The art to understanding a situation assembled by human intelligence is to gather the pieces together and try to fit them along their natural contours so that they complement one another, adding to a larger whole—forming what my high school physics teacher called “the big picture.”

In recent posts to my blog (since about post No. 347), I have been trying to develop the big picture of my personal consciousness, piece by piece, in a consecutive series intended to present my inner mind as a whole. After engaging with the stars in this series of posts, I will discuss the progress I have made, summarize my findings, and draw what conclusions I think are warranted by my work on this project.

The greatest difficulty I have had is a result of my going against the grain of consciousness studies in this technological age of neuroscience. Modern researchers are highly invested in their costly equipment, and overlook introspection as a suspiciously low-tech, low-budget enterprise beyond the reach of peer review. With only one experimental subject, what value can one such limited study contribute to our current understanding of consciousness?

That is, the baby gets unwittingly tossed with the bath water before anyone (but the introspector) suspects a case can be made for something splashing about in the tub. Once I claim in my big-picture findings that, indeed, such a case might be warranted, there is no one around willing to go back to Go and start developing the big picture all over again.

The irony is that the only direct access to consciousness is available on a first-person basis to the subject herself. Studying the brain will not reveal the structure of consciousness. Disciplined introspection is the only method that provides a clear picture of the constituents and structure of consciousness.

My focus has been on my perceptual errors, the very criterion professionals use to dismiss consciousness as a serious topic of study by way of introspection. But errors open the way to the big picture they reveal in their shadow. You just have to stick with it; in two years you’ll have enough data to fuel ten years of analysis and writing-up results.

Yet in other fields, I see feisty individuals gathering all the relevant pieces and assembling something entirely fresh with the discards from what has already been done, expanding the limits of what is thought possible. Croatian cellists Luka Šulić and Stjepan Hauser are turning musical conventions to entirely new uses by combining pop and classical styles once thought incompatible, with formidable (yes, that’s the word) results.

An Indonesian woman working as a domestic in Hong Kong has gathered the courage to defy the convention of cowering before her employer, and has splashed the big picture across front pages around the world, publically declaring the secret tyranny of the system.

Big pictures expose the hidden truth trapped in the shadows of conventional practice. We get so caught up in our conventional wisdom that we can’t see anything else but the lies and half-truths we keep telling ourselves in maintaining our respectable ways and beliefs.

Taking the fragments of historical human engagements with the stars, what sense can we make of them as a group? That is my next project in this blog. Cosmologist Brian Swimme did it before me in the late 1980s and 1990s in his twelve-part video, Canticle to the Cosmos. He and Thomas Berry developed the notion that we need a “new story” about humanity’s place in the universe. Theologians, who have been on the forefront of human understanding of such matters for some five thousand years, now must give way to a new breed of cosmologists who update the story from a wholly new perspective based on recent achievements in space science.

I was born to a small town with five steeple houses built well before my time. I passed them every day on my way to school, but no one told me what they were about. Later I got a dose of the old story in one of them, a tale of mumbo-jumbo about virgin births and resurrections and assumptions into heaven. Even as a kid I knew enough about the way the world works to recognize flapdoodle when I heard it directed at me as God’s truth.

My life has been a matter of gathering fragments to piece together as a big picture that puts the small, narrow picture hung in all those steeple houses to shame. The very word religion stems from Latin religare meaning to bind or tie back to old ways of belief based on God’s directives relayed to Earthly priests by patterns among the stars. The priests’ job was to make sure that people did what God told them to do from his high seat in heaven.

It would be nice if we could start with recent archaeological findings at sites such as Göbekli Tepe in southern Turkey because of its dating back to 9,000 BCE. But it’s a recent dig, and theories about its purpose haven’t had time to reach any sort of consensus. Some of its incised reliefs remind me of imaginative renderings of stellar constellations, but it isn’t known whether the many so-called temples were roofed over or open to the sky.

Stonehenge on England’s Salisbury Plain and Several Sumerian sites at the then head of the Persian Gulf were roughly contemporary in dating to 3,200 BCE. Stonehenge is definitely aligned along its major axis with the summer solstice, so could have been established as an observatory to keep track of the sun’s apparent motion along the ecliptic, so serving to peg seasonal labors and rituals to cyclical celestial events. Which was exactly what Sumerian priests did with their ziggurats, now just mounds in the desert, but once the center of human understanding of man’s place in the universe.

In my next post I will begin with the Sumerian system of belief, which still lives in our religious views of today.

Reflection 182: Intelligence

February 18, 2010

(Copyright © 2010)

I was born asking questions. That’s the kind of person I am. Still damp from the womb, I looked around and asked, “Where am I?” Then, looking at the doctor, “Who are you?” Then at my mother, “What’s for supper?” Much later, I remember riding in the back of a pickup truck from Seattle to Nespelum, Washington, asking the archaeology grad student next to me one question after another the whole way. I exhausted him well before I knew as much as I wanted to about the dig we were heading for. Inquisitive to the point of annoyment, that’s me. Is annoyment a word? Annoyance, that’s what I mean.

Asking questions is somehow related to intelligence. My American Heritage Dictionary says intelligence is “The capacity to acquire and apply knowledge,” but that’s not what I mean. I’m not talking about a mental capacity, or knowledge in general. More, as the CIA uses the word to refer to that which is known about one thing or another. But I don’t mean mere scraps of data—I mean getting the big picture: intelligence on a nontrivial scale referring to the interrelatedness of things in a particular system. In other words, building an aesthetic model in my mind of a system outside my body. Intelligence, for me, is a process of gathering experiences about relationships—how things fit and act with one another—into a coherent picture in the mind. Excuse me, in my mind. That’s the only mind I have access to or can talk knowingly about, or expand by asking further questions.

Intelligence tests claim to measure a human capacity—as if learning is independent of interest, curiosity, subject matter, or personal experience. That usage suggests a person is equally intelligent regarding anything that can be known, that intelligence is some kind of virtue or trait, which I don’t think is true. There’s no such thing as an intelligent person; there are only people who know a lot about a small number of things in relation to one another—and little about everything else. An evening spent playing Trivial Pursuit should tell us that much, at least. I’ll give you an example from my personal experience.

I’ve been studying Taunton Bay, an estuary in Maine, for a number of years. I would have said I was checking it from an inquiring point of view because it interested me, but in hindsight I see I was paying attention to it every chance I got, so I guess I really was studying it, expanding my experience of the bay holistically without reference to “information” or “data.” That way, I slowly built up an understanding of some of the workings of the bay in my head, which collectively added to “intelligence” about the bay as a  biological system. This is related to this is connected to this is tied-in with this is balanced with this. Building to a broad, qualitative under-standing of what is going on in one place in Maine. That’s what I mean by intelligence. I didn’t learn about other bays because each one is different and I wasn’t—my body wasn’t—there. And I didn’t learn about bays in general because my acquaintance was up-close and personal. Let me illustrate my wordy illustration of aesthetic intelligence by showing a picture suggesting the relationships between blue mussels and eight other aspects of Taunton Bay.

species-interactions_mussels

That’s a picture of a small portion of my aesthetic—of my coherent intelligence about the bay. Blue mussels are connected to sea stars (which eat them), to eelgrass (which shares their habitats), to Canada geese (which eat eelgrass), to diving ducks (such as common goldeneyes which eat mussels), to eagles (which eat goldeneyes), to marine worms (which eat food particles that mussels discard), to hunters (who shoot mussel-eating ducks), to horseshoe crabs (which mussels often attach themselves to), and to human (who harvest mussels by diving, dragging, or hand-raking). They are also connected to me because I take pictures of them in relation to other features of Taunton Bay.

That’s a snapshot of what I mean by big-picture intelligence. Getting things together in my mind to reveal their relationships and interactions. In a very real sense, that is a portrait of one corner of my conscious mind. Which is the real topic of this blog: getting my mind together about consciousness. Since reading books by Gerald M. Edelman about human con-sciousness, wrestling with his theoretical ideas, my under-standing of my own conscious processes has made a quantum leap to the next higher level. After slogging through one post after another, Edelman helped tie things together for me—at least as I interpret his writings. So today I want to write about my experience of consciousness as a whole, not just this aspect or that.

My big learning up to now is that understanding is a matter of developing an aesthetic sense of how things go together in relationship. That’s actually what the word consciousness means. Con- refers to a collective joining-together, sciousness (as in science) refers to splitting things apart into particles or elements—that is, discernment of relationships, which is commonly called knowledge. Taking splintered parts together in relationship produces consciousness—the “withness” of all aspects of mind. In this case, the withness of the different sensory arrays spread throughout the sensory brain, which Gerald M. Edelman and other neuroscientists refer to as “maps.” The parts of the brain devoted to vision contain some thirty or forty such maps, each tracking two-dimensional relationships in one aspect of visual perception—movement, color, location, direction, texture, and so on. Consciousness, then, consists of mapping events in the brain in ever-changing relationship to one another, creating an overall sense of the dynamics of the current situation.

Think of the George Gibson Quartet—guitar, organ, saxophone, percussion—in aesthetic relation to one another, or a cut by the Henry Threadgill Sextet in the 1970s. Or the Boston Symphony Orchestra playing Berlioz’ Symphony Fantastique. Or the Boston Red Sox when they get their act together and each player gives his all in exquisite relationship to the others. Or all the parts of Picasso’s Guernica telling the story of the Nazi bombing of a small town in the Pyrenees during the Spanish Civil War. Which is not unlike Albert Einstein spending his last days in search of a unified theory of everything that would tell the story of the universe. Many scientists, mathematicians, and theologians engage in similar quests having spiritual overtones in relating the individual mind to the larger whole as they picture it. On a more mundane level, aesthetic coherence is what a chef strives for in balancing the flavors, textures, color, and nutrients in his soup of the day. Or me in my peapod rowing across Taunton Bay at low tide, trying to fit everything I see into a coherent appreciation of what’s going on at that time in that place.

The point of the exercise being, then, to act appropriately in the situation we are engaged with as we discern its different parts and assemble them in consciousness as a coherent life event. If we can do that, then we derive a survival advantage from understanding what’s going on around us compared to others acting out of a less nuanced understanding. It’s always an aesthetic judgment call based on how we see aspects of the situation fitting together into a coherent unity—or not, as in the 2000 presidential election, the Haitian earthquake, or the global instability of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere.

Regarding consciousness, what are the parts I am talking about? Sensory perception as annotated by memory of concepts and prior experiences. Attention, salience, and expectancy reflecting personal or biological values, motives, and interests. A sense of oneself, with feelings, hopes, fears, anxieties, pains, pleasures, and ethical preferences. Judgment of how to weigh each part, what to emphasize, what to leave out. The valance or attractiveness of one option for action compared to others. What the larger culture would recommend through the medium of tradition, habit, training, or instruction. Ongoing categorizations and interpretations modeling a scenario of the current situation as it is likely to develop in the future. These and other aspects coming together in consciousness, evaluated in relation one to another, fed forward to decision-making, advance planning, and execution, culminating in more-or-less decisive action in the world. And motivated attention to what the world does in response as told by the myriad maps keeping track of what’s happening from one’s situated point of view at the moment. All parts playing into the great loop of engagement coursing through our minds, constituting consciousness itself—the withness of such separate parts in coherent relationship with these and other parts in addition to those I have mentioned.

Without the ongoing governance provided by the contemporary loop of engagement between self and non-self, we are left in a state of autonomous dreaming disconnected from any adjustment imposed by culture, others, or the great world beyond. When flying blind in the sensory vacuum of dream-land, consciousness is entirely on its own, doing the best it can to find coherence based wholly on internal evidence of ongoing concerns. In dreams, we can see the separate items being shuffled again and again in a vain attempt to find the most apt relationship between them. What comes through is not the order of the world but the persistent order of the self as imposed on that world. In some circles, this counts as a spiritual more than a rational or cognitive take on events. The subject of dreams is always the same—yours truly, the dreamer, chief of operations in all matters concerning consciousness when the mysterious world has no say in the matter. That is, when all intelligence is internal, without curiosity about or regard for what might be happening in the great world of Beyond.

This, then, is a miniature portrait of consciousness as I understand it right now and write these words to post to my blog. If you ask me tomorrow, I’ll tell you something different because my mind will have moved on from where it is now. But this gives you an overview of the kinds of thoughts I have in gathering intelligence about my personal stream of con-sciousness. Here is an assessment in keeping with the aesthetic highlights of today’s line of thinking. My subsequent experience will unfold differently than ever before, and my dreams tonight will be unlike any I have had previously. Who can tell what tsunami will surge, what volcano erupt, what star explode, what earthquake turn the terra firma of my little world to heaving jelly? Stay tuned to this station for further bulletins as my mind delivers them to me.

In the meantime, to end as I began—with a question—how is it with you on your trek through the universe? Do the seconds, months, and decades of your mental journey add to a larger whole? Whatever your experience, I’d be happy to receive a brief summary of what intelligence you’ve picked up along your route. I invite you to leave a comment in the space provided below.

Governor

 

(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!