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Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Testimony of the Senses/Crossroads

Today, first day sitting in the home office - things are hooked up more or less although the final configuration has yet to be tweaked.  Last night sang well and terribly...well at Petterino's, two songs, I Thought About You, and also Walk on By.  But then went to Serbian Village to the jazz jam session and I sang the same song, I Thought About You, but this time as a jazz swing number versus a ballad. Remember when I told you what could go wrong with a jazz tune when you have the whole jazz ensemble behind you? Sure enough, I got behind and unlike in Cabaret-land, they don't wait for you! Discouraged about jazz singing - it's so damn hard. Driving back home, I had to admit to myself that I'm just not good at it. Shock! Sarah not good at something! Boggles the mind, right? I had a friend once that bemoaned that I'm really good at everything I do. I reminded her that I ONLY do things I'm good at! At least that was then - now, it seems I do stuff I suck at, like singing jazz. So what to do? Crossroads. I can either give it up and save myself further mortification or I can get good at it. What's not an option is continuing to do it and not be adept.

And at Petterino's last night more unattractive behaviors witnessed. It seems to be, for me, a Petri dish kind of place for observing human interactions. I sat next to a largish party of about eight, two men and six women.  There was a locally famous philanthropist I recognized sitting at the head of the table, within arms length of me (his back to me so I could observe unnoticed). This guy looks like an old country bumpkin - in his '70's: unruly wiry hair, leathery wrinkly skin, poorly dressed (always seems to wear checked or plaid shirts), and his voice is goofy too - he guffaws. Really, if you were unaware of his Chicago status, you wouldn't give him a second look, and if he hit on you, you would demure - he's that unattractive. But he's fabulously wealthy and generous with his wealth (he's purchased drinks for all the singers from time to time).

So this is what I witnessed as I sat there as a social scientist. Most everyone kowtowed to him: the waiters who hovered, the sound man who was told the speakers were a bit loud and positioned disadvantageously pointing at their table, the emcee who fawned over them singling them out in the room - asking him to stand and be feted and then later, further obsequious comments. There were even orchids placed on his table - maybe he had requested them, maybe not. Each of the singers who walked by him, sought his eye and if he nodded his approval, all but swooned. And the women at the table were all young and beautiful, 30-40 years his junior. It was his wife I studied most - she is stunningly beautiful with a knock-out figure. When I Googled him this morning it seems they are fairly newlyweds (a few years). Body language is always telling. She sat too far from him, leaning more into the space of her friends. He was a toucher, couldn't keep his hands off her even though it was a stretch for him to reach her. She smiled benevolently at him  from time to time, just enough to assure him. Wealth and beauty wedded - to this casual observer, it seemed an uneasy, insecure arrangement. In his private moments he had to know she was with him only for his money - he is an old troll of a man. In her private moments, she must shudder with repugnance for having sold her soul for the almighty buck. Ugly, ugly, ugly. And who am I to judge? I could be wrong! They could be blissfully happy! Don't think so, though - it was the body language that was telling.  

So the book, Incognito - still thinking about it.  This morning over coffee I reviewed it and jotted notes in the margins of the pages. There is a significant chapter entitled, The Testimony of the Senses, that gives example after example of how our senses are easily manipulated - what we think we experience is often a "party trick of the brain".  Here's a quote:
So the first lesson about trusting your senses is: don't. Just because you believe something to be true, just because you know it's true, that doesn't mean it is true. The most important maxim for fighter pilots is "Trust your instruments." This is because your senses will tell you the most inglorious lies, and if you trust them - instead of your cockpit dials - you'll crash. So the next time someone says, "Who are you going to believe, me or your lying eyes?", consider the question carefully. 
After all, we are aware of very little of what is "out there". The brain makes time-saving and resource-saving assumptions and tries to see the world only as well as it needs to. And as we realize that we are not conscious of most things until we ask ourselves questions about them, we have taken the first step in the journey of self-excavation. We see that what we perceive in the outside world is generated by parts of the brain to which we do not have access. These principles of inaccessible machinery and rich illusion do not apply only to basic perceptions of vision and time. They also apply at higher levels - to what we think and feel and believe.
The vision examples were profound.  How does a brain that is "encased in absolute blackness in the vault of your skull" construct vision? Turns out the nerve signals the brains uses to construct pictures can come from any of the sensing organs. And for people whose optics don't function normally, the solution is to deliver the pictures through another organ - substitute one sense for another. A neuroscientist named Paul Bach-y-Rita proved this concept by attaching a video camera to a blind person's forehead  and then converting the incoming signal into tiny vibrations on the person's back. After a week or so, the brain got it and now it sees exactly what the video camera inputs to it.

The most amazing example of seeing with another organ is the mountain climber Eric Weihenmayer - the first and only blind person to scale Mount Everest. He did this by use of a electronic grid in his mouth that "translates a video input into patterns of electrical pulses." Turns out, the tongue is a sophisticated piece of "machinery" that can be re-purposed to "discern qualities usually ascribed to vision." Proves that we see with our brains, not our eyes!! The same technology has been used commercially to equip soldiers in nighttime combat with 360 degree vision and divers to be able to "see" in deep murky water.

So throw away everything you've ever thought about the feeling and sensing world you live in. All of what we perceive is a creation of our brains and much of it is ego-centric - not the world as it really is. The benefit to a book like this is to shake us out of perceptions of self and world and see things more creatively and broadly. Consciousness is something I've never consciously given much thought to in the past (ironic to say that, right?) Are you like me in feeling pretty cozy that the world you experience in your waking hours, with the senses you possess, is the real deal? I know we need to be anchored but being myopic and not examining this stuff is being tethered not anchored.

The challenge today is to think bigger in an effort to understand our place in the universe(s). I'm starting to wonder if consciousness is wasted on the mundane - seems to me it might be the fuel of the universe - it might traverse time and space - it might be that ours and other sentient beings' consciousness is what's divine. There may be others out there waiting for us to figure it out. Just trying to think bigger.


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