Reflection 286: Layout

July 4, 2012

Copyright 2012 by Steve Perrin

Like the lay of the land, here’s how I see the lay of my mind.

I picture the basic layout of my mind (distinct from my brain) as consisting of two areas, an incoming, sensory area, and an outgoing, motor or behavioral area. Introspection ponders the interplay between the two areas to learn how sensory stimulation leads to physical action, and how action spurs further sensory stimulation.

My mind appears against a background of memories, dreams, a sense of my bodily position in space, among assorted cultural gifts such as language, numbers, science, religion, art, and other customary models for conducting our affairs, all of which I can draw upon at any time in becoming familiar with myself.

Too, my mind appears to be composed of diverse “elements” or “dimensions,” as a band is composed of players of diverse instruments, each contributing a different range of sounds. On the sensory side, I can detect degrees of interest or arousal, expectancy, and attention even before noticing sensory impressions at a particular level of sensory detail. I very quickly resort to interpretation of a concrete sensory impression in terms of a conceptual grouping of similar impressions, readily fitting it to a group I am familiar with through personal experience. This morning, for instance, I heard a bird call which I recognized as a series of notes sounded by what I call “black-capped chickadees,” thinking to myself, “that’s a chickadee” even though it may have been a mockingbird. I am capable of categorizing just a few chords as “Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony.”

Still on the sensory side of my mind, I discover positive or negative feelings about how I receive sensory impressions based on generalizing from prior experiences, along with values I place on such things in my organized field of understanding the relationship between various sensory experiences as interpreted.

The upshot of all this sensory processing in my mind is a sense of the situation I am engaged in, raising the question of how I am to make an appropriate response to that situation to further develop my engagement. Which advances me to consideration of dimensions on the motor side of my mind leading to physical action.

On the motor side, I begin with judgments about my current situation, which inform my decisions about the direction I want to head and the goals I would like to achieve in furthering my current engagement. The goals suggest various projects and relationships I might undertake to achieve them. Here I enter the planning stage that prepares the way for specific actions to take as appropriate to my situation as I construe it in my mind. Executing the moves I plan to make, I monitor my behavior as I go with awareness of how my body is positioned to accomplish what I set out to do.

Then my surroundings change (or not) in response to my actions, affecting (or not) my senses in new ways, setting up another round of sensory and motor engagement in my ever streaming consciousness.

Through introspection, I see that I rely on the separate dimensions of my mind to different degrees as my circumstances require, and that I have alternative levels of engagement to fall back on to save time and energy in achieving a desired result.

To sum up, some of the dimensions of my mind that introspection might encounter include, on the sensory side: arousal, expectancy, attention, sensory impressions, various levels of detail, interpretation, feelings, values, understanding, all adding to the makeup of an existential situation as I construe it in awareness. And on the motor side: judgments, decisions, goals, projects, relationships, plans, all leading to more-or-less effective action in the world.

I offer this rough anatomy of what introspection can lead you to discover in your mind not to discourage you but more to whet your curiosity about what you might learn about yourself if you stick at it for a time. Is it worth the effort? Since there is no other alternative available to us mortals short of living to the end, I would say yes, it is worth it. If I had known at thirty what I now know at almost eighty, I think I could have made more of a significant contribution to saving humanity from self-destruction in the name of “progress.” Where you put your personal effort is up to you. I just want to insert an option that doesn’t get much play these days because nobody stands to make money from your personal effort to know yourself better. Two things are certain: we have not yet bought or fought our way to a better or happier world. I say it’s time to try something so old it seems new.

I remain, as ever, y’r friend, –Steve from Planet Earth

(Copyright © 2009)

By “bird consciousness” I mean my inner experience of birds rather than whatever it is birds might be conscious of in their own minds. My consciousness of birds is challenging enough without venturing onto the slippery slope of what kind of world birds make for themselves.

To set the stage: yesterday I rowed to the island where workers were replacing the roof of the stone cabin my father built in 1941. The old roof had leaked on and off for almost 70 years, so my brother in Hamilton decided to fix the problem with a new one made of modern materials laid down by professionals. He was paying the bill; I wanted to get a few pictures of work in progress to show him what the job looked like.

On the island, I revert to my island self, camera ready, ever on the watch for the state of the tide, wind direction, shore erosion, wildlife, fallen trees, approaching storms, and other concerns. I talk with the roofers, take a few pictures, walk the trails. Everywhere I see and hear birds. Song and white-throated sparrows, loons, winter wrens, hermit thrushes, cormorants, ring-billed gulls, crows, red-breasted nuthatch, even an adult eagle in the nest. I am at home among old friends and close neighbors.

But blogging about consciousness as I do, I find the island less simple than it used to be. What is it about that flitting shape that says red-breasted nuthatch? What about those calls announces hermit thrush or loon? These are labels for interpretations of shapes, motion, coloring, size, sounds, settings, and expectations all pointing to one bird and not another. Conceptual birds at that. Birds in my head. Is that where they are? Are they stimuli which I recognize?  Representations of stimuli? Percepts by themselves? Percepts joined to concepts so I am able to identify the class they belong to? I came over to talk to the workers and here I am roaming the trails, talking to myself.

Such is my life these days. As both investigator and subject of my own introspection, I find little firm ground to anchor my boat to. I am ruled by mixed metaphors. Like the Indian clubs I wrote about the other day (see Reflection 131: Feedback), everything is up in the air. I am back with Aristotle trying to figure the relation between thinker, thought, and the thing thought about. How do words jibe with nonverbal experience? When I see a bird, what am I really seeing? Bird on branch? Representation in my head of bird on branch? Sensory or phenomenal bird on branch? Sensory and conceptual bird on branch at the same time? Fulfilled expectation of bird on branch? If not a mess, my bird consciousness seems at least more complicated than in the old days when a bird was a bird was a bird, always and forever.

It’s like trying to make sense of lichens that have the nature of both algae and fungi. I saw a lot of them yesterday on the island. Or slime molds—I saw bright yellow swarms of  them, too. Slime molds boast two different natures—fungal and animal. They crawl about the forest floor like so many amoebas—or massed mushrooms! It depends on how you look at them. Slime on the move, it can flow through tightly woven silk, then set spores and make more of the same stuff. Animal, vegetable, mineral? Hard to say. With free-floating nuclei not separated by cell membranes, they have herd and individual mentalities at the same time. After blogging about conscious-ness for nine months now, that’s how I feel about my own mind: hard to say what it is, where it is.

We talk about birds all the time as if they were up in the air, out on the water, or right here on the land. Yet every bird we see is clearly in our minds at the same time. Not all in one place but spread throughout in a great many separate representations—over 40 for visual aspects alone. To us, those collective representations are what the bird is. We don’t have immediate access to the bird itself that somehow bypasses our sensory apparatus, and there’s no little homunculus in a screening room watching the show. No, the bird can’t be in our eye as an upside-down optical image—that’s only the beginning. It’s there all right, but pixelated by individual photoreceptors which convert it to brain language in terms of ionic flows and neurotransmitters. From there on, for us, it’s existence is strictly electro-chemical.

Yet somehow birds are emergent properties that flit about consciousness as if in the aviary at the Washington Zoo. How do they get there by such a long route as if beamed down in an ion transporter at this very instant? Will I ever understand? Is it possible to understand? Does it make any sense to try to understand? What would happen if I just accepted the fact that consciousness happens, and let it go at that.

Then what would I blog about? My children, my day, what I had for lunch, or ideas other people wrote about without consulting me? No, at this stage of my life, I am called to blog about consciousness. That is, to enable consciousness to blog about itself. And consciousness, being an aspect of the universe, to give the universe a chance to blog about itself. That seems to be what I am doing. I didn’t ask for this, it’s just the position the universe has put me in, so I’m bent on meeting the assignment the best I can.

Start again. My topic today, class, is bird consciousness. Consciousness of birds, not by birds. One thing I know, it’s all in my head. Another thing is, my brain makes it happen, helped along by the rest of my body, and the situation I’m in as I construe it, along with my experience of that particular bird. So the bird image, meaningful as it is, is not alone. It exists in a situation that favors observation of birds—like me walking along a wooded trail where birds are apt to appear. I’m familiar with birds. I’ve been watching them for years, training myself to identify them from minimal clues. Lilt of a wing, coloration where I expect it to be, familiar call—these are in my head because I’ve taken pains to put them there. The bird is the end result of my learning to see birds as I have trained myself for many years.

So consciousness isn’t given out fully formed and operational but is learned bit-by-bit over a lifetime. Largely by trial and error. I’ve made a lot of blunders and misidentifications. But with the restricted set of birds I am apt to see on the island, I’m not all that bad. Even with sandpipers, which are notoriously hard to tell one from another. Some sandpipers. Some of the time when conditions are favorable.

So there’s more to consciousness than simply opening your eyes or your ears. Consciousness is learned by doing. It hoists itself by its own bootstraps, getting better at it every day. In my case, it doesn’t just happen to me; I make it happen. Not just because it’s there, but because it’s important. To me. At the time. I set the standard of achievement. That’s what it means to be me. Consciousness is self-determining because any particular person is self-motivated and invested in the results. Like riding a bicycle or rowing a boat, consciousness is a skill. We have to learn to avoid the pitfalls if we want to get it right.

Let me talk about rowing. It’s ready to mind because I rowed to the island and back yesterday. It’s always an exercise in navigation, getting from A to B across a mile of waves and currents, my back to my path through the water, which is every bit as hard as it might seem. Like consciousness, rowing is a learned skill. Yesterday, for instance, I could see where I wanted to land a mile away from where I launched, but there were three tidal crosscurrents I couldn’t see but knew from experience were there to be dealt with. The challenge was figuring which direction to head out, taking those currents into account, in order to end up where I wanted to be on the far side of my crossing. The currents I would be rowing across moved at three different speeds, so I had to average their speed and width in choosing my initial heading, otherwise they would sweep me well past my landing of choice. Normally, I would factor-in wind strength and direction as well, but the wind was light so I could focus on the currents, which at the time of my crossing were at greatest strength. To make a long story short, I adjusted my heading every few minutes in light of what portion of my trip lay ahead—ending up right where I wanted to be with minimal expenditure of effort.

A lesson that applies to consciousness as well. You have to prefigure it if you want to get it right, taking feedback into account the whole way. We get good at those skills we practice the most. Taking consciousness as a given, we find it full of surprises we aren’t good at anticipating. We often get it wrong without realizing it. As in baseball, if we don’t see the drop or curve coming, we swing and we miss. Seeing consciousness as an acquired skill, we do our best to navigate the crosscurrents sure to throw us off course.

In a very real sense, consciousness is what we make of it. Like the jinni in the bottle, it will grant the wishes we lay on it. In speaking of pitfalls and crosscurrents of consciousness, I am speaking metaphorically, which is the only way I have of giving my inner workings some kind of shape I can deal with. Even neuroanatomists have the same problem in naming parts of the brain: the amygdala looks like an almond (which is what the word means in Latin), and the hippocampus like a seahorse (ditto). We paint the brain as a “computer” with the job of “processing information” for similar reasons. Are there really “representations” of stimuli in the mind as Aristotle claimed (so-called “likenesses of things”), or did he put them there for us? Would we ID “reality” if we saw it, or is that just a name we use to mask our ignorance? I suspect consciousness works the other way round, reality fulfilling the vision we entertain beforehand in experience and then cast on the world. That is, reality is what we make of it through consciousness.

If that is true, then much of the sense brain science makes of the brain is literally that—a manmade balm to suit the preconceptions brought to the study of the brain and its mind. Inadvertently but dependably, is it possible the conceptual tools we use are salting the mine even as we dig? Is there any way to dig without hitting upon the preconceptions with which we advance? That seems to be how consciousness works, tailoring our findings to our circumstances, the situations we find ourselves in as we construe or imagine them—and then make them come true. That is certainly how fiction works. Are works of nonfiction any different as far as consciousness is concerned?

To bring these heartfelt conjectures to a conclusion of sorts, let me tell you what just happened. For months now I’ve been piling papers and magazines I want to save on the little table at the end of my bookcase, balancing each addition very carefully so not to disturb things. Next to the pile is a packed bin of stuffed file folders on one side, a stack of mounted photos and posters too big to fail because too big to file. As I was writing the last sentence of the paragraph before this one, the whole construction let go and is now heaped on the floor. Like what I’ve been saying about consciousness, it was all my own doing.

Ring-Billed Gull-72

 

(Copyright © 2009)

It is 5:12 A.M. I am standing with a group of 18 Native and non-native Americans on the summit of Cadillac Mountain in Acadia National Park. We are in the clouds; it is raining. I am first to arrive… but not really the first. Three fire-tenders have been there all night, drumming to keep themselves warm and awake while keeping the fire. The others arrive at this sunrise without the sun. We circle the fire—and more particularly, the bed of glowing coals the fire-tenders have spread. The coals are pulsing orange; we in our rain gear are blue, green, brown, yellow, red. Three stand under black umbrellas. Rain or shine, we have permission from the National Park Service to welcome the sun, begin a new day, and spiritually prepare for the gathering of Tribal environmental leaders from across the country to start later that morning.

The fire-tenders bless themselves with a smoldering braid of sweet grass lit in the coals. They pass the braid over their heads and backs, arms and hands, legs and soles of feet, wafting the scented smoke over their bodies, clad as they are against the rain. Then they offer the sweet grass to each of us in turn and we bless ourselves in the same manner.

Those new to the ceremony carry on by imitation, doing for themselves as they have watched others do before them. Monkey see, monkey do, I thought to myself as I accepted the braid. But in rituals, performance is everything. If you don’t know your way, you are wise to mimic what others are doing. Then we each pinch a tuft of tobacco from a small basket, and hold it out of the rain as the fire-tenders sprinkle theirs on the coals while saying a prayer, and each of us follows the pattern. For my prayer, I say I am honored to have lived long enough to share in the fire ceremony with those gathered on the summit, including a pileated woodpecker chanting nearby. When all have spread their tobacco on the coals, and bent down to waft the smoke over themselves, the fire is put out and every trace removed as if it never had been.

Fire-Tender

But it had been, I was there, and the traces were lodged in my brain. Specifically, in the so-called mirror neuron system that translates evidence of the senses into action. Consciousness, at the junction of sensory and motor systems, is in on the translating. Whatever actions you pay particular attention to and are motivated to imitate, you can perform because mirror neurons are on the job. First discovered in macaque monkeys, mirror neurons were anticipated by William James who wrote, “every mental representation of a movement awakens to some degree the actual movement which is its object.” Thus enabling Russian babies in the presence of Russian speakers to learn how to imitate Russian (not Portuguese) vowels and consonants. And me to learn the proper way to waft sweet-grass smoke over my body in a fire ceremony atop Cadillac Mountain.

Some researchers conclude that mirror neurons enable us to infer intentions and even beliefs from the behavior of others, but I think that is a bit of a stretch. Angry looks and threatening gestures may well instill fear, but experience advises us to beware seemingly innocent situations as some kind of trap, which I see as due to interpretation, not sadder-but-wiser mirror neurons. Such neurons fire in our brains both when we perform particular acts and when we see (or hear) others performing the same acts—as if all brains were one brain, or are at least wired much the same way.

If someone else looks sad to us, we may be concerned or empathic, but looks alone do not convey the reason for that sadness which, until we understand the other’s situation, is a matter of conjectural interpretation. Look at football fans in opposite bleachers, one standing and shouting with glee while the other slumps in dejection—in response to the same play on the field. Or place yourself in the jury box witnessing one attorney presenting the facts of the case, then the opposing attorney presenting them quite differently and drawing a different conclusion. I think we should not portray mirror neurons as being smarter than they are. The situation in which they perform is every bit as important as the motor gestures themselves.

What mirror neurons do is drape sensory signals (heard, seen, or imagined) in motor clothing as if actor and beholder were the same person and could simply switch roles. But in the fire ceremony, even if I gave a reasonable imitation of a Native American performing a similar sequence of gestures, were our gestures the same or even equivalent? Considering our different backgrounds and understanding of those gestures, I was very much the novice going through certain motions without having the wit to know what I was doing. When the toddler says “dada,” he recognizes the referent he intends by that sound, but knows that referent in a very limited way compared to how Dada knows himself and what he would mean by making the same sound. The idea of male genetic parenthood is far beyond the horizon of the toddler’s small world.

In a neurological sense, mirror neurons are extremely well connected, and their signals bear overtones from other parts of the brain. They not only tie perception to concrete action, but are informed by intention, understanding, interpretation, speech, feeling, and judgment. The feel of the moment is very much a synthesis of many aspects of consciousness. I see the mirror neuron system as bridging between all parts of consciousness at the crucial juncture where sensory input leads to motor output in terms of specific behaviors judged appropriate to the life situation as currently represented in the brain and understood in the mind.

Picture an infant so stimulated that her excitement drives her to flap her arms up and down in wholehearted devotion to what is happening at the focus of her attention. She is excited because her mirror neuron system is excited—but has not yet developed a repertoire of fine-motor responses. Ready for liftoff, she makes like a bird. Think what lies ahead as she learns to suit her responses to whatever so excites her. Think of young Tiger Wood sitting in his chair watching his father practice his golf swing. Think of yourself learning to dance, throw a Frisbee, use chopsticks, or speak like a Valley Girl. Eventually you get to the master class where you pattern your behavior on a performance by the greatest mime-saxophonist-pitcher-poet-chef in the world!

Or else you settle for your halting imitation of their example and decide to live within your personal limitations by sticking to karaoke, restricting your Elvis imitation to Halloween, doting on celebrities, or following the latest fashions. I tried mightily to learn Tai Chi from a teacher who was so impatient with individual moves that he could only teach them in the full sequence of the long form by serving as an example of perfection, which, viewed from the back—or not viewed at all when I was facing away—triggered no response from my mirror neuron system and I had to give up, as I gave up jazz dancing because it was all happening too fast for me to keep to the beat.

The reason that apprenticeships and hands-on training work is due to mirror neurons firing in exactly the same way whether performing an action or observing others perform the same action. Motor planning and execution areas of the brain are involved either way. If you want to paint like Picasso, copy his portraits—each brush stroke exactly—to get inside his head (or let him into your head).

There are a lot of visualization exercises around today, striving to imagine a better future. Picturing such a result and then bringing it about may seem to be very different activities, but they are more closely linked than it seems. The connection is that many of the same mirror neurons are involved in both planning and then striving to realize that plan. To know where you are headed is half the battle; follow-through is the other half. You have a better chance of getting there if you can visualize where you’re going.

Mirror neurons were first discovered in monkeys, but reflecting on all the behaviors you have learned to execute through imitation will help you appreciate their role in human life. I didn’t just feel like an onlooker during the fire ceremony on Cadillac, I was a participant like the rest. Human see, human do. I wouldn’t have missed it for anything and now lead a larger life because I was there.

 

 

 Ω

(Copyright © 2009)

If it is true that there is no little homunculus in our heads enjoying the passing parade, it is equally true that there is not even a parade. As for representations of a parade, there are a great many (on the order of at least a 100 in any given brain), all dealing with different aspects of the parade, but there is no one street corner or theater where the float of Humpty Dumpty, say, passes by drawn by six white horses in living Sense-Surround.

Mr. Dumpty is represented by action potentials, ions streaming through membrane channels, neurotransmitters flowing across synapses, some degree of synchrony between neurons firing in different brain modules, and so on, none of which can account for the representation (or illusion) of reality, much less for reality (the parade) in-and-of itself.

Yet we keep talking about the brain as an “information processor,” as if information from the world somehow gets into our heads and forms a representation that can be taken for the world itself. Ionic or chemical signals (suggestive of patterns of energy), yes; information, no. As for interpreting such signals, each and every brain is on its own in that regard. Those signals mean to us solely what our respective minds take them to mean. Our surroundings provide patterns of energy, we map our understanding of what they might mean on those patterns.

We interpret patterns of energy from our surroundings as clues to the situation we are in at the moment, then interpret that situation as meaningful from our point of view based on our investment in that situation. Which varies, depending on how we choose to regard it. Our minds deal in the currency of conjecture and speculation, not information (as if the meaning were determined beforehand by an unidentified agent who is not in our head).

Which is not what we commonly assume or even read in some neural science textbooks. It is easier to assume information enters the brain through the senses, is coded in terms of patterns of neural activity, and is magically “represented” in one form or another, then interpreted by the mind—interpreted to have the same meaning it had on the far side of any sensory apparatus, without giving an account of how such a miracle could happen.

Energy is not meaningful in and of itself. And it is energy, not information, that impinges on our senses. Interpretation requires a context—some sort of situation within which energy takes on meaning in reference to relationships characterizing that situation. And it is no easier for situations to enter consciousness through the senses than it is for information or “reality” to make the same journey. For us, situations exist in terms of relationships between traces of brain activity, which means we derive them from ionic and molecular flows in various modules in our heads. A pretty neat trick.

Yet everyday wisdom has it that there is a one-to-one correspondence between what goes on in the world and what goes on in the minds of those who live in the world. It would be far more accurate to reverse that depiction and say that the world has no existence other than that extended to it by the minds in which it lives. For the world, in fact, does live in us and not vice versa. When we die, our versions of the world also die. Based on a few selected patterns of energy flow impinging on our senses, we project our hypothesis that the world is in such-and-such a state onto those patterns—voila! the “real” world.

That is, contrary to our naive assumptions, the world reflects to us representation we concoct in our minds consistent with the few patterns of energy flow we take the trouble to interpret. What is real is the world in our heads, the subjective (meaningful) world that guides our behavior. That other (outer) world is largely a mystery to us. We inform it according to our preferences at the moment. Information flows outward as mapped onto energy flows which are inherently meaningless until interpreted; interpretation takes place in the mind (ours or others’), not the material world.

What I’m trying to get at is how we can seemingly rise above our own consciousness to observe ourselves interpreting the world through the medium of the energy flows in which we are immersed—and which we narrowly interpret to suit ourselves. That is, I’m out to show how Michael Gazzaniga’s postulate of the left-brain interpreter provides an explanation for a great deal of human behavior that causes so much trouble in a world we can’t see very clearly for what it is.

What I’m after is ways of doing better by that world than we have done up till now. Since the world conforms to our ideas of the world, doing better by ourselves means doing better by the world, and every one of its inhabitants. We’ve had it backwards all this time. It is time to straighten the world by straightening ourselves, an approach so ancient it seems almost new to us. I think we can do it.

 

Reflection 93: Angels

April 22, 2009

 

(Copyright © 2009)

 

We are prone to leaping to conclusions on very shaky evidence. That is how our minds work. We tell ourselves stories to account for phenomena we only dimly understand. The first time I heard oldsquaws (long-tailed ducks) at night, I thought someone had opened the window on revelers at a New Year’s Eve party. The nearest house was over a mile away. I listened to the horn-tootlers for a while, rolled over, and went back to sleep. If I hadn’t seen and heard the ducks the next week, I’d have born a grudge against my dear neighbor.

 

Often, we believe what we can get away with, particularly in circles of like-minded friends. Testing the stories we tell ourselves requires careful observation and diligence. It is far easier to get by on what we think we know and let it go at that. We are impressionable to a fault, believing what we want to believe, not doing background checks on those who inform us, or questioning their motives, much less our own. We raise innocence to the level of gullibility, and are as overly trusting of others as of ourselves. Geniuses at making leaps of faith, we put a familiar face on the unknown and mysterious. We know what we believe and believe what we know.

 

Take angels, for instance. We have a word for them, therefore they exist. Angels are mentioned in the Bible, the Qur’an, Persian mythology, and The Celestial Hierarchy attributed to Pseudo-Dionysius (5th century C.E.). They are portrayed as supernatural beings mediating between God and man in the monotheistic religions of Zoroastrianism, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam.

 

Angels clearly have a history. They have been evolving in the human mind for over five millennia. In the beginning, there were messengers, which is what both Hebrew mal’ak and Greek angelos mean. Divine messengers from the heavens above. It was the vision of the sun, moon, and planets as messengers of stellar divinities in the night sky that sparked the origin of Sumerian beliefs in Mesopotamia, the same origin to which we can trace the roots of many of our modern beliefs.

 

The appeal of angels—heavenly bodies interpreted as divine messengers—was in serving as designated agents responsible for bringing affairs on Earth into accord with those in the starry realm overhead. That is, “On Earth as it is in Heaven,” or, “As above, so below.” That is powerful magic, bringing human conduct into line with the will of the gods. Such is the origin of astrology, knowledge gained through study of the stars. And beyond astrology, of theologies postulating the existence of divinities floating in the sky.

 

Angels are supernatural beings, figures that would shock us if we met them on the street. The company they keep is confined to the fabulous tales we spin in our heads to account for events we don’t understand. They have staying power in serving to explain that which cannot be explained, or which might be explained in less colorful ways.

 

The band of supernatural beings we believe in but never expect to meet face-to-face is surprisingly large. Start with the little ones, the clever, mischievous, magical scamps the likes of brownies, elves, fairies, gnomes, gremlins, imps, leprechauns, pixies, sprites, and trolls.

 

Then there are the big scary ones like giants and ogres. The ones with mixed body parts: Chimeras (lion-goat-serpent hybrids), harpies (women with the tail, wings, and talons of hawks), lamia (women-serpents who suck blood), mermaids, monsters, sphinxes (lions with the head of a man, ram, or hawk; or winged lions with the head of a woman), satyrs (bawdy goat-men), and werewolves. And the disembodied ones: banshees, bogeys, haunts, ghosts, phantoms, shades, specters, spirits, and spooks.

 

Not to forget cupids, demons, devils, dragons, genies, ghouls, hobgoblins, houri (dark-eyed virgins of Islamic paradise), poltergeists (noisy ghosts), vampires, witches, and warlocks. And for good measure, incubi (male demons that have sex with sleeping women), and succubi (female demons that have sex with sleeping men).

 

Through the years, a great many tales have been told of such beings to explain or justify specific aspects of human experience. Not all such agents are as outmoded as many of these. Who does not believe in Santa Clause to some degree, the Easter Bunny, Mother Nature or Mother Earth, Father Sky, various saints, the Tooth Fairy, Jack Frost, Ronald McDonald, Aunt Jemima, Betty Crocker, the phoenix, Hamlet, Huck Finn, Scarlet O’Hara, Don Quixote, Raggedy Ann and Andy, Sherlock Holmes, Bugs Bunny, Lassie, Archie and Veronica, Popeye, Tarzan, R2D2, Zorro, and a host of similar figures from art, literature, comics, film, theater, and TV?

 

Mickey Mouse and Garfield are as real to us today as Barack H. Obama, Charles Lindbergh, Oprah Winfrey, Humphrey Bogart, and Kim Jong-il. Aside from immediate family, a child’s world is often peopled largely with characters from books and television. How could a child not believe in Big Bird, Barney, teddy bears, Barbie, Ken, or the Cat in the Hat?

 

Our minds are filled with images of creatures we can name yet stand for beings we have never met in the flesh. We take the world we live in largely on faith. Virtual reality existed in human consciousness long before the Internet claimed it for its own. We can name these creatures, describe them, tell of their deeds, and swear to their impact on our lives. Fictitious beings are every bit as real to us as firemen, astronauts, or the president of the United States. In many cases, more real because they play a larger role in our lives and require a greater share of our attention.

 

How is it possible that fictional figures can be as real to us as natural beings of flesh-and-blood? The answer is shockingly simple. Both the natural and supernatural exist on equal footing in the same place—personal consciousness, the domain of all human experience. Unless we probe our beliefs, and test them, we have a hard time telling the difference between live and make-believe creatures. Figures in consciousness do not come flagged as real or unreal. Dreams seem every bit as convincing to us as the checkout girl in the supermarket. We are all subject to illusions and mirages—a trash bag flapping in the wind taken for a stricken crow, a stranger mistaken for an intimate friend, a friend in novel circumstances reduced to a stranger.

 

How can we tell if an object in conscious experience is real or unreal? That is, if it exists in the world or only in our heads? We must put our experiential loops to work on the matter and test our impressions. Do others see what we have seen when they stand in our place? What do the rest of our senses say? If we come back later, does the phenomenon reappear? Can we interact with the phenomenon by engaging it in some way? If we act upon it, does it respond?

 

Doubt is our greatest ally in probing items of belief. Anything can be believed for a time because it is the nature of belief to defend itself. Doubt cuts through such defenses. How consistent is this phenomenon with the rest of our experience? Is it an exception for which we must make special allowance—such as creating an entire realm governed by exceptional rules? Is it excessively complicated, or deceptively simple? Even the most respected authorities are wrong on occasion. No one’s consciousness is right all the time.

 

Take angels, for example. How many angels can fit on the head of a pin? We all know what pins are because we have been stuck by them often enough. They are small, slender physical objects made of metal, pointed on one end, flattened on the other. How big are angels? What are their proportions? What are they made of? How would you describe one? We say fluttering candle flames indicate the passing of angels; is that a reliable test? Mentioning angels in the same sentence as pins or candle flames doesn’t make them real. We are mixing categories of experience here, as if both were equally verifiable, pretending the attributes of one extend to the other. Which they don’t and they can’t.

 

Mythology begins within us in our left-brain interpreters. When we act out our fictitious beliefs as explanations for things being as they are—which we do in waiting for Santa, playing the Tooth Fairy, telling tales of storks delivering babies, or expecting the natural world to serve the human economy—that’s when the stories we tell ourselves can get us into trouble. That is when hesitation, skepticism, double-checking, doubt, and further research are called for before we act out our stories. Let’s pretend is fun on occasion, but a steady diet can wreak as much havoc as a suicide bomber.

 

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(Copyright © 2009)

 

In the late 1970s, having built my cabin on an island in Maine, I decided to limit my landscaping to planting a bush of rugosa roses on the south side. My sister-in-law offered to make it two bushes, so we went to the florist together and looked over the large selection of potted roses on a large table. Right away my eye landed on a bush rising from a thick, dark stem, which looked abnormal to me as if it suffered some kind of fungus infection or disease. Stay away from that one, I told myself, and went on to find the perfect specimen, which I took to the counter. Soon my sister-in-law joined me and put her bush beside mine. Looking down, I saw the thick-stemmed plant I had deliberately shunned at the outset. She said she had looked at them all and this was by far the healthiest plant of the lot, and so she took it off the table before anyone else could buy it. Rather than try to dissuade her, I thought to myself maybe she know something I don’t. Who was I to look a gift rose in the mouth? Planted side by side, both roses did well the first year, but thick-stem got a late and scanty start the next year, and by the third year produced neither leaves nor blooms. I dug it up to put it out of its misery or, more accurately, to keep it from infecting the other bush which was doing just fine.

 

Our brains feature a resident spin doctor that joins concrete sensory impressions with conceptual meanings drawn from memory. Or if it doesn’t actually join them, it gives voice to the now meaningful image, creating a story that, whether true or not, makes sense within the current situation. Not the situation as it is in the world—for that is a mystery—but the situation as rendered by consciousness itself, the phenomenal situation as consciousness by its own devices would have it be.

 

Michael Gazzaniga has come up with an interpreter module located in the left side of the brain to explain findings from his research with split-brain patients whose two cerebral hemispheres have been separated from each other by severing the corpus callosum, the bundle of nerve fibers by which the two sides of the brain communicate.

 

The very same split-brain research that exposed shocking differences between the two hemispheres also revealed that the left hemisphere contains the interpreter, whose job is to interpret our behavior and our responses, whether cognitive or emotional, to environmental challenges. The interpreter constantly establishes a running narrative of our actions, emotions, thoughts, and dreams, It is the glue that unifies our story and creates our sense of being a whole, rational agent. It brings to our bag of individual instincts the illusion that we are something other than what we are. It builds our theories about our own life, and these narratives of our past behavior pervade our awareness (Michael S. Gazzaniga, The Mind’s Past, Univ. of California Press, 1998, p. 174).

 

Given our native assumption that consciousness opens upon the real world, the same world on which we assume our understanding is based, this is pretty spooky stuff. According to Gazzaniga, truth has little to do with our interpretation of events. We are less interested in truth than in producing a plausible storyline for the sake of coherence in explaining why we act as we do. We don’t spin yarns to deceive others—or indeed ourselves—so much as to explain events of which, in our current situation as we construe it, we may have only slight understanding.

 

In my youth, ever on the lookout for treasure, I made it my business to explore back lots and other people’s barns lest anyone have a secret stash I didn’t know about. At the end of the street there was a house with a big barn which I could tell was filled with furniture, boxes, and good stuff like telephones and radios. I pried open a back window and, over a period of days, went through every drawer and pile. All the medals and jewelry I found I pinned to the shirt I had on under my sweater. I wore it at home, at school, and on the street—and nobody knew. I felt like a decorated hero. Then one day my mother saw me changing my clothes, and asked, “Where did you get all those pins?” “Up in front of Gleasons,” I said without a pause, “on the sidewalk. Somebody must have dropped them there. I don’t know who.”

 

Mother’s intrusion into my private realm of consciousness created a new situation, which required a new narrative. And there it was, right on the tip of my tongue. I couldn’t blame a split brain for my new predicament, but I sure had to tell a story she would find acceptable or, as she would say, unobjectionable. That way the decorated hero could carry on without annoying interruptions. That’s who I was, after all, and I had the evidence right on my chest.

 

When the Queen Mary II first came to Bar Harbor, I was at the shore before sunrise to photograph it coming in. There was no sign of it when I got there, so I perched on a rock and watched for it to round the cliffs to the south. Islands and submerged ledges in Frenchman Bay make navigation a bit tricky, so a pilot always goes out to board such ships and steer them into harbor. At last I saw the great liner’s bow emerge—and gradually the whole ship—beyond the cliffs and cautiously enter the bay. At which point an armed Coast Guard vessel got under way in its direction. This was after 9/11 and port security had been put on steroids to ward off lurking terrorists. A woman in the group behind me asked what that boat was, referring to the CG vessel. A man answered with great authority, “That would be the pilot boat taking the pilot out to QM II to bring her in.” “Oh,” said the woman. But I knew he was talking through his hat. The pilot had gone out long before the ship got anywhere near the bay proper.

 

Today I would say that his interpreter was speaking, spinning a yarn about matters he knew little about. That’s something men do all the time—speak from the hip. Which is a variation on driving in uncharted territory without asking for directions. There are a lot more lost men in the world than reported by any census. They seem to take pride in speaking from the depths of great ignorance as if their brains had been cut in two. It is as hard for men to admit not knowing something as it was for me to tell my mother how I came by the decorations on my shirt.

 

What was it Bill Clinton said? “It depends on what the meaning of is is.” And that meaning depends on what the interpreter modules in our left brains say it is. Most of us have left and right brains that speak to each other, so the narratives we spin in our left hemispheres are usually supported by ample sensory data from the right hemisphere, representing our conscious situation as we understand it at the time. But if one side suppresses or inhibits input from the other because it is, say, inconvenient or embarrassing, then our understanding of the current situation may very well depend on a variant definition of is. What is the situation? Well, that depends how you look at it. A Palestinian sees it one way, an Israeli another. Democrats vote yea, Republicans nay on the very same bill before Congress.

 

Split-brain syndrome appears to be endemic in some areas of the globe. Notably, among preachers of the one true faith everywhere, as well as politicians in state and national capitals. The clampdown on full disclosure during the Bush-Cheney regency led to a plague of denials and fabrications on behalf of protective self-interest. The case of the former Governor of Illinois, now impeached and expelled from office, is another textbook example.

 

Consciousness is full of such traps. With only our personal experience at the helm, we have no reliable defense against interpreting events in selfish ways, which may get us by for the short-term, but over the long-term invariably prove disastrous. We do better if we attend to what our right brains keep trying to tell us—that is, the bare facts—and insist that our aides and companions, or our mothers, tie us down when our left-brain interpretive fantasies threaten to take control.

 

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