(Copyright © 2009)

I pile old newspapers on the floor in front of my coat closet. When the pile gets so unruly I can’t open the closet door, I heap it into my arms and head for the recycling (formerly “trash”) room. Just now, leaving my apartment, I take three strides, then think of the empty gallon milk jug I’d placed on the floor in the kitchen where I wouldn’t miss it. Except I did miss it. Go on, or go back for the jug? That choice lights up my mind for about a tenth of a second. Still moving, I see that I have to make a decision. Normally, I hate interruptions and would continue whatever I was doing. This time I am aware I’d been stepping over the jug for a week, so turn around to get it. Then on to the recycling room with items for the plastic and newspaper bins.

What struck me in this case was the clarity and brevity of the choice. And expecting myself to make a quick decision. And the actual decision to go back for the jug, which is not typical of me. Which all took place in less than a second. There I was, heading to the recycling room, and there I was, conscious of where I was going, and why, and that I was leaving something behind that I had not thought of sooner. The decision point was now, at this stage of this stride. I am seldom aware of motor involvement in consciousness, but here it was, my physical progress down the hall being of the essence.

Increasingly, I am aware of the fleeting nature of the mental processing I call consciousness. Things pop in and out of my mind, and I have the option of tending to them or not. Often, I am preoccupied and tell myself I don’t have time for such distractions. Often, too, they never recur. I had to have been there to decide in that split second. A one-time life opportunity—to be dismissed just like that. Yet that seems to be how my mind works. It proposes, leaving me to follow through—or not—as I choose.

That’s how it is with blog ideas, which flit through my skull like chain lightning. If I don’t seize upon them, they’re gone in a twinkling. Leaving me asking, “What was that?” If I wait even an instant, I can’t recapture one gleam of my brilliant idea. Once in a while, I recognize that I’ve had such a twinkling before. But more often it’s a one-time event. Imagine that—here for an instant, then gone forever! Another lost opportunity. How cruel consciousness can be. To flash an idea, then whip it away. But that’s me blaming my own mind for my stodginess in responding. For me not taking the hint. For not turning the hint into an inkling into a full-fledged idea. For not sitting at my computer and posting to my blog. What a waste of a mind. With me being the wastrel.

The particular incident of going to the recycling room makes me feel that this self I am talking about and who makes decisions in such cases—this particular self is in charge of acting upon the tantalizing smattering of ideas that flit through his mind. I’m talking about me, the planner, the decider, the executor of motor programs leading to actions in the world. I am my physical body and all the muscles, tendons, neurons, bones, joints, and so on that make it work—that is, move about meaningfully, perform gestures, and generally act with intention.

Intention, that is, reflecting the biological values that inform my behavior. In going to the recycling room, I experience three different aspects of consciousness: 1) intentional motor behavior of striding down the hall with papers in hand, 2) the value of doing so in order to reduce the clutter in my apartment, and 3) consciousness itself which keeps offering suggestions on how I might express my values as actions in real-life situations. At the heart of this troika is me, the decider, who changes his plans in the instant and actually goes back for the milk jug.

Trifling, you say? Mountain out of a mole hill? I think not. I am beginning to see that consciousness is far more fine-grained than I have treated it up till now. It is a pulsing mosaic of momentary urges and considerations, seemingly continuous, yet actually resetting itself as situations change and develop. Perhaps William James’ “stream” of consciousness is more intermittent and fleeting than the image conveys. It seems to be continuously up-dated and revised to take progress and obstacles into account, but that updating may well be opportunistic at distinct decision points, so allowing seams between stages as corresponding action programs progress. I don’t really know; I’m fishing here, following a hunch.

What I do know is what happened just now on my third stride toward the recycling room. In a fraction of a second, I changed my behavior because my mind fleetingly offered an alternative plan. Late breaking news! Stop the press! My apartment is less cluttered than it would have been had that spark of mental lightning not struck as it did. Consciousness, I will say now, is given us to actualize our biological and cultural values—to translate our values into action within specific situations as we would have them develop.

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