We acquire our genetic parents at conception, but achieve our dreaming and waking minds in the womb as distinct from those of our parents. We are each born to our most rudimentary families, such as they are, with a mind formed by a particular course of events in utero. We bring that mind with us at birth as our basic tool for engaging the hereafter as it gradually unfolds in our particular case. That unfolding may strengthen or weaken the mental pathways we are born with.

The rest is history as told in our expanding autobiography. Though there may be general milestones, there are no laws of child development. Laws are cultural, not natural, artifacts. Collectively and individually, each family is an experiment containing a mix of experiments that proceeds by trial and error as proven by developing relationships among grandparents, parents, selves, children, and grandchildren.

That haphazard process reflects evolution’s wisdom in not attempting to anticipate the conditions we will be born into, so not committing us in advance to ways of engagement which might prove ineffective or even harmful.

In truth, subjective judgment is evolution’s gift to us all in being formed in response to the specific situations we actually confront in family life, not some archaic set of Paleolithic challenges we are supposedly destined to face.

Whether nurtured by our families or not, the judgments that we ourselves make as based on our unique life experience is the crowning glory of evolutionary achievement. Evolution does not lay down the law, it allows for and opens us to the possibilities we might actually meet on our own.

I used to believe that matter obeyed Newton’s laws of motion, or that electrons heeded Ohm’s law. But the universe is not driven by obedience. In every case, the specific conditions in each situation determine the outcome of what happens next. Situations flow from one state of being into the next because conditions are right for that to happen, not by decree, but because each situation spontaneously governs itself in inventing itself on the spot in response to its state at each instant.

There is no such thing as an overall universe governed by laws; there is only the resulting configuration of matter continuously being what it must be right where it is in response to the set of conditions currently affecting its state of being.

Just as the universe is in a continual state of readjustment, so are we, its progeny. Like the Higgs boson, each family is the next state of matter that arises from the conditions that lead up to it. It appears as it does, not in response to a causative or descriptive law of physics it has never heard of, but because, under the circumstances, it balances itself in the moment as best it can.

Just as each point in the universe does as it does on its own in its unique situation, each family member is on her own in the bosom of her family. She is as she does in response to the conditions comprising her situation at each instant of her experience. She can’t help it. She is as she does from her point of view in the context she is in, which sets up a new situation, leading to the next resolution, leading on to the one after that. That’s the process we call development, which includes each individual person and the context of forces in which he or she occurs.

Our lives end up being the summation of each instant of growth as it occurs in the context of all that has happened before, both within and around us. That’s us: Works in progress. Getting it right or wrong by doing it right or wrong in an endless series of ever-changing situations.

As I said, development is not a matter of law. That’s why there are no universal guidebooks to child development. Lives are nothing more nor less than what happens in the situations leading up to conception, then as those situations further evolve after that until we wear out.

Our job as children is to deal with what comes our way the best we can, which we all manage to do more-or-less well. Put that way, it doesn’t sound very romantic. But as I keep saying, we are wayfarers by nature, and blaze our own trails. In contrast, imagine living life as a puppet on strings with a set storyline and guaranteed ending. Which would you choose, your own journey, or that as scripted by someone else?

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(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

 

Reflection 149: Blind Walk

October 6, 2009

(Copyright © 2009)

Bending down, I reach into the front-loading dryer and scoop the jumbled laundry into my basket. Back in my apartment, I place the basket on my bed and begin to sort it—underwear in this pile, T-shirts here, sheets there, socks lined up by pattern and color along the edge of the mattress. Finding a dishtowel but no dishrag, I figure it’s hiding among the sheets, which I shake out—there, snug in the corner of the fitted one. I put the piles of clothing I have sorted away and make the bed.

A routine episode from almost any Saturday morning in the past twelve years. I am a creature of habit, and of sorting things into groups having similar characteristics—pencils, tomatoes, bugs, butterflies—courtesy of distinctions I make in my conscious mind. I am a classifier, a categorizer, a sorter into piles. And so are we all, as shown by the way we use language.

‘What is this, class?’ asks teacher reaching into her shoebox, holding up a red toy truck about two-and-a-half inches long.

‘A truck,’ answer the first-graders in unison.

What is it for?

‘Going places,’ says one; ‘Carrying stuff,’ says another.

‘What is this?’

‘A cow.’

‘What do cows give us?’

‘Milk;’ ‘Ice cream,’ says someone in back.

And this?

‘A house.’

‘Are you sure it’s not a store or a barn?’ 

‘It’s where people live.’

Except that teacher doesn’t heft a truck, boat, or house from the box—she is dealing strictly with miniature toys, simplified representations of familiar objects without motors, without internal organs, without windows or kitchens.  She is not teaching the class to discriminate on the basis of sensory details so much as to think in terms of broad categories of utility. She is having her students sort the world conceptually in terms of labeled ideas, not firsthand experience. This is more an example of cultural indoctrination than education.

Then there is the blind walk.

I get permission to take my class of seniors to the grounds of a large, unoccupied home in the neighborhood where we won’t bother anyone. I tell them the idea of the blind walk is to get to know the area, not by looking, but by feeling their way with their hands. I want them to concentrate on touch, sound, and smell—any and all senses except sight. They pair up, decide who is to go first. One is the ‘guardian’ whose job is to make sure the blind-folded ‘explorer’ doesn’t get hurt. Partners are to tactilely explore their surroundings for half an hour, then switch roles, trade the blindfold, and go at it for another half hour. My job is to keep everyone safe and active. At the end, students are to share  highlights from their experience as guardians and explorers, respectively.

For the watcher—me—the exercise turned out other than I had imagined. I presented it in terms of sensory exploration, but my students took that as a challenge to name objects they could not see. In twelve years of schooling, the ability to savor their sensory experience had been stripped from them. These were first graders grown large, but perceptually diminished. They could classify their experience, but not enjoy it. They were eager to identify whatever they came across by touch, but that was all. As soon as they said “pinecone,” “rock,” “stick,” “tree,” “grass,” or “gravel,” they moved on to something else without pausing to explore the feel or smell of what they had touched. Their approach was wholly and uniformly conceptual. Getting the “right” answer was the only thing that mattered. Even warmth from the sun was reduced to naming the source, not savoring how it felt on a particular day in early spring. We teachers had done our job too well, creating students who could sort the world into a standard set of categories—wholly bypassing personal experience, the basis of all pleasure and true knowledge.

As a result of what passes for education these days, many of our children fit themselves to a world of concepts and ideas, not sensory exploration. They get good at sorting things into bins, which has a certain utility, but is also sad because they developed that skill to please their elders. During the course of my life, I have watched an emphasis on concept formation descend through the grades from high school to grammar school to the earliest rungs of preschool. Our children are prepared by society to think and work categorically rather than develop their personal abilities to experience the wonders of this Earth.

My point is that, in the best of all possible worlds, consciousness relies heavily on both sensory and conceptual aspects of experience. To meet the challenges of life we need extensive practice in both realms. To a man or a woman, we are all latent artists and scientists, cooks and judges, poets and talk-show hosts. Lumping things together by sorting, classifying, categorizing on the basis of broad similarities is an essential life skill—but so too is distinguishing between specific features, qualities, and subtle differences. To know a thing, a person, or a field of endeavor requires not only knowing about their general characteristics, but acquainting their specific details as well through personal experience.

Much has been written about the objectivity or intentionality of consciousness, the being aware of things as wholes in themselves rather than in terms of their separate parts, qualities, or details. Consciousness initially renders the world in terms of recognizable units; it takes deliberate effort to analyze such units in terms of their myriad sensory components (hearing individual voices in the symphony of the whole). We are immediately conscious of coherent objects or scenes as overall images or summaries, so not to be overwhelmed by the jumble that William James described in his famous cartoon of infant consciousness as “one great, blooming, buzzing confusion.” In The Principles of Psychology (1890), James writes:

Any number of impressions, from any number of sensory sources, falling simultaneously on a mind which has not yet experienced them separately, will fuse into a single undivided object for that mind. The law is that all things fuse that can fuse, and nothing separates except what must (italics deleted).

The overall effect being to achieve the unity of a scene or an object, a wholeness that must be discriminated into its parts through deliberate effort and refinement of attention. Much has been made of perception as a process for recognizing the world in terms of its fundamental units or categories. Aristotle treated those units of oneness as “modes of being,” as if they were properties of things in themselves. Kant saw them more as phenomena created by consciousness itself in its own terms through the process of apprehending the world. Gerald Edelman presents categorization as a quality of perception dictated by values inherent in the perceiver which are necessary to acting in the world adaptively for the sake of survival.

However we account for consciousness, attention, and awareness, we must allow for two types: 1) concrete, sensory perception, and 2) a more generally applicable type that is less specific and so more abstract and conceptual. Consciousness can balance or move between the two types, from the abstract to the concrete, and back again, encompassing both example and principle, token and type, species and genus, concept and percept. How the brain achieves this remarkable dynamic is not fully understood, but there is no doubt that both types can be joined in the workings of consciousness. Except that education tends to tip the balance toward the summary judgments of conception.

It strikes me that what I was doing in sorting my laundry in the first example above, the first graders were doing in labeling the teacher’s toy truck, and my seniors did on their blind walk—was casting abstract, conceptual expectations onto the world as a kind of outline for what we thought was possible in and appropriate to our respective situations. We then confirmed those expectations as they were fulfilled on those three occasion by acting appropriately to our situations, students calling out the name (as they had been taught) that fit most closely to their expectations as a kind of easy shorthand for the full-bodied (detailed perceptual) experience, and me sorting my laundry into piles I deemed appropriate to my subsequent tasks of putting clothes away and clean sheets on the bed. 

As I have often written, expectation is destiny. We don’t live in the world so much as in our expectations of what that world should be. We make the evidence of our eyes and ears conform to what we want to happen. Our stance toward the world, our fundamental attitude toward reality, determines how we act far more than the evidence of our senses. It as if we were wind-up toys that head off as soon as set on the floor. Education winds us up, life fulfills what we have been taught. That is, it is our preconceptions that drive us, not the existential facts of our lives.

This is the understanding I have been seeking since my first post to this blog in early October, 2008. Taking time off to reflect on my posted reflections, this is what I have discovered. As humans walking our diverse ways, we are condemned to find what our families, peers, teachers, and overall cultures have prepared us to find. We fit the world to whatever model of the world we have assembled over the course of our training. That is our reality. Which our experience inevitably fulfills because—contrary to public belief—perception follows and does not lead the dictates of conception.

Picture humans on their blind walks through life, judging and labeling what they find according to their acquired pre-dispositions, and that is my portrait of the human predicament of days gone by, which is identical to the one we find ourselves in today.

Cormorants