Engagements between self and other have been around since the early days of one-celled lifeforms drifting about in their aqueous environments. Which-was-which depended on your perspective, that of cell or other, self or world.

Later on, the issue became control or regulation of the engagement. Again, that depended on your perspective, whether you took the point of view of the cell or of the environment. You had to be in the ongoing loop of engagement, either looking out or looking in.

From the cell’s point of view, the problem was to solve the world puzzle of where you were and what was going on around you. From outside the cell, the problem was to figure out what was going on inside the cell.

The metaphor of the black-box problem applies, from both inside and outside the box. From inside the cell’s black box, the world is a mystery. From outside in the world, the cell is a mystery in a black box. There are two black-box problems: one solving the world puzzle from inside, the other solving the mind problem from outside. I use this metaphor to clarify the problem of consciousness.

In some situations the world seemed to be in control; in others, the cell seemed to be in control. But in every situation, control is actually shared between cell and environment, the balance depending on which is dominant during that particular engagement. That is, on whether the cell needed the environment more than the environment needed the cell, or vice versa.

Why does a cell need its surrounding world? To supply the resources it needs to sustain its internal activities. Why does the world need the cell? To consume the resources it has in excessive amounts.

The goal each way being to achieve a balance that works to the benefit of both self and world, cell and environment.

Cells help the world stay in balance; the world helps cells stay in balance as parts and extensions of itself. They are of the same system. The issue is chemical balance, physical balance, energy balance. All within a shared gravitational field rich in energy. In black-box terms, the solution to the two respective problems depends on resources being available both inside and outside the box. The key to balance is in the flow of life-sustaining engagement between input and output.

As both selves and worlds grew in size and complexity, control and regulation of engagements between them grew more demanding. Cells developed the ability to move about and, simultaneously, to gauge and identify a sense of different regions within their environments.

As evolution progressed, environments grew ever-larger and richer in content, but more challenging at the same time. Living organisms had to take greater risks in order to get what they needed to survive. The task of regulating engagements became more complex and difficult.

In response to increasing pressures, multicellular life evolved alternative strategies for survival. Some lifeforms traded their harbors in the sea for territories on land. Others took to the air. Still others learned to tolerate broader ranges of temperature, salinity, humidity, terrain, illumination, suitable foods, weather conditions, and so on. All in response to the urgings of the life force as fueled by individual metabolisms.

At some point, organisms outran their genome’s ability to prepare them for the difficulties they were to face, and consciousness emerged as a means of adapting to challenging conditions as they might arise. Habitat niches remained all-important, but the range of situations they presented as lifeform populations increased and diversified became less of an obstacle.

Consciousness allowed individual organisms to assess their environments (perception), consider their options (judgment), and set and enact behavioral goals accordingly (intentional action), all the while maintaining an ongoing flow of engagement with significant aspects of their environments (between black-box input and output).

Memory became the base of consciousness, providing a background against which to face into novel situations. Expectancy, curiosity, familiarity, conceptualization, and recognition became possible, simplifying the analysis of highly variable conditions.

Too, the old standard behaviors of reflex action, mimicry, habits, routines, prejudice, orthodoxy, rote learning, trial and error, and other energy-efficient shortcuts in lieu of full consciousness remained as viable alternatives.

But consciousness allowed memory to be linked to a review of alternative possibilities, prioritized according to a choice of criteria, and judgment concerning which choice made the best fit to the current situation.

So did consciousness serve to build on a Paleolithic genome to make it fit to serve in a modern world to which our ancestors never had to adapt.

Consciousness itself is a neurological response to a discrepancy between conflicting aspects of perception. It pointedly draws attention and awareness to unsettling aspects of experience, whether good or bad. When consciousness is focused on a particular problem, all else falls away as irrelevant. The ability to concentrate on a particular issue is the essence of consciousness.

By applying our neural resources to one situation at a time, consciousness makes our awareness both efficient and coherent, screening out all that is irrelevant to its current focus. This ability to rate situations on a scale of importance at the moment is one of our greatest assets in getting through the day one moment at a time.

At the core of consciousness is our situated intelligence that organizes a given situation in terms of the elements or dimensions that make it up. That core of situated intelligence is what we experience as the self, which changes from one situation to another as suits the occasion.

The dimensions of consciousness that might contribute to a particular situation include: memory, sensory impressions, feelings, motivation, values, imagination, understanding, life force (or energy level), humor, temperament, goals, skills, relationships, and many other factors that collectively constitute our minds.

Our situated intelligence stands at the nexus between incoming perception and outgoing action in the precinct where judgment and commitment are possible. It is activated by a gap, inconsistency, or abrupt change in our loop of engagement that rallies attention to that unsettling state of affairs. Our intelligence gathers its assets to focus precisely on that gap or inconsistency (duality, disparity, discrepancy, annoyance, delta signal, disappointment, surprise, shock, etc.) as a rousing alarm that serves to focus our attention, stirring consciousness to life. Here is a matter to be dealt with.

It is the nature of our minds as they have evolved to depict situations in terms of dualities (dichotomies, bifurcations, oppositions, contests, confrontations) and other forms of either-or, yes-or-no, approve-or-reject situations. This is due to the complementary roles of activation and inhibition that our neural networks play in shaping consciousness in different situations.

Our engagements between self and world take place on the four fundamental levels of nature, culture, community, and family, which I have extensively dealt with in developing my views on consciousness in this blog.

The above summary provides an outline of my wayfaring journey in my daily posts to Consciousness: The Inside Story, in, what to me appeared to make a coherent sequence, but probably appeared random to readers who broke into my stream of consciousness in the middle of its development.

Tomorrow I will remind readers where we may have been together as a review of my specific ideas about consciousness as posted to this blog.


399. Total Immersion

January 7, 2015

To insist on adherence to the rules of logic and reason at all times leads us astray. At the core, we are neither logical nor reasonable. We are what we are, doing the best we can to put pieces of the mind puzzle together however they might fit. If we don’t give ourselves to solving that puzzle by its own dictates, we’ll never impose a solution that fits from outside. Too much of our most intimate mental makeup marches to a series of different drummers, with beats that change and never settle down into a regular rhythm. Imposing a certain order on what we allow ourselves to think encases the mind in cement.

But the mind is not a rigid thing. It is a fluid organ that shapes itself to the demands of the moment. That is the genius by which we have survived all these millennia, not by being “right” and “proper,” but by adapting to the situation we are in. By detecting the structure of unique moments of history from inside our personal experience of those moments, not by imposing a predetermined structure from without.

As with our thinking, so in our acting do we need to prepare ourselves over the years by practicing the moves that are important to us. The best method is total immersion in what we want to do, trying it over and over again. Nothing worth doing comes easily. Practice is the secret of success. Not good looks. Not youth. Not luck. Not money. Not connections.


We often give credit to talent and gifts, but the secret of talent and gifts is disciplined hard work. Think of Fred Astaire rehearsing fourteen hours a day to appear effortlessly graceful. We have to train our bodies, arms, hands, and fingers to do what we want. Mind over matter. Which is the true challenge we face. Make that mind over muscle—and tendon and joint and bone. Our minds and bodies are made to do the work, and to sharpen our performance through years of dedicated practice.

It helps if we break our task into stages that build one on another. Which is the nature of projects. We can’t tackle every challenge all at once. The recipe for successful action is to break it into sessions for working on one thing at a time. When we get good at one subroutine (in Tai Chi, say), we move to the next, rehearsing earlier ones as we go, adding new moves every day until we become masters of the whole. Then we move on to the next scene, paragraph, chapter, or movement of whatever we are engaged in building or perfecting.

Projects are a means of achieving concentration on one part of a complicated process after another, and concentration is of the essence in directing our full mental attention on both perception and action at the same time, that is to say, on our engagement with a particular activity.

Projects are behavioral units in which energy is consistently directed toward attaining a particular goal.

I have made over eighty PowerPoint presentations, each aimed at a particular audience to achieve a desired effect. Some I have made in a day, others have taken me months to perfect. Each slide has its place in the series so it adds to the plot by which the overall show builds to a fitting finale.

Each such presentation is the result of a project to which I give my focused attention to the same program over time, with frequent breaks lasting hours, days, or weeks between sessions. Eventually I finish a given show and move on to the next.

Heavy Metal

Heavy Metal, Bar Harbor, Maine, USA

One show I call “Heavy Metal” was built from photographs of cast-iron drain and manhole covers on the streets of Bar Harbor. Some castings were made in Portland, Maine, others in Canada, France, or India. It took me several weeks of patrolling the streets on the lookout for variations on my theme. When the lighting was wrong, I went back several times until it was right (showing the texture and design of the metal to good effect).

Fungal underworld

Hidden habitat of fungal underworld

My wanderings may have appeared random, but each foray contributed to the overall effect, and eventually I judged the project finished, then moved on to the next—the secret underworlds beneath caps of mushrooms, stems of trees in the Acadian Forest, estuary wildlife, horseshoe crabs, eelgrass meadows, and so on. Each show resulting from a project of concerted effort assembled over time.


Solo horseshoe crabs

Two solo horseshoe crabs pass side-by-side

The focus of our loop of engagement with the world is revealed by current sensory input meeting up with the original impetus that spurred us to action. When the active and receptive ends of our loops connect in our minds, the difference between our intentions and achievements is a measure of our success or failure in our present adventure.

Like old Ouroboros, the mythical serpent circled around on itself so it can bite its own tail, we feel the bite of excitement that tells us what we need to pay attention to in order to better adjust our affairs to the particular situation we are engaged with at the time.


We learn, not simply by doing, but by purposefully engaging the situations we find ourselves in. Engagement is a matter of perception, judgment, and action all being focused at the same time on the matter at hand.

As I see it, our conscious minds emerge when a comparison between perception and action generates a corrective signal that spurs the next round of action. That comparison produces a polarized (positive or negative) jolt that puts us back on course in what we’re trying to achieve in the world from the confines of the particular black box in which we (our minds) reside at the time.

We conduct our comparisons on several levels of engagement at once, within our brains, in human families, communities, cultures, and the natural world that supports us in every way. We live in ever-changing fields of comparison and polarity inside our personal black boxes, we trying to figure out the world outside our box, the world, in turn, trying to figure out who we are inside that same box as viewed from the outside.

To us, the world is a puzzle; to the world, our mind is a puzzle.

It is through thousands of lesser engagements that we begin to piece our respective puzzles together in gaining a sense of the mystery on the far side of the walls of our box, both inside and outside, depending on our situated perspective. All made possible by our brains, but not wholly contained within any particular brain.

The proof of our success is in the actual doing—the life of engagement—not in the particular goals we have set for ourselves.