It was in the minds of forgotten, long-ago thinkers that the notion of divinity was coded into a language of symbols and rituals to bring about the obedience of humanity to the will of lustrous gods in their cosmic heaven through the agency of priests in their Earthly temples.

I don’t know who developed the ideas that bound the Sumerians to the orderly pageant of heaven as a kind of living mythology, but that idea was a potent one that caught priestly attention because none other than the local priest himself would play the mediating role between the so-called prime mover of the stars and those who read the radiant, angelic signs from below.

Earth and its cosmos would share in the same divine (shining, godly) order if the two could somehow be linked at the nexus between them, so unifying state, church, and people under the figure of a prime mover (creator and supreme being) in his heaven.

Sumerians set up the linkage, and have left shards of the cuneiform star chart or plan of heaven they worked out based on three celestial regions watched over by three separate gods. Anu as the highest god resided in the central, circumpolar region; Enlil, king of gods, resided in the zodiac made up of houses of twelve lesser gods marking out the paths of sun, moon and planets; and Enki, father of divine wisdom, resided in the fringe area closest to the pillars that held the heavens above the Earth.

A trinity of gods was in the heavens from humans’ formative conception. When that idea resurfaced during Rome’s transition from pagan empire to a Christian presence in the following millennium, it demonstrated the persistence of cultural ideas (memes) that survive via the medium of human memory and belief.

In the interim, the Greeks in the person of Plato and other thinkers subsequently supplied the philosophical rationale of the world soul, which spread through the colossus of religious belief via Aristotle, Abraham, Paul of Tarsus, the Neoplatonists, unto Constantine, the Prophet Mohammad and, in the thirteenth-century, Thomas Aquinas, among many others, thus staunchly assuring the personification of a prime mover and ruler of the one-turning universe.

Now in the Space Age, with photographs of stellar and planetary creation from the ashes of supernovas being readily available, that earlier meme has now outrun its currency. The idea of binding-back to the harmony of the formerly convenient fiction of cosmic unity is now over-stretched as a footnote to the meandering history of situated intelligence at the core of the human mind.

This long-standing abuse of the stars was upheld by all monotheistic religions, even after Nicolaus Copernicus (1473-1543) made it clear that our planet is not now and never has been the center of the solar system. This revelation (long known by some) scuttled the idea of the universe and world soul as conceived up until then. As a truth claim, that former vision was proved to be false.

Long before then the meme of a divine prime mover at the center of the cosmos had become a cultural fixture. And that fixture was deeply embedded in the foundation of the three major monotheistic religions. Not only that, but in the institution of religion itself.

The tenacity of that meme in surviving against all odds hardened it from an ideal belief into a rigid universal constant unscathed by the mass of undeniable evidence that it was untrue. It was a truth of faith, not fact.

That faith had expanded from a regional Sumerian revelation in the Land between the Rivers, to a prescriptive belief that built monuments in other lands, to a global faith destined to implode from the weight of its inconsistencies as yet one more chapter in the history of intelligent minds in black boxes attempting to solve the world puzzle.

I take this chain of events as demonstrating the persistence of ideas that, once entertained in a given mind, become generally accepted by expanding numbers of people to, like a ripple made by a pebble thrown into the ocean, eventually engulfing the Earth.

Never underestimate the power of an idea in a single mind to which subsequent generations are born, all doubt having evaporated in the meantime, so the new generation takes guidance from the ritualized wisdom of the ancients. Think of spacetime as subject to gravitational influence. Turning trees into toilet paper. Eating with chopsticks. Eating with silver. The World Wide Web. Driverless cars. The birth of Venus. Pinocchio. The Tooth Fairy. Evil. The infallibility of the Pope. Justice. Truth. Peace. Freedom. Eternal love.

Cultures are built from two-way engagements between human minds. Individuals get what they want; groups of people get what they need to sustain their belief in the mystery, majesty, and convenience of an idea that floated to the surface of a mind and spread far and wide in general practice as if by law.

Memory is at the heart of learning through trial and error. We are born knowing very little; it’s all uphill from there. Families give us a leg-up by not having to be feral children dependent on instinct. They give us enough leeway to own what we learn.

And what we learn is what to expect next time. Expectancy, recognition, identification, meaning, and understanding are gifts our sheltering families make available to us. Leading to judgment, which opens the way to appropriate behavior.

All courtesy of the families that give us room to fall on our face, pick ourselves up, and have at it again. Getting that one more chance makes all the difference because we remember the last time, and vow to do better. Our efforts add up as we go. Practice makes, if not perfect, at least for improvement.

Families give us the chance to engage through successive approximation, so that what we aim at, we eventually attain. Not trial and error just once, but again and again, showing incremental improvement each time. If we put in our ten-thousand hours of consciously appreciating those decreasing increments, we find ourselves right where we wanted to be two years ago. Courtesy of memory, room for experiment, the wisdom of patience, and the willingness to try.

Join all of the above to the life force that urges us on from every one of our cells because we need to do something with all that energy our mitochondria provide, and we have the formula for success via one earnest attempt after another.

Knowing almost nothing in particular at birth opens the door to the possibility of adapting to unanticipated conditions and situations. If we were born fully equipped with everything we needed to know, the first surprising change we encountered would throw us off our stride. We’d have no way of coping with novelty, and it would be our downfall in the end, which would come sooner rather than later.

No matter how trying family life can be, real life is far worse. Family life is a trial run for the time when we must face every challenge on our own by standing on the two feet we were born with and that our families have encouraged us to develop into an asset. Thanks, Mom; thanks, Dad; we owe it all to you. Oh, yes, and to the kids who grew up alongside us, no matter what pains they were to us at the time, or we to them.

Families are our first schools. In that sense, we all start out being home schooled. What do we learn? To be ourselves. To speak our native language. To engage. To babble, then invent our own patter. To discover meaningful speech. To understand others. To understand ourselves.

It all begins at mother’s breast while we are fed, warm, and safe. She smiles; we smile. She laughs; we laugh. She oohs; we ooh in response. Then we ooh meaningfully at the sight of her smile. She giggles; we giggle. Peek-a-boo!

We sense we’re onto something. We play off against her; she plays the same game. Back and forth; forth and back. There’s no stopping the banter. Then the flow of talk. Her turn, our turn. Then the full exchange, the loop of engagement of perception and action at the same time. She playing her part; we playing ours. Equally engaged. Paying attention. Watching, listening. Being watched; being listened to. Taking turns. Conversing. Being ourselves with each other. Not alone anymore. The biggest discovery of our lives. Or not, if there’s nobody to play the game with to get us started.

 

(Copyright © 2010)

Categorization is a neural process connecting a concept in memory with a percept or sensory pattern; the pattern serves as an example of the category, and so takes its name. Perhaps “connecting” is the wrong word to use in describing what happens when concepts and patterns become linked in the mind; maybe “mapping” makes a better fit with the facts, the concept being mapped onto the pattern, or the pattern onto the concept. Either way, one topologically fulfills the other in some fashion, and the category label gets transferred to the pattern itself as an instance of the category. That is a coffee mug; this is a pencil; where are my glasses?; an unusual insect just landed on my sleeve. However it happens in the brain, we can’t get very far in today’s world without resorting to categorizations of the new in terms of the old, the strange in terms of the familiar, the concrete in terms of the abstract.

Think of the names we have for various things, items, objects, entities, articles, doodads, whatchamacallits, thingammies, thingamajigs, thingamabobs, etc. All floating around in our brains, waiting to be called to action when a suitable sensory pattern appears on the phenomenal horizon. Some such pattern may be familiar, but the name escapes us, so we use a term that suggests as much, like thingamajig. But such general categories are appropriate on only an extremely low level of discernment, so are on the vague end of categorizations. At the opposite extreme are categorical phrases such as “the stoneware mug with iron oxide glaze that Carole gave me on my 77th birthday,” which I can apply to only one object on Earth. Between these extremes, we have a continuum of concepts of greater or lesser specificity, including the binomial names used in classifying the biological world down to the species or varietal level (eg. Zostera marina, eelgrass), stopping short of colonies, communities, or particular organisms singled out by individual observers.

Often, we are in too great a rush to spare the time and effort required to categorize the blur of phenomena we move through in daily life, so settle for the appearance of things without feeling a need to sort them into conceptual bins. In my apartment, for instance, I am accustomed to looking at my books and papers according to their location and spatial relationships without bothering to identify them or give them a name. I know them perceptually but not conceptually. That works most of the time, until I have to look for a particular notebook or paper, when I visualize the appearance of what I’m after, and fit it with a name and conceptual meaning on a level of discernment that meets my need at the moment.

Artists typically don’t think about patterns (unless they are conceptual artists), they make and enjoy them for their dynamic sensory qualities. Sometimes critics find meaning in paintings or pieces of music, but often it is a side trip, not the heart of the piece. Sensory relationships need no conceptual explanation to justify their existence. Nothing matters but spatial and temporal interactions between elements of sensory perception as they develop in the mind of the viewer or listener. It is sensory experience in itself that counts, not rational understanding of what it might mean if it were categorized one way or another. The same is true of food, which may indeed be nutritious, but it is the relationships between, and combinations of, shapes, sheens, colors, textures, flavors, and aromas that make a dish or a meal. To some, sex may mean the making of babies, but most partners take care so that is precisely not the issue, which is, rather, a mix of pleasure, closeness, intimacy, caring, love, desire, attraction, curiosity, and a host of other ingredients that draw people together in ways without referential or categorical meaning. A huge part of life is lived aside from any formal quest to lay conceptual meanings on perceptual events.

Take numbers, for example. Numbers don’t mean anything, they just are. Perhaps whatever units are attached to them (grams per cubic centimeter, or people per square mile) calibrate numbers in order to convey meaning, but that meaning is overlaid on them and is not a property of the numbers themselves. By definition, numbers are pure gestures stripped of all meaning. You can use them to count apples or sheep, but the counting itself is inherent in the situation upon which gestures are made, so the totals are significant in relation to shopping or falling asleep, not the tally of gestures.

Mathematics can be applied to anything that can be quantified, but in itself it is a collection of abstract operations performed on meaningless gestures, such as numbers arrayed in a column, row, or matrix. That is, numbers in relationship. But the essence of number is the gesture behind it, the noticing and the act of pointing at one thing after another, giving equal attention in turn to each one, then moving on. I frequently catch myself counting footsteps as I cross the street, treads on a stairway, telephone poles along a road, clouds in the sky—not for any reason other than the business of counting, of making repetitive gestures in my mind simply because I can do it. Do I know what I am talking about? No, haven’t a clue. My conscious mind makes me do it. My motive is innocence itself, I swear.

Numbers are as natural as categorizing sensory patterns in conceptual bins is natural. Categorization is a sign I’ve seen this before, I recognize it, so I know what it is. Numbers are a sign I’ve never been in precisely this situation before, so it’s important I pace it out, or register my engagement in some way. Numbers are a way of reaching out to the world on a human scale. Think how many gestures it takes a bumblebee or a chicken to cross the road. Counting accepts that things exist in themselves as noticeable phenomena; categorization recognizes that things can have meanings bestowed upon them. We have metronomes, and we have dictionaries, each reflecting different aspects of mind.

When I worked in the photo lab at Harvard College Observatory in the 1960s, I worked out a filing system for negatives based on the date a particular work order was received for which photographs were taken. A number such as 651123-6-19 would identify the 19th negative taken for the 6th work order received on November 23, 1965. If each negative was properly labeled and filed, then, knowing the date of the order, I could retrieve it almost immediately. The system worked because I usually had a sense of when I worked on a particular job, and could either browse through the negative file, or refer to the work-order book where each job was listed by date. This is a system for categorizing photographic negatives on five levels of discernment: by year, month, day, job, and individual negative. The system had meaning mainly for workers in the photo lab, and indirectly for the scientists we served, but it proved extremely useful and efficient in identifying a particular photographic image out of thousands which, in their 4×5-inch negative envelopes, all looked alike.

On a much grander scale, the Dewey Decimal System allows librarians to categorize books by subject matter and author’s last name. This system, like Roget’s original Thesaurus, is based on the 19th century ideal of fitting everything into 1,000 categories. In 1876, Melvil Dewey divided all books into 10 subject classes, each class into 10 divisions, and each division into 10 sections, providing 1,000 bins into which books were to be sorted according to their subject matter. Since Dewey’s system is difficult to adapt to new fields of knowledge that have emerged since his day, the Library of Congress uses a different system based on 21 primary categories, and relies on experts to adapt the system to the needs of new fields as they emerge. For end users, a computer search by title or author will produce the catalogue number, which points to stacks where books are shelved in numerical order. It is a library staff’s job to replace returned books in correct order along the shelves.

Such systems of categorizations are product of the human mind—usually, of one mind in particular, after whom the system is often named. The same is true of the periodic table of the 118 known chemical elements, in a previous arrangement called Mendeleev’s periodic table after an early categorizer of chemical elements by their properties, Russian chemist Dmitri Mendeleev (1834-1907). Arrayed in two dimensions, the periodic table ranks the elements horizontally by the number of electrons in the outermost shell of electrons, vertically by the number of electron shells they contain. In terms of their elemental properties, rows are referred to as periods, columns as groups or families. What holds the system together is the fact that the chemical properties of each element can be predicted from its position in the table. That is, each element bears a family resemblance to those above and below it, while sharing a periodic gradient of different properties with those along the same row. It was Mendeleev who first predicted the properties of elements not yet discovered, represented in his array by gaps between elements then known. This example demonstrates the power of systematic categorization, enabling us, if we’ve got it right, to anticipate what we don’t already know.

Imagine such systems of categorization emerging from human consciousness, calibrating the world we live in in terms we’ve acquired through prior experience. Once established, such systems allow subtle variations. There’s literal language, figurative language, nonsense (funny) language, the language of numbers, the language of relationships, the language of love, and so on, all conveying different kinds of meaning in different ways. There’s exaggeration, understatement, emphasis, excitement, and all the rhetorical shadings we can achieving by deliberately modifying how we choose to categorize a thing in the bin of our choosing. English is a mix of words derived from Anglo-Saxon and from French. Many of our curse words stem from Anglo-Saxon, our romantic terms from the French. We get to select which idiom suits our needs at the moment. What’ll it be, gents, liquor or schnapps? Or perhaps a bit of whiskey (Scottish Gaelic uisge beatha, water of life).

Categorization fits identifiable sensory patterns in perception with an overlay of conceptual meaning, creating phenomenal units that seem to be meaningful in themselves. When we look out on the world, we see it largely in terms of the meaningful patterns we are familiar with, not recognizing that it is organized according to a system we carry with us in our heads and project outward on the world. That is, looking onto the world, the view we take in reflects the system of categorization we carry in our heads, making it uniquely our world. The person standing next to us does exactly the same, living in the world she makes for herself.

We give Dmitri Mendeleev credit for inventing the periodic table of the elements as a system of categorization, and Melvil Dewey credit for inventing the Dewey Decimal System of library classification—but we stop short of crediting ourselves with the invention of the worlds we have devised for ourselves according to systems based on our prior experience. We say the world is the world, as if it were the same for everyone, while all evidence points to the fact that the worlds we inhabit are highly subjective and are clearly of our own making.

Similarly, we find great meaning in numbers, not thinking that the significance we find is the significance we project onto numbers in the very act of looking upon them. In themselves they are neutral, empty, ameaningful. Numbers do not convey the meaning of the universe, as scientists claim; they are vehicles for the systems of mind by which we broadcast meaning onto the universe. When we die, the nature of the universe will die with us. The ability to predict the properties of chemical elements is built into the periodic table by the mind that built it in conformity with his own knowledge and observations. Interpolation is not discovery; it is filling a gap between points in an orderly system. Properties revealed by the system are dependent on the gradients we have built into the system by devising it as we did.

A squirrel’s periodic table would account for where the most and best acorns are to be found in the woods. A heron’s system of categorization will map the direction and distance it has to fly to reach the most reliable supply of frogs and small fish. Creatures of all species lay their biological needs on the world, and plot the coordinates of sites that hold interest for them. Mendeleev had a feel for chemical properties; Dewey was interested in locating books on a wide variety of subjects. We categorize our worlds according to our vital interests, because those are the interests that, by definition, have meaning for us. Consciousness is the highly adaptable system that allows each of us to map her concerns onto the world so that she can find what she needs in order to keep going.

Lies are deliberate miscategorizations meant to mislead others. If we don’t want our rivals to discover what we know, we will distort our true categorizations to lead them astray. Metaphors—and figurative language in general—are deliberate miscategorizations for the purpose of emphasizing the true character of a thing as we see it at the moment. I love chocolate ice cream. Well, no, not as I love my children or my partner; I don’t mean that kind of love. I mean that on the scale of how much I like different kinds of ice cream, chocolate is at the top. I didn’t tell an untruth, I was merely exaggerating to give you an indication of how I feel about chocolate ice cream.

Categorizations are a means for laying our values onto the world around us. For seeing the world in terms of who we are at the core. Every act of categorization declares who we are as systematic bestowers of meaning. We make our worlds to suit ourselves, then live in those worlds. When Rep. Joe Wilson of South Carolina blurted out, “You lie!” as Obama told a joint session of Congress his health care bill didn’t cover undocumented immigrants at no cost, Wilson called Obama a liar because, by his system of categorization, illegal aliens would be eligible for subsidized coverage. That was his understanding, and hearing Obama publically declare otherwise, he suffered an episode of cognitive dissonance on the spot. Wilson later apologized for (in my terms) getting his worlds crossed.

This almost trivial episode points to why the world is in the sorry state that it is. Basically, in laying our meanings upon the world, we find ourselves at cross purposes with other layers of meaning on what seems to be the same world. Inevitably, we are the truth seekers, they are the liars. Creating situations that can lead to disagreements, angry gestures, bloodshed, and even to war.

Given the subjective nature of our categorizations, and the serious consequences which false or erroneous categorizations often have, I wonder why meaning-making isn’t at the core of the curriculum in every public and private school on Earth. Our basic assumption—that the home team always represents the good guys who stand for family, justice, and truth—lacks humility at best, and is frequently grounds for perpetrating all manner of skullduggery. At base, the problem comes down to different individuals taking excessive pride in how they cast meaning upon their respective worlds. But teachers don’t deal with that problem any more than parents or influential corporate bodies deal with it. With the result that throughout the world it remains the problem of all problems. Walking in one another’s shoes is no solution because it can’t be done. Our genes, ontogeny, childhoods, rearing, education, jobs, and life experience give us the eyes we turn toward the world. To see through another’s eyes we must become another person. That is the challenge our respective categorizations present to the world.

The only solution I can think of is to pull back from excessive categorizations in order to let glorious sensory patterns rule the day. It is a beautiful world, don’t you think? If we don’t speak the same language, we can at least dance together to the same music. Why must our personal meanings always have the last say? Again, I see this sensory approach leading to a radically different system of education based more on appreciative aesthetics than always being right. Just a thought, but I think it  worth pursuing.

The stuff of which categorizations are made. Periodic table of the elements showing where the various elements that make up Earth and ourselves originated in the universe. Image courtesy of NASA.

(Copyright © 2009)

The “It” in the title refers to my understanding of my personal consciousness as made up of various processes which I am able to identify through self-reflective experience. In the order they come to mind (not the order in which they kick in), they include:

1. Arousal informs me I am more awake than asleep, definitely not in a stupor or coma.

2. Alertness seems to be an attitude preparing me for paying attention. I sense something’s up—or might be up.

3. Attention is a kind of outreach I direct or extend via my senses—looking, listening, sniffing, tasting, touching, or heeding what my body has to tell me. Attending to comes before consciousness of. That is, expectancy precedes its fulfillment in perception.

4. Expectancy is a kind of pre-viewing or pre-engagement made possible by my point of view at the time as informed by my values, interests, concerns, and feelings. Expectancy is situational in that it arises from what has gone before, in either the immediate or remote past. Memory is clearly involved in projecting the familiar onto the current scene of the now. Expectancy is largely abstract (less detailed than actual perception) and conceptual, that is, derived from a set of earlier perceptions, but lacking the concrete particulars of any one of them.

5. Fulfillment of expectancy (or not, as the case may be) is a flash of recognition by which the object of my attention is identified as that which I was looking for, so that consciousness acquires intentionality in being consciousness of . . . one thing or another. Specific details in the now give substance to the abstract envelope of expectancy as if the two aspects of consciousness—abstract expectation and concrete perception —came together in a fulfilling, mutual engagement.

6. That engagement has a quality of salience representing the degree to which my motivated expectancy (hopes, fears, desires) is being met in the current episode of awareness—at an appropriate level of discernment. Enabling me to make a judgment confirming or disconfirming this is what I was looking for, or had in mind in the first place.

7. The comings together of concepts and percepts lead to a sense of understanding, of my self standing under (supporting) this new instance of consciousness, taking it in, reaffirming my grasp of (or relationship to) the world, conveying a sense of my being of that world, providing a strong sense of affirmation that my grasp is appropriate to my situation.

8. If my expectations are fulfilled in a new or surprising way, then surprise and novelty play roles in consciousness, stretching my understanding in order to accommodate or incorporate an instance I did not anticipate, challenging or perhaps enlarging my understanding. This gives me the option of fulfilling my expectations by habitual application of a tried-and-true response to account for, discredit, or dismiss this unanticipated episode of experience. Or, on the other hand, of opening myself up to new experience in such a way that expands my grasp of the current situation. (Note: This is what I was laboring over in my last post, Reflection 151: Error Signals, that effort prompting me to simplify the matter and place it in context in today’s reflection.)

9. All of which can culminate in new learning, or reaffirmation of my prior understanding. At this stage, clearly, memory is involved. Earlier synaptic connections are affirmed, or perhaps an effort to establish new ones as a basis for improving the effectiveness of my actions in the world is made possible.

10. All leading up to reaffirming or improving my being in the world through planning leading to effective action by equipping me to make myself happen more aptly in light of my circumstances, which is the point of being conscious in the first place.

In the order I present them here, that’s: arousal, alertness, attention, expectancy, fulfillment, salience, understanding, novelty, learning, and action. In addition, I would stress the roles of perception, conception, and memory as major players in consciousness, for a baker’s dozen of topics to whirl in the mind much as jugglers whirl Indian clubs in the air. Any scientist of the mind could probably double or triple that number, but that’s as many as seem particularly relevant to me today in keeping this reflection as straightforward as I can make it.

Consciousness as a Machine, by Rube Goldberg

 

(Copyright © 2009)

If feelings are involved, consciousness creates a record of itself in memory. And those same memories inform consciousness for the rest of your life. You don’t need to take notes, it’s all there in the shadows of your mind, a ready reference when required. An amazing system! Yet we seldom think what it means—that every stream of consciousness is autobiographical. The world you live in is the world you make for yourself by living your particular life. No one else lives the same life, so yours is historically unique. What makes sense to you won’t make the same sense to anyone else because your frames of reference are different in the most intimately personal way. When we die, our frames of reference—our histories—die with us. Each of us is irreplaceable. We get our one run at life in this universe, and that’s it.

I keep thinking of all the questions I could have asked my mother about her life in Maine—but never did. I am stuck having to view her as my mother when that role was only a bit part in her history. I know almost nothing about her personal memories, the intimate historical details she lived out every day, giving her an identity, making her who she was to herself. Who was that woman? Besides being my mother, she was that female stranger I lived with until, at seventeen, I went to college 3,000 miles away from her home near Seattle. It was her home, not mine. I only lived there; she ran the place.

Does anybody remember Jean Shepherd’s riff on mothers as sink creatures? Shepherd was a radio personality—basically, a storyteller or narrator of personal history—from the late 1940s to 1977. His nighttime program, as far as I could tell, was wholly unscripted. He’d start talking about some minor event from childhood in a steel town in northern Indiana, developing his theme as he went. Usually in there somewhere was a rhapsody on his mother standing at the kitchen sink. Peeling potatoes, washing dishes, filling the coffee pot—that was her role in his life. Like a woman in a Vermeer painting staring out the window—as far as we know that’s all she ever did—so she stands through the ages, seen through Vermeer’s or Shepherd’s eyes, creatures of the respective kinds of consciousness as cast on them by others who see something in them.

We know so much about ourselves and so little about anyone else—even our closest companions or blood relatives. What do spouses really know about their partners’ inner lives? So physically close and mentally remote, it’s hard to tell. My bet in most cases is not very much. When he claims to be hiking the Appalachian Trail, how do you know he isn’t hanging out with his Argentine sweetie? Besides being bed, dinner, and parenting creatures, what else would we want to know about those we care for? My answer: the full history of another’s conscious inner world.

The outlines of consciousness are sketched by our genes, each of us making proteins and metabolizing our food a little differently, so we all deviate somewhat from the basic human norms for body, consciousness, and behavior. From there, exposure to social and cultural influences takes over and we begin compiling our respective personal histories. What nature roughs out, our individual cultural engagement finishes in fine detail. Unique experiences persist in episodic memory; repeated experiences with overlapping features persist as concepts in semantic memory. Our stories develop both ways at once, specifically and generically, concretely and abstractly, the two in combination culminating in meaningful lives simultaneously rich in sensory detail and overall meaning.

If members of our family and social group get around by walking, then we become walkers as well; if they ride mules, horses, carriages, motorcycles, or public transportation, then we do likewise. Our mirror neurons make it seem natural for us to follow the example of what people do in our part of town. If we grow up without experiencing airplanes, iPhones or stone tools, then they are not part of our personal consciousness or the history it lays down. My grandfather used wooden tools, my father used metal tools, I use electrical and electronic tools. Mothers can cook with open fires, wood stoves, electric stoves, microwave ovens—or not cook at all if somebody else is up for the job. Not many sons would dub their mothers sink creatures today—nor would many mothers permit what sounds like a slur. Tooling around in an SUV is more like it, or toting a briefcase to work. 

These days, cultural ways change so fast, it is hard to keep up. I used logarithms in school, a slide rule in college, a mechanical desk calculator at work, and now a photon-powered electronic calculator. My early film cameras were variations on a black box with lens on one end, film on the other. Then I got a 35mm rangefinder, followed by a 120 twin-lens reflex, later a 35mm single-lens reflex. Now I’ve gone digital and abandoned black-and-white photography altogether. Whatever happened to pens and pencils? Typewriters? Linotype machines? Newspapers? I remember them all as essential parts of the world I grew up in. A good many parts of my consciousness were shaped to their use, parts now obsolete. If you don’t keep up, you become obsolete yourself because your mind is tooled to times gone by. Corporations can suffer that fate (think General Motors, Bell Telephone, IBM, Sears), or even once-great nations grown too full of themselves (France, England, Russia, the U.S.A.).

Language certainly changes over time. As a kid, I read six or seven Dr. Dolittle books from the library. Wanting to reconnect with those days, I planned to reread them—but got only to the third page of the first one I picked up. Hugh Lofting wrote in a stuffy style intended for a world gone by, now largely extinct. As the Hugh Lofting part of me is extinct. I recently had a similar experience trying to reconnect with Ralph Waldo Emerson. In today’s world, Thoreau has a touch of the archaic, but he is too original a mind to be classed with the dinosaurs. So is Walt Whitman. And Thomas Paine. As for the classic texts of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, efforts to keep them alive through heroic efforts are so desperate and extreme, it would be better to shut off life-support and retire them to the Museum of Outworn Cultures so modern consciousness can deal with current problems such as overpopulation, excessive consumption, the collapse of capitalism, global warming, wars without end, among others we have yet to develop ways of thinking about or vocabularies adequate to suitably framing so we can come up with workable solutions.

To draw a few examples from the history of my personal consciousness as recorded in memory, I offer these as determinants of modern history as this blogger has lived it:

  1. The 1937 crash and inferno of the hydrogen-filled zeppelin Hindenburg in landing at Lakehurst, New Jersey after crossing the Atlantic—I remember the spread in the rotogravure section of the Syracuse Post Standard.
  2. Admiral William Byrd’s bright red, six-wheeled, crevasse-proof Snow Cruiser being driven in 1939 along U.S. Route 20 en route to New York and ultimately Antarctica, where it promptly got lodged in a crevasse—I yearned desperately to be that shirtless guy stretched out in the sun along the sloping engine hood.
  3. The film version of The Wizard of Oz changed me forever by setting the standard for what entertainment could be—I loved the story, the characters, the sets, the music, the visual effects, the colors.
  4. Racing ahead of the family after the Sunday movie, turning on the radio, hearing serious voices tell of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor—me telling my parents something bad had happened.
  5. The Life Magazine cover photo during the war showing the head of a German soldier roasted alive in an armored vehicle in North Africa—the first time I remember being drawn to look again and again at something so horrifying.
  6. The school assembly called the day FDR died in 1945, me sitting in tears on a folding chair at the end of the row, being told school would let out early—which I knew wouldn’t do any good.
  7. Walking along a gravel road at scout camp in August, looking up at the blue sky, wondering what an atomic bomb was—I’d never heard of one before the raid on Hiroshima made it into the newspaper.
  8. Walking by Symphony Hall on Mass. Ave. in Boston, seeing door ajar, walking in on an open rehearsal, sitting in back under the balcony, seeing Pierre Monteux conduct the Boston Symphony in Hector Berlioz’ Symphonie Fantastique—I suddenly realized what music was all about, and that LPs didn’t capture half of it.
  9. The turbulent era of the 1960s with war in Viet Nam, flower children, the pill, racial violence, drugs, JFK’s assassination in 1963, RFK’s and MLK’s in 1968, and civil strife throughout—my father died, I had two children got divorced, remarried, changed jobs, every day demanded total concentration just to stay even, this was not the world I grew up in.
  10. In the late 1970s I took three courses with Sigmund Koch at Boston University, the one truly inspirational teacher I had in college or graduate school, a man big enough to critique the entire field of psychology at mid-century—he showed me what applied consciousness could do.

My conscious history is a tale of anxiety and revelation, which may be true for others as well. Evolution sets us up for such a life, we and our times do the rest, culture following through on what nature and our heritage have begun in our genome. Consciousness isn’t just for the moment or the day, it’s for a lifetime. Very little of it goes to waste. Coming to us in scraps, we stitch it together into the coherent tapestry of our outlook so that expectancy rewards us with a future containing more of the same. Which sometimes it doesn’t, so we settle for another round of anxiety, hoping for revelation. Consciousness, such as it is, steers every life to the end, creating the history of ourselves as individuals long before the history of a people or the world is even imagined, much less recorded.

Sailboat-72

 

 

 

(Copyright © 2009)

 

Something I’m supposed to do flits into my mind for a tenth of a second, then is gone and I can’t remember what it was. I try to recreate the situation that brought it to mind, but often can’t figure what that situation might have been. This happens all the time. So I make lists of things to do. As I get something done, I cross it off. And keep adding new items as they come to mind.

 

Is my consciousness failing? Am I on the skids? I don’t know, but I think I’ve always been like this—even in school. I’ve been a listmaker ever since I can remember. I was so square in high school I got into the habit of writing down lists of each night’s homework; my version of pleasure being to cross each one off as I finished it. Now I have scraps all over my apartment reminding me of things to do—some are six months old. I’ve never gotten around to reminding myself to throw old lists away.

 

Here’s a list I found this morning. It seems to be about three weeks old. Old enough for me to have checked off almost everything on it. My handwriting isn’t that neat so I retype it here:

 

ü Negs to Eric Fri  [re. scanning of aerial photos]

ü 10:00 Kate McDonald  [re. drymount eelgrass poster]

ü John Sowles re poster  [fyi e-mail]

ü Newsletter Articles  [aerial photo, shorebirds, update]

ü send Hilary blurb  [e-mail poster abstract for program]

ü bank deposit  [royalty check]

û Charlie Todd eagle report e-mail  [no reply]

ü 2008 aerial mosaic w. S. Sjoberg  [re. membership perq.]

ü TBAG update  [re. January advisors meeting]

ü e-mail Jon Lewis summer meet, July 9 [re. program]

ü Shorebirds—J. Sowles, Margi Huber  [re. monitoring]

û Eric digitize aerials Fri.  [duplicate reminder]

ü floss  [shopping]

ü bananas  [“]

ü onions  [“]

ü Dove  [“]

ü cashew butter  [I’m allergic to peanut butter]

ü corn thins  [I’m allergic to wheat]

û bananas  [duplicate reminder]

 

Since my lists depend on jotting down items as I think of them, they have a free-form feel that transcends any kind of order or priority. I include just enough detail to remind me of what I mean, and that’s good enough.

 

What interests me about such lists is their relationship to consciousness. I generate them almost at random, whenever I think of something I want to do and am afraid I’ll forget. Such lists are made out of a sense of duty or responsibility, not passion. If they were driven by passion, I would remember them. Without that extra oomph, items tend not to outlast the duration of short-term memory. If I don’t write them down within seconds, they’re gone.

 

To get them back, I have to recreate or simulate the situation in which each item is important. If I can recall that setting or context, then very often the item springs to mind without further prompting. It’s just that I keep jumping from one situation to another faster than working memory can keep up with me. So various unremarkable items fall into the cracks in-between like so many crumbs.

 

Several of the items I wish to remember are leftovers from various meetings I have attended. The 7th item concerning Charlie Todd is a reminder to e-mail him about the breeding success of eagles in Taunton Bay for the 2008 season. Charlie is an endangered species biologist for the state, and he is the best source of current information because he flies over most of the eagle nests in Maine several times a year and knows what he’s talking about. He is also extremely busy. The editor of Friends of Taunton Bay Newsletter asked me for an eagle update at our February meeting. Once such meetings are over, I tend not to think of them until the next one. So I make notes to myself to do what I said I’d do to avoid showing up a month later empty-handed.

 

The Jon Lewis item 3 below Charlie Todd came from the same meeting. I was to ask him if he would talk us through an underwater video he made for an oyster aquaculture lease application. I’d seen the video at an aquaculture lease hearing, and suggested it as the basis for a program at our annual membership meeting in July. Here I am trying to be responsible once again. If I don’t write such requests down where I will see them, I never think of them again because I’m on to something else.

 

So goes everyday life from chore to chore. At least some days that’s how it seems. Left to steering my own consciousness toward activities that are meaningful to me, I would dispense with everything else in order to concentrate on jobs I am passionate about. Those I remember on my own because the flow of my life is all the situation I need to keep them at the front of my mind.

 

What I see now is that to-do lists create a wholly new situation expressly for the sake of remembering an assortment of items relevant to a variety of situations having nothing to do with one another. Things-to-do becomes a meta situation subtending all lesser situations. My consciousness came up with that strategy on its own. Yours probably did, too. How creative is that! And it works. Putting everything down on one list creates a situation that prods our minds to act. It works because there is an emotional impetus associated with putting something on that super list. Which makes it easier to recall later on. Too, there is satisfaction in the act of crossing items off one by one. Amazing, how consciousness monitors itself.

 

To-do lists, then, are definitely in the feedback loop by which consciousness engages the mysterious world. Even though my personal habitat—my apartment—is a mess, I get a lot done on various fronts because of such lists. Jotting things down involves physical effort and discipline as an aid to remembering them. And seeing the list provides visual input that serves the same purpose.

 

In The Mind of a Mnemonist, Luria gives details of situations his patient, a memory expert, creates in order to remember incredibly detailed series of things to recall. He visualized street scenes in his mind, and draped visual clues to encounter as he would stroll along, encountering one clue after another. Trouble was, he cluttered his mind with such scenes and could never get rid of them. Me, I merely clutter up my apartment, then conveniently lose each list under layers of new lists. Either I’ve seen to every item—or it’s too late now to remember what I haven’t done.

 

¦

 

(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.

 

¦

 

 

 

 

 

 

(Copyright © 2009)

 

While mounting my photovoltaic panel, I notice wasps hovering around the end of a bough on a nearby spruce, apparently attracted by gleaming drops exuded from its tip. In the grass eight feet below, a smooth green snake eyes the wasps, taking in the scene. I go about my business, but look up ten minutes later to see the snake sliding along that same branch. Stealthily, inch-by-inch, toward the tip and the hovering wasps. Slowly, almost not moving, it extends its body beyond the end into the air, drooping slightly as if part of the bough, as if its nose—its mouth—were the tip. There it waits. And waits. But the wasps have gone elsewhere. I run and get my camera to document what I have seen with my own eyes.

 

Smooth Green Snake 

 

Can I ascribe consciousness, planning, even intelligence to a snake on the basis of such an anecdote? Watching from below, seeing the wasps, climbing the trunk, venturing onto a limb, sliding its length to the end, hanging beyond the tip—this is not random activity. It is clearly deliberate. Each move made in proper sequence. At some point the snake must have put it all together as a plan of action. It had motivation and a clear goal: the wasps were there and it wanted to eat them. It had the smarts to figure out the route to take and what it had to do in order to bring that about. I am sorely tempted to say this is conscious behavior. The only flaw was that the wasps were too wary for the snake.

 

Snake consciousness? Wasp consciousness? Or can such behaviors be fully accounted for by hard-wired, unconscious reflexes? In the case of the wasp, perhaps, but the snake fully grasped the situation before it acted. It had the imagination to draft a plan extending the now into the future, and the follow-through to execute it. Which took time. Memory must have been involved. Situational memory encompassing goal, motive, participants, route, complex course of action, all unified by seeing the world from its point of view.

 

I have seen similar performances in raspberry bushes where insects were drawn by ripe fruit, the snake waiting in the shadows of leaves farther back. Is that necessarily conscious behavior? Does the predator have a sense of what it must do to capture its prey? Or does it simply rely on the equipment it is given to do its thing? Is the frog aware of turning its head toward the fly, of lashing out with its tongue? Frogs and snakes survive only in the presence of suitable prey. The habitat may be the message, all else following as a matter of course.

 

That may be true in the case of the frog, but the case of the wasp-seeking snake is more complicated. If the wasps wouldn’t come to the snake, the snake figured out it would have to go to the wasps. Was the process of “figuring out” similar to what we would call consciousness? It was certainly situational from the snake’s point of view, which took into account its size, capabilities, motives, habitat, and goal. Consciously or not, all that figured in the snake’s behavior, which appears to have been visualized and planned beforehand while it watched from its vantage point in the grass. And then retained as it executed its moves in proper sequence.

 

The first move was to turn away from the wasps toward the base of the tree. Then to climb up the stem of the tree. Only when it turned onto the particular branch leading to where the wasps were when seen from the ground did it face toward its prey. Reflexes are instantaneous; they cannot account for these complex, time-consuming maneuvers. The snake apparently operated within a three-dimensional model in its head, and monitored its position within that space, which became ever more charged with meaning as it neared the end of the bough.

 

Many people accept that (like apes, monkeys, and humans) birds, deer, dogs, wolves, foxes, coyotes, bears, and other animals have a mental sense of the territory which provides for and sustains them. But snakes? I am here to extend such a sense to them. I see the workings of the vertebrate hippocampus in their case as well. I see no compelling reason to believe that the wasp-seeking snake I witnessed was not conscious of its surroundings or its own actions. Until proven wrong, I will count snakes among the ranks of conscious beings, entitled to all the privileges such membership implies.

 

¦

 

(Copyright © 2009)

 

I dream about seeing a hole in the sky. It is raining. A young boy is riding a tricycle as we walk up the street together, I in the lead, he behind. I fear he won’t be able to pedal against the runoff coming off the hill, but he pedals faster and plows like a boat through the water. The street dips and we go downhill for a ways and come to a log cabin surrounded by mud filled with exposed tree roots. I tell the boy that the rain made all that mud. The road, filled with mud, turns sharply to the right. Looking up, I see a round hole (like a smoke hole without the smoke) in the sky, or rather, a hole in a translucent dome above the rain. Through the hole I see clouds lit by the sun. My eyes zoom in on the hole so I can see it clearly. Outside and under the hole, the rain is made of dashed lines which remind me (in the dream) of the snow on black-and-white television screens in the 1950s. Through the hole the clouds are made of similar dashes moving at an angle to the rain. I recognize this as a very unusual situation. I have never seen a hole in the sky before in my entire life. I mention this to some people we meet. . . .

 

Waking up, I am still amazed by seeing a hole in the sky. A round hole at the zenith overhead. Probably several feet in diameter, big enough to put your head and body through if you could get up to it. Child, tricycle, street, hill, rain, cabin, mud, hole in the sky—this fragment of a dream is wholly engaging and seems convincingly real.

 

What to make of it? The situation is this: the boy and I are together, though our relationship is unclear. The street reminds me (now that I’m awake) of School Street in Andover, Massachusetts, where I lived in the late 1960s and early 1970s. I used to walk my toddler son around the block in those days, he exploring the walkway to every house while I waited out by the street. The rain reminds me of the dashed lines beneath clouds on the screen of the L.L. Bean weather station I got for my last birthday. I have seen tree stumps and roots in mud, but no particular incident comes to mind. Explaining the cause of the mud to the boy is very much me in my teacher mode. I can’t account for the log cabin. The hole in the sky is very much like the circle representing the sun on my weather station. When the station predicts that precipitation is about to end, dashed rain, clouds, and sun appear together on the screen, the disc of the sun seeming to emerge from behind the clouds. I never actually saw the sun in the dream; it was inferred from lit edges of clouds.

 

I often think about the edges of things—about how the brain sharpens the contrast between surfaces to heighten such edges, creating a kind of line-drawing cartoon that is more distinct than reality itself. The hole in the sky had a very distinct edge, slightly lighter than the dome it was in, like a hem of pale material folded back on itself. Which reminds me of my first experience with Mercator projections (Reflection 60: Discovery, February 6, 2009), because there would be no way to fold a circular hem in the dome of the sky without slitting or slashing it so the smaller area would fold over the larger. I can’t suggest that I was specifically aware of that problem in the dream; it feels more like something I added in processing the dream now that I am awake.

 

I was emotionally concerned about the boy on the tricycle—whether he could go against the flowing runoff or not. The strongest feeling I had was the sense of wonder at seeing a hole in the sky. All dreams have a novel cast about them, and that seemed precisely the point in this one. I seemed very much my everyday self in judging a hole in the sky to be a novel event, and therefore worth commenting on. Which is how my dreams often run while I, the dreamer, are my same old self. Dreams, that is, often place me-as-I-know-myself in bizarre situations.

 

Many of my dreams are about attending or teaching specific classes in school, which is not surprising since I spent 18 years of my life as a teacher and another 19 years as a student before that. But in dream after dream I am neglecting my duty by not showing up for class, or showing up for the class after being unaccountably absent for six months, or I am not prepared, or I know nothing about the subject I am expected to teach, or I’m not wearing any clothes, and so on. My dreamworld is made up of one bizarre situation after another, to which my conventional self is expected to make a fitting response.

 

So I hazard the guess that I am normally conscious when I dream, but because I am deprived of sensations I am familiar with, as well as the ability to act, the situations within which I dream exist in a parallel universe ruled by feelings of novelty, wonder, awe, fear, anxiety, uncertainty, and self-doubt. All the dream situations are possible in that they are variations on stock situations I am familiar with, while at the same time they are novel in taking place in fantastic locales concocted by my unsituated brain trying to figure out where it is and what’s happening. The best it can do is guess on the basis of the few clues suggested by my autonomic nervous system (heart beat, sexual arousal, carbon dioxide level, hunger, etc.) which carries on 24/7 whether I am awake or asleep.

 

From my days working at Harvard Observatory, I retain the image (from a book in the library) of a robed man standing on a ladder, poking his head and shoulders through the celestial sphere (which rips in his case), to confront stars and planets directly as they wheel overhead. It’s a wonderful image because so full of practical details, while the overall concept is preposterous and very dreamlike. I’ve carried that image with me for 48 years. It may have a bearing on the hole in the sky I discovered this morning in my dreams because it came to mind while trying to describe that hole. Memory evidently plays a prominent role in dreams, mixing and matching details drawn from a host of situations to create a landscape wholly novel and fantastic. And, entertaining, once you get past the anxiety.

 

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Reflection 56: Beauty Day

January 28, 2009

(Copyright © 2009)

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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