(Copyright © 2009)

By “bird consciousness” I mean my inner experience of birds rather than whatever it is birds might be conscious of in their own minds. My consciousness of birds is challenging enough without venturing onto the slippery slope of what kind of world birds make for themselves.

To set the stage: yesterday I rowed to the island where workers were replacing the roof of the stone cabin my father built in 1941. The old roof had leaked on and off for almost 70 years, so my brother in Hamilton decided to fix the problem with a new one made of modern materials laid down by professionals. He was paying the bill; I wanted to get a few pictures of work in progress to show him what the job looked like.

On the island, I revert to my island self, camera ready, ever on the watch for the state of the tide, wind direction, shore erosion, wildlife, fallen trees, approaching storms, and other concerns. I talk with the roofers, take a few pictures, walk the trails. Everywhere I see and hear birds. Song and white-throated sparrows, loons, winter wrens, hermit thrushes, cormorants, ring-billed gulls, crows, red-breasted nuthatch, even an adult eagle in the nest. I am at home among old friends and close neighbors.

But blogging about consciousness as I do, I find the island less simple than it used to be. What is it about that flitting shape that says red-breasted nuthatch? What about those calls announces hermit thrush or loon? These are labels for interpretations of shapes, motion, coloring, size, sounds, settings, and expectations all pointing to one bird and not another. Conceptual birds at that. Birds in my head. Is that where they are? Are they stimuli which I recognize?  Representations of stimuli? Percepts by themselves? Percepts joined to concepts so I am able to identify the class they belong to? I came over to talk to the workers and here I am roaming the trails, talking to myself.

Such is my life these days. As both investigator and subject of my own introspection, I find little firm ground to anchor my boat to. I am ruled by mixed metaphors. Like the Indian clubs I wrote about the other day (see Reflection 131: Feedback), everything is up in the air. I am back with Aristotle trying to figure the relation between thinker, thought, and the thing thought about. How do words jibe with nonverbal experience? When I see a bird, what am I really seeing? Bird on branch? Representation in my head of bird on branch? Sensory or phenomenal bird on branch? Sensory and conceptual bird on branch at the same time? Fulfilled expectation of bird on branch? If not a mess, my bird consciousness seems at least more complicated than in the old days when a bird was a bird was a bird, always and forever.

It’s like trying to make sense of lichens that have the nature of both algae and fungi. I saw a lot of them yesterday on the island. Or slime molds—I saw bright yellow swarms of  them, too. Slime molds boast two different natures—fungal and animal. They crawl about the forest floor like so many amoebas—or massed mushrooms! It depends on how you look at them. Slime on the move, it can flow through tightly woven silk, then set spores and make more of the same stuff. Animal, vegetable, mineral? Hard to say. With free-floating nuclei not separated by cell membranes, they have herd and individual mentalities at the same time. After blogging about conscious-ness for nine months now, that’s how I feel about my own mind: hard to say what it is, where it is.

We talk about birds all the time as if they were up in the air, out on the water, or right here on the land. Yet every bird we see is clearly in our minds at the same time. Not all in one place but spread throughout in a great many separate representations—over 40 for visual aspects alone. To us, those collective representations are what the bird is. We don’t have immediate access to the bird itself that somehow bypasses our sensory apparatus, and there’s no little homunculus in a screening room watching the show. No, the bird can’t be in our eye as an upside-down optical image—that’s only the beginning. It’s there all right, but pixelated by individual photoreceptors which convert it to brain language in terms of ionic flows and neurotransmitters. From there on, for us, it’s existence is strictly electro-chemical.

Yet somehow birds are emergent properties that flit about consciousness as if in the aviary at the Washington Zoo. How do they get there by such a long route as if beamed down in an ion transporter at this very instant? Will I ever understand? Is it possible to understand? Does it make any sense to try to understand? What would happen if I just accepted the fact that consciousness happens, and let it go at that.

Then what would I blog about? My children, my day, what I had for lunch, or ideas other people wrote about without consulting me? No, at this stage of my life, I am called to blog about consciousness. That is, to enable consciousness to blog about itself. And consciousness, being an aspect of the universe, to give the universe a chance to blog about itself. That seems to be what I am doing. I didn’t ask for this, it’s just the position the universe has put me in, so I’m bent on meeting the assignment the best I can.

Start again. My topic today, class, is bird consciousness. Consciousness of birds, not by birds. One thing I know, it’s all in my head. Another thing is, my brain makes it happen, helped along by the rest of my body, and the situation I’m in as I construe it, along with my experience of that particular bird. So the bird image, meaningful as it is, is not alone. It exists in a situation that favors observation of birds—like me walking along a wooded trail where birds are apt to appear. I’m familiar with birds. I’ve been watching them for years, training myself to identify them from minimal clues. Lilt of a wing, coloration where I expect it to be, familiar call—these are in my head because I’ve taken pains to put them there. The bird is the end result of my learning to see birds as I have trained myself for many years.

So consciousness isn’t given out fully formed and operational but is learned bit-by-bit over a lifetime. Largely by trial and error. I’ve made a lot of blunders and misidentifications. But with the restricted set of birds I am apt to see on the island, I’m not all that bad. Even with sandpipers, which are notoriously hard to tell one from another. Some sandpipers. Some of the time when conditions are favorable.

So there’s more to consciousness than simply opening your eyes or your ears. Consciousness is learned by doing. It hoists itself by its own bootstraps, getting better at it every day. In my case, it doesn’t just happen to me; I make it happen. Not just because it’s there, but because it’s important. To me. At the time. I set the standard of achievement. That’s what it means to be me. Consciousness is self-determining because any particular person is self-motivated and invested in the results. Like riding a bicycle or rowing a boat, consciousness is a skill. We have to learn to avoid the pitfalls if we want to get it right.

Let me talk about rowing. It’s ready to mind because I rowed to the island and back yesterday. It’s always an exercise in navigation, getting from A to B across a mile of waves and currents, my back to my path through the water, which is every bit as hard as it might seem. Like consciousness, rowing is a learned skill. Yesterday, for instance, I could see where I wanted to land a mile away from where I launched, but there were three tidal crosscurrents I couldn’t see but knew from experience were there to be dealt with. The challenge was figuring which direction to head out, taking those currents into account, in order to end up where I wanted to be on the far side of my crossing. The currents I would be rowing across moved at three different speeds, so I had to average their speed and width in choosing my initial heading, otherwise they would sweep me well past my landing of choice. Normally, I would factor-in wind strength and direction as well, but the wind was light so I could focus on the currents, which at the time of my crossing were at greatest strength. To make a long story short, I adjusted my heading every few minutes in light of what portion of my trip lay ahead—ending up right where I wanted to be with minimal expenditure of effort.

A lesson that applies to consciousness as well. You have to prefigure it if you want to get it right, taking feedback into account the whole way. We get good at those skills we practice the most. Taking consciousness as a given, we find it full of surprises we aren’t good at anticipating. We often get it wrong without realizing it. As in baseball, if we don’t see the drop or curve coming, we swing and we miss. Seeing consciousness as an acquired skill, we do our best to navigate the crosscurrents sure to throw us off course.

In a very real sense, consciousness is what we make of it. Like the jinni in the bottle, it will grant the wishes we lay on it. In speaking of pitfalls and crosscurrents of consciousness, I am speaking metaphorically, which is the only way I have of giving my inner workings some kind of shape I can deal with. Even neuroanatomists have the same problem in naming parts of the brain: the amygdala looks like an almond (which is what the word means in Latin), and the hippocampus like a seahorse (ditto). We paint the brain as a “computer” with the job of “processing information” for similar reasons. Are there really “representations” of stimuli in the mind as Aristotle claimed (so-called “likenesses of things”), or did he put them there for us? Would we ID “reality” if we saw it, or is that just a name we use to mask our ignorance? I suspect consciousness works the other way round, reality fulfilling the vision we entertain beforehand in experience and then cast on the world. That is, reality is what we make of it through consciousness.

If that is true, then much of the sense brain science makes of the brain is literally that—a manmade balm to suit the preconceptions brought to the study of the brain and its mind. Inadvertently but dependably, is it possible the conceptual tools we use are salting the mine even as we dig? Is there any way to dig without hitting upon the preconceptions with which we advance? That seems to be how consciousness works, tailoring our findings to our circumstances, the situations we find ourselves in as we construe or imagine them—and then make them come true. That is certainly how fiction works. Are works of nonfiction any different as far as consciousness is concerned?

To bring these heartfelt conjectures to a conclusion of sorts, let me tell you what just happened. For months now I’ve been piling papers and magazines I want to save on the little table at the end of my bookcase, balancing each addition very carefully so not to disturb things. Next to the pile is a packed bin of stuffed file folders on one side, a stack of mounted photos and posters too big to fail because too big to file. As I was writing the last sentence of the paragraph before this one, the whole construction let go and is now heaped on the floor. Like what I’ve been saying about consciousness, it was all my own doing.

Ring-Billed Gull-72



(Copyright © 2009)


What have I learned from posting 86 reflections to this blog on topics related to consciousness viewed inside-out? A lot, I would say. I devote Reflection 87 to a few such items.


For one thing, science is unlikely to provide a grand overview of consciousness by working on it from the outside as an object of study. Consciousness is not an object but an experience. No matter how much we learn about “the” brain—as if there were only one—by studying individual brains (in animal or clinical studies, say, or studies of bloodflow to particular areas of the brain while human subjects engage in assigned tasks), it is not possible to generalize findings to the population at large with much confidence. Consciousness and brains are two different things, as are soups and the kettles they are made in.


For another, consciousness is situated in brains situated in bodies situated in species situated in immediate environments situated in ecoregions situated in a biosphere situated in a solar system situated in a universe. Up and down the hierarchy, a study at one level is influenced by—and affects—each of the others. Our initial assumptions may comfort us by constraining our field of study to a reasonable size, but the question remains, do we know what we’re doing? Which applies to me as well as to everyone else.


In any given instance, consciousness involves a nested series of feedback loops that bias findings in ways that cannot be told. Anticipation and expectancy play key roles in both actions and perceptions contributing to consciousness. Human experience as a whole entails acting in a world that cannot immediately be known without participation by the knower, and feedback from that world must be interpreted in light of what that knower knows and intends, including her unconscious assumptions, mindset at the time, and situated expectations.


Consciousness is an integrated synthesis of many parts, including attention, motivation, concrete sensory images; cognitive structures such as concepts and ideas; feelings; autobiographical, situational, and semantic memories; understanding, anticipation and expectancy; judgment; and behavior; among others. 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.


The lives we live influence the structure of our minds, allowing billions of neurons and synapses to waste away while other billions are made stronger and more interconnected. From conception, we are each unique in many ways. For starters, our genome is unique, as is our rearing, education, job training, medical history, mental chemistry, life experience, luck, and so on. We may all be members of one species, but as individuals no two of us are the same nor can we be expected to perform like anyone else. Our personal consciousness is as unique as each one of us. Which means we each inhabit a separate world of experience.


Since our personal consciousness is unique, engaging other equally unique minds is harder than we might suppose. It is not to be taken for granted that speakers of a common language have access to common minds. Each mind is most uncommon, no matter how many languages it commands. Rather than rushing to walk in another’s moccasins, which sounds good but is impossible to do, a better approach is to walk together side-by-side toward a mutually agreed upon goal. Reaching out to one another must be done carefully and deliberately, paying careful attention to feedback received during the engagement. Free speech does not imply free understanding. This must be earned the old fashioned way, through mutual respect, careful attention to detail, taking small steps, and persistence.


Yes, we can change—or at least shape—our outlook, our world, our experience, our consciousness. To do that requires we change the makeup of our brains by loosening old connections and strengthening new ones. Which will require a minimum of, say, ten thousand hours of concentrated effort. We can all outdo ourselves, but we have to propel ourselves from the inside, not be forced from without. Others will try to prevent us from deviating from the plans they have made for us, but finding ways to do our own work is part of the effort required to transform ourselves into the persons we passionately desire to become.


And lastly, I have learned that the greatest rewards in life flow from getting our acts together in our own consciousness, earning us the sense that all parts of our minds are working together toward the same end, which is the end we set for ourselves and work wholeheartedly to achieve. Nothing is more exciting than to experience ourselves as a symphony of separate parts working in concert. The good news is we can make that happen. The tougher news is we are the only ones who can. It may not happen tomorrow or even next year, but—with a little help from our friends—we can do it.







(Copyright © 2009)


The human mind comes to us in a plain wrapper without a users’ manual or even a Help button. Well-meaning others try to show us how it works, yet it takes a lifetime of experiential trial and error to figure out how to use even its most basic routines effectively. And on our deathbeds, many of us will regret we didn’t do more with it when we had the chance.


Which need not be the case any longer. Brain science is a booming industry, with research reports issued daily. Even 25 years ago, I had access to a journal on brain research that was issued every week in a volume half-an-inch thick. Which meant that knowledge about consciousness and the mind was beginning to spread among scientists trained to speak the specialized language of neuroscience. Popular books followed in the late 1980s, 1990s, and early 2000s. Now the presses hardly stop rolling between books about the mind written in (more or less) everyday English.


Terminology about the brain can be daunting at first encounter, but after the reader becomes familiar with the brainstem, cerebellum, prefrontal cortex, motor areas, primary sensory processing areas, thalamus, hypothalamus, amygdala, hippocampus, neurons, and neurotransmitters, along with other parts of the brain—that is after you get acquainted with the workings of your own mind—you find it is fascinating stuff and begin to catch on.


My blog is intended as a bridge between the technical literature and those who take using their minds seriously because they want to improve the richness of their experience and enjoyment of their own mental processes. To make headway in such endeavors, it is always best to touch base with the professionals responsible for our current understanding of mind and brain.


Visiting books on the mind and its brain is like taking a trip to a foreign land: you’ve got to learn new routes and place names, and pick up enough phrases to get by. If you want to do it thoroughly, it’s like learning a new language. If you just want the two-week tour, you can get along with a lesser commitment.


So here are a few suggestions about books you might want to read or delve into. They range from popular treatments to technical reference books, with a middle level of serious books about aspects of neuroscience, including, especially, consciousness. To different degrees, all are challenging, but that is always the price we must pay if we want to improve our understanding of ourselves and our world.


Caveat: This is by no means a complete list. These are books I have read, marked up, and am personally acquainted with. I welcome suggestions of other books to add to these few.



Popular Books About Mind and Brain


Carter, Rita. Mapping the Mind. University of California Press, 1999, 224 pages. Carter, a medical journalist, has produced a smart, coffee-table book about the mind, with, as you’d expect, glossy illustrations. The book is written from the popular angle of what people are likely to be interested in (an approach that sells books) rather than what scientists have to say about mind and brain. This is a good conversation piece, the kind of book I enjoy leafing through back to front.


Doidge, Norman, The Brain That Changes Itself: Stories of Personal Triumph from the Frontiers of Brain Science. Viking, 2007, 427 pages. Doidge deals with the practical application of neuroscience to the lives of people with real problems. His book puts you on the forefront of human understanding right away, as seen through the eyes of selected beneficiaries of modern research. If you want to test the waters, this might be a good place to start.


Jourdain, Robert, Music, the Brain, and Ecstasy: How Music Captures Our Imagination. Harper Collins, 1997, 377 pages. (Added to list March 6, 2009.) Where Daniel Levitin (see below) draws examples from jazz and popular music, Robert Jourdain works more within a classical frame of reference. A science writer, he is also a composer himself, and plays piano. Living in the two worlds of science and music, he is highly skilled and motivated in building bridges between the two. This book takes as much concentration as playing the violin; the understanding it provides is well worth the trouble. I am no musician but found this book fascinating because of the insights it provides on both ends of the bridge.


Lehrer, Jonah, Proust Was a Neuroscientist. Houghton Mifflin, 2007, 242 pages. This book deals not so much with the brain as with discovery, which is about bringing new information into consciousness. Lehrer contrasts the methods of artists and scientists, showing through specific examples how artists opened up new territory, and scientists subsequently fleshed out the details.


Levitin, Daniel, This Is Your Brain on Music: The Science of a Human Obsession. Plume/Penguin, 2006, 322 pages. (Added to list Jan. 31, 2009.) I am neither a musician nor a scientist, but I love this book because of the insights it provides into one of humanity’s most compelling—and revealing—passions. You will learn a great deal about music, why you like it, and about the role it plays in your innermost being. Christof Koch (below) informs us about the visual brain; Daniel Levitin does something similar for the auditory brain (as does Robert Jourdain, see above).


Luria, A. R., The Mind of a Mnemonist. Translated from the Russian by Lynn Solataroff. Foreword by Jerome S. Bruner. Harvard University Press, 1968, 160 pages. This is the tale of a memory artist who could recall vast quantities of information with ease, and retain it for the rest of his life. Which might not appear to be a problem until you realize how cluttered his mind became because he had scant ability to generalize that information in the form of concepts requiring less storage space. Luria is one of the pioneers of research into the mind.


Ramachandran, V.S., and Sandra Blakeslee, Phantoms in the Brain: Probing the Mysteries of the Human Mind. Harper, Perennial, HarperCollins, 1998, 328 pages. This book of adventures is as exciting as those of Mr. Holmes. Not about crime, it is about disclosing the hidden and often surprising organization of the brain. This is as entertaining as learning can get.



Introductory Books About Mind and Brain


Damasio, Antonio, The Feeling of What Happens: Body and Emotion in the Making of Consciousness. Harcourt, A Harvest Book, 1999, 385 pages. This book explains in eloquent terms how consciousness extends the reach of the unconscious autonomic nervous system into the varied and unprecedented predicaments hominids got themselves into as they evolved into humans. It provides great insight into the workings of the mind.


Koch, Christof, The Quest for Consciousness: A Neurobiological Approach. Foreword by Francis Crick. Roberts and Company, 2004, 429 pages. Koch’s true quest is for visual consciousness, because that is the sensory modality he is most familiar with. If he hadn’t limited his topic, the book would have been three times as long. As it is, it’s a wonderful book, showing not only how the visual mind works (which we are all interested in), but how scientists have figured that out.


Konner, Melvin, The Tangled Wing: Biological Constraints on the Human Spirit. Henry Holt, A Holt Paperback, 2002, 540 pages. This book has more information per page than most books you will read, all presented with a poetic flair. If you are versed in genetics, physiology, neuroscience, and philosophy, the words will flow into your mind. If you are not a polymath, you’re in for rough sledding through beautiful terrain.


LeDoux, Joseph, The Emotional Brain: The Mysterious Underpinnings of Emotional Life. Simon and Schuster Paperback, 1996, 384 pages. LeDoux writes clearly about research into the brain without getting overly-technical. He truly wants to find out what is going on during the experience of emotions, and uses a variety of avenues to reach that understanding. He focuses on fear and anxiety because that has been his research specialty. He has a way of making the reader feel she is on the leading edge of getting to know the emotional centers of the brain and how they work.


LeDoux, Joseph, Synaptic Self: How Our Brains Become Who We Are. Viking, 2002, 406 pages. The wiring of the brain is just a metaphor; LeDoux takes the reader beyond art to an actual understanding of how neural connections are made, what they accomplish, and why they are significant to you and me. On the way, you learn a great deal about how thoughts can make things happen through the agency of consciousness.



Technical Reference Books on Neuroscience


Gazzaniga, Michael S., Editor-in-Chief, The New Cognitive Neurosciences. The MIT Press, 2000, 1419 pages. Here displayed in full view is the broad array of modern research on the brain written by those in the know—the researchers themselves. This book is more for scientists than laypersons. But because everything is laid out in detail in one place, this is my favorite among the books listed here. A great book for browsing, I regard it as an explore-it-yourself book on any aspect of consciousness.


Kandel, Eric R., James H. Schwartz, and Thomas M. Jessell, Editors, Principles of Neural Science. McGraw-Hill, 2000, 1414 pages. College texts have come a long way since I was in school. This book excels in its organization, clear illustrations, and concise text. If I could redo my education, this is where I would start. This tome is more about the underpinnings of consciousness and behavior than about consciousness itself. In effect, it provides a prologue to the understanding of consciousness. It leads up to and ends on this note: “We are optimistic that future cognitive neural scientists will identify the neurons involved and characterize the mechanisms by which consciousness is produced.”






Reflection 32: Slap My Face

December 3, 2008

(Copyright © 2008)

Humanity, thy name is delusion. We love to fool others, and to be fooled ourselves. Why else would we watch TV, go to the movies, or take vows plighting our troth (whatever that means) “till death do us part”?


The most glaring way we fool ourselves is in believing that personal consciousness depicts events in the real world. As if our entire mental apparatus did not come between us and that world, skewing it, distorting it, shaping it to fit our personal fears and desires.


·        We can never break free from our personal experience. It intercedes for us every time.

·        We can never know another person’s mind.

·        We can never even know our own minds.

·        Our life worlds are all founded on speculation and conjecture.


Welcome to the lot of humanity. The human condition. Welcome to this blog. I cannot claim to have any definitive answers. But I am willing to wrestle with how we make meaning for ourselves. How we build entire worlds from figments and fragments.


So far I have looked at episodes of experience when I have been proven wrong. Such as the time I mistook a trash bag for a dying crow. A TV antenna for a crashing jet. A man on the street for my old friend Fred. A squeaky hinge for a cat underfoot. I have also looked at times when I failed to see a vase of sunflowers or a mustard jar right in front of me. And other occasions when I didn’t know my own mind.


By examining the traps my consciousness sets for me, I hope to become more discriminating in telling the difference between fiction and nonfiction. Much of the time, we don’t make that distinction. We switch from news programs to talk shows to soap operas to situation comedies, take them all in as if they were equally real. They may be experientially equivalent, perhaps, but none of them is “real,” not even the news. All have been filtered through other minds, which right away should raise red flags in our own.


The sense of smell offers the clearest example of where we go wrong. We smell pizza, we take it there is pizza in the world around us. Molecules of oils and spices actually waft onto sensors in our olfactory bulbs. But there the real world ends and subjective reality takes over. Those sensors transform the presence of molecules into ions passing through membranes into the interior of nerve cells. Those cells become electrically charged relative to their surroundings, and that charge travels down the length of the cell’s axon. No pizza molecules here, just ions passing through channels into nerve cells. When the sequence of ion movements ends at an axon terminal, it triggers release of chemicals known as neurotransmitters, which cross gaps between nerve cells. Again, no pizza here, just standard bodily chemicals drifting from one cell to another. Eventually such events spur secretion of saliva and the expectation of eating a slice of pizza with pepperoni, mushrooms, and green peppers. “I’ll have a slice of the pepperoni,” we say.


It is a mystery exactly how that happens. But there is no mystery how molecules set the process in motion. Molecules which may rise from a hot pizza, or which may have been concocted in a research lab and sold in a bottle labeled, Eau de Pepperoni. Vanilla extract smells like the real bean, but doesn’t taste like it when you drink it (as I learned when very young). You may not want to know some of the ingredients in perfumes you use to make yourself alluring (hint: the word musk stems from the Sanskrit for testacle; castorium comes from anal sacs of the beaver).


Marilyn Monroe and Elvis Pressley are represented by ionic action potentials coursing along nerve fibers in our brains. Accompanied by hormone secretions as appropriate. No little photographs stored in memory, no reels of film. Our brains take the world apart, transform it into flowing ions, hormones, and neurotransmitters—and never put it back together again. What access we have to the world is told by the flow of such chemicals. Period. Do an autopsy. No Marilyn, no Elvis. Just chemicals.


Most of what makes up the outside world is never represented in consciousness at all. We simply take it for granted it is there, and that assumption is all the evidence we have for that world. When I drive the eighteen miles to Ellsworth, I may be aware of certain stretches of road where I must make a decision, but for the most part I pass through it unaware because my mind is thinking of other things. How was my trip? you ask. Uneventful, is all I can say. I can’t even remember what I was thinking about.


Assumptions, habits, routines—these bypass consciousness without making themselves known. That’s how we get through most days, on automatic pilot navigating through the same old, same old. Consciousness comes into play when we have to make a decision, ask a question, use our judgment. It comes at our bidding when we find ourselves in an unfamiliar situation. Most times we don’t bother, and carry on as usual. We get up as usual, eat breakfast as usual, go to work as usual by the usual route, come home as usual, eat as usual, watch the usual shows, check the usual blogs, go to bed at the usual time, and dream the usual dreams. Where have we been all day? What did we do? You know, the usual.


I remember a story in the Maine Times (now defunct) about a man who’d left a great many (80 sticks in my mind) grandchildren when he died, and was related to just about everyone in his small town. The editor thought there’d be a story in the man’s life. But what the reporter found in interview after interview was that the old bird liked to cruise the main street of town in his pickup truck, driving back and forth, back and forth. End of story. No one had anything to say about him good or bad. He died as he had lived, a nobody to the end.


Scary story, because it goes against the grain of what we keep telling ourselves. Against what we want to believe. In my own case, my conscious life falls between the times I am obviously wrong and know it, and the times I am operating in a situation so familiar I can trust my body to a behavioral routine that never enters my awareness. When the music stops, I clap.


Which is why I am writing this blog. To keep myself awake, like slapping my face when I’m driving while tired. And to remind you to slap your face. To ask questions. To both wonder and ponder. That’s the only way I know to get better at this consciousness game, by not taking it for granted. By not assuming it presents me with any such thing as the real world. At least I know where the blogging part of my day has gone. 



(Copyright © 2008)

Animal consciousness deals with situations varying along a continuum of different sizes or scales. It is no surprise that the inch, foot, and yard correspond to dimensions of our own bodies. As do the centimeter, decimeter, and meter, though intended as more “rational” and less anthropocentric (the French got their numbers wrong in trying to peg the meter to the distance from equator to North Pole along the prime meridian).


When we stand erect, our eyes are at what we take to be a normal distance from the ground. Lying on our bellies, we lower our outlook to the level of cats, gerbils, and raccoons. From skyscrapers we see with the eyes of eagles and geese.


Through telescopes, we make ourselves immense, with eyes that can see so far we need new units of measurement to scale our discoveries. The Great Galaxy in Andromeda is 2.54 million light-years from Earth, the distance light travels in that number of years going at 186,000 miles a second, which amounts to the unimaginable number of some 15-million billion Earth-scale miles. The mile may be a useful measure of distance when driving to Boston, but is quite useless when trying to visualize the distance to the Andromeda Galaxy. It’s far out, a very long way, past Siberia or even the moon, beyond Mars or Jupiter. After that it drops off every scalable chart in common use.


Recording images that are near the edge of the universe, the Hubble Telescope can operate on a scale that has almost no meaning in everyday life. Saying that the edge of all edges is 14 billion parsecs (46.5 billion light-years) away may be meaningful to astronomers, but not to the rest of us. This is 18-thousand times as far as the already unimaginable distance to the Andromeda galaxy. Beyond walking distance, I’d say. Flying distance. Even projectile or rocket distance. We have trouble picturing a situation in which that distance might become meaningful to us.


If we drew a chart with Earth represented one inch from Andromeda Galaxy, the edge of the universe would be only three miles away, but Earth would be invisible, far too small to represent at that scale. Puny humanity wouldn’t even exist. If we didn’t exist, there would be no question of putting ourselves in the picture. There is simply no place for us to stand where we might see the edge of the universe at a meaningful scale.


Forget the universe; think of sand beaches. Get down on hands and knees and put your eyes close to the surface. Even at that distance, the grains are beyond counting. You may notice a few individual grains—of sand, shell, wood, seaweed—but when you look at other grains, the first set disappears and you can’t find it again. Remarkable creatures actually live among those grains. Little red mites scooting hither and yon on errands of crucial importance. Bacteria by the billions. Planktonic life that humans need a microscope to see. Oh, here comes an ant, looking huge as a dinosaur, shaking the Earth when it walks, or at least dislodging a few grains of sand. Imagine the view through the eyes of this ant. With the wits of this ant. What would we experience? As hard to imagine as the edge of the universe, and yet this is right in our own neighborhood.


Now look overhead, at that spot in the sky which is really an eagle. Imagine its consciousness at this moment, the situation it is experiencing. Probably looking for lunch. It has great eyesight, so it can probably see that mouse over there hiding beneath a tuft of beach grass. It can certainly see us. We and the eagle are aspects of somewhat similar situations, so each may have some sort of meaning to the other. Eagle, after all, is our national bird. We put its image on flagstaffs and state seals. Perhaps humans rate as national primate from the eagle’s perspective.


We watch it soar, fascinated, but it pays no mind to us because—aside from the Endangered Species Act, and the many structures people build in eagle habitats—we are basically irrelevant to its existence. Eagle’s awareness is situated in a different frame of reference. Like the mite and the ant, it has different concerns, motives, capabilities, capacities, feelings, and so on. As different from yours and mine as mouse, mite, and ant differ one from another.


Human consciousness gives us life worlds which are meaningful at a certain scale. I am a bit over six feet tall. In the presence of someone a few inches taller, I feel self-conscious and out of place. When I meet an adult six inches shorter, I feel awkward in talking at the top of his or her head. I much prefer to talk sitting down, which minimizes the differences in height.


Whatever our height or breadth, we take that as normal because that is what we know from the inside. We know the feel of acting at that scale. We know how to move our bodies, how to dance, how to play the piano, how to jump rope. Even moving our tongues and lips when we talk is done at that scale. In my observation, small people can talk faster than big people. The difference can be so great, I often have difficulty keeping up my end of a conversation with someone a foot shorter than I am. Sometimes I get worn out by their rate of delivery, or can’t formulate my response before they’re off on another topic entirely.


I conjecture that adolescence might be harder for tall than for short people because tall bodies are awkward for so long while short bodies knit together and become graceful far earlier. Does that make any sense? Think compact gymnasts (apt to be small girls) and gawky basketball centers (tall boys).


Physically, we find it easier to coordinate our movements once our nerve fibers become wrapped in the myelin sheaths which speed up the signals they carry. Myelinization isn’t complete until the early twenties—or even later for people with long nerve fibers. This not only enables faster, more coordinated action, but processing of incoming signals as well.


I see this as having a profound influence on comprehension. Before myelinization is done, we are apt to be slow on the uptake. After, we get the point right away. Big people have a reputation for being not only slow and plodding, but dull. When their myelin sheaths get fully wrapped, they can hold their own with anyone. I remember taking a course in contemporary civilization, not being able to take in what others were saying. At the end of the year I caught on, partly because I became familiar with the terminology and my understanding increased, but also because my brain could process what was going on so much faster. Maybe education is wasted on the young, or at least the under myelinated.


The point of all this is that the size and complexity of the situations we are able to handle increase with the size of our consciousness, which is a function of our physical being. If we were gnats, we’d have gnat consciousness and live in gnat life worlds. If we were whales or elephants, we could aspire to far greater wisdom than mid-sized humanity. Looking through telescopes doesn’t do it because the eye on the near end feeds into a modest and Earth-bound awareness. The greater the power of the instrument, the smaller its field of view. We become specialists, but don’t necessarily increase our grasp of the connections between our divergent fields of specialization.


We take human awareness as the norm solely because we share in awareness at that scale. We make the mistake of believing that the world is as we see it and act in it. Compared to mites and bacteria, we are bumbling giants. Certainly our earthmovers and bulldozers make hash of the landscapes that serve as their homelands. Truth is, we are extremely self-centered in everything we do on—and to—the Earth. We know little and care less for life forms in the soils at our feet. For life forms throughout the wide oceans, which we regard almost exclusively as food.


Our consciousness is stuck at the scale we are born to. It takes great effort to learn to see through eyes that picture life situations on a different scale. Rarely do we have the wits or gumption to try to imagine it. Yet there is far more going on in our own life situations than we realize. Because we aren’t aware of it, we say nothing is happening. In the process, we overlook the myriad ways we are connected to every other life form on Earth. Not only animate forms, but plant, fungal, and microbial forms as well. Being stuck at our scale of awareness, we are condemned to ignorance concerning the majority of life forms sharing what we think of as our planet.


Our own bodies serve as condominiums for the invisible horde living on our skins and in our guts. We treat them as if they didn’t exist—to our peril. After all, they remove our dead cells, and digest our food for us. Without them we would die. Yet when we magnify them, we are horrified by their images, and rub ourselves with antibiotic solutions to be rid of them. In day to day consciousness, we are anti or ignorant of everything but us.


So much to learn about life and nature on nonhuman scales, so little time. I often wonder what it is our children actually do all day in school, besides keep from getting underfoot in the homes and workplaces of our narrow worlds.



Reflection 27: Clarity

November 24, 2008

(Copyright © 2008)

For me, the sound of Hancock County, Maine in June is the call of the hermit thrush. Cousin of the robin—who sings his heart out in the treetops—the hermit thrush carols close to the ground where he gleans insects in the duff beneath woods of spruce and fir. To hear its call in the near distance is to love the bird at once. I anticipate June for that reason, and dread the approach of August when I know the thrush will fall silent.


In the 1970s, my older brother took up the saxophone. He couldn’t commit to one instrument, so on vacation he would bring three—alto, tenor, baritone—to Maine. He usually arrived in early June and stayed through August. That is, he pretty much overlapped the hermit thrush season. So I would often be sitting still outside at dusk listening to an approaching thrush as it caroled its way nearer and nearer—and there would come this brassy blast of sound through the trees that sounded like I imagined a wounded albatross would sound, if there were any wounded albatrosses in Maine. Needless to say, the lone hermit could not compete with that noise and might as well have called it quits. But it kept gamely on, only to have every chorus drowned out by my tight-lipped brother blowing through his hollow tube. I was the one who gave up and went inside. In the morning we would have words, my brother and I. I would point out that the hermit thrush is indigenous to Maine while the saxophone is an import from Belgium. He would call me shithead, and that was that. I give him credit, though, for eventually building a modest concert pavilion on the far side of a ledge that somewhat muffled the sounds he emitted by the time they reached me. Still, I was so sensitized to the sounds he made that even that was not good enough. I wanted the thrush to emerge out of evening stillness without competition. We kept a wary distance from each other for some twenty-five years, while my brother and the thrush would wage duets at dusk while I fumed. He hasn’t come to Maine in recent years, so I have been left to enjoy the thrush doing its thing as often as I have been able to attend.


We rely on consciousness to do everything it can to lift meaningful sounds (sights, smells, tastes, textures) above competing inputs that have less or no meaning for us. It does this by heightening the contrast between signals and any noise against which they may play. The ratio of meaning to unmeaning (signal to noise) is a measure of the clarity with which we receive phenomena in awareness. Once the mind decides which voice it wants to listen to, the brain does its best to separate that one from the general din by doing what it can to suppress the others. Consciousness delivers an either-or, this-or-that kind of world. The outside world (which is really a mystery) did not get that way on its own.


Suppose for a moment that some people might prefer the voice of a saxophone to the note of a thrush. It might well be possible for them to hear the voice while entirely ignoring the note to the point they do not notice it at all. In my little story(above), the voice of the saxophone had the edge because it was so brassy and the thrush was so soft. My brain was unable to turn tables on my brother and bring out the thrush at the sax’s expense. I heard two competing signals, and could not stifle either one.


That kind of situation drives me to distraction. Cocktail parties are hell on Earth because I hear every voice in the room blended into a drone and cannot pick one or another to concentrate on. Even if someone right in front of me is speaking, her voice is lost in the din. That is a characteristic of my individual consciousness, and I have to put up with it. Which is why I avoid situations where people all talk at once. I prefer gatherings where one person speaks at a time.


I offer this blog as Exhibit A. Please note that there is only one voice, and that voice is mine. Again, this is not egotism but the only way I can know my own mind, which, in writing about consciousness from the inside, is essential. To write a book, I once took to an island on the Maine coast, where I lived solo for two-and-a-half years—just me and the likes of hermit thrushes, which was fine by me. I have been reflecting on consciousness for so long, it is second nature to me now. I welcome comments on these posts because I can respond to them in the relative calm of my apartment, one by one.


It has taken me a lifetime to learn how to manage my consciousness to get the most out of it. And I’m still at it. Through much of my life, I have been distracted by a busy world impinging on my senses, so have had a hard time concentrating on much of anything. Now I live by myself and can sit at my computer, explore my thoughts, and write. Any human voice within earshot distracts me, and so terminates that line of awareness. Even songs with words draw my attention. I prefer Mozart piano sonatas. And best of all, silence. It is no accident I am a secular Quaker and attend silent meetings on most weekends. I don’t go in order to worship, but more to rediscover who I am on that day in that situation. That respectful meditation punctuates my life, providing the clarity I need to enter the coming week (what metaphor shall I use?) . . . on an even keel.


The human cerebral cortex is a genius at finding order in chaos by carefully adjusting feedback from one neuron to another in order to maximize the clarity (signal to noise ratio) of excitation in any sensory modality. It does this by increasing the contrast between the signal attended to and any which compete with it. The brain does not process images, objects, or events received directly from the world. Rather, it takes them apart and processes their attributes—colors, contrasts, edges, contours, motions, elements of shapes, and so on—separately. From the retina inward, the world is dismantled into its components, processed in terms of basic characteristics, then reassembled in a way to maximize meaning and significance in the context of the situation that pertains at the time. Another moment, another situation, another meaningful reassembly.


Thus our brains work their way through the day. Not that we are conscious of the process. What we become aware of is the end product as informed by our expectations and desires of the moment. Which help sharpen the phenomena we do become aware of in light of our personal interests. What I see or hear is not necessarily the same as what you see or hear.


Picture a heronry of two hundred nests, with from three to five juvenile birds in each nest. Picture an adult heron flying in with fish in its gullet, emitting a one note call, graak, to alert its young so their digestive juices start to flow. When this happens, only the young in one nest respond. They perk up and look eagerly in the direction of the call. The rest carry on as before as if they heard nothing. Yet when either of their parents gives such a call, they make an appropriate response because they each receive that signal as a personal notification that dinner is about to be served.


Which is precisely what we do. Pick and chose between sensory signals, paying attention to any to which we ascribe meaning. Attenuating such signals, boosting them by treating all others as meaningless noise, we suppress those deemed irrelevant to our life situations. In the process creating a life world distinctly tailored to our personal needs, interests, and expectations.


When we are clear about something, we are clear in different ways because we all have different backlogs of life experience and gauge events differently in relation to the perspectives and meanings with which we address them. This often goes unnoticed because our respective ways of attaining clarity are internal matters not detectable from the outside. Until we make some sort of response differing from the ones our neighbors make, giving others a hint that the way we take the current situation may differ from the way they view it themselves.


In fact we do advertise the ways we seek clarity in many ways. By supporting one team or another, one political party, one side in a battle, one religious system, one party in court, even by demonstrating a preference for saxophones or hermit thrushes. Because of the way consciousness achieves clarity, in almost every instance we divide the world into two classes: those who are with us and those against. The recent presidential election is a good illustration of the process we undergo in achieving clarity on a national scale. We the people have made up our minds. It took the better part of two years, but we did it. We weren’t clear who we wanted to lead us at the beginning. But we eventually winnowed the candidates down to three, then two, and finally one. The outcome of that process is beyond doubt. Barack Obama will lead us as of January 20th, 2009.


The divide between supposedly red states and blue states is all in our minds because it stems from the processes through which our brains seek clarity in enabling us to act consciously and deliberately in life situations as we perceive them. Political parties are not mentioned in the U.S. Constitution. We have them because we the people need help in coming to decisions within the framework of our democracy. In order for our minds to make meaningful choices, it is extremely helpful to engage in a process that narrows the field down to two alternatives. Consciousness thrives on clear choices because that is how the brain works in separating meaningful signals from a background of noise. The higher the ratio between the one and the other, the easier we find it to make up our minds.


Which is why we have true believers and infidels, good cops and bad, cowboys and Indians, Shiites and Sunnis, and an endless conflict between Israelis and Palestinians. In the last case, there is no process by which those of either mindset can embrace the two as equal blocks or constituencies and so resolve their differences by one means of achieving clarity or another. The only thing that would allow such a resolution would be to structure a situation such that the two peoples have equal right to consideration by all concerned. But most minds are closed to that option from the start. The contest is over before it has a chance to begin. All that’s left is for each side to throw rocks or rockets at the other in deep-seated enmity as if one side were born wholly good and the other wholly evil. The difficulty of the situation is compounded by the scarcity of land and water in a region where too many people are struggling to survive on minimal resources.


The U.S. has just gone through the exercise of electing Barack Obama as president of its national plurality of peoples. All peoples, not just one group or another. That is a tremendous leap of consciousness into the future from a past in which such a thing was unimaginable. Blacks, Native Americans, Spanish, Dutch, English, French, and other settlers have been together here for over 400 years. It took that long for a man of mixed ancestry to transcend his otherness in being elected to the presidency. He is now The Man, not just background noise. Imagine a Palestinian emerging as The Man in a union embracing both his people and Israelis. Until all sides can consciously imagine such a thing happening, it will not happen because the very idea will be suppressed as nonsense.


Imagine a state in which lovers of saxophones live in harmony with lovers of hermit thrushes. Is such a state possible. Yes, when the people of each persuasion can celebrate the underlying humanity of the other. And beyond embracing it, become consciously willing to defend that celebration to the death. Until then, consciousness renders one party less human than the other, and no clear accommodation is possible.












(Copyright © 2008)

Members of the first Pacific island cargo cults believed early explorers and missionaries had waylaid gifts that their island ancestors and deities had intended for them. The more strange and wonderful the cargo brought to their shores, the more certain the islanders became that only their gods were clever enough to create such treasures, and that surely the strangers had intercepted them before appearing on the horizon in their great wind-powered ships. When military forces replaced the earlier explorers during the Pacific campaign of World War II, the islanders hit upon the notion of imitating their dress and behavior, so to perform the powerful magic that had allowed the combatants to steal the treasures that were truly sent by island ancestors and gods to benefit none but their descendants.


There is a certain charm about this innocent—almost childish—tale of magic and gullibility among primitive peoples. Or would be if the story didn’t so closely reflect the origins of our deepest religious beliefs in the early days of pastoral tribes guarding their flocks by night beneath the stars in the valleys of the Indus, Tigris, Euphrates, and Nile Rivers, where so many of our cultural ways and beliefs were birthed in the human mind.


The regular motions of heavenly bodies—the sun during the day and stars, planets, and moon at night—were so evidently connected to flowing rivers, blossoming and fruiting plants, and migrating animals, that they were freighted with awe and even divinity because of the mysterious causal influence they exerted on Earth and its peoples. The remoteness of the heavenly host put it beyond human influence, squarely in the realm of causation, which in those days was ruled by the gods.


Just as Pacific islanders mimicked the ways of those who relayed their cargo to them, so early planters and shepherds believed their wellbeing depended on their imitating the ways exemplified by luminous bodies overhead. On earth as it is in heaven is probably the most profound religious formulation ever devised—because it was—and is—so evidently true. A tribe of nomads regulating its affairs according to the seasons will learn to plant, cultivate, harvest, migrate, and fast on appropriate days during the heavenly cycle of dearth and plenty. As migrant tribes moved north out of Africa 100,000 years ago, the heavens became increasingly important to their survival via the plants, wildlife, and domestic herds they depended on through the seasonal rains and flooding of the great rivers that begat early civilizations.


After discovery of the heavenly order, the next great advance was translating it into human affairs through use of the calendar. Which was not annually distributed in those days, but was built into structures enabling close observers to tell the progression of the seasons through the relation of heavenly bodies to Earthly landmarks such as trees, hills, and mountains, then to set stones, obelisks, and monuments, and later to temples dedicated to receiving and interpreting the instructions sent by the gods to humankind.


Where depicted, the gods were often surrounded by halos of light similar to the natural radiance of bright stars and planets. The planets moving among fixed stars were welcomed as angels, a word which descends from Greek angelos, meaning “messenger.” Originally, there were seven of them: Sun, Moon, Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn. These were revered as gods in early religions, and were worshipped in temples and sacred groves favoring aspects of their heavenly stature. Every tribe had its priestly reader of signs in the heavens to advise local leaders bent on keeping tribal affairs attuned to the wisdom and advice of the gods as relayed through the motions of, and relationships between, the angels.


Urbanization and removal of priesthoods from the countryside to more developed and populated ports and trading centers led religious beliefs to drift from their moorings in the skies and become attached to other deities and institutions as they evolved over time. One characteristic of this succession was the ruthlessness with which each succeeding system of belief suppressed its predecessors. Priestly classes shifted the secret lore that gave them power from the stars—which were in public view—to more arcane wisdom hidden away in sacred texts which only they had access to.


As long as all people shared in the survival wisdom freely told by the motions of the planets among the stars, the priesthood provided the public service of yoking human activities to a primal system of knowledge so self-evident that everyone willingly practiced its teachings. But once priestly beliefs in urban centers were distanced from folkways of the countryside (as Dionysian feasts and festivals displaced to Athens were cut off from the rural roots that had fed them for countless generations), the angels and heavenly host became detached in the urban mind from reference to observable events in night skies, so becoming abstract and conceptual, whereas before they had been at the perceptual core of pastoral and agricultural life. Formal, organized religious experience became subject not to phenomenal events but to doctrine. It was never the same after that. Some of the early forms persisted, but their substance was now assigned by the priesthood without reference to the self-evident connections between early shepherds and the visible heavens beneath which they watched.


In the case of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, the nine deities were subsumed into one supreme being. Spiritual consciousness was given a single answer to all questions, whereas before it could have selected from a number of options. The supreme being became the Giver of All, Knower of All, Hearer of All, Seer of All, The All-Comprehending, The Perfectly Wise, The Greatest, The Highest. Diversity was looked upon as heresy. The One God was to be all things to all people, even when many of its attributes were in direct opposition: Giver/Taker, First/Last, Manifest/Hidden. In consciousness, the concept of deity was transformed from a plurality to an absolute. There was to be no room in the mind for more than one Being. By fiat, that One was declared Supreme.


Which created an outer limit to the art of concept formation, beyond which no mind could freely wander or inquire. The ultimate had been ordained for all time. For all men and women. In all places. Forever. God became a pure idea, unsullied and intangible. Henceforth it would be impossible to encounter this singular god on a mountain top, in a forest glade, or in dreams. The ultimate concept is beyond all sensible attributes. It is that which has no phenomenal dimensions of any kind. No shape, no size, no face, no body. No appearance, no voice, no heft, no motion. It cannot be portrayed in painting, sculpture, music, dance, drama, or other medium.


The Absolute can only be thought. And not even that because it has no parts or qualities that can be thought about. What it is is absolutely nothing. The human mind cannot conceive of such a thing. The absolute god of monotheism, meant to comprise all and intend all, is beyond conscious imagination. Calling this god a mystery is no help. There is no way a mortal mind can approach it, much less apprehend it. As that which cannot be known, it is beyond conception itself.


The sleep of reason creates monsters. The sleep of phenomenal consciousness creates ideas without substance, which is as empty as a mind can get. Yet people kill in the name of their singular God. Burn nonbelievers at the stake. Explode the bodies of infidels with improvised explosive devices. Murder others who look different, talk different, or dress different from themselves, without remorse.


Books have been written detailing the words of this fictional absolute, but they have been written by men to put fear in the hearts of others for the sake of taking power over them. We live in a time when those all around us devote their lives to making money without doing any work. Another way is to create wealth by getting people to worship nothing at all, and ask them to pay for the privilege. This, too, is happening all around us. As Brooklyn Bridge can repeatedly be sold to innocents with little in their heads and too many coins in their pockets, belief in nothingness can be dressed in passion and sold to the fearful and destitute. Brooklyn Bridge, holy writ—as far as consciousness goes they amount to much the same thing.


Belief without substance at the core is worse than an oxymoron, it is a travesty of consciousness itself. Without something to chew on, the mind is as useless an organ as the coccyx or appendix. Which may well be the point. When the mind is fixed on emptiness, it is that much easier for those in high places to take possession of such minds and fill the void with dogma, allowing the strong and clever to think for the weak and the innocent.



(Copyright © 2008)

Is language at the heart of consciousness, or is more on the periphery, like my left big toe? There are those who claim language plays an essential role, but I have so many experiences that don’t involve language, I strongly disagree with them. Take these examples that followed in quick succession in my stream of consciousness on October 27, 2008:


Checking for damage after a major windstorm the day before, I walk by the ledgestone cabin my father built in the early 1940s. No trees or branches on the roof, that’s good. At least that is the content of my thought, even though it is not conveyed in so many words. It is latent language, proto-language, easily converted into language, but existing more as preverbal kernels or nuggets of awareness. Looking down, I see a row of green columbine leaves running along under the edge of the roof where they had naturally sown themselves over the years. “Columbine Cottage,” I think, as if I am trying to come up with a name for the place, which I’m not. Passing the cabin, I am abruptly overtaken by the scent of balsam fir. Just the smell, no thoughts of Christmas, or of the tree itself. I automatically look to my right and see fir branches covered with small beads of moisture. Images without words. Just then I hear the cry of an eagle from treetops ahead. No words, just the sound. Not even thoughts of treetops or eagles. But there is something else. A lilting undercurrent of feeling. I am glad there are no branches on the roof, it’s in bad enough shape as it is. I am pleased to see the columbine leaves, as if meeting an old friend. I am almost overcome by the scent of balsam fir, as I am every time those particular molecules waft up my nose. And I am lifted by the cry of the eagle, both excited and proud to hear from one of my nearest and dearest neighbors. “Columbine Cottage” is the only verbal phrase that forms in my mind (I don’t think I said it aloud). The rest is sight, smell, sound. Sensory consciousness, not verbal—with feeling. That’s a good part of my inner life. When I am in nature, nature is in me. No words need apply.


Lev Vygotsky, a Russian developmental psychologist, set out to demonstrate that language plays a crucial role in concept formation, but what his experiments actually show is that words can help in teaching specific concepts to naive subjects, not that they are essential to concept formation itself. (Thought and Language, originally published in Russian, 1934; reissued by MIT Press, 1962.) Words may supply the labels by which we retrieve concepts as categories of experience, but so may shapes, colors, patterns, textures, and so on. I don’t need language to recall columbine to mind, I need the shape of the leaves, the red and yellow blossoms, or a locale with scant soil but plenty of moisture.


I remember smells that have no name, such as the smell of Ryan’s Feed Store, where as a kid I climbed on dusty sacks of grain piled to the cobwebby rafters of the old warehouse in Hamilton, New York in the 1930s. I remember the scent of mixed grains, sacks seen by the dim light of a bare bulb, the danger and excitement of the climb, the feel of the sacks underfoot. None of it verbal or ever written down.


It was the smell of a dry piece of bread in Bethel, Maine, that brought Ryan’s to mind while I was helping clean up after an NTL workshop session in 1980. I was about to chuck the crust into the trash when I mindlessly raised it to my nose and sniffed—Shazam!, I was back under the rafters in Ryan’s Feed Store on Maple Avenue. I wasn’t remembering being there, I was actually there, transported by a scent I hadn’t smelled in forty years. There were no magic words; a few molecules settling on my olfactory membrane did the trick.


I am thinking here of episodic memories that retain particular details from my neural autobiography. Such one-time episodes are more sensory than conceptual, laid down by the force of strong feelings at the time, not distilled as concepts are from repetition of key features across different episodes. Episodic memories comprise a constellation of specific elements in relationship. They are situational in nature, bound by a feeling tone that marks their importance. Too, they are localized in both time and place. Think losing your virginity, moving to Seattle, the day Kennedy was shot, 9/11.


Concepts on the other hand are feeling-neutral memories which are generally unrestricted by time and place. They are derived from sensory experience, but have specific occasions stripped away, leaving only the essentials shared in common. Think dogs, flowers, fish, books, numbers. Concepts are categories of experience but not experience itself. What is concrete and sensory about conceptual memories is the name we give to each category. We can hear it, speak it, write it, read it again and again. We can even sculpt it ( LOVE ) or print it across a T-shirt ( ÿPEACE ).


The genius of language is its economy. You can use the same words in different combinations to apply to different occasions over and over again. Great Danes, Chihuahuas, and German shepherds are all “dogs.” So are mongrels, mutts, and mixed-breeds. This general utility is a great boon to categorical thinking. But when it comes to putting our specific life experience into words, enter the thingamajig, whachamacallit, thingamy, and widget, along with what’s-her-name, what’s-his-face, and you-know-who-I-mean, whoever. That is, the content of consciousness is often so specific that it taxes—and often defies—our ability to describe it in words.


The upshot is, we often substitute conceptual thinking for getting a specific point across through concise use of language. Think of the broad brush with which Sarah Palin smears Barack Obama, making it seem she knows what she is talking about when, in fact, she is wide of the mark. Joe the Plumber has become a nonperson who represents an attitude, not a living human being. He is a character in a make-believe drama, no more real than Mickey Mouse or The Wizard of Oz.


And think of the huge tasks facing President Obama/McCain in implementing the policies they have outlined in general terms as if giving specific details. Their stump speeches outline attitudes more than policies that can be effected through detailed programs. Yet we hear them and shout, “Right on!” because they have mouthed the words we so long to hear. In truth, we don’t know the answers to world and national problems any more than the candidates do. No one can read the future, yet we all pretend that we can. And language contains enough slop to fool us into thinking we know what we mean to say.


My advice is take the pronouncements of candidates and pundits with enough salt to dry the excess spit from their words. Talking heads are reading scripts scrolling on Teleprompters, not speaking from the depths of their experience. Or if not scripted, they are trying hard to appear wise, and hoping we overlook their personal agendas.


I threw my television set out twenty-two years ago because everything on it was staged to manipulate my personal consciousness to someone else’s advantage. The mass media are about mind control, not informing the public. Skepticism is the best defense, and open curiosity the surest path to the truth. Don’t believe everything you hear, not even if you say it yourself. Which is a hard rule for bloggers to follow, including me.