In a very real sense, what I’m working from in writing this blog is the aftermath of writing a doctoral dissertation in 1982 as a grad student in the Humanistic and Behavioral Studies Department of Boston University’s School of Education. It took decades for me to shake off the academic tone I adopted in writing a 625-page book that, as far as I know, no one has read all the way through except me.

More particularly, I am working through the lessons I learned in writing Chapter 5, Pheromones to Phenomena, which dealt with the workings of the brain as understood at that time (largely based on animal studies). When I go back and read that chapter, I find what I wrote then is still true for me today. Not that my growth was stunted from then-on; more that what I hit upon in that chapter about the neural underpinnings of perception, judgment, and memory still serves as an excellent model for the mind revealed to me through introspection.

Of course we find in the world largely what we expect to find, so it sounds like I am indulging in a self-fulfilling prophesy. But that’s not what I mean. What I wrote then about the nature of consciousness still helps me to understand my mind of today. If it didn’t, I wouldn’t be writing this blog.

Not that I literally remember those thoughts from yesteryear. They surprise me every time I go back and read them. It’s the unspoken sense of concentration and commitment that drove me to write the dissertation that sticks with me. Now reduced to an intuitive feel for the topic I am writing about, a kind of silent presence in the background that guides me twenty-three years later.

I began Chapter Five, Pheromones to Phenomena, with the radical switch our species had to make from reliance on our ancestors’ sense of smell to living in a higher world with almost no smell at all. When we stood up on our hind legs, our jaws and snouts lessened, and we had to compensate for what we lost by rapidly developing our senses of vision and hearing, along with the ability to control muscles governing balance, posture, stance, and precise movement of our fingers.

It is the experience of thinking those thoughts that I retain to this day, not writing about what gradually happened to the amygdala, hippocampus, cerebral cortex, and other perceptual systems in having to adapt to a world without pheromones.

I was wholly engaged with my topic when I wrote my dissertation letter-perfect (with White-out) on an IBM Selectric typewriter, and it is what my brain has done with that engagement that I carry with me today, not the actual words and citations.

I know because I went back and read Chapter Five: there it all was in splendid detail. When I practice introspection in writing about the foibles of my own mind, that process is backed up by the deep concentration I put into clicking away at my typewriter day-after-day for over two years. And into scouring the sources I read in the years before that.

The difference between then and now is that today I am trying to write in English appropriate to a blog aimed at a general audience, not academic English as suited to dissertation committees and peer reviewers. It has taken this long to shed old habits learned in school, and as you can tell from reading these posts, I am still trying to overcome a natural bent to make simple things sound complicated.

Are my ideas now out-of-date because they are descendants of ideas I wrestled with in grad school? Or even earlier? I’ve written about the important role memory plays in perception, so that the words I write today go back to the language I babbled when I was an infant. Are my words as old as I am? I say, no, because I see myself as a trainable who can adapt to changing times. Words do change, but not as fast as people do. By reading a few notes, we can still make sense of Chaucer and Shakespeare, if not Beowulf—all far older than I am.

So what did I write in my dissertation? Here are some samples from Chapter Five of Metaphor to Mythology (Ann Arbor: University Microfilms International, 1982). In these excerpts, because olfactory bulbs (smell receptors) in our ancestors have such immediate access to the hippocampus and limbic system, the interactive components that make up that system are featured, including hippocampus, amygdala, and hypothalamus. I am using these bulleted quotations to illustrate the specialized world I inhabited in grad school.

  • The entire cortex is an evolutionary derivative of the sense of smell (page 259).
  • Our erect posture, by distancing our olfactory receptors from the sources of smell, has deprived us of the benefits of pheromonal [olfactory signal] communication, so it is not surprising that we have increasingly come to rely on non-chemical means for integrating our internal state with our environment (page 260).
  • The limbic system operates basically as a “selection unit” to determine the biological value of sensory information in relation to various organic drives, and then functions to facilitate the storage of information deemed relevant to successful functioning of the organism (page 263).
  • The regulation of cognitive function shifts away from the processing of pheromonal signals to the identification and evaluation of cues in the visual and auditory modalities. What remains constant, however, is the crucial role of the hippocampus (and the limbic system in general) in learning, memory, communication, and social organization (page 264).
  • The interpretation of neurological studies often relies heavily upon the twin concepts of the internal and external milieu. . . . homologous to one-celled animals in which a semipermeable membrane separates an “inside” from an “outside.” The internal milieu represents the equilibrated chemical innards that constitute the life-sustaining works of the organism; the external milieu being the sum total of all ambient stimulation an investigator can imagine to be impinging upon its sensibilities (page 268).
  • [Hippocampal] function is related to the enduring consequences of a comparison (seeing one signal in terms of another, a kind of seeing-as) between two different classes of sensory input—one primarily sensory, the other . . . facilitated by precedent episodes of similar experience (page 277f.).
  • Under novel circumstances it would be the hippocampus that would effect a comparison between perception and memory, emitting a signal that would be proportional to the non-familiarity of the sensory signal, and leading to exploratory behavior designed to acquire a more coherent and detailed version of that signal. Comparisons resulting in a high degree of registration would enable the animal to make a response on the basis of an assumed identification to which the existing repertoire of behaviors would more likely be both adequate and appropriate (page 280).
  • Since an animal’s sensory stimulation will vary in accordance with its own locomotion, it is essential that some mechanism be available to distinguish between self-generated and environment-generated variation in sensory input. To accomplish this, signals that exhibit covariation with proprioceptive input from muscle spindles and receptors in tendons and joints must be credited to the organism itself and subjected to inhibition in order to determine the coherent pattern of sensation that can be attributed to stimuli in the environment (page 282).
  • The normal animal lives neither for the moment nor for the past, but is able to compare the two and make an appropriate response to adjust the difference. It is able to find meaning in its phenomenological milieu and, when it can’t, to embark on a series of excursions that will enable it to discover appropriate meanings for novel phenomena. And if those meanings are repeated often enough, or are important enough, then the normal animal is capable of remembering them (page 283f.).
  • The hippocampus, as a novelty detector, directs its output to several important destinations: to the hypothalamus, the custodian of the internal milieu; to the midbrain reticular formation, regulator of arousal and wakefulness; to the prefrontal areas in which so many separate signals are coordinated; and to itself, via a kind of reverberating feedback loop that turns momentary stimuli into enduring potentations that influence its own activity. In each case it acts like a switch that turns another operation on or off, depending on the disparity between the signals it receives. From its central location it influences motivation, arousal, sensory coherence, interference, memory, meaning, and behavior (page 284).
  • Since the business of memory is survival (by making lessons learned in the past available on suitable occasions in the present), it is not surprising that these survival-related functions form the core of many of our strongest memories (page 286).
  • The hippocampus (and its associated network of connectivities to related areas) thus makes it possible for repeated episodes of similar sensory signals to exert a systemic influence that renders them familiar and—beyond that—meaningful. Such signals are more readily “welcomed” by the perceptual system because they “speak” to prior experience, to the heritage of the perceiver. And, since they address not an identical replica of themselves but an abstraction derived from multiple repetitions (or approximations) over time, their reception occurs within a framework of historical reference that equates their existential pattern of sensory stimulation with something already in the perceiver’s possession, with a referential meaning that is already an aspect of the perceiving apparatus itself (page 292).
  • Sensory signals, . . . are like keys that acquire a meaning by being inserted into certain locks that anticipate their configuration; sensations are different from meanings in the same sense those keys are different from the locks that they open. And, to continue the simile, the hippocampus is the locksmith who adjusts the lock to fit those keys that are repeatedly or forcefully imposed upon their workings (page 292).
  • The salient feature of context-related memory is the influence it exerts upon the process of perception. . . . Its primary function is to direct attention toward those aspects of a situation that are most likely to prove pertinent to the motivational state of the individual perceiver. It is a reaching-out for perception on the basis of an authority vested in the ongoing interaction between self and world as it has been achieved in the current (or immediately prior) situation. Thus does experiential meaning, once unlocked, strive to perpetuate itself by [putting] itself forward on the basis of its recent successes, attempting to discriminate a world that would fulfill its current promise as if foretold as a kind of destiny—like a lock awaiting to be fulfilled by a certain key(page 295).
  • [I]t is no accident that our ideas nest within each other so conveniently, that our understanding is hierarchical in nature, allowing the most venial notion to coexist with our highest ideals, the mundane with the celestial, the profane with the sacred. For all its complexity, the paramount achievement of the brain is the selection and synchronization of its ongoing processes so that mind is characterized by a coherent flow of ideas that provides a continuous rationale for purposive behavior (page 301).
  • [Our] strategy [is] to present ourselves to the world from the security of our heritage of personal experience, and to weld whatever patterns we discovery firmly to the structure we have already built. The world we see is the world we have learned to see. That is the genius of our species and the secret of our survival: the world is always contingent upon the way we present ourselves to it—upon the way we have learned to seize it. No miracle is more profound because, instead of granting us eternal wisdom, it challenges us to pursue every opportunity for learning, and to remain open to the worlds that others have discovered for themselves (page 317).

So, no, I’m not making-up these posts as I go along. They are deeply rooted in my life’s cumulative endeavors and experience. That is, in the flowing situations in my innermost parts that give meaning to my life.

As a team sport, baseball is all about relationships between members of two different teams playing against each other. There is a tension between the opposing teams, tension within each of them as plays unfold over time. And tensions in us as we follow along, gripped by the drama unfolding in our minds, and of which we are a big part. Without dedicated fans, baseball wouldn’t exist. It is made to carry us along with it. No wonder we watch.

Such tensions stem from uncertainty concerning what is about to happen. Our minds thrive on uncertainty because they are made to be certain in support of decisive action, so they have to stick with the challenge. From first to last inning, baseball is charged with uncertainty. As well as yearnings for a successful outcome.

What pitch will the pitcher deliver? Will the batter take the bait, and if so, will he swing for a strike, hit a fly ball, or send a bounder just past the second baseman’s glove? Will the catcher throw off his mask, crane his neck, then grab that high foul ball? Will the pitcher lob the bunted ball to first? Will the fielder reach the grounder in time to get the runner out at second? Will the shortstop cover second when the baseman shifts toward first?

The pitcher-batter confrontation can lead to so many possible situations, we are on the edge of our seats and edge of our minds much of the time, eager to find out how each play will unfold as players throw the ball from one to another: pitcher to catcher, outfield to infield, second base to first, third to home.

Each play depends on so much coordinated skill, strength, speed, and accuracy, there is hardly a moment when we dare take our eyes off the ball for fear of missing the crucial play that makes all the difference. Paying close attention to each play takes exertion on our part. We exhaust ourselves just by following along. But the adventure is worth it. There’s no other way to have such an experience than to commit to it in both body and mind.

We not only follow the game from our viewpoint, but we anticipate what will happen. And enjoy the thrill of finding out if we’re right or wrong. We live on the edge of our own excitement, thrusting this way and that, like riding a defiant bronco. Investing our minds in the game, we find ourselves being carried away. Commitment is what it takes, commitment to engage as best we can for as long as we can. Paying attention takes perseverance, dedication, stamina, and strength. Those are all forms of engagement that carry us along.

We find new dimensions of ourselves by losing our old self and giving in to the power and drama of the moment. We come out of it bigger than we were, stronger, more enduring because of the engagement.

Engagement builds strong bodies eight ways, all variations on exercising the mental skills and dimensions we bring to the game. I’ve already mentioned several of them: expectancy, imagery, feeling, values, situations, understanding, meaning, judgment—that’s eight, and I’ve just begun. The whole list adds up to a multi-dimensional engagement that takes concentration, but ends up in a generous serving of personal fulfillment by a game well-played.

Just as there is a quota of good in everyone, there is a quota of excitement in every engagement. And a quota of enlightenment if we truly put ourselves into it. When we get bored, that’s because we are not committing much energy to what we are doing. We’re not putting ourselves into it, whatever it is. So we draw back for lack of concentrating on something—anything—and that invites lethargy to descend upon us. Boredom is a declaration of our lack of curiosity, interest, concentration—in a word, engagement. Which takes a commitment of our attention before anything can happen at all.

Being bored is a comment on our own lack of reaching out to the world to invite the world to reach in to us. The world owes us nothing. It is not out there for our benefit. As individuals, all of us are in charge of that department for ourselves. Baseball offers us a release from the cell we lock ourselves into when we wistfully moan for something to do.

Watch two baseball teams in action, engage yourself, and rejoice.

448. Family Engagements

March 4, 2015

How do families form? How do they work? How do they stay together? How do they fall apart?

Some would say the driving force is the binding power of religious belief. Others would say, cultural tradition, civil authority, paternal or maternal consent, and so on. Still others would maintain that families are formed in response to the abiding and mutual attraction of two people in love.

Many would agree that it takes a public act or ceremony to instigate a family, attended by as large a sector of a community as can be gathered together, adding the weight of many hearers to any vows that might be exchanged. And incidentally forming a base of well-wishers right from the start.

But in fact, families form whenever and wherever conditions are present in the right proportion to support individuals in committing themselves one to another, as construed by the minds of those concerned.

Sexual engagement may be involved before, during, or after any such pledge of commitment. Women like to be wedded and bedded; men like to bed and be fed. Most agree that families require consummation at some point to become sufficiently binding to enter into the books that make families official or legal in the public mind.

But there are a great many extra-legal ways to start a family, one being a shotgun wedding enforced by the male parent of a fallen maiden, or simply by mutual consent of the people (not necessarily of different sexes) involved with no additional requirements.

From the standpoint of children within a family, we know our families from the unique perspective of our unfolding minds, never twice the same two days in a row. By definition, we are developing all the while, every hour of every day. We are not yet fully human, and have far to go before we achieve an identity worthy of that honorific title. But day by day, wayfarers that we are, we head in that direction.

If the question could be put to us early on, “Eat and poop, poop and eat, when are you going to stop being such an animal?,” our behavior would answer for us: “Bear with me, I’m working on it.” By the time we are thirty, forty, fifty, or eighty, all will be revealed.

As children, our repertory of developing gifts is influenced by a number of factors: genetic heritage, diet, skills we work on, engagements we strike up, character traits of those around us—parents, siblings, relatives, friends, pets, and neighbors. We’re all working on it by providing a stimulating and supportive (and somewhat stressful) family setting matched to (and a little ahead of) our respective levels of competence.

Think of the young Mozart, Tiger Woods, Serena and Venus Williams, following the examples provided by attentive, encouraging, and often demanding parents. Prodigies are made, not born, by seizing the occasions they are given for grappling to achieve what they see others doing with polish and ease.

Infants thrive on repeated awareness of warmth, tenderness, milk, and sonorous engagements suited to their needs and abilities. Reassured by their initial contacts, they seek a greater range of challenges through more demanding engagements. Cooing sounds become hummed tunes become lullabies become rousing songs. Babbled syllables become recognizable words; words in a row become sentences. Eyes open, heads lift, arms reach, legs push, ta da—we’re crawling, and about to rear up on our hind legs and really get moving so we won’t be late for our first speech.

Five factors are crucial to our childhood development: our unique genome, the ages of our parents, spacing and birth-order of all siblings, and the sexual identity or preference of all concerned. Volumes have been written about the details of each. Relative not only to our brothers and sisters, but to our parents, whether they be nurturing, encouraging, challenging, preoccupied, overprotective—whatever.

Father is often the active one who physically challenges us; mother the caregiver who supports (while shaping) our every endeavor. It could be the other way around, or neither, or both. We respond to the adults we are born to, or acquire thereafter, whatever their gifts and limitations at the time, however we are able to engage them.

We respond differentially to their example according to our needs, interests, desires, and abilities. These first mutual interactions set the tone for all that follow. We bask in the attention, and strive to keep up by doing our best. The bar rises higher and higher each time, the effort goes up, the satisfaction climbs. We grow into ourselves through personal exertion, putting ourselves out to become who we strive to be. No one can do it for us.

Every step is earned through hard work and determination. Given time enough and stamina, there’s no limit to how far the life force might take us once we achieve lift-off within our families and our flightpath is subject to personal control.

But our families can engage us so that we keep striving on our own with their help. Together, we can make it happen. Apart, we can only get so far on our own because engagements take two or more players, and it is the flow of ongoing interaction that counts, not merely token glances, smiles, or frowns. They are for later once we’ve learned to meet our own standards through disciplined practice again and again.

We get good at what we actually do, not what we promise but only half-heartedly try.

In coming posts I will speak largely from the perspective I have on my own family, since that is the only one I can address with the authority of personal experience.

My tracking horseshoe crabs in Taunton Bay soon took over my mind. I did my best to think like a horseshoe crab in figuring out which way it had gone from where I’d last heard its signal. As my skills improved over the months, I got pretty good at keeping track of them day-by-day on their separate excursions. But, too, I kept losing them.

Sometimes there would be intervals of several days between tracking sessions due to wind and weather, leading me to become pretty much a fair-weather tracker. As a result I’d lose sight of the ones I’d been following, and had to make a fresh start when I’d next get out on the bay.

We expected the transmitter batteries to run down after two years, but we got a good part of a third tracking season (2005) out of them before they finally died (the batteries, not the crabs, which can live for about twenty years in the wild).

I was surprised to learn how passionate I became about following twenty-six individual crabs in their travels about the bay. I quickly became truly engaged in the project. I cared about finding each crab and I’d worry when I lost track of it. I’d go searching for it until I (sometimes) found it again or got the feeling I’d lost it forever.

My engagement led me to try to connect with each crab. To put myself in its place as if I were the traveler on the bottom trying to figure where to go next. To do that I had to have a good sense of the terrain, the currents, the temperature gradients, the mussel and eelgrass beds—the entire habitat area beneath me that I couldn’t see, but could imagine at high tide while tracking because of my earlier experiences in the same area when the tide was low.

Engagements are a two-way street. If I wanted to hear from my select population of horseshoe crabs, I’d have to pay attention to them. To put myself out there on the bottom where they were. I’d have to make room for their concerns in my agenda. To do that, I’d have to learn to think like horseshoe crabs think. To understand the motives that guided their travels.

Was that possible, or was that my conceit? Well, if I pushed myself, maybe I could do better. After all, I wasn’t tracking for my benefit but for theirs. I had their best interests at heart. Or so I told myself. I’m doing this for you, dear one. And for you, and for you.

I think what I was getting at was a sense of commitment. Not duty to my job, but commitment to another species entirely that happened to live near me. An outlying population of a species that humans could put at risk out of carelessness, out of not knowing where they were or what they needed to survive.

After all, for many years people had shoveled horseshoe crabs into piles to use as fertilizer. Or conch bait. Even some Native Americans put horseshoe crabs under the squash and corn they planted, sacrificing the crabs for the betterment of their crops.

But I felt moved to connect with the crabs I was tracking, to help them thrive. As they had thrived for almost half-a-billion years on their own without my caring assistance. I felt an intimate kinship with horseshoe crabs, and admired the beauty and graceful functionality of their bodies. They can swim legs-down or legs-up, pushing ahead by pumping their gills back and forth. They can walk on the bottom, dig in muddy or sandy sediments, eat bountiful small mollusks, and fight infection with copper-based blood that congeals to heal wounds. They are proven survivors adapted to estuary habitats, largely unchanged for some 400 million years.

My mind goes out to horseshoe crabs, and every sighting thrills me head-to-toe. Being of such ancient design and so beautiful, they have an undying claim on my attention. I am caught in the spell of their attractiveness, and because I will never be able to understand them, there will always be that discrepancy urging me on to further engagements with members of their august species.

I respond by being with them and interacting however I can: tracking their travels, monitoring their breeding populations, photographing them, making PowerPoint presentations to sensitize others to their presence among us, sharing my respect and enthusiasm. I have an extensive library on horseshoe crabs, and samples of their shed shells on the shelves and walls in my apartment. I surround my nest with reminders that they exist in my presence.

Because of my several engagements with them, they have become fixtures in my daily life. And because of the incongruity with other features of my experience, they introduce a sense of discrepancy or discontinuity that prods my consciousness into full wakefulness so that I pay attention to their tenuous placement in the modern world.

That alerting discrepancy makes all the difference in my including horseshoe crabs in the scope of my daily concern and attention. That is why I have tracked them, read about them, traced their line of descent from trilobites, and photograph them every chance I get. Discrepancy is the spark that ignites into allure, inviting me out of my sheltered mind into the world. Even if I am not very good at tracking horseshoe crabs, I have felt compelled to improve.

Horseshoe crabs and eelgrass meadows call me in that way, as do hermit thrushes, song sparrows, fairy webs, and old man’s beard. It isn’t what I understand that makes my world; it’s what I don’t know because it is just beyond my reach. Without novelty, beauty, allure, disparity, and surprise, engagement reduces to habit, and mindless habits eat away the wonder of being alive and alert to discrepancy.

In a very real sense, I am possessed by horseshoe crabs, and as a result, have become possessive of them in return. The root of ownership is in just that sense of possession through engagement. Engagement makes a claim on my attention. Engagement works both ways. I “own” what I engage with, and it owns my interest and attention.

The circle of engagement is complete. Perception leads to action leads to engagement leads back to perception. I have earlier compared that situation to the image of the ancient serpent Uroborus biting its own tail. The point being that such gripping engagement unites its parts into a unitary whole.

Devoted engagement brings its separate elements together into a single event. I am part of horseshoe crab existence in Taunton Bay by tracking their every move; they, in turn, become an integral part of my experience by changing the mind at the core of my being.

No wonder we get possessive of who or what we engage with. Our experience binds us together, and our experience becomes part of our minds, enriching us, making us part of a larger whole. As integral parts of my experience in nature, horseshoe crabs become aspects of my identity. Together, in my mind, we become joined together as an item. We are openly engaged, with all the emotional attachment that implies.