July 2012


I’ve just begun reading Antonio Damasio’s The Feeling of What Happens: Body and Emotion in the Making of Consciousness. I bought the book while I was in grad school, knowing it would be years before I could get to it, but so excited by the title! Consciousness and how it relates to the body and emotions is one of my favorite topics of inquiry. Plus, Damasio is a scientist with a (rare) good reputation as a writer.

In the introduction he describes six facts that a good theory of consciousness will have to take into account. Here are my paraphrases:

1) There will be an “anatomy of consciousness”: Elements of consciousness appear to be associated with activity in certain parts of the brain.

This may be scary to those who believe that consciousness is magical, or that its magic would be somehow diminished if it relied on the brain’s circuitry. I too used to be uneasy about that idea. After diving into brain studies a bit, though, I feel both excited and humbled by it. It’s just neat that our brains apparently produce all the subtleties of our experience. Also, it’s a good reminder that our experiences of feeling, thinking, knowing, and of awareness itself is created by our brains, and is not a direct line on reality.

2) Consciousness is more than wakefulness or attentiveness. Humans can be awake and attentive without being conscious.

Damasio describes patients who are clearly awake and attentive, but not conscious, and promises to devote two chapters to the significance of this phenomenon.

3) You cannot have consciousness without emotion.

I am excited about this point because I’ve thought it both crucial and little recognized since reading The Mind’s I many years ago. It had an essay which convinced me that real artificial intelligence would not be possible without emotion. Without emotion all you have is processing power. And in human intelligence at least, emotion brings in the body. Emotions are not just mental phenomenon. I can’t wait to see how Damasio deals with this.

4) There is a distinction between “core consciousness,” producing a sense of moment-to-moment “core self,” and “extended consciousness,” producing a story-making “autobiographical self.”

This distinction could bring clarity to the debates about consciousness in infants and non-human animals. Core consciousness may be the kind that everyone has, and extended consciousness the kind that we develop as our experience becomes more and more intertwined with language and concepts.

Core consciousness sounds to me like the experience that meditators work to remain in. We live most of our lives in the useful but problematic realm of extended consciousness, judging experiences as good or bad, right or wrong, safe or unsafe, and other ways they relate to the story we have of ourselves. Once we are living this way it is difficult to escape. Meditators find that maintaining awareness of core consciousness can be a welcome rest from all that. This practice may help the autobiographical self have an easier time as well.

5) Consciousness cannot be wholly described by other mental activities. Things like language and memory are necessary but not sufficient for full consciousness.

You can’t leave consciousness out of the discussion. It is more than its parts. I like this because I think a lot of scientists are squeamish of even using the word “consciousness.” It makes you sound like a hippy. Prepare to hear a lot of scientists trying to talk about consciousness without sounding like a hippy.

6) Consciousness also cannot be described wholly by describing how the brain creates our experiences out of sensory and mental data.

I read some famous scientist saying that if he were to be at the beginning of his career, he would be looking into creation of qualia, the “particles” of experience, that this was the next holy grail of psychology. That’s a good one, for sure, but I think an explanation of consciousness is a better holy grail than an explanation of qualia.

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I’ve written very little about my wife, Reanna. She prefers to stay out of the public eye, for the most part. But she’s been blogging more lately, and it’s her birthday today, and I’m feeling optimistic about getting away with it:

I am so lucky to have married Reanna! I’ve always been a lucky man, but she takes it over the top. I am certainly going to  have a bigger, happier, prettier, more interesting, more connected life because of her. And when my eventual death occurs to me, I feel noticeably calmer about it.

I get to hang out and talk with Reanna every day. She’s super fun to talk with because she’s so smart. It’s not just that she grasps and manipulates concepts and models so easily, it’s that she’s hungry for them and tenacious with them, working and talking through them until she’s made them her own. I love it!

And I love how physical she is. She inhabits her body fully. I’m so lucky to get to watch her swimming, dancing, stretching, smiling, to feel her confident touch.

I love how she is compulsively honest. I love how she thinks about her friends and family. I love her family and feel so lucky to have them as my family. I love that she makes quilts and tailors my clothes. I love that she likes gardening and loves cacti.

I love how she inspires me. I think of her as my audience when I write. Hers is the voice of my internal devil’s advocate. I take on projects I never would have because of her–our trailer renovation is a good example. We’re planning to write books and blogs together, have a family of our own, and who knows what else?

Best of all, with my family’s genetics I very well may get to live 50 or more years with Reanna. Lucky!

I finally found the obscure screwdriver bits that work on my 1962 Kenskill travel trailer windows, “clutch type,” on a website called Zoro Tools. I’m happy to have found this company in almost every respect. They had my obscure parts for very reasonable prices, and shipped them to me quickly and for free. My total cost was $3.90.

So the following complaint is a small, fixable part of my experience with this company. But look at this: My two screwdriver bits arrived in a two-gallon cardboard box, stuffed full of packing bubbles.

The size and durability of the objects shipped does not seem to be a factor in choosing the volume or type of the shipping container, nor the amount of cushioning. A small envelope would have gotten them to me unharmed, even if a truck ran over them en route. A small padded envelop would have done the job if the bits’ packaging was somehow precious. 

This is not just a complaint about Zoro Tools–I have the same experience with Amazon and most other shippers I’ve used. I’ve gotten an extremely durable hard plastic container of skin cream in the mail from Amazon in a small box packed in a much larger box filled with bubble plastic. I’ve gotten an ace bandage packed the same way.

Now it may be that Zoro Tools normally ships to larger companies, so they only have large boxes to ship in. (Though Amazon does not have this excuse.) It may also be that they ship mostly to retailers for whom the state of the packaging actually is precious. And there are certainly other shipping considerations that companies make that I am not aware of.

But it actually hurts me a little bit to see this kind of waste of energy, resources, and space. I don’t want to be part of it. I’d like it if there were a “Not Fussy” shipping option to choose from: “Please just slap an address label and a stamp on the actual product and put it in the mail, if at all possible.” Something like that. The company that does that will get my business.

I posted earlier about my first carbon-footprint calculation attempt, on carbonfootprint.com and thought I’d try another couple calculators to see how they compared.

First, I tried The Nature Conservancy‘s calculator. They gather a lot less detailed information than carbonfootprint.com, but also ask some new questions, like how often I check my truck’s air filter and tire pressure. They also have a way to be clear that I’m getting my individual carbon footprint, not that of my household, which was not so clear with carbonfootprint.com. They calculated my carbon footprint as much bigger than carbonfootprint.com, though, at 17 metric tons of CO2 per year: 17.8% on home energy, 64.6% on driving and flying, 2.8% on waste and recycling, and 14.9% on food and diet.

They also provide an opportunity to offset my entire carbon footprint and calculated the cost for me to do was $255: $15 per metric ton. That’s pretty cheap. I’ll have to look into carbon offset schemes and see if they are convincing.

Second, I tried footprintnetwork.org. They try to calculate how many planet earths it would take to support a population living my lifestyle–an interesting way of thinking about it. They gather a lot of the same information as the other sites, like how local is my food and how much I fly and drive. In some areas they gather more details, like how often I eat each of several kinds of animal products, how often I buy new clothes, furniture, appliances, and computer gear, and what kind of siding my house has.

This site estimates that if everyone lived like I do, we would need 3.5 planet Earths to sustain us. They suggested several ideas that would decrease my footprint: .1 of an Earth if I half my animal product consumption, .2 of an Earth if I “pledge to use less packaging,” .1 of an Earth if I use public transportation once a week, and .1 of an Earth if I do not fly this year because I chose “a local vacation.”

If I did all of these things we would need only three Earths to sustain us all at my standard of living. Half of an Earth’s savings is nothing to scoff at, but doesn’t really get us there. Plus, I already use very little packaging, and do not often fly for vacations.

They estimate how many “global acres of the Earth’s productive area” my lifestyle requires:  7 acres “energy land,” 2 acres “crop land,” 1 acre “grazing land,” 2.5 acres “forest land,” .5 acres “built up land,” and .25 acres “fishing grounds.”

They also calculate my “ecological footprint” percent by category: 52% in services, 11% in goods, 12% in mobility, 4% in shelter, and 16% in food.

Something is wrong about these calculations, but I’d need more details to know what. Half of my land-use is for energy, but half of my footprint is in “services.” What are these services that are using so much energy?

Still, a picture emerges. I have estimates of 10.41, 13.7, and 17 metric tons of CO2 per year, approximately 3-5 times as much as an ethical target. I probably create the most CO2 by burning fuel, driving and flying.

Reanna and I picked up a truckload of prickly pear pads of several kinds from our friends, Elise and Wolf. They are not a kind of prickly pear that is native to this part of the desert, but they grow well here. They said to plant them with the bottom pad about half underground and to water them for the first month. After that, they shouldn’t need water. And we can look forward to them growing quickly and producing yellow and salmon flowers, plus edible fruits. The rounder ones grow up a couple feet but stay close to the ground. The longer ones (like just to the right of Reanna) grow taller, six feet or so.

Reanna Planting Prickly Pear