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.

Advertisements

Reflection 178: Mind Sets

February 4, 2010

(Copyright © 2010)

Never underestimate the power of is.

One and one is two.

Abbas is yesterday’s man.

God is love.

The cat is on the mat.

That giraffe is one sick animal.

In each case, one part of the human mind (conceptual memory from the past) reaches out to another part (sensory perception in the now) in such a way to categorize or characterize (lend character to) it, using language to create a meaningful moment of experience. The is bestows not only attention, recognition, or existence on the perception by naming it, but gives it definite qualities or character as we see it in our mind’s eye.

One and one is two. Two distinct things make one unified thing—a pair, couple, item, entity. If that isn’t mental magic, I don’t know what is. The only way that can happen is for all particularity to be stripped away, making the entities identical for our present purposes. One apple and one orange make two pieces of fruit. One boy and one girl make a pair or an item. They may be separate, but we come to think of them together, even to see them together. Different sexes perhaps, different blood types, different genomes—but in our minds we bind them as one. Jack and Jill, Antony and Cleopatra, Rogers and Astaire, Laurel and Hardy. Separate but equal contributors to a whole. If not in reality, then in our minds. That’s where the magic is performed.

Abbas is yesterday’s man. Let me give you the whole sentence as Fawaz A. Gerges wrote it (“The Transformation of Hamas,” in The Nation (January 25, 2010):

P[alestinian] A[uthority] President Mahmoud Abbas has been weakened by a series of blunders of his own making, and with his moral authority compromised in the eyes of a sizable Palestinian constituency, Abbas is yesterday’s man—no matter how long he remains in power as a lame duck, and whether or not he competes in the upcoming presidential elections (page 22).

Presenting Abbas as a man who has outlived his time, how powerful is that? Mind magic, again, categorizing a person from a particular point of view—as seen through another man’s eyes. Here the author’s attitude toward his subject colors what he finds, or places him in a box wholly different  from the conventional form of “PA President.”

God is love. The ultimate abstraction is painted in terms of a feeling we have all known at one time or another, as if the abstraction generated the feeling: Where love is, there is God—confounding a concept with a biological state of mind. This is not just mixing metaphors, it is smashing them together in a particle collider. The phrase rolls off the tongue, and is much cited, but it doesn’t mean anything because it treats two different categories of life experience—one essentially mythical and literary, the other experiential—as if they were the same.

The cat is on the mat. You wouldn’t believe how many linguists have analyzed this sentence to find out where it came from. It categorizes the cat by giving it a place, answering the eternal questions, “Where’s the cat?” or “What’s that thing on the mat?” or “What’s under the cat?” etc. The whole sentence betrays a scientific attitude toward syntax and the spontaneous generation of language. As such, it is a conceptual horror, an artifact, a research tool never imagined by real children. Teacher says, “Give me a sentence of one syllable words containing a prepositional phrase and a word rhyming with cat.” It may look like language, but it died in the making.

That giraffe is one sick animal. Here the abstract concept “giraffe” is qualified by unmentioned symptoms of illness, so is categorized very loosely as “sick” without telling us why. This is an intuitive, folk diagnosis, on a par with “Tell me what’s wrong, Doc,” betraying a certain wariness, which is the true subject of the sentence. The squeamish attitude of the speaker or writer is the unstated issue (subject), not the giraffe—and it doesn’t even appear in the sentence in so many words. If you diagram it correctly, you miss the point.

The point I’m trying to bring out is that categorizations, which each of us perform a thousand times a day, are trickier than at first they seem. Only rarely can we get away with calling a spade a spade. Or stripping all qualities away and dealing solely with quantities, as if 1 + 1 = 2 were actually true and not code for a multitude, depending on how you look at it. I call individual posts to this blog “reflections,” trying to draw attention to our personal responsibility for seeing the world as we do, which is invariably other than it is. Ludwig Wittgenstein wrote about finding “an echo of thought in sight,” which sums up my whole point. Yet we unwittingly cast those echoes into the world without seeing them for the projections they really are. We are the magicians who create meaningful episodes of experience, and yet take no credit for our skill.

The recognition of a pear as a pear, a road as a road, a cloud as a cloud—is in us, not any pear, road, cloud, all coming to us unlabeled and uncategorized. We cast pearhood upon this one, roadhood on that one, cloudhood on the one up above—transferring a handy item in memory to the scene before us, as if our experience were a property of the scene itself and not of personal consciousness—as if everyone else sees it exactly as we do. But meaningful couplings of concepts and percepts, memories and phenomena, are demonstrably features of the mind, not the world. In truth, nothing can be as it appears without a mind making that judgment. In calling a spade a spade, it is the calling that matters, not the spade or the idea of a spade. It is the act of categorizing, recognizing, projecting, transferring that matters, the bodily casting of an idea upon the waters of the world. Which we all do all the time without realizing it, turning the world outside-in, ourselves inside-out—all as a matter of course, not appreciating the magic in what we do every day.

Our minds are full of sets of things. Categories, types, sorts—in a word, concepts. Which we have interpolated from similarities between a string of earlier sensory experiences, laying down networks of linked pathways in our brains, ready to cast upon the world whenever sensory phenomena assume a familiar pattern—itself generated by the networks that perform the recognizing each time. We see what we are familiar with because becoming familiar with the patterns we encounter in our minds is what we do best. Allowing us to pull ourselves up by our own bootstraps, as if we invented the whole process, which we did! As we look upon the world, so do we see. If we fear terrorist attacks, we suspect them everywhere. Wheat makes me sick, so I even imagine it blowing on the wind. Real or imagined, the world is as we categorize the patterns we look for—and inevitably find. Each in her own way because her life experience and her physical development and her genome are unique. So each of our worlds is unique; it has to be, it is our own doing.

On playing fields, umpires categorize as a profession, telling balls from strikes, safe from out. Judges in their courtrooms do much the same, distinguishing falsehood from truth, guilt from innocence. Careers are at stake here, reputations on the line; which is it to be, personal freedom or incarceration, or even capital punishment? Categorizations matter. They are often mistaken or plainly wrong because we are all creatures of strong views and prejudices. Politicians distinguish very broadly between party beliefs and affiliation, party members seeming to inhabit separate universes whose laws are mutually exclusive. In the 1950s and 60s, Senator Joseph McCarthy claimed to be an expert at recognizing Communist sympathizers on sight. Whatever the facts, he would sniff them out, as long as they fit the pattern in his head, or the scent that so famously stopped up his nose.

Speaking of noses, the molecules our bodies are made of—together with the atoms making them up—are loaned to us by the universe to see what we can make of them and do with them. The animalcules on our skin and in our gut—ten times more numerous than the cells making up our bodies—are also loaned to us to see what, together, we can do. What we can make happen in this crazy paradise we call Earth. Plants arrange their molecules into cells conducting sap from soil to leaves. At the heart of the stem, cells die, forming a structure that is flexible and holds the tree up, swaying in strong winds. Near the outside just under the bark, living cells conduct sap upward, nutrients downward, promoting growth and life’s continuance. Other beings come from outside the tree to drill holes in the bark, allowing sap to ooze out, so bacteria have access to it, then the other beings—yellow-bellied sapsuckers, say—come back to check on what is happening in the holes it drilled earlier, eat the sap and bacteria to replenish their bodies in order to see what they, in turn, can make happen on Earth. Each being is a unique agent of the universe, all collectively striving to see what this generation of Earthlings can make happen.

My personal categorizations flows like sap from my body and from the experience of its molecules and atoms, its cells, organs, and organ systems. This enables my brain and my body to make collective sense of what I can know of the Earth, to organize an understanding of how Earth works for the purpose of working with similar systems or enhancing those that constitute my tribe and my kind of people. All this came to me in a dream as I was waking up this morning. A crazy dream, but no crazier than the life system that makes it possible, no crazier than the categories I project onto other dreamers so they will fit my understanding of my time and my place and what I am here to make happen while my particular mix of molecules gives me and my animalcules the structure we share together to make events happen in the universe. Thank you atoms and molecules, animalcules, thank you universe. I’ll see what I can do. When I die, I will donate my atoms and molecules to those who come after me; perhaps they will make better use of them than I have been able to do.

Speaking of craziness, I once sat through a lecture feeling uncomfortable the whole time because the speaker looked straight at me and no one else in the audience. Afterwards, I asked her why she had singled me out and she said I looked just liker her son. She was talking to him, not to me; I was just a dummy sitting in a chair. In certain circles, that is called transference, but at root it is miscategorization—treating a spade as if it were an eggplant. One thing leading to another, as it so often does in this life, I later (1970s) found myself in a graduate student professional development program studying how to use such projections or transferences to raise self-awareness. That led me to a brief acquaintance with the percept language developed by John Weir. I realize now the broader implication of percept language as a tool for mastering categorization by helping us see how we do violence to the world by shaping our worlds to conform to our personal experiences, as that speaker so long ago did—as I sat quietly in my chair—violence to me. It felt like rape at a distance, she using me for her own purposes while I was defenseless to do anything about it.

The U.S. invasion of Iraq in revenge for the leveling of the Twin Towers fits the same pattern, transferring our hurt and anger to an innocent nation we didn’t particularly like, even though we had used it in the 1980s as a pawn on our side in the Cold War. Just as the nation of Israel now vents its spleen on the current generation of Palestinians whose parents it displaced in invading Palestine in 1948, deflecting its own collective guilt onto innocent parties, blaming the victims, not seeing that its own hostility is a projection, transference, or miscategorization aimed at the wrong target employed precisely to get itself off the hook so it can sleep comfortably in its bed at night.

Such is consciousness, and the life conducted in its name. I call it crazy and shameful, unless we all assume an attitude of curiosity about why we do the things we do, and take personal responsibility for the chaotic scripts we enact in doing the terrible things we inflict on others. Heightened self-awareness is the less-traveled road we could take if such a course fit our itinerary. Instead, we insist on plummeting toward Armageddon as if that were our destined endpoint. Which is where Weir’s percept language comes in, designed for those who catch themselves in the act of using other beings for their purposes. The language is so powerful, it makes you take responsibility for your own actions instead of blaming others, abusing them as if they deserved it through repeated acts of aggressive self-justification. I don’t think John Weir understood the greatness of his contribution. Since the early 1980s, I have never met anyone who has even heard of him.

To set the record straight, I will end this post with two paragraphs from his chapter on “The Personal Growth Laboratory” in Benne, K., et al., The Laboratory Method of Changing and Learning: Theory and Application (Science and Behavior Books, 1975; available at GreenPsychology.net on January 25, 2010, when I downloaded it):

The first morning session is devoted to reporting the previous night’s dreams. At this time, we introduce a special point of view which we will emphasize throughout the lab. We start with the centuries-old philosophical theory of solipsism which states that only the self exists, or can be proven to exist. In our application, we take the position that, as far as I, the perceiver, am concerned, the external world “exists” only inside me as sensations and images. Objects as experienced are solely the consequence of my perceptual processes. . . . All my experience takes place solely within me, within the confines of my body. It occurs continuously, from moment to moment. I live only in the here and now. . . .

Our frame of reference for the lab, then, is that each of us is continually perceiving and organizing his world in his unique way, never precisely the same as anyone else. I am “doing” myself and you are “doing” yourself. Your “existence” is for me always my perception of you, the “you-in-me,” and I “exist” for you only as the “me-in-you.” You are there, you act, you may even physically influence me. This has the consequence of changing the “you-in-me” and the “me-in-you.” How I “do” the “you-in-me” is determined by my deeds, my perceptions, and my past experiences. It is, I am, always my own responsibility. This is true both for how I do myself and how you do yourself. We conclude that the perceptual elements of our interpersonal interactions consist of a “you,” a “me,” a “you-in-me,” and a “me-in-you.”

Like the umpire or referee, our behavior is invariably a matter of judgment calls. To make this line of thinking more accessible to ourselves, we can think of all behavior as being, at base, metaphorical in nature. Metaphors are miscategorizations to a purpose, which is to emphasize a particular aspect of an event, thing, situation, or phenomenon in awareness. They are deliberate cartoons, distortions, exaggerations, or misrepresentations drawing attention to something as seen from one point of view or another. We take responsibility for the metaphors we cast on the world. When we take them at face value and don’t see them as intentional distortions, is when we get into (and cause) so much trouble. Then we label our intent as God’s truth, which others may experience as Satan’s outright lies. Thus our respective worlds turn about an axis provided by the unique set of our own minds.

As we look, so do we see.

(Copyright © 2010)

Excerpts from Apollo-Soyuz Test Project, Earth Observations and Photography Experiment, July 1975. Object: To utilize the special capabilities of trained observers (American astronauts of the joint mission) in visually studying and photographing specific Earth features and dynamic phenomena. Personnel: Gen. Thomas P. Stafford, Vance D. Brand, Donald K. (Deke) Slayton. From Farouk El-Baz, Astronaut Observations from the Apollo-Soyuz Mission, Smithsonian Studies in Air and Space, Number 1, 1977.

Revolution 17. Slayton: That looks beautiful there. Just look at those clouds down there. Fantastic. . . . Stafford: There’s a bunch of plankton out there to the east. I can hardly see that from under it. Slayton: Yeah, sure, and you can see the tourists down there, Tom. Brand: I’m not sure I see plankton. I see bottom. . . . Brand: I don’t think it’s the time of year for plankton. It looks too cold down there. Stafford: It’s not there now. Brand: Oh, I see something. Okay, I’ve got one shot of some scum on the water. But it went by so fast, it looked more like trash to me. But we’ll see what it is later. It could be plankton. So much for New Zealand. (132f.)

Revolution 56. Slayton: There it is. Boy! Oh, great! . . . We got everything we want. Say, that stuff’s pretty . . . right there. Brand: See the pyramids? Slayton: Yeah! [laughter] Brand: My God! I think I did. I’ve got to get a map though. . . . Brand: Gosh, look at that! Look at that water. Slayton: I know where we’re supposed to be, but I’m not sure. We’re going too fast. . . . Slayton: Hey, that’s Israel right down there. There’s the Sea of Galilee . . . goddam. . . . Brand: . . . I think I might have seen the pyramids. And now I’ve got to see a picture or a layout of how the pyramids are laid out when we get back, but I saw two specks that might have been pyramids. (137)

Revolution 75/76. Stafford: We’re seeing the coast of Florida go past pretty fast. Capcom [Capsule Communicator]: You should be passing over actually the coast of Mexico there, and Florida should be coming up in just a few minutes. (144)

Revolution 80. Stafford: Dick, where are we at now? Are we heading across Africa? Capcom: No, you’re on ascending pass; you’re just crossing the coast of southwestern Australia. And then you’ll be, of course, crossing Indonesia. Then you’ll get another long pass over the western Pacific. (149)

The astronauts were traveling as such high speed, features on the Earth were visible for only seconds at a time. It is little wonder they were often unsure where they were or what they were looking at. Though they had been trained as competent observers, once in Earth orbit they were frequently demoted from competent to naive observers, especially when confronting features seen from a novel perspective high above a land- or seascape racing past beneath them. To recognize features under such circumstances often proved extremely difficult.

Consciousness is the mental domain within which recognition emerges when a relevant concept is mapped from memory onto a passing percept, giving it—in a fraction of a second—an identity and a name. Since Aristotle, that kind of perceptual recognition has been called categorization. Aristotle thought of it as an objective process, as if a person or thing could objectively declare its own identity; it was what it was. Kant saw characterization as a subjective process through which an observer made sense of his world by bestowing an identity upon it; it was what he said it was. The Kantian view leaves room for metaphor in cases where an observer deliberately casts a novel and surprising identity upon a familiar percept, calling it by other than its literal name to heighten a particular facet of its conventional definition or identity.

A competent observer has a vast repertoire of labeled concepts to cast, like a net, upon her world. Whatever language she speaks, the labels clearly reside in her memory (or her culture’s memory) rather than in objects themselves. Nature is not the labeler; humanity is. Kant wins over Aristotle.

In early posts to this blog, I told stories of mistaking a windblown trash bag for a dying crow, a swept-back TV antenna for a crashing jet, a total stranger for my friend Fred. These are examples of category errors, of matching inappropriate concepts in my repertory of familiar images to a particular percept in my experience. In looking for mustard in its familiar jar, I never though it would be lying on its side on the refrigerator shelf, presenting its round, red top to my gaze when I was actually looking for a jar with a trademark shape seen in profile. The world we see (or don’t see) is the world we look for. That is, the inner, categorical world guides our expectancy as, time after time, we seek to fulfill the unique set of values that makes us who we are as individuals. If astronaut Brand thought he saw two specks below him as the pyramids, it was because he wanted to see the pyramids. In a subsequent debriefing, he said:

I don’t believe now that I saw them. I had the benefit of two passes. The first pass, I saw two little dots that I thought possibly were pyramids. At that point, I wished I had a map of the pyramids on the ground so I could see what they’re supposed to look like. I think probably what I saw were fields or something like that. So, I would say, no, I didn’t see them. (187)

Consciousness is always consciousness of one thing or another. That is, recognition or categorization is simultaneous with perception. We live in a world of significant objects made salient by our respective needs at the time as heightened through the agency of personal attention. If the figure of my friend Fred emerged on a crowded, New York sidewalk in front of me, it was because that figure was lodged in my mind from long acquaintance in Seattle. Knowing he was moving to New York, I transported that figure in my mind and projected it outward onto Fifth Avenue. Voila, that must be him up ahead. Except, as it turned out, it wasn’t Fred.

Intentionality is the term for seeing (hearing, etc.) things with recognition at first glance. It is one of the greatest mysteries of consciousness because, unlike paintings on museum walls, things do not bear identifying labels in the natural world. Recognition clearly implies memory being mapped onto sensory patterns as experience flows through us, much as Vance Brand mapped “the pyramids” onto two dots in the landscape of Egypt.

Intentionality, then, depends on recognition, that in turn depends on a form of conceptual memory by which myriad sensory experiences are synthesized into a kind of schematic or overall pattern derived from what such experiences share in common. In other words, intentionality is seeing the sensory now in terms of a schematized or conceptual then. Receiving Jesus as the messiah depends on familiarity with certain Old Testament prophesies, and mapping the one onto the other, “recognizing” or assuming them to be the same. They are taken to be the same to the extent the perceiver wants them to be the same, as astronaut Brand wanted two dots to be the pyramids. As I am fond of saying, for personal consciousness, expectancy is destiny.

Intentionality is made possible by classes of concepts sorted into bins of personally relevant concepts bearing such labels as Who?, What?, Whom?, Where?, When?, How?, and Why? These categories of categories are the stuff human situations are made of, and in terms of which they can be described and understood. To give one example:

On December 11th, 2009, Jenny Sanford filed for divorce from Gov. Mark Sanford of South Carolina, who had claimed to be hiking the Appalachian Trail over Father’s Day when he was actually shacked up with his lover in Argentina for five days.

If things are seldom what they seem, it is because personal consciousness, in presenting itself to the world through overt acts, is truly serving the values, comfort, and self-interest of the individual person. Consciousness, that is, mediates between the individual, biological person and her sensory world. Percepts, concepts, and consciousness itself are meaningfully categorized to suit the survival interests of the person herself as she views them—which is always a subjective judgment call.

Gerald Edelman depicts consciousness as arising from the interactive correlation between conceptual memory and current perceptual categorization. The memory aspect of consciousness is driven by fulfillment or frustration of values resident in the self, the perceptual categorization by sensory patterns similar in some ways to such memories, resulting in a sense of salience or biological significance. “Primary consciousness,” he writes, arises “as a result of reentrant circuits connecting special memory functions to those mediating current perceptual categorization” (The Remembered Present: A Biological Theory of Consciousness, Basic Books, 1989, page 64). Elaborating later on:

The idea that I attempt to refine here is that consciousness is the result of an ongoing categorical comparison of the workings of two kinds of nervous organization. This comparison is based on a special kind of memory, and is related to the satisfaction of physiologically determined needs as that memory is brought up to date by the perceptual categorizations that emerge from ongoing present experience. Through behavior and particularly through learning, the continual interaction of this kind of memory with present perception results in consciousness. (page 93)

What we learn, that is, reflects significant relationships between prior and current aspects of experience as relevant to homeo-stasis and survival. In addition to perceptual categorization, memory, and learning, Edelman discovers a need to place additional emphasis on a fourth dimension of consciousness, “the idea that two parts of the nervous system differ radically in their evolution, organization, and function,” parts which he calls “self” and “nonself” (page 94):

In richly endowed nervous systems, these portions must be organized differently but also be in com-munication. While neural parts of the first kind . . . operate within developmentally given parameters, those of the second kind . . . operate largely through ongoing exteroceptive sensory interactions with the world, that is, through experience and behavior. The operation of the first set of neural regions is . . . essential to define self within a species by assuring homeostatic regulation in each individual. The second set operates mainly to define nonself [or the world]. (page 94)

As Edelman explains, “It is the discrimination between the self and the nonself portions of the nervous system mediated by the mechanisms leading to primary consciousness” that assigns salience to some sensory events and not others in a situation as perceived by a given individual. Which is why, in the examples I gave at the head of this post, astronaut Brand “sees” the pyramids, and astronaut Slayton next to him scoffs at the idea. In Edelman’s words, “When categorized behavior [seeing or not seeing “the pyramids”] satisfies a value. . . , the inter-actions of self and nonself systems lead to altered synaptic efficacies. . . .” providing “one of the necessary bases for storage in the special memory, correlating value with category and discriminating self from nonself.” (page 98f.)

This is but a smattering of Edelman’s writing on categorization, but an important smattering in connecting self to nonself, concepts to percepts, memory to sensory events, abstract summations of experience to concrete experience in the here and now. I will conclude with one last quote from The Remembered Present:

Primary [non symbolic, non linguistic] conscious-ness may thus be briefly described as the result of the ongoing discrimination of present perceptual categorizations by a value dominated self-nonself memory. Inasmuch as such a memory is built by relating previous perceptual categorizations to values, primary consciousness is accomplished by continual bootstrapping of current perceptual states into memory states. (page 102)

Edelman is talking here about astronaut consciousness as well as your consciousness and mine. Go back and read this post again. And again. It will surely crop up on the final exam—which is none other than life itself. Even if you’re not an astronaut, it may help to be able to tell plankton from bottom from scum from trash.

Categorize this.

 

Reflection 149: Blind Walk

October 6, 2009

(Copyright © 2009)

Bending down, I reach into the front-loading dryer and scoop the jumbled laundry into my basket. Back in my apartment, I place the basket on my bed and begin to sort it—underwear in this pile, T-shirts here, sheets there, socks lined up by pattern and color along the edge of the mattress. Finding a dishtowel but no dishrag, I figure it’s hiding among the sheets, which I shake out—there, snug in the corner of the fitted one. I put the piles of clothing I have sorted away and make the bed.

A routine episode from almost any Saturday morning in the past twelve years. I am a creature of habit, and of sorting things into groups having similar characteristics—pencils, tomatoes, bugs, butterflies—courtesy of distinctions I make in my conscious mind. I am a classifier, a categorizer, a sorter into piles. And so are we all, as shown by the way we use language.

‘What is this, class?’ asks teacher reaching into her shoebox, holding up a red toy truck about two-and-a-half inches long.

‘A truck,’ answer the first-graders in unison.

What is it for?

‘Going places,’ says one; ‘Carrying stuff,’ says another.

‘What is this?’

‘A cow.’

‘What do cows give us?’

‘Milk;’ ‘Ice cream,’ says someone in back.

And this?

‘A house.’

‘Are you sure it’s not a store or a barn?’ 

‘It’s where people live.’

Except that teacher doesn’t heft a truck, boat, or house from the box—she is dealing strictly with miniature toys, simplified representations of familiar objects without motors, without internal organs, without windows or kitchens.  She is not teaching the class to discriminate on the basis of sensory details so much as to think in terms of broad categories of utility. She is having her students sort the world conceptually in terms of labeled ideas, not firsthand experience. This is more an example of cultural indoctrination than education.

Then there is the blind walk.

I get permission to take my class of seniors to the grounds of a large, unoccupied home in the neighborhood where we won’t bother anyone. I tell them the idea of the blind walk is to get to know the area, not by looking, but by feeling their way with their hands. I want them to concentrate on touch, sound, and smell—any and all senses except sight. They pair up, decide who is to go first. One is the ‘guardian’ whose job is to make sure the blind-folded ‘explorer’ doesn’t get hurt. Partners are to tactilely explore their surroundings for half an hour, then switch roles, trade the blindfold, and go at it for another half hour. My job is to keep everyone safe and active. At the end, students are to share  highlights from their experience as guardians and explorers, respectively.

For the watcher—me—the exercise turned out other than I had imagined. I presented it in terms of sensory exploration, but my students took that as a challenge to name objects they could not see. In twelve years of schooling, the ability to savor their sensory experience had been stripped from them. These were first graders grown large, but perceptually diminished. They could classify their experience, but not enjoy it. They were eager to identify whatever they came across by touch, but that was all. As soon as they said “pinecone,” “rock,” “stick,” “tree,” “grass,” or “gravel,” they moved on to something else without pausing to explore the feel or smell of what they had touched. Their approach was wholly and uniformly conceptual. Getting the “right” answer was the only thing that mattered. Even warmth from the sun was reduced to naming the source, not savoring how it felt on a particular day in early spring. We teachers had done our job too well, creating students who could sort the world into a standard set of categories—wholly bypassing personal experience, the basis of all pleasure and true knowledge.

As a result of what passes for education these days, many of our children fit themselves to a world of concepts and ideas, not sensory exploration. They get good at sorting things into bins, which has a certain utility, but is also sad because they developed that skill to please their elders. During the course of my life, I have watched an emphasis on concept formation descend through the grades from high school to grammar school to the earliest rungs of preschool. Our children are prepared by society to think and work categorically rather than develop their personal abilities to experience the wonders of this Earth.

My point is that, in the best of all possible worlds, consciousness relies heavily on both sensory and conceptual aspects of experience. To meet the challenges of life we need extensive practice in both realms. To a man or a woman, we are all latent artists and scientists, cooks and judges, poets and talk-show hosts. Lumping things together by sorting, classifying, categorizing on the basis of broad similarities is an essential life skill—but so too is distinguishing between specific features, qualities, and subtle differences. To know a thing, a person, or a field of endeavor requires not only knowing about their general characteristics, but acquainting their specific details as well through personal experience.

Much has been written about the objectivity or intentionality of consciousness, the being aware of things as wholes in themselves rather than in terms of their separate parts, qualities, or details. Consciousness initially renders the world in terms of recognizable units; it takes deliberate effort to analyze such units in terms of their myriad sensory components (hearing individual voices in the symphony of the whole). We are immediately conscious of coherent objects or scenes as overall images or summaries, so not to be overwhelmed by the jumble that William James described in his famous cartoon of infant consciousness as “one great, blooming, buzzing confusion.” In The Principles of Psychology (1890), James writes:

Any number of impressions, from any number of sensory sources, falling simultaneously on a mind which has not yet experienced them separately, will fuse into a single undivided object for that mind. The law is that all things fuse that can fuse, and nothing separates except what must (italics deleted).

The overall effect being to achieve the unity of a scene or an object, a wholeness that must be discriminated into its parts through deliberate effort and refinement of attention. Much has been made of perception as a process for recognizing the world in terms of its fundamental units or categories. Aristotle treated those units of oneness as “modes of being,” as if they were properties of things in themselves. Kant saw them more as phenomena created by consciousness itself in its own terms through the process of apprehending the world. Gerald Edelman presents categorization as a quality of perception dictated by values inherent in the perceiver which are necessary to acting in the world adaptively for the sake of survival.

However we account for consciousness, attention, and awareness, we must allow for two types: 1) concrete, sensory perception, and 2) a more generally applicable type that is less specific and so more abstract and conceptual. Consciousness can balance or move between the two types, from the abstract to the concrete, and back again, encompassing both example and principle, token and type, species and genus, concept and percept. How the brain achieves this remarkable dynamic is not fully understood, but there is no doubt that both types can be joined in the workings of consciousness. Except that education tends to tip the balance toward the summary judgments of conception.

It strikes me that what I was doing in sorting my laundry in the first example above, the first graders were doing in labeling the teacher’s toy truck, and my seniors did on their blind walk—was casting abstract, conceptual expectations onto the world as a kind of outline for what we thought was possible in and appropriate to our respective situations. We then confirmed those expectations as they were fulfilled on those three occasion by acting appropriately to our situations, students calling out the name (as they had been taught) that fit most closely to their expectations as a kind of easy shorthand for the full-bodied (detailed perceptual) experience, and me sorting my laundry into piles I deemed appropriate to my subsequent tasks of putting clothes away and clean sheets on the bed. 

As I have often written, expectation is destiny. We don’t live in the world so much as in our expectations of what that world should be. We make the evidence of our eyes and ears conform to what we want to happen. Our stance toward the world, our fundamental attitude toward reality, determines how we act far more than the evidence of our senses. It as if we were wind-up toys that head off as soon as set on the floor. Education winds us up, life fulfills what we have been taught. That is, it is our preconceptions that drive us, not the existential facts of our lives.

This is the understanding I have been seeking since my first post to this blog in early October, 2008. Taking time off to reflect on my posted reflections, this is what I have discovered. As humans walking our diverse ways, we are condemned to find what our families, peers, teachers, and overall cultures have prepared us to find. We fit the world to whatever model of the world we have assembled over the course of our training. That is our reality. Which our experience inevitably fulfills because—contrary to public belief—perception follows and does not lead the dictates of conception.

Picture humans on their blind walks through life, judging and labeling what they find according to their acquired pre-dispositions, and that is my portrait of the human predicament of days gone by, which is identical to the one we find ourselves in today.

Cormorants