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.

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410. Outer Reaches of Mind

January 20, 2015

Engagement is a crucial concept in my approach to consciousness. I use it in almost every post. But what does it mean to me when I use it?

We each have an inner life of the mind and an outer life in the world around us. The inner life begins with perception and consists largely of what we make of incoming sensory impressions, as well as judgment upon what we take those impressions to mean against the background of our experience.

That inner life leads from judgment to outgoing action in the world as our response to previous incoming impressions.

The inner life of the mind from perception to judgment and on to appropriate action makes up half the story of consciousness. The outer half is what happens in the world as a result of our taking the actions we do throughout the day.

That outer half of consciousness narrates how the world responds to what we did and, equally important, relays that response to us so that we can grasp the effects of our actions. Which we do by comparing that incoming response against our outgoing intentions in order to gauge the effectiveness of what we did.

That comparison generates what I call a delta signal in our brains that tells us whether or not we accomplished our earlier mission. If the delta signal bears a positive tone, it tells us we are on the right track. If that feedback is negative, we interpret it as telling us to try harder, or take a different approach.

What we are conscious of in such a loop of engagement is precisely the delta signal that bridges the gap between what we tried to do and what actually happened. That is, consciousness depicts and assesses the high and low points of the relationship between our inner self and the world around us. It tells us by way of the feeling within us whether we are happy or sad, glad or mad. In light of our intentions, happy is good news, sad is bad news.

That psychic relationship is what I mean by engagement. It prompts awareness of what we did in comparison with what actually happened, and stimulates an affective response to guide us in making our next move.

Consciousness is the inner venue where that awareness takes place, including the crucial feeling tone accompanying that awareness.

Given what I have just written, with this post to my blog I change my focus from the inner world of perception-judgment-action that has occupied my preceding posts to consider what it is in the outer world that we engage with. From now on I will be taking on the other half of consciousness, the half that does not reside in our brains, and cannot be found there no matter how hard or long we may search for it. We may discover our view of the world, but not the world as it is in itself, which is our partner in engagement.

To help you picture the many partners we might engage with in completing the outer half of our personal consciousness, I ask you to visualize the following maps all superimposed on one another.

  1. A map of the GPS locations of every cellphone in the world.
  2. A map of all the roads, highways, and byways in the world.
  3. A map of all the sea lanes across the oceans of the world.
  4. A map of all the flight paths between all the airports in the world.
  5. A map of all the server farms supporting the internet throughout the world.
  6. A map of all the capital cities of the many countries in the world.
  7. A map of all the grains of sand on the surface of the beaches of the world.
  8. A map of all the catalogued stars that can be seen from the world.
  9. A map of all the uncatalogued stars that can be seen from the world.
  10. A map of all the trees in the world.
  11. A map of all the postal codes in the world.
  12. A map of all the street addresses in the world.
  13. A map of all the country and area codes in the world.
  14. A map of all the TV and radio stations in the world.
  15. A map of all the places where photographs have been taken in the world.

That massive skein of the sorts of places we might engage with in one lifetime of consciousness is surely a complementary match for the most complex system we know of in the universe—namely, the human brain.

My focus in this blog now shifts from the makeup of individual minds to the engagements we actually or potentially might make with the world in one lifetime. My aim is to suggest the other half of consciousness that does not reside in our heads, but is ours to selectively engage with at any time.

The flow of situations through the mind makes up what we call a story, complete with beginning, middle, and end. Each baseball player in a given game lives his own story from the perspective of his defensive position on the field and offensive turns at bat. The story of the game as a whole is a compilation of the stories lived by the individual players (characters) as woven into a coherent narrative binding the high points of separate plays into a pattern making up the flow of collective experience from first to last inning.

The basic organization (plot) of the 2014 World Series as played out in Kansas City (beginning and end) and San Francisco (middle) is based on the conflicting motivations of two teams from different regions each dedicated to defeating the other. Conflict between worthy adversaries is at the heart of every game of baseball (football, basketball, soccer, cricket, chess, bridge, etc.) That is, each game is meant to display the similarities and differences between two teams playing by the same rules under identical circumstances, the score giving a measure of their relative strengths and weaknesses on a particular occasion.

Which is a gross generalization when put into words, while each game of baseball is based on specific comparisons played out on the field: strike or ball, fair or foul, safe or out, left or right, on or off, fast or slow, stop or go, ahead or behind, win or lose. Each game is told by its experiential specifics at the time of play, not its watered-down statistics after the fact.

The drama is in the setting up, enacting, and fulfillment of one play after another in the stream of each player’s consciousness. The game exists in the subjective experience of all in attendance, not in the record books which are dry summaries stacked on shelves.

What we notice at the time are the contrasts that test our expectancies for better or worse, falling short in disappointment or exceeding in joy at the way thing turn out. That’s where the excitement and adventure lie—in the difference between what we expect and what happens on the field. Every play sprouts from the soil prepared by preceding plays. Each game is organic, not factual or statistical. It lives in the minds of those who witness it. Those fully present to each play as it unfolds.

Baseball plays right into the arms of consciousness, which thrives on contrasts, differences, oppositions, disparities, and surprises. Pea soup is an apt metaphor for fog because it’s the same all around us, masking the beacons and landmarks we need to navigate by. Baseball wakes us up. It is nothing but landmarks for navigating the bases, infield, outfield. Keep your eye on the ball and act accordingly. Singles, doubles, triples, home runs—these are the outstanding features of baseball, along with pitches, catches, throws, swings, hits, misses, walks, bunts, stolen bases, outs, and errors. You never know what the next pitch will bring.

In game 7, Mike Moustakas’ triple with two out in the bottom of the ninth sent an electric jolt through every mind in the park. As Pablo Sandoval’s catch a few heartbeats later gave an even bigger jolt, clinching a year of champion pride for the Giants, a year of regretful determination for the Royals.

Those jolts are what baseball is all about. Showing what you can do. Playing to make a difference. Distinguishing yourself in a field of worthy rivals. That is the essential story of our living our lives on this Earth. Not eliminating the competition as in warfare, but bringing it up to your level so you can both do your best, even if at the moment one comes in first and the other second.