(Copyright © 2009)

Trapped in our minds as we are, we sometimes ridicule those whose minds and ideas differ from our own. Rather than accept or celebrate such differences, we find them personally offensive or threatening, and so lash out at those who dare to be different—that is, different from ourselves. There’s a lot of that around these days, displays of public scorn, mockery, bitterness.

Where do these tongue-lashings come from? These dyspeptic outbreaks? These trainloads of sour grapes? These sneering, snide, and brutal attacks?

That’s easy. They stem from the scornful ones sensing they are on the outs—have lost what they might have had—so are themselves being scorned and put down. In a word, from a sense of personal threat or defeat. Which cannot be publically admitted, yet calls for retribution, so is thereby transmuted into derision, casting blame, finding fault. That way, the defeated cloak themselves in the virtue of the truly superior, and the successful are demonized as dishonest, disingenuous, disgusting, and generally despicable. If the ploy gets enough coverage, the losers pass as winners among their fans. 

As in bullfighting, the art of the faultfinder is in stunning and then exhausting the designated victim, leading to delivery of the fatal thrust. The spiteful predator turns his prey’s virtues into faults, then dismembers the wretched carcass while still alive. Such is the vindictive politics of our day. Whatever you do, don’t take defeat lying down. Rise up and be a man; show your stuff. Rant and rave—and make sure to notify the press. Better yet, be the press. That way you can make sure every slur gets the coverage it deserves. Even if it doesn’t deserve any coverage all, it enters the public mind as if it were news, not bluster.

Illusion, it all comes down to illusion. To deceiving a public that loves sports and spectacle more than truth. It doesn’t matter what you claim, just come out swinging. The audience will side with you and fill in the blanks. They’ve been taught, after all, that life is a multiple-choice test. Feed ‘em the answer; they’ll love it.

No one likes to be publically humiliated. To be humbled—brought down in the eyes of the people. Particularly not those who thrive in the limelight. If exposed as mere mortals, their reflex is to divert attention by shedding light on someone else’s faults, which brings to mind their particular enemy. If he doesn’t have conspicuous faults, it doesn’t matter—just make them up. Deride his accomplishments, smear his virtues, mock his integrity—again and again. You’ll be surprised how easy it is to get traction as a cynic because the public is nothing if not gullible and loves a good fight.

One defense against slings and arrows is to deflect them toward an innocent party. Turning the tables is easy, just spin your vices into virtues (such as speaking your mind), and your opponent’s virtues into vices (such as his not seeking your advice or sharing your values). Spiteful feelings are always an undercurrent when one side wins over another. But when those feelings vent as outrage directed at the other team, igniting violent speech and acts (as after a soccer game when the home team loses), then attitudes are shown to have consequences, like road rage escalating to assault and battery.

The damning of the president by Fox News and others is no game—it is a calculated strategy to dull the brilliance of his aura in order to undercut the stature and power of the man. At best such attacks are distractions; at worst they disrupt judgment, attention, and consciousness itself. These are not personal slights. They are corporate onslaughts, campaigns by organized groups to ruin a man whose intelligence and influence they are afraid of. This is not the work of envy, hurt pride, or rabblerousing on the fringe—this is out-and-out war.

How did we get to this point? And once here, why do we tolerate such behavior? Put simply, there are two classes of people, leaders and followers. The division between them is told not by ability but by wealth. Those without cash, work; those with cash hire the best lawyers, PR fronts, muscle, and outside agitators to see that their wills are imposed on their lesser brothers and sisters. This is a laughable interpretation of “survival of the fittest,” but it has become the bumper-sticker wisdom of our age and our nation. You needn’t bother getting elected, you can buy your way to power. Not only can you, but you must; only millionaires need apply for membership in the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives. They are ushered into office by the very corporations whose interests they serve. This is far too important a process to be left for the people to screw up by electing the wrong person.

What a sad little story: the collapse of one of the greatest ideas ever advanced by the human mind—with its checks and balances, one vote and equal opportunity for each unique person, and peaceful transfer of power from one generation to the next. A vision rent in two by assuming there are two classes of people, the haves and have-nots, one superior to the other, the nobler (wealthier) class having an obligation to govern on behalf of their dependents. Viewed from the top, that division into classes is a convenient fiction; from the bottom, a life sentence to hard labor.

But consciousness does not come in two classes. There is only one class of consciousness, and it is responsible for promoting the wellbeing and happiness of its owner. It is the social system that has grown up around consciousness that is corrupt in favoring a small but aggressive elite over the general population. Privilege is concentrated at the top, duty at the bottom—the difference told by a cultural mindset calculated to keep power and wealth on the high side of the boundary between the two classes. That is the structure which looms so large in the cynical attacks on the president and the policies he favors, including a fair and decent public healthcare option covering all Americans. Wealthy individuals and corporations fear losing their influence, so their agents scream bloody murder to discredit the commoner whom the people elected to restore balance and judgment throughout the nation and the world.

The voice of consciousness advises treating others as you would have them treat you: with respect and compassion. The voice of status takes a different approach: the elite know best what is good for you; let us rule. The issue rides on whether all people are assumed to be equal or not. Which is it to be, power to the people or power to the elite? That question is at the heart of the fracas. Through experience we know that mutual respect is a better strategy than lording it over others to get your way, then berating them if they don’t bow to your will. Democracy allows for human differences under the umbrella of equal rights and respect. Taking dominion over others is a sure sign of dissent, which invariably leads to schisms, hard feelings, and violence. That is the Fox News route; the Obama route is to regard those who differ from yourself with respect, then see what you can work out together.

OBEY  

 

 

(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