446. For My Eyes Only

March 2, 2015

Early on in childhood, I developed a strong sense of what was family fare and what was not. If my parents had never mentioned or even alluded to such things, that made me hesitant to make the first move. If my brothers hadn’t spoken up, I was sure to keep mum. There was a strong code of forbidden topics based on conjectures that my parents didn’t want to hear about matters that they couldn’t or didn’t want to talk about. Mimicry was safe; taking the initiative was scary.

In my early years I had a recurring nightmare, which I never shared with anyone, not inside my family, not outside. It was my secret.

In the dream, I was slowly slipping toward a glow in the lower right of my visual field, the rest of the field being a featureless black. The thrust of the dream was a deep, rhythmical beat in the background, relentless force moving my body, and a strong sense of helplessness in resisting movement that was not of my doing. When I woke up, I would be crying.

I could feel that dream coming on with a kind of pressure and sense of dread. I suffered that same dream periodically (weekly, monthly?) for several years, then after some time I realized I wasn’t having it anymore, but could still recall the details and the intimate horror at will. What sticks with me today is the feeling of that dream coming on, my being helpless to stop it. Relentless dread, that’s what I felt. Of being in the power of something I couldn’t understand because it wasn’t like anything else in my experience.

Later, when I was several years older, I had another recurring nightmare that conveyed much the same feeling. I could tell from the opening scene how it would play out, and, again, I couldn’t stop it.

In that second dream, I would crawl under a brick wall at the back of a building into a dark room with a pitted, earthen floor. From that room I would go into the streets at night when everyone was asleep, enter the house of a stranger, go upstairs into a bedroom and kill (I’m not sure by what means) a sleeper picked at random. I escaped by retracing my route back into the earthen-floored room and then crawling under the wall into daylight.

Two feelings always accompanied that second dream: the horror of what I was about to do—and then actually did—and the fact that no one would ever know that I had done it. It was my guilty secret.

Once begun, both dreams unfurled true to form, and I could not avoid the fear of what was sure to happen. I mention the two dreams together because they both incited the same feeling of helplessness and horror in facing into their respective inevitabilities. I was trapped and couldn’t help myself.

Looking back, I see both dreams as variations on the same theme. It was their unwinding to a sure end that they had in common, though the details were very different. I see the first dream as meant for a younger audience, the second for an audience familiar with village life and language. In the first the action was done unto me; in the second I was the actor responsible for what I did.

I never told anyone in my family about such dreams. They were for my eyes only, a note passed from me to myself.

Writing this post brings to mind another secret from early adolescence that I kept from my family. When I was a sophomore in Seattle’s Roosevelt High School, we’d often drive into the Sierras on a Sunday afternoon to visit Snoqualmie Falls, Lake 22, or some other scenic destination. On one return trip on a sunny spring day, my father let me practice my driving skills on the winding, hilly road through the mountains, steep cliffs rising on the right, an abrupt chasm dropping beyond the roadside barrier on the far left side of the road.

I remember realizing in one instant as I drove that if I made an abrupt turn to the left and crashed through the steel barrier, my entire family, including two dogs in the back, would be wiped-out. It was a moment of realizing the responsibility I had in my hands in learning to drive. I was horrified to find myself thinking such a thought.

Needless to say I didn’t turn the wheel on impulse, but the thought did occur to me. I’ve been a reasonably competent driver ever since. But that sudden connection in the depths of my brain when I was fifteen was both a realization and a warning. Had I been more of a risk taker, I might have veered briefly into the other lane just to give my family a scare they would never forget, reminding them of the truely intimate power I held over their lives.

I see child soldiers and young terrorists armed with automatic weapons as succumbing to such impulses because the brutal climate in which they live paints pulling the trigger in a favorable light that differentiates heroes from losers. Getting past that point in my growing up has made all the difference. We see every day in the news stories about those who swing the other way when opportunity arises.

Perhaps unwittingly, families convey nonverbal attitudes that are the forge in which children are worked into the shapes they will assume as mature adults. As I said in my previous post, families matter. Children learn to talk in a family setting; they also learn when to stay silent.

 

 

(Copyright © 2009)

 

Given that I see things that are not of this world (cedars as men, trash bags as dying crows, TV antennas as crashing jets, clip-art cats where there are no real cats), and do not see things that demonstrably are present in this world (jars of mustard, sunflowers in a vase), I can only conclude that much of consciousness is speculative in nature. In charting the mysterious world, the mind often models events as a distorted version of the true situation. No map can accurately present the territory; no mind reveal the world as it is.

 

Enter Michael Gazzaniga’s left-brain interpreter to explain how it is that consciousness can carry on with less than complete or reliable information. No perfectionist, it does the best it can in interpreting the evidence available to it. As always, the object is to come up with a plan of personal action suited to its best estimate of the current situation. In view of the feedback resulting from such action, the interpreter will modify its estimate and try again. Through a series of successive approximations, it develops a narrative of the stages by which it overcomes obstacles in reaching its final goal of appropriate action.

 

On the grandest scale, this narrative becomes an account of the hero/heroine’s journey through the Valley of Trials to the ultimate victory against evil, and his/her triumphant return. On a lesser scale, it answers such prosaic questions as, “How did work go today, Honey? or “What did you do in school?” In any case, the narrative consists of the emotionally-charged high points of consciousness attempting to make sense of its world through a series of challenges laid out in the dimensions of personal time and personal space.

 

Even Einstein’s space-time continuum is a tale told by his left-brain interpreter grappling with his placement in two worlds at once: the universe of his creative consciousness attempting to model its situation in personal-organic-conceptual terms of time and space, and the details of a calibrated physical universe it infers to lie beyond itself. From my perspective, Einstein projected his mental calibration from one setting to the other, confounding his personal situation with a mysterious surround which knows only change but nothing of time and nothing of space.

 

Conduct the following thought experiment: Units of measurement are creations of the human mind referenced to arbitrary standards. Before humans evolved, and after they become extinct, can time (referred to any standard at all) be said to exist? Can space (referred to any standard at all) be said to exist?

My own conclusion is that absent consciousness, variables such as duration, distance, and change persist in an uncalibrated state as usual, but the artifacts of measurable time and space become irrelevant and inapplicable. That is, along with beauty, music, color, number and other indicators of mental relationships, both time and space exist as we know them solely in the mind of the conscious interpreter, exactly where thought experiments reside.

 

Workings of the human mind encompass a great many operations, including attending, feeling, perceiving, conceiving, remembering, relating, planning, expecting, understanding, inducing, deducing, inferring, supposing, extrapolating, interpolating, comparing, categorizing, prioritizing, speaking, listening, speculating, imagining, and so on. Twenty-four/seven, this mind of ours is a very busy place. One thing it can’t do, however, is provide a clear perspective on any so-called real world. In every instance, the best it can do is speculate about such a world on the basis of insufficient evidence.

 

What consciousness does best is play games because games have a limited number of rules, and the human mind thrives in situations characterized by clarity and order. If there are too many rules, we forget them and get confused; if too few, we get bored. The moves in chess are about right. The ten commandments verge on too many. Solitaire has too few to sustain attention for long. Drawing cards from a shuffled deck (as in Monopoly, Trivial Pursuit, or almost any card game) keeps down the number of details to be held in mind while, at the same time, enlivening play. Games of chance are engaging because, if the possibilities are large, the actualities are few and very clear. You either win or lose.

 

Born speculators, whatever the game, we always play to win, which says a lot about consciousness. It’s as if the point of consciousness were to play games. Which, given the vagaries of our left-brain interpreter, it usually is. We are risk takers, inhabiting the gap between the possible and the probable. Life is boring if we always bet on a sure thing. Gaming is in our nature. Gaming the market, gaming the environment, gaming relationships—all for what we can get out of them (hopefully, without losing our shirts).

 

Even science involves hypotheses which may not pan out. Doubt and uncertainty are the backbone that gives science its character through disciplined speculation. There’s never enough evidence to be absolutely sure of anything. There’s no such thing as 100% certainty.

 

Including human judgment, which is intimately involved in gauging the imaginativeness of the left-brain interpreter. Truth or fiction? When the evidence is skimpy, it’s hard to tell. But we have to do something to avoid being seen as wimps, so barge ahead on what little we know. If we win, we are likely to win big. If we lose, well, that’s why we hedge our bets.

 

We often live as if life were a multiple choice test. My advice is always go for the longest, most detailed answer. The others are probably fillers to pad out the options. At least that’s what I speculate.

 

We live in the tension between getting it right and getting it wrong. Thank you, Judgment, Interpreter, and Imagination for the rollercoaster ride.

 

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