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How we Create our Path in Life

Presented 20 July 03 by Glen Sandberg
Gulf Coast Unitarian-Universalist Fellowship
Wishing will make it so!
 From Love Affair (DeSylva 1939)
Wishing will make it so.
Just keep on wishing and cares will go.
Dreamers tell us dreams come true, it's no mistake.
And wishes are the dreams we dream when we're awake.
The curtain of night will part, if you are certain within your heart.
So if you wish long enough, wish strong enough, you will come to know
Wishing will make it so.

I have had long thoughts about the nature of wishing which I will try to share with you in this presentation.  I can't claim originality for any part except for collecting together many ideas that are current in our culture, and I will try to give credit to the sources that I found relevant in the written version which will be available on my web site.  I will finish with a brief review of the new book by Daniel Dennett, Freedom Evolves.  He discusses the religious, philosophical, moral and legal ideas of Free Will in a modern context.

Kinesthetic Modeling

When I was a child we had a tomcat who liked to catch birds.  He would see a bird in the middle of the yard and he would creep as close as he could without alarming his prey, then he would dash about two-thirds of the remaining distance and leap into the air.  Occasionally he succeeded in catching the bird in mid-air.  We don't know how much of that skill was learned from his own experience and how much was inherited neurophysiology, but the result was instinctive behavior that evolved by natural selection in the wild of those cats who could over those that couldn't.  What is relevant to our present discussion is the idea that he was imagining "what if?" and choosing the combination of muscular exertions that resulted in the trajectory most likely to reach that bird, assuming its capability to fly away.  He, and we, both have the capability for kinesthetic modeling - to imagine the results of muscular exertions we might make and to choose on-the-fly the ones that serve our purpose.  This capability is included in the almost-automatic reflexes that enable us to walk and run and jump, but we are more aware of imagining what to expect when we throw a ball or use a tool.  When we catch a fly ball we must imagine its trajectory in order to be in the right place when it comes down.  When we relate to other people we must imagine their reaction to what we say or do, and judge our actions accordingly.

We will try to develop an intuitive understanding and appreciation of how these interactive processes work, and the creative potential that they implement.  We will clarify why conscious awareness is only a small part of the process, and appreciate the subtlety of systems that make awareness possible.

Wishing is the part of the process of voluntary action that we are aware of; the rest is unconscious because there are so many details being taken care of at once that we couldn't possibly deal with them consciously. When we learn a skill we develop reflexes that do the details automatically, working independently, in parallel, in response to the program which is our intention to perform the action.  This parallel processing is the essence of how our mind works and the sequential, step by step mode of thought that we know as reasoning is a superficial overlay on top of the wealth of parallel processing capabilities that were already there.

So what do we mean by parallel processing?  The early ideas of the nervous system as communication channels with sensory inputs and muscular outputs conceptualized the brain as a switchboard, simple in principle but complicated only by the multiplicity of interconnections it had to manage.  The idea of learning as selective reinforcement of nervous connections with use, analogous to muscular development, was well established with Pavlov's conditioned reflex experiments and the teachings of Donald Hebb.  However the adaptability of even the simplest living systems was beyond our capability to explain. 

Lets look at the telephone switchboard in more detail because it will give us ideas that are useful tools for understanding our brain functions.  It consists of a panel with a hundred rows of a hundred jacks, each connected to the incoming line from one of 10,000 customers.  When you lift the receiver it works a contact that sends current to an indicator lamp to tell the operator which line needs service.  She plugs in her headset and asks "number please?".  You tell her the four-digit number you want and she looks for the appropriate jack.  If it's not currently in use she plugs in a double-ended patch cord to make the connection.  She might have several hundred such cords for as many calls to be active simultaneously.  This is an example of parallel processing - each call proceeds independently of all the others. 

In the 1920's this was automated with the rotary dial telephone.  When you turn the dial to a number and let it return it works a contact to send a sequence of impulses down the line.  At the exchange there is a device called a "stepping relay".  It consists of ten rows of ten contacts, each connected to an outgoing wire.  An electromagnet responds to the impulses, working a ratchet to step the moving contact to the appropriate row of output contacts, and the next series of impulses works another electromagnet and ratchet to step the contact along the row to the output contact corresponding to the second digit.  So the first two digits of your number have selected one of a hundred wires to the rack in the exchange that has another set of stepping relays to respond to your last two digits and select the appropriate one-in-a hundred outgoing lines

So we have automated a parallel process with hardware that works serially, one step at a time!  Many racks of electromechanical devices that don't go home at night or get paid by the hour!  Actually, in the 1950s they were replaced by crossbar switches and now with computer systems but lets not confuse our story.

Visual Perception

Lets use visual perception as our example to understand parallel processing in the Central Nervous System.  The retina of the eye is like the film in your camera, where the lens projects a focused image from objects around us, far and near.  It has cells with photosensitive dyes that generate impulses  according to the light they receive.  But it also has associative neurons that are like the patch cords on the telephone operator's switchboard.  But with an important difference - they can be stimulated, or inhibited, by signals in about a thousand other neurons.  They relay the impulses from the light-sensitive rod and cone cells to the optic nerve, but not in a direct one-on-one fashion.  Each one responds to a different combination of light-and-dark on the surrounding rod and cone cells so a signal on an optic nerve cell is the beginning of pattern recognition!

So here the analogy to the telephone switchboard must be extended in a wonderful way.  A patch cord makes a one-to-one connection from an incoming caller to its selected destination.  But one point in an image has significance only in the context of surrounding image points!  The associative neurons are constantly combing for combinations of signals from surrounding cells that have significance, and what they send through the optic nerve to the brain is - Aha!  Here's a region of light-dark contrast!  Or - Here's an edge that slants a certain way!  Or - Here's something moving in the visual field!  And - They are living cells that constantly reach for new interconnections, and keep the ones that have significance and let go of the ones that don't.

Pattern Recognition

The retina of the eye is actually part of the central nervous system, with associative neurons like those in the cerebral cortex that branch out and connect to approximately a thousand other neurons .  The signals they send through the optic nerve to the brain represent abstract features of the visual field such as light-dark contrast, motion, orientation and extension of edges, rather than a simple mapping of image points.  The optic nerves connect to the "visual cortex" in the occipital lobes of the brain.  From there the process of perception has been traced through a number of stages with binocular depth perception, color recognition, object vs. background resolution, and allowance for eye motion being abstracted at different steps of the way.  The barrage of visual-discrimination signals finally impinges on the frontal cortex which is the where our abstract thinking capabilities have evolved.  This is where we recognize the many ways that different perceptions are similar and so past experience is relevant to our present situation.

So the process of knowing what we see is creative, recognizing similarities between present and past experience and filling in the blanks from what we already know.  We keep in mind the actual shapes of familiar objects and recognize what is partly hidden from view.  The "remembered present" (N) is actually a better representation of our surroundings than the picture that our eye can perceive.  The capability for seeing fine detail is present only in a small central region called the fovea, where the cone cells that do color perception are crowded close together.  The rod cells in the surrounding part of the retina are sparsely distributed and unable to distinguish color but they are good for low-light vision and motion detection.

In fact our retinas have evolved inside-out, with the blood vessels and nerve fibers passing in front of the light-sensitive cells, giving a blind spot where the optic nerve exits.  We never notice the gaps because we can fill in the blanks in our imagined surroundings by glancing wherever we have the need-to-know and we immediately forget what was missing from our perception.  We automatically disregard the blurred image while our eyes are moving, and automatically put the new view into its proper place in our imagined model of the world around us.  And the model includes the third dimension of distance that results from a subtle discrimination of the difference between the flat views of our two eyes, or from motion parallax - the way the scene changes as we move our point of view.  Our "remembered present" is a sophisticated creation, from the fragmentary inputs of visual perception and past experience.

So:  All we know is what we think, so of course we think we know it all!  The saving grace is that the process is interactive, and we constantly improve our knowledge without even knowing that we do.

Thus the dynamic process of visual perception uses the scientific method!  We guess what our eyes are showing us, and if there is any doubt we look again.  We improve our knowledge of reality by correcting the parts that were wrong and then keeping the better idea in mind until it needs correcting again.  The process is automatic, and we are only aware of the final result at any moment.  It includes recognizing familiar objects in spite of differences in illumination and orientation and perspective.  It allows for the effects of motion, of the object or of ourselves, by kinesthetic modeling of what-we-expect to result from the motion.  This parallel-processing system, with associative neurons in the cerebral cortex constantly combing the input signals for combinations that have significance, has evolved by natural selection because of its survival value in the development of living things, ourselves and what we call "lower life forms".  So it appears that my tomcat, and the bird he is trying to catch, are using the scientific method that combines observation with invention to create images they can rely on to guide their motions.  They just don't know it the way we do.


Their instinctive purposes, to catch and to escape, are the part of the process which drives their actions that concentrates their attention on the task at hand.  The beckoning of opportunity and the psychochemistry of fright are highly evolved motivational systems that we share with other living things.  We don't need to know how they work because they are parallel-processing systems that are self-motivated and they grab our attention when they need to rather than waiting for our stream-of-consciousness serial processing of rational thought.  The feeling of eagerness and the sensation of fright are part of that fait accompli that is life-as-we-know-it.

However our capabilities for verbal communication and community action have widened our horizon far beyond the abilities of other species that we know.  The serial nature of speech has required a subtlety of logical processing and the social organization of the group has required a diversity of thinking that gives us an awful power for good and for evil.  The very ideas of good and of evil are conceptual tools we use to articulate our thoughts about purpose. We need to think of ourselves as others see us, in order to choose the words that they will interpret the way we want them to, and this brings a new kind of self-awareness.

Rational Thought

Our capability to thread our thoughts sequentially into the narrow channel of words and also to reconstruct a speaker's thoughts in our own mind is so powerful that our whole awareness of thought is cast in the mold of verbal communication.  Even when we jump to conclusions we are only aware of how they can be rationalized after the fact, since that is how we must explain them to someone else.  We are unaware of the parallel processes that are always present except for the ones that get our attention, and we hardly know those until they are rationalized.

As a counterexaample, solving a crossword puzzle is an activity where the unconscious associations of parallel processing in our brain are more apparent, as we comb our mind for words that fit the space, the definition, and the letters already in place.  In fact we must open our mind to the possibility that those might be wrong.  The cause-and-effect chain of rational thought is useless here and the answers appear miraculously to our conscious mind!


We rationalize our knowledge of the systems we need to understand by expressing our thoughts the way we would explain them to another person, in a sequential, cause-and-effect fashion.  It is easy use our own experience of wishing to accomplish something, to imagine a Cause that is just like us!  Or to invent reasons for our own actions that are more socially acceptable than the motivations that actually drive us!  So "rationalize" has become a bad word for a process that is often misused.

But we should understand that it is part of the process of modeling what-to-expect by filling in the blanks by imagining what we didn't know, as we did in visual perception.  That's OK if we don't mind abandoning explanations that don't fit the facts of later experience.  This dynamic process includes imagining the results of the various actions that we might generate and choosing appropriately.

We have evolved the motivational systems we need for social action, though they often work in mysterious ways.  We subordinate our immediate needs to getting the job done for some higher purpose, and we have a highly developed double-think mentality that can do justice to the conflicting purposes that are always present in our human lives.  The ideals of personal responsibility can coexist with the imperatives of going to war and the thoughts of good and evil can serve conflicting purposes without obvious contradiction.  The selective attention that we use to serve a purpose is a mixed blessing.  Although we use logical arguments to communicate and to persuade they are only part of the process of doing something, and the psychochemistry of motivation - how people feel - subverts rational thought.

The capacity for verbal communication that our ancestors evolved gave them such an advantage over competing life forms that we, mankind, have inherited the Earth, whether we like it or not.  Mammoths and saber-tooth tigers are extinct because of human predation, and the agricultural and industrial modes of production have made possible a human population growth that will devastate the Earth unless we learn to live within the limits of reality.  We can learn from the experience of others but it is touch-and-go whether we will.  We have the capability for social evolution, where new ideas are instantly available worldwide to survive according to their utility somewhere.  However our history until now has been dominated by violence. Over and over we see nomadic raiders or distant colonies gaining the capability to plunder the civilized peoples that preceded them and then the conquerors become civilized themselves.  In spite of the genocides and dark ages and plagues and starvation we are better off today than at any time in the past, but the phenomena of human motivation are so irrational that we behave in crazy ways, individually and collectively.(Q)  We have a long way to go in developing and using our capability for rational thought so that it can affect our behavior.  We must use our rational, scientific ability to explore the psychochemistry of human motivation because those systems that regulate mood and arousal are the means we have inherited to implement our intentions, whatever they are.

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