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Henry C. Alberts, Ph.D.
Adjunct Professor, University of Maryland, University College Graduate School
This paper explores that concept that "awareness" is generated by changing sensory
patterns that form a time line of perceptions, and that awareness of self results from those
patterns. That concept also provides some support for the idea that a systems approach is
essential to understanding the dimensionality of individual entity awareness.
In the end, the conclusion can be reached that self-awareness is not a singular state but
rather a continuous sense of changing patterns that include environment, entity, and
totality of experience up to that point in time.
A further, perhaps more provocative conclusion is that self awareness is a statement of a
kind of relativity – we define ourselves in terms of the milieu in which we find ourselves
keeping constant the boundaries between ourselves and that environment.
My spouse (and colleague into her own enquiries concerning human psychology) gave
me the book "Shadows of the Mind" by Roger Penrose as a gift this year. During this and
previous years, we had been discussing the processes of individual human learning, the
role of language in idea generation, and other elements of psychological knowledge in an
on-going effort to understand the dynamics of personae development and change. On this
occasion, we were on our way from our home in Virginia to visit our eldest child and her
family in their home in Washington State north of Seattle and I decided that since the
flight combination we had booked would extend over 7 hours (with waiting at two
airports en-route), I would take the book with me and read it as we went. As I read what
Dr. Penrose said, my mind began to question the environment within which the genesis of
his argument developed. Having studied Mathematics and Physics myself, I was aware of
linear logic when I saw it, and I was unsatisfied with the use of that process in attempting
to define "awareness".
My own life experience in technology and engineering research since 1949 led me to take
an active role in developing concepts of "systems" and lines of reasoning that have come
to be grouped under the heading of "System Thinking". That starting point quickly
developed into a kind of operational definition of "awareness" (both of self and of
surroundings) as "sensing and responding to a pattern of multidimensional stimuli."
Refining that generalization, I came to believe that "awareness" involved sensing a total
ambience within which the entity was existing using all its senses to synthesize and
experience a pattern. A critical element was the involuntary involvement of all senses in
creating recognition of the ambient pattern and the synthesis of the whole by the brain. It
seems to me that one cannot make a choice about whether or not one's sense receptors are
operational – one can ignore the inputs, but so long as the sensors are operating the
stimuli are received.
Assuming this hypothesis has consequences:
Any changes in the pattern sensed effects the balance of ambience that the person
perceives - although the change sensed may not be recognized at that moment as
being specific change to any particular component of the ambience. However,
responses to such changes shape total consciousness and awareness and can cause
increased malaise or sensations of satisfaction. Thus I postulate that there are
"Happy Environments" and "Sad Environments" as well as fairly neutral
environments along a curve of perceived sensations.
I further postulate that the person's totality of experience along the time line of
existence, and individual mood at the time of an observed environmental pattern
change affects the overall response to events – one can get angry, or laugh, at
someone else's gaffe. The idea that the totality of experience plays a major role in
responses to particular events might have been the fundamental genesis for the
early psychological process of "analysis" where the past was reviewed to search
for the causes of the effects observed in a patient's present behaviors.
Decoration of a milieu creates an ambience! The implications of this observation
can be far reaching. It has been shown that a particular shade of the color pink has
a calming effect on violent individuals. That knowledge has enabled law
enforcement authorities to calm violent criminals in detention cells that have been
painted in that color. Of particular interest to me when I learned this was the
statement made by the speaker at this particular 1982 conference on maintaining
the security of nuclear power plants, that for even sightless individuals, the
ambience created by the decoration in that particular color produces the same
calming effect. Does this imply that decorators should create an ambience
matched to the needs of those who will occupy the space rather than requiring
occupants to fit into the ambience dictated by others? The University of
Stellenbosch, in the northern suburbs of Cape Town, South Africa established a
research group on Anxiety and Stress Disorders at the Department of Psychiatry
in 1997. It's group of studies of Obsessive-Compulsive behavior has shown that
such behavior is linked with the environment within which those afflicted have
been living – and is likely a major cause of the behavior pattern. In a sense, one
might compare Pavlov's animal experimental results which changed a particular
aspect of the animal's environment (ringing a bell before feeding) with an
obsessive-compulsive response (conditioned reflex) to salivating even in the
immediate absence of food but rather in its anticipation. The conditioned reflex of
an environmental ambience created a previously unarticulated behavioral
In previous writings, I have suggested that the phenomena of "deja vue" might be
better understood if thought of as the generation, by the senses, of a current
ambience that closely resembles a previously experienced environment. If the
match is sufficiently close, one may be led to perceive having been in the newly
experienced situation at some time before even though this was not been the
By the same token, careful study of the environment chosen by a person can
reveal the personality and preferences of that individual [Kendall, E. and Kendall,
J. E. 1] In this sense, because the individual's experiences along the time line of
existence are integrated within the totality of the synaptic network within the
person's brain, review of the chosen environment for working or living can reveal
much about an individuals approach to living and how the individual is likely to
respond to new stimuli.
Behavioral responses, and perception of past experiences, may both be affected
by exposure to changes in environmental conditions. How we interpret our past
experience is often modified by changed circumstance in environmental situation.
The insight into things affecting awareness that led to writing this paper was
brought about by a new perception of past experience triggered by exposure to
ideas in Penrose's book. Sudden flashes of insight can be triggered by a new
sensation or environment.
The implications of this line of reasoning are broad and somewhat disturbing. For
instance, early industrial age thinking as personified by Adam Smith [2] indicated that the
work processes and environments were to be established by management and imposed
upon those who worked within the process to produce end items. Writings of other
experts such as Frederick W. Taylor [3] indicated that there was a science to defining
sequences of tasks required to create or form an end product and fitting people to tasks
within an environment conducive to efficient operation of the processes of production.
Taylor's work can be looked at as the first step in fitting humans to work (or work to
humans!). I suggest there is also an environment within which such tasks can be better
performed and that the environment has much to do with the sense of self within those
who occupy it.
I take this reasoning one step further to suggest that an individuals total personality is
embedded within its synaptic rete (the web of interconnected synaptic network) and the
individual has a pattern of responses to change that are if not predictable in detail, at least
very likely to lie within some determinable boundaries.
An illustration might be in the behavior of a very good Swedish friend during a sojourn
along the coast of Norway to the point in Europe where Norway, Russia, and Finland
meet – Kirkenes, Norway. We were a party of four – myself and my spouse-colleague
and our friends and neighbors from the time of our residence next door to them in
Stockholm's Bromma suburb. In our almost 40 years of association, we had met in
various venues ranging from Europe to Madeira to Iceland and the United States.
Together we had explored the voyages of the Vikings following the route of Leif
Ericsson from Scandinavia to Iceland and then on their advice, to Newfoundland's Anse
aux Meadows, reputed to be the first New World settlement by Europeans. On this
particular trip, we had time to spend at Kirkenes, and we walked around the town
assimilating the ambience of the unique multicultural place. We noted that there were
many Asian people in the main plaza. They were not Lapp people or other Northern
European indigenous peoples, but rather resembled immigrants from Viet Nam and other
Southeast Asian regions whom we had seen in Iceland as well as other places in the
Northern Hemisphere and Asia. As we explored the shops, and the different temptations
in them, we lost track of our friend. Look though we did, he was not to be seen. However,
after some time, we noticed him peddling a pedicab vehicle toward us. The vehicle
belonged to a Viet-Namese family who were also in the vehicle. Our friend had struck up
a conversation with the family and spoke with them about their transport asking to
experience it with them. When they agreed, they offered him a short set of instructions
about how to navigate the pedicab, and then went off around the town square and beyond.
This behavior was entirely in keeping with our friend's personality and lifestyle. He is
curious, is broadly read and fluent in many Indo-European languages, and has the ability
to make linkages between things that comes from his rigorous training in Economics and
Political Science. He described his experience later and provided fascinating insights into
the migration patters of the many Asian peoples we had seen in Kirkenes and Reykjavik.
The point, however, is that it was entirely in his character (as we knew it) to inquire about
what he perceived to be a deviation from the normal pattern of ambience in a particular
place, and to draw information from the experience. And indeed, all of us profited from
his short exposure to migratory patterns of these Asian peoples, incorporating our
knowledge into our own synaptic rete and thus expanding our own awareness and
There is considerable evidence that an environment's ambience has an effect on an
individual's mental functions. We have known since even before last Century that
physical disease can be the result of long exposure to certain environments. I can clearly
remember my first exposure to the effects of diet on health when I was told about the
problem of Scurvy in the British Navy and how it was found to be the result of lack of
Vitamin C. The sobriquet "Limey" resulted from the adoption of the practice of carrying
lime fruit on British ships to forestall the outbreaks of scurvy. But formalization of the
idea that an environmental ambience might create situations where individuals' mental
health was prone to change is relatively new. Community surveys have shown that many
anxiety disorders are among the most common psychiatric disorders, causing extensive
suffering and interference with work and social functioning. According to The Research
Unit on Anxiety and Stress Disorders established in 1997 at the Department of Psychiatry
of the University of Stellenbosch, (in the northern suburbs of Cape Town, South Africa),
anxiety disorders account for one third of all costs of mental illness, with obsessivecompulsive disorder (OCD) being the tenth most disabling of all medical disorders. The
Unit conducts research into the psychobiology and treatment of anxiety disorders. Its
findings to date are shown below. They were taken from its web-site [4] and are, I think,
extremely interesting:
Diagnosis - The development of specific criteria for each of the different
anxiety disorders has allowed reliable diagnosis of these disorders. This is
important not only for identifying these conditions in clinical settings, but also for
undertaking systematic research. Failure to diagnose anxiety disorders at a
primary care level has been a significant problem in the past. Epidemiology
Community surveys have shown that many of the anxiety disorders are amongst
the most prevalent.
Neurobiology - Current methodologies have allowed the dissection of the
specific neuroanatomical circuits and neurotransmitter systems involved in
mediating the anxiety disorders. There are exciting parallels, for example,
between the neurobiology of fear conditioning in animal models and that of
clinical disorders. Furthermore, a range of psycho-pharmacological agents has
been introduced for the treatment of anxiety disorders.
Psychotherapy - In recent years, a range of rigorous controlled research on the
cognitive-behavioral psychotherapy of the anxiety disorders has been undertaken.
Exposure techniques are particularly important in the successful treatment of a
number of the anxiety disorders, and in the case of OCD have been shown to
normalize dysfunctional brain activity.
Self-help - In the past few decades, consumers with anxiety disorders have
recognized the importance of establishing advocacy organizations to help increase
awareness of these conditions, and to help fight discrimination against the
mentally ill. Such groups have helped greatly to increase awareness of the anxiety
disorders, and to encourage people to seek appropriate treatment, included within
alternative treatment modalities is change in environmental venue.
But there are even more interesting examples of environment creating mind set change.
When Pavlov did his work with dogs, (observing that they would salivate in
anticipation of being fed, he then adopted the practice of ringing a bell just before
offering food to see if the animals salivated on hearing the bell). The generation
of an environmental cue that food was soon to be offered was sufficient to
produce the reaction of anticipatory salivation.
Another instance of induced reflexive actions having been induced within an
individual's response pattern through adjustment of the environment within which
it exists is of particular interest - the work that taught monkeys to avoid particular
locations within their environment because each time they approached them, they
received a small electric shock.
But perhaps the most definitive work was done at the Serbsky Institute [5] in
Moscow where individuals without prior history of mental disorder were exposed
to environments that created mental disorders. Other instances in China, Korea,
and the former Soviet Union of individuals subjected to stresses that changed their
perceptions of the world were noted over the years and the term "Brain Washing"
coined to describe the process of altering beliefs and perceptions through
continued exposure to environments conducive to directing such changes.