(Copyright © 2009)

On the evening of July 9, 2009, I handed a CD containing a PowerPoint presentation to a colleague from Taunton Bay Education Center in Hancock, Maine. The simple act of passing a compact disc from one hand to another ended one phase of a project, and opened way for using the contents to further understand the vagaries of eelgrass growth in Taunton Bay. The CD had been more than a month in the planning stage, based on a framework laid down 18 years earlier when local eelgrass monitoring was begun. The nature and significance of the small plastic disc was not evident in its physical form; it existed solely in the mind of one conscious being, namely me, the one who had made the PowerPoint based on 128 digital photographs taken that morning on an overflight of Taunton Bay. Phase one of the eelgrass monitoring project for 2009 was concluded; now on to phase two and beyond.

Which sounds like pretty dry stuff until you realize how powerful human consciousness is in freeing evolution from reliance on what worked in the past to enabling ideas in the mind to come to fruition in the future through projects based not solely on past success but on anticipation of what future success might look like. Evolution is based on the profound truth that what worked once is likely to work again—that successful adaptation breeds more of the same. But in a rapidly changing world, that truth is merely a possibility, not a guarantee. Once a genome is in place, that’s it for a lifetime, no matter what happens. Consciousness, on the other hand, is more adaptive to changes within a lifetime, so can can alter its prospects by planning ahead. That way, it extends the reach of evolution by taking current and projected states of local variables into account—that is, by knowing what evolution cannot predict on the basis of past success.

Compared to lean and agile consciousness, evolution is slow-footed and cumbersome. It can’t anticipate events; it can only react after-the-fact. Consciousness possesses imagination where evolution has none. Evolution is stuck in the past; consciousness can think ahead and bring about a future that does not yet exist. For evolution, what works works; for consciousness, anything is possible.

A project is a throwing ahead of the mind (Latin pro- forth, ahead; iacere to throw). No feature of consciousness is more powerful than thinking ahead. Planning. Working towards a goal. Heading out. Designing. Implementing. The whole concept of work is based on directing energy toward making something happen. Where evolution cranks out more of the same old pattern, consciousness strives for improvement—something better. One is evolutionary, the other revolutionary.

Evolution came up with consciousness through physical adaptation, but consciousness transcends the physical and biological by enabling states of mind: dissatisfaction, doubt, questioning, imagination, planning, design, implementation, and follow-through. Unifying them behind a common purpose, the mind proposes projects. Leading on to execution by a series of stages to achieve the desired result. Shazam, the world is changed!

Camera in hand, I am in a small plane flying from Bar Harbor Airport toward Taunton Bay, on the lookout for eelgrass. We took off at 8:40 a.m. to be over the bay at low tide. The pilot’s name is Eric. We both have headsets and mikes so we can talk over the noise of engine and wind. I’ll tell him when to make a loop. Flight time costs $289 an hour; I want to keep this short. I know where eelgrass meadows have grown in the past, so we’ll fly loops around those flats, keeping me on the inside of the turn, lens pointing down. Starting at Tidal Falls, we head up Taunton River, loop around the basin between Route One bridge and the falls. I unlatch the window on my side and let the wind hold it open. I’m also looking for kelp beds, so get shots of those along the Sullivan shore. On to Cedar and Evergreen Points where the bay opens up. Cross Havey Point, then swing a big loop around Burying Island Ledge. Not much eelgrass here, though it used to be thick. Along the west shore of Egypt Bay—where it’s really coming back since the 2001 dieback. Loop around Egypt Bay, getting a good shot of horseshoe crab beach and the eelgrass both sides of Egypt Stream channel. Cross Butler Point to West Brook Cove, get three shots of spreading eelgrass. Loop Creasy Cove to get shots of the three groups of boulders called Seal Rocks. Then on up the shore to Round Island and Shipyard Point, making a loop at the entrance to Hog Bay. Along Saltmarsh, Hog Bay the north shore to get shots of the salt marsh (bright green from weeks of rain) and do a loop around Hog Bay to show eelgrass coming in where the channel is cutting a new course through the mud. Down mid-channel to Hatch Point and the land-based aquaculture operation, then loop the flats there, and on further to Evergreen Point with its mussel bar and eelgrass bed. Turn down Taunton River to the bridge, then head for the airport. Touching down, we’ve been in the air exactly half an hour—$125 worth of flight time.

I never imagined on my first flight in 1992 I’d still be doing the same thing in 2009. But eelgrass growth is different every year, depending on seasonal conditions of sun, rain, salinity, Eelgrass in Egypt Bay_2009 temperature, disease organisms, and so on. With eelgrass you never know. It died back in the 1930s, made a comeback in the 1950s, peaked in 1973, eased off in the 1980s, came back throughout the 1990s, almost disappeared in 2001, and is now making a gradual comeback. One large meadow at the base of Butler Point thrived in 1955, was half gone by 1985, and went missing in 1993. That’s a worst-case scenario. Eelgrass is habitat for fish nurseries, crabs, and all sorts of estuarine life. An underwater flowering plant, it is one of the primary producers—including rockweed, marsh grass, kelp, other algae, and phytoplankton—on which all life in Taunton Bay depends, including predators such as kingfishers, ducks and geese, ospreys, and eagles. Without eelgrass, Taunton Bay wouldn’t be Taunton Bay. So Friends of Taunton Bay (one of which I am) pays close attention to eelgrass. Which explains the eight overflights I have made through the years.

Watching over eelgrass has turned into a real project. This most recent flight, for instance was in the planning stages for six weeks. The weather in June and early July simply didn’t conform to my wishes. My garden is slug city from all of the rain. I’d consult my tide chart to see when the tide would be low (exposing the eelgrass) during early morning with slight wind, add two hours to compensate for the lag between Bar Harbor tides and Taunton Bay, and call Maine Coastal Flight Center to give them a heads-up. And call back later when the rain didn’t let up or the ceiling reach the minimum 1,000 feet required for takeoff. I tried the weeks of June 8, 22, July 6—and finally had got a go-ahead on July 9, a day with blue skies and no wind. I put a lot of thought into all those weeks of doing nothing. I checked my flight plan, and kept thinking of simpler ways of getting in the loops I wanted to make. In the end I let my loopy map sit in my lap and decided to rely on intuition in telling Eric where and when to make a loop. That way—and by making every shot count—I cut five minutes off last year’s flight time.

I left the airport by car about 9:15 and got back to my apartment at 9:35. I loaded the photos into my computer, and began PhotoShopping each frame about 10:00 a.m. I changed the resolution of each image from 72 to 160 pixels per inch, the size of the long dimension from 22 to 10 inches (to fit the PowerPoint screen), adjusting brightness and contrast as appropriate. At noon-thirty I heated lunch, then transferred the photos to my PowerPoint-blogging laptop and got to work on the presentation. I finished labeling each slide with its location in the bay at 5:00 p.m., having spent an entire day on this installment of the project. I made a CD, ate dinner, then went to a meeting of Friends of Taunton Bay where I handed over the CD. I stress the minor details because that’s what a project is made of. If you attend to every detail, all will be well. There are no substitutes for loving what you do and getting good at it.

A day in the life, made possible by personal consciousness. Just like Michelangelo painting the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, Emily Dickinson turning her life’s energy into poetry, Hillary Clinton devoting her life to public service, or Beethoven putting sonatas from his head into music notation, here I am giving my all for eelgrass. At least for several days out of the year. The payoff of my paying close attention to eelgrass has been the emerging sense of understanding why the beds in Taunton Bay suffered such a sharp decline in 2001. Making a PowerPoint of photos from my 2007 overflight, I saw image after image pointing to dilution of the bay by fresh water as the key to the dieback in 2001. Or lack thereof, 2001 being the year of least rainfall in Maine in 111 years of keeping records. The year with the greatest amount of runoff from snowmelt was 1973—when eelgrass peaked in the bay. Photos revealed eelgrass recovering first in small stream channels draining freshwater across the mud flats. Maine’s eelgrass expert, Hilary Neckles with the USGS, told me that the dieback disease organism thrives under conditions of maximum salinity, and is held in check by brackish (less saline) waters typical of most estuaries. With only 20-some inches of rain in 2001, salinity rose in Taunton Bay, giving an edge to the disease organism, which attacked the eelgrass, causing the dieback. Putting the evidence together, my consciousness reached a new level of understanding of events in one little bay in Maine. I’ve long maintained that, as goes the watershed, so goes Taunton Bay. Eelgrass, being dependent on its watershed to an extreme degree for the desirable dilution of full-strength salt water, was done-in by the drought. In wet years such as we’ve had recently, it’s making a comeback.

Which is a long way of saying that projects not only get us organized, but can lead to new ways of understanding the specific situations within which we live. By focusing the mind, projects enable us to surpass ourselves.

If we would apply that logic to the many crises of under-standing we face today, I think we wouldn’t keep repeating the same old mistakes that, evolution-like, keep us tied to outmoded ways instead of reaching ahead to keep up with changing times. Did Michelangelo settle for what he did yesterday? Did Emily Dickinson, Hillary Clinton, or Ludwig van Beethoven? Is writing one string quartet the same as writing 35 of them? Not on your life! Through channeling our energies into specific projects, we sharpen our skills and comprehension both. The ultimate project of saving the world by making humankind safe for the Earth deserves the maximum talents we can develop in ourselves. Anything less under current conditions is an absolute copout. Let’s hear it for eelgrass, for projects, for consciousness raising in hard times! Let’s get our heads together and do the necessary work. If evolution can’t guarantee success, then the heavy lifting is now up to us. All it will take is directing our attention into projects that will make us as good at solving problems as, unthinking, we are at creating them.

My Wings

 

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(Copyright © 2009)

But enough of my own consciousness. I am also interested in how other people experience their own minds. Since I do not have direct access to other minds in other bodies leading other lives, I leave the reporting of what they discover through personal introspection to them as being complementary to my own research.

From time to time I will post (as guest blogs) such reports as I come across them. Today I have permission to share a piece recently published in the Vassalboro Quarter Newsletter, “A Garden of Forgiveness” by Maggie Edmondson, who lives in Readfield, Maine. Maggie writes, “I am very interested in imagination and the spiritual power of metaphor.”

A GARDEN of FORGIVENESS

Maggie Edmondson

While I was in England this time last year the Chelsea Flower Show was in full swing. There were something like thirty 10×20 gardens created for the event by landscape artists and for several evenings there were shows about them on the television. As a garden lover I enjoyed this tremendously and noted down features I thought I might be able to incorporate in my own garden.

But I also wondered how people might benefit from the garden idea who had no land to plant. My imagination started to work with the idea of designing an inner garden. How would that garden look and feel and smell? Would it be all tranquil shades of green as some of those Chelsea gardens were, maybe accented with a few pure white flowers? Would it have waterfalls or other water features to give it an element of purification and regeneration? Would it be a riot of color to replace a sense of bleakness? Would its form be simple and elegant or strange and fanciful? I had a feeling that if we were to allow our hearts and imaginations to do their nonverbal, image-building work, we might create individualized inner garden retreats which would feed our souls.

Then, through one of those wonderful “coincidences” when I attended meeting that Sunday a Friend who was a keen gardener spoke about her struggles to forgive things from her past. She expressed it as a desire to plant a garden of forgiveness. My imaginings of an inner garden became focused over the next few days toward an inner garden of forgiveness. I started to choose plants appropriate to my memories of places or people—a mulberry tree, a wall covered in climbing roses, bluebells, primroses and blackberry bushes, a stream with stepping stones. I also remembered some of the attributes traditionally associated with certain plants:

Gerbera daisies for beauty and innocence—what a wonderful thing to plant where there has been ugliness and abuse;

Irises for faith, hope and wisdom where there has been despair or lack of direction;

Vines for new life, regeneration in those places which seem dead and withered;

Honeysuckle for generosity where there has been selfishness or closed-fistedness;

Roses for love and admiration, where there has been anger or hatred or lack of appreciation; and

Forget-me-Nots, whose name says it all.

That garden lives vividly within my imagination, within my spirit. I can walk its pathways, experience its healing presence, feel the spirit of the One in whom we live and move and have our being. Thanks be to God who speaks to us in so many ways, including our imaginations.

Iris-72

Reflection 30: Barack and I

November 29, 2008

(Copyright © 2008) 

Barack Obama and I make a pretty good team. He handles his end, I handle mine. I’ll start with my end since it’s fresh in my mind.

 

I’ve honed Saturday mornings to a fine routine. Get up, shower, put a week’s dirty clothes in the washer, make breakfast, put clothes in the dryer, read the paper, take clothes out of the dryer, sort and fold, make the bed, blog, go to the post office, make lunch, and so on.

 

This Saturday is different. I get up too late to beat other tenants to the washer. Do breakfast first. I still take eye drops after cataract surgery, so squirt both eyes. Made yogurt last night, so go to take the four quart jars out of the oven (warmed by the oven light), and find one jar has cracked in the night. The bottom of the oven is a pool of milky water. Reaching for paper towels, I knock six plastic water bottles off the shelf where I’d left them in plain view as a reminder to recycle them. Kicking bottles aside, I kneel and sop up the mess. Throwing wet towels toward the wastebasket, I notice flying ants crawling up the wall, a squadron of five. Squish the ants. Notice others on the floor. Squish them, too. Back to the oven. Take more eye drops. Start heating buckwheat for breakfast. Continue kneeling, kicking bottles, sopping, squishing ants. Put broken shards in the sink, rinse, put in drainer to dry so I can recycle them. Eat breakfast. Take the last of this round of drops.

 

Whenever I revert to the standard routine, I don’t have to think about it. I just do it by rote. This particular Saturday my consciousness is in gear the whole time. I am keenly alert, aware even of being aware. I notice that I notice myself noticing. I am blogging as I live the event, separating novel sequences from the standard routine. For the first time appreciating the routine as what it is.

 

Phone rings. It’s Carole. We talk about what to have for dinner, who will bring what. I have rice and broccoli, she turkey leftovers. I tell her about my morning so far. She tells me Barack Obama held three press conferences in three days. He’s really taking charge. The market has noticed and held its own. Meanwhile, Michele asks him if he’s going to take the children to school tomorrow. Sounds a lot like my day. He handles the financial mess, I clean the oven; he takes the kids to school, I kill flying ants. Between the two of us there’s hope. If we all do our part.

 

Such is consciousness. With eyes and ears open, and wits about us, we can plunge into novel situations. Rise above our habitual selves. Handle things our mother’s never told us about.

 

Consciousness is closely related to imagination and creativity. To looking ahead, not back. Thinking outside the box. Rising to the occasion. Doing what needs to be done.

 

Too, I think consciousness is contagious. It takes one person noticing something new, then acting appropriately. Dealing with the problem. That’s called leadership. The rest of us wake up, open our eyes, and see what now seems so obvious but was hidden only yesterday.

 

It’s been a great Saturday so far. Hope is in the air. The sun is shining, the stove is clean, Barack is on top of things. The day isn’t done yet, but we’ve made a good beginning.

¦

 

Reflection 24: Population

November 17, 2008

(Copyright © 2008)

At the moment I start to write this blog, the world population of humans is figured to be 6,736,025,062 (POPClock, U.S. Bureau of Standards, Population Division, 3:57 p.m. Eastern Standard Time, November 10, 2008).

 

The world population reached some 300 million in Y0K (that’s a zero representing the millennial turn from B.C. to A.D.), reached its first billion about 1830 or earlier, its second billion in 1930, third in 1960, fourth in 1974, fifth in 1987, sixth in 1999, and is predicted to hit its seventh billion by 2017.

 

What makes these numbers so scary to me is, 1) the human population has more than tripled since I was born, 2) in my lifetime per-capita material consumption in the U.S. has shot up by a factor of six, 3) average life expectancy in the U.S. has stretched from 60 to 80 years over the same span, and 4) we have achieved all this at the expense of the Earth. I am mixing apples and oranges here, but only to make the point that during my brief tenure on Earth there are vastly greater numbers of us living much longer and consuming far more than our human ancestors did from the origin of our species to the 1930s.

 

We know all this. We also know that this horde of hungry hominids (namely, us) is eating away the habitats that give it a homeland on planet Earth. We are depleting the very species and ecosystems we depend on for life support. The forests, wetlands, grasslands, waterways, estuaries, oceans. We are changing the climate, the acidity of the seas, storm frequency and intensity—there are few aspects of our planet we haven’t impacted and destabilized to our peril.

 

Yet we do little about it. Red lights are flashing, sirens wailing, klaxons honking, flares igniting, bulletins alerting, headlines glaring, seas rising, bluffs eroding—and it’s all business as usual with us hominid types and our lifestyles that are fast turning into deathstyles.

 

Consciousness is given us so we can make appropriate responses to unprecedented life situations. So why aren’t we doing anything? Is it because we aren’t really conscious of what’s happening? By way of a contrasting example, I offer the time in Nespelum, Washington, when I went into the bushes to urinate, met a rattlesnake crossing the path in front of me, turned, walked away, and I no longer had to go. I was fully conscious and as a result clamped my bladder tight for over an hour. That’s consciousness leading to appropriate action.

 

But now we act like we’re in a deep sleep or coma: Let them take care of it, whoever they are. I didn’t do it. Besides, I can’t fix it. So individually and collectively we do nothing. Or worse than nothing, we keep multiplying, consuming, growing older and older, depleting the Earth. Every day we wake up and the problem is worse. In the past twelve years, more than a billion more people have been born than died. Consumers have rampaged through markets and malls, going deeply into debt, having their way with the Earth. And still we do nothing.

 

What’s wrong with our consciousness? With our exploring our options? With our prioritizing? With our acting and following-through? With our using our know-how and experience to get us out of this fix?

 

Like, we don’t have to live our full span of years, splurging the bulk of our life-long medical expenditures on a terminal spree during our last six months of life. Living for a shorter time has the same effect as cutting the population. We consume less, and yet enjoy ourselves more because we are in better health. Check that: no heroic efforts to gain a few extra months of “life” hooked up to expensive machines. No, not even if the medical establishment entices us (after all, they make a killing on forlorn hopes and end-of-life theatrics). Not even if our loved ones don’t want to let go.

 

A few years ago, my beloved cousin fell and injured her hand. Which got infected. Sending a clot to her heart, then on to her kidneys. Her lungs were already kaput from a fifty-year career of smoking to keep herself thin. Now it was quadruple bypass surgery, dialysis to detoxify herself, lying in bed for a year because standing and walking were too much effort. She and her daughters believed they could will her kidneys to heal themselves. But it didn’t pan out. After a year with no lifestyle at all she died, leaving a portfolio of unpaid hospital bills as her legacy. Is that how we want our loved ones to go, with a stifled (and costly) whimper, not a bang?

 

Conservation is the key to squandering fewer of Earth’s natural “resources.” I mean using fewer resources, not developing alternative technologies to sustain us at the same level of consumption. We can contribute to the resolution of our predicament by restraining our appetites, reusing what we do take, recycling, sharing, and weaning ourselves from dependence on petroleum-guzzling machinery by slowing down and relying more on our own labor. Think what that would do for our epidemic of obesity.

 

But then there’s the trail of toxic pollution we dribble behind us as we consume our merry way through life. Water pollution from fertilizers, pesticides, herbicides, fungicides, pet waste, farm waste, industrial waste, military waste. We keep facing ahead so we can’t see the puddles swamping our footprints. The wasted soils and aquifers. Or the dead zones downstream.

 

Nothing new here. We know all this. But “knowing” a fact in the abstract is not the same as experiencing it in full frontal awareness. There’s a great pit opening at our feet, and we pretend it’s not there. I don’t see anything. Me neither. Let’s keep our eyes closed and run as fast as we can.

 

When you look straight at something and don’t see it, it’s called denial. Or suppression. Or blindness. When you look straight at something, see it, and don’t act appropriately, it’s called ignorance. Or stupidity. Either way, it bodes ill for survival. We have seen the damage a C-minus president can do once in high office by elevating party loyalty and secrecy above wisdom and justice. We put him there, and kept him there, so we got the president we deserved. He’s slipping out the door now, but we’re still here, doing our thing. Hoping Obama’s the man to make the bad dream go away. Will we do our part when he asks us to? Remains to be seen.

 

Consciousness, where art thou when we need you? As always, there’s nobody here but us chickens. Only our collective consciousness can heal Earth, its peoples, and our nation—along with our personal judgment, motivation, and ultimately our actions.

 

So what do we do now? As I see it, we’ve been on cruise control for too long. It’s become a habit with us. But we’ve come to a village and have to slow down—rethink our life situation. The trick to effective use of consciousness is to see it as a kind of time machine. The meanings we put on events all come from concepts and experiences laid down in the past. The sensory phenomena of today are the face of the present. What we’ve been doing is mapping past meanings onto present images, treating the now as an extension of the way things used to be. But that isn’t good enough because our life situation has changed. There are too many of us now, living too high on the hog, outlasting our dreams, abusing the Earth.

 

The question is, where do we find guidance to take us into the future? That’s where imagination comes in, providing a vision of the way things might turn out if we did things differently from before. Like slowing down when we drive through a village because of the risk of hitting a child chasing a ball into the street. If we don’t see the child behind the car, we have to imagine her there and drive accordingly. That vigilance is part of consciousness, too.

 

Let me give an example. I once snowshoed up Cadillac Mountain Road in Acadia the day after a big snowstorm. It was Saturday, and all the snowmobilers were out. That road is one blind curve after another. What I noticed was the difference between how solo riders took those curves compared to riders with their ladies sitting behind them. The young Turks all commandeered the center of the road and sped around the turns with no thought that unseen riders might be coming the other way. Those with ladies slowed, kept to the right, and watched for coming traffic they couldn’t yet see.

 

When judgment selects which of our options for action to support, it considers the likely consequences of each option and goes for the one with the highest probability of getting us where we want to go. That is, all things considered, consciousness recommends actions for their future effects, not their adherence to outmoded traditions, habits, or sentiments. When old ways no longer prove effective, consciousness takes a fresh look at novel behaviors.

 

Novelty is our key to appropriate action that will bring in the world of the future. In Maine, everybody stops at yard sales to scan the tables for good stuff, cheap. Not necessarily brand-new stuff, but stuff new to us. Shopping sprees are satisfying because they renew the human spirit with colorful, bright, shiny stuff. Think of the possibilities opening out of a box of new Legos in red, white, and blue. Dinosaurs. Skyscrapers. Robots. With enough of these building blocks, you can make anything you want.

 

So applying consciousness as a time machine for building a new future, we have to reconsider the meaning of our growing population, our level of consumption, our life expectancy, and our relation to the Earth. Old ways have gotten us where we find ourselves today. We have to learn to look around the curve ahead to see what may be coming at us. No more backing lost causes or forlorn hopes (think bundled mortgages). We have to fit ourselves more appropriately to the now situation rather than blindly keep on as we’ve gone before. I’m talking about finding novel ways of doing and living. About being ourselves differently—and loving it because it accords with our expanded awareness.

 

Throughout the industrial era, buying stuff has kept the global economy going year after year. Now we have to see such “stuff” as gifts from an Earth that can give only so much on a sustainable basis. Taking more than Earth can afford leads to collapse of natural systems which govern themselves. We see that now. Outdoing ourselves year after year in turning wealth into goods, we’ve managed to undo the source that keeps us alive. There are simply too many of us, living too long, consuming too much stuff, giving too little attention to where our wealth comes from.

 

Our goal now is to provide a truly sustainable situation for every person on Earth, along with each of Earth’s other plant and animal inhabitants. Our planet (we belong to it, not it to us) has a limited capacity to tolerate and support us. Collectively spending beyond our means has bankrupted the planet, our ultimate repository of wealth. The debt we owe is not to banks but Earth itself.

 

How many of us can live sustainably on Earth, at what level of consumption, for how many years, with what attitude toward our planetary host and benefactor? We must wrap our consciousness around these questions and come up with answers in short order. That is the challenge to which we were born, and cannot escape.

 

After writing for a spell, going to the post office and the store, after cooking dinner, after eating, after reading and listening to the news, as I finish this blog at 9:36 p.m., the world population of humans is figured to be 6,736,076,770.

 

That’s 51,708 more mouths for Earth to feed than when I sat down to write five hours and thirty-nine minutes ago—over 152 added every minute. T i m e   i s  w a s t i n g   a w a y. If we forgot to set the alarm, let this be it. If we are the problem, let us be the solution as well. Sleepers AWAKE!

¦

 

Reflection 14: Mindreading

October 28, 2008

(Copyright © 2008)

We generally think of language as a matter of words, but we know it is much more than that. How we deliver an utterance is every bit as important as what we say. Think of Martin Luther King’s “I have a dream” speech and you will know what I mean. The music of language includes pitch, intonation, rhythm, pace, voicing, and other nonverbal aspects. Body language adds to the message. Our stance tells how engaged we are, our facial expressions and hand movements underscore what we say, and as always our eyes speak volumes about our attitude toward our topic, hearers, and speech occasions. Our eyes, after all, are forward extensions of our brains. The light within is the very radiance of our mental activity.

 

Do these factors enter conscious awareness? Not very often. We take them in as part of the message and its occasion without really paying attention to them. If we think we are receiving mixed messages from someone, then we may start looking for discord between the different channels involved in language. But generally we regard them as incidental rather than as essential clues to how we are to interpret a given utterance.

 

We do know that talking with someone on the telephone is very different from speaking with them face-to-face. Without seeing posture, gestures, and facial expressions, it is harder to understand what is being said, and harder to get our own side of the conversation across. “Do you know what I’m saying?” doesn’t really do much beyond make the listener feel like a dope.

 

Written language is even worse in that regard because it deprives us of the non-vocal sounds that are intimately bound to words on the page but simply aren’t there. Exclamation and question marks help, as do commas and periods, but they provide very rude support in helping us block out the message. Mostly we fall back on imagination to fill in the missing parts, so we read with an as if kind of attitude—as if we were witnessing someone actually saying those words. That is, we are left to fill in the gaps for ourselves, and there’s no sure way of knowing if we are reading the situation correctly or not. As in reading poetry, we have to use every clue we are given.

 

This is a kind of language participation that often gives persons with autism a great deal of difficulty. They have trouble reading postures, gestures, expressions, and eyes. Which are all parts of the language occasion or situation. They hear the literal words without all the trimmings that help make it clear what is being said. So their consciousness of language is diminished to a degree. Neuroscientists say those with autism often lack a “theory of mind” that lets them identify with the mental states and intentions of others, so they can’t “read” their minds. Even though few of us are aware such signals are part of everyday language, we are taking them in on some level and our understanding acknowledges that fact. Which is a tricky part of consciousness because we register the effects of those signals without being aware of the evidence itself.

 

We may not know how we do it, but in many situations we are able to read minds. How do we know that we know what we think we know is going on in another person’s head? The short answer is we can’t ever know for sure. But the long answer is that many times we can trust our intuition. Without such an ability, how would we ever feel empathy for another’s condition? How could we ever be with anyone else in spirit? How could we communicate on an intimate level, and so feel connected? Consciousness must be an additive function that doesn’t settle for taking the world at face value but adds an assortment of subliminal signals into a coherent impression beyond what can be experienced directly through sensory channels. And when the signals don’t add up, we become consciously aware of dissonance or mixed messages that put us on our guard.

 

I suspect we learn to read other people’s intentions very early in childhood through imitation of their gestures and expressions in a spirit of play. That way we establish a kind of resonance based on a caregiver’s grasp of our level of understanding, and build on that. In short order we get good at mimicking gestures and facial expressions (for which we are rewarded with feedback such as smiles, giggles, hugs, and kisses), which leads to anticipating what others are going to say and do, as if we could read their minds. Way before our formal schooling, through playful interactions we have laid the foundation for social exchanges we will rely on every day of our lives.

 

Our mindreading skills stem from imagination reinforced by positive feedback. We put ourselves out there and learn from what happens. Taking the feedback to heart, we venture again. And again. These fundamental social skills are acquired by pulling ourselves up by our own bootstraps. Scientists talk about the brain as a computer performing computations based on information received from outside. But really, “information” isn’t informative in this sense because the brain doesn’t have access to the situation in which data becomes meaningful on its own. The information-processing view is laid on our brains by others, but each of us develops consciousness on the inside by making gestures in the world, receiving feedback, refining our gestures, and modifying our behavior in a kind of endless loop of experience that is self-generating and self-improving. We on the inside are always the judge of what is effective and what isn’t. Those around us have as much to learn from us as we do from them.

 

Consciousness is spurred by imagination and a spirit of fun. Forget information. The more merriment, the better.

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