(Copyright © 2009)

Gerald M. Edelman gives us fresh ways of looking at, talking about, understanding, and appreciating both consciousness and its brain. The importance of these contributions cannot be overestimated. Nor can the difficulty of gaining access to them through his writings. It helps if you have advanced degrees in molecular, cellular, and neural biology. It’s not that he doesn’t write well, it’s more that his radical concepts are couched in so unfamiliar a vocabulary as to require a great many encounters in different contexts before their meanings begin to accrete in solid understanding. He includes glossaries in several of his books, but the entries are so bare-boned that they often raise more questions than they answer.

I tried the total-immersion approach, reading seven books in succession (in order of copyright date, 1978 to 2004), hoping that enlightenment would eventually descend from the skies. Which, in the last three works, by dribs and drabs, it began to. It showed up first in unconscious intuitions I became aware of after waking from a sound sleep. I am not sure how they got into me, but there they’d be at three in the morning as I roused from a bout of REM dreaming. I’d understand things I hadn’t grasped before going to bed. Understand is not the right word. More I’d have a feel for an aspect of consciousness I’d never fully appreciated before. By the end of the eighth book, I could entertain elaborate thoughts and images pertaining to consciousness—again, early in the morning—that previously would have been beyond me, or over my head. I credit Edelman as the source of these new ways of apprehending my own mind, and myself for having the will to stay with his challenging program of thinking out loud in a series of books until he got it right in the seventh one.

I am now in the awkward position of learning from my self-imposed program of study, while not being able to recommend a similar course to anyone else because so much depends on the will, stamina, and hunger of the student. It takes a committed autodidact (self-directed learner) to follow Edelman as closely as he deserves. He is clearly an autodidact himself, and to paraphrase the familiar saying, it takes one to fully appreciate another. As perpetual learners, autodidacts typically lose interest in a program of study once they have absorbed or automatized it. They love grappling with novel aspects of consciousness, not mastery of the old and familiar. Self-respecting autodidacts never rest on their laurels. They are driven to reinvent themselves time and again throughout the course of their lives. Consider the career of William James at Harvard, first as physiologist, then psychologist, and finally as philosopher.

Which is similar to the history of Gerald M. Edelman, distinguished recipient of the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 1972 for his work on the immune system. A molecular and cellular structuralist, he has contributed to the understanding of antibodies, proteins, plant mitogens, cell surfaces, and now the biology of human consciousness. His contributions in this last field center on his theory of neuronal group selection, which sheds light on the origins and workings of both the human nervous system and the mind it gives rise to in a manner consistent with Darwinian principles.

To put these remarks in perspective, I will digress somewhat in giving a brief history of my own self-directed learning. During high school, I read both Stendhal’s The Red and the Black and The Charterhouse of Parma on my own for reasons I can no longer remember. Both books spoke to my age and stage of development at the time. In college I put Crime and Punishment down as the sun was rising over the view of Harlem out the window, knowing I had been through a transformative experience. Ten years later, I stumbled on Thoreau’s Walden, which I don’t remember anyone recommending to me, and I went on to read almost every word he wrote, including, eventually, the two-volume Dover Journals. I still consider myself a late-blooming nineteenth-century man. Visual poet E.E. Cummings brought me into the twentieth century.  Later, in grad school, I spent two semesters with Sigmund Koch in a seminar reading one book, Personal Knowledge by Michael Polanyi. That was the most gripping, challenging, and rewarding course I ever had in school. I took it as an elective, so the motivation was my own. Polanyi’s theme is learning to tell the difference between knowledge and opinion so that you know how you know what you think you know.

Now it’s Gerald M. Edelman who particularly speaks to my age and stage of development in spite of the near ineffability of much he is writing about. He came to his topic (consciousness) from intense study of the immune system, bringing his terminology with him, and when there are no suitable terms, inventing his own. Which makes it hard going for those heading from other directions. But all along the way I have sensed he was theorizing about my personal consciousness as well as his own, so I stuck with him.

Now I am reading an eighth Edelman book, Second Nature: Brain Science and Human Knowledge (Yale University Press, 2006), which offers a summary of his theory of consciousness as a springboard to understanding human knowledge. The first four chapters offer an overview of his thinking on conscious-ness, leaving out details of the arduous, 28-year journey by which he derived it one step at a time. Here is how Edelman describes consciousness itself, the process he subsequently goes on to account for in theoretical terms:

In the awake conscious state, you experience a unitary scene composed variably of sensory responses—sight, sound, smell, and so on—as well as images, memories, feeling tones and emotions, a sense of willing or agency, a feeling of situatedness, and other aspects of awareness. Being conscious is a unitary experience in the sense that you cannot at any time become totally aware of just one thing to the complete exclusion of others. But you can direct your attention to various aspects of a less inclusive but still unitary scene. Within a short time, that scene will vary in one degree or another and, though still integrated, will become differentiated, yielding a new scene. The extraordinary fact is that the number of such privately experienced scenes is apparently limitless. The transitions seem to be conscious, and in their complete detail they are private, first-person subjective experiences (Second Nature, pages 13-14).

In the next sentence things get more complicated when he introduces the concept of intentionality: “Conscious states are often, but not always, about things or events, a property called intentionality” (page 14, my italics). And then goes on to summarize: “As human beings, we know what it is like to be conscious. Moreover, we are conscious of being conscious and can report on our experience” (page 14).

Which I think might lead some to oversimplify the nature of consciousness in that we frequently assume it is of some sort of world apart from ourselves, not recognizing it is the subjective doing of our own brains that underwrite the appearance in consciousness of any such world. To see something “with our own eyes” is no guarantee it actually happens as consciousness depicts it. Our minds are full of phantoms, vampires, ogres, aliens from other worlds, elves, Santas, and other characters we project onto the world as if they were not aspects of subjective consciousness and the bodies and brains which make it possible. It is a fundamental error to mistake phenomena in consciousness for the world as it is—for reality. The sounds of music and colors of art are in us, not the world, which in turn consists of sources, sinks, and patterns of energy that our brains and minds transform into the “objects and events” we are conscious of. It requires another indirect or imaginative transformation to locate them in an outer world.

It is good to remember that language and intentionality refer to concepts and appearances in consciousness, and these map onto the world very much as processes in the brain map onto consciousness. We live at least doubly removed from the so-called real world, so intentionality, in being “about things or events,” makes no claim that they actually exist in any other context than awareness itself. We know this from watching “movies” made from a succession of still images, and the many optical illusions and magic tricks that similarly “fool the eye.”

Which is my way of warning readers to beware of succinct distillations such as even Gerald Edelman might give of his work. When the unfamiliar terms crop up, as inevitably they must in writings about consciousness, we are asked to give the author the benefit of the doubt—particularly when the words flow easily and seem to make sense. Key terms in Edelman’s theory of neuronal group selection include reentry, degeneracy, perceptual categorization, global mappings, dynamic core, phenomenal transform, qualia, among others.

Reentry [to take one example] is the ongoing recur-sive interchange of parallel signals among brain areas, which serves to coordinate the activities of different brain areas in space and time. Unlike feed-back, reentry is not a sequential transmission of an error signal in a simple loop. Instead, it simulta-neously involves many parallel reciprocal paths and has no prescribed error function attached to it. (Wider than the Sky, 2004, pages 39-40).

As Edelman and Giulio Tononi detail “reentry” in an earlier work (A Universe of Consciousness, Basic Books, 2000):

Reentry plays the central role in our consciousness model, for it is reentry that assures the integration that is essential to the creation of a scene in primary consciousness. Integration can best be illustrated by considering exactly how functionally segregated maps in the cerebral cortex may operate coherently together even though there is no superordinate map or logically determined program. . . . The organi-zation of the cerebral cortex is such that even within a single modality, for example, vision, there is a multitude of specialized or functionally segregated maps devoted to different submodalities—color, movement, and form. Despite this diversity, we are aware of a coherent perceptual scene. When we see such a scene, we are not aware of colors, move-ments, and forms separately and independently, but bind the color with the shape and the movement into recognizable objects. Our ability to act coher-ently in the presence of diverse, often conflicting, sensory stimuli requires a process of neural inter-action across many levels of organization without any superordinate map to guide the process. This is the so-called binding problem: How can a set of diverse and functionally segregated maps cohere without a higher-order controller? . . . Binding can occur as a result of reentry across brain maps that establishes short-term temporal correlations and synchrony among the activities of widely spaced neuronal groups in different maps. As a result, neurons in these groups fire at the same time. Thus, reentry correlates a large number of dynamic circuits in space and time. . . . This binding principle, made possible by reentry, is repeated across many levels of brain organization and plays a central role in mechanisms leading to consciousness (pages 106-107).

The tradeoffs between explicit details and broad summations in the different works of Gerald M. Edelman makes it difficult to recommend one particular work as representing his thought in its most cogent form. To those highly motivated to under-stand consciousness, I can at best recommend a selection of three of Edelman’s books:

Edelman, Gerald M. and Giulio Tononi, A Universe of Consciousness: How Matter Becomes Imagina-tion (Basic Books, 2000). This work assembles in readable form the details on which the theory of neuronal group selection rests.

Edelman, Gerald M., Wider Than the Sky: The Phenomenal Gift of Consciousness (Yale University Press, 2004). This summary presents the theory in its clearest form.

Edelman, Gerald M., Second Nature: Brain Science and Human Knowledge (Yale University Press, 2006). The theory is here applied to gain fresh insight into the issue of human knowledge.

I strongly urge any readers with the will to do so to read them in the order given, from detailed account to more general overview. Five other books I have read in addition to those listed above:

Edelman, Gerald M. and Vernon B. Mountcastle, The Mindful Brain: Cortical Organization and the Group-Selective Theory of Higher Brain Function (The MIT Press, 1978; reprinted 1982).

Edelman, Gerald M., Topobiology: An Introduction to Molecular Embryology (HarperCollins Publishers, Basic Books, 1988).

Edelman, Gerald M., The Remembered Present: A Biological theory of Consciousness (Basic Books, 1989).

Edelman, Gerald M., Bright Air, Brilliant fire: On the Matter of Mind (Basic Books, 1992).

Edelman, Gerald M., and Jean-Pierre Changeux, editors, The Brain (Transaction Publishers, 2001).

I have yet to read:

Edelman, Gerald M., Neural Darwinism: The Theory of Neuronal Group Selection (Basic Books, 1987).

Medial View of Brain-96

 

 

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Reflection 167: Two Women

December 24, 2009

(Copyright © 2009)

I give you two women from two different cultures. One raised to expect a great deal of praise and attention for being pretty, the other to expect to make her way by doing her share of the work. Each making herself happen within her respective culture according to survival values shaped in childhood to reflect the needs and yearnings of her family, particularly of her mother. Two women, two childhoods, two cultures, two ways of being in the world—two different lives, one in Afghanistan, one in California, a nation unto itself.

Actually, I don’t give you two women at all but rather two photographs of women, one I’ve had on my wall since (I think) the fall of 2001, scanned from the pages of (I believe) The Christian Science Monitor; the other scanned from a 1959 photo reproduced on page 13 of the current issue of AARP The Magazine, November/December 2009. I regret I don’t know the names of either photographer because I’d like to give credit to those who created these stunning portraits.

I present these photos side-by-side as symbols of what it might mean to be raised in two different cultures opening onto two different styles of consciousness expressed in two contrasting ways of being women in the world. Compare and contrast; feast your eyes:

Woman 1

Woman 2

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Imagine local men (and women for that matter) meeting these women. Put yourself in their place. Feel what they might feel. Imagine the parents and siblings with whom these women grew up. Imagine their playmates, special friends, neighbors, mentors, teachers, spiritual advisers. Imagine these women trading places, the one switching from herding goats in Afghanistan to herding goats on the outskirts of Los Angeles; the other drying off, taking a stroll through the outskirts of Kandahar in her bathing suit. Run through the routine once again—same women, same dress, different cultural settings. What sorts of response do they get? How are they regarded? How are they judged? How are they treated?

I smile when I look from one photo to the other; I can imagine others frowning, getting upset, wanting to take some kind of action. Someone mutters, “Such things shouldn’t be allowed.” “Obscene, I’d say.”  This is not just a matter of aesthetic dissonance. It’s a question of what’s considered proper for how a young woman conducts herself in public. What is attractive to one might be an outrage to another. (In the interest of full disclosure,) I find both women exceptionally attractive to an equal degree. But in doing so, I take their respective cultures into account. These images depict alternative ways of being women in the world, and the range of such possibilities appeals to me. But the world is divided into regions where one possibility might be appropriate and the other less so.

The local culture we grow up in provides a range of options for expressing our biological values. Moving from one culture to another, we remain the same men or women, but might be expected to conduct ourselves according to the prevailing norms of the places we visit. We’re the same people, but are looked at differently, so come across differently. How we present ourselves as sexual beings is a sensitive issue in every culture. Largely because the relation between the sexes is the fundamental reason we have cultures in the first place. This is such common knowledge, I am almost embarrassed to bring it up. Which I do precisely to make the point that this is the sort of thing that led to nineteen men from a foreign culture to board four airplanes on September 11, 2001 with deliberate intentions of inflicting as much harm as they could on a people with a history of (inadvertently) offending the manhood and religious beliefs of people like themselves.

This was an incident in which males from one culture took a stand against a different culture for, as they viewed it, flaunting its ways and beliefs in an insensitive, arrogant, and offensive manner. When manhood is threatened, watch out!—a punch in the face is sure to follow. Few in America saw the blow struck on 9-11 from a sociological or cultural (rather than criminal or military) perspective. But the outrage felt in response to how Americans conduct themselves abroad as if to elicit some kind of reaction is, indeed, more an inter-cultural than a military matter. If 3,000 innocents had not died, two landmark buildings been leveled, and the HQ of the U.S. military not been attacked, in such a case we might not have lashed out by bombing Afghanistan and subsequently invading Iraq. But all that havoc did occur; the die was cast.

After eight years of war, we can reconsider whether or not that was the most appropriate response we could have made. Certainly the families of those who died are unlikely ever to change their minds. But the families of soldiers and civilians wounded or killed in the aftermath might pause to consider why their sons and daughters bore the burden of revenging the first wave of deaths. Once begun, where does the carnage end? Which prompts me to recall the following rhyme:

For want of a nail the shoe was lost.
For want of a shoe the horse was lost.
For want of a horse the rider was lost.
For want of a rider the battle was lost.
For want of a battle the kingdom was lost.
And all for the want of a horseshoe nail.

Not that 9-11 is comparable to loss of a horseshoe nail, but once loins are girded and weapons primed, how do we ungird and unprime them? Once offense is taken, can it ever be forgiven? More likely by the seasoned and wise than the ardent and young.

Which is a tremendous burden to place on the two women from two different cultures I introduce at the head of this post. A burden somewhat similar to the one thrust on Helen of Troy, Boadicea, or even Mrs. O’Leary’s fictional cow credited with starting the Great Chicago Fire of 1871. My point is that cultural differences have consequences, sometimes profound ones when accustomed ways of expressing biological values are made an international issue because so passionately adhered to as if they were innately human. The values are certainly human, but the particular ways they find expression in different cultures are regional at best. The fault lies in taking local customs and attitudes to be universal or God-given virtues, with the result that only deviant infidel sinners would dare present themselves differently.

When it comes to the culturally accepted ways through which we give form to individual consciousness, values, and person-hood, extreme absolutism and fundamentalism are no virtues. Acceptance of cultural relativism gives leeway to those whose practices differ from our own. On 9-11, no such allowances were made. As if only one of the women pictured above were right to conduct herself as she does, making the other categorically wrong.

The Catholic Church, with considerable help from its rich out-of-state friends, recently spent millions of dollars to squelch legal acceptance of same-sex marriages in Maine. Right-to-lifers are equally fervent in their intent to outlaw abortions, distribution of condoms, and anything else that smacks of family planning. There it is again, that heavy-handed approach to how human sexuality is expressed. Heavy-handed because not just thumbs but whole palms and many hands are pressed hard on the scales of justice. These are just a few further examples of how our upbringing and life experiences impact the shaping of our biological values. When I see a photo of Rush Limbaugh mouthing off, I see a child three or four years old. I regard many members of Congress with the same X-ray vision. There’s a lot of it around these days, variations on the basic attitudes we acquire in childhood. Hardened and polished, like fake diamonds, they gleam with the brilliance of universal truth.

I think everyone should have photos such as the two I offer in this post on their refrigerator door as an example of how differently we export our internal selves and attitudes to the external world. Each one of us does it for him- or herself because, for genetic, epigenetic (not predetermined), and experiential reasons, we are all personally unique. In the words of Gerald M. Edelman:

From the very beginning of neuroanatomy, there are rich statistical variations in both cell movement and cell death. As a result, no two individuals, not even identical twins, possess the same anatomical patterns (Wider than the Sky, 29).

Given our diversity, it is remarkable we are able to sort almost seven billion people into only eight thousand different cultural groups. To ask or expect that all cultures conform to a standard imposed by any one of them, or by any group or individual within a culture, would be,—and if attempted, is—absurd. Rather than decry our variability, we would do well to celebrate it every day of our lives. Think how dull life would be if we all held to the same beliefs, thought the same thoughts, and conformed to identical standards! What could we talk about that we didn’t already know? I say, vivre la difference, not just between the sexes, but within them as well—as my two examples so beautifully illustrate.

Two Pomegranates 

(Copyright © 2009)

Consciousness often seems to operate by an either/or law that excludes the possibility of taking any middle position. We are either happy or sad, pro or con, well or sick, calm or stressed, bold or meek. Ironically, debate teams can flip a coin to see which side of an argument they are to present. We act out our lives more like Lear judging his daughters than Hamlet muddling through to a bad end. One after another, heads of state insist on making “one thing perfectly clear.” We avoid ambiguity, uncertainty, mixed messages, and confusion as if they were sexually transmitted diseases. Regarding judgments and opinions, we act as if there were no room for maybe—no middle ground.

Which pretty much reflects the stop/go nature of how our brains operate. Either neurons fire or they don’t, there are no halfway measures. Even at the last instant, a neuron told to fire by every one of its input signals can be stopped in its tracks by a single inhibitory signal. Cancel! Hold everything! Just say No!

Which is not necessarily a bad thing because it assures clarity of both vision and action under stressful conditions. The job of consciousness is to suggest appropriate courses of action in novel situations. Personally appropriate, that is, to the actor’s most basic biological and cultural values. We grow impatient with Hamlet because he simply can’t act on the basis of what he knows to be true, failing to revenge his father’s murder, or if he does act, skewering poor Polonius trembling behind the curtain in his mother’s chamber. In the end, all major players lie strewn about the stage, the intimate world of the hesitant one fallen in ruins.

But if hesitation proves costly on occasion, rash action in the name of clarity can come at an even steeper price. Take the U.S. invasion of Iraq as an example. The shock and awe was intended for Saddam and his troops, but stunned the whole world. Were there truly no alternatives? Indeed, there were many, all stifled by the overriding thrust of consciousness that ruled the Bush administration. When the looting began, we saw that shock and awe was no substitute for planning ahead.

Defending the selective nature of attention as the gateway to consciousness, Gerald M. Edelman addresses the evolutionary pressure to select one action as being the most appropriate among a field of alternatives:

An animal that is hungry or being threatened has to select an object or an action from many possible ones. It is obvious that the ability to choose quickly one action pattern to be carried out to the exclusion of others confers considerable selective advantage. Possessing such an ability makes it possible to achieve a goal that would otherwise be interfered with by the attempt to undertake two incompatible actions simultaneously (Bright Air, Brilliant Fire, pages 141-142).

I picture Bush as an exceedingly threatened animal in seizing upon the Rumsfeldian strategy of preemptive attack in waging war on Iraq. Within a limited circle of minds, it seemed a good idea at the time. Except it extinguished all the uncertainties that a prudent commander would need to consider before making such a move, with the result that a shallow notion poorly thought through was put into effect, with egregious results.

Obama’s sending a surge of troops to Afghanistan appears to be another example that speaks to much the same point. Again, the military mind is out of its depth because there are too many imponderables in the social mix (it certainly is no nation) we call Afghanistan. Echoes of Vietnam are evident in Obama’s thinking, clouding his consciousness, spurring him to rash action as if he could picture the full consequences of such a move. This time, he tells himself, we will not retreat; we will win. But consciousness offers no guarantee of success; based entirely on past experience, it has no way of predicting with surety how things will play out. If I were the Taliban, I would lie low for a year or two, then, when American forces withdraw as advertised in 2011, step into the void supposedly defended by Afghan troops lacking the American commitment to, and fervor for, battle.

Consciousness is far more fragile than we care to admit, often tricking us into making a good show for form’s sake when, in fact, we don’t fully grasp the problem or threat we are faced with. As a result, we decide on an irreversible course of action with no option other than defeat when victory doesn’t rush from the wings on cue.

On the world stage, the loss of a man here or there (because his past experience does not prepare him to deal with prevailing events) is no tragedy. But when one individual’s consciousness is made responsible for the actions of an entire nation, leading to commitment of all its resources to a particular end, even the rigor of six million years of hominid evolution doesn’t equip us for the task of even imagining what an appropriate course of action might look like, much less recognizing it if we ever came across it. Consciousness is always experimental on the scale of one person leading a particular life. If we survive our personal errors of judgment, we have opportunity to learn where we went wrong. But on a national scale, no one mind can be made fully responsible for decisions affecting the whole. Which is why we have cabinets and advisors and staff to supplement the life experience of the so-called Commander In Chief. Who—like Lear misjudging his daughters, and Hamlet wanting absolute certainty—can aspire no higher than to a mortal level of consciousness.

Where the buck stops, that is where one individual’s consciousness makes a real difference on the national scene. That is precisely where Obama is located in the issue of America’s relation to Afghanistan and Pakistan. And India, Iraq, Iran, Israel, Russia, China, and North Korea. His is a daunting assignment, even with the most artful spies and prescient advisors on Earth. Whatever choice he makes, he is damned one way or another precisely because he cannot admit to his human limitations or the frailty of his personal consciousness.

Our form of government calls for leaders with the stature of gods—when there are no gods available to take the position. Fallible as we are, there’s nobody here but us chickens. Men and women with the gift of consciousness and speech—who are bound to make mistakes in novel situations they are ill prepared to deal with. Particularly in situations they have no chance to rehearse as stage actors have because they take place in real time, every performance playing to an opening night crowd.

In the case of sending more troops to Afghanistan, we the senders are united by the commonalities of American experience in this decade; the receivers by their shared experience in Afghanistan and Pakistan. There is bound to be a meeting of bodies carrying weapons, but not of minds. I cannot fathom any mind but my own, as no American can an Afghan or Taliban or al Qaeda mind, and vice versa. In global affairs, it is the minds inhabiting individual bodies leading particular lives in specific places that set the courses of action which determine world events. There is no possible way we can know what will happen as the result of this surge in military commitment. We can know what we want to happen, but that has almost no bearing on what will actually take place.

What is lacking in this campaign is a sense of humility, along with a realization that concepts in the mind are not events on the ground. The best thing we could possibly do under the circumstances is for all concerned to put down their arms and engage one another as fellow humans, children of the one Earth. Yes, we should engage, but as equals, not as one dedicated to dominating (or killing) the other. Consciousness being as fallible as it is in every known instance, it is foolish to put a gun in any hand that might take the life of a total stranger for reasons that are not fully known or considered. Imagine killing someone and then wondering who he was? Was, but no longer is.

Is there no middle ground between victory and defeat? There certainly is. Between me killing you and you killing me, there is the usual middle way of muddling through by playing backgammon together and trading stories about our mishaps and adventures. Of being human together—you being fully you, me being fully me. Acknowledging our similarities, sharing our differences, balancing the two, not letting ideology come between us to distort our relationship.

No, we have not tried that approach. We are better at building walls between people than bridges. At shooting from the hip before we’re sure of the target. America is now a street gang writ large on the world scene, defending its turf at all cost—unto bankrupting the nation both financially and morally. Because that is the way we are taught to conduct ourselves in the world—by flexing our might instead of listening to the other side of the story. Maybe later, when we do hear the story, we’ll apologize for acting so rashly, lay a few wreathes and call it square.

After all, they invaded our territory on 9-11, which everyone knows is a violation of sacred ground. No matter we violated theirs first. So we send out our muscle to teach them a lesson. As long as they run their turf by our rules, everything will be OK by us.

That’s the stuff tragedies are made of because we know it’ll never happen. That’s not how people are made. Lear was Lear, Hamlet was Hamlet. Liberty means living your own life your own way, being who you are till the curtain drops. We’re scripting our own drama as we act in the world, driven by the dictates of consciousness, which are invariably self-serving as best we can picture our current situation. It’s not only a tragedy for those who fall during their mission in Afghanistan, it’s a tragedy for all of us because we’re making it happen. It’s our money that’s paying for this expedition—a million dollars a year per head. That’s the going price for pretending we can teach total strangers the lesson we want them to learn.

Shakespeare has already written a play about a black man deceived by the advice of his lieutenant, Iago. Othello fell for it, not realizing Iago had his own agenda driven by his own motives. “O fool! fool! fool!” he said of himself when disabused, realizing he had been tricked into smothering Desdemona, whom he had “lov’d not wisely but too well.” Another animal driven by fear, he acted boldly as he thought he must, but acted wrongly nonetheless.

Contrail

 

 

(Copyright © 2009)

We live two projects at the same time, inner consciousness and outer deeds. We tend to focus on the deeds because others, in their own way, are aware of them—as if their awareness were more significant than our own. But all the while our external projects are rooted in and enabled by  hidden projects in personal consciousness—which no one in the world has access to besides ourselves. Strange business, this living two lives at the same time, one outer, one inner. What is the connection between these polar aspects of existence?

My current project is to go shopping at the grocery store for bananas, gallon of milk, yogurt, celery, broccoli, toilet paper. I’ve had breakfast, done my laundry, made the bed. One final errand before getting down to work on my next post. Put on cap, get shopping bag, out the door. Walking up the drive, I decide to turn left on Kebo street, not right toward the store. A stretch of the legs will do me good. I start up the hill at a good clip and take some deep breaths. Beautiful morning for a change after six weeks of rain. Passing the ugly house, I ask myself why I always have the same reaction; it’s only a house. Yes, but built to achieve a certain effect—to make a statement, not to live in. I avert my eyes and keep striding. Just short of the top, off the road to the left among the trees—a six-point buck. Standing there, looking at me with total attention, taking me in. I see myself through its quiet eyes: a loping biped on some sort of mission. Struck by its poise and lack of fear, I imagine it assessing the situation in which I am playing a role simply by walking by—and me assessing the same engagement from the opposite side. I find myself moved and somehow reassured by the sight of this evidently confident, curious, open, and most beautiful young animal. I make reassuring noises in the guise of words; the deer stands there calmly, intent the whole time. I keep moving downhill past the ugly house and on to the store.

On Holland Avenue I have a second encounter. I watch an elderly man ahead of me let himself down very slowly to sit on a stone wall in the shade of a large maple tree. I can tell he’s heading for the grocery as well, but the trip is harder for him than for me. I’ve known him as a presence for years, always dressed in brown, wearing the same cap, shuffling along—but not his name. He’s deaf, so I greet him with a wave, and he waves back. Then he tells me he’s an ex-cop from western Massachusetts who came to Bar Harbor to escape the crime he worked with every day. He tells me the name of the town he came from, where the crime families are ruthless, with no value for human life. I make more reassuring noises, but he rolls on and on. As I turn toward the store at last he says, “Have a good one.” “You too,” I say.

Sitting at my computer now, I feel good about both encounters, meaning my deeds and awareness were on the same wave-length in both cases. I am who I am; the world is what it is. So far today, there’s been no disparity between the two poles. The buck didn’t lift its tail and leap into the bush, the old cop rested his bones on the way to the store. I got my errands done and made a start on this post. I made myself happen in several unanticipated situations, while other beings made themselves happen their own ways. We all did OK. The buck didn’t get spooked, the old guy made it to the store (I met him pushing his cart as I was coming out, my bag full of stuff), and I freed my mind of nagging chores.

So life unfolds in a kind of looping engagement between the two worlds, gestures sent outward, feedback coming in, leading to further gestures and more feedback. Always striving for balance between deeds and awareness—as told by that elusive sense of coherence and integrity that announces we’re on the right track (or sense of disunity that warns we’re on the wrong track). Somewhere in the brain is a site where outgoing and incoming signals are compared and both awareness and action are adjusted accordingly. In The Mindful Brain (MIT Press, 1982), Gerald M. Edelman says that a theory of the neural processes underlying consciousness “must stress the main dynamic function of the brain in mediating between experience and action” (page 74f., italics added). That is where consciousness lives, there in the mediating space between awareness and deeds, which is precisely where incoming and outgoing signals must come together for the sake of comparison. Coherence (or disjunction) between deeds and awareness is achieved at that site in the company of signals relaying feelings about the comparison and motivation for subsequent action.

As a first stab at a definition, a project, then, is the living history of mental mediation between deeds and awareness in a given sequence of efforts to coordinate them in achieving coherence and integrity over a span of related events. In the case of my walk to the grocery store, I engaged in several novel situations, but they fit (because I made them fit) with the overall scheme and did not lead me astray. Indeed, they enriched the particular project of buying groceries. By tying them together and underscoring their relatedness, I achieved a degree of harmony between potentially divergent aspects of consciousness. I made myself happen in a manner intended to achieve coherence rather than chaos. Thereby revealing the kind of person I am.

On another day I might have done it differently, depending on my mental state at the time. Today, preparing to write about projects in consciousness, I choose to seek out the essence of relatedness between overt behavior and sensory awareness. I can imagine a man who, taking the same walk, forgot the grocery store and shot the deer—even in town and out of season. But I am not that sort of man. I am more the sort who likes to get errands behind him in order to free his mind to write a post about a particular aspect of consciousness. In that, I am probably a rare sort of man because I can’t imagine many others setting themselves up to write about projects in consciousness. So here I am, engaged in a writing project (a series of overt acts) dealing with projects themselves as organized units of mental activity. That feels right because that’s pretty much who I seem to be these days. To wit, the perpetrator of this blog.

In earlier days I have been involved in a great many other projects, all sustained and coordinated efforts to achieve harmony between my actions in the world and my consciousness backstage. In each, I made myself happen in ways other than I do now. Somewhat similar on the surface, perhaps, but markedly different. Writing (and illustrating) a book, for instance, is a project dependent on sustaining attention from one day to the next, start to finish. My dissertation in 1982, Metaphor to Mythology: Experience as a Resonant Synthesis of Meaning and Being, was my first such major undertaking. That term “resonant synthesis” refers to the same harmony between meaningful awareness and acting in the world that I am dealing with today, but couched in an academic setting. My thought process then was guided by references to works in a variety of fields such as psychology, philosophy, anthropology, literature, and brain science. As anyone who has produced one knows, a dissertation is a special kind of project governed by all sorts of rules suited to academic disciplines. At Boston University I had a committee to oversee what I was thinking and doing. Even so, the 647-page end product was largely an original work in making connections between so many disciplines (from metaphor at one extreme to mythology at the other).

My son Michael, having lived in Italy for a number of years, returned to the Boston area while I was in grad school. We had drifted into different worlds, so got together only occasionally over a period of five years. His suicide in 1981 got my attention, pretty much exploding it—as my departing his childhood world must have exploded his attention many years before. My project switched to dealing with the regret, grief, and guilt that flooded my mind every hour every day. For almost a year, incapable of sustained thought, I dwelled on what had gone wrong in Michael’s young life. For three months after he killed himself, I spent all day working on meaningless picture puzzles, the harder the better. Gradually my body and mind began to synchronize again, but always dominated by a profound sense of loss which colored everything I did. That loss is with me today, sometimes just under the surface, sometimes filling my mind. It has become part of every project I take on. I’m doing this partly for Michael, I tell myself, because he can’t finish the project he started so long ago.

Five years later, I moved to Maine to write my great environmental book, which was to be a phenomenological treatment of the looming environmental crisis humans were mindlessly inflicting on the Earth (the book got written, but was so angry it never got published). Maybe I was the catastrophe, but either way, I saw the Earth as under siege. I became aware of a 54-lot subdivision that threatened an eagle nest near where I lived, so fought it and—with a lot of help from people throughout Maine—won my case in court. From then on, my project was to save the Earth. In the mid-1980s, the Patten Corporation was buying up land throughout the state, offering finders fees to folks who turned them on to land that could be bought cheap, subdivided, and sold at high prices. I was a founding member of Frenchman Bay Conservancy, the local land trust; the River Union, a watershed protection coalition; and Friends of Taunton Bay, a bay protection group, in which I am still active. Fish landings (except for lobsters) have taken a nosedive since I’ve come to Maine, so I’ve spent a lot of time on fishery issues such as habitat degradation, pollution, overharvesting, and shoreline development. My projects keep getting bigger as I bring myself up to speed on such concerns.

In 1993, I went to work as a seasonal employee at Acadia National Park, and my personal project was to write a book about the ecological functioning of the park that is so easy for untrained eyes to overlook. I wrote up 60 hikes I took on trails in Acadia (a hike a week for over a year), grouping them by seasons to emphasize the changing nature of the terrain—what I called the living landscape of Acadia. It took me five years to get it all done, illustrated, and edited by Jane Crosen. My subtext was about watersheds and the flow of moisture through what I saw as one of natures most fundamental units of biological organization in receiving, storing, and distributing water through the landscape. Ecosystems are another such unit, as are the seasons of the year. ACADIA: The Soul of a National Park came out in 1968. Having written up 60 different hikes, I then wrote up my experience of hiking one trail over 150 times, and brought out The Shore Path, Bar Harbor Maine, in 2000. Then in quick succession came Acadia’s Native Wildflowers, Fruits, and Wildlife in 2001, and Acadia’s Trails and Terrain in 2002. The last three are basically picture books, much reduced in size compared to the first one. Those projects pretty much got the writing bug out of my system, making me ready for more direct action.

I next turned to Taunton Bay, doing horseshoe crab research for two years—determining that the crabs never left the bay in winter as they would in warmer climes, but dug into bottom mud and basically hibernated for six months of the year. (I’ll do a post soon on learning to think like a horseshoe crab.) In 2004, Friends of Taunton Bay got a grant from the state to conduct a pilot project in bay management in 2005-2006. That comprised a series of nested projects on governance, maps, indicators, outreach, and fisheries economics. I’ve never been more focused in my life than in overseeing the indicators (of ecosystem health and wellbeing) and mapping sections of that project—and writing the final project reports.

The upshot of that project was . . . yes, another project, this time in mudflat management. Then, in response to all that had recently been learned about the functioning of Taunton Bay, the state created the Taunton Bay Advisory Group to make suggestions on managing local fisheries to the Commissioner of Marine Resources, the first such local fisheries management group in Maine, and perhaps the nation.

I have been heavily involved in all these efforts, putting my consciousness where my body is, where I believe I can be most effective because I know firsthand what I am talking about. I have reinvented myself many times over, yet my core consciousness has stayed ever the same, always seeking harmony between my personal experience and what I do by acting in the world, getting feedback, refining my approach, and trying again. My goal—for indeed my survival depends upon achieving it—is to find coherence between my inner awareness and outer activities, so that—like the deer I saw earlier this morning—I can stand poised and confident in my mind and my surroundings at the same time, turning my life’s energies to constructive use. I may not have saved the Earth as yet, but I feel I am doing my part to improve the local environmental situation as best I can. I’ll keep at it as long as  my wits stay with me, and my consciousness is able to coordinate my deeds with the full range of my sensory awareness in achieving the goals I set myself in one project after another.

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