(Copyright © 2009)

Simply put, we generally find what we look for in life. We expect more of what we are sensitive to. We are particularly sensitive to fear aroused by threatening situations. If we have no time to ponder the circumstances, our unconscious minds convert fear into anger, rousing us either to do battle or run for cover. Consciousness is too slow to be of much use in dangerous situations that arise quickly. It is more suited, once things calm down, to planning how not to let the same thing happen again. In the press of the moment, things we find scary or threatening get us moving without thinking, either toward or away from the fray. As seekers of happiness, like the proverbial donkey, we are driven from behind with greater urgency by the stick of fear and discomfort than we are drawn by the carrot enticing us forward.

As an example, I offer this exchange of letters to the editor of The Ellsworth American, a weekly Maine newspaper to which I subscribe. Concerned (fearful) that Major Nidal Malik Hasan was being tried in the media before all facts were known about the shootings at Fort Hood, I wrote the first letter:

To the Editor:

What if Ft. Hood’s notorious Major Hassan [sic.] were a perfectly sane and sensitive man acting as many Mainers might act under contagiously stressful conditions such as therapists undergo in treating returning service men and women suffering post-traumatic stress disorder? Even those who face an enemy once removed by piloting Predator drones from cubicles in Utah are vulnerable to PTSD. Like Major Hassan, many in the armed forces are stressed beyond endurance. They deserve public sympathy and support more than condemnation. In the Ft. Hood incident, war itself is the villain that reached ahead of itself to kill those soon to deploy.

Steve Perrin, Bar Harbor

I put my views as succinctly as possible so not to take up undue space on the most popular page in the paper. Two weeks later, this somewhat longer reply appeared under the heading, Save the Sympathy:

To the Editor:

In the Nov. 19 American, Mr. Steve Perrin of Bar Harbor wrote in asking if perhaps Maj. Nidal Hassan was suffering from vicariously induced PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder), which drove him to commit his heinous acts of cold-blooded murder at Fort Hood.

He further asked if many Mainers might act in a similar fashion under such circumstances. Mr. Perrin’s comments were unquestionably the most imbecilic drivel I have ever read in The American. His attempt to excuse Maj. Hassan’s acts is incredibly insulting to those of us who have served our country. My Army Reserve unit was activated in late 2003 and we deployed to Iraq for a yearlong tour of duty in early 2004. There were certainly some very stressful moments during our deployment (as a transportation unit we did have several convoys ambushed, but with only minor injuries inflicted). However, we dealt with our stress in a constructive manner. Some of us prayed, some of [us] worked out, but we all dealt with it without harming ourselves or our fellow soldiers.

Mr. Perrin’s attempt to offer his “sympathy” to those of us who have served is a further insult. We are not victims. I, like every American soldier to have served in Iraq or Afghanistan, made a conscious decision to enlist. Not a single one of us was drafted. Our country, which has been a beacon of hope and justice since its founding, called us to duty on foreign soil to free oppressed people and to safeguard our nation. We answered that call and we did our duty. I personally am immensely proud of my service to my country and I in no way need anyone’s misguided sympathy for it. I seek only to live my life as I see fit and raise my family in the greatest nation on Earth. It is through the service of my fellow veterans and myself that I am free to do just that.

The victims of the Fort Hood massacre and their families have earned Mr. Perrin’s sympathy. Maj. Hassan doesn’t deserve it and I don’t want it.

Terry L. Bishop, CPA, Ellsworth

I could feel the blood rushing to my ears as I read that letter in the paper. Had I truly insulted the writer or offered him sympathy? Clearly, he took it that I had. And took pains to rebuff an offer I had not made. Next day, I sat down and wrote a follow-up letter:

To the Editor:

I appreciate the effort Terry Bishop made in responding to my letter about the Major Hasan affair at Fort Hood. In that incident, the victims were soldiers, the killer was a soldier who provided treatment for soldiers, and the location was a military base. It struck me that this was another front in a war we think of as being fought in Iraq and Afghanistan, but is now being waged closer to home by our own troops.

We all hope this is an anomaly, a onetime event. Yet with soldier suicides on the rise, the need to provide effective care for physically and mentally wounded veterans, and uncertain prospects for how long these wars will go on, it is evident the cost to the American people is far greater than merely footing the bill. Lives of thousands of civilians and military personnel on both sides are being shattered—to what end?

Before we leap to judgment in the case of Major Hasan, I think we owe it to all of our troops in these wars to take a long, hard look at the conditions we ask them to perform under, and the consequences we expect them to risk and endure.

I say the true culprit is war itself, which every day is reaching deeper into our country, creating havoc and chaos when what we need is healing and compassion in these troubled times.

I regret that Terry Bishop regards these concerns as “imbecilic drivel.” He evidently has a deeper understanding of the military mind than I do, and is right to take pride in serving without harming himself or his fellow soldiers. Yet I include myself among “those of us who have served our country,” which I feel gives me a certain authority in stating my case. Mr. Bishop is one of the lucky ones. I think his views and mine are not incompatible. My sympathy was intended for the fallen and the broken—among whom I count Major Hasan, his victims, and their families.

Steve Perrin, Bar Harbor

For my part, I saw Terry Bishop as standard bearer for those my first letter was meant to reach. For his part, he committed to engage on the issue I raised. I couldn’t have asked for a more heartfelt response, backed by deep personal experience (beefed up with a good dose of military boilerplate). It struck me that he was engaged on a very meaningful level. His tactic was to blow me from the face of the Earth. Why such a strong reaction? His lashing out suggested the dynamic I outlined at the start of this post. My views seemed to warrant such an attack because they tripped a very sensitive nerve.

Evidently he took it I had fired the first shot in writing, “Like Major Hassan, many in the armed forces are stressed beyond endurance. They deserve public sympathy and support more than condemnation.” Why “many” rather than simply realize, because he had successfully dealt with his stress, that my offer did not extend to him? I think perhaps his military experience was more stressful than he chose to admit. Why else all the boilerplate meant to deny that possibility?

Fear motivated me to write the first letter: I was afraid Major Hasan was going to be made an example of to cover up what training and war can do to civilians in turning them into hardened killers. There is no off switch for such a mindset. Mr. Bishop apparently was afraid I was speaking directly to him. Which I was, but he didn’t want to hear it. Nor did the branch of the military that so carefully trained him. Leaving him to wrestle on his own with whatever fear and anger my letter stirred up.

I do not mean to single out Mr. Bishop for this kind of treatment. I recognize the same struggle in myself—and in humanity at large. Fear is a big part of life, which shows up in a broad spectrum of angry behaviors. Fear starts it off, then anger gets us moving. Together, they are a big part of our biological heritage for dealing with threatening events and situations. Or, more accurately, events and situations which we take to be threatening. Once, when I stepped on a twig while watching beavers in a pond, a Weimaraner plunged through the bushes and gave me what for, the owners calling out, “He won’t hurt you,” but I looked in his eyes and saw he was considering doing just that. My fear turned to anger at the owners for having their dog off-leash in a national park.

For more than eight years now, I have wondered what the nineteen terrorists who felled the Twin Towers were afraid of—what drove their anger. They didn’t know any of the occupants of the buildings—so it couldn’t have been them. The structures themselves were symbols of America’s widespread presence in the world, so it might have been that presence they feared, especially as evidenced in their homeland, Saudi Arabia. I think now the terrorists’ actions on September 11, 2001, were their desperate way of shouting, Yankee go home, we don’t want you here—you threaten our deepest beliefs and way of life! Osama bin Laden said as much at the time. But we were interested in the actions themselves as a show of deadly hostility, not the reasoning behind them. Our reaction was kindled by our fear, not theirs, which is how conflicts arise. Had we bothered to inquire at the time, and reflected on the reply we received, we might have spared the world a couple of wars and thousands upon thousands of deaths. But we committed ourselves to a bold and decisive course of action for the sake of its effect on the world, a course fueled by fear and anger, not any desire to hear and understand.

Through the agency of our upbringing, our culture often warns us it’s not nice to be fearful or angry. So we stuff such powerful feelings deep inside, denying they exist. I-am-not-angry! we shout; I-did-not-flinch! Yet this deadly duo surfaces every day of our lives, craving recognition as driving forces behind much of human behavior. Until we learn to deal effectively with road rage, cutting remarks, feeling left out or wrongly included, trashing the opposition, being cruel, and the countless every-day episodes rooted in anger and fear—until that day comes, we do not yet use the gift of consciousness to full advantage. We are still apprentices at being human, falling short of our full maturity—both individually as persons and collectively as a people.

Black-and-yellow field spider


(Copyright © 2009)

Overwhelmed by life? That’s a sure sign that your consciousness is on overload. Too many issues are calling for immediate attention. You can’t do everything at once, so you turn in on yourself and do nothing at all. We’ve all been in that place, hoping the storm will pass, but when we stick our heads up and look around, we find our situation more calamitous than it was before. We’re stuck. Can’t do anything, can’t get away. The tension is unbearable.

But not hopeless. There are things we can do. Like face into the storm. Jot down every complaint screaming for attention, every job requiring immediate response. Which ones are most urgent? Which can wait? Prioritize, making sure to put first things at the head of the list. Then gird for action, start at the top and work our way down. Prioritize other claims as they crop up. Being sure to take care of ourselves so we don’t lose it. Eat, sleep, take a lot of deep breaths. . . .

Sound like an advice column in a newspaper? They all say the same thing a thousand different ways. Collect yourself. Keep calm. Walk, don’t run to the nearest exit. Take one thing at a time. Concentrate. Do what you can, then move on. You can’t be all things to all people. Stay centered. Be yourself.

Moderate stress keeps you going, but high stress can unravel you. If you want to meet other peoples’ needs, you really have to put meeting your own need to reduce stress at the top of your list. Delaying or denying only create more stress. What can you do for yourself right now that really helps you get yourself together—your consciousness all in one piece so you don’t feel so frazzled?

Voice from above: “Simplify.” Who said that? You did. You felt it all along. To simplify your life, there are two obvious but opposite approaches you can take: 1) move to a higher plane of consciousness by concentrating on generalities, not nagging details, or 2) narrow your focus to fit the amount of energy and attention you can spare for emergencies. That is, act locally not globally, personally not universally.

On the higher plane, you can afford to enjoy a sense of ironic humor by dealing with such empty generalities as peace, hope, love, kindness, generosity, and happiness. What me worry? If people would only be nice to one another. Love is the answer to all questions. Flower power! Everything is simple when you view it from a distance. Throw your cares to the four winds. See how tiny they look scattered around the horizon like that. Stress begone! It’s all in your mind. Let the universe take control while you read your book. Think cosmic thoughts. Grand thoughts. Huge, momentous, significant, meaningful, eternal thoughts. There, you see, nothing to it. You can make it happen by rising above the plane of woe to attain the plane of conceptual indifference.

On the other hand, you can zoom in close to the details of what really counts in your life. A hobby, say, your pet, or maybe your collection of baseball cards. That way, you screen everything else out—all those troubles that stir up so much stress. Zoom in really, really close. Go to the hairdresser. Watch the game on TV. Do today’s sudoku puzzle. Trim your fingernails. Eat a bowl of Rice Krispies. Walk the dog. Find a fault. Sharpen a pencil. Empty the trash. Wash dishes. Sort your penny collection. The main thing is to clear you head of all but the simplest, most basic thoughts—the ones you neglect in the busyness of everyday life. Go for it. Tend to trivial affairs. Be petty through-and-through. Think inconsequential thoughts. Pay close attention to minute, detailed, insignificant affairs. Simplify, simplify, simplify down to almost nothing, and then some. Let go of everything but the whim of the moment. Forget duty and responsibility and caring and work. Play. Have fun. Life is not a sack of coal; see, you had it wrong. It’s a bowl of cherries. Here, have another. Make the big, bad world go away. We’re all just motes of dust anyway. Be your mote to the hilt!

When stress hits, you have the option of filling your consciousness with thoughts big or small. That’s as simple as I can make the problem of coping with life’s stressful complexities. Live on the highest level of generality you can attain, and watch all problems morph into the few universal concepts you most prefer. Or reach for the deepest level of sensory detail you can achieve, and watch your problems disappear, never to distract you again. Choosing to live at one extreme of consciousness or the other is guaranteed to lower your stress level and make your problems shrink if not vanish.

Which sounds absurd, but that’s how a great many people choose to live—on the top or bottom edge of the awareness consciousness makes possible. Philosophers and holy men tend to inhabit the rarefied atmosphere at the upper limit of conceptual consciousness, while trash sorters seek the steaming piles of detritus at the lower limit, eyes peeled for unsuspected treasures. Either way, life seems simpler and more meaningful than riding out the tumult in the middle.

Having set up the foregoing framework, let me now come to the point of this exercise.  Whether we live with our heads in clouds of deep abstraction, or feet on the trash heap of what’s concretely possible in real life, how we choose to manage our personal consciousness is not a given but is up to us to decide. The more we explore the possibilities our minds offer,  the easier we can shape consciousness to our liking. If we wait too long, it becomes almost impossible.

High-enders tend to be those striving to see the big picture—people drawn to conceptual schools of thought, to religion, politics, and the like where abstractions are king and values are whispering advisors. Low-enders are those caught up in the details they encounter in leading a life—trades and crafts persons, accountants, bureaucrats, medical professionals, farmers, and other of a practical bent preferring to deal with nitty-gritty particulars. Here the senses rule the mind and the big issue is doing the job right.

Then there’s the vast middle ground I haven’t mentioned of simplifying consciousness by drawing support judiciously from both extremes. In my own case, I strive to connect my feet on the trash heap of particular details to my head in the mists of abstract ideas by bridging back and forth through the body of my personal consciousness in its fullness of both concrete experience and encompassing thought. My method in this blog has been to have each end respectively inform the other, linking rarefied concepts to particular details in each post—or at least as often as I can. That way, my feet are placed in line with my head, providing as much support as they can. Such is my goal. Which reduces stress internally through opposites seeking engagement with each other, not externally by one pole deliberately avoiding its opposite, as I have caricatured such a situation in setting up the framework I established at the start of this post.

What I’m saying is that consciousness offers more ways of being in the world than many of us witness during our formative years, and if we rely unduly on one mode or another because that’s what we see our teachers and role models doing, we sell ourselves—and what our minds are capable of—short of full realization. The danger lies in getting accustomed to using our minds in limited ways, which effectively solders the wiring of our brains to favor those ways, making exploration of alternative mental strategies unlikely if not almost impossible. Set in our ways, we come to believe consciousness offers no alternatives, so it ossifies in our case, restricting the breadth and variety of our mental powers. Thinking there’s no other way, we turn into simpleminded ideologues defending our views to the end. The longer we carry on, the worse our condition becomes. To get out of our ruts, we must radically retool our minds, a job that gets more difficult with age. In the end, we have little choice but to settle for the limits we impose on ourselves.

Those who follow these posts know that I have often drawn a distinction between two activities within consciousness, concrete sensory perception and abstract concept formation. I visualize concepts as being built up over time through exposure to a series of similar but not identical percepts, so retaining the similarities but excluding the differences. The result is a categorical envelope (mammal, airplane, person, tool) that serves as an idea lacking sensible content. When a percept is matched to an appropriate concept, form and content combine in a meaningful perception (a particular mammal such as that porcupine in that tree, a photo of a Ford Trimotor airplane, the actor John Wayne, the needle-nosed pliers I thought I’d lost but found in my pocket).

Between the limits of concrete and sensory consciousness lies the vast playing field of perception where the two terminal extremes combine in episodes of meaningful experience. That is where our personal reality is played out, sometimes closer to the conceptual end of the field, other times the sensory end, weighting consciousness toward one extreme or the other. Consciousness, then, is seldom a matter of strictly conceptual or sensory experience as I have parodied it here, but a combination of both kinds of experience as suited to the phenomenal situations in which they occur. There are occasions when concepts are called for, others when percepts are required to illustrate concepts. Some of us tend to lurk near one end of the field or the other, seldom venturing out to the midline where a balance between the two is called for. That is, we develop a mental style favoring either sensory images or abstract ideas, and don’t realize the full potential of the consciousness we are endowed with.

My goal in writing this post is to encourage others to explore and utilize the full run of the middle ground of their consciousness where percepts and concepts meet on equal terms to form a reality favoring neither one extreme nor the other. When the going gets tough, we don’t have to hide in our minds, we can deal effectively by employing the full range of our mental capabilities. In times of crisis such as the one we live in today, it is essential to review both the ideas and facts—policies and deeds—that got us into this situation. In the great game of consciousness, the aim is not to score more goals than the other guy, but to achieve the most balanced play of reality possible under current conditions. That is the true art of consciousness, combining two simple views to form a convincing and serviceable reality as a basis for appropriate action. When that happens, the crowd springs to its feet with a jubilant roar of approval.

Right on!



(Copyright © 2009)

I’ve posted about consciousness being situational in nature (Reflection 80), about the left-brain interpreter module deciding the meaning of events (Reflection 86), about idioms of consciousness providing ways of being in the world (Reflection 124), and about elixirs of consciousness adjusting “reality” to our way of thinking (Reflection 127). What I’ve not mentioned is where such activities might be seated in the brain, for if they are aspects of consciousness as I claim, that’s where their stories would necessarily begin. It strikes me that these four modes of consciousness have something in common, but I’m not sure what that something might be. This post is about my search to find out. As usual, it points to discovery through coincidence or by accident—and beyond that, to the mind revealing itself in strange ways.

My first step was to consolidate my thoughts on situations, interpreters, idioms, and elixirs in one place to make comparison easier. How to do that? I thought of a matrix laid out with the four aspects of consciousness lined up in columns and possible functional substrates listed in rows down the side. The word matrix stems from the Latin meaning a female animal used for breeding—basically, the female principle in reproductive mode. That’s just what I needed, something to stir my creativity. I listed the functions of each aspect as briefly as I could:

  • Situations—provide the context or framework of consciousness
  • Interpreters—develop meaningful stories or narratives accounting, rightly or wrongly, for awareness
  • Idioms—are ways of being in the world according to one acquired discipline or another
  • Elixirs (fudge factors)—adjust understanding to accord with fundamental beliefs in order to produce a desired effect.

Reading what I had written, I felt a jab of anxiety. What could they possibly have in common? Nothing sprang to mind. So I went on, off the top of my head listing broad functional regions of the brain where facets of consciousness might arise or at least be involved: perception, conception, memory, expectancy, feeling, planning, judging, speaking, acting, and so on. Then I took an hour to break down each of the four aspects in terms of what I knew about different functional areas of the brain. And went to bed. This on the day before my son’s birthday.

For two hours, I lie awake in the dark, wondering what to do. Basically, worrying. It all started so innocently. Days ago, I’d left a message on my son’s answering machine, asking how he’d like to celebrate his birthday. I said Carole and I would be happy to provide a floating meal to be eaten whenever and wherever he chose. If Friday didn’t work, maybe Sunday. Just give me a call. Days rolled by with no response. His birthday is tomorrow. What to do? After installing a bilge pump in my boat, I stop by my son’s workplace. It turns out both his mom and I (long divorced) are pestering him about his birthday. He’s working toward a show on Saturday and feels cornered with no place to hide. So he disappears by not taking calls. Anyway, after encouragement from his wife, my son agrees that Monday is doable. We agree to meet at the boathouse at noon. He’ll see if his brother can come. I call Carole to ask if Monday is OK with her. It is. I will bring turkey loaf, mashed potatoes, and ice cream; she’ll bring asparagus and bake a cake. So it seems settled.

Yet here I am at 2:00 in the morning, worrying how to pull it all together. Catsup. I don’t use it, so don’t have any. Buy catsup. Bring salt and pepper. How keep the turkey loaf and mashers warm while rowing across to the island, the ice cream cold? How many potatoes do I need? What if rains? With the battery for the bilge pump in place, how can I fit two other people in my boat? Where will I brace my feet without jarring the pump? And that’s only for starters. I progress to more serious anxieties, dwelling on times things hadn’t worked out in the past. I spend two hours reviewing my life—marriages, divorces, relationships. And in the back of my mind—the consciousness matrix and what it has to tell me. I run through the four aspects of consciousness, their possible placement in the brain. Everything is problematic—life is problematic. Eventually I get back to sleep.

When I woke up, I saw immediately that the four aspects of consciousness all deal with attention, arousal, and anxiety. They are all ways of putting energy into coping with stress. Situations are situations precisely because their parts are at odds, and so kindle anxiety. Our interpreter modules provide answers to questions that stir anxiety (I recall a write-up of Michael Gazzaniga’s work in which a split-brain patient begins his answer to a question about his interpretation of an experimental situation by saying, “Oh, that’s easy” or something to that effect, which I now see as compensating for anxiety). Idioms of consciousness focus attention on discrete topics, reducing anxiety by narrowing the field of concern. And elixirs of consciousness serve to deal with anxiety more than truth, as students are anxious to fulfill assignments by coming-up with right answers by hook or by crook. Shelley Smithson’s piece in the June 29, 2009 issue of The Nation, “Radioactive Revival in New Mexico,” provides this example of using God as a magic elixir to help things turn out as desired:

[Marita] Noon, . . . a Christian motivational speaker before becoming a self-proclaimed “advocate for energy,” says God put uranium in New Mexico so that Americans can wean themselves from Middle Eastern oil and Russian uranium.

Consciousness appears to be largely a means of dealing with situations in which doubt, uncertainty, and consequent anxiety predominate. The amygdala is involved in each of the aspects of consciousness I am focusing on, shaping relevant strategies for converting motivating stress into productive behavior. In The Emotional Brain (Simon & Schuster, 1996), Joseph LeDoux writes:

The amygdala is like the hub of a wheel. It receives low-level inputs from sensory-specific regions of the thalamus, higher level information from sensory-specific cortex, and still higher level (sensory independent) information about the general situation from the hippocampal formation. Through such connections, the amygdala is able to process the emotional significance of individual stimuli as well as complex situations. The amygdala is, in essence, involved in the appraisal of emotional meaning (page 168).

And it is certainly the emotionally meaningful aspects of consciousness we pay special attention to and, thanks to the hippocampus, remember. As I have said, consciousness is given us to solve novel problems, including those in a cultural, not natural, context. I have reached that conclusion the long way round, by using my late-night anxiety as a means of studying anxiety itself. Anxiety about loose ends hanging from my wish to celebrate my son’s birthday kept me awake. So anxiety was an integral part of my mind at the time.

Schools are hotbeds of anxiety. Every test, lesson, and assignment is a source of stress. Even sports fire people up, both players and spectators, all traceable to anxiety. What we learn is not content so much as how to deal with tensions that force us to learn how to proceed through difficult tasks that upset us at the time. Through exposure to various subject disciplines, we learn to cope with related life situations. We acquire the idioms educated people use to surmount their problems. We learn how to do research, how to listen, how to express ourselves, how to solve problems—how to accomplish tasks others assign to us. All based on suffering anxiety and applying techniques that diminish it.

Sitting down to write a post, I am nothing if not anxious. Usually I am anxious in a way shaped as curiosity about an issue I am involved with. But every creative endeavor starts with stage fright of one sort or another. Am I up to the task? Do I have the skill, energy, and desire to work this through? I remember Hector Berlioz writing in his autobiography about dreaming a piece of music in specific detail, but knowing how difficult it would be to ever get it performed, not writing it down. The music came to him in his sleep two nights in a row—then never again, scuttled by anxiety over the trouble it would cause later on.

When dirty dishes pile up in the sink, we become active in a constructive way—or else make ourselves scarce. These are two different ways of dealing with stress, by coping or refusing to cope at all, by fighting or fleeing—as I fled from the lady with the torn jaw and cheek on a street in London 50 years ago (see Reflection 119: Man and Dog). Our amygdalas help us decide which strategy to select. Schooling trains us to face into challenges directly. When we tire of that, we go to the movies—the funnier, the sexier and more violent, the better to distract us from our worries. We can learn from the emotional fixes we get into, or maybe get high or drunk. We can deal, or try to escape.

I heard Terry Gross interview Woody Allen on Fresh Air this week. His view is that life consists of one anxiety-producing situation after another. Each of his films deals with a different episode of the human condition as he sees it:

TERRY GROSS: So, may I ask, what are some of the real problems that making movies distracts you from?

WOODY ALLEN: Well, they distract me from the same problems that you face or that anyone faces, you know, the uncertainty of life and inevitability of aging and death, and death of loved ones, and mass killings and starvations and holocausts, and not just the manmade carnage but the existential position that you’re in, you know, being in a world where you have no idea what’s going on, why you’re here or what possible meaning your life can have and the conclusion that you come to after a while, that there is really no meaning to it, and it’s just a random, meaningless event, and these are pretty depressing thoughts. And if you spend much time thinking about them, not only can’t you resolve them, but you sit frozen in your seat. You can’t even get up to have your lunch.

So it’s better to, you know, distract yourself, and people distract themselves creatively, you know, in the arts. They distract themselves in business or by following baseball teams and worrying over batting averages and who wins the pennant, and these are all things that you do and focus on rather than sit home and worry.

Woody Allen is a good example of someone who reduces anxiety by immersing himself in his work—adopting a way of being in the world, an idiom, that he has the drive and skill to maintain while working on exactly the same types of problems that he finds so overwhelming:

WOODY ALLEN: [M]aking a movie is a great distraction from the real agonies of the world. It’s an overwhelmingly, you know, difficult thing to do.

You’ve got to deal with actors and temperaments and scripts and second acts and third acts and camera work and costumes and sets and editing and music, and you know, there’s enough in that to keep you distracted almost all the time. And if I’m locked into what would appear to be a painful situation because half my movie works, let’s say, and the whole second half of it doesn’t work, or a character in my movie is terrible, you don’t believe the love story or something, these are all problems that are, or generally are, solvable with reshooting, with editing, with thinking, diagnosing what’s wrong. And they distract you from the real problems of life, which are unsolvable and very painful problems.

Also in the problems of moviemaking, if you don’t solve your problem, all that happens to you is that your movie bombs. So the movie is terrible. So people don’t come to see it. Critics don’t like it. The public doesn’t like it. This is hardly a terrible punishment in life compared to what you’re given out in the real world of human existence.

Working our way through anxiety-producing situations may be the essence of life if it teaches us how to accurately diagnose situations, train our interpretive facilities to identify what’s really going on, adopt idioms giving us mastery over a small slice of life, or develop cons and scams for beating the system one way or another. Consciousness offers us a range of such powerful survival techniques to apply in particular cases. Members of congress try most of them—inevitably disillusioning their constituents by the deviousness of their means for maintaining their public image while abusing the power of their office. But there are no good guys—or gals—it turns out, only those with a will to live and thrive. In the big leagues, innocents, idealists, and dreamers get eaten alive. No one is larger than life, for life is run by consciousness, and that as everyone knows can get pretty seamy.

Am I more jaded than the next person? Naive, perhaps, but not jaded. I haven’t given up on humanity just yet, thought I have my doubts. I still believe consciousness is worth studying, but it sometimes takes a strong stomach. I figure that if our record is ever to improve, we are going to have to come to terms with ourselves. Evidence points to the fact that we are selfish bastards always seeking to advance our personal cause at others’ expense. More likely, we are doing the best we can under extremely difficult circumstances to figure out what is going on in and around ourselves. In truth, I think we are half  babes in the woods, half hungry wolves—innocence and cunning wrapped in the same fleece.

Besides anxiety signaled by the amygdala, other neural-based features shared by situations, interpreter modules, and both idioms and elixirs of consciousness include: a strong sense of cohesion through time, expectancy, reliance on sensory feedback, executive judgment and decision-making, motor planning, and execution of specific behaviors. Thus the amygdala relays messages to several higher areas of cerebral cortex, which ultimately shape and execute behavior, and look to subsequent feedback from appropriate sensory areas. This is an extremely rough sketch, but to me the keystone of this activity is the potential danger or opportunity available to the conscious organism as signaled by the amygdala. The follow-up details appear to be a function of individual judgment and decision-making based on learning, prior experience, and current expectations.

Consciousness, it seems to me then, is not based on prowess and ego so much as on stress and anxiety. If that is true, it would appear to be one of our best defenders within cultural situations which natural evolution could never anticipate. In rising to consciousness, each of us is on her own, doing the best she can to cope with situations that might well undo her. Going solo, we have a great many options for dealing with such situations. Diagnosing more-or-less accurately what’s going on in a given situation is one of them. Interpreting ever-changing relationships in meaningful terms is another. Adopting the idiom and special expertise of one favored discipline is a third. And applying magic elixirs or fudge factors in order to view situations in terms of a predetermined ideology no matter what is a fourth option among others I have not considered in this post.

In dealing with personal fear and anxiety, evolution hands the choice to consciousness—namely us. Whether we deal on the basis of greed, faith, evidence, prejudice, or aesthetics is up to each of us personally. In selecting the choice we prefer, we reveal who we are. The scary part is realizing that how we choose determines the wiring of our brains by strengthening the synapses involved. We become the creatures of our prior choices. Which is why growing up is so hard—think of the child soldiers of Africa. “Survival of the fittest” is shorthand for those who make the best choices under the circumstances being more apt to make it than those who select poor choices for whatever reason. Life requires endlessly dealing with anxiety as evolution intended. If we flub-dub around, we are apt to be dead.