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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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.

Practice.

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

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 © 2009)

 I am on snowshoes in deep woods, making my own trail. I don’t know where I am but I am not lost. I can always follow my track back among the trees to where I started. Amazed at what I am doing, I weave among randomly placed trees, shrubs, ledges. On a steep slope, no less! Yet I keep traversing the slope and do not collide with a single stem or limb. How do I do it? I see trees ahead, approach them, then move around them. They grow larger in my visual field as I near and then pass them. Everything changes as I go, but I do not lose my balance. It’s as if I had a chart of these sloping woods in my mind, and could navigate by that chart. I don’t have to keep reorienting myself at every step, even though everything looks so different. I know my brain is working hard to keep me going without falling, yet I am perfectly calm. Looking about, I think I have never been in a more beautiful place on this Earth. This is the place, I think to myself, this is the place.

Now at a different season, I am sitting on a ledge of local bedrock by the edge of the bay, looking northwest, watching the sunset. It is high summer and, since the wind died down, I am enjoying the stillness. Not only enjoying but reflecting it by remaining perfectly motionless. Earth is rotating away from the sun, and so am I. Other than that, I am still. To me it looks as if the sun were going down into a ridge of spruce trees on the far shore. As if the sun were moving while I am still. My consciousness is keyed not to my motion but to the apparent motion and deepening tint of the sun. I am not going anywhere. The sun is making change happen; I am a universal constant, ever the same. I am not living in a landscape so much as in time itself. Or if I am navigating at all, I notice myself moving through time, not space. Time is happening. Not as told by my watch but by the real thing—the apparent dive of the sun out of the sky toward the horizon. I sit and watch colors brighten then fade on the edges of clouds. At some point I find myself sitting in darkness, listening to an owl. Stars are out. I rise, stretch, stumble up the bank, and let my feet find their way along the trail back to camp.

Space is told by our movements—even small shifts of our eyes. Time is told by things changing in relation to us when we are not moving. Space-time is told by our moving within a situation that is changing on its own. Without representations of changing scenes in our brains, neither time nor space would exist. Time is calibrated change when we are not responsible for that change; space is calibrated change resulting from our own actions. It’s as simple—and counterintuitive—as that.

Camera in hand, I am flying 500 feet above Taunton Bay on an eelgrass overflight. More accurately, I am being flown by Fred so I can open the passenger-side window and take pictures while he keeps us aloft. The ceiling is 600 feet—we’re flying just under that. Our flightpath follows a map I made before we took off. I drew loops around flats where eelgrass had grown in the past, then drew the shortest routes between loops. Fred follows the map while I lean out the window into the slipstream on the inside of the loop and take frame after frame. I am right where I want to be—where I planned to be when I thought the flight through to get the most coverage of the flats in the shortest amount of time. Airtime costs $250 an hour in a single-engine plane out of Hancock County Airport; I thought I could get the shots I wanted in 35 minutes. Planning the flight, drawing the map, looking down taking pictures—it was all done in my head beforehand, so now I’m just going through well-rehearsed motions. It’s like I am looking down on the workings of my own consciousness inside my own head. I love that feeling—checking myself out to make sure I do the job right in the right place at the right time. Whoopee! I love the feel of riding the wind when it all comes together! The image below is a picture I drew of the state of my brain at a particular instant on June 7, 2008.

aerial flight-6-7-08-72

Whenever we engage the world scene in some way, we have the option of including ourselves in that scene by rising above or expanding our own consciousness so that we can look down and witness ourselves being aware. That is not as crazy as it sounds. Just as I can observe myself moving through winter woods, sitting and watching the sunset, or flying in a plane according to plan, I can be conscious of myself being conscious no matter what I am doing. I am not talking about out-of-body experiences; I am talking about expanding consciousness to include the very act of being conscious. Which may sound strange until you realize we do it all the time.

In football practice we study diagrams of plays on the blackboard, which we internalize, practice, then employ in the big game. We watch ourselves going through the drill until we get it just right. We cast our net of expectancy onto the world, and rely on feedback to tell us what we have caught. We live in such loops every day of our lives, adjusting our behaviors accordingly until we live up to our own expectations. Or better yet, surpass them.

Basketball practice. I’m in line on the left side of the court well behind the keyhole. Now it’s my turn. I get the ball, drive toward the center of the court, take a high stride, arc the ball in my right hand up and over my head while still heading straight across—without looking at the basket—up, up, drop, swish through the net. The whole play works just as planned. The court, the ball, the net, and me all in my head in proper relationship. It’s still there 60 years later. The plan, that is, not my ability to execute it.

Visualization, practice, immediate feedback, more practice, and still more—until we get it right. We can learn to watch ourselves being conscious, see what comes of it, then rework that consciousness until it meets the standards we currently aspire to. We can pull ourselves up by our own bootstraps.

One problem with consciousness is we pick it up when we are too young to appreciate what it can do for us. And nobody ever tells us we’re in charge of the whole show. We have to keep pushing ourselves as we grow older to transcend the former boundaries of our mental abilities. We are partly conscious while in school, conscious in different ways when working and raising a family, and later in life come into our own because we have time to work on perfecting ourselves in ways we never thought of before.

Which is when many of us are so tired of working we retire early, move to Florida, and spend the rest of our days playing golf. Such folks have maps of the different courses they’ve played in their heads. To improve their game, they do mental workouts, then practice every day until they get their score in a range they can live with. What if they took the same approach and devoted the same energy to understanding and improving their own minds and the world they live in in order to make up for all the mistakes they made getting where they are today? Instead of resting on their laurels, they could help create a world that would be better for them, better for their relationships, and better for this tired old Earth.

If consciousness can send Captain Nemo around the world in 80 days, Einstein on a thought experiment into space packing only his alarm clock, Raquel Welch on a fantastic voyage through blood vessels of the human body, others on a journey to the center of the Earth, my youthful self onto a basketball court or on a walk through snowy woods or into the sky to take pictures, then it should have no difficulty transcending conventional wisdom by placing those who so desire on a platform above themselves from which they can look down upon their own conscious minds—particularly their left-brain interpreters—in action.

That is the easy part. The hard part is adopting the discipline of making accurate, detailed observations from that perspective so the trip is not only an adventure but provides sufficient evidence on which to base a new understanding of the workings of our minds so that we may take responsibility for what we are doing in and to the world. Culture is a huge, collaborative effort from an agreed-upon point of view in the mind. Anthropologists study minds immersed in other cultures. We must become students of our own inner cultures in order to improve our mental processes and the actions they lead us to commit.

If we can visualize female circumcision in which the clitoris and labia minora of 300 million teenage (and younger) girls in Africa are excised every year with a rusty razor blade, we can ask ourselves whether we—male or female—would wish that practice on ourselves, our mates, and our children for any reason whatsoever. From a cultural distance, it is easy to see the pain, misery, and danger such a practice inflicts. The art is in seeing the mentality of male anxiety and presumed dominance within which it makes perfect sense, and then asking whether that mentality is the best we can imagine for ourselves. If it isn’t, we then have the option of handling our sexual anxieties in other, less punishing ways.

Read, watch, or listen to the news. Abuse and cruelty are rampant around the globe—directed at our children, mates, neighbors, bodies, and even the body of the Earth on which we live and absolutely depend. Thinking to get ourselves off the hook, we come up with millions of rationales for such behaviors. Looking down from above, we can see them for the excuses they are, and beyond that, see ourselves protecting the cherished assumptions by which we live. Those assumptions invariably cast blame for our failings on others, who by default become inferior beings deserving of punishment to keep them in line with our wishes.

What the news is really about is the sorry state of our own consciousness as revealed through the thoughtless behavior of those like ourselves. Everybody does it, we say, it’s just human nature. We’re no better than we should be. There in plain sight for all to see is the Big Lie. Discovering it in ourselves gives us the option of seeing behind the lie to what it is in ourselves we are so set on protecting. Not life itself nor our genes but the advantaged way of life we have chosen for ourselves. As if we were members of an elite core of beings far superior to the rabble around us. That conceit is at the heart of the discontent behind every one of our assumptions, attitudes, and acts.

Rising above our minds and looking down, we discover options we never considered when locked in the confines of conventional consciousness. We have more discretion in administering our workaday lives than we commonly think. Do we really want to spend time watching animated cartoons depicting the antics of two-legged mice wearing white gloves—who can talk? Do we really think an appropriate response to 9/11 is to invade a country having no connection with that attack? Because I loathe the very idea of abortions, do I have the right to deny them to women under any and all circumstances? Now that I am old enough to know something of my own mind, is playing golf the best use of my time?

If we reach the point of questioning our true motivation, we are halfway to taking direct responsibility for our actions in the world, for visualizing the situations we are in, and for our personal brand of consciousness itself. Nobody taught us how to do this; nobody can do it in our stead. But from here on the way is clear: the state of the world is our doing; if it is to improve, we are the only ones in a position to make it happen. Which is my definition of a superhero. Either we rise to this inner occasion or we don’t. The rest is the history of our times.

Ω

(Copyright © 2009)

 

Is human achievement due to innate ability (talent) or training and practice (hard work)? Daniel J. Levitin reports findings from research on that question in his book This is Your Brain on Music (Plume/Penguin, 2006; see Reflection 54: Books About Consciousness):

 

The emerging picture from such studies is that ten thousand hours of practice is required to achieve the level of mastery associated with being a world-class expert—in anything. In study after study, of composers, basketball players, fiction writers, ice skaters, concert pianists, chess players, master criminals, and what have you, this number comes up again and again. Ten thousand hours is equivalent to roughly three hours a day, or twenty hours a week, of practice over ten years. . . . [N]o one has yet found a case in which true world-class expertise was accomplished in less time. It seems that it takes the brain this long to assimilate all that it needs to know to achieve true mastery (page 197).

 

So practice does make perfect—deliberate, attentive, conscious repetition of routines until they belong not only to the likes of Mozart, Rembrandt, and Einstein, but to the rest of us as well. It’s not just a matter of putting in the time. The quality of that time is crucial to success. We must turn our passions into disciplined behaviors through strict concentration. That’s what it takes to build strong neural connections in our brains sufficient to turn the off-the-shelf model we start with into a customized brain suited to the challenges of today’s world. To realize our personal dreams, there is no substitute for concentration and hard work.

 

The secret to becoming an expert is motivation. To do better than we have done in the past, we’ve got to devote a good part of our conscious life to achieving our goals—whatever they might be. We can’t buy or rent success, or leave it to others to acquire for us. Life is a meaningless abstraction until we decide what we want our life to be. That is the first issue, which sets us off in a particular direction. Then the question arises, are we willing to do the work? We can’t know until we try. We’ve got to push ahead from where we are to see where we end up. It may not be the achievement we planned, but if we put in our ten thousand hours, we will be somewhere at least, far beyond where we started out.

 

Which sounds like the standard pep talk you’ve heard a thousand times. Hang tough, you can do it! But now we are beginning to understand how dedicated passion and conscious attention can, in changing our brains, change our lives—and change the world. To develop skills, timing, judgment, and knowledge, we have to do whatever is required to build specific patterns of nerve connections in our brains. Whatever we do to our brains, they will do for us on demand. That is the amazing secret of human experience. Treat our brains in humdrum fashion, our brains will see to it we lead humdrum lives. Challenge our brains to do all they can, they have no choice but to return the favor in kind.

 

It’s not how we treat others, it’s how we treat ourselves that is the key to success. Expect little—that’s exactly what we will get. If we ask for the moon, we must build that moon crater-by-crater over time into our brains; then when we ask, there it will be.

 

When we meet someone and ask what they “do” we generally imply “for a living.” But in getting acquainted, what we really want to know is, have they put in the necessary ten thousand hours of exercising their body and brain? If they’re young, what are they working on? What is their bliss, their passion? Apprenticeships and grad school take ten thousand hours. Ten thousand hours flipping burgers leads to a burger-flipping life, perhaps eventually as a store manager or franchise owner if they dedicate their hearts and brains to getting ahead.

 

In my life, I have put in my ten thousand hours three times over: as a photographer, a teacher, and now a writer. I have reinvented myself each time to move into a more direct relationship with the world I wanted to live in. Each time I went back to Go and started over. I never got $200 for the effort, but went to the bottom and worked my way up. My first job in each field paid $5,000 a year in the currency of the day. Which sounds self-defeating, but I was changing with the times, so explored unknown dimensions of myself as they emerged in my awareness.

 

I have often claimed that consciousness has been selected for to give us a tool for working our way out of those tough, unanticipated situations we get ourselves into. In the old days, growing up to reproductive age used to be the problem, and then surviving long enough to help our children reach that age.

 

Now that we in the developed world are born with a cultural quilt around our shoulders, we are likely to take raising families and having grandchildren for granted as if they would be ours as a matter of course. Our life challenge then becomes, what are we going to be when we grow up so we can have the wherewithal to support the comfortable lifestyles we aspire to?

 

Fireman? Astronaut? Rock star? NASCAR driver? Consciousness has evolved to enable us to set goals such as these. And beyond that, to work our way through the arduous training sessions and hours of practice that will modify our bodies and brains accordingly, putting our goals within reach. Once appropriately stimulated, our brains will give us the skills to match our performance to our desires, enabling us to get close to what we hoped we might become.

 

Day by day, consciousness enables us to grow up. To survive in this world. Which is no mean accomplishment, given the hazards surrounding us on all sides. Consciousness would be our most prized possession, if only we didn’t take it for granted—as if growing up is ours by right and not something we have to make happen.

 

The world is full of people who have every sort of advantage—and waste them all by not doing the work of learning how to turn them to good use. They don’t put in their ten thousand hours. Or if they do, it is on high living, recreation, and entertainment. Or on sticking to outmoded ways. They shape their brains to their inheritance, not the promise of the future, so rely on the generic brain model they were given, which is more adapted to the world of 50,000 years ago than the challenges of today. Ice-age brains are good for dealing with ice ages. The W model might be good for highly privileged cave dwellers, but as we have seen over the past eight years, our basic equipment is no longer adequate to the life situations we encounter in today’s modern world.

 

Our skills and brains require updating. Which is where consciousness must be put to good use. Global warming, sea level rise, economic collapse, eternal warfare, overpopulation, overconsumption, wastefulness, militarization, power reserved to the wealthy for their own benefit—there’s got to be a better way. A spectrum of better ways.

 

The global situation requires each of us to put in a minimum of ten thousand hours in bringing our personal consciousness and skills up to the standards required if we are to contribute to the world we actually live in, not the fictionalized world featured in mythology, many schoolbooks, and the entertainment media.

 

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