(Copyright © 2009)

 

All the world’s a stage,

And all the men and women merely players:

 

Shakespeare got that right. But he goes on to develop the theme of seven acts or ages as if that were the essence of life’s drama. From my point of view in writing this blog on consciousness, the acting out of personal scripts in each scene (situation) by the players themselves is the heart of the metaphor. That’s where the moment-to-moment drama takes place. The overall intent may be to impress the audience, but interactive relationships between characters are the means for revealing the inner tensions that drive the plot. It is the rise and fall of those tensions which support the drama. Underneath it all is the interplay of personal consciousness acted out in full public view.

 

In an earlier post (Reflection 87: A Mind of My Own) I wrote:

 

Consciousness is an integrated synthesis of many parts . . . . Our left-brain interpreter takes all those parts and weaves them into a story that binds them together into a coherent narrative. Whether factual or fanciful, it is that internal story of which we are conscious. All of which may or may not shed light on any so-called real world.

 

That is, internal stories concocted by our respective left-brain interpreters provide the script each of us plays out on the world stage in the company of our fellow players—all following scripts of their own.

 

Which sounds like it may produce a very confusing drama with each player scripting her own actions. And looking around, that is exactly what we find. Bernie Madoff reading from his own script, Rush Limbaugh his, Rod Blagojevich his, Jimmy Carter his, Palestinians and Israelis respectively their own, Democrats and Republicans theirs, and so on. There is no master scripter; each of us is privileged (or condemned) to follow the cadence of her own inner voice.

 

Whether looking into various crises such as that of credit, energy, health care, climate change, world trade, wealth distribution, overpopulation, or any of the rest, we find individual players acting out their personal narratives as if in each case they were delivering a monologue with the stage to themselves .

 

Storytelling is the name of the game we are playing. In the belief that what’s good theater for me is good theater for all, a gross distortion of Adam Smith’s invisible hand has become the doctrine of free enterprise in our nation and now around the world. This applies not only to the wealth of individuals and nations, but to any sort of human enterprise. What following the dictates of self-interest produces is chaos, period. The heralded state of harmony never arrives.

 

The problem being that in denying any sensible checks on the stories we tell ourselves, they wander on endlessly without feedback from other points of view. Research on split-brain subjects reveals just how strained and bizarre such stories become without input from even the other side of our own brains, much less other people. As Pieter Brueghel has shown, when the blind lead the blind, all are deceived and end in the ditch.

 

Tales spun by consciousness need impartial editing before being played out in life. As you like it—or laissez-faire—is not a sufficient check on personal action. Behavior based on monologues leads consciousness to gallop unbridled through public affairs, causing the tumult of these days. Signing statements, for example, which excuse the executive from having to observe legislation passed by Congress, distort the law of the land into a parody of itself. Having two laws, one for the executive, another for everyone else, is wily chaos attempting to pass as good order.

 

All due to letting our left-brain interpreters of events have their way with us and the world. Can it be that simple? I believe it can. Michael Gazzaniga locates our personal interpreters in the left frontal cortex of our brains. As The Brain from Top to Bottom (http://www.thebrain.mcgill.ca) puts it:

 

When a person with a split brain is placed in a situation where the two hemispheres come into conflict, she may use her left hemisphere’s language capabilities to talk to herself, sometimes even going so far as to force the right hemisphere to obey the left hemisphere’s verbal commands. If that proves impossible, the left hemisphere will often rationalize or reinterpret the sequence of events so as to re-establish the impression that the person’s behaviour makes sense. It was this phenomenon that led Gazzaniga to propose that there is an “interpreter,” or “narrative self,” in the left frontal cortex not only of split-brain patients but also of all human beings (Can States of Consciousness Be Mapped in the Brain? Advanced level.)

 

I believe Gazzaniga is on the right track because I can observe my own interpreter at work when it goes beyond the evidence to produce an explanation for things it doesn’t truly understand: to wit, this blog. I can produce a theory to explain any phenomenon that catches my attention. Usually, I realize I am transcending my own limitations, so don’t force my opinions on others. But when I sacrifice good sense to vanity or self-deception, then I can watch myself spinning a yarn for the impression it makes. Which is not necessarily a bad thing. Making up bedtime stories can be both fun and entertaining. Where does fiction come from if not our left-brain interpreters? But in the service of fraudulent or self-deceptive motives, the interpreter can quickly take us out beyond our depth.

 

When I am unsure of myself, I fall back on trial and error. “See if this might work or suggests a different approach,” I tell myself. Most of what I have learned in life has come from making mistakes and correcting them. If my interpreter isn’t up to a situation because it lacks the necessary data, then it makes a stab at understanding what’s going on and—right or wrong—always learns something that can be useful next time around.

 

What gets us into trouble is pretending we know more than we can know—about the market, terrorists, Iran, creation, the will of God, or even ourselves. Actions based on insufficient understanding for the sake of self-importance, illusions, power, wealth, or personal advantage are sure to get us in trouble. Which is why the human world is in the sorry state that it is from too much pretense and self-righteousness.

 

My approach in writing this blog is to come at consciousness every way I can think of based on my personal experience. Yes, I am spinning a yarn. But at the same time I am gathering evidence from my own life that bolsters my understanding. Writing every post has taught me something about myself. If I never made the effort, I’d still be as dumb as I was at the start. All knowledge is self-knowledge, and if we are not perpetual learners, then we risk passing ourselves off as smarter than we actually are. There’s a lot of that going around these days.

 

Which is why I pay special attention to the care and handling of my personal interpreter. Even the FBI and CIA don’t know what thoughts are passing through my head. I am the only one who can pay attention to my inner processes. If I don’t, I miss the opportunity of a lifetime, because I am not privy to the workings of anyone’s consciousness but my own. If I don’t live up to my own self-set standards, no one else will do it for me. So here I am, having the adventure of my life in full public view. That way lies transparency, light and understanding. We know what lies the other way: been there, done that. Just look around at the mess we have made for ourselves and our home planet.

 

It is time to take a new direction. Namely, to heed the oracle and finally get to know ourselves inside-out. That way lies hope, eventual mastery, and true understanding. To get there, we have to develop prototypes for the new man and new woman. In my own small way, that’s what I’m working on. I’m trying as hard as I can to put Gandhi’s wisdom into practice by becoming the change that I seek.

 

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(Copyright © 2009)

 

In the late 1970s, having built my cabin on an island in Maine, I decided to limit my landscaping to planting a bush of rugosa roses on the south side. My sister-in-law offered to make it two bushes, so we went to the florist together and looked over the large selection of potted roses on a large table. Right away my eye landed on a bush rising from a thick, dark stem, which looked abnormal to me as if it suffered some kind of fungus infection or disease. Stay away from that one, I told myself, and went on to find the perfect specimen, which I took to the counter. Soon my sister-in-law joined me and put her bush beside mine. Looking down, I saw the thick-stemmed plant I had deliberately shunned at the outset. She said she had looked at them all and this was by far the healthiest plant of the lot, and so she took it off the table before anyone else could buy it. Rather than try to dissuade her, I thought to myself maybe she know something I don’t. Who was I to look a gift rose in the mouth? Planted side by side, both roses did well the first year, but thick-stem got a late and scanty start the next year, and by the third year produced neither leaves nor blooms. I dug it up to put it out of its misery or, more accurately, to keep it from infecting the other bush which was doing just fine.

 

Our brains feature a resident spin doctor that joins concrete sensory impressions with conceptual meanings drawn from memory. Or if it doesn’t actually join them, it gives voice to the now meaningful image, creating a story that, whether true or not, makes sense within the current situation. Not the situation as it is in the world—for that is a mystery—but the situation as rendered by consciousness itself, the phenomenal situation as consciousness by its own devices would have it be.

 

Michael Gazzaniga has come up with an interpreter module located in the left side of the brain to explain findings from his research with split-brain patients whose two cerebral hemispheres have been separated from each other by severing the corpus callosum, the bundle of nerve fibers by which the two sides of the brain communicate.

 

The very same split-brain research that exposed shocking differences between the two hemispheres also revealed that the left hemisphere contains the interpreter, whose job is to interpret our behavior and our responses, whether cognitive or emotional, to environmental challenges. The interpreter constantly establishes a running narrative of our actions, emotions, thoughts, and dreams, It is the glue that unifies our story and creates our sense of being a whole, rational agent. It brings to our bag of individual instincts the illusion that we are something other than what we are. It builds our theories about our own life, and these narratives of our past behavior pervade our awareness (Michael S. Gazzaniga, The Mind’s Past, Univ. of California Press, 1998, p. 174).

 

Given our native assumption that consciousness opens upon the real world, the same world on which we assume our understanding is based, this is pretty spooky stuff. According to Gazzaniga, truth has little to do with our interpretation of events. We are less interested in truth than in producing a plausible storyline for the sake of coherence in explaining why we act as we do. We don’t spin yarns to deceive others—or indeed ourselves—so much as to explain events of which, in our current situation as we construe it, we may have only slight understanding.

 

In my youth, ever on the lookout for treasure, I made it my business to explore back lots and other people’s barns lest anyone have a secret stash I didn’t know about. At the end of the street there was a house with a big barn which I could tell was filled with furniture, boxes, and good stuff like telephones and radios. I pried open a back window and, over a period of days, went through every drawer and pile. All the medals and jewelry I found I pinned to the shirt I had on under my sweater. I wore it at home, at school, and on the street—and nobody knew. I felt like a decorated hero. Then one day my mother saw me changing my clothes, and asked, “Where did you get all those pins?” “Up in front of Gleasons,” I said without a pause, “on the sidewalk. Somebody must have dropped them there. I don’t know who.”

 

Mother’s intrusion into my private realm of consciousness created a new situation, which required a new narrative. And there it was, right on the tip of my tongue. I couldn’t blame a split brain for my new predicament, but I sure had to tell a story she would find acceptable or, as she would say, unobjectionable. That way the decorated hero could carry on without annoying interruptions. That’s who I was, after all, and I had the evidence right on my chest.

 

When the Queen Mary II first came to Bar Harbor, I was at the shore before sunrise to photograph it coming in. There was no sign of it when I got there, so I perched on a rock and watched for it to round the cliffs to the south. Islands and submerged ledges in Frenchman Bay make navigation a bit tricky, so a pilot always goes out to board such ships and steer them into harbor. At last I saw the great liner’s bow emerge—and gradually the whole ship—beyond the cliffs and cautiously enter the bay. At which point an armed Coast Guard vessel got under way in its direction. This was after 9/11 and port security had been put on steroids to ward off lurking terrorists. A woman in the group behind me asked what that boat was, referring to the CG vessel. A man answered with great authority, “That would be the pilot boat taking the pilot out to QM II to bring her in.” “Oh,” said the woman. But I knew he was talking through his hat. The pilot had gone out long before the ship got anywhere near the bay proper.

 

Today I would say that his interpreter was speaking, spinning a yarn about matters he knew little about. That’s something men do all the time—speak from the hip. Which is a variation on driving in uncharted territory without asking for directions. There are a lot more lost men in the world than reported by any census. They seem to take pride in speaking from the depths of great ignorance as if their brains had been cut in two. It is as hard for men to admit not knowing something as it was for me to tell my mother how I came by the decorations on my shirt.

 

What was it Bill Clinton said? “It depends on what the meaning of is is.” And that meaning depends on what the interpreter modules in our left brains say it is. Most of us have left and right brains that speak to each other, so the narratives we spin in our left hemispheres are usually supported by ample sensory data from the right hemisphere, representing our conscious situation as we understand it at the time. But if one side suppresses or inhibits input from the other because it is, say, inconvenient or embarrassing, then our understanding of the current situation may very well depend on a variant definition of is. What is the situation? Well, that depends how you look at it. A Palestinian sees it one way, an Israeli another. Democrats vote yea, Republicans nay on the very same bill before Congress.

 

Split-brain syndrome appears to be endemic in some areas of the globe. Notably, among preachers of the one true faith everywhere, as well as politicians in state and national capitals. The clampdown on full disclosure during the Bush-Cheney regency led to a plague of denials and fabrications on behalf of protective self-interest. The case of the former Governor of Illinois, now impeached and expelled from office, is another textbook example.

 

Consciousness is full of such traps. With only our personal experience at the helm, we have no reliable defense against interpreting events in selfish ways, which may get us by for the short-term, but over the long-term invariably prove disastrous. We do better if we attend to what our right brains keep trying to tell us—that is, the bare facts—and insist that our aides and companions, or our mothers, tie us down when our left-brain interpretive fantasies threaten to take control.

 

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