(Copyright © 2009)

 

Memory is situational because consciousness is situational. Everything that happens takes place in the particular circumstances that frame our life worlds at the time. Consciousness is a matter of being alive to our current life situation as the mind configures it.

 

Exhibit A. I am at scout camp the second week in August, 1945. It is Sunday, so there’s nothing to do. The sun is shining. I go for a walk with a friend down a dirt road lined with tall trees. Everything is different somehow. Looking into the sky, I picture a bomb falling, falling, falling. Earlier, at breakfast, I’d seen a story in the camp director’s newspaper about an American plane dropping an A-bomb on Hiroshima, a city in Japan. I don’t know what an A-bomb is, but I know it is bad. I am scared.

 

Exhibit B. I am in eighth grade. The war is over. My father is renting a cinderblock house in Sarasota for a year. My mission is to help dismantle Sarasota Army Air Base, soon to close. On Saturdays, wrench and screwdrivers in my pocket, I ride with bus driver Russ Shin (from his name tag), north to the airfield, but get off where he turns west and the railroad tracks continue north through the swamp. I walk along the tracks, cross a trestle, to the dump in the southeast corner of the airfield. Crawling under the fence, I am among the remains of planes, trucks, and all sorts of military gear. My personal stock pile. I pick up smoke grenades and dye packets. Radio equipment. Skipping the tubes of prophylactic ointment, I climb in the cockpit of a wingless plane and unscrew gauges of all kinds. Gyroscopes! Checking the time, I gather my haul—by now including pilot’s seat and dummy bomb—and head back, loaded much heavier than when I came, along the elevated rail bed through the swamp. What’s that noise? Looking ahead—a locomotive heading my way. No sir, I’m not going to ditch any of this stuff. I can’t go back, I’d miss the bus. And I’m not going into that swamp! Which leaves the bank under the trestle. I figure I can just make it. Flapping and rattling, I plod towards it as fast as I can. The train keeps coming. I keep plodding. Just as the train reaches the trestle, so do I. I taste the heat and smell of the steam as I dive under the tracks onto the bank below, my feet in the water. I feel how fast my heart is beating. No time to sit around. I keep going and meet Russ at the corner. Saying nothing, he just looks at me. When I get home, I put the stuff under my bed. Next day, I use a can opener to take the bottom off one of the smoke grenades. I show it to Jack Tisdale who lives across the street. In his living room, we use a lens to focus sunlight streaming in the window onto the cake of white. Wisps of smoke, then billows. We drop the grenade on the rug and run out the door. Jack tells me later everything in the house is coated with white powder. I am surprised how angry some grownups can get.

 

Exhibit C. For reasons unknown, in 2001, 90% of the eelgrass in Taunton Bay died back. Which is an ecological tragedy because eelgrass beds provide habitat for all manner of sea creatures including cod, flounder, crabs, periwinkles, and amphipods. I’ve been worrying that bone for seven years. What I know through personal experience is that no sea lavender appeared that year, periwinkles died by tens of thousands, the water was cloudy, ledges were extremely slippery as if coated with slime, and Maine had the lowest rainfall in 111 years. Looking at photographs from earlier years, I saw that eelgrass reached maximum extent and density in 1973, year of the heaviest snowmelt since records have been kept. Since 1992, I’ve flown aerial overflights to check on eelgrass in the bay. It was down in the 1980s, as it was in the drought years of the 1930s, but making a nice recovery throughout the 1990s. Boaters noticed how thick it was getting because it clogged their propellers. Then in 2001 it crashed. And only now in 2008 and 2009 is slowly coming back in some places but not others.

I’ve been trying to make myself conscious of the circumstances which prevailed in 2001 so I could accurately characterize the situation and figure out what the significant variables might have been that led to the dieback. What I notice from aerial photographs is that eelgrass is recovering in areas fed by both salt- and freshwater. That is, where the bay is brackish, as in stream channels and where melt- and rainwater flow off the land. The dieback, I think now, has something to do with the amount of salt in the water flowing over the eelgrass beds. Salinity is highly variable in Taunton Bay, ranging from pure fresh water on the flats at low tide (when it rains) to the salty flows coming over the reversing falls from Frenchman Bay and the Gulf of Maine beyond.

I now believe the eelgrass dieback was triggered by the drought that reached its peak in 2001, causing slight dilution and unusually high salinities, allowing eelgrass dieback disease to flourish whereas runoff and rainfall usually moderate the salinity, and thus keep the ever-present disease organisms in check. This makes sense because Taunton Bay is a closed bay largely surrounded by land (unlike open bays which are subject to greater flushing by marine waters), so periods of low runoff and rainfall produce pronounced changes in salinity. Too, global warming may have given the disease organism a significant boost in 2001.

By this exercise I have approximated the consciousness I might have had in 2001 if I had kept track of all that was going on in the world of local eelgrass beds at the time. By doing my best to recreate those conditions, I have tried to make myself aware of the prevailing situation that led to the decline. At least I can make an educated guess with more certainty than I could have when I didn’t know how much I didn’t know.

 

The larger question remaining is where in the brain does situational consciousness come together as a gateway to both situational memory and informed behavior which is more-or-less appropriate to the circumstances within which it arises? The anterior cingulate cortex (see Reflection 60: Discovery) receives all the appropriate inputs (motivational, emotional, sensory, cognitive, remembered, anticipatory) as well as direct input from peripheral eye fields (what we see out of the corner of our eye), feeding forward to motor planning and execution areas of the frontal lobe. The locus where these various strands of consciousness come together could well serve as the seat of both situational consciousness and—when arousal is sufficient—situational memory (by a perhaps less direct route).

 

This is conjecture on my part. Maybe it has some heuristic value. My contribution is the details I glean through introspection, which animal and clinical studies generally do not provide. I offer it in this blog to give the world a chance to judge what it is worth. For me the reward is in the pursuit of understanding while I still have a mind to keep me entertained.

 

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(Copyright © 2008)

In this blog I have presented consciousness as a means of assessing novel situations so to derive and execute appropriate courses of action. Which sounds all very judicious and reasonable. But consciousness has its dark side. What can we make of the human mind when it perpetrates vicious acts inflicting excruciating pain and suffering—and even death—on other beings?

 

When I went through basic training at Fort Ord in 1955, I was taught to kill with pistol, rifle, and bayonet. I remember the infiltration course, Sarge leaning against a framework of beams holding a straw dummy suspended spider-like in its web, him shouting “Kill, kill, kill!” as I met the dummy, me thrusting bayonet into straw, so tired I could barely gasp a weak echo, “khill.” I was a mock killer.

 

But there are real killers in the world. As conscious and aroused as they are cruel. And fully conscious victims of atrocities, often women and children. And fully conscious indirect victims (it is safer to kill a wife than her husband, the intended victim, who gets off being humiliated). And fully conscious witnesses. And, drink in hand, fully conscious watchers of the news seated in comfortable living rooms on the far side of the world.

 

Here, too, is the human mind making sense of real life situations.

 

Journalist Ann Jones has a devastating piece on pages 16-20 in The Nation (Dec. 29, 2008): “A Crime Against Society: Rape destroyed the social fabric of Congo. Now women are beginning to repair it.” The gist is that women are trying to put social life in eastern Congo back together again. But the heart of the article is her depiction of the atrocities that Congolese women have suffered—and are still suffering:

 

Men singly or in gangs rape women and girls of all ages. (Recorded victims range in age from 2 months to 83 years.) Men also cut off women’s nipples or breasts, mutilate or cut off external genitalia, and eviscerate living pregnant women to remove and kill fetuses. After rape, men commonly insert foreign objects into the vagina: sticks, sand, rocks, knives, burning wood or charcoal, or molten plastic made by melting shopping bags. Killing the rape victim by firing a handgun or rifle inserted in the vagina is a common practice; some victims have survived. Rapists have blinded many women, apparently to prevent identification, and left countless others to die in the forest after chopping off their arms and/or legs. Soldiers also abduct women, and especially girls as young as 10 or 11, as captive “wives.”

 

Reading these words, I cannot imagine the women and girls’ suffering, but I can feel sympathy for the victims. I am stunned. Shocked that such things can happen. This is beyond truth and reconciliation. My urge is to round up the soldiers, cut off their penises, and leave them to die. Beyond that, I try to put myself in the killers’ place. What would drive me to perform such violent acts of deliberate cruelty? Who are these men, and how can they find such behavior appropriate? Ann Jones suggests a few answers in her article, but none of them justify the acts she depicts.

 

Then I remember crimes against humanity committed in other locations on other occasions. The Holocaust. Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Darfur. Pearl Harbor. Incendiary bombings of Dresden, Tokyo, London. Assaults on Native Peoples everywhere. Napalm and agent orange in Vietnam. Mai Lai. Civilian deaths in the current Iraq War. Israeli bombings of Palestinians in Gaza.

 

Such horrors as Ann Jones relates are not limited to eastern Congo. Every one of us can be trained or driven to commit atrocities. And when questioned afterwards, we justify our actions because we feel we had ample reason to do what we did under mitigating circumstances. Consciousness always makes sense to itself. We did it because. . . (select your rationale of choice).

 

Those of us alive today are the survivors of atrocities. Born to survivors, who were born to earlier and earlier survivors, back to the beginning. Consciousness has been with us the whole way. Consciousness of drought, flood, famine, disease, war, cruelty of others, our own cruelty.

 

Does that excuse us, or make us a better, tougher, or more deserving class of people? Are we one bit nobler or more moral than the soldiers of Congo? As far as consciousness goes, is morality even relevant? Is the precious cargo of our genes the only thing that counts?

 

In Congo, countless women died horrible deaths. And even if they survived brutalization, part of them is dead. If soldiers are the victors, what kind of world—what kind of consciousness—have they won for themselves? As survivors, what kind of consciousness have we won for ourselves? If one eats while another starves, what kind of world is that? If one “earns” billions by victimizing others while billions scrape by, what kind of world?

 

We know what kind of world because we wake up to it every day. Consciousness has much to account for; it is no justification in itself for simply surviving. It comes at great price. Our assignment, should we chose to accept it, is to honor the suffering that got us where we are and sustains us today.

 

How honor suffering? By being aware of it, remembering it, and conducting ourselves accordingly. By doing our best by all concerned, which is everyone. Women as well as men. Children as well as adults. Aborigines as well as settlers. Workers as well as management. Strangers as well as friends.

 

Here it is a new year. In 2009, let us be fully conscious of those who suffer and die for us, that we may live the bravest we can on their behalf.

 

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