back, the figure ahead of me looked like Fred and moved like Fred. I would have sworn it was Fred. From the side, I saw additional details that were not Fred-like at all. An innocent mistake. But under stress of battlefield conditions such suppositions could lead to death from a burst of friendly fire.

 

Consciousness blends two sorts of signals, one perceptual, the other conceptual. The perceptual stream suggests something exists in the world; the conceptual stream tells us what it means to us in our current situation. Chasing after Fred, I didn’t realize that being and meaning were out of joint until my perception was detailed enough to make a positive identification. In which case the meaning I had proposed collapsed in a heap of misidentification.

 

We make such mistakes all the time. Sometimes with trivial consequences, sometimes as life-altering blunders. At the time it seems so fitting and appropriate. Our eyes misted by surging hormones, we marry Ms. or Mr. Wrong. In 2000, the U.S. Supreme Court aborted the election process so the wrong man became president. When that wrong president later posed for photos on the deck of the USS Abraham Lincoln with a triumphant banner behind him, the photo op turned out to mischaracterize the developing situation on the ground in Iraq, with disastrous consequences for all concerned.

 

Consciousness is as it leads us to act, and sometimes it meets a low standard of judgment. Greed, jealousy, prejudice, false beliefs, mistaken identity, emotional involvement, and many other factors often skew our estimates of reality. How many prisoners have been put to death for crimes they didn’t commit? How many wars have been ignited by false pride? How many fresh ideas have been trashed in the name of outmoded traditions? How many women and children abused by self-righteous men?

 

Consciousness models both how we see ourselves and the worlds (situations) we claim to live in. Right or wrong, it is powerful stuff. For good or ill, how we couple being and meaning to one another is the essence of our individual lives and the communities we weave around us. Dying crows, mustard jars, sunflowers, and my friend Fred seem like trivial matters. Until you see them as symptomatic of how we all take the world into ourselves, and project ourselves into the world in meaningful ways.

 

When we talk of transforming our lives and culture in order to bring about a better world, we are talking about the revolution in consciousness that will enable us to do that. To change the world, we must envision ourselves and the world differently. If our children are to have a future, we must bring being and meaning together in new ways. It’s as simple and daunting as that.

 

My own mission is going to take time. Stay tuned to this blog for further reflections. ¦