During my early encounters with psychology, that word held strong connotations of either animal experimentation or pathology and mental illness. Stemming via Latin from two Greek words meaning roughly “breath” or “spirit” (Latin psyche) and “talk” or “thought” (Latin logos), the two roots add up to something like spirit talk or mind lore.

Early on, breath was taken as a sign of life, absence of breath a sign of death. Breath was what we acquired at birth, and surrendered with our last gasp—what some thought of as “spirit.” It came to stand for the non-physical element that seemingly animates our bodies.

The negative connotations of psychology were laid on in the nineteenth century when attention was directed by medical doctors to what might go wrong with a mind in contrast to its right and proper functioning.

Much of my early reading in psychology was given over to discussion of mental disorders. You couldn’t read psychology texts without wondering how crazy you really were. Now, my interest in the mind is directed more toward its normal, everyday performance. I think we need to understand what’s right with the mind before we can properly deal with what’s gone wrong.

That difference itself says a great deal about how our minds work. We pay attention either if our minds seem to work exceptionally well, or if they do poorly. Idiot-savants combine those extreme states of mind. The state of normality in-between is taken for granted without comment. That’s why the connotations of psychology are so often negative, suggesting our minds need mending or healing. If they work as they should, there’s no need to seek out Dr. Freud or Dr. Jung.

The meaning of “mind lore,” then, commonly leans toward the negative polarity, as just owning a car has strong implications of a good garage being available to keep it in good running order.

My preference is to consider the human mind in its everyday mode of wellness and not sickness. For that reason, I now introduce a series of posts dealing with the mind in the context of baseball, our national pastime; Peter Mark Roget’s Thesaurus, found lying around somewhere in every writer’s workspace; and the stars above, which, remote as they may be, affect our inward lives more profoundly than any creation of mankind ever has.

And now a plug for engagement. The prevailing attitude is that mind puts a consumptive drain on the brain’s physical resources, so cannot be visualized as a kind of spiritual entity operating independently of the brain. But as I have been trying to point out in this blog, engagement is a stimulating activity that, for good or ill, arouses and focuses attention, serving as a kind of on-off switch that directs the brain’s physical resources to mental activities in an extremely efficient manner precisely because of the synchronization it enables between perceptual and physical activity.

Notice how all else falls away when we are fully engaged. Engagement isn’t just a drain, it gives the brain a needed boost as a coherent and smooth-running engine at peak performance. Engagement assures the biggest bang per unit of neurological exertion. When disengaged, the brain is at sixes and sevens without a sense of priority. Each module putts along doing its own self-maintenance chores. When engagement kicks in, the brain comes to life like a dog about to being taken for a walk. Now it can truly show its stuff and not just lie around the house. I would say the brain exists to sharply and deeply engage, as the dog exists to run, leap, and frisk.

Here I will maintain that the mind not only exists, but exists to engage in the play of baseball, of looking up words in the Thesaurus, of celebrating the lights in the sky overhead. As a hint to what lies ahead in this series of posts on baseball, Roget’s Thesaurus, and human concern with the stars, just imagine the skilled and passionate engagements of those thousands of medieval craftsmen who built Gothic Cathedrals. They might have claimed to be doing God’s bidding, but out of professional pride, they put their hearts into the work of creating the most imaginative, attractive, breath-taking, and durable structures since the fall of the Roman Empire. Those cathedrals were direct expressions of human minds working in collaborative and passionate engagement on the most important projects in a thousand years of human endeavor. We gasp when we look upon those buildings today, monuments to the men who conceived and constructed them stone by stone, window by window, with their hands and eyes engaged in precise coordination.

Baseball. Abner Doubleday (later a General at Gettysburg) is said to have invented baseball in 1839 as a means of keeping his military academy students in good physical shape. Another tradition traces the origin back to the base-running game of rounders in eighteenth-century England. Doubleday did stipulate the dimensions of the playing field, size of and distance between bases, rules governing defensive play by the team in the field and offensive play by the team at bat.

The game itself serves as a metaphor for the battles that make up a military campaign, without the killing. Its very structure flows from the polarity that underscores awareness of events good or bad, positive or negative, desirable or undesirable, won or lost. The rules of baseball impose the ideal of fairness on every contest, giving both teams an equal chance at winning the game.

We watch baseball because many of us find it thoroughly engaging. It speaks our language, and we speak its. It’s as if we are born to play and watch baseball. Or so it seems. Actually, we are born to engage with what captures our attention, and baseball is designed to do just that.

Baseball brings out our best at throwing, catching, running, sliding, leaping, batting, playing as a team, and displaying our skills at offense and defense. All of which requires extreme concentration every step of the way. Baseball does exactly what Doubleday intended it to—keep us on our toes while striving to do our best. Even if we’re in bleacher seats, we are aroused, paying attention, and on our toes nonetheless.

 

389. Fish or Cut Bait

December 26, 2014

The life we are born into is only a beginning where the major decisions are made by grownups and the culture they live in. We as children go along because we don’t have a choice. We are too inexperienced to know any better.

But we are fast learners. As we gradually come into our own through hard-won experience, we learn to grapple with situations as we come to them, striving for freedom and independence in living as we choose to live for ourselves, not as somebody’s child.

As a matter of course, being ourselves in our earliest days gradually comes to us while we are somebody’s child, so we become who we are through a long series of trials, errors, corrections, retrials, and eventually morph into young selves whose judgments we can live by and with.

Examples of the exercise of judgment include parental decision-making as expressed in such terms as “Good girl,” or “Naughty boy, “Try harder,” “You can do it.” The world we are born to includes courts of law where judges, tribunals, and juries weigh the evidence pointing one way or the others towards either guilt or innocence; playing fields where umpires call strikes or balls, safe or out; and debaters randomly assigned a thesis to defend or disprove, pro or con.

Judgment comes down to an either-or decision: yes or no, go or no-go, true or false, wise or foolish, freedom or captivity, change it or lump it, fish or cut bait. Which means the situation at issue has to be structured as a duality to simplify the job of making a polarized decision.

This structure is not arbitrary. It flows from the workings of a human mind that frames situations in black or white. Nerve cells either fire or they don’t. They resolve the various activating and inhibiting signals they receive. If the activation threshold is reached, the nerve cell fires; if it fails to reach that level, it does nothing. End of signal in that branch of the network.

True, if the threshold is crossed, then variations in signal strength are reflected in the frequency of firing. But if the threshold is not reached, that signal is dead in that neuron.

Which is why so many of the concepts with which we compose our thoughts come in pairs of opposites: pro or con, assertion or negation, promotion or opposition, with or without, fight or flight, and on and on.

The essence of consciousness is found in sharpening perception, increasing contrast, heightening discernment, making thoughts and judgments that much clearer and unambiguous.

We are wayfarers made to be judicious in choosing our pathways through a succession of either-or decisions. Our choices have serious consequences: win or lose, succeed or fail, live or die. The wisdom of our heritage, genome, intelligence, and judgment all comes down to the quintessential difference between positive or negative outcomes. We make it or we fall short.  Eat or go hungry. Survive or perish.

From our earliest days, life is a matter of learning to make the right choices in one situation after another. Success means we win the right to make future decisions. Failure means we have gone as far as we can go and have come to the end of the line.