What does it take to play baseball? If you’re a kid in the street, it takes a friend, stick and ball, and a few chalk marks on the road. If you’re a billionaire, a city stadium is bare minimum, a corporation, the best players you can get, along with a base of dedicated fans. If you’re somewhere in-between being a kid and a billionaire, bats, balls, and gloves are readily available.

If you are seriously organized, you’ll need an infield diamond and outfield laid out to Doubleday’s specifications, bleachers, care of the grounds; uniforms; protective pads, masks, helmets; and a pool of eligible players to draw from, which may include roughly half the citizenry in Canada, Cuba, Puerto Rico, Mexico, Venezuela, Japan, and the U.S. Too, you’ll need leagues big enough to maintain a full schedule of 154 games, along with playoffs between league pennant-winners held at the end of the season (early spring into fall).

But what it really takes to play baseball is acceptance of the rules, and umpires who can enforce those rules in specific situations, assuring fair play between opposing teams. Mascots, trophies, and blaring horns are optional.

Where does the drive to win come from, that we feel the urge to play competitive games in the first place? I would say part of it arises from healthy metabolisms that convert glucose to available energy in our body’s every cell, of which there are trillions. I call that drive to be active the life force. If we’re ill or poorly nourished, we don’t have enough of a margin to exert ourselves in playing or attending games.

But if we’re young, active, well nourished, and eager to prove ourselves, the life force can be extremely compelling in initiating a host of engagements, including organized sports.

Beyond that, if we feel we have a special gift for playing baseball stemming from our initial contact with the game, then our sense of personal identity may be strong enough to call forth the extra effort it takes to get really good at mastering the required skills, or at least playing as well as we can.

It helps to have models, mentors, or heroes to pattern ourselves on. And a strong sense of fun, enjoyment, and fulfillment in developing our abilities.

The urge to play ball, that is, comes from inside us in discovering who we are and what we want to do with our lives. Baseball as played-out in the field flows from the confines of our black boxes into the cultural and communal worlds in which we personally live. Without doubt, playing baseball is a way of living an admirable life, like being a policeman, nurse, teacher, or astronaut—a person to look up to as a child, and grow into as an adult. We don’t play to win so much as play to engage others at our finest moments.

Playing baseball is a way to be human in a particularly personal way. The crux of being human in just that way lies at the inner core of each player, where what you do is what you most want to do in realizing yourself to the max. In being the person you know you can be without harming others.

In watching such people play ball, I feel I am personally witnessing their situated intelligence in full public view as they respond to the urgings of their memories, feelings, emotions, values, understandings, drives, thoughts, dreams, and understanding of what life is all about.

No aspect of mind is more powerful than the urge to participate in a palpable, real-life situation with others who are equally skilled in doing the same from a different point of view. Every era offers its wayfaring members a selection of routes to self-realization. Hunter, gatherer, tool maker, farmer, warrior, craftsperson, dancer, poet, athlete—which is to be your way?

Today, whether you are batter, pitcher, catcher, baseman, fielder, umpire, manager, batboy, or spectator, the plate umpire’s “Play ball!” is a call to live exactly as you choose to live. You are present in that moment, ready to give your all as fully yourself.

 

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Our community engagements are not set in stone, they are ongoing processes that flow both ways in looping fashion from perception to action, action to perception. As such, they are constantly changing, depending on current circumstances and events. After several rounds, we come to count on them as if they were stable, or at least fit within our comfort range.

Trust in other people and institutions builds a sense of loyalty to them as reliable features of our community. We go out of our way not to offend them. We give them a certain consideration by holding them in our thoughts.

If we sign a contract, we are obligated to hold to its terms as a kind of commitment to duty. But communities hold together not out of duty but from a mutual sense of caring, liking, and sharing of experience. Except in extreme cases, they do not form around a set of obligations or duties.

During my basic training at Fort Ord, several of my buddies would sleep on guard duty because, as enforcers, they could excuse themselves in their own minds and get away with it. But trust and loyalty build a sense of mutual responsibility as if we were all members of the same extended family.

Communities, that is, are stabilized by networks of shared, positive engagements. They aren’t planned so much as lived in the details of everyday life. In people meeting on the street, in the drug store, the Post Office, the bank. Schools build communities around themselves because parents entrust their children to their teachers and administrators. Children become invested in schools because that’s where their friends are, and where, if lucky, they learn helpful skills.

It takes time to build a community around ourselves, often many years of engagements of all sorts. But if most of those engagements are positive, then we make a place for ourselves at the intersection of our individual traits with our larger society.

I consider myself a member of the southern Hancock County coastal community, Maine community, New England community, Eastern community, in that order. Last of all I admit to being an American with New England roots. I don’t think of the U.S. as my homeland; I reserve my loyalty for New England generally, and coastal Maine in particular. Go Red Sox; go Celtics; go Bruins; go Patriots.

I am a Yankee, a Northerner. Beyond that, I dub myself Steve from planet Earth because that identity emphasizes Earth’s claim on me. If it were not for my home planet, I wouldn’t be writing these words. First and last, I am an Earthling.

Rules, too, are essential to my sense of community. I carry three library cards, Maine driver’s license, several ID cards, Social Security card, Veterans Administration card, Medicare card, and a credit card. I do my best to take library books back on time, to obey traffic laws, pay my bills, and uphold my end of the several memberships I hold. When flush, I sometimes splurge on a ten-show Big Ticket to Reel Pizza, the local movie house. I get to meetings on time, play my part, and leave without dawdling. Towns have ordinances, companies have rules of employment, games have rules of play. Caring for our neighbor is not written down anywhere as a rule, but our communities would collapse if we didn’t do it spontaneously on our own.

One of the basic rules of any community is to give each person an opportunity to do her thing. Taking turns is the first law of community. Giving everyone a chance to have her say. That way we come to feel we have a place in, and belong to, our community, and our common community belongs to us as an extension of our caring selves.

In this sense, we are similar to one-celled creatures in establishing a stable relationship with the environments that meet our needs, becoming inhabitants of those environs in the process.

 

Living in a small village is one thing; you know everyone by name, know their children, what they do for a living, when they are sick. You can afford to give them the benefit of the doubt, assume they are good people, and help them when they have a setback. By helping a neighbor in a village, you are likely helping one of your relatives who shares some of your genes.

But when an entire culture intrudes into our safety zone by mail, phone, TV, newspaper, magazine, internet, email, cellphone, connecting us to everything that’s happening every minute of our lives—culture is no longer our friend or relative but is clearly out to get at us in our homes and other places where we used to feel safe and snug.

It’s not our culture so much as theirs, whoever all those people are who commandeer our personal engagements for purposes of their own. I know they are out there; I get emails, letters, and phone calls from them every day trying to convince me to follow their agenda.

Perhaps in some far and mythical past, cultures were built and maintained by groups for the mutual benefit of all members. When people got sick, others took care of them. When they needed help, others lent a hand.

But now there are so many of us, and we come in so many varieties, we can’t identify with the whole, so tend to defend ourselves by reducing our decisions to yes-or-no choices, stay or flee, love or hate, pass or fail.

As it turns out, this is exactly how our minds work on the most basic level. Neurons either fire or they don’t, send signals forward or not, excite or inhibit, engage or stand pat. Our minds are made to reduce complex issues to simple choices so that we can act decisively in short order.

Which holds as true in cultural as in natural settings. Culture exists for our personal benefit so that our needs can be met with minimal fuss, delay, and expense. When it gets out of hand and causes more trouble than we can bear, it consumes us as so much fodder for the benefit of aggressive others, not as individuals worthy in themselves.

In the end, cultures are governed by nested layers of laws, ordinances, rules, edicts, ignorance, and hearsay. With culture serving as a buffer between humans and nature, we thrive on obeying the rules, such as they are. That way we can coordinate our efforts, take turns, play our parts in synchrony with others, practice, rehearse, and improve our performance so that we eventually get it right—either that, or are proven wrong once again.

Rules of one sort or another are what make cultures work for a wide diversity of people looking out from the relative calm and shelter of their subjective states. And if they don’t work all that well, they can always be improved.

Along with rules come the enforcers. The leaders, teachers, trainers, coaches, managers, directors, supervisors, inspectors, umpires, referees, timekeepers, linesmen, hall patrollers, quality controllers, and all the rest.

Their job is to make sure the rules are obeyed, which challenges us to do our best within tight constraints. We can harmonize our efforts, play our parts, go solo, work in unison, or in duets, trios, quartets . . . unto nonets and beyond. Which takes training, practice, rehearsal, anxiety, adrenalin, and giving our all.

Being under direction the whole way assures coordination of specialized efforts to achieve maximum effect by smoothing and synchronizing our individual performances as they issue from the passionate core of our respective black boxes.

Culture, then, is the great stabilizer that balances and coordinates our myriad individual efforts for the common good (or ill). Pierre Monteux conducting the Boston Symphony Orchestra in a performance of Berlioz’s Symphonie Fantastique at Symphony Hall is one cultural event at which I was present in my little black box back in 1951. It was, well, fantastique.

Others have watched or run in the Boston Marathon; cheered Harvard on against Yale; attended Red Sox, Celtics, and Patriots games; taken flights from Logan Airport; cruised among the islands in Boston Harbor; visited the Science Museum and Massachusetts General Hospital; read the Boston Globe; and borrowed books from Boston Public Library.

Such coordinated events and institutions are not generally possible in nature. It is human culture that sponsors them, and human individuals that support the opportunities for engagement they offer. Without culture, we wouldn’t be anything like who we are. Imagine being born in the Neo- or Paleolithic Era.

Whether we are deferential or assertive personality types, culture forms, stirs, provokes, instructs, and challenges us to grow into the people we become. And that profound influence is not so much in our brains as in our cultural experience as enabled by our brains. You can take the boy out of the country, but you can’t take country culture out of the boy. Country culture isn’t so much in the boy’s brain as it is in the integrated style of his engagements, in his way of being himself. Through years of engagement, it resides in his eyes, ears, muscles, clothing, vocabulary, and neural pathways, ready to be activated on demand.

Music is a branch of culture that makes it possible for people to gather for the purpose of making noise. The art is in the integrity of the noise, how it all fits together. What string quartets and jazz ensembles release in me is a sensitivity to and appreciation for the interplay between separate voices weaving in and out among their companions.

I find musical chords boring. I like polyphony, each voice playing its part. It’s the difference, not the sameness that gets me. The playful gap between voices, the delta, the dichotomy, the discrepancy, the polarity, the disparity. In brief, the close encounter, engagement, relationship, interaction. Moving in, then away, then back again by a different route.

It’s the wayfaring. Playfully finding the way in easy company. I turn off the switch on jazz that blows the loudest, highest, longest. That’s for the Olympics. So what? I say to myself. It’s not individual prowess in itself I want to hear but deftness in relating to others. The more spontaneously the better and more engaging. That is my preference. I am not a rational or reasonable person. I’m out for adventure. That’s what I seek and pay attention to. The lilt and surprise, not the pure form. Not the logic.

People love to play games. My partner and I have enjoyed what must be thousands of bouts on opposite sides of a cribbage board over the past twenty years. And hundreds of games of dominoes. We move rival pegs and pieces about board and table in a state of total concentration as if everything hung on our progress as make-believe wayfarers.

Those games are a good part of our mythology as a couple, known only to us.

Such weekend games keep us sane by diverting our minds from concerns that occupy us during the rest of the week. Others play games of cards such as poker or solitaire, bridge or old maid. Many games feature fields, courts, or courses—marked-out territories occupied or traversed by opposing players or teams trading roles as defenders and aggressors. Mythological contests, again.

Humanity spends countless hours each day engrossed in nonviolent contests of skill, chance, strength, speed, and endurance. Ice hockey, boxing, and American football occupy niches close to the edge of being harmful and dangerous physical play, but for the most part sports and games, in their claim to being nonviolent, fall short of battles to the death.

Games are universally played by rules, and are officiated by umpires, referees, scorekeepers, and the players themselves. The essence of games is in the taking of turns so that players alternate in facing more-or-less equal opportunities and conditions.

I bring up sports and games in this reflection because, being governed by rules of play, they are examples of the kinds of engagement I am discussing as fundamental features of mind. Rules of play are rules of engagement are rules of thinking are rules of mythology are rules of the conscious mind.

Games are human activities in which our minds play themselves out in full public view. The game itself is what each player and spectator has in mind at the time. Here we see expectancy, attention, understanding, emotion, motivation, values, the life force, judgment, goals, strategies, and skilled action out in the open for all to see and take part in.

In films and TV programs the action takes place on a set that blocks our view of the chaos behind the scenes, so we are allowed a cut-and-spliced version that makes sense only from the camera’s point of view. That is, we are being manipulated by actors and directors and costume designers and producers and hundreds of others to see what they want us to see.

But in sports and games, we take the leading roles, so put ourselves—our innermost minds—into play, in the company of others who are doing the same thing. Which is fun because risky but safe, each side playing by the same rules of engagement. We are wayfaring in joint engagement together. That is, in friendship earned along the way during the journey at the heart of the game.

The apparent innocence of children is achieved much the same way—by being unreservedly themselves in translating thought into action. Lion cubs, ditto, when they roll about nipping each other’s ears and throats. They aren’t simply playing, they are being fully themselves at their level of development and understanding. Games are mythological enactments of the selves our children want to be.

We love them for being that honest and that free. Qualities rare among the rest of us in defending our private lives and innermost thoughts as we do so others won’t get too accurate a picture of what’s going on inside our private black boxes. In play it is safe to venture forth because we have rules to protect us.

 

 

(Copyright © 2009)

 

Putting the pieces of a dismembered picture puzzle back in their original relationships to one another is an intriguing aspect of consciousness because people so love to do it. What is it about putting Humpty Dumpty together again that we find so inviting or even compelling?

 

The day after Thanksgiving, I clear off the table, open the sealed box, and dump out the pieces of a picture puzzle my partner has had lying, undone, around her house for twenty years. A seaside painting by Maurice Prendergast (1858-1924)—lots of impressionistic ladies in white dresses with parasols. Turning each piece face-up, I get started mid-morning and finish it (with help) just at midnight. Each parasol is a different tint of rose, which helps somewhat in grouping the pieces, but every edge is soft, so the tones blend subtly into one another. What amazes me is how intently I keep at it for 15 hours, working on one piece then another. Relying on a variety of clues to fit them in—shape, color, pattern, edges, texture, and so on. I start with the outside edge, then move on to the hard part of situating color masses. It gets easier in the end when there are fewer pieces left. The last twenty pieces are a joy to drop into place one after the other. That was it, a day in the life doing a picture puzzle. I think I may have worked on only one other during the past 20 years.

 

Is that what life is about, doing picture puzzles? I hope there’s more to it than that. Which gets me thinking. What is it, exactly, that’s involved in working on such puzzles? They are visual, obviously, so eye-hand coordination is involved. Not gross, not truly fine, somewhere in the middle. A kind of situational dexterity. There are no rules as there are in games. Each puzzler can chose her own tactics, and switch them at will. But to maintain such intense visual concentration hour-after-hour for so long a time, in my experience, is unusual. I sometimes get fidgety after doing the same thing for 20 minutes. How come with puzzles I can keep going so long? Not out of duty but pure engagement in the task. What holds my attention as if life itself depended on it?

 

One thing about doing picture puzzles, the goal is crystal clear. There may not be rules, but the object is to get every piece in its place so the image will emerge picture perfect. But I find completing the task anticlimactic. It’s the process that matters, the engagement, the doing of the puzzle, not its completion.

 

It’s a matter of fitting one piece, another, and another, without any sense of time or the stage of the process you’re in. Pure dog work, that’s what it is. Doggedly moving from one piece to another, one gap to another. Yet pleasurable dog work. That’s what is so captivating about puzzles, and so rewarding each and every time something fits. Picture puzzles cut gratification into microsteps, each as rewarding as the next, and the next. Maybe knitting is like that. It’s taking this perfect stitch, this, and then this—and it all adds up to something, a scarf or a sweater.

 

Piece work, literally. Is that a survival skill? One foot in front of the other. One shingle in place, then the next. One raspberry picked, then on and on until your basket if full. Life lived not one day at a time but one instant after another. Slogging onward. But it doesn’t seem like slogging. Each step is a challenge in itself. Which earns you the right to undertake the next. How does that work? I think there must be something about consciousness itself that is assembled that way, involving one neuron firing at a time until the job is done. 

 

When you work on a picture puzzle, where is that activity taking place in the brain? Certainly the retinas are involved, the visual nuclei or relay stations, the visual processing areas (of which there are many) in the cortex, the motor planning and actuating areas, the cerebellum to tidy up the process. But a picture puzzle is a kind of map, and I’ll bet the hippocampus deep in the temporal lobes of your brain and mine is involved. Through studies with rats, it has been known for almost 40 years that the hippocampus maintains a cognitive representation of the territory where the individual is situated, and when doing a puzzle, that’s exactly where you are—inside that puzzle, examining every detail. Not only are you in the puzzle, the hippocampus maintains nerve excitation as long as you’re there, neural activity lasting until this section is done, then this, then the whole. Two months after doing the Prendergast puzzle, I can still remember working on specific sections of it. I was building the map of my current situation one piece at a time. And the hippocampus has the know-how enabling me to do that.

 

The hippocampal map of our personal space is so finely divided that individual nerve cells correspond to where we are within the larger field, different cells being activated as we move about—or focus on different areas within the puzzle. Our brains, it seems, are made for doing picture puzzles. Or more accurately, picture puzzles are popular because they are designed to make use of mental capabilities that fit us to the situations we put ourselves into—which including puzzling situations.

 

On Christmas day, I take out another puzzle depicting a whorl of dolphins among a school of small fish. I had given it to my partner years before, and decide it is time to face the challenge of piecing together fragments of all those fish and all those dolphins in their blue-green sea. It is a killer puzzle, not because the fish are getting eaten, but because all the fish look very similar and the bits of dolphin flesh, ditto. Yet there are clues to where a given piece might fit into the overall scene represented in the cognitive map assembled by my hippocampus. I suspect that each of the over 500 pieces has a cell in my brain to itself. I say that because I work piece by piece, characterizing each one in relation to the overall pattern provided by the picture on the lid of the puzzle box. I know each piece has a specific placement in the field, and I use a variety of clues to suggest just where it might fit in. Illumination comes from above, so I can often tell the orientation of a piece by studying highlights and shadows. Which tell me whether the small fish are swimming to the left or right, and at what angle. Most of the fish on the left side are swimming down and to the left, most on the right are heading down and right. The quality of the light differs top to bottom, which lets me make a rough guess about placement in the various strata of the puzzle. I do the top and bottom edges first, then work on particular dolphins and nearby fish. Again, I start after breakfast, and finish at midnight, fully engaged the whole time. Never bored, never restless, just working away, away, away. That’s the kind of work my hippocampus seems suited for. Puzzling, I decide, is very much like knitting, where the map of the sweater is inside you, and you know exactly where every knit and purl fits into the overall design. Doing picture puzzles, I decide, is like massaging the inner workings of my brain. Maybe knitters feel the same way.

  

 

“Human consciousness is the way it is because of the way our brain is,” writes Joseph LeDoux at the end of The Emotional Brain (Simon & Schuster, 1996, page 302). Eric R. Kandel expands on that theme in his chapter on the Biological Basis of Individuality in Principles of Neural Science (McGraw-Hill, 2000, page 1277): “Everything the brain produces, from the most private thoughts to the most public acts, should be understood as a biological process.” Even working on picture puzzles, even knitting.

 

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(Copyright © 2009)

 

My basic premise in writing this blog is that most people assume their consciousness gives them immediate access to the real world. Or put differently, that the world really is as their senses depict it. My aim in this series of posts is to test that hypothesis by examining a variety of episodes drawn from my own consciousness to see if they are consistent with such an assumption or not.

 

My findings up till now are that my personal consciousness is not a one-to-one replica of any world other than the one in my head, which is demonstrably one of a kind. As for the real world, I have no way of recognizing it by sight, sound, touch, scent, taste, or any combination of senses. It is always my world, that fragment of a world my consciousness presents to me at the time. Does that make it real? To me, perhaps, but not to anyone else. And even I have to test it by acting in that world to see how it accords with my expectations. Sometimes it might, but usually not.

 

What is real is that I have to ease into my world through a series of rough approximations of how I think it might be configured. My world is my current situation as I construe it. I make a move, and the feedback I get tells me whether or not I might be on the right track. Slowly refining my consciousness through a series of such tests, I arrive at an operational view of my situation that meets my standards of proof. For practical purposes, that serves as my current reality.

 

Beyond that, if others replicate my tests and come to similar conclusions, that adds some weight to my convictions. If those whose judgments I respect—my peers—tend toward consensus on the matter, that adds even more weight. But there are always rough edges that are inconclusive or surprising, so we have to investigate them before we can reach full consensus.

 

And so it goes. Reality is a moving target, a goal we can aim at but never attain because by the time we reach it, it has moved on beyond us. What is our situation now? we ask, as we run through the whole process one more time. 

 

What is our situation now? That is always the main challenge to consciousness. Unless we develop a feel for what’s currently happening, we can’t act appropriately—and survival depends on our fitness to our actual situation. Yesterday, it was this; what is it today? Think of how we try to assess our situation when we meet someone we know:

 

How are you? How’s it going? How’s business? How you doin? What’s going on? What’s happening? What’s up? What’s new? What’s the score? Who’s winning?

 

We ask newspapers, magazines, Web sites, blogs, and hundreds of TV channels to fill us in on the latest bulletins about the lay of the land. About the situations we are in, the ones our fate depends on. Which are invariably complex and fast-changing. So we need more and more details about what’s happening. Locally, regionally, nationally, globally, we want to know so we can anticipate what’s coming and act accordingly. This is not an intellectual exercise to stave off Alzheimer’s. This is a matter of life and death. My life and death. Of updating my personal consciousness so I can act appropriately regarding my current placement in the world I take to be real.

 

Gang wars, wandering bears, serial killers, terrorists, uprisings, bombings, stock prices, epidemics, tsunamis, hurricanes—I want to know how these and other events might affect my personal welfare. I depend on consciousness to keep me informed. To tell me what’s happening, who’s winning, how business is going.

 

Friends are people we trust with the details of our personal situation; strangers and enemies are people we fear might misuse those details, so we reply with socially-acceptable conventions when they ask what’s going on. We practice sizing up situations by playing games or watching sporting events—rule-governed situations where we are familiar with the territory, know the score, and recognize all the players. Being on the winning side tells us we must be doing something right.

 

Trouble is, events in the real world don’t always follow rules. We track cyclones and hurricanes so we can predict where they’re headed, and listen to Earth rumblings to tell us where the next earthquake or volcanic eruption will be. But terrorist attacks, wandering bears, and stock prices, for instance, defy rule-governed predictions.

 

If the cultural world were a walled-off precinct within the natural world, it might be easier to understand in terms of natural law. But consciousness often confounds nature and culture, so it is hard to tell where one leaves off and the other begins, the admixture defying accurate description, much less prediction. Even the so-called hard sciences are disciplines within consciousness, so they are never as pure or reliable as their practitioners claim. Just wait a week and you’ll see. A given situation is usually more complicated than it seems at first glance, reality more elusive and harder to pin down than we think it should be.

 

Gauging reality is essentially a matter of soul searching. Of probing consciousness for clues to where we are and what is going on. It is more a matter of raising doubts and asking questions than mindless belief, which terminates exploration before it can get started. The real nature of the current situation is always a matter of conjecture, informed opinion, and judgment. All of which bear on the degree of conviction with which we feel we can rely on consciousness to tell the straight story.

 

The pursuit of reality begins with uncertainty, not surety. You’ve got to catch yourself being conscious of yourself being conscious, then ask why things appear as they do. To know reality, first you must know thyself. Which can only follow from a course of self-doubt (for starters, never take your senses or emotions at face value), followed by self-exploration, and endless self-reflection. Keep in mind that reality, should you come across it, is likely to be rigged (by yourself or someone you love or admire).

 

The first question to ask is: How do I know that I know what I think I know? If you get beyond that one, your judgment of conscious reality will improve remarkably. But in a world of hype, spin, illusions, lobbying, bribes, favors, payments, donations, traditions, strong opinions, public relations, and outright deceit, that is likely to be only the beginning of a life devoted to inquiry and the pursuit of reality.

 

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