To engage Peter Mark Roget’s mind as directly as possible, I sought as early an edition as I could afford of his Thesaurus, which turned out to be the 1933 American edition (as enlarged by his son, John Lewis Roget, and grandson, Samuel Romilly Roget).

Both editors had deep respect for their father’s/grandfather’s brainchild as realized in the editions he brought out between 1852 and the marked-up copy of the 1855 edition he left at his death in 1869. In effect, the 1933 American edition transports the reader into the mind of a man born in 1779 during the American Revolutionary War, enabling us to see how one man of those days went about sorting his “ideas,” “feelings,” “views,” “conceptions,” “emotions,” “thoughts,” and “sentiments” under the formal one-thousand numbered headings of his own devising.

My interest here is in the meanings of words as they spoke to Peter Mark Roget in his day and place (19th-century England). Collectively, those words map his semantic field into six grand Classes of meaning, further subdivided into twenty-four Sections, those Sections into 112 Subsections, in turn divided into 1,000 Headings containing word clusters made up of words and phrases with overlapping meanings. This four-tiered system of verbal classification furnishes, in Roget’s own words,

on every topic a copious store of words and phrases, adapted to express all the recognizable shades and modifications of the general idea under which those words and phrases are arranged.

In looking through those headings today, we can scan the logical structure of Roget’s mind as he experienced it in his own day. It is ironic that most users of the Thesaurus ignore the systematized meanings as Roget laid them out, and prefer to work backwards from a familiar word listed alphabetically in the index and search for a suitable synonym within the headings listed there.

That is, modern users of the Thesaurus skip the context or situation within which a word is to be used, and go straight to the lowest level of classification, the heading that identifies a cluster of more-or-less synonymous words which they quickly scan and choose among.

So much for Roget’s labors of deriving those generic headings within his elaborate hierarchy of all possible meanings. What he offered the English-speaking world was similar to the method by which meanings were made available to his mind according to the experiential situations they answered to at the seat of his intelligence. What that world took from his efforts was very different from what he offered. His users now take the situation that a word is to be used in for granted, and select the word most appropriate for use in that situation, bypassing Roget’s overall system of word classification.

Only after-the-fact does our intuitive syntax become grammar as a subject in school. Only after he struggled a thousand times to come up with the perfect word apt to his thoughts did Roget come up with a system for classifying meaning to make the job easier and more transparent for himself and for others.

We learn by doing and striving to do better, faster, with less waste. So do we grow into the selves we become, but could never have predicted beforehand where we would end up. So did Roget leave us a map of his mind without having the slightest intent to leave any such map.

No one taught him to build a cluster of words around the common idea they all represent, such as under Heading 320, Levity, he associates feather with dust with mote with down with thistledown with flue with cobweb with gossamer with straw with cork with bubble with float with buoy with ether with air. He opened his mind and that cluster rose up within him because his mind had already sorted those words as being related one to another.

Filaments of common meaning as flow through his collective experience made him do it—create all those clusters of words. It was not a rational exercise. Start to finish, it was wholly experiential and aesthetic in that he had lived that flow, and his mind had simply mapped the currents flowing through it. That is, it was those mental currents themselves that were shaped by the structure of the neural tunnels through which they were channeled in his brain.

Currents and processes in the brain determine the nature of mind. Is that true? Is his brain responsible for Roget’s system of classification, or is his mind, or his experience? How do we come by the orderly systems we rely on to classify, rank, relate, distinguish, select, and compare our percepts and concepts? Where do taxonomies come from, anyway? How are signals routed through the labyrinth in our brains?

The answer is, I don’t know. What I do know is that the ability to make meaning—the fitting together of chunks of awareness or experience according to one system or another—is so prominent a human trait, we take it for granted as a quality of human thinking and intelligence.

Some give credit to rational or logical habits of thinking, but I don’t think it can be that simple. It is commonplace to group percepts and concepts by any quality or feature we can imagine. Then to put such groups or collections in ordered sequence by any number of criteria—size, shape, color, texture, function, time, date, age, topic, rarity, weight, effectiveness, and so on.

If we grow up among trees, say, are our neural networks any different from what they would be if we grow up among snowflakes, mountains, or sand beaches? If so, are our thoughts and ideas any different as a result of the nature of the world we acquire at birth? Are fish thoughts more fluid than bird thoughts (which might be said to be flighty)? Certainly our thoughts and experiences would differ to some degree, but would our neural networks be different? Our meanings? Our intelligence?

If we had seven or sixteen fingers, would the numerical system by which we put things in sequence be different? What if we had three eyes, or nine eyes like horseshoe crabs? We know that crows can count up to about seven, how high can jellyfish count? What sort of alphabet would snakes develop if they had a vocabulary?

I am on a roll of thought in this post, and sense that it could continue for a long time. I like to keep each post to a reasonable length without getting carried away, so will arbitrarily put down my foot and say I will stop here, almost in mid-sentence. I can feel my thoughts rolling onward, but I will pick up the thread in my next post.

Nothing seems to be played more on the surface than baseball because it’s so physical in nature—a minor tempest in a stadium under bright lights with fans sitting around drinking beer.

But beneath that surface there is an inner game of moves, tactics, strategies, felt situations, motivating tensions, and the life force itself that gets us out of our seats and into the game, where we play, indeed, very hard.

That inner game is what baseball is all about because that’s where our engagements lie. And it is those engagements I am writing about here, not the statistical game played-out in the media and public press. We are engaged in a fundamental way with baseball because engagement is based on situations within us, and situations are not set for all time but develop, turning into wholly new situations, in turn leading on to other new situations and tensions, surprising us at every turn of events, taking us further and further into ourselves as we become more deeply committed to our involvement.

The motivating situations are in us, as well as in the players on the field. We map them onto sensory patterns passing as images in our heads, where the life they take on is sparked by how the players perform, but because of the play of tensions we find in ourselves, very quickly become colored by our emotional perspective.

Two games are being played at the same time, outer and inner. We are spectators attending the outer one, and players ourselves in the inner one. We can feel it in our muscles as well as see in in our mind while it’s being played out on the field.

The proof is in our feelings, which are in us, not on the field. Engagements are . . . well, engaging. They stimulate us to focus on the action as it develops, and at the same time inhibit us from paying attention to anything else, no matter how important it is. Ebola cannot compete with baseball, nor can ISIS, The Ukraine, Putin, or Obama. They aren’t in the same league, so get snuffed out—just like that. In our minds, that is, not the world.

Too, our values and loyalties are at stake in our engagements, as are our memories, skills, interests, and concerns insofar as they bear on our current engagement. All else is dismissed by our minds as irrelevant, so fails to register in the heat of the moment. We are aroused, stimulated, excited—our minds are shaped solely by the inner game. The field of play is nothing less than the life we are living at that very moment. We have a personal stake in the game. We give it our all. And it becomes us.

That is the nature of our engagements in general. The price we pay is to be broadly selective in simply eliminating everything else for the duration of their hold on us. By the time we locate our car in the parking lot outside the stadium, we are back in the world again. But during the game, nothing from that world matters. We watch our hopes and desires fulfilled or dashed before our eyes, as if the game were being played out directly in us, not out on the field. It bears the import and coloration we give it due to our subjective interests, which are proprietary in the extreme. Whatever we engage with becomes our personal property, and is nothing less than the claim it makes on our attention, abetted by the extent to which we sympathetically open ourselves to that claim.

Watching baseball is like watching a part of ourselves being made clear to ourselves, a great favor once you realize what is happening. Situation after situation, batter after batter, pitch after pitch, we want to find out what happens next, and next after that. We’re in for the long haul, to the end of the game. The players are good at what they do, so we’re good right along with them. We cheer them, they carry us along on every pitch, swing, hit, catch, and error.

As wayfarers, we look to the players to show us the way into the winding labyrinth of ourselves. That’s a powerful relationship, like having a mentor or guru, someone who listens and acts on our behalf.

The best thing that happened to baseball in my lifetime was not the emergence of players like Lou Gehrig or Babe Ruth, but TV coverage by cameras with sharp lenses that focus the game on the screen in our living room, literally bringing it home to us. We can watch a pitcher with glove to his chin shake off a signal from the catcher (the defense team’s tactician), spit, chew gum, go through his windup, then abruptly spin around and hurl the ball, not to the catcher, but to the first baseman in time to catch an off-base runner in the act of diving for the bag. Now fans can sit in costly stadium seats hunching over their smartphones watching the game they came to see through the well-placed lenses of TV cameras. And we can enter into the game more effectively from within our black boxes because it is brought to us so up-front and personally, even intimately.

 

Reflection 318: Self-Engagement

September 12, 2012

Copyright 2012 by Steve Perrin.

As I picture it, my mind consists of three parts operating in sequence: 1) a sensory or perceptual part that develops a felt understanding of my current situation in the world, 2) a visualizing part that represents that situation as interpreted from my personal point of view, and 3) a behavioral part devoted to planning and executing a course of action in fitting response to the situation I believe myself to be in.

The situation I create for myself on the basis of sensory evidence as I interpret it is the central feature of my conscious mind. I do not live in the material world so much as in an internal milieu I create for myself by giving personal meaning to the public energies impinging on my senses. The situation I live in is my version of the world as I take it to be. The world-as-it-is-in-itself is far too complicated for me to grasp; there’s too much going on at once. I can only deal with a simplified version that can bear the burden of meaning I thrust upon it. The raw energy I confront may be in the world, but the patterns I recognize and understand in the light of my prior experience are mine alone.

The same is true of the actions I take in response to felt situations—that response is my personal response to my situation as I am able to construe it. My actions are a function of the personal skills and abilities I have developed by living my personal life history of trial, error, practice, and rehearsal.

Perception, situation, action—these are the essential stages of awareness that in tandem make up my looping engagement with the energy-rich yet unknowable-in-itself world I live in. The interpreted world I construct for myself from patterns of energy selectively drawn from my surroundings—and emphasize by my fears and desires—shifts from one situation to the next, leading me to act as I do in making myself happen in the world as subjectively represented in the flow of situations through my internal milieu.

No, I do not live In the real world. None of us does. We live in inner worlds of our own making. We move from one situation to another as we can make out familiar patterns in the raw energies the world sends our way. Start to finish, life is a creative adventure we strive to make the best of in one loop of engagement, then the next, and the next.

We are driven by the valence of the feelings each situation kindles in us as we engage ourselves: good or bad, positive or negative, pro or con, hope or dread, carrot or stick. So are we propelled forward by the situations we find ourselves in, avoiding pain, seeking relief and happiness, engagement after engagement, loop after loop.

In my next post, I will offer my recent engagement with with wildness as an example of my creating a series of situations in which to make myself happen by acting in familiar ways through my chosen medium of photography.

Until next time, I remain y’r friend and brother, —Steve from Planet Earth

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

Copyright 2012 by Steve Perrin.

The art of introspection is in watching what you pay attention to in engaging your sensory impressions. In becoming conscious of the streaming process of ongoing engagement itself, your mind shifts it’s focus from events assumed to take place outside of yourself to processes going on in your head, the true home of your awareness.

Abruptly, you become aware of elements of consciousness you may have missed before by underplaying them as if they could be taken for granted. By following your own mental engagements as they happen, you immediately see that feelings accompany them at every stage of their development. And not only feelings, but values, memories, expectancies, interpretations of sensory impressions, all leading to an understanding of what a given stage of engagement might mean in light of previous episodes of experience.

The thing to remember is that we make ourselves happen as we do; the root of our behavior is inside each one of us, not in the world. We are responsible for directing and shaping our personal attention, which in turn leads to awareness and subsequent action.

Consciousness is the panorama of what’s going on in our heads from moment to moment. Introspection is our personal visit to that panorama here and now.

Elements that can be depicted in that panorama include personal expectancies contributed by memory, sensory impressions (sights, sounds, smells, tastes, touches, aches, and bodily positions), interpretations of sensory impressions, values, positive and negative feelings, hopes, understanding of what’s going on, dreams, thoughts, imaginings, and so on. A lot is passing through our minds at any particular time, all available to scrutiny through personal introspection if we will but engage ourselves.

The reason we often play down all this mental activity (as if it weren’t taking place) may be that no one else can be aware of it because they’re so distracted by their own mental panorama that they seldom think to inquire how it’s going with us. So we tend to dismiss our own inner life as being trivial and unworthy of notice when, in fact, it’s the core of our existential being.

Introspection is all about acknowledging the unique mental life at the heart of our outward and physical presence in the world.

(Copyright © 2009)

Last Friday I watched the first episode in the TV series Charlie Rose is putting together about Understanding the Brain. Sit a group of experts around a table, all coming from different perspectives, and you get a poker game with each player being an expert on his own hand, striving to outdo everyone else and take the whole pot. One plays the memory card, someone else the neural underpinnings of consciousness, followed by the social underpinnings, or the genetic underpinnings, then on to brain pathology, levels of brain functioning, round and round, hand after hand. Who wins? It all depends on how you look at the brain, and talk about the brain, and bluff your way by trying to convince the rest that you hold the answer they’ve all been looking for.

I have a game like that floating in my head all the time. Writing my blog or teaching an adult ed class, I have to decide what’s really important to know about consciousness, how it all fits together, how it relates to the brain, to behavior, to childhood development, to life experience, to evolution, to genetics, and so on. How do I lay my understanding of conscious out for others to grasp and compare with their own? Blogging and teaching, I have to engage my audience, not stuff my particular views down their throats. It all has to make sense, or if not, at least point in a direction that seems plausible.

When your conscious mind looks at itself—at its own hand—and is not at all sure what consciousness is, or even what the possibilities are, then the problem is doubly compounded and the best thing to do is fold to cut your losses. Sure, know thyself, but don’t try too hard because it’ll drive you nuts. That’s the feeling I had watching Charlie Rose and his panel of brain experts. Which is similar to the feelings I sometimes have while blogging and teaching about consciousness.

Fortunately, one aspect of consciousness is its flexibility, which allows for improvement and self-correction. Old synapses can be abandoned or strengthened, new ones encouraged. So when I feel I’m not getting my point across, I review my situation and try to see how I can do better. After posting 154 essays on aspects of consciousness, together with teaching my recent adult ed class, I offer a few thoughts intended to unclutter and refocus my mind so in future games I can play similar hands better.

Resolved 1:  Put consciousness in a context of alternative ways to bridge from sensory input to action in the world; that is, show how reflexes, habits, rote learning, and assumptions offer other paths to action with more immediate results at a cost of much less mental effort than required to sustain full-blown consciousness.

Resolved 2:   Remember, since the point of consciousness is effective action in the world, the mind must be seated in the brain somewhere near where sensory inputs connect to motor planning areas—between, say, an incoming pole on the lower side of the temporal lobe near where faces and objects are recognized, and an outgoing pole in the lateral prefrontal cortex where working memory translates sensory inputs into motor responses—an area encompassing cingulate and entorhinal cortices, hippocampus, amygdala, hypothalamus, midbrain reticular formation, and mediodorsal thalamic nucleus. Though the entire cerebral cortex may contribute to consciousness, the mind seems to comes together between the two poles I have mentioned.

Resolved 3:   In everything we do, our values, feelings, and past experiences (memories) moderate the tension between the poles of perception and action. Reflexes, on the other hand, produce hardwired responses that would be slowed and made ineffective if we had to think about it when, say, sand or liquid is thrown in our face. Consciousness develops over time, so is much slower to produce a bodily response. Values come into play, that set of salient priorities which promote our adaptation to whatever situation we find ourselves in. Feelings give a positive or negative tone to the occasion, alerting us to reach out or be on our guard. And memories of past occasions suggest what we might do (or avoid doing) in light of our history of past successes and failures. Where perception and motor planning intersect, values, feelings, and memories are in the vicinity, ready to influence our judgment.

Resolved 4:   Neural correlates of conscious (NCC) aside, the mind is situated in the brain, the brain in the body, the body in a family within a community within one human culture or another, and that culture within the habitats and ecosystems constituting a region within the biosphere of planet Earth. It is often hard to tell which combination of our several layered environments influences us as any one time. It is safe to assume that, one way or another, all of them are impinging on us all of the time. We are creatures of the whole—of Earth, our region, our culture, our community, our family, our body, our brain, and our mind. How we treat any one of them always comes back to us as a sure sign of how we regard (or disregard) ourselves.

Resolved 5:  It is good to remember that consciousness is autobiographical. The history of any one person represents the history of a good portion of the Earth, including plants, animals, watersheds, and cultural communities.

Resolved 6:   Too, our every conscious act reflects our state of mind, which in turn affects every layer we are embedded within. In acting for ourselves, we act for our families, communities, and the living Earth as a whole. We are made of Earth stuff, and can’t help enacting it every day of our lives.

Resolved 7:   Where consciousness is, unconsciousness is not far away. In a very real sense, the goal of consciousness is twofold: 1) to solve problems that affect our survival, and 2) to build facility in solving similar problems so we don’t have to work so hard next time we face a similar situation. That’s why high school English teachers assign term papers, so in college and at work we don’t find writing reports as daunting as we did the first time. In that sense, the role of consciousness is to convert the stages of a complex project into an automatic (that is, unconscious) routine in order to save time, energy, and a great deal of worry. As William James put it in 1890:

We must make automatic and habitual, as early as possible, as many useful actions as we can, and guard against the growing into ways that are likely to be disadvantageous to us, as we should guard against the plague. The more of the details of our daily life we can hand over to the effortless custody of automatism, the more our higher powers of mind will be set free for their own proper work (Principles of Psychology, page 122, italics deleted).

Resolved 8:   Regard the history of human works as a reflection of the history of human consciousness. Every work of the human hand is a work of the mind before that. We are revealed to the world, not by good intentions, but by what we plan and bring about. Action suited to our life situation is the goal of consciousness. Nothing can have more survival value than that. Growing rice, corn, wheat, and other grains is an act of will. Milling them into flour is an act of will. Baking bread is an act of will. All so we can break bread together and be grateful to be alive and receive the gifts of the Earth. Poems and songs serve the same end.

Resolved 9:   Beware the powerful, for they are out to shape our endeavors and our minds to their advantage. Buy this, they tell us; Do that; Vote as we tell you; Trust us, we are your friends. All the rest of us need to do is retire our minds and let them make our decisions for us. Those who control our culture create an infrastructure allowing them to think for us and control our minds. Their goal is to be alive in our stead, to steal our life’s energy so that we must work for them, not ourselves. Free will is the prerogative of the arrogant. Our job (they tell us) is to obey. When the infrastructure of our minds bears their trademark—and it amazes me how often that is true—we are lost to ourselves. Freedom is freedom to think for oneself. To surrender that privilege (it is no inherent right) is to surrender to slavery on behalf of The Controllers, who are happy to co-opt our privilege. Fox News, for example, is not just standing by but actively reaching into our brains to implant its alien new world. As Eric Alterman writes in The Nation of November 9 (page 10):

Fox is not a news organization; it is a propaganda outlet, and an extremist one at that. Is it any wonder that according to survey after survey, Fox News viewers are among the worst informed Americans when it comes to politics, despite their obsessive interest? A recent study by Democracy Corps finds that this audience believes “Obama is deliberately and ruthlessly advancing a ‘secret agenda’ to bankrupt our country and dramatically expand government control over all aspects of our daily lives,” with the ultimate goal of “the destruction of the United States as it was conceived by our founders and developed over the past 200 years.”

The scary thing is that in our own little world, we are the powerful, and it is ourselves we must beware lest we mistake the way the world seems for the way the world really is. Irony of ironies, our own values determine what kind of world we discover around us. We paint that world to our liking, or more often, disliking. Cultural values—religious, political, economic, military, social—make us who we are and set how we act and react. Yet our values are invisible to ourselves and, instead of reflecting how we were raised and our earlier experiences, seem to be properties of the world itself. This tragic error is the root cause of the misjudgments rampant in today’s world. We blame others for our disaffection, and determine to eliminate them as the “cause” of our discomfort.

Resolved 10:   In order to understand consciousness, look to the culture in which it is immersed. And vice versa, to understand culture, study the consciousness of one who is embroiled in it. It is difficult to tell where culture leaves off and consciousness begins. The language we speak is the one we are born to. The gestures we make, the tools we use, the work we do, the manners and ways we take into our personal selves as our very own—are cultural in origin. Every member of a particular culture or subculture shares in similar repertoires of values, and is apt to express some variation on those values. The ways we prepare food, eat, dress, dance, entertain ourselves, make love—are ours largely through imitating or learning from others. We are distinctly ourselves, yet at the same time suppress our uniqueness in order to resemble our companions. We personally exemplify the ways of our culture in almost everything we do, think, and believe. At the same time, we contribute our uniqueness to the texture that makes our culture what it is. It is of us, we are of it. Loops of engagement carry us into the cultural world, and the cultural world into us. The reality we find is an extension of our conscious life; the two feed into each other as if parts of an endless Mobius band feeding into itself. Religion gives us our cultural god, who we then make responsible for creating the natural Earth, which clearly emerged billions of years before anything like culture existed in the human mind. Strange business, yet business as usual because we don’t discriminate very well between the cultural and the natural—between what we make happen and what makes us happen in the first place.

Resolved 11:   Finally, be clear that the basis of good and evil is in us, not the world. Our memories come in two sorts, those giving us pleasure and those causing pain. We have soothing dreams, and nightmares. Our feelings come in pairs of opposites: happiness/sadness, love/hate, confidence/fear, triumph/failure, and all the rest. Our minds color everything that happens either positively or negatively, making sure that whatever happens, we remember it for better or for worse. The world is the world, its seeming goodness or badness depending on how we seize it and take it into ourselves. Similarly, integration and differentiation are built into consciousness—putting things together or taking them apart. Induction and deduction are aspects of mind, moving from the sensory, specific, concrete, and detailed toward the conceptual, generic, abstract, and schematic—and back the other way. And we distinguish between chords and melodies because the qualities of simultaneity and succession are built into our sensory apparatus. Too, relative motions in the world are told by the brain, which for survival’s sake struggles to distinguish personal motions from those of others, the difficulty being that sometimes it’s ours, sometimes the others’, and sometimes both are moving at the same time. Dancing is possible because there’s a beat to the music, and both partners key their moves to that rhythm. Without such a frame of reference, the brain searches for clues to help it decide how to act when everything, for whatever reason, is in flux. We may think it trivial to distinguish our own motions from those of other objects and beings, but if you’ve ever sat in a railway car and compared the relative motion of your car and the one on the track next to you without being able to tell which train is moving, then you’ve had the giddy experience of (your brain) not being able to say whether you are moving ahead (without a giveaway jolt) or the other is silently sliding to the rear.

Reverting to my earlier metaphor, it’s not the hand we are dealt that determines our fate, but how we choose to play it. Consciousness is as consciousness does—as we make it happen. Up till now, those thought to understand how consciousness works have tended to use that knowledge for their personal advancement. Think politics, education, advertising, public relations—think John B. Watson, inventor of behaviorism. It is crucial that the workings of consciousness become widely studied and eventually known, so enabling people everywhere to act advisedly on their own—and their common culture’s—behalf.

Consciousness of Nature

(Copyright © 2009)

Symbols are concrete sensory images keyed to or connoting abstract notions, concepts, feelings, or ideas in consciousness.  They differ from signs which denote something equally concrete, as animal tracks bear a one-to-one connection with the feet of the creatures that made them. Understanding signs, symbols, emblems, insignia, etc. requires a grasp of the situations in which they are likely to appear. In different cultures, one and the same symbol may refer to two entirely different situations, and so open onto a divergence of interpretations. Think upon the dual (constructive and destructive) nature of fire, water, wind, and sunlight, for example.

When I was in third grade, my friend Norman Stauffer went to the New York World’s Fair with his folks. Teacher asked him 1939 World Fair--Symbol of Progress to tell the class about his trip. I don’t remember what he said, but I remember the surge of envy I felt because he had gone and I hadn’t. The fair was about the world of tomorrow—the neatest thing my budding mind could imagine. Science and progress! Those  were magic words to me then. The Symbol of Progressfamous Trilon and Perisphere in the poster symbolized the spirit of the new era I was going to grow up in. Norman knew more about my future than I did because he’d been there and seen it. We stayed fast friends through the war, doing everything we could to bring that future into our lives by reading up on science, discovery, and new inventions.

Symbols are allusions in one sensory modality or another to conBaltimore Oriolesceptions beyond themselves. The playing of the national anthem is a symbol to sports fans that waiting is over and play is about to begin, with overtones of heightened anticipation and local pride. Secret handclasps  symbolize shared attitudes and assumptions. Salt air is a sign the sea is VFW Buddy Poppynear, and perhaps a symbol of a vacation mentality. The scent of perfume can be a symbolic invitation to stay near and engage. Buddy Poppies remind us each Memorial Day of the debt we owe those who have fought and died in our name.

Attitudes and feelings are important aspects of symbPure Poisonol consciousness. During election campaigns, we have strong reactions to pointed displays of donkeys and  elephants, which in other contexts might not rouse us at all. It’s not that symbols are loaded so much as that we are loaded and primedJapanese Navy  for action. Think of national flags and the burning thereof, old school emblems, military insignias including rising suns and swastikas, stars and crescents, burning crosses, valentines, shamrocks, mortarboards, jack-o’-lanterns, and the many other symbols that seem to move us one way or another when in truth it is we who give rise to our own emotions.

Wearing our hearts on our sleeves, shoulders, chests, hats, or bumpers is a way of posting important dimensions of our Go Gators! consciousness for all to see. Imagine a U.S. politician not sporting Old Glory in his lapel—he is certainly exposed and practically naked. I once contributed to the Union of Concerned Scientists and received a butterfly decal acknowledging my membership.  I put it onRed Sox Fan my car window—and have kept it there for seven years without a follow-up donation as a kind of declaration of support because that’s the kind of guy I am—or want to be know as—I can’t tell the difference. Anyway, it’s deliberate on my part. Like choosing to wear a baseball cap (brim to the fore to shade my eyes) instead of a cowboy hat, beret, Greek fisherman’s cap, or other headgear. Symbolic designs on underwear and tattoos are meant to be appreciated by the select audience that discovers them.

Whether it’s flying a flag, buying a hat or a car, or sending a greeting card, everything we do makes a statement about the Celtic Cross personal values leading us to put cash on the line (or even go into debt). All of us are master symbolists, though few have formally studied the discipline. Declaring our insides on the outside is big business—like billboard advertising. Where would the fashion, automobile, travel, or sports Peace Symbol industries be if we were truly meek and humble? No, we want to be known to the world! Translating consciousness into personal appearances and lifestyles is a high art. If we want to conform to the group, it shows in our behavior; if we are rebels, that shows as well; if we want to be invisible and draw no attention at all, even that shows up in how we symbolize our conscious insides on the outside.  

Neuroscientists believe the most direct route to understanding the fine-grained logic of consciousness is to study the brain. The Face of England But people don’t live in their brains, they live in bodies, clothing, possessions, housing, neighborhoods, jobs, recreations, societies at large, and natural environs. I strongly recommend complementing neuroscience with studies of how we externalize ourselves in the symbols and language we choose to represent the complex mix of our conscious (and even unconscious) states. There is no way of telling how we interpret the symbols we surround ourselves with except by asking for introspective reports. And even that is not a sure thing because of the shaky nature of self-declarations. But I am a firm believer that everything we say and do has meaCupid--Symbol of Lovening and significance if looked at the right way in the right light. What is most apt to disrupt self-reporting is the habitual bias and attitude of those receiving the gift of reviewing how another sees herself. The give-and-take of dialogue and follow-up questions can often clear up doubts, uncertainties, and misunderstandings.

A more ineffable difficulty in interpreting symbols is that no two of us are likely to be in the same situation at the same time, so the meanings we find in symbols are not directly transferable Opposites in Unityfrom one mind to another because the set and context of those minds are different. Which may lead researchers to feel they must re-interpret what they are told, intending to discern true meanings, but often substituting their own misunderstanding for their subject’s firsthand account. Freud frequently found meanings in patients’ word choices or typographical errors that fit his scheme of analysis, but did violence to the integrity of the verbatim self-reports, as well as to what the good doctor might have learned from them had he listened.

How symbols are intended and how they are taken are  different matters in different minds. To understand symbols, the best we can do is look to our attachments by asking ourselves what we see in them. As a photographer all my life, every image I put out is a picture or symbol of the state of my mind at the time. The Pix page at the head of this blog opens onto a compound portrait of my inner self. If you care to know, that’s who I am. Part of who I am—to myself at least.

Metaphorical states form the medium of symbol consciousness. Everything we notice is a reflection of one aspect of who we are. Different situations draw out different facets of consciousness, coupling different symbols with newSymbol of Plenty meanings, some having slight connection to the ones we are familiar with. Our public asks us to be one person going by one name, but we shine with different colors depending on the light radiating from our current situation, so are a host of different persons. Is a diamond inconsistent for revealing different hues in different facets? No, that is exactly what we expect of a diamond. And as author of this blog, what I expect of myself. It is precisely that variety that keeps me going, posting new blogs as they occur to me because today I am a new person, requiring new symbols adequate to the challenge of trying to represent who I am.

Daisy-72

(Copyright © 2009)

 

Writing this blog, I seem to be above myself looking down upon my own self being conscious of myself being conscious. Is that how it is? How many copies of me are there, anyway? Is there really such a thing as a self or a soul?

 

What I do know is that I am an orderly assemblage of molecules and cells working together to accomplish some purpose in life. What purpose might that be? The usual: obtaining food, drink, warmth, shelter, sex. In a word, survival. When it comes to my personal molecules, they have work to do; the longer they keep working together, the better. And what work am I—are the molecules I am—here to do? Basically, reproduce. Create more molecular assemblages after my own pattern. Stick around to help them get over the rough spots so they can reproduce and survive in their turn.

 

Trouble is, the particular molecules and cells I am talking about aren’t really mine. They create me; I am their creature. They make me who I am. In studying my own consciousness, I am really employed by a physical entity—this body—that is monitoring itself. “I” as a separate entity don’t exist. There’s no “me” apart from this body I call “mine,” which really it isn’t.

 

Since this body didn’t create itself but was conceived, nurtured, and raised by parent bodies situated in a community, it is fair to ask who owns this body? Parents? Community? Tribe? Gene line? Planet Earth that sponsors us all? That nearby star sharing its energy with its planetary offspring? The universe responsible for spawning the sun? Back to whatever triggered the Big Bang?

 

Who am I, really? Do I even exist?

 

What generally goes unnoticed is that while consciousness is made up of concrete sensory, emotional, and cognitive details emerging one after the other in more-or-less coherent order, the self whose consciousness it is—namely me, myself, and I—is a total abstraction compiled from myriad instants of ongoing consciousness as filed away in various forms of memory. I am a construct or concept, not a person. A construct in whatever mind will have me, which seems to be the one whose neural processes created me in the first place and keep me going.

 

I don’t have or entertain consciousness; consciousness has or entertains me. I am a figment of this body’s imagination—of Earth’s imagination.

 

No wonder existence is so tenuous. When life hangs by an imaginary thread, the gentlest wind is disruptive. If you think you’re in charge of things, but you’re not, others will treat you as a prideful usurper. An upstart. A wannabe. A hoax.

 

How humiliating! I thought I was head honcho all along; now my own body is in revolt. Without a home, where can I go? Where is sanctuary? Where can I go to collect myself, which is a forlorn hope—as if figments had any substance worth collecting.

 

That’s the kind of bind studying your own consciousness can get you into. I know very little about not much at all. The king is dead; long live . . . whoever. It’s humbling. Good thing we all do it—make the same mistake. From my point of view that makes me king of fools.

 

But out of the ashes, Phoenix lifts its scrawny self with its talons. Don’t waste time looking at origins, look at deeds. Bodies are actors in situations where actions count in finding food, drink, warmth, shelter, sex—in furthering survival. This particular body is an actor, a mover, a shaker, a blogger. It has both incentives and motives for keeping itself going.

 

Here’s the good part. Between actions on one hand, and incentives and motives on the other, this body has a space for deciding what to do next regarding the situation it finds itself in. That space is consciousness. Which emerges on its own within this very body. One more body that’s here to act, and act now! So let’s get with life’s program and forget about origins. Actions are what count. Look ahead to future deeds, not back to murky beginnings.

 

Consciousness fills the space between incentives drawing the body ahead, motives pushing from behind, and the actual behaviors the body will perform in adjusting itself to the conditions in which it hopes to survive. Within constraints of motivation and appropriateness, consciousness considers possibilities for action, weighs their energy costs and likely effectiveness, selects the action plan it judges (on the basis of past experience) most likely to succeed—and commits to action.

 

Without any need to fall back on a fictitious self, consciousness handles the whole process. It fills the void it was created to fill. It is moved to act, and it does. Then on to the next round of feedback, modification of plans, and refined actions. Through successive approximations, guided by feelings and sensory feedback, this body moves ahead (or not as the case may be). Either way, it keeps trying, doing its thing, living its life.

 

The self, if we insist there be one, goes along on the ride to record the adventure. Memory is this body’s scribe. Whether that memory is working or long-term, emotional or situational, it truly belongs to this body, not any self, soul, or actor having jurisdiction over the body. The self is a fiction we create to give us a role in the process of living, which is always this body’s doing. We think we give a name to each self as it is born, but we are giving bodies an identity, not selves, not independent souls.

 

When in the end this body can no longer keep going and dies, the body that has lived the life is buried or burned. Meanwhile, its name is reserved for the fictitious soul or self, which is regarded as though a bloodless spirit alone were responsible for the deeds this body and its consciousness pulled off in surviving as long as it did. Which isn’t fair, but there it is.

 

¦