(Copyright © 2009)

The “It” in the title refers to my understanding of my personal consciousness as made up of various processes which I am able to identify through self-reflective experience. In the order they come to mind (not the order in which they kick in), they include:

1. Arousal informs me I am more awake than asleep, definitely not in a stupor or coma.

2. Alertness seems to be an attitude preparing me for paying attention. I sense something’s up—or might be up.

3. Attention is a kind of outreach I direct or extend via my senses—looking, listening, sniffing, tasting, touching, or heeding what my body has to tell me. Attending to comes before consciousness of. That is, expectancy precedes its fulfillment in perception.

4. Expectancy is a kind of pre-viewing or pre-engagement made possible by my point of view at the time as informed by my values, interests, concerns, and feelings. Expectancy is situational in that it arises from what has gone before, in either the immediate or remote past. Memory is clearly involved in projecting the familiar onto the current scene of the now. Expectancy is largely abstract (less detailed than actual perception) and conceptual, that is, derived from a set of earlier perceptions, but lacking the concrete particulars of any one of them.

5. Fulfillment of expectancy (or not, as the case may be) is a flash of recognition by which the object of my attention is identified as that which I was looking for, so that consciousness acquires intentionality in being consciousness of . . . one thing or another. Specific details in the now give substance to the abstract envelope of expectancy as if the two aspects of consciousness—abstract expectation and concrete perception —came together in a fulfilling, mutual engagement.

6. That engagement has a quality of salience representing the degree to which my motivated expectancy (hopes, fears, desires) is being met in the current episode of awareness—at an appropriate level of discernment. Enabling me to make a judgment confirming or disconfirming this is what I was looking for, or had in mind in the first place.

7. The comings together of concepts and percepts lead to a sense of understanding, of my self standing under (supporting) this new instance of consciousness, taking it in, reaffirming my grasp of (or relationship to) the world, conveying a sense of my being of that world, providing a strong sense of affirmation that my grasp is appropriate to my situation.

8. If my expectations are fulfilled in a new or surprising way, then surprise and novelty play roles in consciousness, stretching my understanding in order to accommodate or incorporate an instance I did not anticipate, challenging or perhaps enlarging my understanding. This gives me the option of fulfilling my expectations by habitual application of a tried-and-true response to account for, discredit, or dismiss this unanticipated episode of experience. Or, on the other hand, of opening myself up to new experience in such a way that expands my grasp of the current situation. (Note: This is what I was laboring over in my last post, Reflection 151: Error Signals, that effort prompting me to simplify the matter and place it in context in today’s reflection.)

9. All of which can culminate in new learning, or reaffirmation of my prior understanding. At this stage, clearly, memory is involved. Earlier synaptic connections are affirmed, or perhaps an effort to establish new ones as a basis for improving the effectiveness of my actions in the world is made possible.

10. All leading up to reaffirming or improving my being in the world through planning leading to effective action by equipping me to make myself happen more aptly in light of my circumstances, which is the point of being conscious in the first place.

In the order I present them here, that’s: arousal, alertness, attention, expectancy, fulfillment, salience, understanding, novelty, learning, and action. In addition, I would stress the roles of perception, conception, and memory as major players in consciousness, for a baker’s dozen of topics to whirl in the mind much as jugglers whirl Indian clubs in the air. Any scientist of the mind could probably double or triple that number, but that’s as many as seem particularly relevant to me today in keeping this reflection as straightforward as I can make it.

Consciousness as a Machine, by Rube Goldberg



(Copyright © 2009)

Looking at the world, as each of us does, through her own eyes, we see that world in reference to the uniqueness of our personal makeup and experience. My senses embody my particular history of life events, as your senses embody yours. These personal histories include our formative development, birth order, sex, class, education, temperament, political leanings, and the host of other influences that make us who we are.  Other people inhabit other worlds from ourselves, privileged by nature to exercise their unique sensibilities, often presenting themselves in ways that seem strange from our point of view. Sometimes, without knowing, we feel alienated from such other worlds because they strike us as being so foreign to our own.

When others conduct themselves in ways we would not conduct ourselves, we register the disparity as a strong sense of discomfort. That sense serves as a kind of error signal warning us we are out of our native element and approaching the limit of personal tolerance. Appropriate action being the desired outcome of any act of consciousness, we consider how we might improve the situation. Do we respond to what we take to be an insult with humor? Do we laugh it off, jeer, display hostility and aggression, seek sanctuary, or give way and, thinking we might learn something, pay attention while the others do their thing?

In truth, we have a great many options, but often resort to habitual modes of behavior for dealing with situations we take to be threatening. That way, we don’t waste any time thinking things through, but respond spontaneously as if the signals we take as insults were intentionally meant to inflict harm.

“You lie!” we shout, or “That’s stupid!” “Death panels!” “Killing Granny!” “Infidel.” If armed, we might shoot from the hip. The point is to take control of the situation by intimidating those we bother ourselves about. “Shock and awe!” was Rumsfeld’s battle cry in Iraq, as if mighty Ozymandias had shouted from the grave. “Let ‘em come!” said his boss, the same man who recited the phrase “axis of evil” from his Tele-Prompter.

Enmity is a cheap substitute for extending consciousness to embrace others who make themselves happen differently than we do. Particularly when affront is taken at, say, differences of dress, accent, sex, or religion. Distinctions interpreted as threats cause havoc, not righteousness. They can lead to attitudes of superiority over lesser beings, to put-downs, intolerance, bullying, armed conflicts, holocausts, colonial domination, and political strife.

Often envy, one of the seven transgressions formerly punishable by death, is at the root of such hostile behaviors. If they have what I want, I am justified in despising them, I tell myself as I blame others for frustrating my ambitions. Native Americans were in the way of European settlers, so were dispensable. The same for Aboriginal peoples in Australia, Palestinians in the so-called Holy Land, Obama in the White House through the eyes of those who choose to feel threatened by his right to hold office. It’s a figure-ground kind of thing.

We are prone to laying our assumptions and preferences—our personal values—on others as if they were obligated to act in our self-interest and not their own. This leads to domination, a sort of colonialism of the mind by which we impose our values on others as self-evident truths for the greater good (as seen from our personal perspective). This great game of as if causes more trouble in the world than almost any other aspect of consciousness. Think of the violence committed against children, wives, members of the true church, and other inferiors in the name of paternalism, the grand pretention that Father (or Husband) Knows Best. A great many advertising claims fall into this category, which confounds consumer interests with those of dealers and manufacturers. Such corporate or commercial takeovers of consumer consciousness are rampant in our way of economic thinking.

Consciousness is our greatest asset in dealing with challenges presented by the worlds we inhabit; that is, as long as it is managed by its rightful owner. Surrendering consciousness to those who covet it for their advantage amounts to resource extraction like mountain-top coal mining, clear-cutting extensive forest ecosystems, or mining the wealth (formerly known as fish and sea mammals) of the world’s oceans. Our current economy is based on invading, subverting, and capitalizing on the consciousness of a gullible public. Minds are extracted every day for profit: that’s what capitalism amounts to: the coercive transfer of assets from those who have less in order that others can have all the more.

Being swayed to misinterpret the disparity between our expectations and what actually happens leads to the erosion of personal consciousness for the sake of getting along with groups of others characteristically more aggressive than ourselves. Self-realization (what I call “making ourselves happen”) by others’ rules is a brute distortion of the most fundamental principles of evolution and survival, which concern the well-being of individual persons, not institutions or corporate bodies. As Jeff Madrick reports in The Nation (August 31/September 7, 2009) regarding a study of Harvard College grads from the early 70s, 80s, and 90s of the last century:

Many more college grads have entered finance since the early 1970s than in previous years. That’s no surprise. But the premium they earned over their peers in other fields was enormous. Katz and Goldin found that the grads in finance made, on average, almost 200 percent more (“Money for Nothing,” page 6).

Of course the reckoning came later—with the financial collapse in the fall of 2008—but the young financiers had made a killing in the meantime, and their corporate bosses are still making a killing many times over. In our society, we consider them the smart ones. The ones we admire and would emulate if we could. They are emissaries of capitalism who mine the conscious minds of the rest of us as so many natural resources to be exploited for personal gain.

The disparity in wealth in the world represents a disparity in consciousness between those content with sufficiency and those who lust for more. The smart money capitalizes on that disparity, as mortgage grantors capitalized on the vulnerability of mortgagees struggling to pay their bills, widening the gap on their own behalf rather than equalizing distribution of Earth’s limited resources—always the anonymous standard backing any currency you can name.

The root of the problem lies in the gap between our conscious expectations and the hands we are dealt by the movers and shakers of our society who deliberately squeeze us to gain as big a survival edge for themselves as they can. When Joe Wilson shouted “You lie!” as President Obama was pushing his healthcare plan, it was the disparity between his party’s power and the president’s that made him do it. He never considered that his party’s fate had anything to do with chronic overreaching by Bush-Rove-Cheney, et al. who perversely plumped their slim hold on power into a mandate. The gap is in the eye of the beholder, who funds it with his personal brand of meaning—as long as it is to his personal advantage.

Such are the frailties of consciousness. The simple remedy is to wonder, when confronted by a gap between expectation and fulfillment, “Am I being unrealistic and it isn’t their fault at all?” Blame casting is our national sport, driven by our desires more than any realistic assessment of our performance. But my guess is that it is more likely that nine times out of ten, we have surrendered responsibility for our own behavior in order to find fault with some fall guy in order to cut him down to our size.

Envy used to be deemed a capital offense; maybe we should revisit that discussion. Or at least treat the defamed and exploited as innocent until proven guilty. As I said, it’s a figure-ground thing.

Kanizsa Triangle






Reflection 150: The Big IF

October 9, 2009

(Copyright © 2009)

Our outlooks on the world are governed by networks of electrochemical connections in our brains, in turn governed by the unique biochemical circumstances in which those networks were formed during earliest infancy and childhood, as well as by changes in neural connectivity resulting from subsequent life experience.

Our outlooks on the world determine our expectations. Our expectations determine how we extend ourselves into the world through personal behavior, which in turn determines how we receive world gestures into ourselves as episodes of meaningful experience.

How we take the world into ourselves influences our next round of behavior, which sets us up for the next cycle of feedback to be interpreted in light of our outlook.

Round and round we go on the continuous ride of expectancy and fulfillment in a looping engagement with a world we cannot know in itself but interpret nonetheless from our unique point of view within whatever situation we construe as our current reality.

Our ongoing loop of engagement with the world is none other than our personal life. Which is unlike any other life because our innermost electrochemical connectivity and our experience are unique to ourselves. So, too, are the values by which we guide our adaptation to what we take to be the outside world as an expression of our will to survive. Our minds are our unique, personal minds, our acts are our acts, our interpretations are our interpretations, our adaptation is our adaptation, our survival is our survival, our life is our life.

But that’s only the beginning. Imagine all the relationships each unique person has with those around her—including family, friends, society, pets, wildlife, vegetation, landscapes, habitats, institutions, governments, cultures—all those loops reaching out from each person into his surrounding milieu, generating occasions for feedback, interpretation, and subsequent responses through actions, gestures, utterances, and so on.

Considering the complexity of our ongoing interactions, engagements, interrelationships—all different, all changing—we can appreciate the challenge of even the simplest human life we can imagine—that, say, of the infant, or the hermit in his mountain retreat. Add the necessity of keeping track of it all though learning and memory (and blessed forgetfulness of trivial details) so that our experience is more-or-less cumulative and orderly, it is a wonder each of us isn’t overwhelmed by the relentless flux of events in our personal worlds of  consciousness.

If in fact we are created equal, it is as equal experiments in the universe. Where many will adapt to the occasions of their lives and muddle through, others will succumb. Day after day, the issue is personal survival. If our respective sets of unique characteristics are a match for the conditions in which we strive, and our minds and bodies are up to the challenge, we will live another day. That is the big IF in whose shadow we awaken each day, and surrender to mock oblivion later on.

It is not that I am pitting my values and uniqueness against yours for the privilege of making it through till tomorrow. Living in the shadow of the big IF is the lot we share in common with humanity and all life. But it is not surprising that within that one lot, differences are inevitable. Those differences are part of the plan in setting us up for the ultimate test of survival. Those who are most adapted to their life circumstances will go on, while others stumble, and eventually collapse. That’s what it means to exist as one of Earth’s children.

But when one group or class takes advantage of another, using it to boost its own comfort and chances of survival—then campfires and bombardments will light the night sky in answer to such skullduggery. 

Human history is written in blood spilled by one group rising against another in response to unjust oppression for the sake of stealing a survival advantage. Every chapter tells of farmers standing against ranked troops, archers or rock throwers against those with guns who have invaded their land, suicide bombers killing as many innocents as possible, slaves against masters, workers against bosses, subjects against armies of kings and emperors, those out of power against those in power, and on and on. Power, ultimately, bestows a survival advantage upon those who possess it, depriving the powerless to an equal degree.

Consciousness matters because it is the gauge of our equality under the circumstances that prevail in our current social situation. We can tell our relative station in life by how others treat us. If we feel put upon, neglected, abused, under-represented, or generally at a disadvantage compared to others in our social realm, we will act according to our degree of disaffection. Nowhere is it written that one class should stride upon the bodies of its underlings. Nor is it decreed that the socially underprivileged must bow to their self-styled betters as exemplars of a more noble form of humanity.

Uniqueness is uniqueness; humanity is humanity. Each of us has an inherent right to equal treatment and respect. It is not up to us to impress others into serving our personal values and goals. If all do not stand for one, and one does not stand for all, we risk  elevating ourselves as higher beings more fit than the rest. Yet we are born to die—as everyone is—mortals first-to-last. If our uniqueness is to receive its due, it is as a proclamation that our respective gifts have equal worth as agents of survival in the universal experiment that is humanity. We do not know where the next great advance will arise—in what climate, habitat, nation, genome, or stream of consciousness.

We cannot see beyond the shadow of the big IF that falls equally upon us. Therefore it is not for us to weigh the value of others’ gifts. We can only manage our consciousness to make our unique selves happen as best we can under the circumstances that befall us—and insist on everyone’s right to do the same.

In this light, personal consciousness is not primarily a means for advancing ourselves beyond others, but rather a means of striving for sufficiency while recognizing we are in this life together and deserve equal chance to make ourselves happen—not as higher and lower beings, but as uniquely gifted members of our common humanity. Each of us is but one biochemical wonder among many with diverse outlooks and expectations, all with equal hopes of fulfillment in adapting to the world shadow that falls across us for the duration of our lives.

Martin Luther King Jr.