(Copyright © 2009)

If it is true that there is no little homunculus in our heads enjoying the passing parade, it is equally true that there is not even a parade. As for representations of a parade, there are a great many (on the order of at least a 100 in any given brain), all dealing with different aspects of the parade, but there is no one street corner or theater where the float of Humpty Dumpty, say, passes by drawn by six white horses in living Sense-Surround.

Mr. Dumpty is represented by action potentials, ions streaming through membrane channels, neurotransmitters flowing across synapses, some degree of synchrony between neurons firing in different brain modules, and so on, none of which can account for the representation (or illusion) of reality, much less for reality (the parade) in-and-of itself.

Yet we keep talking about the brain as an “information processor,” as if information from the world somehow gets into our heads and forms a representation that can be taken for the world itself. Ionic or chemical signals (suggestive of patterns of energy), yes; information, no. As for interpreting such signals, each and every brain is on its own in that regard. Those signals mean to us solely what our respective minds take them to mean. Our surroundings provide patterns of energy, we map our understanding of what they might mean on those patterns.

We interpret patterns of energy from our surroundings as clues to the situation we are in at the moment, then interpret that situation as meaningful from our point of view based on our investment in that situation. Which varies, depending on how we choose to regard it. Our minds deal in the currency of conjecture and speculation, not information (as if the meaning were determined beforehand by an unidentified agent who is not in our head).

Which is not what we commonly assume or even read in some neural science textbooks. It is easier to assume information enters the brain through the senses, is coded in terms of patterns of neural activity, and is magically “represented” in one form or another, then interpreted by the mind—interpreted to have the same meaning it had on the far side of any sensory apparatus, without giving an account of how such a miracle could happen.

Energy is not meaningful in and of itself. And it is energy, not information, that impinges on our senses. Interpretation requires a context—some sort of situation within which energy takes on meaning in reference to relationships characterizing that situation. And it is no easier for situations to enter consciousness through the senses than it is for information or “reality” to make the same journey. For us, situations exist in terms of relationships between traces of brain activity, which means we derive them from ionic and molecular flows in various modules in our heads. A pretty neat trick.

Yet everyday wisdom has it that there is a one-to-one correspondence between what goes on in the world and what goes on in the minds of those who live in the world. It would be far more accurate to reverse that depiction and say that the world has no existence other than that extended to it by the minds in which it lives. For the world, in fact, does live in us and not vice versa. When we die, our versions of the world also die. Based on a few selected patterns of energy flow impinging on our senses, we project our hypothesis that the world is in such-and-such a state onto those patterns—voila! the “real” world.

That is, contrary to our naive assumptions, the world reflects to us representation we concoct in our minds consistent with the few patterns of energy flow we take the trouble to interpret. What is real is the world in our heads, the subjective (meaningful) world that guides our behavior. That other (outer) world is largely a mystery to us. We inform it according to our preferences at the moment. Information flows outward as mapped onto energy flows which are inherently meaningless until interpreted; interpretation takes place in the mind (ours or others’), not the material world.

What I’m trying to get at is how we can seemingly rise above our own consciousness to observe ourselves interpreting the world through the medium of the energy flows in which we are immersed—and which we narrowly interpret to suit ourselves. That is, I’m out to show how Michael Gazzaniga’s postulate of the left-brain interpreter provides an explanation for a great deal of human behavior that causes so much trouble in a world we can’t see very clearly for what it is.

What I’m after is ways of doing better by that world than we have done up till now. Since the world conforms to our ideas of the world, doing better by ourselves means doing better by the world, and every one of its inhabitants. We’ve had it backwards all this time. It is time to straighten the world by straightening ourselves, an approach so ancient it seems almost new to us. I think we can do it.

 

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(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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