With memory always in the background, the flow of sensory stimulation proceeds—courtesy of arousal, curiosity, expectancy, and attention—from sensory receptors to the formation of sensory patterns (impressions or phenomena if not formal patterns) in conscious awareness.

Interacting with memory, those patterns are judged to be either recognizable or novel. If recognized, they are welcomed into one family or another of sensory experiences and given the family name (that’s a dog, a cat, an elephant, etc.); if novel, they are either skipped over as strangers, or given extra scrutiny in order to fit them to the closest family resemblance that makes them meaningful.

At which point we cease engaging perceptually with that incoming pattern of energy and shift to dealing with its conceptual meaning, giving it place in our hierarchy of meaningful understandings of how named patterns of energy fit together within the structure of our experience of such patterns as we are able to sort and recognize them as being related one to another.

In my view, personal consciousness asks three questions during the processing of incoming sensory stimulation:

  1. What’s happening?
  2. What does that mean in the context of my current situation?
  3. What, if anything, can I, or should I, do?

The first question is framed  by the mental department of sensory perception. The second question is framed by the department of personal meaning in the here and now. The third question is framed by the department of action appropriate to the answers given to the first two questions.

I gather those three parts into the process of situated intelligence, which, given our current situation, comes up with a judgment on how best to proceed so that our response fits with our understanding of just that particular situation. Our intelligence, that is, is not a general property we possess so much as a sense of familiarity in dealing with certain types of problems (predicaments) due to our training or lifetime experience.

No one is a match for all problems. That is why we specialize as mathematicians, tennis players, welders, diplomats, street sweepers, and so on. And why our skills improve with dedicated rehearsal, practice, and performance over and over again.


(Copyright © 2010)

What we call the beginning is often the end

And to make an end is to make a beginning.

        T. S. Eliot, Four Quartets, Little Gidding, part 5

Is there no forward motion, then? Only the same round  again and again? Must I travel in circles? By different routes, I keep coming back to the same thing. Winding down this blog, I am not far from the mental state I was in twenty-eight years ago. I find myself making similar discoveries, or perhaps rehashing the same intuitions in different terms. What I then called “a resonant synthesis of meaning and being,” I now refer to as “the categorization of sensory patterns.”  Unhappy with either phrase because not expressed in plain English, I wonder if it has been worth it—trying to get a grip on the inner workings of my own mind. Am I in any better position to understand—so to remedy—the problems of my time? Or am I on a fool’s errand?

Words, being a social medium, impose the history of their use on the choice of any particular word to express a private thought. I despise the word categorization as sounding so pretentious, so academic, so foreign, so Greek. It is not a word I would normally use, but these days I use it in almost every post, as if repetition would somehow make it more acceptable. I think of it as Aristotle’s word, or Immanuel Kant’s. It doesn’t feel like my word. I have failed to come up with a better word for describing a big part of my personal consciousness.

To categorize is to describe the world in terms that are personally meaningful. That’s why I use it—it says what I mean. But it doesn’t sound like me in my own ears. So I cringe every time I ask my fingers to type that dread sequence of letters. The interesting thing, though, is what kategorein means in Greek—to publically accuse or assert (kata- down, egor- to speak in public). We use it in the sense (via Latin) of to declare or proclaim, that is, to state the nature or character of a person, thing, or event. To categorize something is to make public a claim it is as I see it. Categorization, then, is the outward expression of a mental notion, of a concept or an idea.

How else could I say that to be less formal or academic? The word mapping sounds more friendly to me. Categorization is the mapping of a concept from consciousness onto something in our phenomenal world. It is the categorizer who does the mapping, so responsibility for what he does is solely his. Naming is another friendly term for what we do when we categorize. One problem with names, however, is we often think of them as properties of persons or objects themselves, not as labels or designations applied by others. As if a spade (object) were strictly a spade (name) and not a shovel, digging implement, or trowel. What’s in a name? I find I am bothered by mail addressed to Steven Perrin instead of to Steve or Stephen Perrin. It’s an easy mistake, and there is no way to know if Steve is short for Steven or Stephen. What troubles me is that, without thinking, people lay their assumptions on how I spell my own name, which I take as a slight. Sensitive? You bet! But there it is. Names matter. Categorizations matter.

Historically, they have changed over time as Latin replaced Greek as an international language, then evolved into French, which merged with Anglo-Saxon into Old English, then became modern English. With the result that we forget what terms once meant, and bring in new terms of our own, replacing simple old names with verbal concoctions. In Words and Places (Everyman’s Library, originally published 1864), Isaac Taylor gives examples of concatenated place names made up of bits and pieces contributed by different cultures:

In the name of Brindon Hill, in Somersetshire, we have first the Cymric bryn, a hill. To this was added dun, a Saxonised Celtic word, nearly synonymous with bryn; and the English word hill was added when neither bryn nor dun were any longer significant words.

Pen-dle-hill, in Lancashire, is similarly compounded of three synonymous words—the Cymric pen, the Norse holl, and the English hill. In Pen-tlow Hill, in Essex, we have the Celtic pen, the Anglo-Saxon hlaw, and the English hill. Shar-pen-hoe-knoll, in Bedfordshire, contains four nearly synonymous elements.

Why use four syllables when the meaning of each is the same, and one of them would do? These terms are monuments to human forgetfulness, reminding us that categorizations are projections of the human mind, not labels of things as what they are in themselves.

Name-calling is a clear example of characterization conveying an attitude: you turkey, you imbecile, you darling, you angel, you pig. It is a very different act to apply the name pig to a pig or a person. But thinking about it, a pig isn’t a pig on its own; it takes a person to dub a pig a pig, cochon, Schwein, cerdo, or maiale, depending on whether that person speaks English, French, German, Spanish, or Italian. The pigness of a pig is clearly in the ear of the categorizer.

Once we get beyond the standoffish (to us) quality of foreign words, the idea of categorization (recognition, mapping, naming) is clear enough. After casting our concepts outward, the hard part is accepting that the world as we perceive it is a phenomenal version of the world, a rendition by our sensory apparatus, different for each one of us, depending on our motivation at the time, our interest, arousal, attention, level of discrimination, and other aspects of consciousness. The world in itself is other than we can see, hear, touch, smell, taste, or intuit. Imagine the world of a bird that can detect Earth’s magnetic field with sensors in its eyes; imagine the world of a shark, skate, or ray that can read electrical signals sent out by the nervous system of prey species buried in sand, gravel, or mud. Like ants, moles, worms, and bumblebees, such species, too, would claim to see the world “as it is,” but theirs would be a very different world from the one we claim to know.

Within our own species, individuals see the world differently. For example, here is something I read this morning in Harper’s Magazine of Jan. 2010, from a piece by Charles Bowden,  “The Wisdom of Rats”:

Laws are passed, uniforms designed, theories float like butterflies over the mountains and valleys and deserts. Things are Mexican or things are American or people are settlers or pioneers or savages or aliens, men are outlaws or lawmen, boundaries are violated or secured, armies sweep through, order is insisted upon, revolutions come and go and succeed or fail and it is all under control at all times whether there is control or not.

Different observers, different worlds, that is the law of consciousness. Not that there’s nothing “out there,” it’s that each of us renders it to suit himself in the moment. If I am hungry, I notice food; if I am wet, I look for shelter; if I am cold, I seek warmth; if I am lonely, I wish for company; if I am frazzled, I retire into solitude. Narrowing the search, we find what we look for, but that’s only the beginning. Our personal worlds are functions of our size, sensory acuteness, ability to discriminate one thing from another, prior experience, genetic makeup, chemical environment in the womb, childhood development, rearing, schooling, training, job history, higher education, and on and on. The one world may be out there, but the phenomenal worlds we entertain in consciousness are different for each individual. Consequently, we respond in different ways to those phenomenal worlds, so behave as uniquely ourselves.

There is no known standard for any so-called objective world. We do not perceive material objects directly as they “are,” but construe them from the energy they emit, reflect, block, or diffract (as voyagers in the Pacific could navigate in relation to wave fronts in the lee of an island they could not see). Kicking an object (such as a tire on a used car or a cardboard box at the side of the road) is as good a way as any to check on the solidity of an object, but it says little about what that object might be.

In earlier posts I have mentioned apparent motions of sun, moon, planets, and stars, apparent colors, apparent sounds (such as speech or music)—none of which is the same in the world of objects as it appears in phenomenal consciousness. Things seem to grow smaller as they move away from us, and we accept that illusion as natural, even though we know that a locomotive does not actually grow in size as it approaches or smaller as it passes us by. Looking down from the upper floors of a tall building, we remark how small people on the street are, even though we know that on their level they are probably of average size.

People categorize their phenomenal worlds in order to act more-or-less appropriately in situations they can construe but cannot directly engage beyond consciousness. Consciousness, that is, enables an ongoing loop of engagement between  individual actors and their surroundings by which specific gestures are traded for sensory input, followed by a series of adjusted gestures and revised inputs, mediated by personal judgments, values, goals, and prior experience. In two sentences, that is the gist of the 199 posts to this blog. We the people are motivated categorizers of sensory impressions. The worlds we live in are parallel universes rendered by our brains in creating personal consciousness.

Which may be true for individuals (personal consciousness being the topic of this blog), but what about the collective consciousness of people acting in groups? After 199 posts, that is the new beginning I am faced with, the flip side of individual consciousness that can be known through introspection. Corporate personhood and the “right” to bear arms are two examples of beliefs held in common by groups made up of disparate individuals. Beliefs may be hatched in individual consciousness, but as items on a group’s agenda, they become aggrandized as issues, principles, rights, or policies, and so become larger than notions, concepts, or ideas in individual minds. Trying to grasp individual consciousness is daunting enough, but collective or corporate consciousness adds layer-upon-layer of difficulty on top of that. The issue then becomes the mental underpinnings of behavior exhibited by people acting in groups, not the relatively simpler matter of individual consciousness in relation to one person’s independent acts.

Mixing levels of consciousness, seen from my personal point of view, corporate personhood becomes an out-and-out oxymoron. For corporations to be considered persons, they would have to have brains and some semblance of consciousness. But corporations are entities chartered by the various states, not living beings. Though they may have members and employees who have brains and are conscious for themselves, corporations as such are demonstrably both brainless and mindless. Ask a corporation to categorize some aspect of its world and it will refer the job to an attorney who does have both a brain and a mind; the corporation as an entity chartered on paper is not up to the task.

Yet corporations exist and are considered legal persons under the law, allowing a group of people to act within certain specified limits as a corporate individual. This legal fiction confounds true and make-believe entities, magically bestowing rights and qualities of living persons upon chartered bodies (orchestras, alliances, unions, partnerships, companies, corporations) as if they were mortal beings and not so many origami tigers without wits or judgment. But, looking around, I see many similar fictions alive and well in the culture I live in. There is a trend in corporate thinking to allow for convenient fictions that fail any test of reality beyond the fact that it pleases us to act as if we believed in them. I have written in this blog about The Wizard of Oz, who is as real to me as Barack Obama, Dick Cheney, or Isaac Newton.

Does it matter that we have a hard time differentiating fiction from truth? Considering the wealth concentrated in modern multinational corporations, and the legal expertise in their employ, yes, it becomes a serious question because of the influence and leverage such impersonal entities wield in the affairs of natural persons. Corporate persons have vastly greater powers to control the media, lobby Congress, sway the Supreme Court, and determine election results than ordinary citizens do. Corporate personhood mocks the principle of one person, one vote, which underlies our democratic form of government. Does that matter? Is pitting corporate versus individual resources likely to lead to a fair contest? Is democracy itself just a myth?

No slope is slipperier than corporate personhood because the combination of corporate policy, expertise, and funding trumps hard-won, mere-mortal judgments every time. We the people are disheartened: the courts have stolen our nation out from under us. The struggle for independence never ends.

Miscategorizing a corporation as a person is contrary to any system of law that claims to be reasoned and compassionate. If corporations can play at being persons, why not dogs and cats? Pigeons? Rats? Which brings me back to Charles Bowden’s piece in Harper’s:

The rats came out in the night and moved right here where I sit, a continuous thread of rats reaching far back with love and anger and lust and dreams and reaching past any place my world will ever attain, and the rats know but will not say what they know and so we must find out, experience the fantasy of power and control, and finally we will go under like every one of our kind they have ever seen and still they will come out in the night and move around, not making a sound, not a single sound, but move around and thrive as the creek purls along in the black love of the night. We must not play it safe if we wish to share the wisdom of the rats.

Our idea of history is the end of history, of tracking a concentration of power that finally reaches critical mass, and by an explosion of force solves all problems and ends all change forever, amen.

No rat has ever believed our history.

Categorizations such as corporate personhood are creations of what Gerald Edelman calls higher-order consciousness. Rats are endowed with primary consciousness, which deals with a phenomenal world interpreted in light, not of concepts, but of innate biological values—sex, food, drink, and more sex, food, and drink. It is not corporate personhood itself that will prove our undoing, but our helpless putting-up with it. If our higher-order consciousness allows us to categorize it as a crazy, irrational, illegal power-grab, that leaves us helpless because these are not arguments admissible in a court of law, which is where the problem lies. On a social level, courts are the deciders of which categorizations are legal and which are not. For now, while rats and judges creep among us in the dark, it’s OK for corporations to act as if they were persons, which everybody knows they are not, but if the Supreme Court rules it’s OK, then it must be OK.

Leaving me to wonder, is there any such thing as higher-order social consciousness? Have we reached the point in our evolution where that might emerge? As it is, court decisions serve the interests of those who write legislation and the judges who back them up. Corporate personhood is alive and well in our age, as is the right to bear arms, so I feel I am ahead of my time. And I don’t see higher-order social consciousness emerging anytime soon. The trend, in fact, appears to be running the other way. How long can the right to be a fully conscious, independent person last before being declared unconstitutional?

To end this post, I will return to the beginning of the rule of law in this nation, to the Preamble of the Constitution, which, in case you might have forgotten, reads as follows:

We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.

The thirty-nine signers of the Constitution in 1787 were all able-bodied categorizers and witnesses to the sensory phenomena kindled within them in their time. They had not yet surrendered the right to keep and exercise their independent consciousness. What they left out of the document was a provision for protecting the people once the checks and balances they provided were ignored or subverted by, for example, a President who makes his own law, a Congress that can be bought by lobbyists, or a Supreme Court with tenure “during good behavior” (no matter how obliquely it categorizes the law of the land).

 Ouroboros: End as beginning

(Copyright © 2009)

My personal brand of consciousness is the ongoing engagement between me and whatever phenomena serve as objects of my attention. My consciousness belongs to me and no other; it is of something else, what I call images or phenomena. Phenomena are not likenesses or representations of the world so much as they are products of the interaction between my brain and the world. The world I live in—my proprietary world of consciousness—is made up of me as subject and various phenomena as objects of current attention. So right from the start my world appears divided into two realms, subject and object, attender and the attended to, what William James called “the me” and “the not-me.”

Yet I would say that both subject and object are products of one and the same consciousness, so there’s only my view of me and my view of the world, which are not at all the same as myself and the world considered objectively. Objective self and objective world are constructs I build in my mind on the basis of the cumulative experience of phenomena available to me over a lifetime. So I live—as each one of us lives—in a unified world of personal consciousness without borders or divisions—the one and only world of our personal consciousness. That other world, the supposedly “real” or outside world, can only be a matter of inference and fleeting conjecture. Without doubt it is there, but what we can know of it is restricted to what the phenomenal versions in our minds say it is, which is a very intimate kind of hearsay, so not wholly reliable to say the least. James, for instance, says this in his chapter on Attention in The Principles of Psychology (1890):

Millions of items of the outward order are present to my senses which never properly enter into my experience. Why? Because they have no interest for me. My experience is what I agree to attend to. Only those items which I notice shape my mind—without selective interest, experience is an utter chaos. Interest alone gives accent and emphasis, light and shade, background and foreground—intelligible perspective, in a word. (Page 402.)

Unedited by consciousness, the “utter chaos” of the outer world would overwhelm us. So in reducing that world to phenomena, consciousness saves the day.

Every one knows [James goes on] what attention is. It is the taking possession by the mind, in clear and vivid form, of one out of what seem several simultaneously possible objects or trains of thought. Focalization, concentration, of consciousness are of its essence. It implies withdrawal from some things in order to deal effectively with others. (Page 403-404.)

But phenomena, I would say, are more drastically altered than merely being selected by our faculty of attention seems to suggest. Perception guided by personal interest and selective attention performs a major overhaul and rebuilding job in cutting the world down to a size we can deal with. Nothing about a phenomenon is as it might be in the world. Energy in the visible spectrum is reduced to a restricted palette of colors, wholly dismissing ultraviolet and infrared wavelengths, along with X-rays, gamma rays, radio waves, and the many other orders of energetic radiation impinging on us wholly undetected and unappreciated. By the time phenomena emerge in consciousness, the larger portion of energy in the universe has gone missing. What little makes it through our perceptual apparatus to become a phenomenon in the language of consciousness is transmogrified into something other than what it is on its own. The upshot being, in James’ words:

Suffice it meanwhile that each of us literally chooses, by his ways of attending to things, what sort of a universe he shall appear to himself to inhabit. (Page 424.)

Which opens the way for me now to stride up to the mike and make my point. Living in worlds of our own making as we do, we typically direct our attention as if upon the mysterious world itself while, in truth, all we have to go on are the very phenomena we create for our personal use. I mean to suggest in this post—and in my blog as a whole—that a wholly different understanding of the lives we lead results from taking responsibility for our own seeing, hearing, touching, smelling, and tasting as represented in personal consciousness in order to, 1) better understand ourselves as makers of our own worlds, and 2) relate more effectively to others who devote their lives to doing exactly the same thing on the basis of their unique take on the world they actually inhabit in personal consciousness.

That is, as long as we give all credit (and blame) to the world for the lives we lead, we are trapped in the illusion that we can know the real world as it is in-and-of itself, when that world is a complete mystery to us. We make better use of our lives, and the lives of those around us, by living life as the great artwork we make of it—the work we are creating for ourselves at this instant in a universe we can only dimly comprehend. The miracle of consciousness—directed at its own foibles and achievements as it is—is that it is wholly self-reflexive. It is turned on itself, not the world. All we have to work with is the phenomena in our own minds. These phenomena are precisely what we should try to grasp in meaningful terms in order to live our lives with as much compassion and understanding as we are able. 

I have gotten to the point where I can say such things with a straight face after confronting my consciousness on a daily basis for thirty years now, and posting ten-months’ findings to this blog. These ideas are not sold in stores or written in books. Trouble is, we are living out ideas formulated by Aristotle and furthered by the church and academia for over 2,000 years. It is next to impossible to question the basic assumptions on which our schooling is founded, the same assumptions suporting the natural attitude by which we gaze on the world and believe we are seeing what is actually there without intervention from any sensory apparatus coming between ourselves and the scene we think of as before us when it is actually in us the whole time.

In the 20th century, behavioral psychologists, wanting to believe we were all automatons controlled by our environments, made an enemy of consciousness and denied it had any influence on behavior. Now cognitive neuroscientists are saying our brains work like computers, and information processing is the key to the mind. Others have viewed the mind as a clockwork, steam engine, hologram—whatever the going metaphor. And generations of students believe what they are currently being told in class, and dedicate their lives to spreading their views, just as theologians spread theirs as higher capital-T Truth accessible solely to prophets and holy men.

The revolution in how we view consciousness is upon us, just as the Reformation in religious thinking was made possible by invention of the printing press that made possible distribution of sacred texts translated into the language people could interpret for themselves without aid from any intervening priesthood. Subsequent invention of paper, pencil, typewriter, and computer continued the advance of informed interpretation of phenomena. Now the Internet has the potential of ushering in a new revolution in the understanding of consciousness itself by enabling people to get their minds together so they can compare experiences without interference from established institutions having to approve the interaction beforehand. In its current stage of development, FaceBook tends to be light and breezy because people are striving to make good impressions instead of using it as a tool for greater understanding of themselves and their friends. Blogosphere, ditto, everyone out to show how insightful their commentaries upon commentaries upon commentaries really are. I’m a blogger, I should know.

Except, my whole thrust is to be true to my personal consciousness as one sample of what consciousness can be about. In posting to my blog 142 times, I have come to see that intentionality—the consciousness of objects—can be broken down into consciousness of situations, projects, goals, judgments, problems, priorities, issues, novel experiences, anxieties, interpretations, and so on. These are samples of what makes consciousness sit up and pay attention—what evolution has made us as subjects concerned about in order to act as meaningfully and effectively as we can. Which is no different from what human life is largely about.

It struck me this morning that relationships based on what actually occupies our attention rather than what we claim in order to make a good impression is the way to build compassionate relationships based on truth and reality, not personal mythology.

We don’t need to prove our merit or our worth by buying stuff, impressing others, going to fancy schools, sprinkling certain in-words throughout our conversations—that is, by pretending we are something that, under our clothing and our skins, we inherently are not. Good-by UPS trucks, big box stores, advertising, publicity, investments, banks—all those good things we rely on to create the illusion we are something other than what we are. So much for the economy devoted to shoring up pretense and illusion. So much for politicians pandering to their constituencies on the basis of identities they assume for the sake of making a good impression. The Internet has the potential of bypassing all this superstructure created by so-called civilized institutions. Of enabling people to get together on the basis of the searches they conduct to find out who they are and what they can do in this life—the one life they have to enjoy, or not.

What many cultures have found and we often overlook is that human happiness depends on relating to others in order that we do things together, cooperatively, not in competition. I am not talking altruism here, or self-righteousness. I am talking about me being me and you being you—providing a strong basis for getting together on a workable basis, not using each other to advance our respective unspoken agendas.

There are too many problems in the world to waste time in hot pursuit of illusions. That is what got us where we are today. We need to cut through all that and finally get to the point—which consciousness itself will reveal if we attend to it. Self-reflexive consciousness is not the same thing as staring at your navel. Consciousness, it turns out, is the source of all we can learn in this life and all wisdom. Your navel is just a scar to confirm you got your start inside another person who shared joint responsibility for your conception and birth. Got it. Move on. Inside, not outside. To the font of all experience, our personal consciousness, controlled by personal attention, controlled by personal passions and interests, controlled by the will to live as only we are able—by being fully ourselves. Believe me, consciousness-watching is a learned skill that takes well over ten-thousand hours to get good at. I am not suggesting we quit the race and party; I am suggestion we get down to work appropriate to our gifts.

Let’s agree to attend to life as it is given to us, not to the illusion of life presented to us by others. Let’s make use of our primary asset in living a life—personal consciousness. Accepting that as wholly our doing will tell us who we are, warts and all. Knowing who we are, we can relate on the solid ground of being ourselves without pretending to be anyone else. True learning and discovery await us inside, not outside. Especially not in any institution dedicated to selling illusions for profit. Consciousness is ours to use (or not) in understanding ourselves; the choice is ours. And the same for those around us understanding themselves. Relationships based on shared understanding are the way of the future. In the past we have dedicated ourselves to tearing down the Earth for the sake of fictitious benefits. Now we can build ourselves up to be worthy of the Earth that has provided for us all along.

Two Skiers


(Copyright © 2009)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ring-Billed Gull-72


(Copyright © 2008)

Two blogs ago, I dealt with music’s power, emotion, and immediacy in reaching into consciousness. Music doesn’t have to wait for the brain to tell consciousness what it means. Even in the case of program music, the program (meaning) is external to the music, as in Beethoven’s Sixth Symphony, thunderstorm and all. The storm is in the program you know about, not the music you hear. If you don’t know the program, then the music is all.


In this blog I will make a start at dealing with sensory phenomena that elicit meanings in experience so that the being of sensory patterns is fulfilled by the meanings they intend in consciousness. Spoken and written language offer examples of experiences composed of meaningful patterns, as do common signs and symbols such as traffic lights, sirens, and pictures of celebrities and famous places. Red traffic lights mean “stop” because we were taught to put the two together at an early age. The meaning is not in the red itself; it is in our brains which interpret that color as telling us to stop.


Consciousness is the place where sensory patterns (phenomena) and meanings are coupled together. When that happens, we get it! We understand. That is, we make a connection between two very different aspects of mental life—percepts from our senses and concepts from memory. Meaning does not reside in the world. It inhabits our minds, retained as latent concepts waiting to be activated by a relevant pattern in one sensory channel or another.


Meaning emerges when summoned by sensory phenomena we have been trained (or inspired) to receive as information, just as Pavlov’s dogs learned that the ringing of a bell meant food was about to be served. Information requires a context or situation to make it meaningful; without one or the other, it’s just meaningless sensory data. We learn early on that vocal utterances (words, phrases, sentences) mean something to others, and by imitating those others in appropriate situations, those utterances come to mean somewhat the same thing to us.


The following anecdote from one of my mother’s friends, told as a childhood reminiscence cherished for almost eighty years, provides a good example of one such early attempt to connect a sensory image with its meaning:


Still vivid in my mind is the day I stayed after school in the first grade to ‘help’ the teacher. In awe I watched her make rather a clumsy sketch of a crescent moon on the blackboard. Beside it she lettered ‘moon.’ I rushed home to tell my mother that I had already learned the spelling word for the next day: ‘m-o-o-n, banana.’


To be human is to strive to put meanings to sounds and appearances, and when deceived, to try again. If we spell “banana,” “m-o-o-n,” while those around us disagree, do we not remember it all our lives, along with all the other times our judgments were found to be out of joint? Do we not learn from such occasions? Is any experience not centered upon the desire to attach meanings appropriately to the sensory patterns we pluck from our situations as we construe them? We belong to a tribe of meaning-makers. We may not always be wise, but we are ever game to try again.


“Look, out the window, dear.” “Goggie.” “And over there” “Goggie.” “And what about that one?” “Goggie.” “No, that’s not a doggie, it’s a kitty.” “Kikky.”


Slowly over time, concepts accrue in memory as categories containing common features derived from a series of experiences somewhat resembling one another. When we fit a new pattern in experience together with such a category, we see that pattern as an example extending or fulfilling the series. The coupling can be so tight, it’s almost as if the pattern exuded the meaning from its own nature—as if the phenomenon were meaningful in itself. Which someone else may intend, but the meaning is in the mind, not the phenomenon.


Meanings are always our doing. Depending on their situations and experience, different people will cast a variety of meanings onto one and the same sensory pattern of being. I cannot digest gluten, which is in everything made of wheat, rye, or barley. Donuts, pizza, seven-grain bread, and chocolate-chip cookies may appeal to the masses, but I avoid them as if made of anthrax flour. To me they mean poison, not party treats, not wholesome food.


Whether you see true-believers or infidels in front of you depends on how you regard them in light of your past experience. In themselves they are neither because each is a unique being, not a category filler. Whether a knife is a useful tool or a bloody weapon depends on which category you sort it into when you wield it at the moment.


I’m living in Cambridge (some years ago). I wake up one night to hear someone in the street calling “fa” in a hoarse voice. Looking for his dog, I figure. Or his father. “Fa,” “fa,” he goes on. And on. Little Johnny One Note. “Fa.” “Fa.” I hear the sounds, but it holds no meaning for me. I doze off. Then it strikes me—he isn’t crying “Fa,” he’s yelling “Fire” at the top of his old lungs. I look out the window. Flames are shooting from the roof of the house across the street. I call the fire department.


Meaning-making can be a matter of survival. If we get it wrong, we may wake up dead. Our minds have evolved to do the best we can to match events with appropriate meanings in the situations we are in. What’s that noise downstairs? The wind? Noisy shutter? The cat? Burglar? Probably the furnace.


The matching works both ways: phenomena can seek meanings, and meanings can seek sensory presentations. If you’re in a hungry situation, you can start to visualize dinner. I remember a woman saying, “Men, you know how they are.” The meaning was already there; she didn’t have to spell it out. Which is like an old Quaker lady asking a friend of mine, “Is thee a member of the one true faith?” She was a particular meaning waiting to happen. More of us are like that than not. We broadcast meaningful expectations and hope the world will fill in the dotted lines.


Sometimes we don’t have either a phenomenon or a meaning to begin with. We’ve lost our bearings. What will tomorrow (the future) bring? How will our present situation develop, and what will it mean for us? There’s a lot of that around these days, what with the changing of the White House guard, the recession, global warming, wars in Africa, Iraq and Afghanistan, AIDS, the national debt. . . . In times like these, anxiety rules. Meaning keeps its distance. Stress is on the rise, which upsets consciousness. Dire or chaotic may be the best words we can come up with in describing our state of affairs. Invest in fortune tellers and astrologers; I expect them to thrive.


In the end, when we confront the full significance of our mortality, does anything remain but the tarnished spiral of our mortal coil, a shadowy track in the dust, bequeathed to those who stay behind on chance that someone will fit it to some kind of meaning?



Reflection 29: Clip-Art Cat

November 28, 2008

 (Copyright © 2008)

It is evening. I am in the kitchen putting away dishes. The drainer is to the left of the sink, the cupboard to the right and above. The cupboard door is hinged on the left, so when I open it, it blocks my way as I move back and forth. I move out and around the cupboard door, out and around. Suddenly a loud shriek—I have stepped on the cat. Leaping reflexively, I do some fancy footwork to release its tail from underfoot. In my mind, I picture a strange cat looking up at me—mildly I would say—blue-gray face surrounded by a mane of long fur. Trouble is, there is no cat. I have not had a cat in my apartment for over twenty-five years.


Moving back from cupboard to dish drainer, I caught the open cupboard door with my shoulder, swinging it open wider than usual. The shriek was the bottom hinge complaining under stress. I don’t remember it squeaking before, but there it was, complaining. My immediate response was to import a cat into consciousness, as if an imaginary animal would explain the whole thing. I responded quickly and appropriately to the cat that wasn’t there, and quite inappropriately to the hinge that was and always had been there. Now, where did that cat come from—that specific cat I saw looking back at me? I’d lived with several cats in the past, but never one like that. It looked like your basic tabby, a stock cat ready to leap out of the wings on cue when the occasion demanded. Not like a real cat which would take its time and probably head the other way, this one was right there in my mind when consciousness called for it. The meaning of that shriek was right there, a cat, not a dry hinge. By way of proof, a clip-art figment to embody the shriek in my ears.


It was as if my consciousness demanded an explanation. As if meaning must be made at any cost. But since feeling is first, as the poet says, maybe it was feeling, not meaning, that made me jump. That might explain the whole situation, even if it had to conjure up a cat to stand in for the true explanation. Which was that the shriek I heard startled me. Upset me. Made me feel guilty. The alarm had sounded. What was I to do? In stepping back to avoid the cupboard door, I put my foot on the cat, which obligingly howled, so I (feeling responsible) immediately leapt up and, mid-air, “saw” poor tabby, a ready stand-in for the source of the squeak, which was ambiguous.


All this happened in half a second or less, without rehearsal. The sequence ran: step back to avoid cupboard door, catch the door with my shoulder, causing a hinge to squeak, which I hear and link to stepping back, as if I had put my foot on the sound-maker, so I leap up to remove my foot, and justify that move by producing a cat out of my mental bag of tricks, which is always handy for use in emergencies. Rube Goldberg couldn’t have done it better.


This episode reminds me of seeing a black trash bag in the road as a dying crow (see Reflection 1: Dying Crow) or mistaking a rooftop TV antenna for a crashing jet (see Reflection 4: Crash). I’d guess now that crow, plane, and cat all came from the same ever-ready source. The hinge may have produced the sound, but the feeling that I was responsible (because I had stepped back) produced the leap and, at the same time, the cat. Somebody is watching my every move, just waiting for disaster to strike, preparing me to act intentionally in an emergency. That somebody lives inside my body with me, watching from the shadows of my mind. A kind of alter ego that, though wholly unknown to me, thinks far faster than I can. If not a somebody, then that fast thinker, whatever its form, is a silent servant of my own consciousness.


It’s as if I anticipate catastrophe at every moment, and at some level of awareness am prepared to act. Maybe I cast dire expectations onto my life world according to the specific situation I find myself in. Cats belong underfoot in kitchens, descending jets would be appropriate at rooftop level, crows by the roadside are familiar sights from a moving car. In a crisis, expectation supplies the speediest explanation of what is happening. It doesn’t wait to figure things out. Faster than a speeding bullet, a probable explanation is right where it is needed.


Like shockwaves preceding that bullet, expectations seem to radiate from the leading edge of my experience. Expectations that may be, 1) fulfilled, 2) denied, or 3) partially fulfilled. In each of the three cases—cat, jet, crow—there is a partial resemblance to the sensory phenomenon that caught my attention. The hinge did cry out like a cat. The TV antenna was swept back like the wings of a jet; both are metallic and glisten in the sun. The wafting trash bag fluttered as a dying crow might lift its wing. In each case, location was appropriate, the phenomenon apt. Apt, yes, but misidentified.


So my own expectations prepare me for fast action, as the Secret Service prepares its clients. Expectation serves me as a hidden secret service to alert me to occasions when I must act faster than I can think. It is at the forefront of my loop of engagement with the current situation, consciousness following behind to mop up when the situation I anticipate is poorly fulfilled. This doesn’t happen just occasionally. Every time the phone rings, I hazard a guess who it might be. When the doorbell rings, I come up with a quick list of possible visitors. I am full of dire predictions of what could go wrong in almost any situation. Raising children, I always saw danger lurking in the most innocent situation. The Scout’s basic message is, “Be prepared.” Rightly or wrongly, some part of me always is—or tries to be.


Consciously or unconsciously, life events always happen in a context of expectancy. Under comparable circumstances, we rely on our experience in the past in looking ahead. Current and future life situations are, well . . . situated in our pasts. That’s how we generate our expectations in extrapolating into the unknown. Not consciously, but we do it just the same. Life worlds unfold through successive approximations. The broader and deeper our experience, the better forecasters and prophets we become. Until a singularity occurs, an event rare or unique in our experience—tsunami, earthquake, Pearl Harbor, 9/11. Then expectation proves quite useless.


Back to the clip-art cat. Evidently, I brought that cat with me as I unloaded the dish drainer. And cast it before me just in case I might be called to act quickly upon hearing a sharp yowl. Squeaky hinge, angry cat—same thing. My expectations aren’t that finely tuned. I think it was that back step that made the cat the most likely option. Unwittingly, I have certainly stepped on many a cat in my day. Evidently that memory is still very much with me now. A possibility I wish to avoid, and if I can’t avoid it, then my secret service has trained me to make a fast response.


So, how does it run? Tying these stages together, I see a looping engagement with my situation as it unfolds in consciousness:


1) I act—Put dishes away, step back, brush cupboard door.

2) Feedback—Sound of squeaky hinge.

3) My expectation interprets the sound—Phenomenal cry of angry cat.

4) My reaction to interpretation—I feel responsible, so move my feet as if from a cat.

5) Expectancy is not done yet—To spur me, it flashes a stock image of a blue-gray cat.

6) Sensing cognitive dissonance, I check the situation—There is no cat.

7) Looking for the source of the sound, I move the cupboard door—It squeaks.

8) I process the above events by writing this blog.


What I make of all this is that I engage phenomena as if they represent goings-on in the real world. Until I catch them faking it on their own. On my own, for I am the faker and none other, caught in the grip of my past experience. Just as I am the believer that the phenomena I entertain fairly represent the situation I am in. This is one of life’s most basic illusions.


The greatest mystery here is how expectancy backed up its claim by pulling a stock photo out of its bag of tricks. I kept seeing the same image all evening. Even after I had gone to bed, there was that damned cat, the most innocent face ever put on an unidentified squeaky phenomenon (USP).