Copyright 2012 by Steve Perrin.

Introspection enables us to balance three aspects of consciousness at the same time:

  1. sensory evidence for there being a world outside ourselves,
  2. the nature of that world as we entertain it in the form of a particular situation, and
  3. how we might choose to respond to that situation if we judge it necessary and appropriate.

So do we play the odds in monitoring the workings of our mind as they fit us to our surroundings in living out our lives through one episode of engagement after another. Put that way, it sounds awkward because I am trying to avoid the general assumption that we simply look upon the world and it shows us its true face and significance, so we know what to do. Not so. More often, we make the world up to suit ourselves at the moment, and often act inappropriately because our guess at a world is often a gross distortion of the world that is out there.

I advocate a rigorous program of introspection to help us from getting it wrong, wrong, wrong again as often as we do—as the media love to shove in our faces in one up-close and personal story after another, minute-by-minute, hour-by-hour, day-by-day. The world is in shambles because we act without thinking our situations and engagements through so much of the time.

Instead of asserting ourselves, we would do well to check our first impressions to see if our actions are truly appropriate to our situations, our situations to the sensory input available to us, and the input we seize upon is appropriate to the world we actually live in.

We well may live in the world, but how we engage it is our doing all the way. Our seeing, understanding, and doing are ours alone. Which is why we have to watch ourselves—because no one else can.

We may dub ourselves wise as a species, or claim to be chosen above all others as members of a particular faith or nation, but in truth we each dwell in a niche of one human animal, and how we see, think, and act is our job alone.

A strict regimen of curiosity, doubt, and humility would serve us all well. Too bad it isn’t available in a pill or bottle, on TV or the Web.

Taking hold of ourselves is up to each one of us on his or her own. It starts with a rigorous bout of introspection by which we take ourselves in hand so that slowly, slowly, we can learn to shape up the minds we all have but often subject to careless, cruel, or abusive treatment without qualm.

To change the world for the better, we must start on the inside and work our way out. As yet there is no service or technology available that can do the job for us.

That’s it for today. I’ll do my best to stay on the job. As ever, y’r friend, –Steve

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Reflection 131: Feedback

July 20, 2009

(Copyright © 2009)

Three posts ago (Reflection 128: Woody Allen Consciousness), I dealt with four aspects of consciousness in which (through introspection) I claimed to see anxiety as a common feature, and the amygdala as playing an implicit role in that anxiety. I sent a copy of that post to Joseph LeDoux, leading authority on emotional consciousness (whom I had quoted), and in return he sent me a short note, and the draft of a manuscript he’d written on emotional coloration of consciousness. LeDoux’s reply read:

Thanks for the note. Interesting ideas. But my view is that the amygdala [is] not really involved in conscious fear or anxiety, at least not directly. The arousal that it generates contributes but the amygdala itself seems to be non-introspectable. I’m attaching something that came out last year in a book called Frontiers of Consciousness (Ox U Press). The attached is an unedited version of the ms, but is basically what was published. Thanks again. Joe

Talk about anxiety, I was anxious upon reading the note, and even more anxious upon reading the attached chapter, which amounted to a complete review of emotional consciousness, citing 351 sources from the relevant literature. LeDoux was generous in dubbing my subjective ideas “interesting,” but there was no question he had the peer-reviewed facts on his side. Still, I felt the reason I sent the post to an expert in the field held true: there was a place in consciousness studies for introspection as a supplement to animal research, philosophical musings, functional imaging, psychoanalysis, cultural anthropology, the arts, and any other human activity shedding light on the mind. I’d said in my initial email that introspection and basic brain research were tunneling into the same mountain from opposites sides, hoping to meet in the middle, or by a different metaphor:

In addition to studies of neural substrates of consciousness, I firmly see a need for a sandwich approach which will inform such studies by coming from above—not from the substrate but the real item itself—because I think consciousness, as an emergent property, will never be found in the neurons themselves because that’s not where it lives. So that’s what I blog about, for whatever it’s worth.

Having read LeDoux’s chapter three times now, I am impressed both by the amount of research that has been done—and the amount that still lies ahead. In truth, much of what we know today about emotional consciousness is based on informed yet conjectural interpretations of basic research. The field rests largely on claims and arguments. A close reading reveals phrases such as “are believed to be,” “are often considered,” “may be,” “might be thought of as,” “my proposal is,” “I will argue that,” “is likely to,” “probably occurs,” “much debate exists,” “perhaps,” and so on. Knowledge is harder to come by than we commonly suppose. The essence of science (that is, of knowing) is doubt and skepticism, which is why on-going research is so necessary. Current knowing invariably rests on a flurry of assumptions, beliefs, and conditional assertions. Only when the flurry dissipates does knowledge stiffen into certainty—always an illusion to fill the break until flurries fly again.

Science, like religion and philosophy, is an edifice in need of constant maintenance. My image is of a juggler whirling Indian clubs in the air, dropping one here or there, picking up others, diligently striving, balancing, laboring, watching, paying careful attention, always appearing the same yet never quite the same two cycles in a row. In a moment of laxity, the clubs spill in a heap—until gathered and set in motion with renewed vigilance. Such is every human endeavor. Such is medicine, the stock market, technology, the Internet, blogging, and consciousness itself—the ultimate human endeavor.

I juggle my consciousness as best I can, as you juggle yours. Taken together we form a spectacle of jugglers whirling our clubs en masse while knowing distraction or exhaustion or simply missing a beat will make us drop one or more. We can’t keep going forever. Sooner or later. . . . What, me anxious?

But back to emotional consciousness. Essentially, it is whatever aspect of mind we pay attention to that bears emotional overtones expressing how we feel at the time. In picturing the amygdala responsible for feelings of anxiety, I am the arch-conjuror reaching farther than I have any right to on the basis of evidence—but reaching anyway because that is my nature. If I don’t reach farther today than yesterday, what’s the point of going on? Done reaching, I am finished. Where’s the adventure in that?

I sent my 128th post to Joseph LeDoux because I felt I had made a discovery—that anxiety is behind a large part of consciousness. I have claimed that consciousness is given us to solve novel problems that evolution has no leverage on, and anxiety is what turns a situation into a problem. Anxiety is a sign we are invested in a particular situation and care about the outcome. Interpreting the phenomenal situation is a problem if we want to get it right. Adopting the right idiom of consciousness in addressing the situation is a problem in itself reflected in how we present ourselves to the world. And lastly, applying an appropriate elixir (or fudge factor) in order to fit our way of thinking to the situation is a forth-order problem. All involving anxiety because we’re not sure of ourselves or the outcome we desire. And implicating the amygdala as the neural seat of emotional consciousness, so I claimed—which is where I overreached myself. In correcting me by saying, “The arousal that it generates contributes [to feelings of anxiety] but the amygdala itself seems to be non-introspectable,” LeDoux is asserting the position he took in Synaptic Self where he wrote:

While individual brain regions and networks make distinct contributions to the processes that together constitute anxiety, anxiety itself is best thought of as a property of the overall circuitry rather than of specific brain regions (Viking, 2002, page 290).

In his chapter in Frontiers of Consciousness, LeDoux makes it clear: “Amygdala processing in humans occurs unconsciously.” Summarizing, “Indeed, amygdala processing meets most of the principles of automaticity—that is it is independent of attention and awareness.” So, like Hamlet sensing a presence behind the curtain in the queen’s bedroom but not knowing it is Polonius, I had no way of identifying the amygdala as the source of the anxiety associated with problem-solving in self-examined consciousness. As part of a network, the amygdala itself is not subject to introspection.

I stand corrected. Which I take to be a demonstration of cooperation between neuroscientists on one hand and us introspectors on the other.

Putting Heads Together

 

Reflection 93: Angels

April 22, 2009

 

(Copyright © 2009)

 

We are prone to leaping to conclusions on very shaky evidence. That is how our minds work. We tell ourselves stories to account for phenomena we only dimly understand. The first time I heard oldsquaws (long-tailed ducks) at night, I thought someone had opened the window on revelers at a New Year’s Eve party. The nearest house was over a mile away. I listened to the horn-tootlers for a while, rolled over, and went back to sleep. If I hadn’t seen and heard the ducks the next week, I’d have born a grudge against my dear neighbor.

 

Often, we believe what we can get away with, particularly in circles of like-minded friends. Testing the stories we tell ourselves requires careful observation and diligence. It is far easier to get by on what we think we know and let it go at that. We are impressionable to a fault, believing what we want to believe, not doing background checks on those who inform us, or questioning their motives, much less our own. We raise innocence to the level of gullibility, and are as overly trusting of others as of ourselves. Geniuses at making leaps of faith, we put a familiar face on the unknown and mysterious. We know what we believe and believe what we know.

 

Take angels, for instance. We have a word for them, therefore they exist. Angels are mentioned in the Bible, the Qur’an, Persian mythology, and The Celestial Hierarchy attributed to Pseudo-Dionysius (5th century C.E.). They are portrayed as supernatural beings mediating between God and man in the monotheistic religions of Zoroastrianism, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam.

 

Angels clearly have a history. They have been evolving in the human mind for over five millennia. In the beginning, there were messengers, which is what both Hebrew mal’ak and Greek angelos mean. Divine messengers from the heavens above. It was the vision of the sun, moon, and planets as messengers of stellar divinities in the night sky that sparked the origin of Sumerian beliefs in Mesopotamia, the same origin to which we can trace the roots of many of our modern beliefs.

 

The appeal of angels—heavenly bodies interpreted as divine messengers—was in serving as designated agents responsible for bringing affairs on Earth into accord with those in the starry realm overhead. That is, “On Earth as it is in Heaven,” or, “As above, so below.” That is powerful magic, bringing human conduct into line with the will of the gods. Such is the origin of astrology, knowledge gained through study of the stars. And beyond astrology, of theologies postulating the existence of divinities floating in the sky.

 

Angels are supernatural beings, figures that would shock us if we met them on the street. The company they keep is confined to the fabulous tales we spin in our heads to account for events we don’t understand. They have staying power in serving to explain that which cannot be explained, or which might be explained in less colorful ways.

 

The band of supernatural beings we believe in but never expect to meet face-to-face is surprisingly large. Start with the little ones, the clever, mischievous, magical scamps the likes of brownies, elves, fairies, gnomes, gremlins, imps, leprechauns, pixies, sprites, and trolls.

 

Then there are the big scary ones like giants and ogres. The ones with mixed body parts: Chimeras (lion-goat-serpent hybrids), harpies (women with the tail, wings, and talons of hawks), lamia (women-serpents who suck blood), mermaids, monsters, sphinxes (lions with the head of a man, ram, or hawk; or winged lions with the head of a woman), satyrs (bawdy goat-men), and werewolves. And the disembodied ones: banshees, bogeys, haunts, ghosts, phantoms, shades, specters, spirits, and spooks.

 

Not to forget cupids, demons, devils, dragons, genies, ghouls, hobgoblins, houri (dark-eyed virgins of Islamic paradise), poltergeists (noisy ghosts), vampires, witches, and warlocks. And for good measure, incubi (male demons that have sex with sleeping women), and succubi (female demons that have sex with sleeping men).

 

Through the years, a great many tales have been told of such beings to explain or justify specific aspects of human experience. Not all such agents are as outmoded as many of these. Who does not believe in Santa Clause to some degree, the Easter Bunny, Mother Nature or Mother Earth, Father Sky, various saints, the Tooth Fairy, Jack Frost, Ronald McDonald, Aunt Jemima, Betty Crocker, the phoenix, Hamlet, Huck Finn, Scarlet O’Hara, Don Quixote, Raggedy Ann and Andy, Sherlock Holmes, Bugs Bunny, Lassie, Archie and Veronica, Popeye, Tarzan, R2D2, Zorro, and a host of similar figures from art, literature, comics, film, theater, and TV?

 

Mickey Mouse and Garfield are as real to us today as Barack H. Obama, Charles Lindbergh, Oprah Winfrey, Humphrey Bogart, and Kim Jong-il. Aside from immediate family, a child’s world is often peopled largely with characters from books and television. How could a child not believe in Big Bird, Barney, teddy bears, Barbie, Ken, or the Cat in the Hat?

 

Our minds are filled with images of creatures we can name yet stand for beings we have never met in the flesh. We take the world we live in largely on faith. Virtual reality existed in human consciousness long before the Internet claimed it for its own. We can name these creatures, describe them, tell of their deeds, and swear to their impact on our lives. Fictitious beings are every bit as real to us as firemen, astronauts, or the president of the United States. In many cases, more real because they play a larger role in our lives and require a greater share of our attention.

 

How is it possible that fictional figures can be as real to us as natural beings of flesh-and-blood? The answer is shockingly simple. Both the natural and supernatural exist on equal footing in the same place—personal consciousness, the domain of all human experience. Unless we probe our beliefs, and test them, we have a hard time telling the difference between live and make-believe creatures. Figures in consciousness do not come flagged as real or unreal. Dreams seem every bit as convincing to us as the checkout girl in the supermarket. We are all subject to illusions and mirages—a trash bag flapping in the wind taken for a stricken crow, a stranger mistaken for an intimate friend, a friend in novel circumstances reduced to a stranger.

 

How can we tell if an object in conscious experience is real or unreal? That is, if it exists in the world or only in our heads? We must put our experiential loops to work on the matter and test our impressions. Do others see what we have seen when they stand in our place? What do the rest of our senses say? If we come back later, does the phenomenon reappear? Can we interact with the phenomenon by engaging it in some way? If we act upon it, does it respond?

 

Doubt is our greatest ally in probing items of belief. Anything can be believed for a time because it is the nature of belief to defend itself. Doubt cuts through such defenses. How consistent is this phenomenon with the rest of our experience? Is it an exception for which we must make special allowance—such as creating an entire realm governed by exceptional rules? Is it excessively complicated, or deceptively simple? Even the most respected authorities are wrong on occasion. No one’s consciousness is right all the time.

 

Take angels, for example. How many angels can fit on the head of a pin? We all know what pins are because we have been stuck by them often enough. They are small, slender physical objects made of metal, pointed on one end, flattened on the other. How big are angels? What are their proportions? What are they made of? How would you describe one? We say fluttering candle flames indicate the passing of angels; is that a reliable test? Mentioning angels in the same sentence as pins or candle flames doesn’t make them real. We are mixing categories of experience here, as if both were equally verifiable, pretending the attributes of one extend to the other. Which they don’t and they can’t.

 

Mythology begins within us in our left-brain interpreters. When we act out our fictitious beliefs as explanations for things being as they are—which we do in waiting for Santa, playing the Tooth Fairy, telling tales of storks delivering babies, or expecting the natural world to serve the human economy—that’s when the stories we tell ourselves can get us into trouble. That is when hesitation, skepticism, double-checking, doubt, and further research are called for before we act out our stories. Let’s pretend is fun on occasion, but a steady diet can wreak as much havoc as a suicide bomber.

 

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(Copyright © 2009)

 

Everybody knows that schools are for educating our children. Very well, what does that mean—educating? The word stems from Latin educare, to lead out (e-, out; ducare, to lead or draw). Education, then, suggests a process of leading our children into the (adult) world. Which is pretty much how it works, adults setting the curriculum and walking children through it stage by stage, supervising development of relevant skills as they progress. The process is a bit like running a steeplechase with ever-higher hurdles and broader water jumps.

 

This view of education rests on a great many assumptions. For instance, that adults know what is good for children in general and each child in particular at every stage of development. That adults can anticipate what sort of world their children will grow into. That all children should strive toward the same goals. That the understanding and skills valued by adults are exactly the sort their children will require when they mature. And above all, that children need to be taught by adults and can’t be trusted on their own to learn about the world they are growing into. That is, education is a top-down (or outside-in) rather than a bottom-up (or inside-out) process. The basic fear is that left to develop their own resources, children will turn feral and become too wild for civil society.

 

Yet every child learns to talk within a language-speaking community without being taught how to do it. She acquires language through imitating the speech she hears around her without requiring instruction in syntax or grammar. And to walk-skip-jump-run within an ambulatory community, and be social within a sociable community, and play games and exhibit curiosity and have fun and observe her surroundings—driven by her own motives and curiosity in company with peers and adults, all without reference to any syllabus or curriculum, all shaped by examples but not taught by instruction. On their own, children are born learners. What they require to develop skills is clear examples of others using their bodies in disciplined ways. Those others could be dogs running, birds building nests, people living their lives.

 

An alternative to education (leading out) is introduction (leading in; intro-, within; ducere, to lead). Introduce a child to new experiences and he will incorporate their features on his own according to his interests, abilities, and readiness. Will he get what he is supposed to get from such experiences—that is, what adults want him to get? Perhaps not. But by considering phenomena within his own consciousness (and not that of his teachers), he is likely to get what excites him and he is ready for. The world he grows into will prove to be an outward expression of his personhood. Nobody’s minion, he is his own man.

 

What I am suggesting here is a course of introduction to the many facets of consciousness as an alternative to cognitive (subject-matter) education as it has evolved in today’s world. Mothers encourage their children’s development by interacting with them—by introducing them to activities that each can enjoy on her own level of challenge. Such participatory learning is mutually exploratory and engaging on all sides. It’s not the subject matter external to themselves that children must learn but the processes necessary to living a life.

 

What I recall from my own schooling is counting holes in ceiling tiles over and over, or looking out the window waiting for the day to be done. Teachers instructed from the front of the room; students did as they were told while sitting in their seats. Whether mental or physical, there was very little mutual engagement. If there was joy or excitement in the classroom, it was discovered apart from and despite the daily lesson plan.

 

Consciousness has many rewards, one of which is behavior judged appropriate to the situation that arouses it. Consciousness, that is, is participatory in shaping behavior in light of sensory feedback through a series of successive approximations until the desired level of performance is achieved. That loop is partly internal, partly external, and the reward is a sense of self-satisfaction at having met a challenge on the desired level of performance. It is not the teacher’s job to hand out gold stars because she is external to students’ loops of consciousness. What counts is each student evaluating her own performance by her own standards, and keeping on until those standards are met. Then raising them still higher.

 

In the schools I attended, power was reserved to the teacher at the front of the room. This disempowered students from the first day of classes to the last, sending the message that education was something done to students, not something they did for themselves through active participation. Classroom situations in such cases become a kind of dare. Teacher says, “Be quiet and do your work;” those in her charge reply in effect, “Make me learn if you can.” This dynamic is played out year after year until graduation day, when students think they are being set free, only to enter the workforce and encounter supervisors who control their performance much as teachers did in the classroom.

 

The most important thing children need to learn is how to manage the left-brain interpreter lodged in their brains and from which there can be no escape. That is, they need to base their judgments and self-accountability on convincing evidence, not opinion, prejudice, whimsy, dogma, or a factoid or two. Not partial evidence selected to support preexisting opinions, but sufficient evidence on which to base informed courses of action.

 

On whose authority should that course be adopted? The only authority consciousness heeds is personal authority—the authority inherent in each person as a unique individual. Citing external authorities is only the beginning. The issue is not what they thought then (courtesy of their left-brain interpreter) but what I think now (courtesy of my own interpreter) because I am the actor in every instance of my own behavior. If I pass the buck to Galileo, Newton, or Einstein, then I am acting on their behalf and am not my own person. Which is unwise in light of the fact that my survival is at issue, not theirs.

 

The key thing for us all to learn is to question what our left-brain interpreter is trying to tell us. Its motives are always suspect because it is operating within a larger situation that may well corrupt its narrative, resulting in spin, not truth. Are we trying to please someone? To undercut someone? To be outrageous? To take the easy way out? To appear to know more than we do? We can’t trust anyone else to guide us but our own judgment based on our cumulative life experience. Every action we take in the world is a product of that judgment. More than any other facet of consciousness, it makes us who we are.

 

So what are schools for? Nothing less than taking our budding judgments through their paces. That is, introducing us to different sorts of challenges, letting us evaluate and try to meet them, letting us fall short, letting us pick ourselves up and try again. In brief, letting us find our way by exercising and developing our personal judgments, along with the skills necessary to turn them into effective behaviors. That requires paying close attention to the interpreters of events in our heads, which are fully capable of waylaying us at every turn, causing us to base our actions on less than a full grasp of the facts of our current situation.

 

Only by doubting our own motives, opinions, and actions can we surpass our childhood selves and become reliable contributors to meeting the many challenges before us. Doubt, not accepted knowledge, is the key to exercising good judgment in the world of today, which is far different from the world our teachers’ knew in their day. This requires us to exercise our most basic piece of equipment—the individual consciousness through which we view so-called reality, but really serves as the seat of our interpreter, our judgment, our authority, our convictions, and our expectations—the inner reality we project outward in reinventing the world to suit ourselves.

 

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Reflection 64: Blogosphere II

February 13, 2009

(Copyright © 2009)

 

I wrote earlier (Reflection 8: Blogosphere, October 16, 2008 ) that “blogs hold promise of creating a cooperative, synchronized interaction between individual worlds of consciousness on a scale far grander than one-way broadcasts in the mass media have ever achieved through dominance and brute force.” But added, “As it is now, blogs add up to a clamorous Babel of noise and opinion.”

 

Which is it to be, a force for order in the world, or a source of disruption and confusion? As I see it, the blogosphere feeds on itself by seizing on every crumb of information in the media and subjecting it to eternal digestion into finer and finer bits until it ends up as drivel.

 

My son recently gave me The Huffington Post Complete Guide to Blogging, in which I found a list of eight “Sources of Inspiration” on page 84. There I immediately grasped what the trouble is. On that page some of the most successful bloggers in the world tell their secret: Feed off of the media and one another! The whole enterprise is incestuous. Opinions galore, but not a sign of original thought in the bunch. Well, one sign in the eighth item: “On the street” reporting, which reads:

 

Are the teachers at your children’s school upset by student test scores? Is the cafeteria manager concerned about the quality of the produce? Maybe your local pharmacist is worried that seniors don’t understand recent changes in Medicare. all of these stories are worth covering.

 

To those who click out blogs of this sort, I salute you. You’re my kind of folks, making the most of your personal resources.

 

The other seven sources of “inspiration” are derived from existing media: 1) newspapers, 2) political publications, 3) general interest publications, 4) TV news and news websites, 5) radio, 6) large new-media sites (HuffPost, Politico, BoingBoing, Daily Kos, etc.), and 7) blogs on your blogroll.

 

In a word, many or most blogs are derivative. They chew on themselves and other media. Feeding on the same cud, they grind away until nothing is left but drool from the chops. Then onto the next bite, then the next.

 

Whatever happened to investigative reporting? To actually being on the scene, doing original interviews, getting hard facts down on paper? Standing for the truth by putting your body where the news is? The blogsphere is getting to be little more than a roll of toilet paper, every sheet the same. That doesn’t sound like the best use of human consciousness to me.

 

What gets chewed over already exists in digital form on the Web, while most of life is organic, fleeting, and vulnerable every moment—and definitely cannot be reduced to binary code. Blogs don’t deal with living material—with people, animals, trees, flowers, birds. They deal instead with digitized cast-offs of cast-offs of cast-offs. The scheme seems to be, get noticed by reworking the printed words of the movers and shakers. To get famous, rehash the verbal orts of the outrageous, rich, and notorious.

 

Here’s a painful truth. Much of the blogosphere is staffed by an army of hacks. Clever, sometimes, but hacks nonetheless. Like so many army ants coursing through the jungle tearing at every stem, leaf, or leg in their path.

 

Where, I ask, is consciousness in this feeding frenzy? Where are original thought, judgment, curiosity, doubt, passion, and all those other facets of human consciousness we know so well because they make us who we are?

 

On the other hand, maybe I miss the whole point. Maybe chewing the cud is the next stage of human evolution. Maybe the grazing animal in each of us is finally slobbering her way out of the closet. Maybe squatting in our cubicles and taking it easy by doing as little real work as possible is the coming thing. Just maybe. But I don’t believe it. A blog is as valuable as the life equivalent that goes into it. Which to me takes three things: conscious effort, passion, and judgment. Without one of the three, a blog might as well be plopped from the stern of a cow.

 

Like high-colonic enemas, rants (including this one) are good for the soul. They scrub the kidneys, liver, pancreas of all the waste they’ve been storing for months. I highly recommend them. But if you launch your rant into the blogosphere, please let it be your original and not a variation on somebody else’s complaint. Look into your consciousness and see what gems you can find, then fling them forth. Maybe that’ll unclog your system and open the gates to consciousness and original thought.

 

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