Engagement is not a trade-off, a simple alternation of give-and-take. It is founded on paying attention to input and output simultaneously, all (or much of) the time, so there is no major gap between them, no lull in attention to both self and world.

When we get on a roll, that’s what happens. We are in the moment totally, not separating input from output but seeing both as integral parts of the same state of mind. We are with it, whatever it is. We are mindfarers so fully engaged with our surroundings that we become an integral part of the scene wherever we are.

As mindfarers, we want our companions to win along with us, not go down in defeat. Each needs to win in her own way. If Israelis and Palestinians fight until only one is left standing, they both lose. Neither side can sacrifice its integrity to the other.

Mindfaring (finding our inner way) is a matter of coordinating our lives with our surroundings, as in dancing, as in music, as in a good marriage, as in sports governed by rules. It is being both with ourselves and with the other, not in spite of.

It is a matter of being together with someone or something else. Of being yourself in a scene or setting that is wholly itself at the same time, so your engagement is mutual, both on an equal footing. Each plays her part, not going off on his own. It is an extension of a state of mind that embraces our partner in engagement, whether person, place, or thing.

Such engagements are fundamentally different states of mind than opposing, conflicting, fighting, defeating. There are times when you must run for your life, and times you must run toward your life or it might get away from you. Mindfaring is running toward, not away. It is seeking, not avoiding. Moving ahead, always ahead (seldom in a straight line). In company with respected companions. Along a path that leads to a natural culmination of the going itself.

Mindfaring is powered by the dimensions of intelligence (experience or consciousness) that make up the situation we are in at a particular point in our life engagements. Those dimensions are qualities that, taken collectively, give structure to a particular moment of awareness and experience.

Such dimensions reflect the balance between the affective roilings and turnings-over in our minds or, in neural terms, along the axis between the midbrain reticular formation and the prefrontal cortex via the limbic system (including amygdala, hippocampus, thalamus, hypothalamus, and septal nuclei)—all in response to the signals derived from our ongoing engagement with our surroundings that spark our intelligence, judgment, and subsequent actions.

Here is a diagram from page 275 of my 1982 dissertation, Metaphor to Mythology, that illustrates neural pathways in the brain that support our engagements with the world.

Schematic of Loops in the Brain

Sensory pathways in the brain, sensory input on right, motor pathways on left, limbic system lower center, loops of engagement suggested by dotted lines.

In experiential terms, those affective roilings and turnings-over in our mental innards include arousal, memory, expectancy, attention, sensory impressions, recognition, understanding, imagination, meaning, thought, feeling, emotion, biological and cultural values, humor, comparison, polarity, attitude, and judgment, all abetted by our goals, relationships, projects, selection of tools, skills, language skills, speech, gestures, and overt action, among other dimensions that come to the fore in specific situations.

How does this bear on the relationship between mind and brain? We are each born to our respective worlds of nature, culture, community, and family, all of which challenge and feed our minds on a daily basis, so we become part of them, and they part of us as a kind of reference system that, as we engage with it, defines our uniqueness in our particular time and place in our Earthly career.

Our brains process the endless stream of signals resulting from our engagements, but leave nature, culture, community, and family outside of ourselves where we can draw upon them as needed in particular situations.

The situations we find (or put) ourselves in are temporary configurations of the dimensions of our intelligence as affected by the roilings and turnings-over spurred by our ongoing engagements. They morph into subsequent situations as modified by the ever-changing flux of our experience.

We don’t lug all our memories around with us as an accumulating store of baggage, but develop neural networks capable of recognizing familiar patterns of traffic flowing through them. Our brains excel at pattern recognition, nesting ever-finer concepts together on a great many levels of discrimination. Our brains give us a capacity to recognize patterns as having been met before, not to store those patterns in finest detail.

That is, our brains are no bigger than they need to be to process the engagements we set up between our adventurous insides and ever-changing outsides. What is outside stays outside as a facet of nature, culture, community, and family. When we die, we die to them. They stay behind; we don’t take them with us.

The brain is not a filing cabinet or a closet full of old clothes. It is a director of traffic from perception to action via an experienced and intelligent self that serves as a situation evaluator in matching incoming sensory impressions to outgoing gestures, speech, and actions.

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In a very real sense, what I’m working from in writing this blog is the aftermath of writing a doctoral dissertation in 1982 as a grad student in the Humanistic and Behavioral Studies Department of Boston University’s School of Education. It took decades for me to shake off the academic tone I adopted in writing a 625-page book that, as far as I know, no one has read all the way through except me.

More particularly, I am working through the lessons I learned in writing Chapter 5, Pheromones to Phenomena, which dealt with the workings of the brain as understood at that time (largely based on animal studies). When I go back and read that chapter, I find what I wrote then is still true for me today. Not that my growth was stunted from then-on; more that what I hit upon in that chapter about the neural underpinnings of perception, judgment, and memory still serves as an excellent model for the mind revealed to me through introspection.

Of course we find in the world largely what we expect to find, so it sounds like I am indulging in a self-fulfilling prophesy. But that’s not what I mean. What I wrote then about the nature of consciousness still helps me to understand my mind of today. If it didn’t, I wouldn’t be writing this blog.

Not that I literally remember those thoughts from yesteryear. They surprise me every time I go back and read them. It’s the unspoken sense of concentration and commitment that drove me to write the dissertation that sticks with me. Now reduced to an intuitive feel for the topic I am writing about, a kind of silent presence in the background that guides me twenty-three years later.

I began Chapter Five, Pheromones to Phenomena, with the radical switch our species had to make from reliance on our ancestors’ sense of smell to living in a higher world with almost no smell at all. When we stood up on our hind legs, our jaws and snouts lessened, and we had to compensate for what we lost by rapidly developing our senses of vision and hearing, along with the ability to control muscles governing balance, posture, stance, and precise movement of our fingers.

It is the experience of thinking those thoughts that I retain to this day, not writing about what gradually happened to the amygdala, hippocampus, cerebral cortex, and other perceptual systems in having to adapt to a world without pheromones.

I was wholly engaged with my topic when I wrote my dissertation letter-perfect (with White-out) on an IBM Selectric typewriter, and it is what my brain has done with that engagement that I carry with me today, not the actual words and citations.

I know because I went back and read Chapter Five: there it all was in splendid detail. When I practice introspection in writing about the foibles of my own mind, that process is backed up by the deep concentration I put into clicking away at my typewriter day-after-day for over two years. And into scouring the sources I read in the years before that.

The difference between then and now is that today I am trying to write in English appropriate to a blog aimed at a general audience, not academic English as suited to dissertation committees and peer reviewers. It has taken this long to shed old habits learned in school, and as you can tell from reading these posts, I am still trying to overcome a natural bent to make simple things sound complicated.

Are my ideas now out-of-date because they are descendants of ideas I wrestled with in grad school? Or even earlier? I’ve written about the important role memory plays in perception, so that the words I write today go back to the language I babbled when I was an infant. Are my words as old as I am? I say, no, because I see myself as a trainable who can adapt to changing times. Words do change, but not as fast as people do. By reading a few notes, we can still make sense of Chaucer and Shakespeare, if not Beowulf—all far older than I am.

So what did I write in my dissertation? Here are some samples from Chapter Five of Metaphor to Mythology (Ann Arbor: University Microfilms International, 1982). In these excerpts, because olfactory bulbs (smell receptors) in our ancestors have such immediate access to the hippocampus and limbic system, the interactive components that make up that system are featured, including hippocampus, amygdala, and hypothalamus. I am using these bulleted quotations to illustrate the specialized world I inhabited in grad school.

  • The entire cortex is an evolutionary derivative of the sense of smell (page 259).
  • Our erect posture, by distancing our olfactory receptors from the sources of smell, has deprived us of the benefits of pheromonal [olfactory signal] communication, so it is not surprising that we have increasingly come to rely on non-chemical means for integrating our internal state with our environment (page 260).
  • The limbic system operates basically as a “selection unit” to determine the biological value of sensory information in relation to various organic drives, and then functions to facilitate the storage of information deemed relevant to successful functioning of the organism (page 263).
  • The regulation of cognitive function shifts away from the processing of pheromonal signals to the identification and evaluation of cues in the visual and auditory modalities. What remains constant, however, is the crucial role of the hippocampus (and the limbic system in general) in learning, memory, communication, and social organization (page 264).
  • The interpretation of neurological studies often relies heavily upon the twin concepts of the internal and external milieu. . . . homologous to one-celled animals in which a semipermeable membrane separates an “inside” from an “outside.” The internal milieu represents the equilibrated chemical innards that constitute the life-sustaining works of the organism; the external milieu being the sum total of all ambient stimulation an investigator can imagine to be impinging upon its sensibilities (page 268).
  • [Hippocampal] function is related to the enduring consequences of a comparison (seeing one signal in terms of another, a kind of seeing-as) between two different classes of sensory input—one primarily sensory, the other . . . facilitated by precedent episodes of similar experience (page 277f.).
  • Under novel circumstances it would be the hippocampus that would effect a comparison between perception and memory, emitting a signal that would be proportional to the non-familiarity of the sensory signal, and leading to exploratory behavior designed to acquire a more coherent and detailed version of that signal. Comparisons resulting in a high degree of registration would enable the animal to make a response on the basis of an assumed identification to which the existing repertoire of behaviors would more likely be both adequate and appropriate (page 280).
  • Since an animal’s sensory stimulation will vary in accordance with its own locomotion, it is essential that some mechanism be available to distinguish between self-generated and environment-generated variation in sensory input. To accomplish this, signals that exhibit covariation with proprioceptive input from muscle spindles and receptors in tendons and joints must be credited to the organism itself and subjected to inhibition in order to determine the coherent pattern of sensation that can be attributed to stimuli in the environment (page 282).
  • The normal animal lives neither for the moment nor for the past, but is able to compare the two and make an appropriate response to adjust the difference. It is able to find meaning in its phenomenological milieu and, when it can’t, to embark on a series of excursions that will enable it to discover appropriate meanings for novel phenomena. And if those meanings are repeated often enough, or are important enough, then the normal animal is capable of remembering them (page 283f.).
  • The hippocampus, as a novelty detector, directs its output to several important destinations: to the hypothalamus, the custodian of the internal milieu; to the midbrain reticular formation, regulator of arousal and wakefulness; to the prefrontal areas in which so many separate signals are coordinated; and to itself, via a kind of reverberating feedback loop that turns momentary stimuli into enduring potentations that influence its own activity. In each case it acts like a switch that turns another operation on or off, depending on the disparity between the signals it receives. From its central location it influences motivation, arousal, sensory coherence, interference, memory, meaning, and behavior (page 284).
  • Since the business of memory is survival (by making lessons learned in the past available on suitable occasions in the present), it is not surprising that these survival-related functions form the core of many of our strongest memories (page 286).
  • The hippocampus (and its associated network of connectivities to related areas) thus makes it possible for repeated episodes of similar sensory signals to exert a systemic influence that renders them familiar and—beyond that—meaningful. Such signals are more readily “welcomed” by the perceptual system because they “speak” to prior experience, to the heritage of the perceiver. And, since they address not an identical replica of themselves but an abstraction derived from multiple repetitions (or approximations) over time, their reception occurs within a framework of historical reference that equates their existential pattern of sensory stimulation with something already in the perceiver’s possession, with a referential meaning that is already an aspect of the perceiving apparatus itself (page 292).
  • Sensory signals, . . . are like keys that acquire a meaning by being inserted into certain locks that anticipate their configuration; sensations are different from meanings in the same sense those keys are different from the locks that they open. And, to continue the simile, the hippocampus is the locksmith who adjusts the lock to fit those keys that are repeatedly or forcefully imposed upon their workings (page 292).
  • The salient feature of context-related memory is the influence it exerts upon the process of perception. . . . Its primary function is to direct attention toward those aspects of a situation that are most likely to prove pertinent to the motivational state of the individual perceiver. It is a reaching-out for perception on the basis of an authority vested in the ongoing interaction between self and world as it has been achieved in the current (or immediately prior) situation. Thus does experiential meaning, once unlocked, strive to perpetuate itself by [putting] itself forward on the basis of its recent successes, attempting to discriminate a world that would fulfill its current promise as if foretold as a kind of destiny—like a lock awaiting to be fulfilled by a certain key(page 295).
  • [I]t is no accident that our ideas nest within each other so conveniently, that our understanding is hierarchical in nature, allowing the most venial notion to coexist with our highest ideals, the mundane with the celestial, the profane with the sacred. For all its complexity, the paramount achievement of the brain is the selection and synchronization of its ongoing processes so that mind is characterized by a coherent flow of ideas that provides a continuous rationale for purposive behavior (page 301).
  • [Our] strategy [is] to present ourselves to the world from the security of our heritage of personal experience, and to weld whatever patterns we discovery firmly to the structure we have already built. The world we see is the world we have learned to see. That is the genius of our species and the secret of our survival: the world is always contingent upon the way we present ourselves to it—upon the way we have learned to seize it. No miracle is more profound because, instead of granting us eternal wisdom, it challenges us to pursue every opportunity for learning, and to remain open to the worlds that others have discovered for themselves (page 317).

So, no, I’m not making-up these posts as I go along. They are deeply rooted in my life’s cumulative endeavors and experience. That is, in the flowing situations in my innermost parts that give meaning to my life.

(Copyright © 2009)

 

In the movie Donovan’s Brain, poor Donovan is reduced to a brain hooked up to wires in a jar, sharing his thoughts through a loudspeaker in the lab. We often entertain the careless thought that, like Donovan, the brain represents the consciousness of a whole person. But the brain is only part of a body which keeps it active and alive. A brain abstracted from its body is a dead brain. In discussing activities in different parts of the brain, it is essential to remember that no mental activity would be happening apart from the context the body provides. The brain is not the motor under the hood (“bonnet” in England) that makes us work. Heart, liver, kidneys, fingers, toes, and all the other parts of a functioning organism are implicit in pictures of the brain by itself.

 

Having said that, right now I want to consider the human brain as a complex organ which itself is composed of parts. My focus is on parts of the brain which may contribute to consciousness in particular. If you read books or articles about the brain, you very quickly encounter terms used by neuroscientists, terms which have limited currency outside the lab. Since I myself have uses such terms in earlier posts (amygdala, hippocampus, cerebral cortex, cerebellum), I want to lay the groundwork for future posts so that such terms will be helpful in developing further insights into consciousness. To do that, I will refer to two illustrations. 

 

 

illustration-1-72

Illustration 1. Here, the left side of the cerebral hemisphere is divided into four lobes, each represented by a different color. The frontal lobe is shown in blue, parietal lobe in yellow, temporal lobe in green, and occipital lobe in pink. The cerebellum (not part of the cerebral cortex) is also shown, looking like a ball of yarn in black in white tucked under the temporal lobe.

 

cut-away-view-72

Illustration 2. Here outer layers of the left cerebral hemisphere are cut away to suggest the locations of several parts which lie deeper in the brain near the midline between the two hemispheres. (Clockwise from the top) The corpus callosum consists of nerve fibers connecting the two hemispheres. The cerebral cortex is made up of six layers of nerve cells and the fibers connecting them one to another. The thalamus is a complex relay station between the cerebral cortex and other parts of the central nervous system. The cerebellum contains over half the cells in the brain, and is largely devoted to eye and muscle coordination. The brain stem is the seat of cognitive and emotional arousal systems. The hippocampus facilitates long-term memory storage and retrieval. Not shown, but near the hippocampus is the amygdala which plays an essential role in emotional responses including fear and anxiety. The hypothalamus regulates the autonomic nervous system which maintains life-sustaining processes at appropriate levels; it is a key link between the body’s nervous and hormonal systems.

 

The human brain contains an estimated 100 billion nerve cells, each of which may form 1-10 thousand connections with other cells, producing well over 100 trillion opportunities for activation and feedback. When a given neuron (brain cell) fires, it receives feedback from other cells as a kind of consensus concerning whether it should continue to fire or not. Feedback shapes every activity in the brain and, ultimately, the conscious and unconscious processes governing bodily functions and behavior.

 

 

BBC Brain Map

 

For this post I will give a brief run-through of the functions of the various areas of the brain I have listed above, more or less according to the order in which they have been introduced.

 

Cerebellum. A fixture of the vertebrate brain, the cerebellum is particularly developed in primates and humans. It controls balance, spatial orientation, eye movements, muscle movements (as in reaching and locomotion), and planning of such movements. When there is a discrepancy between movements as planned and executed, the cerebellum facilitates correction.

 

Cerebral Cortex. Cell bodies in the cerebral cortex are arranged in thin layers near the outer surface of the cerebral hemispheres. This arrangement facilitates orderly routing of inputs and outputs between related areas of the brain. The surface of the cortex is larger than that of the inside of the skull because of its folding into valleys (sulci) and hills (gyri), which greatly expands the number of neurons that can fit into a small space. The bulk of the cortex consists of interconnecting fibers. Among vertebrates, humans have the most finely elaborated cortex, allowing detailed planning and execution of a wide diversity of behaviors. The cortex is divided into lobes (named after neighboring bones of the skull) based on prominent anatomical features. These designations are somewhat arbitrary, but the cellular architecture exhibited in different areas lends support to the integrity of different functions within separate lobes (see separate listings below).

 

Corpus Callosum. Nerve fibers connecting corresponding areas of the left and right cerebral hemispheres cross the midline of the brain in a large bundle known as the corpus callosum. These fibers appear white because of the myelin sheaths wrapping individual fibers, greatly increasing the speed of transmission. Each fiber is the axon connecting the body of a particular cell on one side of the cortex to related cells on the opposite side. In general, nerve cells (neurons) on one side of the brain control functions performed on the other.

 

Frontal Lobe. The frontal lobe of cerebral cortex extends forward of the central sulcus at the top of the brain which separates it from the parietal lobe to the rear. Cells in the primary motor area are arranged along the central sulcus as a topographical map of the muscles in areas of the body which they control, extending from feet represented in the fissure between hemispheres, through legs, trunk, arms, hands, fingers, head, face, and mouth arrayed across the surface of the primary motor area of the cortex. Forward of that is the premotor area where planning of motor behaviors takes place. Speech muscles in tongue and lips are controlled in Wernicke’s area within the frontal lobe. Working memory (or focused attention) integrate three different areas—lateral, orbital, and cingulate—within prefrontal cortex to provide what some researchers believe to be the neurological basis of consciousness.

 

Parietal Lobe. Similar to the motor map in the frontal lobe, a sensory map of the body spreads across neurons at the leading edge of the parietal lobe. Touch, pain, and temperature signals are processed in the parietal lobe, which also processes the interplay between visual and bodily sensations.

 

Occipital Lobe. At the back of the brain, the occipital lobe is devoted entirely to primary and subsequent visual processing. There are some 40 visual processing areas in the brain, but they all depend on signals received from the occipital lobe.

 

Temporal Lobe. Primary auditory processing takes place in the temporal lobe, as well as later stages of visual processing, including image recognition. The amygdala and hippocampus exist in pairs (one on each side of the brain) and are located deep within the temporal lobes near the midline between the two hemispheres.

 

Thalamus. As a relay station, the thalamus receives signals from sensory receptors and sends output to cortical sensory processing areas. Thalamic activity coordinates electrical activity in cortical neurons, giving rise to synchronized waves (basis of the electroencephalogram—the EEG). Consciousness, it is thought, represents synchronized activity throughout the cerebral cortex. Ascending pathways from the brain stem and hypothalamus pass through the thalamus en route to the cerebral cortices, conveying vital signals that maintain arousal, vigilance, and responsiveness to sensory stimuli. Injury to the thalamus can bring about loss of consciousness.

 

Brain Stem. The difference between sleep and wakefulness is largely told by neurons in the brain stem where both autonomic and emotional stimuli come into play with profound implications for arousal, attention, and consciousness. Though this region of the brain is primitive in some senses, its involvement in such basic processes suggests that consciousness is not necessarily a latecomer on the evolutionary totem pole.

 

Hippocampus. A specialized region of cortical cells near the midline of the brain, the hippocampus is essential to laying down and retrieving long-term memories. It is involved in learning and establishing spatial relations. Alzheimer’s disease involves failure of hippocampal function.

 

Amygdala. The amygdala comes into play in threatening situations. Sensory input reaches the amygdala from the thalamus by two different routes, one slow but made clear by the cerebral cortex, the other fast but relatively unprocessed and therefore crude. In emergencies, the fast route may spur immediate, life-saving action. The amygdala generates outputs affecting blood pressure, stress hormones, and both startle and immobilizing reflexes. It also kicks into the hippocampus, enabling long-term memory of emotional situations. Feelings of fear, anxiety, anger, and loathing are conscious signs of activity in the amygdala, location of a sophisticated early warning network.

 

Hypothalamus. The hypothalamus maintains homeostasis across a wide range of circumstances by providing inputs to the autonomic nervous system (which silently regulates bodily functions, including sexual arousal), the hormonal system, and the motivational system. It maintains a feedback loop by which neuronal activity can stimulate hormone production, and hormones in turn can affect brain activation. By such means, the hypothalamus integrates autonomic and hormonal functions with behavior.

 

Anterior Cingulate Cortex. On the medial surface of the cerebral hemispheres, the cingulate cortex arcs above the fibers of the corpus callosum crossing beneath it. Much like the brain stem, anterior cingulate cortex participates in homeostasis, emotions, attention, sleep and wakefulness, learning, and consciousness itself. Cingulate cortex also receives musculoskeletal inputs, and sends a large variety of output signals to motor areas related to speech, movement, and other bodily responses. Lesion studies suggest that patients with damage to this area are deprived of an active inner (conscious) life.

 

¦

 

 

 

Reflection 56: Beauty Day

January 28, 2009

(Copyright © 2009)

 

Saturday, it snows all day. Leaving about a foot on the ground. Carole and I plan to take a hike after Quaker Meeting next day. Where should we go? The south ridge of Norumbega Mountain is close-by, that seems a clear choice. We park by Lower Hadlock Pond. Across the white pond, the wooded slope of Norumbega looms like a smooth iceberg. We’re the first ones out. Snowshoes on, we cross the outlet and head up the Brown Mountain Trail (Norumbega used to be called Brown Mountain). As the ground rises, Carole’s snowshoes slip and slide; she decides to do without. I have crampons on mine, so I break trail. We’ve both hiked this ridge many times, but this time is different. The landscape is frosted with snow. Everything is smooth, soft, white. Except for a few fringes of forest green, and gray-brown stems of spruce. We’ve never seen it like this—stripped of all conventions as if pared down to basics. Like a line drawing. Everything is clear and clean. Winding between trees, we both agree it’s the most beautiful place we’ve ever been in. It’s more than the snow. These sloping woods. Low angle of light. Brisk air. Fresh scent. Stillness unto silence. “A beauty day,” I say, quoting my friend Gene Franck. Up and back, we are both in its spell, as if this were the first day of the world. The old and worn are new again. Past thoughts don’t apply. Wholly engaged in the present moment, we are new to ourselves.

 

Beauty and newness are often closely related. With novelty and freshness not far removed. Think babies, sweet sixteens, fresh laundry, hot dinners on the table. Character comes later, on the downhill slide. The Beatles on the Ed Sullivan Show were freshness personified. America loved them. They were so youthful—just boys. As men, they proved more challenging. Innocence is an asset not to be wasted.

 

Is that it? All that can be said on the subject of beauty? Hardly. Trying to come to terms with beauty, I have taken two courses in aesthetics. Irwin Edman could say the same thing five different ways, and invariably ran through them all. Marx Wartofsky said he could declaim endlessly on the similarities and differences between a pencil and a stick of chalk. Beauty, I found, is not a matter of words. Words can be beautiful, particularly when pithy and pared to the core. But philosophizing about beauty tends to be un-beautiful.

 

Beauty is not something to be talked about. It is experiential, involving any or all of the senses. Beauty is an intuitive judgment in which strong feelings have a say. It is not something you can capture in words but something you feel. A kind of attraction that gets your attention. Captures you. Makes you want more. Awe and respect are often involved, or deepest respect—unto devotion.

 

But of course the beholder (hearer, scenter, toucher) in the case of beauty is judge and jury, not the beheld. Beauty is as much given as received. It is something you participate in, for yourself as well as others. What’s new is what is new to you, beguiling to you, seems fresh to you. Others may or may not concur with your taste.

 

Beauty is active, a way of seizing the world. It is always a discovery. Sought, but never fully anticipated. You have to be there, present, to feel the effect.

 

Some art tries to project or preserve beauty, as if it were an insect in amber. As if it were solely a matter of sensory proportions and relationships. But such features can fall on deaf ears or blind eyes. Beauty requires an audience open to its charms. And beyond that, an audience ready to reach toward those charms, welcoming and embracing the presence of something wonderful beyond itself. Beauty is performance and audience engaging, working together in mutual affirmation. Carole and I affirmed Norumbega that day as much as it affirmed us. Such a place is worthy of status as part of a national park, which it is—Acadia National Park.

 

Beauty, in other words, is situational. That is, it emerges within consciousness as one aspect of the ongoing relationship between self and world. It is neither a property of that world nor of the self, but is an aspect of the flow between them, the perceptual give and take forming the basis of the primal loop of experience. Experience arises from expectations cast onto the world through active behaviors, and from the feedback those expectant behaviors stir up and redirect from the world to the actor-become-perceiver. Consciousness is privy to the flow coursing through itself, which betokens a world without being of such a world.

 

Like beauty, consciousness itself is situational, emerging from the interaction between perceiver and the perceived. Either self or world may incite the interaction, but once begun, both are active participants. As long as the engagement lasts, beauty endures, rekindling itself. Here is long-term stimulation of cells in the hippocampus, enabling memory of the occasion to be laid down. That is beauty’s power, and why we have such a hard time defining it. It is that which enables memory, right up there with fear, anger, and jubilation. All of which set nerve cells firing in concert and brain waves humming, integrating consciousness so it is not at sixes and sevens as it often is in lives full of distractions.

 

Yes, that sounds right: beauty is memorable because it enables the process of laying down memories. That’s why I remember one figure standing next to me on a subway platform in Times Square 56 years ago (see Reflection 41: Christmas Tree). And hiking Norumbega with Carole one winter Sunday seven years ago. My brain is made to remember such events. Memory is not incidental to beauty, it is its essence. Unmemorable experiences fall away like chaff from the wheat. Beauty discovered deserves better. And sees to its own preservation. Just as other strong feelings do.

 

This is beautiful! Better remember it, it may have survival applications. The future is built on what we retain from the past. All else is unworthy of retention. Beauty is no frill. A life lived in search of beauty is an exemplary life.

 

¦

 

 

(Copyright © 2009)

 

Putting the pieces of a dismembered picture puzzle back in their original relationships to one another is an intriguing aspect of consciousness because people so love to do it. What is it about putting Humpty Dumpty together again that we find so inviting or even compelling?

 

The day after Thanksgiving, I clear off the table, open the sealed box, and dump out the pieces of a picture puzzle my partner has had lying, undone, around her house for twenty years. A seaside painting by Maurice Prendergast (1858-1924)—lots of impressionistic ladies in white dresses with parasols. Turning each piece face-up, I get started mid-morning and finish it (with help) just at midnight. Each parasol is a different tint of rose, which helps somewhat in grouping the pieces, but every edge is soft, so the tones blend subtly into one another. What amazes me is how intently I keep at it for 15 hours, working on one piece then another. Relying on a variety of clues to fit them in—shape, color, pattern, edges, texture, and so on. I start with the outside edge, then move on to the hard part of situating color masses. It gets easier in the end when there are fewer pieces left. The last twenty pieces are a joy to drop into place one after the other. That was it, a day in the life doing a picture puzzle. I think I may have worked on only one other during the past 20 years.

 

Is that what life is about, doing picture puzzles? I hope there’s more to it than that. Which gets me thinking. What is it, exactly, that’s involved in working on such puzzles? They are visual, obviously, so eye-hand coordination is involved. Not gross, not truly fine, somewhere in the middle. A kind of situational dexterity. There are no rules as there are in games. Each puzzler can chose her own tactics, and switch them at will. But to maintain such intense visual concentration hour-after-hour for so long a time, in my experience, is unusual. I sometimes get fidgety after doing the same thing for 20 minutes. How come with puzzles I can keep going so long? Not out of duty but pure engagement in the task. What holds my attention as if life itself depended on it?

 

One thing about doing picture puzzles, the goal is crystal clear. There may not be rules, but the object is to get every piece in its place so the image will emerge picture perfect. But I find completing the task anticlimactic. It’s the process that matters, the engagement, the doing of the puzzle, not its completion.

 

It’s a matter of fitting one piece, another, and another, without any sense of time or the stage of the process you’re in. Pure dog work, that’s what it is. Doggedly moving from one piece to another, one gap to another. Yet pleasurable dog work. That’s what is so captivating about puzzles, and so rewarding each and every time something fits. Picture puzzles cut gratification into microsteps, each as rewarding as the next, and the next. Maybe knitting is like that. It’s taking this perfect stitch, this, and then this—and it all adds up to something, a scarf or a sweater.

 

Piece work, literally. Is that a survival skill? One foot in front of the other. One shingle in place, then the next. One raspberry picked, then on and on until your basket if full. Life lived not one day at a time but one instant after another. Slogging onward. But it doesn’t seem like slogging. Each step is a challenge in itself. Which earns you the right to undertake the next. How does that work? I think there must be something about consciousness itself that is assembled that way, involving one neuron firing at a time until the job is done. 

 

When you work on a picture puzzle, where is that activity taking place in the brain? Certainly the retinas are involved, the visual nuclei or relay stations, the visual processing areas (of which there are many) in the cortex, the motor planning and actuating areas, the cerebellum to tidy up the process. But a picture puzzle is a kind of map, and I’ll bet the hippocampus deep in the temporal lobes of your brain and mine is involved. Through studies with rats, it has been known for almost 40 years that the hippocampus maintains a cognitive representation of the territory where the individual is situated, and when doing a puzzle, that’s exactly where you are—inside that puzzle, examining every detail. Not only are you in the puzzle, the hippocampus maintains nerve excitation as long as you’re there, neural activity lasting until this section is done, then this, then the whole. Two months after doing the Prendergast puzzle, I can still remember working on specific sections of it. I was building the map of my current situation one piece at a time. And the hippocampus has the know-how enabling me to do that.

 

The hippocampal map of our personal space is so finely divided that individual nerve cells correspond to where we are within the larger field, different cells being activated as we move about—or focus on different areas within the puzzle. Our brains, it seems, are made for doing picture puzzles. Or more accurately, picture puzzles are popular because they are designed to make use of mental capabilities that fit us to the situations we put ourselves into—which including puzzling situations.

 

On Christmas day, I take out another puzzle depicting a whorl of dolphins among a school of small fish. I had given it to my partner years before, and decide it is time to face the challenge of piecing together fragments of all those fish and all those dolphins in their blue-green sea. It is a killer puzzle, not because the fish are getting eaten, but because all the fish look very similar and the bits of dolphin flesh, ditto. Yet there are clues to where a given piece might fit into the overall scene represented in the cognitive map assembled by my hippocampus. I suspect that each of the over 500 pieces has a cell in my brain to itself. I say that because I work piece by piece, characterizing each one in relation to the overall pattern provided by the picture on the lid of the puzzle box. I know each piece has a specific placement in the field, and I use a variety of clues to suggest just where it might fit in. Illumination comes from above, so I can often tell the orientation of a piece by studying highlights and shadows. Which tell me whether the small fish are swimming to the left or right, and at what angle. Most of the fish on the left side are swimming down and to the left, most on the right are heading down and right. The quality of the light differs top to bottom, which lets me make a rough guess about placement in the various strata of the puzzle. I do the top and bottom edges first, then work on particular dolphins and nearby fish. Again, I start after breakfast, and finish at midnight, fully engaged the whole time. Never bored, never restless, just working away, away, away. That’s the kind of work my hippocampus seems suited for. Puzzling, I decide, is very much like knitting, where the map of the sweater is inside you, and you know exactly where every knit and purl fits into the overall design. Doing picture puzzles, I decide, is like massaging the inner workings of my brain. Maybe knitters feel the same way.

  

 

“Human consciousness is the way it is because of the way our brain is,” writes Joseph LeDoux at the end of The Emotional Brain (Simon & Schuster, 1996, page 302). Eric R. Kandel expands on that theme in his chapter on the Biological Basis of Individuality in Principles of Neural Science (McGraw-Hill, 2000, page 1277): “Everything the brain produces, from the most private thoughts to the most public acts, should be understood as a biological process.” Even working on picture puzzles, even knitting.

 

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Reflection 51: Memories

January 19, 2009

(Copyright © 2009)

 

Ten years ago I bought a hair drier to get the moisture out of a headlight that had been nicked by flying gravel so I could seal it and get my car through its annual inspection. I have hardly used it since, never think of it, yet know exactly what shelf it’s on buried between the sheets and towels in my bathroom closet. What a strange mixture of consciousness and unconsciousness. I know the pedigree of that drier, why I bought it, what I did with it, where it is now—even though it doesn’t play even a bit part in my daily activities.

 

Too, I have a pencil sharpener screwed to the end of a bookshelf in my living room. An old one. Full of shavings from every pencil I’ve used for fifteen years. It’s in full view and I must walk by it twenty or thirty times a day—without seeing it. Until I want to sharpen a pencil. Then I know right where it is. Here, too, is a strange mixture of consciousness and unconsciousness. In plain sight, yet unseen until need arises, when it materializes right where it was last time.

 

I seem to possess a utilitarian memory that files the function, location, and pertinent history of these items in such a way to be readily retrievable on cue. No emotion is involved; this type of memory is purely functional. It covers the books on my shelves, tools, kitchenware, linens, and other items of practical, if infrequent, use. I include the Leatherman Tool in its sheath on my belt in this category. I seldom see it, yet reach for it when it would be useful, and there it is, right where I expect it to be. What time is it? I look not to my wrist but to the watch hanging from its caribiner on my belt. I know where I bought it, why I bought it (I don’t like the feel of straps around my wrist), where I’ve gotten its batteries replaced, that sometimes the stem unseats itself, and so on. All that is retained in my utilitarian memory, as if I were conscious of it all the time, which I’m not. Until needed, I never think of my watch.

 

Paperwork is different. I generate lots of it every day, and unless I deliberately file it away where I can retrieve it, I have great difficulty knowing which pile or piles I should look in. I seem to have no memory for paperwork—where it is, why I wrote it, even what it’s about. The process of writing down what’s on my mind is everything; once done, it simply disappears from my consciousness as if it went up in smoke. That’s true even of my posts to this blog. If I didn’t make a list of them, I would have no memory of what I said. I may have a vague recollection of dealing with that topic sometime, somewhere, but that’s about it. My utilitarian memory doesn’t do paperwork.

 

Yet it is somewhere within me. I keep having the same thoughts I had twenty or forty years ago—as if they were wholly new discoveries. Or I come across something I wrote long ago and find it accurately expresses something I thought I hit upon yesterday. It’s lodged in my unconscious mind in amorphous form, but not neatly placed or categorized.

 

I have a fair memory for faces, but not necessarily the names that go with them. When I search for a name, I can often come up with it, but it may take me an hour or even a day. When the face is a bit fuzzy, I often have a sense of the person—where I met him or her, maybe their profession, family, where and why we were together, and so on. You know, Whatshisname, the mustache. Such vague memories are not in the same class as the fixture memories of my hair drier and pencil sharpener. They are easy come, easy go memories, more like paperwork.

 

My autobiographical memory is usually punctuated by strong feelings. Like the time I raised my hammer over the last roofing nail when I built my camp—and whammed it down directly on my thumb holding the nail. Pain, sadness, happiness, any feeling will cement a particular episode in memory as long as it crosses a minimal threshold. Many memories are categorized by the feelings that accompanied them. Excitement—being outdoors during an earthquake in Seattle, seeing a manta ray leap out of the gulf, finding fifteen dollars blowing across the lawn, picking up an ancient stone knife at the base of a cliff. Shocking loss—crying in the assembly before school was let out when FDR died, working in the darkroom while listening to the news that JFK had been shot, being furious when Jack Ruby shot Oswald, the phone call from my mother when my father died unexpectedly, that other phone call 27 years ago from the police on the morning they found my son’s body in the park.

 

These emotion-based memories are not buried very deep. They fairly leap to mind at slightest provocation, making the then accessible to the now as if no time had passed. Such memories have greater clout than mere pencil sharpeners or paperwork. They are very much part and parcel of who I am, key constituents of my ongoing consciousness.

 

I don’t know much about conceptual memory, except that words and ideas seem to emerge from nothingness when called upon. I think of concepts as being distilled from similar experiences, and of words serving as labels that index them, making general summaries of experience available when a particular situation calls them to mind. Where do words come from? I don’t know. We have all had the tip-of-the-tongue experience of knowing a word is there, but not being able to retrieve it. We may have the meaning, number of syllables, first letter, or rhyme (it sounds like . . .), but the word itself remains elusive.

 

When I write, words flow from inner space, and quickly disappear, making room for others that follow. It is the process that is important, not the words themselves. I mean the meaning-making process by which a yearning to say something is coupled to particular episodes of experience within compass of a conceptual field given voice in the vocabulary and phraseology of one language or another. I am aware in myself that the entire process is underwritten by kernels of meaning—what I mean to say—that are more fundamental than the words I actually use. I often sense the presence of such a kernel just before I express it in words, realizing that words are redundant because the one kernel anticipated them all. I don’t know how it works, but the language kernels serve as seeds from which words themselves bloom.

 

Lastly, I rely on a kind of situational sense or memory to hold these different pieces (and many others) together in coherent form to produce the running script of my consciousness, the narrative of my life. Situations have specific locations, casts of characters, furniture and props, relationships, and ongoing actions. They are not scripted beforehand; but develop according to the active relationships which bind them together in one place at one time. Consciousness is always situated, so that it follows only the most relevant details as they unfold in the mind. Those details take on meaning and relevance because of their placement within a particular situation. This happens, then this, then this. All making sense because of the flow of events in a particular place among a specific cast of characters.

 

Consciousness is a kind of theater, for an audience of one, who acts all the parts, and imbues unfolding events with personal significance. Inner life is nothing if not dramatic in nature. Playwrights simply transcribe it into the idiom of some outer world. Which is why we can find ourselves in Shakespeare. He deliberately wrote us into his plays. As all great artists are sure to include each of us in her works.

 

Neuroscientists worry about the so-called binding problem: about how the myriad shards of experience fit seamlessly together in the one vessel from which the stream of consciousness flows. My thought is that the unity of experience is made possible by the situational nature of consciousness. If it is a stream, it is a stream through a particular landscape at a certain time under specifiable conditions. Where one part of the brain (the amygdala) appears to activates emotional aspects of memory, another part (the hippocampus) provides a map of the relevant landscape, while consciousness itself keeps track of meaningful events as they transpire within that setting.

 

That is conjecture on my part. What we know is that different parts of the brain are involved in storing and activating different aspects of memory. And that whereas the amygdala is activated in emotional experience, the hippocampus is activated in relational experience. My hunch is that men and women rely on the situational-relational aspect of experience in different ways, so the same area of the brain (the hippocampus) creates a detailed map of human connections and relationships in the female mind, while in males that area may generate a more utilitarian map of objects (hair driers and pencil sharpeners) distributed in space. I base this notion on my long years of interacting with men and with women under a great variety of circumstances. As my partner sums it up: women relate, men report.

 

Here I am, duly reporting on consciousness as I experience it on the inside of my skull. As I do so, I realize that there is not a single degree of separation between me and my chosen object of study. I am my consciousness; my consciousness is who I am. Put differently, consciousness is all. I, as a separate entity, do not exist.

 

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