In training, individual players build their respective skills on one level, and practice working together as a team on another. There may be individual heroes in baseball, but it takes heroic effort by all concerned to build a team that can face every possible situation with shared skill and confidence.

Each player must stand ready to play his part without advanced notice. Each is playing an inner game of expectancy before a play even starts to unfold. As is each watcher in the stands, stadium, or living room. In that sense, players and fans are engaged for the duration of the game, however long it takes for one side to win.

Baseball is all about arousal, anticipation, seeing what happens, recognizing what that means from a personal perspective. Then, of all possible responses, seizing instantly on the one judged most effective, and following through on plays that have been practiced in countless situations under a variety of different conditions.

Anything can happen, and what actually does happen comes as a spontaneous show of coordinated (or not) team skill, strength, speed, effort, and accuracy.

Baseball gives fans an endless flow of opportunities to be personally conscious. Each witnesses the game with her own eyes and ears, own sense of anticipation, own flow of perceptual, meaningful, and active engagements.

Being there at the game is like inventing yourself on the spot, again and again as situations come, evolve, and lead on to the next. This is what fans live for. If baseball didn’t exist, we’d have to invent it as a rule-governed alternative to the horrors of war, revolution, strife, violence, genocide, and mass murder.

Civilized nations rely on games to ward off the inevitable slippage into violence and chaos resulting from friction between factions having different perspectives on the world. Harnessing such perspectives in orderly pursuits such as baseball, soccer, basketball, and tennis makes the world safe for civil governance that actually serves to keep people meaningfully occupied and productive.

Baseball is no frill; it is a civil necessity—along with art, music, dance, Earthcare, full employment, and a fair distribution of wealth—to maintain a healthy state of mind among peoples accustomed to different ways of engaging one another in their separate worlds. Or worse, as in boredom, not engaging at all.

 

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During my early encounters with psychology, that word held strong connotations of either animal experimentation or pathology and mental illness. Stemming via Latin from two Greek words meaning roughly “breath” or “spirit” (Latin psyche) and “talk” or “thought” (Latin logos), the two roots add up to something like spirit talk or mind lore.

Early on, breath was taken as a sign of life, absence of breath a sign of death. Breath was what we acquired at birth, and surrendered with our last gasp—what some thought of as “spirit.” It came to stand for the non-physical element that seemingly animates our bodies.

The negative connotations of psychology were laid on in the nineteenth century when attention was directed by medical doctors to what might go wrong with a mind in contrast to its right and proper functioning.

Much of my early reading in psychology was given over to discussion of mental disorders. You couldn’t read psychology texts without wondering how crazy you really were. Now, my interest in the mind is directed more toward its normal, everyday performance. I think we need to understand what’s right with the mind before we can properly deal with what’s gone wrong.

That difference itself says a great deal about how our minds work. We pay attention either if our minds seem to work exceptionally well, or if they do poorly. Idiot-savants combine those extreme states of mind. The state of normality in-between is taken for granted without comment. That’s why the connotations of psychology are so often negative, suggesting our minds need mending or healing. If they work as they should, there’s no need to seek out Dr. Freud or Dr. Jung.

The meaning of “mind lore,” then, commonly leans toward the negative polarity, as just owning a car has strong implications of a good garage being available to keep it in good running order.

My preference is to consider the human mind in its everyday mode of wellness and not sickness. For that reason, I now introduce a series of posts dealing with the mind in the context of baseball, our national pastime; Peter Mark Roget’s Thesaurus, found lying around somewhere in every writer’s workspace; and the stars above, which, remote as they may be, affect our inward lives more profoundly than any creation of mankind ever has.

And now a plug for engagement. The prevailing attitude is that mind puts a consumptive drain on the brain’s physical resources, so cannot be visualized as a kind of spiritual entity operating independently of the brain. But as I have been trying to point out in this blog, engagement is a stimulating activity that, for good or ill, arouses and focuses attention, serving as a kind of on-off switch that directs the brain’s physical resources to mental activities in an extremely efficient manner precisely because of the synchronization it enables between perceptual and physical activity.

Notice how all else falls away when we are fully engaged. Engagement isn’t just a drain, it gives the brain a needed boost as a coherent and smooth-running engine at peak performance. Engagement assures the biggest bang per unit of neurological exertion. When disengaged, the brain is at sixes and sevens without a sense of priority. Each module putts along doing its own self-maintenance chores. When engagement kicks in, the brain comes to life like a dog about to being taken for a walk. Now it can truly show its stuff and not just lie around the house. I would say the brain exists to sharply and deeply engage, as the dog exists to run, leap, and frisk.

Here I will maintain that the mind not only exists, but exists to engage in the play of baseball, of looking up words in the Thesaurus, of celebrating the lights in the sky overhead. As a hint to what lies ahead in this series of posts on baseball, Roget’s Thesaurus, and human concern with the stars, just imagine the skilled and passionate engagements of those thousands of medieval craftsmen who built Gothic Cathedrals. They might have claimed to be doing God’s bidding, but out of professional pride, they put their hearts into the work of creating the most imaginative, attractive, breath-taking, and durable structures since the fall of the Roman Empire. Those cathedrals were direct expressions of human minds working in collaborative and passionate engagement on the most important projects in a thousand years of human endeavor. We gasp when we look upon those buildings today, monuments to the men who conceived and constructed them stone by stone, window by window, with their hands and eyes engaged in precise coordination.

Baseball. Abner Doubleday (later a General at Gettysburg) is said to have invented baseball in 1839 as a means of keeping his military academy students in good physical shape. Another tradition traces the origin back to the base-running game of rounders in eighteenth-century England. Doubleday did stipulate the dimensions of the playing field, size of and distance between bases, rules governing defensive play by the team in the field and offensive play by the team at bat.

The game itself serves as a metaphor for the battles that make up a military campaign, without the killing. Its very structure flows from the polarity that underscores awareness of events good or bad, positive or negative, desirable or undesirable, won or lost. The rules of baseball impose the ideal of fairness on every contest, giving both teams an equal chance at winning the game.

We watch baseball because many of us find it thoroughly engaging. It speaks our language, and we speak its. It’s as if we are born to play and watch baseball. Or so it seems. Actually, we are born to engage with what captures our attention, and baseball is designed to do just that.

Baseball brings out our best at throwing, catching, running, sliding, leaping, batting, playing as a team, and displaying our skills at offense and defense. All of which requires extreme concentration every step of the way. Baseball does exactly what Doubleday intended it to—keep us on our toes while striving to do our best. Even if we’re in bleacher seats, we are aroused, paying attention, and on our toes nonetheless.

 

Without apology, I can truly state that I am the world’s leading expert on the mental goings-on within my personal black box according to the perspectives provided by my own mind from inside that box. You can make the same claim for yourself.

Other than by my personal understanding as based on my reading in psychology and neuroscience, I have no authority to speak about events taking place on a neurochemical level in any brain whatsoever.

Brain is implicit in mind at every stage of engagement. So too is the perceptual energy flowing through pathways within the brain, energy that reflects its spatial and temporal organization upon being translated into neural terms by our body’s sensory receptors.

Though my view of these processes has been formed during a long course of self-reflection, I generalize here by writing variously in reference to “I,” “you,” and “we” as if I were intimately acquainted with mental events in everyone’s brain (including yours). I do this to encourage readers to take part in the mental exercise I am performing on myself, so to offer other wayfarers an opportunity for self-discovery in light of their own experience. Feel free to modify my offer as you see fit so that your findings are your own.

Personal memory plays in the background of every engagement as called for by the different situations and patterns of stimulation we encounter. This provides a backstory that helps us translate what is happening into the familiar terms of our mental understanding.

The plot runs like this: starting with arousal so that memory is poised to entertain signals stirred by our readiness to pay attention, an inner sense of the current situation we are dealing with focuses expectancy on what is likely to happen.

What we notice in particular is deviations from, or exceptions to, our expectancies. Novel features catch our attention because they have much to tell us in relation to the pattern of what we expected to find, which instantly becomes background to what actually strikes our senses.

Looking up from a hospital bed (where I was having stitches put in my hand after a recent fall on slippery shoreline rocks), I noticed, not the pattern of white netting that attached the curtain around my bed to a track in the ceiling, but the one-inch hole in that netting that formed a black exception to the white regularity of that grid of fibers.

Attention is drawn to the buzzing fly that is a conspicuous exception to the silence around us, to the lightning striking out of dark clouds, to the silhouette of the sole sandpiper running along the tideline, to the stain on the white tablecloth, the cough arising from a rapt audience, the new rattle in our car, and so on.

Expectancy establishes the pattern of what we are used to seeing; attention rushes in to focus on particular details that stand out against the background of those expectations.

 

Copyright 2012 by Steve Perrin.

Speech is an efficient form of action taken in response to a felt situation. The situation—in part or whole—is the message intended by a particular utterance. When an engagement is unintentionally terminated or interrupted, for instance, the resulting frustration may well erupt in a spurt of breath bearing an emphatically voiced consonant sound, such as an oath. Or when the prospect of a pleasing engagement appears, it may elicit an open vowel sound such as “ooh” or “aah.” Displeasure, shock, or fright may be expressed by air emitted through tensed jaw and vocal cords.

Situations are the intimate worlds in which we live and of which we speak (or draw, sing, dance, or make films). They are the center of our mental activity because they form the pivot between sensory impressions on one side and intentional actions on the other. Even if we do not act or perceive, we are situated in our sense of self, which I associate with dreams and memory, and imaginatively locate in my brain’s limbic system (including the amygdala, hippocampus, hypothalamus, and cingulate cortex) where incoming and outgoing nerve signals meet in states of arousal.

When aroused, we tend to make sounds—clapping, groaning, sighing, singing, swearing, greeting—spontaneously broadcasting our felt situations to those within earshot. I have listened to the gurgling barks of harbor seal pups, shrieks of bald eagles back and forth, howls of coyotes, wavering calls of loons, warning cries and treetop arias of countless birds, and imitative burbles of babies in the crib. In each case, the sound is situated in the experience of an aroused living being.

The exchange of excited honks between two groups of Canada geese—those on their feeding waters and those flying in—are a case in point. No sound moves me more than the glad greetings shouted between those two groups. The most wondrous exchange I ever heard was a duet between a loon on the bay at midnight and an answering coyote on land, both equally passionate and melodious to my ears while lying in bed, transfixed for the three or four minutes it lasted, which I took to be no coincidence but a mutual exchange of auditory appreciation between species.

We are in this life together, and make sounds in observance of that fact when our situations overlap.

During my two-and-a-half-year stay on Burying Island (1986-1988), I often muttered words out loud, or caught myself on the verge of “talking to myself,” but I wasn’t really talking, more accurately acknowledging a state of arousal while gripped by one situation or another. Which, I think, is why painters paint, singers sing, dancers dance—to celebrate the situations they get themselves into, and recreate in performance again and again.

When people get together, what do we talk about but the situations uppermost in our minds? Baby passed another milestone, dear one got a job, doggie dug up neighbor’s garden, puss left half a sparrow on the pillow again, the car needs a new muffler, the house a new roof. Sentence-by-sentence, we describe in increasing detail the situations we are coming from because that’s where we live out our days. Which is equally true of conversations at the kitchen table, PTA meetings, or the general assembly of the local branch of the occupy movement.

Speech is an economical form of action by which we can try out our ideas before we irreversibly commit a particular deed. Once the deed is done, it has our name on it and we either have to own it and do our best to live with it, or try to find a way to undo what we have done. With speech, we can apologize for any hurt feelings we may have caused, but with deeds, like George Zimmerman, we cannot make amends by bringing Trayvon Martin back to life.

We, along with our generation, are born to a particular era of coexistence with one another. Each of us lives an individual life, yet we live that life in concert with those around us, and our respective situations may share similar features so that we feel connected in various ways by events taking place in our awareness as we each may personally construe it. In that sense, we may come to feel somewhat like brothers and sisters facing similar challenges, which helps us use speech to become real to one another in grappling with the cast of notable characters and salient events of our time. We may even converse among ourselves with a sense of common understanding, and come to agreement about what needs to be done to improve the situation we live in.

Acting separately, we may be weak, but together we are a powerful force that needs to be reckoned with. Whether that reckoning comes to pass or not remains to be seen. But one thing is sure: it won’t happen without our making a personal commitment to action.

In other words, I am with you as you are with me in this, our time to speak and to act. As ever, I remain y’r brother, —Steve

Reflection 286: Layout

July 4, 2012

Copyright 2012 by Steve Perrin

Like the lay of the land, here’s how I see the lay of my mind.

I picture the basic layout of my mind (distinct from my brain) as consisting of two areas, an incoming, sensory area, and an outgoing, motor or behavioral area. Introspection ponders the interplay between the two areas to learn how sensory stimulation leads to physical action, and how action spurs further sensory stimulation.

My mind appears against a background of memories, dreams, a sense of my bodily position in space, among assorted cultural gifts such as language, numbers, science, religion, art, and other customary models for conducting our affairs, all of which I can draw upon at any time in becoming familiar with myself.

Too, my mind appears to be composed of diverse “elements” or “dimensions,” as a band is composed of players of diverse instruments, each contributing a different range of sounds. On the sensory side, I can detect degrees of interest or arousal, expectancy, and attention even before noticing sensory impressions at a particular level of sensory detail. I very quickly resort to interpretation of a concrete sensory impression in terms of a conceptual grouping of similar impressions, readily fitting it to a group I am familiar with through personal experience. This morning, for instance, I heard a bird call which I recognized as a series of notes sounded by what I call “black-capped chickadees,” thinking to myself, “that’s a chickadee” even though it may have been a mockingbird. I am capable of categorizing just a few chords as “Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony.”

Still on the sensory side of my mind, I discover positive or negative feelings about how I receive sensory impressions based on generalizing from prior experiences, along with values I place on such things in my organized field of understanding the relationship between various sensory experiences as interpreted.

The upshot of all this sensory processing in my mind is a sense of the situation I am engaged in, raising the question of how I am to make an appropriate response to that situation to further develop my engagement. Which advances me to consideration of dimensions on the motor side of my mind leading to physical action.

On the motor side, I begin with judgments about my current situation, which inform my decisions about the direction I want to head and the goals I would like to achieve in furthering my current engagement. The goals suggest various projects and relationships I might undertake to achieve them. Here I enter the planning stage that prepares the way for specific actions to take as appropriate to my situation as I construe it in my mind. Executing the moves I plan to make, I monitor my behavior as I go with awareness of how my body is positioned to accomplish what I set out to do.

Then my surroundings change (or not) in response to my actions, affecting (or not) my senses in new ways, setting up another round of sensory and motor engagement in my ever streaming consciousness.

Through introspection, I see that I rely on the separate dimensions of my mind to different degrees as my circumstances require, and that I have alternative levels of engagement to fall back on to save time and energy in achieving a desired result.

To sum up, some of the dimensions of my mind that introspection might encounter include, on the sensory side: arousal, expectancy, attention, sensory impressions, various levels of detail, interpretation, feelings, values, understanding, all adding to the makeup of an existential situation as I construe it in awareness. And on the motor side: judgments, decisions, goals, projects, relationships, plans, all leading to more-or-less effective action in the world.

I offer this rough anatomy of what introspection can lead you to discover in your mind not to discourage you but more to whet your curiosity about what you might learn about yourself if you stick at it for a time. Is it worth the effort? Since there is no other alternative available to us mortals short of living to the end, I would say yes, it is worth it. If I had known at thirty what I now know at almost eighty, I think I could have made more of a significant contribution to saving humanity from self-destruction in the name of “progress.” Where you put your personal effort is up to you. I just want to insert an option that doesn’t get much play these days because nobody stands to make money from your personal effort to know yourself better. Two things are certain: we have not yet bought or fought our way to a better or happier world. I say it’s time to try something so old it seems new.

I remain, as ever, y’r friend, –Steve from Planet Earth

Reflection 192: Projects

March 25, 2010

(Copyright © 2010)

Projects are ways to wrap a future around ourselves. I put it that way because the future isn’t a world we are moving toward or into, but a world we make happen for ourselves. It isn’t already prefigured, just waiting for us to come along. It’s something we all have to create for ourselves on foundations we’ve already laid. The craft of consciousness is building a future, of extending a bridge from where we are now to where we want to be. Building a future is a lot like riding a bucking bronco—you’re not sure who’s in charge, but you’re having the ride of a lifetime.

Future-building is often discussed in terms of goals, strategies, tactics, personnel, training, supplies, and equipment, making it sound like war games at West Point. Actually, it’s messier than that because your plans have to fit with those around you, and with events no one can anticipate (such as terrorist attacks, earthquakes, hurricanes, pandemics, droughts). As a result, we tend to work on our futures one small project at a time, thinking more on the scale of cooking dinner or making the bed than winning major battles. Most of us, like alcoholics, are concerned with just getting through the day. We’ll deal with tomorrow when we get to it.

Building a future one small project at a time makes sense because that’s the scale consciousness is best suited for. If the goal is too fuzzy or abstract, it’s more like a dream than anything we can attain by taking a sequence of actual steps. If we can’t visualize it in concrete terms, we probably won’t live long enough to realize our plan. Small is beautiful because it’s attainable. Start by preparing the ground for the first seed. If we can’t plan our garden while walking the dog, it might prove a bigger project than we can handle.

Putting a picture puzzle together is a good example of a doable project. We select which puzzle we want to work on—it has to be an image that appeals to us, with the right number of pieces, or we’ll lose interest. We start by spreading the pieces on a flat surface we can spare for the duration, then turn them face up where we can get at them. We sort them by color, texture, or flat edges; then, beginning with the obvious groupings (such as connecting edge pieces to form a frame), work on fitting them together. As we get into it, we start looking for pieces with individual characteristics—with personalities to match their surroundings. We concentrate on one area at a time, then try linking different areas by building bridges between them. There are always a few notorious pieces we can’t find, but eventually we combine subtle clues of shape, color, texture, size—and everything fits. Mission accomplished.

Except it isn’t that much of a mission because the secret of picture puzzles is that they come with everything we need to do the job—including a picture on the box to show what we’re working toward. Some projects come in kit form like picture puzzles, but the ones we are likely to take on in building a future for ourselves don’t come prepackaged, so are more of a challenge to consciousness. It’s up to us to decide what tools and materials we’ll need, how to gather them, how to use them, in what order, and how to get help when we need it because we’re in over our head. There are a lot of adult education courses that will help us develop the skills we’ll need, and self-help books on just about every kind of project we’ll want to try our hand at.

For me, the interesting side of projects is the mental skills we’ve already acquired in the process of living our particular lives. These provide the underlayment of every job we’re likely to undertake. That is, the projects that make sense to us are apt to be extensions of ones we’ve worked on before. Our trajectories through the universe start in earliest childhood, and by the time we’re in high school their general direction is pretty much set. After that, we may refine our course settings by a few degrees, but largely keep on by exploring territories that feel familiar to us, and offer challenges and opportunities that have meaning because they extend sensitivities and abilities we already possess in latent or rudimentary form.

Projects make sense to us if they arise from life situations we’ve already experienced or are currently engaged in. They don’t gel as projects just out of the blue; our whole life points to them as sensible next steps. Our job is to recognize them as further opportunities for refining or expanding who we are. Single mothers with young children still want to get ahead in life, so they can either seek Mr. Right, or set off to develop their personal skills and earning power because they are not likely to trust another man to shelter them from having to care for themselves and their children. Working, developing job skills, having a social life, and childcare become aspects of whatever projects suggest themselves from their earlier experiences. Perhaps further schooling is a possibility if grandparents, social services, friends, a part-time job, and personal determination combine to create a situation where that makes practical sense.

The chief benefit of life situations is how wonderfully they focus attention on practical details in the here and now. Projects are built from just such details because that is the reality they are meant to address. Projects by nature are more concrete than abstract. They may start as conceptual solutions to one of life’s challenges, but they very quickly get down to the nitty-gritty of how they are to be implemented in the real world. That is, personal motivation is essential to the success of any project we are likely to stick with to the end.

The heart of any project is the loop of engagement by which we act in the world to make ourselves happen in a particular way, then learn from the results how we must refine our skills to act more effectively the next time. That ongoing loop is what we need to attend to in both its active and receptive aspects as the project develops in order to assure personal advancement toward the goal we are bent on achieving in the future we are crafting for ourselves. This is where our fingers meet the rawhide in pulling ourselves up by our own bootstraps. This is doable precisely because it is what consciousness is given each of us to exercise in meeting the unpredictable challenges life can throw at us. Insects are preprogrammed to survive a limited range of life situations; primates are less set in their ways in order to adapt to the variety of situations they are apt to encounter. Humans are the most adaptable of all species because they can take on special projects in meeting challenges unprecedented throughout their evolution.

The essence of any project is its categorization of the situation from which it emerges, its categorization of the goal to be reached, and its categorization of the means for bridging from the situation to that particular goal. Everything depends on how we see the problem, the solution, and the means linking the two. This is where judgment enters the picture to scan both episodic and conceptual memories in relation to sensory patterns defining the situation in an attempt to map an appropriate understanding onto the situation so that a specific project is suggested as a personal way to meet the demands imposed by the situation. In other words, human judgment interprets the current situation as guided by prior experience, which leads to how the project is structured as an answer to the question raised by the nature of the situation itself. This is the true miracle of the human mind—that it can do this through a series of successively approximate matches between memories and existential situations so that a sensible course of action emerges from the life history of the individuals involved.

If no such course of action readily suggests itself to judgment, cultural input can be sought to see what others would do under like circumstances, what conventional wisdom would recommend, how various experts would proceed. This is where education enters into a project to meet a need an individual can’t meet on his own. Perhaps further training is indicated—formal, informal, or on-the-job. Perhaps, in hopes the situation will go away, a course of therapy might be pursued as an alternative, particularly if the seeker places trust in figures of reputed authority.

Too, a change in perspective might be in order if the seeker feels she may have mischaracterized the situation, or is not looking at it on an appropriate level of discernment. “What would you do in my situation?” she might ask; “Am I overlooking something, or making a mountain of a molehill?”

And, to wrap this up, projects require a certain amount of arousal and personal investment to get and stay underway. Think of the arousal of spectators at football, basketball, or hockey games where the situation changes in the moment: the call is three balls and two strikes with bases loaded in the bottom of the ninth, or the score is tied with 10 seconds remaining on the clock. Fans hoot and howl, wave their arms, jump up and down because they see so much riding on the play: they are fully aroused, vigilant, and invested, as if life itself hung in the balance. If the seeker feels not a stab of excitement, fright, or anxiety, then perhaps the project doesn’t really answer her professed need to right the situation at issue. Without passion and arousal, nothing in the world would ever get done because nothing, apparently, needs fixing.

I haven’t mentioned personal, biological values (such as sex, food, drink, shelter, rest, health, strength, knowhow, worthy challenge, order, safety, community, etc.) as essential to projects, but of course they are. Everything we do expresses a variety of biological needs. Even collecting stamps or building ships in bottles provide physical and mental challenges based on detailed engagement with the sensory world, if for no other reason than to stave off boredom in an underutilized mind.

As it is, dinners get cooked and put on the table, term papers get written, gardens planted, vacations taken, degrees granted, cars repaired, babies born, cavities filled, candidates elected (or not), and the future arrives as a new beginning for the world. Opening up opportunities for another round of situations going wrong, wheels requiring reinvention, and new projects getting started because no matter what the future brings, no one will be entirely satisfied with how things have developed, and consciousness can always be counted on to suggest new ways personal situations can be improved.

Things can always be improved.

 

(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 © 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.

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