No getting around it, we learn by sensing and doing. This requires liberal doses of time, frustration, variation, imagination, refinement, experimentation, curiosity, and practice, practice, practice. If leeway for such a program is not built into our schools, then we fall back on rote learning to be fed back on the test.

Better, we let students pose their own answers, and wrestle with working them through, making a great many errors along the way. Those errors will be their own errors, which they will learn to correct in short order.

Education based on trial and error is far better than learning to mimic a paradigm from the outset. How would you go about solving this problem? How do you see this situation? What options can you think of for ways to move ahead? Which option is the fastest? Cheapest? Most enjoyable? Easiest? Hardest? In the long/short run, best?

The role of education is to unleash the promise with which each child is born to this and future worlds, not to shape that promise to the desires of a select group of strangers driven by self-serving interests.

 

Advertisements

Copyright 2012 by Steve Perrin.

My interest in this blog is personal judgment as practiced by individuals in deciding what to do on their own, not the collective judgment exercised by decision-making groups of one sort or another following a set procedure for charting corporate behavior by considering and weighing individual recommendations.

Collective judgment is derived from treatment of personal judgments in a prescribed manner (parliamentary debate, legal proceedings, meetings run according to by-laws, polling, etc.). For me, here, the issue is how we can tell if our personal judgment is sound and reliable so it can be trusted in everyday practice to include all the evidence pro and con for believing our situation is what we think it is.

That is, is human judgment an actual capability rather than just another ruse for waylaying the gullible, whether on their their dream journey down the primrose path or in their daily struggle for survival?

What we make of our situation depends on the breadth and depth of our personal experience, on what we have been told and taught by others having sway over us, on our attitude and persistence, on what’s at stake, among a host of factors that might influence our judgment at the time. In other words, judgment is as much an art as a disciplined method for deciding what to do on any given occasion.

People decide what to do for all sorts of reasons, some wise, some risky, some foolish. Before we do anything, we can consult our bookie or astrologer, for instance, or find where we are in the sunspot cycle, or even follow the herd in doing what everyone else is doing.

Perhaps the best system is to read up on the issue; make a list of pros and cons; talk things over with friends, family, or a trusted advisor; sleep on it; and then see where we come out when we wake up after a good night’s sleep. It would be tedious of me to pretend that we can do better than that.

As unique individuals, it’s OK to act as we are led without trying to please everyone who has an opinion on the matter. Why else do we have minds of our own if not to apply them in advancing from one situation to another? That way we are bound to make mistakes, but they will be our personal mistakes, so we can learn from them how to do better next time if we get the chance.

The prevailing alternative is a top-down, authoritarian system where judgments are made by those we submit to because they have power over us according to the dictates of the culture we are born to, or the culture that happens to claim jurisdiction over our personal behavior.

My stance here is always to please myself (yourself) first because in the end, each of us is responsible for making ourselves happen as we do. That is precisely why we have a mind of our own, not to submit, but to be ourselves (which may very well include submitting to those whose judgment we respect more than our own).

One last word. It’s OK to be inconsistent by acting in some cases on the spur of the moment, while in others only after due deliberation and seeking advice from others. Nowhere is it written that there is a right way to decide how to be you.

My suggestion is to check your bearings often enough so that misjudgment won’t send you so far off course that you can’t find your way back again. At a minimum, I check myself every morning when my mind is fresh before being distracted by daily events. Consulting myself by that schedule keeps me on course so that I know who I am as I make myself happen as I do.

Copyright 2012 by Steve Perrin.

We all have a right to claim that we were behind the door when manuals for our minds were handed out, but there are no such manuals, and never have been. Instead, we are given a life of trial and error. If we live long enough to make all the standard mistakes, along with those we invent on our own, by the time we die we will be familiar with one mind at least, so should count ourselves lucky.

In 2011 when I was 79 years old, having observed the workings of my own mind for thirty years, I brought out Consciousness: The Book, which deals with my particular brand of consciousness–too late to do me much good.

My aim now is to help others undertake introspective studies of their minds before they max out their normal life expectancies in partying for a living, or perhaps studying, working, going to the beach or the movies–whatever seems a good idea at the time, but diverts attention without helping them to know themselves any more than they already do.

Yes, you can approach your own mind through the well paved avenues of psychology, philosophy, sociology, anthropology, neuroscience, and all the rest, but since each one of us is unique, I don’t recommend -ologizing yourself, which is bound to lead you into the error of confusing your mind with the road you are traveling at the time. Instead, I recommend treating your personal uniqueness as a virtue to be pursued to the end. No matter if it’s a sample of only one. To amount to something, you have to count as something. You have to count as something, namely, yourself.

I have found that a good way to to begin a program of personal introspection is by considering your likes and dislikes–what cheers you over against what upsets you. Our consciousness is driven by such polarities all our lives, so monitoring our engagements (projects, relationships) is relatively easy in terms of how we feel about what we are paying attention to at the moment. Like now, this very instant. How’s it going? Good, bad, or so-so? That is, is your present engagement progressing as you’d hoped it would, is it being impeded by some obstacle, or just lurching along ready to veer toward the better or worse?

By observing the state of what we’re trying to do, we can get a grip on our goals, our feelings, our tools and equipment, our skills, hopes, fears, our energy level, and so on. We come to see ourselves standing amid several dimensions of the expectant consciousness we bring to bear on the engagement we currently have under way.

How do you do?, you ask yourself. What’s up? How’s it going? Yes, it’s OK to talk to yourself. That’s what introspection is for–getting to know yourself. Not looking at things on the outside (as if you could see them), but inside your mind where the action is. Just checking. Things running smoothly? Or perhaps a bit rough? Hey, this is your life! It matters what sort of answer you give when you pay attention to yourself by asking personal questions. How is it with me? I says to myself, What’s been keeping you?; I thought you’d never ask. Maybe you didn’t care, or didn’t like me very much.

Once the ice has been broken, there’s no end of things to get into, questions to ask yourself, things to explore and find out. In the past, you may have been shushed by others who were preoccupied when you asked one question too many. But when you’re both the questioner and answerer in your own best interest, it’s astounding what a simple mic check can lead to.

So that’s the preface to my personal manual on introspection–if I were to write it today–which I just did in the form of this post to my blog on consciousness.

How are things going with you? What’s on your mind just now? Perhaps not introspection, but certainly related to introspection, the skill no one mentioned to you or taught you in school.

I remain, as ever, y’r friend, –Steve

(Copyright © 2009)

Solving problems is a big part of consciousness and, consequently, failure to solve such problems is another big part of consciousness. Failure can lead to a range of responses, including confusion, denial, anger, blame, depression, leading eventually perhaps to acceptance, learning, and even trying a different approach. Very few conscious acts bring about results as intended. Trial and error is often how consciousness works, leading to unintended consequences, revision, and trying again. When we go back to the drawing board, we give consciousness another run at the problem.

The leveling of the Twin Towers on 9-11-2001 was a defeat for America’s collective consciousness because we never saw it coming. The entire nation went into shock, and then mourning. It was a particular defeat for the collective consciousness of the CIA that had responsibility for keeping the president informed so he could mobilize forces under his command in warding off just such attacks. The resulting confusion throughout the highest levels of government led to a so-called war on terrorism in which conventional warfare was waged against an unconventional enemy, leading to an asymmetrical situation in which terrorists had the advantage because they knew the Afghan terrain and we didn’t. Anger and blame-casting led to our invading Iraq as a scapegoat for our leaders’ being caught napping, and things rapidly went from bad to worse, leading to the looting of every civil and cultural institution in Iraq that might have helped stabilize a sorry situation. Our same leaders failed to see Hurricane Katrina bearing down on New Orleans, or if their radar showed it coming, their consciousness failed to register the threat in that situation, resulting in another blow to governmental consciousness and in the consequent disillusion, despair, and humiliation unleashed by yet another profound defeat for an administration unable to protect its citizens on their own turf.

That’s an extreme example of what can happen when consciousness misjudges a bad situation. The worse the situation, the more stress it causes, making for hasty decisions to show we’re on top of things—when we’re not. Ask anyone going through a divorce and they’ll often blame their former lover for the break-up, reserving all virtue to themselves. A divorce is a defeat of consciousness, neither partner being sufficiently vigilant or having the skills to work their shared troubles through. Who expected it? Who dealt with early signs of stress? When dreams collapse, they tend to shatter precisely because we want them to last forever and a day. Just like the Twin Towers, just like New Orleans. Things aren’t supposed to fall apart. Not in Dreamland they aren’t. In sports, you always go for the championships, not the league cellar. Every song written or sung is aimed at the top twenty, not anonymity.

As anyone can tell you, the human condition is a lopsided mix of  victories and defeats, the victories spread every now and then to keep hope alive. The seat of that mix is our personal consciousness, noted for its highs and its lows. Our attitude toward life ranges from jubilation to despair. That is the nature of adventures, and certainly life falls in that category. Much of it spent as the Lewis and Clark party spent its mission to the Pacific coast—slogging ahead. The daily grind is the norm, punctuated by victories and defeats much like those mountains and valleys on the horizon. Hope springs eternal, yet the wise keep an eye out for weather.

Consciousness can be bested by the situation we’re in, or by our own mismanagement of what it is trying to tell us. Danger is ever present within consciousness itself as well as in the material world. Gerald M. Edelman spoke of consciousness as a “world model,” so in that sense the model may be defective or the modeler lax. Think how often we defeat ourselves because we try to outsmart our own consciousness by being too clever by half.  Indeed, the mighty keep falling one after the other with no one to blame but themselves, each a classic example of consciousness abused and defeated for the sake of gulling a spouse, a staff, a few friends and clients, or a nation. “Well, dear, I’m off to hike the Appalachian Trail; see you when I get back.” “The record speaks for itself: a return of 15% on your investment; tell me where else you can get that?” “It’s a slam dunk!”

We are capable of making spectacular errors in misreading consciousness as a model of the world, as well as the lesser miscalculations we settle for in everyday life. Here’s a homely example from my own life last weekend:

I am in spruce-fir woods digging a slit-trench for a latrine. Over the past 40 years I have dug three such trenches, so have an idea what the soil and the job will be like. First outline the trench in the top layer of duff made of fallen needles, then dig into the light brown soil with occasional stones and boulders, down three feet or so to the blue-gray clay laid down 12,000 years ago by the last glacier. The site is near a large glacial erratic boulder on top of a slight knoll decked with a sparse covering of moss amid dark trees in every direction. What is that boulder resting on? I should wonder, but put it out of my mind. Witch hazel spreads nearby. I have the shovel, Carole the bush-whackers to cut through roots we’re certain to find. I’ve been planning the trench for several weeks now, having finally chosen the site. I define the two ends of the trench, then lift out the duff. Piece of cake. This shouldn’t take long. I connect the ends, then begin to dig down in earnest. A few flat pebbles here and there, but the digging is easy. Scrape, scrape—more pebbles. Little flat ones, like layers of ledge. I ask Carole to pick out the stones when I hit them. We go for an hour or so, scraping away, making two piles, one of stones, one of soil and small pebbles. It’s been raining every day for almost two months; a nearby lightning strike and loud crash of thunder send us back to the cabin. We’ll finish the job in the morning.

After breakfast, we return to the trench, which now looks like the beginnings of one. Carole, eternal optimist, says we’re down two feet—more like seven inches, give-or-take. Dig, dig. Scrape, scrape. The little flat pebbles aren’t getting any scarcer, as I had hoped. In fact, they seem to be packed closer together. Maybe my imagination, but they block every thrust of the shovel with a wall of rock effective as any boulder. Carole scrapes them out of the way with the swipe of a flat stone, and I toss what I can get on the shovel onto the pile of dirt. Soon we’re scraping more and tossing less from the trench. Maybe it’s rotten rock from a deeper ledge, I think to myself. The closer we get to the ledge, the denser the pebbles. I picture little flat stones like a school of fish clustered together. Both Carole and I are determined to get the job done, so we ignore the pebbles and dig and scrape away. After two hours, we’ve gone maybe two inches deeper. And piled up a growing heap of stones. I imagine digging through sandy soil, as I have sometimes done on the far side of the clearing. That’s more what I had in mind. We keep at it another half hour, with diminishing returns. Then we strike hard stuff—the actual ledge, down nine to ten inches. So much for a latrine in this location. We made a go of it, but the site turned us down. We gather our tools, and I go back to prospecting for another site.

In the spring of 1951 I rowed with the MIT freshman crew in the national collegiate regatta on the Ohio River in Marietta, Ohio. The school year was over, but the crew stayed in Cambridge to practice, and didn’t head home until after the race. My folks lived in Seattle at the time, so Ohio was on the way. I’d take the train from there to Chicago and points west. We had a fast shell in the Pocock, named after its maker, and we’d gotten pretty good at both port and starboard oarsmen matching their strengths to keep it set up on its delicately poised keel. I was the stroke, not strong but generally dependable to set the pace the coxswain called for. We’d won only one race all season—against Rutgers on the Raritan—but we were hyped to show the world what we could do. We were positioned in the middle of the river next to Navy, both of us getting a boost from the current. We led most of the way, but near the finish the cox called to up the stroke—and I couldn’t swing it. I was just out of gas. So the University of Washington freshmen passed us—and that was the end of the season. Except I got to ride all the way to Seattle in the same railroad car as the winners. They were flying high while I was dragging as low as I ever felt in my life to that time because I blamed myself for the loss. I’d taken a big bite of defeat and chewed on it for three days. Every time I went to the toilet I had to pass all those smiling faces. Hardly life threatening, but I savored the humiliation all the way home.

Thirty years later I suffered the biggest defeat of my life when my son Michael committed suicide on his 22nd birthday. That, too, was my doing. I’d gotten divorced from his mother in the 60s when Michael was five years old. He didn’t thrive after that, even though I had him and his little brother on weekends until his mother remarried and moved to California, then Italy. He met a nice man on a park bench in Milan, and was into drugs after that, eventually heroin. He returned to the States, had a nice girlfriend, but was in and out of detox. He called me the Sunday before he died and told me, “Papa, I know what I have to do.” I knew what he meant, and said “We have to get together.” He said, “It’s too late.” “Don’t do anything drastic,” I said. He hung up, and I spent several days tracking his friends down to find out where he was. If they knew, they didn’t tell me. I warned the police to watch for a despondent kid, but they didn’t find him either. On his birthday I got a call from the police at eight o’clock in the morning. They’d found him, shotgun in hand, on a bench in the park near the duck pond. It had rained in the night, and his blood had washed into the pond. I went to the mortuary to view his body laid on a slab, face reconstructed, skin yellow.

That was 28 years ago. If he’d lived, he’d be 50 now. I cry writing these words. I still hear that telephone call, still see him on that slab as if it happened this morning. Still feel the defeat, mine and his, both together, inseparable, as his mother must feel her pain inseparable from his.

Every life has much to teach us, something important to make our own. That’s why I’m writing this blog—for Michael’s sake. Because he never felt free or strong enough to live out his own life. I take responsibility for that, and live my own life with that in mind every day. Every moment of consciousness is the entirety not only of someone’s “world model” but of their innermost life—memories, feelings, victories, defeats.

Michael

 

 

 

(Copyright © 2009)

 

Consciousness combines a great many mental processes all operating outside of awareness, its genius being to bind them as if they shared the inherent integrity of one process alone. I seem to remember Christof Koch pointing out in The Quest for Consciousness that the brain contains more than 40 separate maps of various aspects of visual consciousness (motion, color, different orientations, contrast, depth, etc.)—and that’s but one sensory modality. The neural map we seem to be conscious of has yet to be located—or does not exist in the human brain. Like Botticelli’s depiction of Venus on the half-shell rising from the waves, we are more interested in the culminating image itself than the myriad brushstrokes that went into creating that image on a flat surface.

 

In any nutshell summary of consciousness, I would have to include such components as concepts, sensory figures, and feelings blending together at a sufficient level of detail to enable purposive behavior in any relevant situation. Consciousness is not broken down into its parts in awareness but emerges full-blown as consciousness of one thing or another. Cramming the process into the confines of a gross oversimplification:

 

Consciousness funds long-term conceptual categories with immediate sensory qualities in the presence of feelings at a level of detail appropriate to guide purposive behavior within a relevant situation.

 

Which is what we leave out when we say we are conscious of anything at all. We didn’t make it, it’s just there. Which is why the world seems to lie before us (in Matthew Arnold’s words) “so various, so beautiful, so new,” when our brains work so hard to achieve that illusion from myriad bits and scraps of awareness.

 

In Reflection 40: The Meaning of Our Times (posted December 22, 2008), I quoted a letter from one of my mother’s friends narrating the following incident from her childhood:

 

Still vivid in my mind is the day I stayed after school in the first grade to ‘help’ the teacher. In awe I watched her make rather a clumsy sketch of a crescent moon on the blackboard. Beside it she lettered ‘moon.’ I rushed home to tell my mother that I had already learned the spelling word for the next day: ‘m-o-o-n, banana.’

 

Here is consciousness being assembled by a six-year-old girl operating on the leading edge of her awareness. The idea of banana is coupled to the image of a crescent in the presence of awe and a sense of revelation so powerful that she runs home to apply her new learning within the most significant situation in her life, her ongoing relationship with her mother. She leaves it to us to picture her mother gently setting her straight with a sense of suppressed amusement, and the resulting disappointment and mortification that endured for eighty years.

 

In the earlier post, I treated the incident as an example of an effort to make sense of the world. But making sense of things is the job of the interpreter module in the frontal lobes of our left cerebral hemispheres, so here I offer the same episode to illustrate consciousness hoisting itself by its own bootstraps—and getting it wrong. Which is why the story was committed to memory to be retrieved after so many years. Trial-and-error learning has a powerful effect on the brain because it gives us a hint about how the building of consciousness is properly done.

 

Consciousness is something we acquire through countless experiments we conduct on ourselves. Every experiment is a constrained situation within which we can learn something new. We venture a guess what will happen, then see if that’s how it goes. Yes, we are affirmed or, no, we are disabused. Which is exactly what happened in the mysterious case of the “moon-banana.” Red lights flash, klaxons sound, mother smiles, as, disillusioned, the girl sees her error. M-o-o-n does not spell banana. Ah, I see where I went wrong; I mistook the crescent. Teacher really meant it as a new moon. M-o-o-n spells moon. Now I get it.

 

I remember when I was fifteen getting into the back seat of the car behind my father who was driving, and saying something to the effect that I took great solstice from one thing or another—being immediately aware that I had confounded solstice and solace—so being utterly undone in the presence of the Great Man. Later, I looked the two words up in the dictionary to get them straight in my mind.

 

If, as so often happens, we cannot admit our mistakes to ourselves, then consciousness runs as before and our left-brain interpreters need issue no apologies for not getting it right. We are not sadder and wiser but older and more stupid. There’s a lot of that around these days. We see it in pompous politicians, arrogant bankers, posturing experts of all sorts. Everyone has an answer to all questions, and is more than happy to share it with those who are less gifted. Asked about mistakes we have made, none come to mind. As if misjudgments were cardinal sins. As if our image before the world had to be maintained at all cost. As if making mistakes could actually make us lose face instead of demonstrating yet again the depth of our humanity.

 

The danger is not in being vulnerable to criticism but in pretending we are not because we meet the self-set standard of perfection. The height of folly is to insist the world is as we take it to be without examining our own contribution to how we reach for the world in the first place. We underestimate the gullibility of our on-board interpreters when, for example, pride, greed, or embarrassment inhibit their proper functioning and we are unable to admit our own errors even to ourselves, much less to the world.

 

Life’s hardest lesson is that the world we are conscious of is largely our own doing. Our left-brain interpreters do the best they can under the circumstances. That is, as constrained by other factors and modules in our brains. We are not constrained by the world-as-it-is so much as by that world as represented in our heads. The world we know is our version of the world; the two never amounting to the same thing. The “finite provinces of meaning,” “the fortresses of belief” within which we make sense exist in our minds, not the world. Which is equally true for scientists, philosophers, theologians as for other mortal beings.

 

Political campaigns in the U.S. have come to be theatrical productions of one big lie after another. In pretending to be all things to all voters, candidates end up hollow effigies with extended hands because what they are conscious of is wanting those votes. Nothing for them has meaning if they don’t win the race. Maintaining the charade has become so expensive that only millionaires can afford to play the game. And when they get into office, they forget the people who voted for them and have eyes and ears only for lobbyists representing interests with the highest-paid legal teams who provide wording for the laws—the legal reality—they want imposed on the nation.

 

According to the American Israeli Public Affairs Committee or the National Rifle Association, m-o-o-n really does spell banana. The world must march to their drummers, no matter what Mummy says. In their eyes, AIPAC and NRA can do no wrong. The only way to run an economy is to get out of the way of the rich by cutting their taxes. It was our duty to wage war against terrorism by invading Iraq. No matter what it costs, private banks and corporations “too big to fail” must be bailed out with public funds. Guarantees of free speech must be extended to corporations so that they have a constitutional right to defend their interests as they want, no matter how private and self-serving.

 

Until we understand the complex nature of consciousness, and our role in creating the seeming reality it presents to us, we will keep running aground on ledges deep within the assumptions we make about the nature of the real and of consciousness as its proxy available to us all. The truth is, all awareness is a matter of interpretation, and interpretation is subject to pressures and influences we do not admit to or know not of.

 

Consciousness exists to clarify our view of the situations we are involved in. Such clarity is not an optical property but an effort to suppress the clamor of rival views in our mental systems, so is always political in nature as representing the interests of personal survival as it is most easily and conveniently understood. Consciousness is invariably presented to the mind as consciousness of one scenario or another in which we are invested. It is an interpretation of mental events, not an accurate depiction of reality. It all depends on what the meaning of of is. Of the mental mechanics of our situated intentionality at the time.

 

According to Merleau-Ponty, Kant referred to the hand as an outer brain of man. That outer brain is driven by consciousness of to reach into the world as if no different from the interpreted world of consciousness. Which is exactly the problem. If as conscious beings we get the world wrong, then our behavior is maladapted to the hidden world that is—and we can’t tell the difference. Until corrected by experience, our illusions R us.

 

¦

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

(Copyright © 2009)

 

All the world’s a stage,

And all the men and women merely players:

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

¦

 

 

Reflection 10: Diagnosis

October 21, 2008

 (Copyright © 2008)

In the mid-1960s, I was in the hospital undergoing a week of diagnostic tests. It was a teaching hospital maintained by a distinguished university. Every day my doctor led students like so many white-clad ducklings to the door of my room, where they ogled me in my bed, and murmured faint quacking sounds out in the hall where I couldn’t hear what they said. I remember my insides being insulted in the most intimate fashion as if I wasn’t conscious or even there. But I was there and remember the week as painful, harrowing, and humiliating. It’s hard being reduced to an experimental subject on a par with a slab of raw pork. Barium enema, upper and lower GI series, Sigmoidoscopy—I remember them to this day.

Worst of all was the consultation at the end of my stay. I reported as instructed to the Great Doctor’s office, a huge, bare room with an ornate desk in the middle facing the door. The room was dark, the only light coming from a green-shaded lamp on the desk, reflecting from my medical folder onto the heavy mass of my benefactor’s jowls from below. “I thought you had cystic fibrosis,” he said, “but you don’t.” Long pause. “What do I have?” “I don’t know, I have done everything I can for you.” I saw immediately it was my fault. I had made him seem unknowing and foolish in front of his ducklings. That was the end of that.

 

Thirty-five years later I found out I had celiac disease, and had had it my entire life. That’s what the Great Doctor might have found if it hadn’t been masked by presumed symptoms of cystic fibrosis. It was all out in the open; he just didn’t see it. Just as I didn’t see the mustard jar when it was right in front of me on the refrigerator shelf (see Reflection 3: Mea Culpa). Instead of mapping my symptoms onto his superior understanding, the Great Doctor had struggled to map his suppositions onto my innards. They didn’t jibe, so the case was closed. Except it wasn’t a case, it was my life, and I went confusedly onward as I had been going up till then, no wiser than before.

 

Consciousness gives us a chance to put our judgments out there in the world. And even more importantly, to evaluate how effective our actions are in accomplishing what we set out to do. It persists in a looping continuum, changing with the feedback we get. That way our true situation grows clearer over time. Our judgment improves, our actions become more appropriate to our circumstances as we come to understand them. Or it can if we let it by taking full responsibility for our awareness as a fallible guess or estimation. Which sometimes, as the Great Doctor illustrates, we don’t like to do.

 

Men don’t like to ask directions of strangers because it seemingly lowers their status. They like to be right all along. Consciousness is anything but rational. It has much to do with my place—my standing—in my social situation. That can have serious consequences in clouding our vision. Professionals don’t like to admit it when they are wrong. They often press on when they might well rethink what they are doing. Carry on Pretending, the Brits might call it, if they made consciousness into a movie. As they could do in producing a documentary about the causes of the current credit crunch, or conduct of the Iraq war. Men bring such things about because they, like my doctor, aren’t paying attention to, or even looking for, feedback. They continue to roll right up to the crash.

 

Women, unlike my doctor, tend to care more about social situations, and about maintaining them in good order. They thrive on feedback (sometimes called gossip), and tuning their judgment to the facts as they come in. They care primarily for and about people more than they care about reputations or status. That’s a gross generalization, but my life experience tells me there’s something to it.

 

As I have said before in this blog, we find what we expect to find. And if we don’t, then we can take that as an opportunity for redefining our search. Consciousness is a rough estimation that can grow sharper through trial and error. In fact, in my case, that’s the only way I have learned anything in my life. By falling on my face, picking myself up, and wondering where I stepped wrong. Then taking care to avoid such missteps in the future.

 

We are all diagnosticians, trying to figure what has gone wrong and how we can fix it. Consciousness has a lot of play in it, room for error. Our merit and survival depend largely on expecting that error, and being prepared to do something about it when it crosses the threshold of awareness.

¦