The Voice of Thought

Ever since the hominid brain evolved sufficiently to provide modern humans with a degree of cognitive talent that still surpasses any other known species, the blossoming of conscious awareness slowly provided Homo sapiens with the ability to not only be aware that they exist, but to utilize this new ability deliberately and with purpose. It seems likely that some form of this ability may have been present in several other early hominid species, but only began to coalesce into a functional process during the Aurignacian epoch, where the full development of the higher functions were made possible by a significant increase in the complexity of the cerebral cortex. While very little solid evidence of any truly functional self awareness has been found prior to that time, I think even the most empirically-minded paleontologist would concede the likelihood, that the process of human evolution provided the capacity for our enhanced cognitive skills long before we were able to take full advantage of them or to demonstrate them.

Cognitive self awareness is, so far as we know, an exclusively human attribute that allows us to know we exist as a unique, individual person. It is my contention that it is made possible by virtue of an elaborate synthesis of both temporal and ineffable elements. While this idea represents a challenge to our 21st century scientific community, it is not completely intractable. As with most phenomena with multiple layers of both coherent and ambiguous components, the connections between disparate elements are often only possible to discern with determined effort and an open-minded approach as to how these aspects might come together.

The ability for complex thinking and to remember what we think, when combined with an expanding comprehension of the world generally in which the thinking occurred, led to an increasingly sophisticated thought process which may initially have flourished because it enhanced our ability to survive as a species, but ultimately imparted a great deal more than a survival advantage. Once the potential for self awareness was in place, it slowly began to manifest in demonstrative ways as we have seen in the early cave paintings by our primitive ancestors. The journey from those ancient beginnings to the modern day variety of human consciousness shows a remarkable range and variety of progress and aptitude, which was directly influenced by the development of self awareness.

Imagine the early Homo sapiens as they gradually began to make use of their newly acquired “functional consciousness,” awakening to the world of objects like never before. Modern humans were finally able to associate temporal objects with symbolic representations of those objects, as evidenced in the ancient cave paintings discovered in Ardeche, France in the caves of Chauvet-Pont-d’Arc, now believed to have been placed there some 35,000 years ago by the Aurignacian culture. These were not mental giants compared to 21st century Homo sapiens. They were not very sophisticated at all by today’s standards, but they were quantitatively more sophisticated cognitively than the Neanderthals, and were better able to compete for limited resources, enabling them to outlast their predecessors by thousands of years.

No matter what concepts or images or ideas may have occurred to the early humans, there was no way to overtly confirm the existence of a thought until there was a way to express a thought. It was no accident that the first demonstrations of consciousness were images—primitive symbols painted on cave walls—as visualization within the brain originally had no other way to be expressed than the memory of what the objects looked like in the world. Whatever level and degree of brain activity led to the development of language, visualizing the objects and events of the ancient consciousness became the symbol of those same entities, just as the sounds uttered by the early humans expanded their abilities to express them and to pass these symbols on to future generations.

It is also not surprising that the early attempts at producing formal symbols to represent the world resulted in pictographic languages such as cuneiform by the Sumerians and hieroglyphics by the Egyptians, all of which were precursors of ancient alphabets. Spoken language, once it took hold, became the voice of thought.

…more to come

Shared Experience

The apprehension of knowledge and the accumulation of experience, when it is applied to some fruitful goal can be a labor of love which produces beneficial results and extraordinary achievements. New experience is an essential component of progress and in spite of being potentially fraught with unanticipated consequences and unforeseen dangers may uncover key elements in our search for knowledge and result in completely unexpected experiences as we seek to accomplish our goals.

The level of anxiety possible when facing up to new experiences cannot be fully appreciated by others, nor can it be fully experienced by others in exacting measure, since WE are the only ones who have ever been the precise person that our individual lives produced. Commonalities and shared experiences are common enough in that they resemble each other in a general way, but I suspect that we may assume too much with regard to just HOW similar our experiences actually end up being.

Ask anyone who has deliberately jumped out of an airplane, while it was still flying perfectly well, what that experience was like, and their report of the experience will very likely resonate fairly well with others who have taken similar steps in similar fashion, and while each intrepid paratrooper brings a singular collection of individual personal experiences to that moment right before the jump, any human being standing at the open door of an airplane, parachute strapped to their body, looking out at the earth however many thousands of feet away, as they take that first step off into the unknown, is united at that moment with every other human being who found themselves in that same place.

Our subjective experience of every waking moment of our conscious existence–clearly unrepeatable in precise terms as individuals–alters every subsequent experience in mostly subtle ways, but occasionally in dramatic ways, and as consciously aware human beings, with brains and central nervous systems that function in remarkably similar fashion, across generations of human existence, we actually SHARE a fair amount of experiential sameness in the quality and character of human activity that can result in a very particular degree of resonance.

My maternal grandmother, as a young woman around 1908, won a piano competition by her performance of Mozart’s “Fantasia for Piano in D minor,” and her daughter, my mother, played the piano as a young girl, and her daughter, my sister, was given the music for Mozart’s work by my grandmother. When she had learned it and performed it for her teacher and my grandmother, she was described as “needing more challenging music to learn.” Several other members of our extended family are equally talented musically, and now, more than one hundred years later, we watch as the newest generations within our extended family embrace music in much the same spirit as our dear grandmother.

Resonating through the eons of time, all varieties of human experience frequently influence the subsequent character and quality of the experience of future generations. Some of this influence is the direct result of witnessing first-hand, specific events or the consequences of those events, but in order to account for the profound influence which echoes across generations, we must take into account the very nature of humanity itself, and how the experiences that span the innumerable generations of modern humans, contribute in a very real way to the oneness of spirit embodied in such commonalities.

more to come……

Memory, Language, Early Childhood

My own vague recollections of my earliest memories seem to begin in my third year of life, shortly before my third birthday when our family moved to Pennsylvania from Schenectady, New York.

Bits and pieces of memory from those early days still exist within me, and I remember most vividly, sitting on the large windowsill in the living room of our new home watching jealously as my siblings trotted off to school that autumn. It seemed to me to be an astonishing adventure they were enjoying beyond the boundaries of our yard, and while I had a vague sense of other people in the neighborhood, across the street and next door, my own vivid sense of experience within the confines of my home seemed truly to be the center of the universe.

The scope of my awareness of the world was extremely limited, and all of my siblings and I were being protected and limited in both geography and awareness by our parents. It was the autumn of 1956 when I first began to establish moments of conscious experience in memory, and to be capable of acknowledging my existence as an individual person. Over the previous three years, even though I had acquired a fair talent for both language and the association of words with objects and people, I wasn’t able to fully comprehend the implications of my experiences, nor was I fully competent cognitively. My brain was clearly functional on a level appropriate for my age, and my ability to learn and respond to typical social interactions was well in hand by age three, but my level of awareness was still fairly low compared to what it would become as I matured, in spite of all that I was capable of doing with my brain.

Due to extenuating circumstances, I have had the opportunity to be one of the main caretakers for my granddaughter, who has lived with us, along with her mother (my daughter), since she was three months of age. She will celebrate her third birthday this October, and I look forward to sharing in her awakening to the world with great interest.

It is an extraordinary privilege to share in the blossoming of her consciousness, and as she has grown, we have been largely able to discuss her circumstances in her presence, since very little of what we say registers in a meaningful way just yet with her brain, still bursting forth with millions of new neurons everyday as she matures.

And yet, in the evenings when she plays at my feet in my office, her actions and specific movements seem now to have a clear purpose and motive. She repeats actions appropriately in similar circumstances, gestures appropriately when she is confused, or happy, or sees a particular toy or other object that surrounds her play area. Although her activities are generally conducted in a spontaneous and otherwise unplanned manner, she also now is beginning to exhibit a determined methodology which indicates that many of her cognitive skills are beginning to blossom.

So far, while all of her mental functioning is appropriate for her age, perhaps even a bit better than average, she does not, as yet, seem self-aware. Even though she is only just beginning to speak clearly and with purpose, her speech is improving with leaps and bounds, and we are beginning to see her associating language sounds with a corresponding response that tells us, “I know they go together.”

The acquisition of language, which gives voice and meaning to the world of objects and people, is a requirement for awareness. Without the ability to express a thought, to articulate a meaningful response, or to give a name to an association that takes place in the mind, we cannot hope for a full circle of awareness. Recognition and recall of sounds, associating sounds with corresponding responses, memory and discernment all precede awareness.

…more to come

Experience of Imagination

James Taylor wrote a song called, “Carolina In My Mind,” asking two questions:

“Can’t you feel the sunshine? Can’t you just see the moonshine?”

The chorus ends with the words, “I’m goin’ to Carolina in my mind.”

Have you ever been transported to another time as you became lost in a powerfully written book, or suddenly relocated to another environment by imagining yourself there? Have you ever found yourself totally immersed in a world created by an especially captivating motion picture? Our mental projection into those thoughts and feelings during those experiences often make it seem as though we are actually “experiencing” those imaginings, although they actually have only a virtual existence and not a physical one.

In some instances, depending on the richness of the imagination which produces the experience, as well as how thoroughly the virtual world being experienced resembles or models the actual world, the mental activity in our brains which registers the sensory input and combines with our central nervous system to inform the brain of what is transpiring, can sometimes produce remarkably vivid experiential responses that compare well with actually being in a particular location having that experience. Indeed, what transpires in our minds during experiential awareness of our journey can occasionally seem less real than our imagined journey, lacking some degree of fulfillment of our expectations.

Flight simulators, three-dimensional virtual worlds, and vivid imagining can produce or invoke an experience that is virtually indistinguishable to our “approximating” brain, and depending on how long we are immersed in our imagined or virtual world, and are able to allow ourselves to “escape” physical reality, the “imagined” world can become “substantial,” and the substance of the physical world can be rendered “invisible.”

Christina’s World by Andrew Wyeth — American painter, born 1917)
1948 The Museum of Modern Art, New York Tempera

Artists and poets can sometimes evoke an experience of a moment in another world by presenting us with the most essential markers of an experience, which we then use to “fill in the rest.” Andrew Wyeth was particularly talented in this way.

Over recorded time, various intellectual and spiritual movements have evoked elements of the entire spectrum of inner human life. (One may wish to describe the “intellectual” in empirical terms and the “spiritual” in metaphysical terms, but both represent identically “non-physical” aspects of inner human life.“) Our “inner” lives are not necessarily located inside our bodies per Se. While the brain is clearly encapsulated within the skull, our intellectual life is equally invisible when compared to our spiritual life, and is not limited to residing only in the skull. We “travel” with our minds and transport ourselves with our thoughts to realms where physical reality may not be able to takes us readily–the future–across the galaxy–to worlds without tangible existence–but we utilize many of the same mental structures and processes when we experience physical reality.

….more to come.

Compassion versus Terrorism

With all of the shouting and media coverage of the demise of Osama bin Laden, perhaps the most poignant and important response after the announcement by President Obama, came from a woman named Carie Lemack, whose mother, Judy Larocque, was on American Airlines Flight 11, which hit the North Tower between the 94th and 99th floor, imploding on impact, its 24,000 gallons of jet fuel.

Since that awful day in September, 2001, Carie has been promoting the Global Survivors Network, which supports victims and survivors of terrorism around the world, and is on the advisory board of Families of September 11, Inc., which is a nonprofit organization founded in October 2001 by families of those who died in the September 11 terrorist attacks.

She spoke live on CNN this morning, and as opposed to many of the individuals interviewed about how they responded to the news of death of Bin Laden, the mastermind behind the tragedy, Carie’s measured and compassionate response struck me as profoundly insightful and relevant to how we, as Americans and as human beings, ought to be moving forward now, in view of the events of the last ten years.

She spoke of the terrible sadness created by both the attack on the United States, and by our conduct in response to the attack. We could not simply stand by and do nothing, but the loss of almost three thousand victims of the attack, and of the almost twenty-five hundred military personnel lost in the campaign against Al Qaeda in Afghanistan called, “Enduring Freedom,” should inspire every human being to seek “a world in which differences are not settled by senseless killing,” but by working through our differences through other non-violent means.

When asked, “What is the most important work ahead that you will be working on?” Carie responded by saying:

I work with victims of terrorism around the globe to help them speak out against terrorism–and we want to our voice to be louder than those who advocate for terrorism.

God Bless America…….and all who defend her.

John H.

As April Ends…The Lark Ascends

Vaughn Williams knew something about the early morning by the time he composed “The Lark Ascending,” and for me it is nearly impossible to hear this piece without imagining myself at some observation point in the early morning as the day begins. The following posting by Barbara Heninger briefly describes the orchestral version:

The work opens with a calm set of sustained chords from the strings and winds. The violin enters as the lark, with a series of ascending, repeated intervals and nimble, then elongated arpeggios. These rise into the first theme, and the orchestra quietly enters to accompany the solo in the development of this somewhat introspective, folk-like motif. The solo cadenza is reprised, then the woodwinds, led by flute and clarinet, announce the second theme, a folk dance.

Williams was also apparently inspired by a poem:

In The Lark Ascending, Vaughan Williams found inspiration not only in English folk themes but in a poem by the English poet George Meredith (1828-1909). The composer included this portion of Meredith’s poem on the flyleaf of the published work:

He rises and begins to round,
He drops the silver chain of sound,
Of many links without a break,
In chirrup, whistle, slur and shake.

For singing till his heaven fills,
‘Tis love of earth that he instils,
And ever winging up and up,
Our valley is his golden cup
And he the wine which overflows
to lift us with him as he goes.

Till lost on his aerial rings
In light, and then the fancy sings.

Emerson wrote what is probably one of the finest descriptions of an observed sunrise experience:

I see the spectacle of morning from the hilltop over against my house, from daybreak to sunrise, with emotions which an angel might share. The long slender bars of cloud float like fishes in the sea of crimson light. From the earth, as a shore, I look out into that silent sea. I seem to partake its rapid transformations; the active enchantment reaches my dust, and I dilate and conspire with the morning wind.

– Ralph Waldo Emerson

Looking ahead to warmer temperatures and mornings in observation of the dawn.