389. Fish or Cut Bait

December 26, 2014

The life we are born into is only a beginning where the major decisions are made by grownups and the culture they live in. We as children go along because we don’t have a choice. We are too inexperienced to know any better.

But we are fast learners. As we gradually come into our own through hard-won experience, we learn to grapple with situations as we come to them, striving for freedom and independence in living as we choose to live for ourselves, not as somebody’s child.

As a matter of course, being ourselves in our earliest days gradually comes to us while we are somebody’s child, so we become who we are through a long series of trials, errors, corrections, retrials, and eventually morph into young selves whose judgments we can live by and with.

Examples of the exercise of judgment include parental decision-making as expressed in such terms as “Good girl,” or “Naughty boy, “Try harder,” “You can do it.” The world we are born to includes courts of law where judges, tribunals, and juries weigh the evidence pointing one way or the others towards either guilt or innocence; playing fields where umpires call strikes or balls, safe or out; and debaters randomly assigned a thesis to defend or disprove, pro or con.

Judgment comes down to an either-or decision: yes or no, go or no-go, true or false, wise or foolish, freedom or captivity, change it or lump it, fish or cut bait. Which means the situation at issue has to be structured as a duality to simplify the job of making a polarized decision.

This structure is not arbitrary. It flows from the workings of a human mind that frames situations in black or white. Nerve cells either fire or they don’t. They resolve the various activating and inhibiting signals they receive. If the activation threshold is reached, the nerve cell fires; if it fails to reach that level, it does nothing. End of signal in that branch of the network.

True, if the threshold is crossed, then variations in signal strength are reflected in the frequency of firing. But if the threshold is not reached, that signal is dead in that neuron.

Which is why so many of the concepts with which we compose our thoughts come in pairs of opposites: pro or con, assertion or negation, promotion or opposition, with or without, fight or flight, and on and on.

The essence of consciousness is found in sharpening perception, increasing contrast, heightening discernment, making thoughts and judgments that much clearer and unambiguous.

We are wayfarers made to be judicious in choosing our pathways through a succession of either-or decisions. Our choices have serious consequences: win or lose, succeed or fail, live or die. The wisdom of our heritage, genome, intelligence, and judgment all comes down to the quintessential difference between positive or negative outcomes. We make it or we fall short.  Eat or go hungry. Survive or perish.

From our earliest days, life is a matter of learning to make the right choices in one situation after another. Success means we win the right to make future decisions. Failure means we have gone as far as we can go and have come to the end of the line.

 

Typically, we are less than spontaneous in deciding what to do next. If we feel that a lot is riding on our decision, then we can make lists of pros and cons, weigh them, prioritize them, review them, reshuffle them, add other possibilities and eliminate the ones we find weak or unacceptable.

If we have the luxury of time to come up with a plan, we can usually mull such matters long enough to finally decide what to do. What job to take, school to attend, partner to join, apartment to rent, neighborhood to live in, or meal to fix for supper. We often do this by narrowing our choices down to two alternatives, and then by eliminating one or the other.

When we have a great many options in steering our course between the reefs on either hand, it is the uncharted ones that cause most of the trouble, the ones we do not suspect are even out there, waiting for us to make one wrong turn or misstep. It takes a great deal of vigilance to be constantly on guard. Too much, that is, in comparison with our everyday habits and expectations.

On local ground or in familiar waters, perhaps we can get by without accident, But sooner or later the sun will be in our eyes, or night will fall, fog roll in, visibility drop to zero, and we will find that our habits and routines are not good enough guides to engagements that continue nonetheless without benefit of oversight.

I have tales to tell about each of these factors endangering my life as a casual wayfarer caught off-guard by prevailing conditions. When blinded by the sun, steering my car into the ditch to avoid oncoming traffic. Feeling my way with my feet across the face of a cliff after sunset. Turning my boat in circles with no sense of direction in the fog. Getting trapped between cliffs of ice ahead and behind me, watching icicles fall into the trail just where I would have been had I not stopped to take one last picture. These are the stuff of memories and nightmares I will never forget, engagements gone wrong due to lack of forethought, wisdom, or due caution.

No wonder parents become worrywarts when the responsibilities of child-rearing strike home, and children grow to maturity sadder but wiser for the risks they have taken without knowing any better during fits of youthful fervor.

 

Reflection 286: Layout

July 4, 2012

Copyright 2012 by Steve Perrin

Like the lay of the land, here’s how I see the lay of my mind.

I picture the basic layout of my mind (distinct from my brain) as consisting of two areas, an incoming, sensory area, and an outgoing, motor or behavioral area. Introspection ponders the interplay between the two areas to learn how sensory stimulation leads to physical action, and how action spurs further sensory stimulation.

My mind appears against a background of memories, dreams, a sense of my bodily position in space, among assorted cultural gifts such as language, numbers, science, religion, art, and other customary models for conducting our affairs, all of which I can draw upon at any time in becoming familiar with myself.

Too, my mind appears to be composed of diverse “elements” or “dimensions,” as a band is composed of players of diverse instruments, each contributing a different range of sounds. On the sensory side, I can detect degrees of interest or arousal, expectancy, and attention even before noticing sensory impressions at a particular level of sensory detail. I very quickly resort to interpretation of a concrete sensory impression in terms of a conceptual grouping of similar impressions, readily fitting it to a group I am familiar with through personal experience. This morning, for instance, I heard a bird call which I recognized as a series of notes sounded by what I call “black-capped chickadees,” thinking to myself, “that’s a chickadee” even though it may have been a mockingbird. I am capable of categorizing just a few chords as “Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony.”

Still on the sensory side of my mind, I discover positive or negative feelings about how I receive sensory impressions based on generalizing from prior experiences, along with values I place on such things in my organized field of understanding the relationship between various sensory experiences as interpreted.

The upshot of all this sensory processing in my mind is a sense of the situation I am engaged in, raising the question of how I am to make an appropriate response to that situation to further develop my engagement. Which advances me to consideration of dimensions on the motor side of my mind leading to physical action.

On the motor side, I begin with judgments about my current situation, which inform my decisions about the direction I want to head and the goals I would like to achieve in furthering my current engagement. The goals suggest various projects and relationships I might undertake to achieve them. Here I enter the planning stage that prepares the way for specific actions to take as appropriate to my situation as I construe it in my mind. Executing the moves I plan to make, I monitor my behavior as I go with awareness of how my body is positioned to accomplish what I set out to do.

Then my surroundings change (or not) in response to my actions, affecting (or not) my senses in new ways, setting up another round of sensory and motor engagement in my ever streaming consciousness.

Through introspection, I see that I rely on the separate dimensions of my mind to different degrees as my circumstances require, and that I have alternative levels of engagement to fall back on to save time and energy in achieving a desired result.

To sum up, some of the dimensions of my mind that introspection might encounter include, on the sensory side: arousal, expectancy, attention, sensory impressions, various levels of detail, interpretation, feelings, values, understanding, all adding to the makeup of an existential situation as I construe it in awareness. And on the motor side: judgments, decisions, goals, projects, relationships, plans, all leading to more-or-less effective action in the world.

I offer this rough anatomy of what introspection can lead you to discover in your mind not to discourage you but more to whet your curiosity about what you might learn about yourself if you stick at it for a time. Is it worth the effort? Since there is no other alternative available to us mortals short of living to the end, I would say yes, it is worth it. If I had known at thirty what I now know at almost eighty, I think I could have made more of a significant contribution to saving humanity from self-destruction in the name of “progress.” Where you put your personal effort is up to you. I just want to insert an option that doesn’t get much play these days because nobody stands to make money from your personal effort to know yourself better. Two things are certain: we have not yet bought or fought our way to a better or happier world. I say it’s time to try something so old it seems new.

I remain, as ever, y’r friend, –Steve from Planet Earth

Reflection 60: Discovery

February 6, 2009

(Copyright © 2009)

 

From ninth grade, I still remember the shock I got when teachers in two different classes talked about the same thing. In social studies we were studying map projections. One day, the difference between Mercator and conic projections came up. It was a great class because I suddenly realized there was no way to map the surface of a sphere onto a flat plane without distorting or doing violence to the image. Several periods later, in geometry, the teacher showed on the blackboard how lines projected from the center of a circle onto a straight line would represent equal sectors of the circle by different lengths on the line. She gave Mercator projection as an example. So that’s why Greenland always looks so big. Eureka! Classes in school didn’t exist in a vacuum. They could be about the same world as seen from different points of view. I always assumed they were separated by some universal law. I don’t think I have ever been more excited by classroom learning. It wasn’t something I was taught, it was something I discovered on my own, as if by accident.

 

Three cheers for serendipity. Accidental or coincidental learning is powerful stuff. There’s no mad scientist deliberately trying to pair the sound from the loudspeaker with an electric shock soon to come. Since nobody arranged for it to happen, it has to be true. At least that’s how it seems.

 

I spend hours trying to dope out my own consciousness. Reading about lateral and orbital prefrontal connections with the anterior cingulate cortex, how the amygdala fits in, the hippocampus, the senses, bodily feedback—all connected to motor areas that will implement decisions with the precision they deserve.

 

I consult results from animal research, clinical studies of brain damage in humans, functional neuroimaging, and my particular method—introspection of my own conscious life, trying to keep up with what my mind has to show me.

 

Finally, I come to the conclusion that consciousness is shaped by the situations in which it emerges so resultant actions will be more-or-less appropriate to the specific conditions that apply. I carry the idea around in the back of my mind that consciousness has got to be situationally relevant. Whatever areas of the brain are involved, they have to work together in representing current situations, detailing the factors involved, the locales, how I feel about things, my relevant experience, options, motivation, what I hope to achieve—all in direct contact with motor planning areas so that once I decide what to do, I can make my move with some confidence that it will suit the occasion. I am on the outlook for confirmation that I am on the right track. Then I read this:

 

Our results suggest that the [anterior cingulate cortex] integrates inputs from other emotion-related areas and frontal cortex, and sends the information to motor executive centers to behave appropriately in a variety of specific motivational or emotional contexts.[A]

 

Reading those words, I say, “Yes, that’s got to be right. Prefrontal cortex, emotion, motivation, leading to action suitable to the situation—I couldn’t have said it better myself. It’s got to be right.” For monkeys, at least. Actually, I don’t even know if it’s right for monkeys, but for human’s it’s got to be true. At least that’s how I feel. I always come down from such surety after a while and get on with my work. Then, further along in Gazzaniga, I come across this:

 

Thus, posterior cingulate and adjacent precuneus cortex can be hypothesized as a region of the brain associated with the continuous gathering of information about the world around us.[B]

 

This is not dealing with the sensory world of rats or monkeys, this is a study done with humans. Not the anterior cingulate this time, but close to it. Tying sensory input into the mix. Making the situation (world around us) more explicit. Another piece of the puzzle fits into place. Does the posterior cingulate in the parietal lobe feed sensory information to the anterior cingulate in the frontal lobe next door? I assume it does, and probably vice versa, but I haven’t found out for sure.

 

That’s how it goes—using every resource available, you just have to keep pressing into the mystery ahead. The trick is not leaping to conclusions but staying open. One day your social studies and math teachers will strike a chord in your brain, and you’ll be on your way. No one can do it for you. Discovering the ins and outs of your own consciousness is the adventure of a lifetime.

 


[A] Ono, Taketoshi, and Hisao Nishijo. Neurophysiological Basis of Emotion in Primates: Neuronal Responses in the Monkey Amygdala and Anterior Cingulate Cortex. Pages 1099-1114 in Gazzaniga, Michael S., Editor-in-Chief, The New Cognitive Neurosciences, Second Edition. The MIT Press, 2000, page 1111.

[B] Raichle, Marcus E. The Neural Correlates of Consciousness: An Analysis of Cognitive Skill Learning. Pages 1305-1318. Same source as above, page 1315.

 

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(Copyright © 2009)

 

When I tell myself I have to make a decision, I try to let my body tell me what to do. That way, it effectively consults all of its bodily resources—feelings, past experiences, senses, expectations, judgment, social awareness, physical prowess, and the rest. Here’s an example precipitated by today’s snowstorm.

 

My Quaker meeting relies on people to volunteer as greeters to set up chairs, welcome people, and bring the meeting to a close. Being greeter is a great way to keep in touch with members and attenders, and to make your body useful. Dean and Mary were scheduled to greet this morning, but they were called away to attend a funeral in Philadelphia, and asked me to do the honors. Which I readily agree to. Dianne will help out. I tell her I’ll pick her up about 8:30. And will call in case the snowstorm heading toward the Maine coast actually shows up (storms often arrive later than predicted). When I wake up at 7:00, I look out the window—and see snow. I listen to NOAA weather radio. The robot voice predicts 3 to 5 inches in the morning. Only a third of an inch has fallen so far. What to do? We might beat the worst of it if we hold meeting as planned. I have all-weather radials on my car, which are OK but not great on packed snow. Are the plows out? Not yet. Conditions are sure to get worse before they get better. Dianne lives six miles away in Somesville, reachable by Route 233, which rises over McFarland Hill, often a bad spot in a storm. But usually sanded. The meeting is in Northeast Harbor, another six miles, over Brown Mountain Notch (often icy, not always sanded). What to do? I cook breakfast, watching the snow come down as I wait for the buckwheat to get done. Anxious, that’s how I feel. I don’t want to cop out, but I fear roads will get slippery. Dianne collided with a deer last week, so her car’s in the shop. I don’t have the power to call off meeting, but that would be the implication if I decide not to go. Dean and Mary aren’t going, nor Carole, the other Dianne and Robert, Carol and Rich. If Dianne and I don’t go, who’s that leave? I run through the list. Which of them is likely to go? No telling. It keeps snowing, not hard, but steadily. It’s 8:00. I told Diane I’d pick her up at 8:30. I wish I knew if this is going to keep up or turn out just another bluff by the weather radio to make things look worse than they are. Me, a worrywart? Looks like it. What to do? Is it safe to go out? Do I really want to drive in this stuff? How much of a wimp am I willing to be? Is it really going to snow that much? OK, time to decide. Still snowing, not hard, but it is coming down, piling up. If I don’t go, do I want to keep others from going? What to do? I don’t feel comfortable driving in this stuff. I’m not going! Others can decide for themselves. But I’ve already decided for them. Why let them put themselves at risk? Dial: “Dianne, I don’t feel comfortable driving in this. I’m not coming by.” We make a list of who to call. I call three others, she calls five or six. Decision made. Now what to do?

 

I work on Reflection 56 about the relation between consciousness and the self. By noon we have four or five inches of snow, and it is still coming down. After lunch, I write this post about making a decision, which is one of the main jobs consciousness has. I didn’t make the decision, my body made it for me (just as my body is writing this blog). But it wasn’t that easy. Which is why we have it—consciousness—in the first place. There is no way to assess driving conditions without going out. There is no way to tell how much snow will come down. Consult memory about storms in the past. Consciousness is given to the body in order to muddle through such messy imponderables. In the end, taking every factor into account, the body will inform itself of the decision it has reached. Then it will act on its decision, and we, whoever we think we are, will go along for the sake of adventure.

 

Note to Body:        Must be getting old. Ten years ago I was out on foot in this stuff all the time.

 

Body to Steve:       Walking is one thing, driving another. So you were foolish ten years ago. Tell me something.

 

Note to Body:        You tell me. These are your doings, not mine. I’m just a figment, remember?

 

Body to Steve:       You got that right.

 

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