(Copyright © 2009)

It is 5:12 A.M. I am standing with a group of 18 Native and non-native Americans on the summit of Cadillac Mountain in Acadia National Park. We are in the clouds; it is raining. I am first to arrive… but not really the first. Three fire-tenders have been there all night, drumming to keep themselves warm and awake while keeping the fire. The others arrive at this sunrise without the sun. We circle the fire—and more particularly, the bed of glowing coals the fire-tenders have spread. The coals are pulsing orange; we in our rain gear are blue, green, brown, yellow, red. Three stand under black umbrellas. Rain or shine, we have permission from the National Park Service to welcome the sun, begin a new day, and spiritually prepare for the gathering of Tribal environmental leaders from across the country to start later that morning.

The fire-tenders bless themselves with a smoldering braid of sweet grass lit in the coals. They pass the braid over their heads and backs, arms and hands, legs and soles of feet, wafting the scented smoke over their bodies, clad as they are against the rain. Then they offer the sweet grass to each of us in turn and we bless ourselves in the same manner.

Those new to the ceremony carry on by imitation, doing for themselves as they have watched others do before them. Monkey see, monkey do, I thought to myself as I accepted the braid. But in rituals, performance is everything. If you don’t know your way, you are wise to mimic what others are doing. Then we each pinch a tuft of tobacco from a small basket, and hold it out of the rain as the fire-tenders sprinkle theirs on the coals while saying a prayer, and each of us follows the pattern. For my prayer, I say I am honored to have lived long enough to share in the fire ceremony with those gathered on the summit, including a pileated woodpecker chanting nearby. When all have spread their tobacco on the coals, and bent down to waft the smoke over themselves, the fire is put out and every trace removed as if it never had been.

Fire-Tender

But it had been, I was there, and the traces were lodged in my brain. Specifically, in the so-called mirror neuron system that translates evidence of the senses into action. Consciousness, at the junction of sensory and motor systems, is in on the translating. Whatever actions you pay particular attention to and are motivated to imitate, you can perform because mirror neurons are on the job. First discovered in macaque monkeys, mirror neurons were anticipated by William James who wrote, “every mental representation of a movement awakens to some degree the actual movement which is its object.” Thus enabling Russian babies in the presence of Russian speakers to learn how to imitate Russian (not Portuguese) vowels and consonants. And me to learn the proper way to waft sweet-grass smoke over my body in a fire ceremony atop Cadillac Mountain.

Some researchers conclude that mirror neurons enable us to infer intentions and even beliefs from the behavior of others, but I think that is a bit of a stretch. Angry looks and threatening gestures may well instill fear, but experience advises us to beware seemingly innocent situations as some kind of trap, which I see as due to interpretation, not sadder-but-wiser mirror neurons. Such neurons fire in our brains both when we perform particular acts and when we see (or hear) others performing the same acts—as if all brains were one brain, or are at least wired much the same way.

If someone else looks sad to us, we may be concerned or empathic, but looks alone do not convey the reason for that sadness which, until we understand the other’s situation, is a matter of conjectural interpretation. Look at football fans in opposite bleachers, one standing and shouting with glee while the other slumps in dejection—in response to the same play on the field. Or place yourself in the jury box witnessing one attorney presenting the facts of the case, then the opposing attorney presenting them quite differently and drawing a different conclusion. I think we should not portray mirror neurons as being smarter than they are. The situation in which they perform is every bit as important as the motor gestures themselves.

What mirror neurons do is drape sensory signals (heard, seen, or imagined) in motor clothing as if actor and beholder were the same person and could simply switch roles. But in the fire ceremony, even if I gave a reasonable imitation of a Native American performing a similar sequence of gestures, were our gestures the same or even equivalent? Considering our different backgrounds and understanding of those gestures, I was very much the novice going through certain motions without having the wit to know what I was doing. When the toddler says “dada,” he recognizes the referent he intends by that sound, but knows that referent in a very limited way compared to how Dada knows himself and what he would mean by making the same sound. The idea of male genetic parenthood is far beyond the horizon of the toddler’s small world.

In a neurological sense, mirror neurons are extremely well connected, and their signals bear overtones from other parts of the brain. They not only tie perception to concrete action, but are informed by intention, understanding, interpretation, speech, feeling, and judgment. The feel of the moment is very much a synthesis of many aspects of consciousness. I see the mirror neuron system as bridging between all parts of consciousness at the crucial juncture where sensory input leads to motor output in terms of specific behaviors judged appropriate to the life situation as currently represented in the brain and understood in the mind.

Picture an infant so stimulated that her excitement drives her to flap her arms up and down in wholehearted devotion to what is happening at the focus of her attention. She is excited because her mirror neuron system is excited—but has not yet developed a repertoire of fine-motor responses. Ready for liftoff, she makes like a bird. Think what lies ahead as she learns to suit her responses to whatever so excites her. Think of young Tiger Wood sitting in his chair watching his father practice his golf swing. Think of yourself learning to dance, throw a Frisbee, use chopsticks, or speak like a Valley Girl. Eventually you get to the master class where you pattern your behavior on a performance by the greatest mime-saxophonist-pitcher-poet-chef in the world!

Or else you settle for your halting imitation of their example and decide to live within your personal limitations by sticking to karaoke, restricting your Elvis imitation to Halloween, doting on celebrities, or following the latest fashions. I tried mightily to learn Tai Chi from a teacher who was so impatient with individual moves that he could only teach them in the full sequence of the long form by serving as an example of perfection, which, viewed from the back—or not viewed at all when I was facing away—triggered no response from my mirror neuron system and I had to give up, as I gave up jazz dancing because it was all happening too fast for me to keep to the beat.

The reason that apprenticeships and hands-on training work is due to mirror neurons firing in exactly the same way whether performing an action or observing others perform the same action. Motor planning and execution areas of the brain are involved either way. If you want to paint like Picasso, copy his portraits—each brush stroke exactly—to get inside his head (or let him into your head).

There are a lot of visualization exercises around today, striving to imagine a better future. Picturing such a result and then bringing it about may seem to be very different activities, but they are more closely linked than it seems. The connection is that many of the same mirror neurons are involved in both planning and then striving to realize that plan. To know where you are headed is half the battle; follow-through is the other half. You have a better chance of getting there if you can visualize where you’re going.

Mirror neurons were first discovered in monkeys, but reflecting on all the behaviors you have learned to execute through imitation will help you appreciate their role in human life. I didn’t just feel like an onlooker during the fire ceremony on Cadillac, I was a participant like the rest. Human see, human do. I wouldn’t have missed it for anything and now lead a larger life because I was there.

 

 

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(Copyright © 2009)

 I am on snowshoes in deep woods, making my own trail. I don’t know where I am but I am not lost. I can always follow my track back among the trees to where I started. Amazed at what I am doing, I weave among randomly placed trees, shrubs, ledges. On a steep slope, no less! Yet I keep traversing the slope and do not collide with a single stem or limb. How do I do it? I see trees ahead, approach them, then move around them. They grow larger in my visual field as I near and then pass them. Everything changes as I go, but I do not lose my balance. It’s as if I had a chart of these sloping woods in my mind, and could navigate by that chart. I don’t have to keep reorienting myself at every step, even though everything looks so different. I know my brain is working hard to keep me going without falling, yet I am perfectly calm. Looking about, I think I have never been in a more beautiful place on this Earth. This is the place, I think to myself, this is the place.

Now at a different season, I am sitting on a ledge of local bedrock by the edge of the bay, looking northwest, watching the sunset. It is high summer and, since the wind died down, I am enjoying the stillness. Not only enjoying but reflecting it by remaining perfectly motionless. Earth is rotating away from the sun, and so am I. Other than that, I am still. To me it looks as if the sun were going down into a ridge of spruce trees on the far shore. As if the sun were moving while I am still. My consciousness is keyed not to my motion but to the apparent motion and deepening tint of the sun. I am not going anywhere. The sun is making change happen; I am a universal constant, ever the same. I am not living in a landscape so much as in time itself. Or if I am navigating at all, I notice myself moving through time, not space. Time is happening. Not as told by my watch but by the real thing—the apparent dive of the sun out of the sky toward the horizon. I sit and watch colors brighten then fade on the edges of clouds. At some point I find myself sitting in darkness, listening to an owl. Stars are out. I rise, stretch, stumble up the bank, and let my feet find their way along the trail back to camp.

Space is told by our movements—even small shifts of our eyes. Time is told by things changing in relation to us when we are not moving. Space-time is told by our moving within a situation that is changing on its own. Without representations of changing scenes in our brains, neither time nor space would exist. Time is calibrated change when we are not responsible for that change; space is calibrated change resulting from our own actions. It’s as simple—and counterintuitive—as that.

Camera in hand, I am flying 500 feet above Taunton Bay on an eelgrass overflight. More accurately, I am being flown by Fred so I can open the passenger-side window and take pictures while he keeps us aloft. The ceiling is 600 feet—we’re flying just under that. Our flightpath follows a map I made before we took off. I drew loops around flats where eelgrass had grown in the past, then drew the shortest routes between loops. Fred follows the map while I lean out the window into the slipstream on the inside of the loop and take frame after frame. I am right where I want to be—where I planned to be when I thought the flight through to get the most coverage of the flats in the shortest amount of time. Airtime costs $250 an hour in a single-engine plane out of Hancock County Airport; I thought I could get the shots I wanted in 35 minutes. Planning the flight, drawing the map, looking down taking pictures—it was all done in my head beforehand, so now I’m just going through well-rehearsed motions. It’s like I am looking down on the workings of my own consciousness inside my own head. I love that feeling—checking myself out to make sure I do the job right in the right place at the right time. Whoopee! I love the feel of riding the wind when it all comes together! The image below is a picture I drew of the state of my brain at a particular instant on June 7, 2008.

aerial flight-6-7-08-72

Whenever we engage the world scene in some way, we have the option of including ourselves in that scene by rising above or expanding our own consciousness so that we can look down and witness ourselves being aware. That is not as crazy as it sounds. Just as I can observe myself moving through winter woods, sitting and watching the sunset, or flying in a plane according to plan, I can be conscious of myself being conscious no matter what I am doing. I am not talking about out-of-body experiences; I am talking about expanding consciousness to include the very act of being conscious. Which may sound strange until you realize we do it all the time.

In football practice we study diagrams of plays on the blackboard, which we internalize, practice, then employ in the big game. We watch ourselves going through the drill until we get it just right. We cast our net of expectancy onto the world, and rely on feedback to tell us what we have caught. We live in such loops every day of our lives, adjusting our behaviors accordingly until we live up to our own expectations. Or better yet, surpass them.

Basketball practice. I’m in line on the left side of the court well behind the keyhole. Now it’s my turn. I get the ball, drive toward the center of the court, take a high stride, arc the ball in my right hand up and over my head while still heading straight across—without looking at the basket—up, up, drop, swish through the net. The whole play works just as planned. The court, the ball, the net, and me all in my head in proper relationship. It’s still there 60 years later. The plan, that is, not my ability to execute it.

Visualization, practice, immediate feedback, more practice, and still more—until we get it right. We can learn to watch ourselves being conscious, see what comes of it, then rework that consciousness until it meets the standards we currently aspire to. We can pull ourselves up by our own bootstraps.

One problem with consciousness is we pick it up when we are too young to appreciate what it can do for us. And nobody ever tells us we’re in charge of the whole show. We have to keep pushing ourselves as we grow older to transcend the former boundaries of our mental abilities. We are partly conscious while in school, conscious in different ways when working and raising a family, and later in life come into our own because we have time to work on perfecting ourselves in ways we never thought of before.

Which is when many of us are so tired of working we retire early, move to Florida, and spend the rest of our days playing golf. Such folks have maps of the different courses they’ve played in their heads. To improve their game, they do mental workouts, then practice every day until they get their score in a range they can live with. What if they took the same approach and devoted the same energy to understanding and improving their own minds and the world they live in in order to make up for all the mistakes they made getting where they are today? Instead of resting on their laurels, they could help create a world that would be better for them, better for their relationships, and better for this tired old Earth.

If consciousness can send Captain Nemo around the world in 80 days, Einstein on a thought experiment into space packing only his alarm clock, Raquel Welch on a fantastic voyage through blood vessels of the human body, others on a journey to the center of the Earth, my youthful self onto a basketball court or on a walk through snowy woods or into the sky to take pictures, then it should have no difficulty transcending conventional wisdom by placing those who so desire on a platform above themselves from which they can look down upon their own conscious minds—particularly their left-brain interpreters—in action.

That is the easy part. The hard part is adopting the discipline of making accurate, detailed observations from that perspective so the trip is not only an adventure but provides sufficient evidence on which to base a new understanding of the workings of our minds so that we may take responsibility for what we are doing in and to the world. Culture is a huge, collaborative effort from an agreed-upon point of view in the mind. Anthropologists study minds immersed in other cultures. We must become students of our own inner cultures in order to improve our mental processes and the actions they lead us to commit.

If we can visualize female circumcision in which the clitoris and labia minora of 300 million teenage (and younger) girls in Africa are excised every year with a rusty razor blade, we can ask ourselves whether we—male or female—would wish that practice on ourselves, our mates, and our children for any reason whatsoever. From a cultural distance, it is easy to see the pain, misery, and danger such a practice inflicts. The art is in seeing the mentality of male anxiety and presumed dominance within which it makes perfect sense, and then asking whether that mentality is the best we can imagine for ourselves. If it isn’t, we then have the option of handling our sexual anxieties in other, less punishing ways.

Read, watch, or listen to the news. Abuse and cruelty are rampant around the globe—directed at our children, mates, neighbors, bodies, and even the body of the Earth on which we live and absolutely depend. Thinking to get ourselves off the hook, we come up with millions of rationales for such behaviors. Looking down from above, we can see them for the excuses they are, and beyond that, see ourselves protecting the cherished assumptions by which we live. Those assumptions invariably cast blame for our failings on others, who by default become inferior beings deserving of punishment to keep them in line with our wishes.

What the news is really about is the sorry state of our own consciousness as revealed through the thoughtless behavior of those like ourselves. Everybody does it, we say, it’s just human nature. We’re no better than we should be. There in plain sight for all to see is the Big Lie. Discovering it in ourselves gives us the option of seeing behind the lie to what it is in ourselves we are so set on protecting. Not life itself nor our genes but the advantaged way of life we have chosen for ourselves. As if we were members of an elite core of beings far superior to the rabble around us. That conceit is at the heart of the discontent behind every one of our assumptions, attitudes, and acts.

Rising above our minds and looking down, we discover options we never considered when locked in the confines of conventional consciousness. We have more discretion in administering our workaday lives than we commonly think. Do we really want to spend time watching animated cartoons depicting the antics of two-legged mice wearing white gloves—who can talk? Do we really think an appropriate response to 9/11 is to invade a country having no connection with that attack? Because I loathe the very idea of abortions, do I have the right to deny them to women under any and all circumstances? Now that I am old enough to know something of my own mind, is playing golf the best use of my time?

If we reach the point of questioning our true motivation, we are halfway to taking direct responsibility for our actions in the world, for visualizing the situations we are in, and for our personal brand of consciousness itself. Nobody taught us how to do this; nobody can do it in our stead. But from here on the way is clear: the state of the world is our doing; if it is to improve, we are the only ones in a position to make it happen. Which is my definition of a superhero. Either we rise to this inner occasion or we don’t. The rest is the history of our times.

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