(Copyright © 2009)

Mankind is beginning to realize that “under-standing” is only an illusion, that life and action are based upon illusions and lead to illusions.   Hans Vaihinger, The Philosophy of ‘As If,’ 1924, International Library of Psychology, Philosophy, and Scientific Method.

Cigarette smoking is a habit often acquired during adolescence as a means of coping with anxiety experienced in stressful social situations. It provides a ready ritual to create the illusion of being as calm and collected as Humphrey Bogart or the Marlboro Man. Too bad it’s addictive and can lead to lung cancer. In that sense, cigarettes are a kind of placebo, something to calm the waters of the soul when they are agitated or internally threatening.

Our word “placebo” stems from Latin placere, to please, and like “pleasant,” “placate,” and “placid,” from a more ancient root meaning to be flat—as a windless sea can be flat calm. Placebo literally means I shall please, taken from the first word of the first antiphon of the Roman Catholic Vespers for the Dead. We use the word today in referring to a sugar pill or some other ruse to make us think we are receiving effective medication when in fact we are not. The mind seizes on the pill as justification for feeling better solely on the basis of wishful thinking. Ineffective in itself, a placebo gives the mind an excuse for no longer feeling sick, leading to the illusion of effective treatment and recovery based on a very real reduction of self-induced stress. Placeboes give us a chance to demonstrate the truth of the old adage, “mind over matter,” or as Luigi Pirandello said, “It’s true if you think so.”

Doesn’t apply to you? Think again. We say the sun rises and sets—which is how we see it—but it is actually the Earth rotating on its axis that creates the illusion. Our word “universe” means one turning, but it isn’t the cosmos that turns but, again, our rotating Earth that is responsible. We don’t feel ourselves on the skin of a top spinning through space, but that’s where we live nonetheless. For myself, I was racing 15 mph over the speed limit today to make an appointment, which I excused with the handy placebo, I didn’t want to be late. The obvious retort to that would be, well, don’t wait till the last minute. We excuse ourselves as a matter of habit, always defending our self-image if not our actual behavior. “Not guilty, your honor,” we plead with a straight face, when we well know we’re guilty as hell. All for the innocent pleasure of being more self-righteous than the next person.

As I am so fond of saying in regard to consciousness, strange business, indeed. Just putting on a new hat can make us feel our social image is more attractive, like putting on make-up or getting our hair “done.” There’s a new bounce in our step and we feel younger and less drab. Donning a dark, pin-stripe suit lends politicians an air of authority, much as Superman takes on superhuman powers by changing his clothes in a phone booth. We defer to people in uniforms as if underneath they weren’t people who eat junk food on the run, argue with their spouses, and yell at their kids. Owning a late-model car lifts our spirits, even though it’s no better than the trade-in we got rid of. Much of what we do depends on the trade in illusions, which every marketer knows and uses in manipulating us to his profit and advantage, along with every minister who calms the waters of his flock by making reassuring noises, and every celebrity who performs the outrageous acts his fans demand as the price of their loyalty to someone they can identify with.

When we reach above the social plane to the theological or cosmological, we outdo ourselves in grasping at illusory placeboes to make us feel good about matters far exceeding human understanding. Vaihinger quotes Immanuel Kant:

I can make possible . . . systematic unity of the manifold of the cosmic whole, by looking upon all interconnection as if they were the orderings of a supreme reason. . . . This rational entity is, of course, a mere Idea, and is not simply and in itself to be accepted as anything real but is only problematically assumed . . . in order that all the connections in the world of sense may be regarded as if they had their basis in this entity, simply and solely however with the object of building thereon a systematic unit . . . which may be indispensable to the reason and is in every way helpful to the empirical understanding. (Page 281.)

So usefulness is Kant’s criterion for calling up the idea of God as the unifying principle which human reason takes as its base. The idea of God is useful in much the same sense placeboes are useful—both reduce stress by invoking illusions that have no merit in themselves. Yet if we take them as true, then in our minds they become true for us. Creating gods of convenience because it pleases us, we are the true creators of the world we choose to inhabit. In Common Sense (1776), Thomas Paine follows much the same procedure in establishing the idea of God as the ultimate source of the rights of man. I quote at some length from Thomas Paine: Collected Writings, (Classic House Books, 2009) to preserve the gist of Paine’s argument:

Before anything can be reasoned upon to a conclusion, certain facts, principles, or data, to reason from, must be established, admitted, or denied. . . . If . . . man has rights, the question then will be: What are those rights, and how man came by them originally? (Page 89.)

The error of those who reason by precedents drawn from antiquity, respecting the rights of man, is that they do not go far enough into antiquity. They do not go the whole way. . . . If we proceed on, we shall at last come out right; we shall come to the time when man came from the hand of his Maker. What was he then? Man. Man was his high and only title, and a higher cannot be given him. (Pages 89-90, italics added.)

The fact is, that portions of antiquity, by proving everything, establish nothing. It is authority against authority all the way, till we come to the divine origin of the rights of man at the creation. Here our enquiries find a resting-place, and our reason finds a home. If a dispute about the rights of man had arisen at the distance of an hundred years from the creation, it is to this source of authority they must have referred, and is to this same source of authority that we must now refer. (Page 90, italics added.)

Though I mean not to touch upon any sectarian principle of religion, yet it may be worth observing, that the genealogy of Christ is traced to Adam. Why then not trace the rights of man to the creation of man? (Page 90, italics added.)

I mean that men are all of one degree, and consequently that all men are born equal, and with equal natural right. . . . Consequently every child born into the world must be considered as deriving its existence from God. The world is as new to him as it was to the first man that existed, and his natural right in it is of the same kind. (Page 91.)

The Mosaic account of the creation, whether taken as divine authority or merely historical, is full to this point, the unity or equality of man. The expression admits of no controversy. “And God said, Let us make man in our own image. In the image of God created he him; male and female created he them.” The distinction of sexes is pointed out, but no other distinction is even implied. If this be not divine authority, it is at least historical authority, and shows that the equality of man, so far from being a modern doctrine, is the oldest upon record. (Page 91, italics added.)

Paine, rational man that he is, bases his argument on assumptions neither theological nor historical but mythological through and through. Make-believe is his ultimate authority for determining the origin of the rights of man. Take away God and his creation, Paine’s words fall in a meaningless heap. Yet he is so sure of himself, so relentlessly logical, so self-congratulatory, so much a victim of his prior assumptions that he is clearly peddling placeboes he earnestly feels good about and wants to pass on to us as fundamental truths. Times have not changed all that much due to human consciousness being in charge from Paine’s day to ours. Mind over matter is still our motto; if we believe something to be true, then surely it is. As long as it eases our minds and reduces stress, anxiety goes away and we feel our trusting, childhood selves once again.

Placeboes work because taking them pleases us, putting us in a different—more positive—frame of mind. We’ll settle for that over being right every time, because that’s how consciousness works. Consciousness doesn’t know anything for sure, it only claims to know. There can be no absolutes when it comes to telling truth from untruth, right from wrong. These are invariably matters of opinion and interpretation. The only way to check our beliefs is to adopt an attitude of skepticism, humility, and doubt toward every one of them, asking the ancient question: How can we know that we know what we think we know? And even that is no guarantee we’ll get it right. We must put in our ten-thousand hours if we want to come anywhere near the truth. Deep thinkers like Immanuel Kant and Thomas Paine didn’t reach far enough in seeking to justify their most fundamental assumptions. They merely discovered exactly what was present at the start of their respective trains of thought, and progressed not one inch beyond.

The fact is, there can be no true and fundamental basis for what we believe because the brain has no power to recognize such a basis if it ever came across it. We go with what the crowd believes, or higher authority, or our shelf of great books, or our mothers told us when bouncing us upon her knee. Much of what we earnestly take to be fundamental truth is a placebo we choose to put our faith in on no basis other than that is what suits us at the time. To a man and woman, we are self-made because each of our minds is unique in entertaining whatever enters our heads. Immanuel Kant is right for himself and wrong for everyone else, which is equally true for Thomas Paine, myself, and even the most respected authority. We choose to believe what we do because it accords with our nature and gives us pleasure.

That’s a hard pill to swallow. Which is why we so often resort to sugar pills because they reduce stress and make us feel better right away.

We make ourselves happen to please ourselves. To do it any other way would displease us, which seems senseless. Our only real choice is to press on as far as we can, always paying attention to inconsistencies that might give us pause—and a chance to reconsider the course we are taking in life.

Fluke-72

 

 

Reflection 131: Feedback

July 20, 2009

(Copyright © 2009)

Three posts ago (Reflection 128: Woody Allen Consciousness), I dealt with four aspects of consciousness in which (through introspection) I claimed to see anxiety as a common feature, and the amygdala as playing an implicit role in that anxiety. I sent a copy of that post to Joseph LeDoux, leading authority on emotional consciousness (whom I had quoted), and in return he sent me a short note, and the draft of a manuscript he’d written on emotional coloration of consciousness. LeDoux’s reply read:

Thanks for the note. Interesting ideas. But my view is that the amygdala [is] not really involved in conscious fear or anxiety, at least not directly. The arousal that it generates contributes but the amygdala itself seems to be non-introspectable. I’m attaching something that came out last year in a book called Frontiers of Consciousness (Ox U Press). The attached is an unedited version of the ms, but is basically what was published. Thanks again. Joe

Talk about anxiety, I was anxious upon reading the note, and even more anxious upon reading the attached chapter, which amounted to a complete review of emotional consciousness, citing 351 sources from the relevant literature. LeDoux was generous in dubbing my subjective ideas “interesting,” but there was no question he had the peer-reviewed facts on his side. Still, I felt the reason I sent the post to an expert in the field held true: there was a place in consciousness studies for introspection as a supplement to animal research, philosophical musings, functional imaging, psychoanalysis, cultural anthropology, the arts, and any other human activity shedding light on the mind. I’d said in my initial email that introspection and basic brain research were tunneling into the same mountain from opposites sides, hoping to meet in the middle, or by a different metaphor:

In addition to studies of neural substrates of consciousness, I firmly see a need for a sandwich approach which will inform such studies by coming from above—not from the substrate but the real item itself—because I think consciousness, as an emergent property, will never be found in the neurons themselves because that’s not where it lives. So that’s what I blog about, for whatever it’s worth.

Having read LeDoux’s chapter three times now, I am impressed both by the amount of research that has been done—and the amount that still lies ahead. In truth, much of what we know today about emotional consciousness is based on informed yet conjectural interpretations of basic research. The field rests largely on claims and arguments. A close reading reveals phrases such as “are believed to be,” “are often considered,” “may be,” “might be thought of as,” “my proposal is,” “I will argue that,” “is likely to,” “probably occurs,” “much debate exists,” “perhaps,” and so on. Knowledge is harder to come by than we commonly suppose. The essence of science (that is, of knowing) is doubt and skepticism, which is why on-going research is so necessary. Current knowing invariably rests on a flurry of assumptions, beliefs, and conditional assertions. Only when the flurry dissipates does knowledge stiffen into certainty—always an illusion to fill the break until flurries fly again.

Science, like religion and philosophy, is an edifice in need of constant maintenance. My image is of a juggler whirling Indian clubs in the air, dropping one here or there, picking up others, diligently striving, balancing, laboring, watching, paying careful attention, always appearing the same yet never quite the same two cycles in a row. In a moment of laxity, the clubs spill in a heap—until gathered and set in motion with renewed vigilance. Such is every human endeavor. Such is medicine, the stock market, technology, the Internet, blogging, and consciousness itself—the ultimate human endeavor.

I juggle my consciousness as best I can, as you juggle yours. Taken together we form a spectacle of jugglers whirling our clubs en masse while knowing distraction or exhaustion or simply missing a beat will make us drop one or more. We can’t keep going forever. Sooner or later. . . . What, me anxious?

But back to emotional consciousness. Essentially, it is whatever aspect of mind we pay attention to that bears emotional overtones expressing how we feel at the time. In picturing the amygdala responsible for feelings of anxiety, I am the arch-conjuror reaching farther than I have any right to on the basis of evidence—but reaching anyway because that is my nature. If I don’t reach farther today than yesterday, what’s the point of going on? Done reaching, I am finished. Where’s the adventure in that?

I sent my 128th post to Joseph LeDoux because I felt I had made a discovery—that anxiety is behind a large part of consciousness. I have claimed that consciousness is given us to solve novel problems that evolution has no leverage on, and anxiety is what turns a situation into a problem. Anxiety is a sign we are invested in a particular situation and care about the outcome. Interpreting the phenomenal situation is a problem if we want to get it right. Adopting the right idiom of consciousness in addressing the situation is a problem in itself reflected in how we present ourselves to the world. And lastly, applying an appropriate elixir (or fudge factor) in order to fit our way of thinking to the situation is a forth-order problem. All involving anxiety because we’re not sure of ourselves or the outcome we desire. And implicating the amygdala as the neural seat of emotional consciousness, so I claimed—which is where I overreached myself. In correcting me by saying, “The arousal that it generates contributes [to feelings of anxiety] but the amygdala itself seems to be non-introspectable,” LeDoux is asserting the position he took in Synaptic Self where he wrote:

While individual brain regions and networks make distinct contributions to the processes that together constitute anxiety, anxiety itself is best thought of as a property of the overall circuitry rather than of specific brain regions (Viking, 2002, page 290).

In his chapter in Frontiers of Consciousness, LeDoux makes it clear: “Amygdala processing in humans occurs unconsciously.” Summarizing, “Indeed, amygdala processing meets most of the principles of automaticity—that is it is independent of attention and awareness.” So, like Hamlet sensing a presence behind the curtain in the queen’s bedroom but not knowing it is Polonius, I had no way of identifying the amygdala as the source of the anxiety associated with problem-solving in self-examined consciousness. As part of a network, the amygdala itself is not subject to introspection.

I stand corrected. Which I take to be a demonstration of cooperation between neuroscientists on one hand and us introspectors on the other.

Putting Heads Together

 

(Copyright © 2009)

I’ve posted about consciousness being situational in nature (Reflection 80), about the left-brain interpreter module deciding the meaning of events (Reflection 86), about idioms of consciousness providing ways of being in the world (Reflection 124), and about elixirs of consciousness adjusting “reality” to our way of thinking (Reflection 127). What I’ve not mentioned is where such activities might be seated in the brain, for if they are aspects of consciousness as I claim, that’s where their stories would necessarily begin. It strikes me that these four modes of consciousness have something in common, but I’m not sure what that something might be. This post is about my search to find out. As usual, it points to discovery through coincidence or by accident—and beyond that, to the mind revealing itself in strange ways.

My first step was to consolidate my thoughts on situations, interpreters, idioms, and elixirs in one place to make comparison easier. How to do that? I thought of a matrix laid out with the four aspects of consciousness lined up in columns and possible functional substrates listed in rows down the side. The word matrix stems from the Latin meaning a female animal used for breeding—basically, the female principle in reproductive mode. That’s just what I needed, something to stir my creativity. I listed the functions of each aspect as briefly as I could:

  • Situations—provide the context or framework of consciousness
  • Interpreters—develop meaningful stories or narratives accounting, rightly or wrongly, for awareness
  • Idioms—are ways of being in the world according to one acquired discipline or another
  • Elixirs (fudge factors)—adjust understanding to accord with fundamental beliefs in order to produce a desired effect.

Reading what I had written, I felt a jab of anxiety. What could they possibly have in common? Nothing sprang to mind. So I went on, off the top of my head listing broad functional regions of the brain where facets of consciousness might arise or at least be involved: perception, conception, memory, expectancy, feeling, planning, judging, speaking, acting, and so on. Then I took an hour to break down each of the four aspects in terms of what I knew about different functional areas of the brain. And went to bed. This on the day before my son’s birthday.

For two hours, I lie awake in the dark, wondering what to do. Basically, worrying. It all started so innocently. Days ago, I’d left a message on my son’s answering machine, asking how he’d like to celebrate his birthday. I said Carole and I would be happy to provide a floating meal to be eaten whenever and wherever he chose. If Friday didn’t work, maybe Sunday. Just give me a call. Days rolled by with no response. His birthday is tomorrow. What to do? After installing a bilge pump in my boat, I stop by my son’s workplace. It turns out both his mom and I (long divorced) are pestering him about his birthday. He’s working toward a show on Saturday and feels cornered with no place to hide. So he disappears by not taking calls. Anyway, after encouragement from his wife, my son agrees that Monday is doable. We agree to meet at the boathouse at noon. He’ll see if his brother can come. I call Carole to ask if Monday is OK with her. It is. I will bring turkey loaf, mashed potatoes, and ice cream; she’ll bring asparagus and bake a cake. So it seems settled.

Yet here I am at 2:00 in the morning, worrying how to pull it all together. Catsup. I don’t use it, so don’t have any. Buy catsup. Bring salt and pepper. How keep the turkey loaf and mashers warm while rowing across to the island, the ice cream cold? How many potatoes do I need? What if rains? With the battery for the bilge pump in place, how can I fit two other people in my boat? Where will I brace my feet without jarring the pump? And that’s only for starters. I progress to more serious anxieties, dwelling on times things hadn’t worked out in the past. I spend two hours reviewing my life—marriages, divorces, relationships. And in the back of my mind—the consciousness matrix and what it has to tell me. I run through the four aspects of consciousness, their possible placement in the brain. Everything is problematic—life is problematic. Eventually I get back to sleep.

When I woke up, I saw immediately that the four aspects of consciousness all deal with attention, arousal, and anxiety. They are all ways of putting energy into coping with stress. Situations are situations precisely because their parts are at odds, and so kindle anxiety. Our interpreter modules provide answers to questions that stir anxiety (I recall a write-up of Michael Gazzaniga’s work in which a split-brain patient begins his answer to a question about his interpretation of an experimental situation by saying, “Oh, that’s easy” or something to that effect, which I now see as compensating for anxiety). Idioms of consciousness focus attention on discrete topics, reducing anxiety by narrowing the field of concern. And elixirs of consciousness serve to deal with anxiety more than truth, as students are anxious to fulfill assignments by coming-up with right answers by hook or by crook. Shelley Smithson’s piece in the June 29, 2009 issue of The Nation, “Radioactive Revival in New Mexico,” provides this example of using God as a magic elixir to help things turn out as desired:

[Marita] Noon, . . . a Christian motivational speaker before becoming a self-proclaimed “advocate for energy,” says God put uranium in New Mexico so that Americans can wean themselves from Middle Eastern oil and Russian uranium.

Consciousness appears to be largely a means of dealing with situations in which doubt, uncertainty, and consequent anxiety predominate. The amygdala is involved in each of the aspects of consciousness I am focusing on, shaping relevant strategies for converting motivating stress into productive behavior. In The Emotional Brain (Simon & Schuster, 1996), Joseph LeDoux writes:

The amygdala is like the hub of a wheel. It receives low-level inputs from sensory-specific regions of the thalamus, higher level information from sensory-specific cortex, and still higher level (sensory independent) information about the general situation from the hippocampal formation. Through such connections, the amygdala is able to process the emotional significance of individual stimuli as well as complex situations. The amygdala is, in essence, involved in the appraisal of emotional meaning (page 168).

And it is certainly the emotionally meaningful aspects of consciousness we pay special attention to and, thanks to the hippocampus, remember. As I have said, consciousness is given us to solve novel problems, including those in a cultural, not natural, context. I have reached that conclusion the long way round, by using my late-night anxiety as a means of studying anxiety itself. Anxiety about loose ends hanging from my wish to celebrate my son’s birthday kept me awake. So anxiety was an integral part of my mind at the time.

Schools are hotbeds of anxiety. Every test, lesson, and assignment is a source of stress. Even sports fire people up, both players and spectators, all traceable to anxiety. What we learn is not content so much as how to deal with tensions that force us to learn how to proceed through difficult tasks that upset us at the time. Through exposure to various subject disciplines, we learn to cope with related life situations. We acquire the idioms educated people use to surmount their problems. We learn how to do research, how to listen, how to express ourselves, how to solve problems—how to accomplish tasks others assign to us. All based on suffering anxiety and applying techniques that diminish it.

Sitting down to write a post, I am nothing if not anxious. Usually I am anxious in a way shaped as curiosity about an issue I am involved with. But every creative endeavor starts with stage fright of one sort or another. Am I up to the task? Do I have the skill, energy, and desire to work this through? I remember Hector Berlioz writing in his autobiography about dreaming a piece of music in specific detail, but knowing how difficult it would be to ever get it performed, not writing it down. The music came to him in his sleep two nights in a row—then never again, scuttled by anxiety over the trouble it would cause later on.

When dirty dishes pile up in the sink, we become active in a constructive way—or else make ourselves scarce. These are two different ways of dealing with stress, by coping or refusing to cope at all, by fighting or fleeing—as I fled from the lady with the torn jaw and cheek on a street in London 50 years ago (see Reflection 119: Man and Dog). Our amygdalas help us decide which strategy to select. Schooling trains us to face into challenges directly. When we tire of that, we go to the movies—the funnier, the sexier and more violent, the better to distract us from our worries. We can learn from the emotional fixes we get into, or maybe get high or drunk. We can deal, or try to escape.

I heard Terry Gross interview Woody Allen on Fresh Air this week. His view is that life consists of one anxiety-producing situation after another. Each of his films deals with a different episode of the human condition as he sees it:

TERRY GROSS: So, may I ask, what are some of the real problems that making movies distracts you from?

WOODY ALLEN: Well, they distract me from the same problems that you face or that anyone faces, you know, the uncertainty of life and inevitability of aging and death, and death of loved ones, and mass killings and starvations and holocausts, and not just the manmade carnage but the existential position that you’re in, you know, being in a world where you have no idea what’s going on, why you’re here or what possible meaning your life can have and the conclusion that you come to after a while, that there is really no meaning to it, and it’s just a random, meaningless event, and these are pretty depressing thoughts. And if you spend much time thinking about them, not only can’t you resolve them, but you sit frozen in your seat. You can’t even get up to have your lunch.

So it’s better to, you know, distract yourself, and people distract themselves creatively, you know, in the arts. They distract themselves in business or by following baseball teams and worrying over batting averages and who wins the pennant, and these are all things that you do and focus on rather than sit home and worry.

Woody Allen is a good example of someone who reduces anxiety by immersing himself in his work—adopting a way of being in the world, an idiom, that he has the drive and skill to maintain while working on exactly the same types of problems that he finds so overwhelming:

WOODY ALLEN: [M]aking a movie is a great distraction from the real agonies of the world. It’s an overwhelmingly, you know, difficult thing to do.

You’ve got to deal with actors and temperaments and scripts and second acts and third acts and camera work and costumes and sets and editing and music, and you know, there’s enough in that to keep you distracted almost all the time. And if I’m locked into what would appear to be a painful situation because half my movie works, let’s say, and the whole second half of it doesn’t work, or a character in my movie is terrible, you don’t believe the love story or something, these are all problems that are, or generally are, solvable with reshooting, with editing, with thinking, diagnosing what’s wrong. And they distract you from the real problems of life, which are unsolvable and very painful problems.

Also in the problems of moviemaking, if you don’t solve your problem, all that happens to you is that your movie bombs. So the movie is terrible. So people don’t come to see it. Critics don’t like it. The public doesn’t like it. This is hardly a terrible punishment in life compared to what you’re given out in the real world of human existence.

Working our way through anxiety-producing situations may be the essence of life if it teaches us how to accurately diagnose situations, train our interpretive facilities to identify what’s really going on, adopt idioms giving us mastery over a small slice of life, or develop cons and scams for beating the system one way or another. Consciousness offers us a range of such powerful survival techniques to apply in particular cases. Members of congress try most of them—inevitably disillusioning their constituents by the deviousness of their means for maintaining their public image while abusing the power of their office. But there are no good guys—or gals—it turns out, only those with a will to live and thrive. In the big leagues, innocents, idealists, and dreamers get eaten alive. No one is larger than life, for life is run by consciousness, and that as everyone knows can get pretty seamy.

Am I more jaded than the next person? Naive, perhaps, but not jaded. I haven’t given up on humanity just yet, thought I have my doubts. I still believe consciousness is worth studying, but it sometimes takes a strong stomach. I figure that if our record is ever to improve, we are going to have to come to terms with ourselves. Evidence points to the fact that we are selfish bastards always seeking to advance our personal cause at others’ expense. More likely, we are doing the best we can under extremely difficult circumstances to figure out what is going on in and around ourselves. In truth, I think we are half  babes in the woods, half hungry wolves—innocence and cunning wrapped in the same fleece.

Besides anxiety signaled by the amygdala, other neural-based features shared by situations, interpreter modules, and both idioms and elixirs of consciousness include: a strong sense of cohesion through time, expectancy, reliance on sensory feedback, executive judgment and decision-making, motor planning, and execution of specific behaviors. Thus the amygdala relays messages to several higher areas of cerebral cortex, which ultimately shape and execute behavior, and look to subsequent feedback from appropriate sensory areas. This is an extremely rough sketch, but to me the keystone of this activity is the potential danger or opportunity available to the conscious organism as signaled by the amygdala. The follow-up details appear to be a function of individual judgment and decision-making based on learning, prior experience, and current expectations.

Consciousness, it seems to me then, is not based on prowess and ego so much as on stress and anxiety. If that is true, it would appear to be one of our best defenders within cultural situations which natural evolution could never anticipate. In rising to consciousness, each of us is on her own, doing the best she can to cope with situations that might well undo her. Going solo, we have a great many options for dealing with such situations. Diagnosing more-or-less accurately what’s going on in a given situation is one of them. Interpreting ever-changing relationships in meaningful terms is another. Adopting the idiom and special expertise of one favored discipline is a third. And applying magic elixirs or fudge factors in order to view situations in terms of a predetermined ideology no matter what is a fourth option among others I have not considered in this post.

In dealing with personal fear and anxiety, evolution hands the choice to consciousness—namely us. Whether we deal on the basis of greed, faith, evidence, prejudice, or aesthetics is up to each of us personally. In selecting the choice we prefer, we reveal who we are. The scary part is realizing that how we choose determines the wiring of our brains by strengthening the synapses involved. We become the creatures of our prior choices. Which is why growing up is so hard—think of the child soldiers of Africa. “Survival of the fittest” is shorthand for those who make the best choices under the circumstances being more apt to make it than those who select poor choices for whatever reason. Life requires endlessly dealing with anxiety as evolution intended. If we flub-dub around, we are apt to be dead.

Peregrine-72

 

 

(Copyright © 2009)

 

I dream about seeing a hole in the sky. It is raining. A young boy is riding a tricycle as we walk up the street together, I in the lead, he behind. I fear he won’t be able to pedal against the runoff coming off the hill, but he pedals faster and plows like a boat through the water. The street dips and we go downhill for a ways and come to a log cabin surrounded by mud filled with exposed tree roots. I tell the boy that the rain made all that mud. The road, filled with mud, turns sharply to the right. Looking up, I see a round hole (like a smoke hole without the smoke) in the sky, or rather, a hole in a translucent dome above the rain. Through the hole I see clouds lit by the sun. My eyes zoom in on the hole so I can see it clearly. Outside and under the hole, the rain is made of dashed lines which remind me (in the dream) of the snow on black-and-white television screens in the 1950s. Through the hole the clouds are made of similar dashes moving at an angle to the rain. I recognize this as a very unusual situation. I have never seen a hole in the sky before in my entire life. I mention this to some people we meet. . . .

 

Waking up, I am still amazed by seeing a hole in the sky. A round hole at the zenith overhead. Probably several feet in diameter, big enough to put your head and body through if you could get up to it. Child, tricycle, street, hill, rain, cabin, mud, hole in the sky—this fragment of a dream is wholly engaging and seems convincingly real.

 

What to make of it? The situation is this: the boy and I are together, though our relationship is unclear. The street reminds me (now that I’m awake) of School Street in Andover, Massachusetts, where I lived in the late 1960s and early 1970s. I used to walk my toddler son around the block in those days, he exploring the walkway to every house while I waited out by the street. The rain reminds me of the dashed lines beneath clouds on the screen of the L.L. Bean weather station I got for my last birthday. I have seen tree stumps and roots in mud, but no particular incident comes to mind. Explaining the cause of the mud to the boy is very much me in my teacher mode. I can’t account for the log cabin. The hole in the sky is very much like the circle representing the sun on my weather station. When the station predicts that precipitation is about to end, dashed rain, clouds, and sun appear together on the screen, the disc of the sun seeming to emerge from behind the clouds. I never actually saw the sun in the dream; it was inferred from lit edges of clouds.

 

I often think about the edges of things—about how the brain sharpens the contrast between surfaces to heighten such edges, creating a kind of line-drawing cartoon that is more distinct than reality itself. The hole in the sky had a very distinct edge, slightly lighter than the dome it was in, like a hem of pale material folded back on itself. Which reminds me of my first experience with Mercator projections (Reflection 60: Discovery, February 6, 2009), because there would be no way to fold a circular hem in the dome of the sky without slitting or slashing it so the smaller area would fold over the larger. I can’t suggest that I was specifically aware of that problem in the dream; it feels more like something I added in processing the dream now that I am awake.

 

I was emotionally concerned about the boy on the tricycle—whether he could go against the flowing runoff or not. The strongest feeling I had was the sense of wonder at seeing a hole in the sky. All dreams have a novel cast about them, and that seemed precisely the point in this one. I seemed very much my everyday self in judging a hole in the sky to be a novel event, and therefore worth commenting on. Which is how my dreams often run while I, the dreamer, are my same old self. Dreams, that is, often place me-as-I-know-myself in bizarre situations.

 

Many of my dreams are about attending or teaching specific classes in school, which is not surprising since I spent 18 years of my life as a teacher and another 19 years as a student before that. But in dream after dream I am neglecting my duty by not showing up for class, or showing up for the class after being unaccountably absent for six months, or I am not prepared, or I know nothing about the subject I am expected to teach, or I’m not wearing any clothes, and so on. My dreamworld is made up of one bizarre situation after another, to which my conventional self is expected to make a fitting response.

 

So I hazard the guess that I am normally conscious when I dream, but because I am deprived of sensations I am familiar with, as well as the ability to act, the situations within which I dream exist in a parallel universe ruled by feelings of novelty, wonder, awe, fear, anxiety, uncertainty, and self-doubt. All the dream situations are possible in that they are variations on stock situations I am familiar with, while at the same time they are novel in taking place in fantastic locales concocted by my unsituated brain trying to figure out where it is and what’s happening. The best it can do is guess on the basis of the few clues suggested by my autonomic nervous system (heart beat, sexual arousal, carbon dioxide level, hunger, etc.) which carries on 24/7 whether I am awake or asleep.

 

From my days working at Harvard Observatory, I retain the image (from a book in the library) of a robed man standing on a ladder, poking his head and shoulders through the celestial sphere (which rips in his case), to confront stars and planets directly as they wheel overhead. It’s a wonderful image because so full of practical details, while the overall concept is preposterous and very dreamlike. I’ve carried that image with me for 48 years. It may have a bearing on the hole in the sky I discovered this morning in my dreams because it came to mind while trying to describe that hole. Memory evidently plays a prominent role in dreams, mixing and matching details drawn from a host of situations to create a landscape wholly novel and fantastic. And, entertaining, once you get past the anxiety.

 

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(Copyright © 2008)

Two blogs ago, I dealt with music’s power, emotion, and immediacy in reaching into consciousness. Music doesn’t have to wait for the brain to tell consciousness what it means. Even in the case of program music, the program (meaning) is external to the music, as in Beethoven’s Sixth Symphony, thunderstorm and all. The storm is in the program you know about, not the music you hear. If you don’t know the program, then the music is all.

 

In this blog I will make a start at dealing with sensory phenomena that elicit meanings in experience so that the being of sensory patterns is fulfilled by the meanings they intend in consciousness. Spoken and written language offer examples of experiences composed of meaningful patterns, as do common signs and symbols such as traffic lights, sirens, and pictures of celebrities and famous places. Red traffic lights mean “stop” because we were taught to put the two together at an early age. The meaning is not in the red itself; it is in our brains which interpret that color as telling us to stop.

 

Consciousness is the place where sensory patterns (phenomena) and meanings are coupled together. When that happens, we get it! We understand. That is, we make a connection between two very different aspects of mental life—percepts from our senses and concepts from memory. Meaning does not reside in the world. It inhabits our minds, retained as latent concepts waiting to be activated by a relevant pattern in one sensory channel or another.

 

Meaning emerges when summoned by sensory phenomena we have been trained (or inspired) to receive as information, just as Pavlov’s dogs learned that the ringing of a bell meant food was about to be served. Information requires a context or situation to make it meaningful; without one or the other, it’s just meaningless sensory data. We learn early on that vocal utterances (words, phrases, sentences) mean something to others, and by imitating those others in appropriate situations, those utterances come to mean somewhat the same thing to us.

 

The following anecdote from one of my mother’s friends, told as a childhood reminiscence cherished for almost eighty years, provides a good example of one such early attempt to connect a sensory image with its meaning:

 

Still vivid in my mind is the day I stayed after school in the first grade to ‘help’ the teacher. In awe I watched her make rather a clumsy sketch of a crescent moon on the blackboard. Beside it she lettered ‘moon.’ I rushed home to tell my mother that I had already learned the spelling word for the next day: ‘m-o-o-n, banana.’

 

To be human is to strive to put meanings to sounds and appearances, and when deceived, to try again. If we spell “banana,” “m-o-o-n,” while those around us disagree, do we not remember it all our lives, along with all the other times our judgments were found to be out of joint? Do we not learn from such occasions? Is any experience not centered upon the desire to attach meanings appropriately to the sensory patterns we pluck from our situations as we construe them? We belong to a tribe of meaning-makers. We may not always be wise, but we are ever game to try again.

 

“Look, out the window, dear.” “Goggie.” “And over there” “Goggie.” “And what about that one?” “Goggie.” “No, that’s not a doggie, it’s a kitty.” “Kikky.”

 

Slowly over time, concepts accrue in memory as categories containing common features derived from a series of experiences somewhat resembling one another. When we fit a new pattern in experience together with such a category, we see that pattern as an example extending or fulfilling the series. The coupling can be so tight, it’s almost as if the pattern exuded the meaning from its own nature—as if the phenomenon were meaningful in itself. Which someone else may intend, but the meaning is in the mind, not the phenomenon.

 

Meanings are always our doing. Depending on their situations and experience, different people will cast a variety of meanings onto one and the same sensory pattern of being. I cannot digest gluten, which is in everything made of wheat, rye, or barley. Donuts, pizza, seven-grain bread, and chocolate-chip cookies may appeal to the masses, but I avoid them as if made of anthrax flour. To me they mean poison, not party treats, not wholesome food.

 

Whether you see true-believers or infidels in front of you depends on how you regard them in light of your past experience. In themselves they are neither because each is a unique being, not a category filler. Whether a knife is a useful tool or a bloody weapon depends on which category you sort it into when you wield it at the moment.

 

I’m living in Cambridge (some years ago). I wake up one night to hear someone in the street calling “fa” in a hoarse voice. Looking for his dog, I figure. Or his father. “Fa,” “fa,” he goes on. And on. Little Johnny One Note. “Fa.” “Fa.” I hear the sounds, but it holds no meaning for me. I doze off. Then it strikes me—he isn’t crying “Fa,” he’s yelling “Fire” at the top of his old lungs. I look out the window. Flames are shooting from the roof of the house across the street. I call the fire department.

 

Meaning-making can be a matter of survival. If we get it wrong, we may wake up dead. Our minds have evolved to do the best we can to match events with appropriate meanings in the situations we are in. What’s that noise downstairs? The wind? Noisy shutter? The cat? Burglar? Probably the furnace.

 

The matching works both ways: phenomena can seek meanings, and meanings can seek sensory presentations. If you’re in a hungry situation, you can start to visualize dinner. I remember a woman saying, “Men, you know how they are.” The meaning was already there; she didn’t have to spell it out. Which is like an old Quaker lady asking a friend of mine, “Is thee a member of the one true faith?” She was a particular meaning waiting to happen. More of us are like that than not. We broadcast meaningful expectations and hope the world will fill in the dotted lines.

 

Sometimes we don’t have either a phenomenon or a meaning to begin with. We’ve lost our bearings. What will tomorrow (the future) bring? How will our present situation develop, and what will it mean for us? There’s a lot of that around these days, what with the changing of the White House guard, the recession, global warming, wars in Africa, Iraq and Afghanistan, AIDS, the national debt. . . . In times like these, anxiety rules. Meaning keeps its distance. Stress is on the rise, which upsets consciousness. Dire or chaotic may be the best words we can come up with in describing our state of affairs. Invest in fortune tellers and astrologers; I expect them to thrive.

 

In the end, when we confront the full significance of our mortality, does anything remain but the tarnished spiral of our mortal coil, a shadowy track in the dust, bequeathed to those who stay behind on chance that someone will fit it to some kind of meaning?

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