Engagement is not a trade-off, a simple alternation of give-and-take. It is founded on paying attention to input and output simultaneously, all (or much of) the time, so there is no major gap between them, no lull in attention to both self and world.

When we get on a roll, that’s what happens. We are in the moment totally, not separating input from output but seeing both as integral parts of the same state of mind. We are with it, whatever it is. We are mindfarers so fully engaged with our surroundings that we become an integral part of the scene wherever we are.

As mindfarers, we want our companions to win along with us, not go down in defeat. Each needs to win in her own way. If Israelis and Palestinians fight until only one is left standing, they both lose. Neither side can sacrifice its integrity to the other.

Mindfaring (finding our inner way) is a matter of coordinating our lives with our surroundings, as in dancing, as in music, as in a good marriage, as in sports governed by rules. It is being both with ourselves and with the other, not in spite of.

It is a matter of being together with someone or something else. Of being yourself in a scene or setting that is wholly itself at the same time, so your engagement is mutual, both on an equal footing. Each plays her part, not going off on his own. It is an extension of a state of mind that embraces our partner in engagement, whether person, place, or thing.

Such engagements are fundamentally different states of mind than opposing, conflicting, fighting, defeating. There are times when you must run for your life, and times you must run toward your life or it might get away from you. Mindfaring is running toward, not away. It is seeking, not avoiding. Moving ahead, always ahead (seldom in a straight line). In company with respected companions. Along a path that leads to a natural culmination of the going itself.

Mindfaring is powered by the dimensions of intelligence (experience or consciousness) that make up the situation we are in at a particular point in our life engagements. Those dimensions are qualities that, taken collectively, give structure to a particular moment of awareness and experience.

Such dimensions reflect the balance between the affective roilings and turnings-over in our minds or, in neural terms, along the axis between the midbrain reticular formation and the prefrontal cortex via the limbic system (including amygdala, hippocampus, thalamus, hypothalamus, and septal nuclei)—all in response to the signals derived from our ongoing engagement with our surroundings that spark our intelligence, judgment, and subsequent actions.

Here is a diagram from page 275 of my 1982 dissertation, Metaphor to Mythology, that illustrates neural pathways in the brain that support our engagements with the world.

Schematic of Loops in the Brain

Sensory pathways in the brain, sensory input on right, motor pathways on left, limbic system lower center, loops of engagement suggested by dotted lines.

In experiential terms, those affective roilings and turnings-over in our mental innards include arousal, memory, expectancy, attention, sensory impressions, recognition, understanding, imagination, meaning, thought, feeling, emotion, biological and cultural values, humor, comparison, polarity, attitude, and judgment, all abetted by our goals, relationships, projects, selection of tools, skills, language skills, speech, gestures, and overt action, among other dimensions that come to the fore in specific situations.

How does this bear on the relationship between mind and brain? We are each born to our respective worlds of nature, culture, community, and family, all of which challenge and feed our minds on a daily basis, so we become part of them, and they part of us as a kind of reference system that, as we engage with it, defines our uniqueness in our particular time and place in our Earthly career.

Our brains process the endless stream of signals resulting from our engagements, but leave nature, culture, community, and family outside of ourselves where we can draw upon them as needed in particular situations.

The situations we find (or put) ourselves in are temporary configurations of the dimensions of our intelligence as affected by the roilings and turnings-over spurred by our ongoing engagements. They morph into subsequent situations as modified by the ever-changing flux of our experience.

We don’t lug all our memories around with us as an accumulating store of baggage, but develop neural networks capable of recognizing familiar patterns of traffic flowing through them. Our brains excel at pattern recognition, nesting ever-finer concepts together on a great many levels of discrimination. Our brains give us a capacity to recognize patterns as having been met before, not to store those patterns in finest detail.

That is, our brains are no bigger than they need to be to process the engagements we set up between our adventurous insides and ever-changing outsides. What is outside stays outside as a facet of nature, culture, community, and family. When we die, we die to them. They stay behind; we don’t take them with us.

The brain is not a filing cabinet or a closet full of old clothes. It is a director of traffic from perception to action via an experienced and intelligent self that serves as a situation evaluator in matching incoming sensory impressions to outgoing gestures, speech, and actions.

Advertisements

If your only tool is a hammer, everything looks like a nail. If your only tool is a gun, every stranger looks like an enemy. If your only tool is faith, every cause looks like God.

These are the wages of consciousness. What we’re seeing is not the real world but the world puzzle as we solve it day-by-day with the primary tool available inside our black boxes, our fallible human mind.

We do the best we can with what we’ve got in the time allowed under the conditions that prevail at the time.

The problem being that once we’ve solved the world problem, we consider it solved for all time. That is, we elevate our personal convictions to the realm of knowledge describing the world as it truly is.

But an idea in the mind is a glimmer that shines in our eyes like a beacon of truth. Actually, it’s a guess or hypothesis that seemed like a good idea at the time. If it’s truth we’re after, not just operative truth, then follow-through and reconsideration are all important. Our primary tool of mind is more like trial and error or successive approximation than sudden revelation.

And from the vantage point inside our black boxes, that is a hard lesson to learn. We make a benefit of any doubt that we have so that, as it turns out, no White jury will ever convict a White police officer of needlessly killing a Black man.

Scientists speak of the brain as an information processor that operates by computations based on data, as if the brain were actually the precision machine they want it to turn out to be. But that is just their way of casting their beliefs ahead of them, so guiding their search for understanding from behind the shelter of their living convictions instead of what may lie before them in the shadow of their uncertainty.

All of what I have written so far in this post says far more about how the mind works than how we want it to work. Whenever a new metaphor for a wondrous machine become available, it becomes the rage of the hour for explaining how consciousness works as a function of an orderly brain. People earnestly propose the mind in terms of clockworks, quantum theory, holograms, or the staid conventions of the scientific method—in every case mistaking the tool at hand for the solution they seek.

My approach is different. I start with my mind as it presents itself to me, and take its folly seriously enough to wonder why it should work in that way. My only method is to pay attention to everything my mind does. Incidents of mistaken belief pile up; questions accrue, my answer file stays empty. My own mind remains a mystery. Which I keep poking and probing with everyday incidents of lived experience.

I don’t play the games of peer review or publish-or-perish. Truth is, I am going to perish anyway, no matter what I come up with. Rather, I take my time, waiting on my mind to reveal itself to me in new ways. Which, when my files are stuffed, it does, offering a response to the whole of my uncertainty all at once, not one bit at a time.

So here I sit at my computer while trying to clear the walk of ice and snow, cook breakfast, and work on my blog simultaneously—because my mind is working on three problems at once. I am only its recording secretary, so I do the best I can to keep up with it. Oops, the egg is getting overdone. . . .

Back and forth I run between walkway, kitchen, bedroom (where my computer happens to be), on a roll because my mind won’t let me alone after I awoke well-rested and ready to do what I’m told.

I’ve been living with my mind for eighty-two years, and respectfully scrutinizing it for the last thirty-seven, so I’m starting to get clear on a number of issues all at once. I wouldn’t say it’s an additive process so much as an all-hands-on-deck process that shares what’s going on with all concerned.

My first method was to keep notes on a yellow pad with pen or pencil. But as soon as I wrote something, I’d want to change it with an insertion or correction, so very quickly I became unable to read my snarled notes. What to do? I turned to a typewriter, which I thought would be neater. But the urge to make changes persisted, so I wrote one draft of a paragraph after another, and page-by-page, my neat record of my thought became gibberish.

The word-processor on my computer helped me produce cleaner copy because I could cut and paste-over what I had written. Then I thought of having a small, selected audience of true believers to keep me on my writing toes, so started a blog—this very one on WordPress in 2008, Consciousness: The Inside Story. That effort led to two self-published books meant to summarize what I’d written so far, and a couple of Acadia Senior College classes based on those books.

But my thinking on trying to understand my own mind was always a work in progress, so as soon as I reached another stage, I’d want to change and expand it. Last year I wrote down my thoughts on consciousness in an article one-hundred-and-forty pages long, which I set up a new Website to host. But seeing my summary on the Web, I saw it was still gibberish, so went black to blogging the material contained in that piece in small chunks.

And that is where I am today. The challenge will never end. I will die a work-in-progress. Thinking about consciousness, or my consciousness thinking about me, either way, I’ll never reach a tidy conclusion. Too many problems; too many suggested answers.

Consciousness is what it is, different in each instance, and I’ll never get it down on paper or in digital form.

Consciousness is a way of life for each one of us. I’ll never get to the bottom of it because its bottom is leaky and runs into everything else. But I will never wallow in that psychic slough of despond. At least I’ve made it this far, and have learned a good deal, if not all there is to know.

I’ve been thinking of retiring from this long search and enjoying what time I have left on the coast of Maine, which for me is the center of my little universe. I’m almost to the end of the discussion and conclusion sections of this blog. When those last posts are done, I don’t think I’ll turn around and go over the same material in yet a new way. Enough, already.

But the issues I raised at the start of this post on the wages of consciousness still weigh on my mind. To kill in the name of racial or religious belief is a heinous crime. Conscious conviction plays a central role in every such death. To kill for an idea in the mind is absurd, no matter how lofty, beautifully crafted, or convincing.

So there’s still a mountain of work for humans to do in not only understanding, but civilizing their own minds. I’d like to think I could become part of the solution, and I suspect that such thoughts will occupy me as I take my ease in the land of my dreams here on Earth—even as the North Atlantic rises ever higher against this section of coast.

402. Expletives!

January 10, 2015

Following-through on my previous post: The question is, can we avoid becoming creatures of our technologies by controlling our urge to revel in the thrill and novelty of the latest electronic gadget we don’t need?

As I said, the world we live in is shaped by our subjective opinions and motivations. The lesson of my study of mind is that each of us is responsible for the workings of her own. When it comes to saving the planet through yet more technology, let believers beware. Particularly believers in technologies that boast of being artificially intelligent. Our numbers are already far too large for our planet to bear at current levels of consumption and life expectancy.

We talk a lot about saving the world, but it is our actions in that same world that count. Speech saves effort, but it can also interrupt and divert us from more meaningful engagements requiring bolder action. So to continue on the topic of action I will briefly speculate on the origin of the movements of breath, tongue, lips, and teeth we call speech.

We justly pride ourselves on our skills in speaking, reading, writing, and comprehending, the very skills that separate us from our animal neighbors and ancestors. Speech has evolved as a kind of substitute for exerting ourselves by flexing our larger muscles. It is far more efficient to gently release air through our throats and lips than it is to lunge forward while making threatening gestures with raised arms brandishing sticks. It is also less risky.

It is humbling to think that the origin of speech might have been in uttering expletives whenever our ancestors’ engagements were thwarted or went awry. That is my belief, largely resting on observation of my own behavior in dealing with my tired old computer, which is programmed to do its own thing, and so pays no heed when I want it to do something else.

My vulgar outbursts wrest attention from all ears within range. I shout curt obscenities at my laptop when it goes off on its own, but having no ears (mine is an older model), it ignores me and sits there doing its thing whereas I paid good money for it to do my thing. Why else would I buy it?

Why, indeed? I mean to use my computer to facilitate my many projects depending on use of words and pictures. All my writing, all my photographs, all my illustrations are on my computer. Books, articles, PowerPoints, slide shows, pechakuchas, notes, lists, random thoughts, address—my entire creative output all stored on my hard drive.

So when I can’t get at them because my computer is busy doing something else—installing updates, scanning every file, printing pages I didn’t ask it to print, posting inexplicable error messages about not being able to do some task it thought up on its own—I get—how shall I put it?—upset. Mad. Angry. Finally furious after not being able to get through to it to get it to stop what it’s doing and do what I want it to do.

By nature, I am a very calm person. I have confidence in making that judgment. People are amazed at my not getting upset in situations that would have driven them batty. But when engagements requiring my deep concentration are interrupted, I have trouble restoring the focus that my balance of mind depends on. I am forced to switch my mind to some irrelevant task. I am on a roll, but can’t continue.

Imagine my distress. Which requires some kind of outlet as a stand-in to release the energy that I was putting into the project I was focused on. So these sounds come out of my mouth. Not words that fit the sentence I was writing when so rudely interrupted, but sounds out of nowhere. Shit. Fuck. Chert, click, runt, frump, fart, muck, flack, blat. Expletives. Sudden explosions of sound that bear the burden of my frustration and annoyance.

That, I believe, is the true origin of language. Or at least a contributing factor in drawing attention to the urgency of some issue or another. In this case, an issue with a negative valence giving evidence that breaking into an ongoing engagement is wrong, bad, undesirable, annoying, perturbing, frustrating, immoral, unsettling, etc., and ought to be against the law.

In the opposite situation (consciousness thrives on opposition, remember), when I am caught unaware by something surpassingly pleasing that gives me pause, I say, like astronauts ogling the Earth from above, Wow! Oh boy. Amazing. Beautiful. Stunning. Beautiful. Gorgeous. Hallelujah. Hooray. Lookadat! Or some cooing expletive suitable to such an occasion. In which case the issue of expression is to release a gasp of sudden joy, happiness, surprise, wonder, satisfaction, insight, gratitude, and other such utterance suggesting a positive valence that gives approval to an engagement that is right, proper, good, desirable, affirming, pleasing, enjoyable, and essentially positive in deserving to be called to everyone’s attention.

It is in those two opposite situations—the rude interruption and the affirming revelation—that I discover a burst or rush of sound issuing from my throat as if I had invented language on the spot for that very occasion. Extrapolating, I identify with my primitive ancestors who had the same uncontrollable urge so long ago.