Snorkeling over the coral reef, I perceive a vista of seemingly unmoving, unchanging corals. Starfish and sea cucumbers sit motionless on the bottom. Fish glide or hover or dash here and there. The brightly colored fish attract my attention as they glitter in the sun. Suddenly, my head turns, my eyes focus together on a single dead coral head. Even though I was not looking directly at it before - had not been aware of that particular section of the sea floor - some part of my mind was alerted. I know, after the event, I saw the dead coral rock move slightly. Dead coral rocks do not move.
I swim closer and dive down. The rock looks like a rock. I reach out to touch it and part of the rock moves again, sliding away from me. My mind refocuses and I see an octopus. It's skin has taken on the color and texture of the dead coral. Even though I am only a meter from it, it is still difficult to sort out the boundaries of the octopus. They are very good at disguise.
If the octopus didn't move I would not have been aware of it. My mind had already formed an image of the coral reef and set up certain expectations my conscious mind was totally unaware of. Even though I was swimming, even though my eyes were moving both along the trajectory of my body and sliding back and forth over the whole vista of the reef, the mental image showed a still-life image of unmoving corals and dead coral rock sprinkled with sudden, bright movements of reef fish and the random prismatic ripples of sunlight on the sea floor.
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Although the mask restricts my normal vision slightly, I could still see a large area of the reef. The amount of information reaching the retina of my eyes was staggering. From the view of the millions of little cells forming my retina, there was a constantly shifting array of millions of colors and shifting light intensities.
A single retina cell will sit quietly with its fellow retina cells until it detects a change. Some have been pre-set to send off a message to the brain when there is a shift in light frequency (a change in color) and others are pre-set to send of a message when there is a change in light intensity (from light to dark). The cell does not react to a particular level of light or color, it reacts to the change of color or light intensity. If conditions remain below the trigger threshold (i.e. the change is very slow), the retina cell does not signal the brain and, of course, the mind does not become aware of a visual image. Until the cell signals, it might as well not be there as far as our awareness is concerned.
When it does signal, the committee of cells it communicates with receives the incoming information and compares it to the information from adjacent retina cells. The information passed along from the eye cell to the brain cell is the news of a difference, a change. The eye cell expects conditions will continue at a steady state. When the conditions change, this comes as a surprise to the eye cell. The change of light is perceived by a chemical reaction within the retina cell. The cell compares the altered chemical condition with its memory of the intensity of light just preceding the change. If the difference exceeds a certain level, the cell reacts by sending off an electrical pulse to the brain.
My conscious mind works on changes, too. It was focused on the fish and corals and thoughts of how the fish interact with the corals. My eyes were focused on a bright yellow butterfly fish nibbling on the polyps of a coral.
Some of the retina cells picked up a shift in light intensity when the octopus moved. The message they sent to the brain cells differed from the signal recorded just prior to the new signal.
The brain committee had already reached a consensus about that particular field of vision and passed it along to higher level committees. These integrated the information, compared it to information coming in from other committees, and reached a consensus as to what the image meant.
This was then passed on to higher centers again in a chain of relays through numerous layers of clustered neurons, until the information was assembled with all the other environmental stimuli as a mental image of the coral vista and my own body moving through it.
Each cluster of neurons had expectations based on prior perceptions and stored memories of what the world is expected to do.
Each level reacts according to these pre-set levels of expectations. Some of the expectations are set to conditions existing the previous 1/24th of a second (the interval it takes for my mind to discern changes in the environment).
Some expectations are set to memories acquired during my personal experiences over 5 decades of observations. Some expectations are set according to genetic memories millions of years old.
When these expectations are not met, the system reacts. It compares the new condition with expected memory and responds as needed to survive. At the highest level of data integration, based on personal and genetic memories, the mind knows dead coral rocks do not move.
This is exactly the kind of difference animal minds are set for. When something in the field of vision moves that is not expected to move, danger signals are sent throughout the system.
The whole body reacts. The head musculature is instructed to turn to face the anomaly. The eye muscles point the eyes at the unexpected signal. The conscious mind becomes aware of the dead rock. My conscious mind was filled with curiosity and I moved closer (cautiously because some sea creatures are dangerous) to investigate.
This is all pretty complicated. It's a wonder it works at all. Imagine the incredible feat of seeing the almost invisible octopus simply by detecting a proportionally unusual shift in shadow intensity amid the vast field of information pouring into my eyes as I swim over a coral reef. Yet the smallest fish on the coral reef can do exactly the same thing with its keen little eyes.
I have watched protozoan ciliates zooming around under a microscope. They navigate at high speed through three dimensional space and can instantly detect changes in their environment. Bacteria and even viruses detect changes in solar radiation, molecular, electronic and even magnetic conditions around them and react as needed to survive.
Each living being, on all levels, interacts with the environment around it. It sets up an internal filter, like a spider's web. The mesh size is determined by genetic and personal memories. Beings expect conditions to continue or pass through regular cycles. If these expectations of cycles are met, the net is undisturbed and awareness does not appear.
When some aspect of the environment changes more than the expected amount, the web of memory is struck, awareness awakens. The new event is compared to memory. Mind has an array of reactions available, tagged onto parts of the memory net, ready to respond with learned behavior patterns to survive.
This process works for living molecules (DNA, RNA, and other organic molecules). Awash in a constant flow of moving elements, the molecules have a pre-existing internal set of conditions: expectations of a steady state. When these conditions change beyond a certain limit, the molecule reacts - unfolding, exchanging signals with other molecules, attaching selected elements to key places as it moves.
Societies of creatures follow the same pattern of behavior. A barracuda hunts for food in a school of glittering sardines. The sardines all look alike and move together in unison. The barracuda, faced with this wall of repeated shapes, can not react. But should one sardine be injured, or even momentarily distracted, it changes its behavior from the norm. It no longer follows the expected cycles of school movement. Other sardines, and the barracuda, become aware of it. The school of fish respond to the wayward individual and move away from it. The barracuda explodes forward and eats it.
Our own society does this, too. We all know what happens when an individual moves beyond the expected cycles of behavior.
Awareness is the result of to be changing in a direction. Awareness is the message and the information contained in the message. It is the perceived and the perceiving. Systems oscillate and predict the cycle will return to the same place with each oscillation.
But nothing returns to the exactly the same place twice. It is impossible. Everything is moving through fields of radiation at a very high velocity. The dead coral rock, and its atoms, is moving at 900 knots towards the east as the planet spins on its axis. The planet is moving around the sun, the sun around the galactic center and the galaxy is moving at about the square root of the speed of light relative to the other galaxies. The same cosmic motion making randomness an illusion physically prevents any object repeating an exact cyclic trajectory.
Awareness is the offset from expected cycles, the change in change, the directionality in behavior of beings as they move throughout this continually changing magic sea.