492. We Engage or We Die

April 24, 2015

My claim in this series of posts is that consciousness is not fully contained within the brain, but is a distributive property achieved by an organism’s collaborative engagement with its planetary environment.

Take the brain out of its normal range of ambient stimulation, as in solitary confinement or other forms of sensory deprivation, and consciousness suffers a morbid decline. In a depleted environment, consciousness develops to a lesser degree.

Those who survive in depleted sensory environments learn to engage with ants and spiders crawling in the corners, or to fall back on the store of memories they bring with them, building upon them by planning what they will do when they get out.

An Sang Suu Kyi, the Burmese opposition leader, suffered fifteen years of reduced engagement under house arrest; Nelson Mandela survived twenty-seven years of confinement in three different prisons, actively pounding rock into gravel during the day, later playing football, gardening, reading, studying for his law degree.

No matter what conditions we live under, we find ways to engage—or we die. The other night I was falling asleep and became aware I could not lift my head or move my body. Yet my mind was dimly active. I distinctly remember my last, fading thought, “Friends, I feel I am slipping away,” that is, dying. That’s what death is: a state of non-engagement, forever. Not just unconsciousness, but utter oblivion.

Engagement brings us to life. It is precisely what it means to be alive. To be both perceptive and active, with judgment thrown in between them, if we’re lucky.

We engage to build models of our situations in the outside world by analyzing the patterns of ambient stimulation delivered by our sensory receptors. That is, by finding meaning in those patterns, gauging our options, then judging which option is best as a guide to making an appropriate response.

The problem being that the inner realms our minds create on the inside are never accurate models of the world we inhabit on the outside. Our attention is highly selective, so we can only take in ambient patterns in fragmentary form. Our inner models are made of bits and pieces, dribs and drabs, not replicas of the world.

So we do a lot of guessing, estimating, and interpolating in trying to piece together the world puzzle, the big picture of what’s going on that is likely to affect us. Our sensory abilities may be amazing, but the world is always more complex than we can imagine. We must commit ourselves to a lifetime of continuous engagement or we’ll never keep up.

As babies, we are in way over our heads, so require nurturing care from others on a twenty-four-seven basis. That is called parenthood. But if our significant others stick with us, our situation gradually improves, and eventually we learn to stand on our own by backing our engagements with commitment, concentration, and dedicated campaigns of perception-judgment-action for ourselves. We stumble around a lot at first, but slowly straighten up and set our sights on far horizons.

Life is a matter of matching our inner possibilities to the possibilities offered by the world. Consciousness, together with loops of engagement, are our most basic tools for accomplishing that feat. All of which is made possible jointly by our minds, brains, and worlds working together.

That is my crucial point in this blog. We can’t do it by ourselves—survive, that is. Our success is a collaborative effort between mind, brain, and planet. It takes a planet to evolve a brain, and a brain to evolve a mind. In the brief window of life available to us, we are beneficiaries of all three. If, that is, they truly engage in mutual interaction from one moment to the next, one situation to the next. Encouraging us to evolve throughout our lives, infant to senior, getting better day-by-day at whatever it is we are doing with our fleeting gift of life.

As I pointed out in the dissertation quotes I bulleted in post 488, “I Am Not Making This Up,” the nuts and bolts of engagement are made possible by the workings of the limbic system as a finely-tuned comparison between perception and memory, between the present state of the hippocampus as compared to a coded remnant of earlier experience. That comparison is at the heart of our loops of engagement.

If that comparison between present and past results in a disparity, then consciousness springs into action to get a more detailed picture of the situation through further exploration. That’s what trial and error is all about, figuring out a way to get a better fix on what’s going on in order to make a better, more appropriate response. All solutions are pending, not certain.

That’s what learning and education and experience are all about. Our growth and survival depend on doing better under highly variable conditions. There’s no way ahead but to take the plunge, make a mistake, and try again. And again. And again.

I’ve got one more post to go before ending this discussion. Then it’s on to my final conclusions, and wrapping up this blog as a whole.

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442. Why Community?

February 25, 2015

Why am I carrying on about community as I have been in my last three posts? And culture before that? And nature before that? And will be carrying on about the family level of our engagements in posts yet to come?

My point is that consciousness as I see it is not neatly packaged in the brain, but is a messy, collaborative effort between our minds and the worlds around us. I divide those worlds into levels of nature, culture, community, and family. Our brains tell only half the story; the surroundings with which we engage tell the other half.

Without ambient worlds, we’d have no minds at all. Think sensory deprivation, solitary confinement, living in a cave, or on a tiny desert island with one sheltering palm as we depict in cartoons. Our minds are built to engage with outside worlds. Without such worlds we’d go stir crazy because of lack of any kind of response to our gestures.

Community is just one level of the many engagements I find in myself through introspection. I am not alone in my mind and have never been alone. I was born to the worlds of nature, culture, community, and family such as they were in Hamilton, New York, in 1932. I could have been born in Damas in Syria to an entirely different set of worlds in that same year. Or to yet other worlds in Christianshaab, Greenland; La Libertad, Guatemala; Banzyville, Belgian Congo; or Saigon in French Indo-China. But, no, I wasn’t born to any of those sets of worlds; I was born to the multi-layered worlds of Hamilton, New York.

Schine State Theater was the movie house in town when I grew up; that’s where I first saw the Wizard of Oz. The image of the man behind the curtain manipulating the wizard still lives in my brain. My family went to the movies there on December 7, 1941, when for some reason I ran home and turned on the radio, then told my father that something bad had happened in Pearl Harbor, wherever that was. Rausa’s Cigar Store next door had pinball machines and an electric cigar lighter that threw sparks between electrodes. My young mind was shaped by engagements in a Hamilton that now no longer exist in the world, yet still exist in me.

My early mind was shaped by events in Hamilton a long time ago, yet I carry my naïve version of those events to this day. That’s why I blog about community, because it is one major strand of experience that makes our minds what they are. Other formative communities I bear with me are the Seattle of 1947, Cambridge of 1951, Kaiserslautern of 1957, Ames of 1960, Burying Island of 1987, and now Bar Harbor of today. I am he who has just such a mind that dwells on the nature of consciousness.

What else would I blog about but the myriad engagements with nature, culture, community, and family that make me who I am? Introspection opens onto just such a complex world as stirs up my consciousness to this day. The same world that situates my intelligence from moment to moment within the field of memory I carry with me wherever I go, sparking my attention and concentration on themes called-up and directed from inside my head.

Neuroscientists blog about information being passed to and processed by different areas of the brain. It is my belief that they will never discover consciousness in their research; what they will find is what they bring with them and project onto the workings of the brain. Until they acknowledge that a great chunk of what they are looking for exists in such layers of experience as nature, culture, community, and family, I believe their expensive machinery will tell them more and more about less and less because it misses the point that consciousness is given us to help us collaborate with, and adapt to, the several worlds we actually live in, not the world as it exists in their highly trained and indoctrinated minds.

But what do I know? Only what my mind whispers to me in my dreams, and I struggle to organize as simply as I can in my waking hours. I can only speak for myself from my personal experience. Which, I believe, is all any of us can do, each being unique as we all are. But at least I can do that, and as I see it, owe it to the world to publish one post at a time as an honest account of one man’s situated intelligence, against which others are invited to compare their own.