414. Gravity

January 24, 2015

Our every thought and action takes place in a field of gravity. In the womb we may not have noticed it so much, but we are born to that field, and are comforted by being held, fed, and warmed at the breast to ease the shock of abruptly having to accommodate to that relentless force on our own.

In time, we learn to lift our heads, press down with our arms, crawl, sit up, toddle, walk, hop, skip, run, dance, and climb, always strengthening ourselves against the pull of gravity, learning to move despite that constant tug that draws us down. We learn to trade new skills for hard knocks, but the threat of falling never goes away.

In time we learn to play games against gravity, our constant opponent. We like being tossed into the air and lovingly caught. We like swinging back and forth, up and down. We learn to use gravity for fun and play, not merely tolerate or work against it. Chasing after balls, kicking, throwing, catching, running, always on the go, we prove our mastery of moving within a gravitational field. Many become famous for their skills at playing against gravity, the same force that weighs the rest of us down.

High-wire balancing, ballet dancing, window washing, pole vaulting, steeple chasing, hurdling, even cheating death by leaping from planes with a parachute or off a bridge on a bungee cord, the adventurous among us thrive by taunting gravity to deter them.

In the process, some achieve a certain lightness of being despite the Earthbound certainty of their lives. Many fly in airplanes high in the sky, another few become astronauts and dare to escape gravity altogether by being thrust into space aboard rockets at the cost of having to bear even sterner forces we call Gs.

With every thought, urge, and emotion existing in a gravitational field, we must account for that fact in advance to avoid falling on our faces when we act. Gravity is a fact of life, of planning and action in living in a gravitational field.

Yet we take that profound fact for granted, and seldom give it a thought. Yes, we smile when baby lifts her head the first time, then crawls, stands, and tries a few steps. But that is what she is supposed to do as a matter of course, so we don’t dwell on it overmuch. Another milestone passed on schedule, oh hum.

Gravity is a fact of nature. We wouldn’t be here if we couldn’t cope with it. In fact, evolution has equipped us with bones, muscles, and tendons that work around gravity’s constant pull, fitting us to defy gravity every second of our lives. Or even to gracefully succumb by sitting or lying down to get some temporary relief.

Gravity and levity, heaviness and lightness, are two of the most obvious poles of our being. Rising and falling, smiling and frowning, feeling good and feeling bad—these are a few of the polarities that generate our minds in the first place. I believe that without gravity, we wouldn’t have evolved as conscious beings. We may have gotten our start in the warm seas of early Earth, but when we clambered onto land we took on gravity full-force, and had to match that challenge rather than float on the surface of life as our watery environment once allowed.

Birds and butterflies go us one better by shedding every spare ounce and leaping off into the air. No wonder we admire monarchs and chickadees so much, and all the others who make defying gravity look so easy. I have spent many a dream laboriously flapping my arms, only to rise into a tangle of power lines without a landing field in sight. I can do it in my dreams, but there’s no joy in doing it, only worry about getting tangled.

Astronauts bounding about on the moon are as close as we can come to the ideal of a life free of gravity. Sailing and hang-gliding are runners-up. Golf offers us the surrogate of a dimpled white ball flying down the fairway, all credit to the driver standing staunchly in his cleated shoes. Basketball, too, offers the swish of a ball downward through the net. And baseball through the trajectory of a well-hit ball of leather.

Too, I would add consciousness itself, which is capable of light thoughts and flights of fantasy. Gravity and levity, I suggest, offer prototypes of the polarities such as heaviness and lightness, sadness and happiness, that kindle consciousness by offering the mind something to chew on, and the life force a challenge worthy of its seating in the nucleus of every cell in our bodies.

After all, it requires huge amounts of energy to work or play games in a stern gravitational field. Levity has been one of our goals from the start. Think of it: that is precisely what we have gained bit-by-bit over the three-and-a-half-billion-year course of evolution.

It was no accident we got where we are today, with gravity-defying minds such as we have. Drawing up our lips and cheeks into a smile, that is how we receive the news that gravity has made us the miracles we are.

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(Copyright © 2010)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Categorize this.

 

 

(Copyright © 2008)

 

When the first astronauts looked down on the Earth from space, they were less than articulate in telling what they saw. Wow! Look at that! is how I remember their spontaneous reports. They were all but speechless. I made fun of their puny descriptions then, but now I believe they were so unprepared for the experience of looking down on Earth from space that they were almost overwhelmed by the emotions that came over them. In ordinary life, our language for strong emotions often consists of four-letter words. When under stress, we find that the language of rational thought is largely irrelevant. Emotional language is more a matter of curses, sighs, cries, and moans.

 

Or memorized lyrics—as in songs, hymns, anthems, and such. On stage, actors can eloquently speak their emotions because they have memorized their lines. One of the most haunting moments in music took place at the 1928 Remembrance Day Ceremony in Albert Hall when assembled veterans of World War I sang, “It’s a Long, Long Way to Tipperary,” a song they all knew by heart. No sound is bigger than those moving voices.

 

But the language of emotional consciousness, I now realize, is made more for action than sentimental songs. When it comes to expressing feelings, words are only incidental. Usually, big actions are called for, like hitting the line, running as fast as you can, or making love, not little actions like talking, knitting, or building model planes. Which gets to the core of why we have them. Emotions are tools of survival in threatening situations. The finer details of culture emerges only once we get past them and have time to simmer down and relax. Emotions are based on hormones secreted into the blood when we are under some sort of stress and need to make a quick response.

 

Depression, on the other hand, seems to be a squelching of emotion resulting from not being able to act because we are held back when our blood tells us to get going. Perhaps the best thing to do when we can do nothing appropriate to our situation is to shut down and wait. In such circumstances, temporary depression might make its own kind of sense. Long-term depression, however, as a symptom of long-term inaction can lead to utter hopelessness and collapse. Short term stress gets us going; long-term stress can be lethal.

 

All of which is a prelude to what I want to write about in this post. The aftermath of my earlier blog about music consciousness (see Reflection 38).

 

I am writing a blog about music consciousness. I want to dispense with program music that tells a story as something entirely different. Peter and the Wolf is a good example of the confusion we get into when words and music are mixed together, as in songs, operas, and oratorios. In those media it is hard to tell if felt responses stem from the music, the words, or both (or neither; maybe it’s the costumes and scenery). I am looking for an example of music accompanied by something other than words. Like dance. Like ballet. How about Swan Lake? What’s that dance for the four little swans? The four cygnets? Fifty-five years ago when I was at Columbia, dance had a strong hold on me. I went to performances of Ballet Theater and New York City Ballet almost every week. I met my first wife while waiting in line to get into Sadler’s Wells at the Met. I search for Swan Lake on the Web, and one of the early options comes up, Bolshoi Swan Lake – Pas de Quatre Small Swans. The very thing! I would have said Cygnets or Little Swans, but that’s Russian translators for you. I click the link—and there is a video of a Bolshoi production of the Dance of the Small Swans. I realize immediately that I can’t use ballet as an example because so much of the meaning of the piece is conveyed by the dancers—the visual impression—not the music. The video starts on its own. Suddenly I’m there, in New York watching the cygnets cavort 55 years ago. Same dark stage, same white costumes, same music, same steps—same me. I watch, transfixed. I don’t breathe for two minutes. What am I unleashing here? I clamp my lips to avoid blubbering. This is beauty, this is power. Pure grace. No, I don’t say the words—I feel the movement, the music. The magic. My rational mind is reduced to a series of clichés. Wow. Here is the world of sights, sounds, and expectancy I plunged into when I moved from Boston to New York in 1952 when I was twenty. I choke up. The video is almost too much. I am stunned. Transported. Why not let go? But I can’t. The tension is unbearable. I know the dance by heart. It’s been inside me all these years, and I never once acknowledged it. Never turned it loose. Watching the four dancers, I see myself being wholly myself, or wanting to be, but embarrassment clamps down on my emotional self. Steeling my lips so not to show my emotions. To whom? To me—I’m the only one around. I am of two minds, one rational, the other emotional. As if the two parts of me hadn’t lived together all these years and come to terms. One had to “win” and squelch the other. I see it all. When the video stops, I sit at my laptop, overwhelmed.

 

For me, this was a Proustian moment. But instead of regaining consciousness of the past by tasting a piece of madeleine (French almond cake) dipped in tea, as Proust’s protagonist did in Remembrance of Things Past, I found it by clicking a link on the Web—which burned a hole in my here-and-now mind through which the past leapt into the now.

 

I immediately felt a compelling shock of resonance between my consciousness then and my consciousness now. As if several different parts of my brain danced to the same tune. Music was involved, but sight and motion were kindled at the same time. I wasn’t just viewing the past, I was actually there. I pictured brain waves humming in resonance in every quarter of my mind, giving one another mutual feedback and support.

 

Reflecting on the experience, I think resonance is the key to the emotions I felt. The coordinated movements of the four dancers revealed a clear physical resonance echoing the music. Each dancer was her own person, yet was sympathetically linked to the other three. If their motions had been identical, they would have been robots. Holding hands, they moved in sympathy one with another. And I was with them the whole time, both my past and present selves, sharing in the discipline and the resonance.

 

Such states of resonance are a big part of consciousness. That’s how we learn, by being with others, watching, then imitating them as if reflecting their inner selves. We make fun of such imitative behavior, calling out, “monkey see, monkey do.” But we all play that game. Watch any two people in an intense conversation, each unconsciously mimicking the behavior of the other. I see it in myself. My partner crosses her arms, then so do I. I lean back in my chair, then so does she. We take turns being with others by translating their image into our posture. If we see it, we can do it. I feel sure that has a lot to do with feelings of closeness in families, friendships, and communities.

 

If you have doubts, take a look at the Beatles’ Hey Jude video on the internet. By the umteenth repetition of the chorus—“da, da, da, dadidada, dadidada, Hey Jude,” your brain waves will be synchronized with the band and their audience, and you will know exactly what resonance feels like. It’s O.K. to show emotions if body language tells you everybody else feels the same.

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