In the terminal moments of a dream I had on the morning of March 10, 2014, I found myself loaded with gear in both hands, struggling up a crowded escalator. I met a series of obstacles at every level, but could not find my way to a particular street, which I could reach by traveling north, while again and again I found myself forced to move off in other directions. I was determined to get to that street, but events in the dream kept turning me aside.

My awakening mind linked that dream to similar dreams of being thwarted in a lifelong series of similarly wayward excursions.

When fully awake, I had the distinct thought that such dreams are models of my mind, much as my mind, in turn, is a model of my world. It struck me that what evolution has wrought in the physical network of the brain is a tool to be used for modeling the world in navigational terms such as goals, journeys, routes, destinations, distances, maps, obstacles, distractions, pathways, landmarks, wayfaring, migrations, and so on.

We are primarily a mobile species that conducts its business by standing on two legs and walking toward specific destinations as goals. Our minds are made to support such a lifestyle. When immobilized and desensitized by sleep, what else would we dream about?

During breakfast I made four pages of notes in a steno pad detailing such a vision. It made sense at the time. It makes sense to me now. Animal life is . . . well, animated, always on the go. It moves about in search of food, water, mates, shelter, vantage points, and so on, as well as to avoid dangerous places, enemies, competitors, rivals, harsh conditions, and fearful situations.

Animals have appendages that enable them variously to crawl, creep, walk, run, gallop, scamper, hop, leap, fly, glide, slide, slither, float, drift, paddle, swim, dig roam, and explore their way about their habitats. They make or adopt paths, trails, routes, flyways, tunnels, home ranges, migrations, forays, escape holes, dens, nests, warrens, and other artifacts to accommodate their travels and activities.

To accomplish such feats, animals have brains that coordinate the movements of their bodies and appendages, enabling them to move about and thrive in the habitats to which they are suited. Minds, to the degree they have achieved them, allow those animals the spontaneous coordination of sensory inputs with motor outputs in the construction of engagements intended to fit individual animals to the environments and situations they encounter in the course of meeting their needs and desires, either instinctively or as informed by memory of such efforts in the past.

In the particular dream I mentioned at the start of this post, I could not coordinate my sensory impressions with any kind of meaningful action because sleep results from the uncoupling of just those two capacities, leaving my goals unsupported by any means of attaining them, which is my plight in a great many of my dreams. Leaving me laboring mightily to accomplish the impossible in being stymied in my search for a route leading where I want to go.

If wayfaring is the essence of consciousness, as I believe it to be, then dreams leave me in a present state without the backup of memory to remind me how I might have found my way in the past. In dreams, I am only half-human. I have access to selected desires and a rapid succession of images, with no way to join the two in a successful effort to do what I want to get done. My brain may be sufficiently awake to maintain my innards in a state of semi-automation, but my mind is left to twiddle its figurative thumbs for lack of any ability to move, depriving me of the essential quality of animate life.

 

Often, when I first wake up from a dream, I am unsure where I am. Eyes closed, I try to remember where I was when I went to bed. It makes all the difference how I am to relieve this fullness in my bladder. Eyes clouded with sleep, do I stand up and make two turns to the left into the bathroom, or do I climb down a ladder on my right, which will land me by the door so I can go outside to pee in the woods? Am I in Bar Harbor or Franklin? How am I to engage the world in meeting my needs? Which depends on setting off in one direction or the other.

Welcome to my world of streaming consciousness, to what I call my loop of engagement, which is always intentional in being keyed to this or that situation as it develops. Is this the day I am going to check on horseshoe crabs at high tide? Fly over the watershed? Go with my brother to the “dance floor” on Baker Island? Set my mooring in Muddy Cove? Print out recent posts to my blog to see where I’m headed? Give a talk? Shop? Make myself happen in some other way?

That’s what this blog is all about, using myself as a handy example of how we rely on consciousness in making ourselves happen in the world, starting first thing in the morning, going all day, and into our dreams at night when we can neither act nor perceive, but stay engaged nonetheless in periods of REM sleep.

The dream I awoke from this morning was one of my better ones. I flew to Australia where I found a kind of hostel to stay in. It was packed with diverse folks all easily relating to one another. A friendly lady told me I was to sleep in the library, which she said had a good many fans, and I took to be a good thing. No one else was there, but abruptly people streamed in and began laying out bedding on the floor. The place I had staked out got taken, so I found an empty spot and moved in. There was no conflict or competition; people simply got along together. It was crowded, but felt right. Upstairs, my son was taking a bath in an old iron tub, which drained through a groove into a hole in the floor. The man and wife who ran the hostel greeted each guest on the stairs, and even a baby who got my attention was delightfully keen and friendly.

Night and day, I am engaged, shifting from one scene or situation to another, always giving my full attention, always moving beyond myself into a new self emerging just ahead. That emergent self is who I am, kinetic, always on the go. Always trying to figure out where I am so I can take appropriate steps in reaching toward the next stage of my development, whatever it turns out to be, knowing full well that a set mind is sure death.

Reflection 182: Intelligence

February 18, 2010

(Copyright © 2010)

I was born asking questions. That’s the kind of person I am. Still damp from the womb, I looked around and asked, “Where am I?” Then, looking at the doctor, “Who are you?” Then at my mother, “What’s for supper?” Much later, I remember riding in the back of a pickup truck from Seattle to Nespelum, Washington, asking the archaeology grad student next to me one question after another the whole way. I exhausted him well before I knew as much as I wanted to about the dig we were heading for. Inquisitive to the point of annoyment, that’s me. Is annoyment a word? Annoyance, that’s what I mean.

Asking questions is somehow related to intelligence. My American Heritage Dictionary says intelligence is “The capacity to acquire and apply knowledge,” but that’s not what I mean. I’m not talking about a mental capacity, or knowledge in general. More, as the CIA uses the word to refer to that which is known about one thing or another. But I don’t mean mere scraps of data—I mean getting the big picture: intelligence on a nontrivial scale referring to the interrelatedness of things in a particular system. In other words, building an aesthetic model in my mind of a system outside my body. Intelligence, for me, is a process of gathering experiences about relationships—how things fit and act with one another—into a coherent picture in the mind. Excuse me, in my mind. That’s the only mind I have access to or can talk knowingly about, or expand by asking further questions.

Intelligence tests claim to measure a human capacity—as if learning is independent of interest, curiosity, subject matter, or personal experience. That usage suggests a person is equally intelligent regarding anything that can be known, that intelligence is some kind of virtue or trait, which I don’t think is true. There’s no such thing as an intelligent person; there are only people who know a lot about a small number of things in relation to one another—and little about everything else. An evening spent playing Trivial Pursuit should tell us that much, at least. I’ll give you an example from my personal experience.

I’ve been studying Taunton Bay, an estuary in Maine, for a number of years. I would have said I was checking it from an inquiring point of view because it interested me, but in hindsight I see I was paying attention to it every chance I got, so I guess I really was studying it, expanding my experience of the bay holistically without reference to “information” or “data.” That way, I slowly built up an understanding of some of the workings of the bay in my head, which collectively added to “intelligence” about the bay as a  biological system. This is related to this is connected to this is tied-in with this is balanced with this. Building to a broad, qualitative under-standing of what is going on in one place in Maine. That’s what I mean by intelligence. I didn’t learn about other bays because each one is different and I wasn’t—my body wasn’t—there. And I didn’t learn about bays in general because my acquaintance was up-close and personal. Let me illustrate my wordy illustration of aesthetic intelligence by showing a picture suggesting the relationships between blue mussels and eight other aspects of Taunton Bay.

species-interactions_mussels

That’s a picture of a small portion of my aesthetic—of my coherent intelligence about the bay. Blue mussels are connected to sea stars (which eat them), to eelgrass (which shares their habitats), to Canada geese (which eat eelgrass), to diving ducks (such as common goldeneyes which eat mussels), to eagles (which eat goldeneyes), to marine worms (which eat food particles that mussels discard), to hunters (who shoot mussel-eating ducks), to horseshoe crabs (which mussels often attach themselves to), and to human (who harvest mussels by diving, dragging, or hand-raking). They are also connected to me because I take pictures of them in relation to other features of Taunton Bay.

That’s a snapshot of what I mean by big-picture intelligence. Getting things together in my mind to reveal their relationships and interactions. In a very real sense, that is a portrait of one corner of my conscious mind. Which is the real topic of this blog: getting my mind together about consciousness. Since reading books by Gerald M. Edelman about human con-sciousness, wrestling with his theoretical ideas, my under-standing of my own conscious processes has made a quantum leap to the next higher level. After slogging through one post after another, Edelman helped tie things together for me—at least as I interpret his writings. So today I want to write about my experience of consciousness as a whole, not just this aspect or that.

My big learning up to now is that understanding is a matter of developing an aesthetic sense of how things go together in relationship. That’s actually what the word consciousness means. Con- refers to a collective joining-together, sciousness (as in science) refers to splitting things apart into particles or elements—that is, discernment of relationships, which is commonly called knowledge. Taking splintered parts together in relationship produces consciousness—the “withness” of all aspects of mind. In this case, the withness of the different sensory arrays spread throughout the sensory brain, which Gerald M. Edelman and other neuroscientists refer to as “maps.” The parts of the brain devoted to vision contain some thirty or forty such maps, each tracking two-dimensional relationships in one aspect of visual perception—movement, color, location, direction, texture, and so on. Consciousness, then, consists of mapping events in the brain in ever-changing relationship to one another, creating an overall sense of the dynamics of the current situation.

Think of the George Gibson Quartet—guitar, organ, saxophone, percussion—in aesthetic relation to one another, or a cut by the Henry Threadgill Sextet in the 1970s. Or the Boston Symphony Orchestra playing Berlioz’ Symphony Fantastique. Or the Boston Red Sox when they get their act together and each player gives his all in exquisite relationship to the others. Or all the parts of Picasso’s Guernica telling the story of the Nazi bombing of a small town in the Pyrenees during the Spanish Civil War. Which is not unlike Albert Einstein spending his last days in search of a unified theory of everything that would tell the story of the universe. Many scientists, mathematicians, and theologians engage in similar quests having spiritual overtones in relating the individual mind to the larger whole as they picture it. On a more mundane level, aesthetic coherence is what a chef strives for in balancing the flavors, textures, color, and nutrients in his soup of the day. Or me in my peapod rowing across Taunton Bay at low tide, trying to fit everything I see into a coherent appreciation of what’s going on at that time in that place.

The point of the exercise being, then, to act appropriately in the situation we are engaged with as we discern its different parts and assemble them in consciousness as a coherent life event. If we can do that, then we derive a survival advantage from understanding what’s going on around us compared to others acting out of a less nuanced understanding. It’s always an aesthetic judgment call based on how we see aspects of the situation fitting together into a coherent unity—or not, as in the 2000 presidential election, the Haitian earthquake, or the global instability of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere.

Regarding consciousness, what are the parts I am talking about? Sensory perception as annotated by memory of concepts and prior experiences. Attention, salience, and expectancy reflecting personal or biological values, motives, and interests. A sense of oneself, with feelings, hopes, fears, anxieties, pains, pleasures, and ethical preferences. Judgment of how to weigh each part, what to emphasize, what to leave out. The valance or attractiveness of one option for action compared to others. What the larger culture would recommend through the medium of tradition, habit, training, or instruction. Ongoing categorizations and interpretations modeling a scenario of the current situation as it is likely to develop in the future. These and other aspects coming together in consciousness, evaluated in relation one to another, fed forward to decision-making, advance planning, and execution, culminating in more-or-less decisive action in the world. And motivated attention to what the world does in response as told by the myriad maps keeping track of what’s happening from one’s situated point of view at the moment. All parts playing into the great loop of engagement coursing through our minds, constituting consciousness itself—the withness of such separate parts in coherent relationship with these and other parts in addition to those I have mentioned.

Without the ongoing governance provided by the contemporary loop of engagement between self and non-self, we are left in a state of autonomous dreaming disconnected from any adjustment imposed by culture, others, or the great world beyond. When flying blind in the sensory vacuum of dream-land, consciousness is entirely on its own, doing the best it can to find coherence based wholly on internal evidence of ongoing concerns. In dreams, we can see the separate items being shuffled again and again in a vain attempt to find the most apt relationship between them. What comes through is not the order of the world but the persistent order of the self as imposed on that world. In some circles, this counts as a spiritual more than a rational or cognitive take on events. The subject of dreams is always the same—yours truly, the dreamer, chief of operations in all matters concerning consciousness when the mysterious world has no say in the matter. That is, when all intelligence is internal, without curiosity about or regard for what might be happening in the great world of Beyond.

This, then, is a miniature portrait of consciousness as I understand it right now and write these words to post to my blog. If you ask me tomorrow, I’ll tell you something different because my mind will have moved on from where it is now. But this gives you an overview of the kinds of thoughts I have in gathering intelligence about my personal stream of con-sciousness. Here is an assessment in keeping with the aesthetic highlights of today’s line of thinking. My subsequent experience will unfold differently than ever before, and my dreams tonight will be unlike any I have had previously. Who can tell what tsunami will surge, what volcano erupt, what star explode, what earthquake turn the terra firma of my little world to heaving jelly? Stay tuned to this station for further bulletins as my mind delivers them to me.

In the meantime, to end as I began—with a question—how is it with you on your trek through the universe? Do the seconds, months, and decades of your mental journey add to a larger whole? Whatever your experience, I’d be happy to receive a brief summary of what intelligence you’ve picked up along your route. I invite you to leave a comment in the space provided below.

Governor

 

(Copyright © 2009)

 

I dream about seeing a hole in the sky. It is raining. A young boy is riding a tricycle as we walk up the street together, I in the lead, he behind. I fear he won’t be able to pedal against the runoff coming off the hill, but he pedals faster and plows like a boat through the water. The street dips and we go downhill for a ways and come to a log cabin surrounded by mud filled with exposed tree roots. I tell the boy that the rain made all that mud. The road, filled with mud, turns sharply to the right. Looking up, I see a round hole (like a smoke hole without the smoke) in the sky, or rather, a hole in a translucent dome above the rain. Through the hole I see clouds lit by the sun. My eyes zoom in on the hole so I can see it clearly. Outside and under the hole, the rain is made of dashed lines which remind me (in the dream) of the snow on black-and-white television screens in the 1950s. Through the hole the clouds are made of similar dashes moving at an angle to the rain. I recognize this as a very unusual situation. I have never seen a hole in the sky before in my entire life. I mention this to some people we meet. . . .

 

Waking up, I am still amazed by seeing a hole in the sky. A round hole at the zenith overhead. Probably several feet in diameter, big enough to put your head and body through if you could get up to it. Child, tricycle, street, hill, rain, cabin, mud, hole in the sky—this fragment of a dream is wholly engaging and seems convincingly real.

 

What to make of it? The situation is this: the boy and I are together, though our relationship is unclear. The street reminds me (now that I’m awake) of School Street in Andover, Massachusetts, where I lived in the late 1960s and early 1970s. I used to walk my toddler son around the block in those days, he exploring the walkway to every house while I waited out by the street. The rain reminds me of the dashed lines beneath clouds on the screen of the L.L. Bean weather station I got for my last birthday. I have seen tree stumps and roots in mud, but no particular incident comes to mind. Explaining the cause of the mud to the boy is very much me in my teacher mode. I can’t account for the log cabin. The hole in the sky is very much like the circle representing the sun on my weather station. When the station predicts that precipitation is about to end, dashed rain, clouds, and sun appear together on the screen, the disc of the sun seeming to emerge from behind the clouds. I never actually saw the sun in the dream; it was inferred from lit edges of clouds.

 

I often think about the edges of things—about how the brain sharpens the contrast between surfaces to heighten such edges, creating a kind of line-drawing cartoon that is more distinct than reality itself. The hole in the sky had a very distinct edge, slightly lighter than the dome it was in, like a hem of pale material folded back on itself. Which reminds me of my first experience with Mercator projections (Reflection 60: Discovery, February 6, 2009), because there would be no way to fold a circular hem in the dome of the sky without slitting or slashing it so the smaller area would fold over the larger. I can’t suggest that I was specifically aware of that problem in the dream; it feels more like something I added in processing the dream now that I am awake.

 

I was emotionally concerned about the boy on the tricycle—whether he could go against the flowing runoff or not. The strongest feeling I had was the sense of wonder at seeing a hole in the sky. All dreams have a novel cast about them, and that seemed precisely the point in this one. I seemed very much my everyday self in judging a hole in the sky to be a novel event, and therefore worth commenting on. Which is how my dreams often run while I, the dreamer, are my same old self. Dreams, that is, often place me-as-I-know-myself in bizarre situations.

 

Many of my dreams are about attending or teaching specific classes in school, which is not surprising since I spent 18 years of my life as a teacher and another 19 years as a student before that. But in dream after dream I am neglecting my duty by not showing up for class, or showing up for the class after being unaccountably absent for six months, or I am not prepared, or I know nothing about the subject I am expected to teach, or I’m not wearing any clothes, and so on. My dreamworld is made up of one bizarre situation after another, to which my conventional self is expected to make a fitting response.

 

So I hazard the guess that I am normally conscious when I dream, but because I am deprived of sensations I am familiar with, as well as the ability to act, the situations within which I dream exist in a parallel universe ruled by feelings of novelty, wonder, awe, fear, anxiety, uncertainty, and self-doubt. All the dream situations are possible in that they are variations on stock situations I am familiar with, while at the same time they are novel in taking place in fantastic locales concocted by my unsituated brain trying to figure out where it is and what’s happening. The best it can do is guess on the basis of the few clues suggested by my autonomic nervous system (heart beat, sexual arousal, carbon dioxide level, hunger, etc.) which carries on 24/7 whether I am awake or asleep.

 

From my days working at Harvard Observatory, I retain the image (from a book in the library) of a robed man standing on a ladder, poking his head and shoulders through the celestial sphere (which rips in his case), to confront stars and planets directly as they wheel overhead. It’s a wonderful image because so full of practical details, while the overall concept is preposterous and very dreamlike. I’ve carried that image with me for 48 years. It may have a bearing on the hole in the sky I discovered this morning in my dreams because it came to mind while trying to describe that hole. Memory evidently plays a prominent role in dreams, mixing and matching details drawn from a host of situations to create a landscape wholly novel and fantastic. And, entertaining, once you get past the anxiety.

 

¦

 

Reflection 5: Sunflowers

October 13, 2008

 (Copyright © 2008)

My partner lives in an apartment above her pottery studio. Bed and computer on one end, counter, stove, and refrigerator on the other, a one-room apartment with no secrets because you can see the whole space and everything in it from wherever you happen to be. I went up to get something (I forget what) and came back down so we could go for a walk. “Do you like the sunflowers?” she asked. “What sunflowers?” “In the vase on the counter.” I’d walked within six inches of them and never saw them. Not once but twice.

 

Like dying crows and crashing airplanes, consciousness can present us with figments. Too, like mustard jars and sunflowers, it can hide objects in clear view. These effects are often transitory, dependent on storylines offered as snap judgments, on expectations, on the level of attention, or what else is on our minds at the time. It’s as if consciousness had a mind of its own and sometimes played tricks on us just for fun. But of course there aren’t two minds in our heads. In the examples I have given, I am really playing tricks on myself. Consciousness and what I call my mind are really one and the same. Consciousness is my mind. There’s no tiny projection room in my head where I screen my latest takes on reality.

 

The point is that consciousness should not be taken at face value. It requires periodic checking and verification. In fact, it is wise to doubt every phenomenon that rises in the mind from any source because impostors and rip-offs—like hackers and con-men—are always with us. Even autobiographical memory is suspect. I was shocked to hear my younger brother claim that he was the one who liked Brussels sprouts when we were kids, not me. Did the good old days play as we remember them? Probably not. There’s no warrantee on childhood memories. I have a vivid recollection from when I was eighteen months old of playing with a dog under the dining room table , of climbing on a chair, then onto the table, and being held to look into a white bassinette to see my baby brother just home from the hospital. Did that really happen? If so, it would be my earliest memory. I tell the story, but I have no way of knowing if it is true.

 

Even dreams seem to be true at the time, and they can be pretty preposterous. I am always wandering around in dreamland subway stations trying to get somewhere or other. Often I don’t have change to put in the turnstile, so I go through endless doors and down endless stairs trying to get to the trains. The only reality check is to wake up, which I always do gratefully. Illusions, delusions, hallucinations, apparitions—we’re always glad to see them go. Unless they’re built into our belief system, in which case we defend them to the death.

 

These days I picture the U.S. economy as a kind of sandbox where grownups play at making a living without having to work. This kind of self-deception is more common than we like to think. Not my self-deception this time, the traders’, bankers’, and lenders’. They may claim now to have seen the collapse looming, but they stuck to their posts to make the last possible dime. Their consciousness made them do it. The phenomena dancing in their heads, driving them on to a richer life. Which now appears not to have been real. The whole show was a delusion all along.

 

The problem is a general failure to doubt the horsepower aspirations of our souped-up economy. And beyond that, to question the wisdom of so many people trying to live so high on the hog off the markets of our one little Earth. The truth is out: only ecosystems and the environment are real; the rest is sham and pretense. Evolution has geared consciousness to survival issues facing Paleolithic hunter-gatherers. It hasn’t caught up with the life situations of the twenty-first century. And won’t catch up till consciousness evolves to a yet higher stage. Which, at the rate mutations get spread around, will take millions of years, not the few decades we may have available.

 

Reality checking on a grand scale is the kind of regulation we must insist on if we are going to stretch those decades into any sort of livable future. It will have to apply to all of us, all the time. And checkers will have to check on the checkers in an endless loop. That way we can tug on our own bootstraps and not have to wait for evolution to do the dirty work for us. ¦