Category: Brains

Our Place In The Universe

An image from the Cassini spacecraft shows Earth as a point of light between the icy rings of Saturn.
Credit – Space Science Institute/JPL-Caltech/NASA

Thanks to the leaps in satellite technology, undertaken by NASA and others, as well as scientific advances as a result of humanity’s efforts to conduct space travel, there now exist many unique images of the Earth, taken from a number of different perspectives, and as living, cognitive beings in the 21st century of recorded human history, we have been privileged to have the opportunity to view the earth in ways that were impossible only 60 years ago. Many creative and innovative methods of photographing the Earth from above, from aerial photographs taken by kites, balloons, and even carrier pigeons, to those from airplanes and early attempts at rocketry, all contributed to our perspective in interesting ways. It would take several years after the advent of human space flight to finally accomplish the task of taking a photograph of the entire earth. On November 17th, 1967, the NASA/ATS-3 synchronous satellite, orbiting the earth at a distance of 22,300 miles, directly above the Amazon River, took the image below utilizing an Electronic Image Systems Photorecorder, transmitting the image to the Weather Satellite Ground station in Rosman, North Carolina:

I received a print of this photograph from the original negative, described as the “first color photo ever made of the entire earth,” as a result of my father’s employment at the Missile and Space Division of the General Electric Company, engaged in the effort to put an American astronaut on the moon. The souvenir photo was presented to me at age 15 as a gift intended to inspire and encourage my interest in all things related to space travel and to astronomy. I have lovingly preserved the image these many years, and although it is beginning to show its age, it still holds a particular fascination for me, and continues to inspire and encourage my interest in the perspective only possible to achieve from stepping away from the earth-bound view of life.

Most people remember the iconic image of the Earth from the moon taken in 1968 by the Apollo astronauts on their way to orbiting that nearest extraterrestrial orb, and in some ways, the simple fact that it was a cognitive human person recording that image on his way to the moon that gave it much of its appeal, but it was on August 23, 1966 that we first got to see the Earth from the vicinity of the moon, in an image taken by NASA’s Lunar Orbiter I:

Many astonishing and beautiful images of the earth from spacecraft orbiting the Earth have been recorded over the years, from John Glenn’s initial orbits of the Earth in February of 1962, to the many views of our planet recorded from the space shuttle flights, all the way to those being made available regularly from the International Space Station. As our technology progressed, we found new and interesting ways to record our place in the universe, and the image below, recorded in 1977 by the Voyager I spacecraft, shows both the Earth and the Moon in the blackness of space:

The image at the top of this post, recently sent from the Cassini spacecraft, recorded at a distance of only 900 million miles, is reminiscent of the very last image from Voyager II in 1990, which was taken just before the batteries ran out, at a distance of approximately 3.7 billion miles away. Carl Sagan famously used the photograph as a launch point for his book, “Pale Blue Dot, A Vision of the Human Future in Space.”

The perspective available to us as a result of these accomplishments, aside from being humbling and awe-inspiring, is one that we have only recently begun to appreciate more fully. We still have all the squabbling and competition among peoples and nations all over the globe, but we have far less of an excuse for not recognizing just how small our home planet looms against the immensity of the galaxy and indeed the whole known universe. We will eventually have to recognize the need to bring all people and nations together into a cooperative organized union of nations in order to preserve the Earth for future generations. Our place in the universe is not yet fully developed, nor do we seem any closer to bringing the people of the world together when we look at the conflicts and trouble spots in the world.

We hold the future of our species in our hands now. We are the caretakers of the earth presently, and the path ahead has some real challenges if we are to leave a sustainable and reasonably livable Earth to our children and grandchildren. Our place in the universe is uncertain in some ways, but we can work toward a greater understanding of our fellow cognitive beings and what it is that gives us our unique perspective. This is my hope in contributing to this blog–to join with all the other voices that are pressing us forward to a more sustainable future, and to achieving a greater appreciation of our privilege as Earth’s caretakers. The subjective experience of consciousness is the door through which we bring to fruition, the future of our fragile place in the universe.

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Mind Matters

A recent conversation with a psychologist friend of mine brought up the importance of our very human version of neurobiology, and how little we still understand about the complex neurobiological processes that are responsible for behavior and our ability to interact with our fellow cognitive creatures. While much has been discovered about the mechanisms of both cognition and genetics as they relate to brain development and how it all relates to human activities, not much material is actually available that definitively addresses the implications, sources, and treatments for specific pathologies as they relate in the fields of neuroscience and biology. A quick check into the sources of information on neurobiology in general will provide a wide range of options from which to choose, but so much is still not being studied and not wholly understood.

http://www.drdansiegel.com/home/

With all the research and scholarship taking place in the field of cognitive studies and neurobiology, there are a few hopeful signs that an expanded view of what might constitute a comprehensive theory of the subjective experience of consciousness might finally be emerging. UCLA psychiatry professor, Daniel Siegel, whose most recent book is “Mind: A Journey to the Heart of Being Human,” has a supportive view. On the website, “Big Think,” Siegel’s idea is reviewed and his idea is phrased in this way: “We’ve come to accept that the brain is the instrument that plays the mind, but Siegel takes it one step further by positing that your mind isn’t limited to the confines of your skull, or even the barrier of your skin anywhere in your body. Your mind is emergent – it’s beyond your physiology, and it exists in many different places at once.”

http://bigthink.com/videos/daniel-siegel-on-emergent-minds?utm_source=Big+Think+Weekly+Newsletter+Subscribers&utm_campaign=f4a5c82fe3-Weekly_Newsletter_030917&utm_medium=email&utm_term=0_6d098f42ff-f4a5c82fe3-40211698

Supporting Seigel’s ideas is an impressive background in a wide range of studies in psychiatry and philosophy, and his serious attention to the science of the mind and brain give his ideas some genuine gravitas. According to his bio on his website, “…Daniel J. Siegel received his medical degree from Harvard University and completed his postgraduate medical education at UCLA with training in pediatrics and child, adolescent and adult psychiatry.  He served as a National Institute of Mental Health Research Fellow at UCLA, studying family interactions with an emphasis on how attachment experiences influence emotions, behavior, autobiographical memory and narrative. Dr. Siegel is a clinical professor of psychiatry at the UCLA School of Medicine and the founding co-director of the Mindful Awareness Research Center at UCLA. An award-winning educator, he is a Distinguished Fellow of the American Psychiatric Association.”

I recently reviewed Siegel’s 2011 presentation to the Garrison Institute on YouTube and recommend it as a good introduction to the idea that the mind is, in Siegel’s words, “…an embodied and relational emergent process that regulates the flow of energy and information,” and in the video he describes “the role of awareness and attention in monitoring and modifying the mind.”

These are complex ideas and challenging for many people to wrap their own minds around them, but Siegel presents them in an accessible way to a more general audience and goes to great lengths to explain in detail, how it is that the “mind” includes the physiology of the brain, but is not limited to the physical structures of the brain, or indeed to the body itself. The implications for subjective experience in particular, and our very human version of consciousness generally, are far reaching and intriguing for anyone interested in the subject.

In the coming weeks, I hope to write about some of the recent ideas and investigations going on in our current century, and also to reflect a bit on some of the more expansive ideas from some of the great thinkers of the past few centuries. It’s interesting to me how many of the ideas from the past are now receiving greater attention due to the efforts of scholars like Siegel, and look forward to sharing my thoughts and musings with my readers here.

What It Means To Feel

Since there is so much conversation going on these days about Artificial Intelligence and what we might expect in the coming years as scientists and researchers advance in constructing ever-more complex machines, I thought it might be a good time to consider not only what it means to be “intelligent,” but also what importance the term “artificial” carries with it when using the two terms together in a sentence. In recent years, cognitive scientists and AI researchers have made significant progress in producing machines which can perform specific tasks and demonstrate specialized capacities for accomplishing remarkable feats of machine intelligence, and in very specific ways, have outperformed humans in circumstances which previously were thought to be beyond such artificial constructs.

While all of the hoopla and publicity surrounding such events generally results in hyperbole and sensational headlines, there is a degree of fundamental achievement underneath it all that warrants our attention and could be described as commendable in the context of modern scientific research. Most media consumers and television viewers have encountered the commercials for IBM’s Watson, and have likely been exposed to reports of Watson’s abilities and accomplishments. There is much to admire in the work that resulted in the existence of such a system, and the benefits are fairly straightforward as presented by the advertisements, although it is also clear that they have been designed to feature what might be the most benign and easy-to-understand characteristics of a system which accomplishes its tasks using artificial intelligence. Much of the underlying science, potential risks, and limits of such research are rarely discussed in such ads.

In order to make some kind of sense of it all, and to think about what it is exactly that is being accomplished with artificial intelligence, what forces and processes are being employed, and how the results compare to other cognitive achievements, especially as it relates to human intelligence and human cognitive processes, we have to understand something about the most important differences between a system like Watson, and the cognitive processes and brain physiology of modern humans. While some stunning similarities exist between the basic architecture of neural networks in the brain and modern AI devices, not a single project currently being undertaken is anywhere near the goal of rising to an equivalent level of general capability or even just achieving a basic understanding what it takes to create a human mind. It’s not that it’s an impossible undertaking, nor is it impossible to imagine how human minds might eventually make great leaps in both constructing advanced systems and in making progress toward a greater level of understanding. After all, the human mind is pretty stunning all by itself!

What is most discouraging from my point of view is how much emphasis is being placed on the mechanics of intelligence–the structural underpinning of physical systems–instead of including a more holistic and comprehensive approach to increasing our understanding. A recent article in the Wall Street Journal by Yale University computer science professor, David Gelernter, (Review, March 19-20, 2017) posits that “…software can simulate feeling. A robot can tell you it’s depressed and act depressed, although it feels nothing.” Whether or not this approach might bring us closer to “machines that can think and feel,” successfully doing so seems like a long shot. If all we can do is “simulate” a human mind, is that really accomplishing anything?

Professor Gelernter goes to great lengths to describe the levels of a functional human mind, and gives us valuable insights into the way our own minds work, and he illuminates the way we shift between levels of awareness, as well as how we make such good use of our unique brand of intelligence. He then suggests that AI could create these same circumstances in a “computer mind,” and that it could “…in principle, build a simulated mind that reproduced all of the nuances of human thought, and (which) dealt with the world in a thoroughly human way, despite being unconscious.” He takes great pains to enumerate all the ways in which the “spectrum” of a human mind operates, and then concludes that “Once AI has decided to notice and accept this spectrum–this basic fact about the mind–we will be able to reproduce it in software.”

We cannot reduce what it means to feel to the astonishingly complex machinations of the human brain, any more than we can boil down the complexity of the human brain to the point where an artfully written piece of software can recreate anything even close to human feelings–what it actually feels like to be a living, breathing, cognitive human being. As Hamlet explains to Horatio, “There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.” Shakespeare’s intimation on the limitations of even human thought should give us pause to consider the limitations of producing it artificially.

—more to come—

Knowledge and Emotion

Winter has finally begun to lose its grasp on the world around me, and as it wanes, I find myself in a fairly predictable state of mind for this time of year. It generally feels like a sort of aching melancholy or some leftover winter suppression or vagueness in my personal emotional experience of life, and while that sounds as though it might be unpleasant, it usually precedes a more buoyant and upbeat condition as the temperatures become more moderate and the Spring begins to really take hold. Since it is only temporary and is normally followed by a more balanced interval, I try to be philosophical about it and look forward to the inevitable lift as the flowers bloom and the world slowly becomes more verdant. Stepping out the front door this morning, I caught my first glimpse of that transitional moment and it inspired me to share some recent thoughts with my readers here.

The image of the blossoms right outside the front door was enough to stir the anticipated and more optimistic emotional response in spite of current conditions being a bit chilly and rainy outside. These blossoms seemed to appear overnight, and every year the various plants always appear on a different schedule, almost competing with each other for bragging rights as to which ones were first and second. While I generally would not definitively or empirically associate such emotions with the flowers that appear in front of my house each year, speaking of them in this way feels completely reasonable to me, and my appreciation for their arrival also appears unfailingly when they arrive. We may wish to call this “imposing” my own emotions on a bunch of plants, but it is more correct to say that my emotions are stirred by the appearance of these plants, and I recognize the part they play in my experience of these emotions.

The image at the top of the post was actually taken out behind the garage, but had no less effect on my emotional response to the plants out front. Having been inspired to walk around the yard by the availability of both time and opportunity, I found myself standing in a fairly moderate rainfall as I attempted to capitalize on the momentary emotional stirring within me. Quite the opposite response occurred as I examined the astonishing progress of the ivy crawling up the side of the garage, which had not been there only a week ago. Each Autumn, I attempt to reduce the presence of the vines in the back by savagely and unapologetically slashing the overgrowth on the back fence, and every Spring, the tenacity of nature and the persistent determination of the vines always seems to win out. I’ve tried every solution known to man to eradicate the chokers of the trees in my yard and the destroyers of my other plants, and every year the vines return, almost as though I hadn’t made any effort at all.

I recently reviewed a new book by Lisa Feldman Barrett called, “How Emotions Are Made,” and while there is much to admire about her work, it struck me as completely counterintuitive to suppose that our brains alone produce our emotions. The book claims to be about “our emotions—what they are, where they come from, why we have them.” She writes, “A mental event, such as fear, is not created by only one set of neurons. Instead, combinations of different neurons can create instances of fear…A single brain area or network contributes to many different mental states.” The implication here seems to be that our emotions are entirely explainable through brain science.

Dr. Barrett is a Distinguished Professor of Psychology at Northeastern University. According to her webpage: “Dr. Barrett’s research focuses on the nature of emotion from the perspectives of both psychology and neuroscience, and takes inspiration from anthropology, philosophy, and linguistics. Her lab takes an interdisciplinary approach, and incorporates methods from social, clinical, and personality psychology, psychophysiology, cognitive science, cognitive neuroscience, and visual cognition.”

In the coming weeks, I hope to expand on these ideas and explain how a great deal more goes into our emotional experience of life than can be explained by cognitive science, and to flush out more of my own ideas in the process.

Writer’s Are Often At A Loss For Words

writers-quill-and-journal

January has flown by at the speed of light it seems, and I have only today been able to find an opportunity to sit quietly at my desk and contemplate this posting–the first of the new year. It has been a tumultuous time for us all here in America over the past several months, and it has, no doubt, also been equally so for many others around the world. As Americans, we tend to look upon the events in our own native land as primarily our own, when it might be more precise describe them as world events, since we are inextricably linked to the rest of the world by virtue of our standing as a major force in the world. We may wish to turn our focus inward on our own country as a means of coming to terms with the circumstances of the world-at-large, but ultimately, we are, at some point, going to have to face up to the reality of eventually becoming a global community of human beings. I am not inclined to engage in political debates about the wisdom, virtues, or liabilities of becoming a global community of humans, and the purpose of this blog is far removed from such debates, but it is clear that as a sentient, cognitive, emotional, often irrational, historically contentious and radically philosophical and diverse community of humans, we are gradually going to have to acknowledge that our focus on the external world, on the world outside of our own personal subjective experience, will very likely require a much greater emphasis on understanding our internal world, if we are ever going to solve the problems facing us everywhere else.

The image above shows a most unique and thoughtful gift I received this year at our annual family Christmas gathering. Since we have such a large extended family group, for years now we have put everyone’s name in a hat and conducted a Pollyanna method for gift-giving, and our tradition has grown into an enormous barrel of fun as we not only scramble to find our recipient in a house full of celebrating members, but then we increase the torment by going around one-by-one and describing our gift to the gathered multitudes. As you might imagine, there are frequently choruses of “o-o-o-o-o-s” and “a-a-a-ah-h-h-s” as particularly fancy or interesting gifts are displayed, and occasionally, when a gift is clearly a mismatch with or some commentary on the receiver, chaos and laughter generally follow. My received gift of the writer’s quill and ink with a beautifully embossed journal met with a resounding cheer of approval from those present, and the acknowledgement that it would be particularly appropriate as a gift for ME, while not surprising to anyone, was a source of great delight for me as the grateful recipient. As someone who is historically sentimental and overtly emotional, I found myself oddly at a loss for words. The gift, in my heart and mind, clearly was much more one of gratitude for the acknowledgement as a writer, and I muddled through the description phase in a fairly unspectacular manner, only managing afterwards to give a heartfelt expression of thanks to my dear nephew for the sentiment the gift held for me.

to-everything-a-season

After the holidays had settled down a bit, I once again turned to this gift and thought to write some message on the inner leaf as a first use of the quill. It seemed appropriate to me to invoke the ancient wisdom of Ecclesiastes in view of the acknowledgement that all things contain elements of opposing energies, and in spite of our best efforts, each urgency in life has a time for it to flourish and a time when it wanes, but perhaps none more-so than when writing with a quill. I had some experience with similar ink pens in grammar school, which had the same metal point through which the ink would reach the paper, but the quill presents a unique challenge as the writer must gauge when to pause and when to dip the end into the ink bottle, and finding a method of presenting one’s thoughts in a reasonably consistent flow on the page takes patience and focus. I spent some time practicing on scraps of paper and experimented with my technique for some time, but eventually I concluded that it comes down to achieving a basic understanding of the dynamics of the process and then throwing caution to the wind in order to make any progress at all. What follows is an excerpt from my first entry in the journal. It’s a reasonably consistent flow in the thoughts expressed and a somewhat less consistent display of mastery with the quill:

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“Indeed, of all the things that make us human, perhaps none is more important or prominent or significant than brain physiology. So many of our capacities are enabled by the brain, so much of our experience of the world is made possible by cognition–by the firing of neurons and the transfer of ions across barriers from one axon to the next dendrite over the synapses, which send the electrical impulses racing along the neural networks between brain regions.”

While recording these thoughts in the journal, it occurred to me that there was a time in our world when the quill was the one of the most common writing utensils in use for writers of every sort, and it became quickly apparent to me that my mind, having become accustomed to a much quicker pace and a much wider variety of methods for recording its machinations, was clearly unhappy with the slow, steady, and almost draconian pace which the quill forces on the writer. My tendency to change my mind several times in the course of a paragraph or even in a sentence or within a phrase, caused me much consternation when I realized that implementing these changes would require that I either cross something out or inevitably to rewrite entire sections. We have been spoiled by our modern editing tools and alternative methods of recording our thoughts, in ways that allow for changes to occur with very little fanfare.

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On the box, the manufacturers in France chose to quote Victor Hugo, who rightly points out that writing with a quill has “the lightness of the wind,” but may, if the writer has some degree of skill in the subject, end up presenting thoughts which act with “the power of lightning.” There have been authors and creative souls of every sort through the ages whose words did indeed act with the power of lightning, and who also recorded those words using the quill and ink. They have my unmitigated admiration for pursuing their thoughts in such a way, and with such patience and determination required just to set them down on paper, let alone empower them with the strength of lightning.

I have recently been at somewhat of a loss for words. There are many thoughts tumbling around in my brain, though, and I am hoping to present a great many more of them for my readers here in the months to come. I hope you will return often to review those I have already recorded, and add your own thoughts on any entries you feel speak with even a hint of that lightning.

With best wishes to everyone here at WordPress.com…….John H.

Inner Worlds Within Worlds – Redux

Title: Self Awareness: Size: 21.5” x 30.5”x 1.75″: Media: acrylic, oil, collage & assemblage: Surface: canvas over masonite & board with wooden framework: copyright 2009 Lisa L. Cyr, Cyr Studio LLC, http://www.cyrstudio.com

“The only right and legitimate way to (a mystical) experience is that it happens to you in reality and it can only happen to you when you walk on a path, which leads you to a higher understanding. You might be led to that goal by an act of grace or through a personal and honest contact with friends, or through a higher understanding of the mind beyond the confines of mere rationalism.”

–Excerpt from a letter from Carl Jung to Bill Wilson – Jan. 30, 1961

Recently, I have begun to review some of my core postings here in John’s Consciousness, and in revisiting several of them these past few weeks, I have found that some of my insights and expressions have retained their centrality and sense of urgency even now. My experiences in the temporal world continue to point toward a synthesis of my many writings regarding the subjective experience of human consciousness, and my ever-expanding world within, when it is possible to attend to it directly, has benefited from the recent inclusion of serendipitous audio recordings of a kind of stream of consciousness that I have allowed to flow from within as I contemplate the stirrings within me. Central to these outpourings is a keen sense of longing to connect with other like-minded spirits out across the wider temporal world made available through modern technological advancements in communication and social media, and a much deeper personal and interior sense of longing for the kind of intimate sharing that can only result from developing a more spiritual worldview.

All of our longings, both temporal and spiritual, as well as the pain of new growth are felt both within and without. For me, the pain experienced within has always been the strongest and most difficult to endure. As an adult, I have come to understand more clearly now that something within me, long ago born and over countless centuries grown seeks acknowledgement in consciousness. As a youth, I felt this strange urge to express thoughts and feelings which burst forth without warning, and which I could not comprehend. Each time I would attempt to grasp the meaning of this inner force, bits and pieces of the curious puzzle would become clear briefly, and then vanish in the strictly-controlled religious world of saints and sinners and unquestioning obedience.

Occasionally, I would get glimpses of this inner world despite the pervasive atmosphere of strict controls and absolute rules, but could not sustain the thoughts and feelings long enough to make any significant headway. Looking back over the years, my whole being has now shifted from a traditional middle-class, religious upbringing, to a more unconventional and classless view of life that is a sharp contrast to the way it all began. Between moments of cognition in my inner realm, as rich and expansive as they continue to be, are extended periods of redundancy of obligation in the temporal. While most of these efforts represent necessary items that produce important results, it is often difficult to endure these gaps between meaningful awareness and dedicated efforts to sustenance, and it seems like endurance becomes more the goal than the means to an end at times.

Inner Worlds Within Worlds Art by Norman E. Masters

For some time now, the world outside of me has been at such odds with the world inside of me, that as I strive to maintain stability in both, I seem to be constantly shoring up the walls of one, deteriorating from neglect, and then racing back to devote my energies to the other. The subsequent chaos from running breathlessly between the two usually results in both alternately suffering to varying degrees. To complicate matters further, I have recently gained greater momentum in coming to terms with my inner world, significantly raising my expectations of achieving the goals I established for myself years ago. This hopeful progress, though uplifting, has created serious conflicts with my temporal existence. Thus far I have resisted abandoning my obligations for the sake of my work, and likewise refused to consider abandoning my work in favor of temporal considerations.

As with most esoteric undertakings, increasing comprehension precedes further progress. As my knowledge and appreciation of the complexities and subtleties of the evolution of consciousness grows, the many diverse and related theories begin to coalesce into a synthesis which is more comprehensive and quite beautiful in its depth and breadth. Human evolution, however convoluted or complex, has resulted in access to the penetrating self-awareness which characterizes human consciousness, and precipitated the development of human cultures, religions, and mythologies, as well as human psychology, philosophy, and a variety of sciences, all branching out like the veins of a large leaf, or a complex crystal formation.

The Psyche, according to Pythagoras “is the intermediary between two worlds: the Material and the Spiritual worlds. It is the Vital Energy that nests and inhabits in the matter”.

When we contemplate the astonishing variety of contingency necessary for human life to have progressed to this point, and to continue to progress beyond this point, it compels us to consider even some very unconventional points-of-view. How else can we arrive at such a distant destination in comprehension, as that of human consciousness, unless we remain open to alternative methods of enhancing our current comprehension, augmenting our current capacities, and altering our current level of consciousness? If the development of our ability to access higher levels of cognitive functioning, achieving an expanded intellect, and becoming self-aware, all were only just necessary adaptations for survival, and merely the consequence of natural selection, favoring those hominids with more complex brain architecture, there would be no compelling reason for consciousness to have progressed beyond a certain “survivability” level.

But if, as modern physics has demonstrated, we are all ultimately linked to the universal energies present in the early universe, and made from “the stuff of stars,” subatomic particles floating in the Higgs field, then it seems to me, that whatever forces govern the quarks, and hadrons, and leptons, and most recently, the theoretical “Higgs boson,” must be, in some manner, active within the wider universe of humans, planets, galaxies and super-clusters. All of existence, both temporal and metaphysical, must be a manifestation of and possess some degree of consciousness, only on a much grander scale.

If awareness of consciousness is an inevitable consequence of any evolutionary life process which produces creatures of sufficient cognitive ability and architectural complexity in the cognitive apparatus, then consciousness may well be what we can expect to find at the heart of the universe, manifested in an infinite variety of displays throughout. We will never know unless we expand our range of explanations to include every conceivable and inconceivable possibility.

marilyn connect to others

Reflection on these ideas has produced within me a greater expansion of the role of connection to others in my ruminations. Time after time, whenever a heightened sense of connection to another kindred soul enters my awareness, many of the ideas which have been percolating within me come (sometimes suddenly) to the surface, and I am occasionally intrigued beyond words at the prospect of opening up to a wider world of subjective experience as a direct result of these encounters. In the weeks to come, I hope to explore these connections more directly as they relate to this idea, and to seek a greater understanding of how these connections lead to a deeper sense of self.

–more to come–

Tides of Mind

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Contemplating David Gelernter’s new book, “The Tides of Mind,” for weeks now hasn’t helped me much with my own “struggles of mind,” but it has opened new avenues of thought, which is always a welcome development. In particular, his imagery of a “spectrum of consciousness,” with descending and ascending layers from being wide awake and alert to dreams and unconsciousness, although interesting as a means of describing the aspects of our mental machinery, illustrates well the challenges presented by the subject. He seems to bend over backwards to frame the question of consciousness as having everything to do with “mind” and not much to do with anything else. His background as a computer scientist and A.I. authority do provide a formidable foundation for dissecting the human mind, but I am often left unsatisfied as I work my way through his elaborate treatments of each layer in the spectrum.

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What he does well is lead us through what we experience subjectively in a more comprehensive framework for appreciating and understanding the complexity and subtlety of that experience as a cognitive creature. I enjoyed reading along as he guides us step-by-step through the gradually descending lower end of the spectrum, characterizing each layer in great detail and illustrating his points with passages from literature. It’s a unique approach that serves him well for the most part. Some of his references are not as familiar to the general reader, but this is easily resolved by simply looking up the passages which are well documented with footnotes for the curious reader.

Visually striking metaphors are occasionally employed and he sometimes wanders into unconventional and unscientific territory to good effect. As we drop down into his “spectrum,” where there is far less empirical data regarding what exactly is taking place, he deftly navigates his way through these vagaries and treats us to a no-nonsense description which invariably seems plausible, although less definitive. In the section entitled, “Dreaming is Remembering,” he calls the dream state “the inner field of consciousness,” where imagination and memory combine to “feed” consciousness, and where he concedes that we have only a small degree of “control” to determine which thoughts enter and which are turned away. He straddles the two worlds of conscious thought and dreaming reality with the confidence of a computer scientist, but with less imagination or intuition regarding how it is that our subjective experience of each reality might possibly arise within each layer.

lucid-dreams

It’s interesting to consider his idea that our memory of our experience of emotion is the catalyst for the spectacle of dreams, in spite of the fact that dream content may or may not relate specifically to the actual memory itself. The emotions we ignore or suppress in our waking life, according to the author, is once again presented to us in an imaginary vision, conjured as best as possible from whatever our memory and imagination can provide, which may seem completely unlike the original experience. Since the mind is “unconstrained” by our normal waking sensibilities, we cannot control how our thoughts manifest as we might while awake, and we must confront them in a way that we might never consider doing while conscious. Even in these scenarios, Gelernter acknowledges that “we never surrender completely” to these thoughts. We “feel” the memories, but still keep them from becoming “conscious” most of the time, only occasionally letting some “slip through.”

His description of dreams as something “we all know are hallucinations,” struck me as dismissive of any other possible explanation, and while we all may recognize that while we are asleep in our beds, our physical bodies are not fully participating in our dream scenario, anyone who has has any vivid dream of any sort can attest to the occasional physiological response that our bodies can produce in response to dream experiences. So little is known definitively about this area of subjective experience, that it seems a bit presumptuous to me to eliminate any other possible interaction by declaring that everyone knows dreams are hallucinations. Whatever dreams might be from a scientific perspective, it may well be that as we evolve as a species, we may yet discover some as-yet-undetected link to capacities which may reveal a transcendent or non-physical aspect to dreaming which does not require our bodies to participate.

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In an interesting sidebar, David pointed out that even as cognitive creatures known for our capacity to reason, we also “…long for our minds to be flooded with powerful emotion, so that we can only feel and can’t think, so that we can’t reason.” In the middle of all that, he points to one of the most human longings we possess–one that is central to my own dilemma–“…we long for pure experience.” I’m not as sure as David seems to be that this implies we “only” want to feel, and in a way that prevents us from thinking and reasoning. Cognition, in its most essential human form, is an acknowledgement of what we are feeling, and memory seems to me to be more a recollection of how we once “felt,” in a particular moment.

Our all-too-human longings, if we are able to acknowledge them, and to contemplate the connection we have to them–the “why” of our obsession with them–informs us about our nature as human beings in the broadest sense, but more specifically as an individual spirit in the world. Residing in our innermost personal world, our longings take on a much greater meaning–one that can only be understood well when considered as an image composed of the events of our lives–the moment-to-moment record of our innermost life as it unfolds in our daily lives and in our dreams…

—–more to come—–