Knowing the mind

I am reading an unusual pairing of books…Joseph Fins’ Rights Come to Mind and George Lakoff & Mark Johnson’s Philosophy in the Flesh. One is about traumatic brain (and to some extent, spinal) injury and the differences between minimally conscious states and persistent vegetative states, and what we know–or mostly, don’t know–about the brain and its ability to recover or reorganize (see also Will Storr’s article from 2015 about some recent medical discoveries in neurology).

The other book is an inquiry into how Western philosophy may be seriously challenged by scientific, empirical findings about the embodiment of the conscious self. Then, after suggesting that neural pathways help us to create abstract reason–largely through metaphor–he asks whether we can adequately understand the world through science alone!

Fins’ book is not elegantly written, from a literary standpoint; but he raises hugely important questions about consciousness, healthcare decision-making, medical institutions’ and physicians’ difficulties dealing with how to measure consciousness and brain activity–to determine who may be “locked-in” or who is minimally conscious, or which patients will never recover any conscious neural activity again. Fins details the agony of family members making impossible decisions in a medical system that often views brain-trauma victims as medical failures when the patient does not recover quickly enough; he asks us: by what measure is quickly-enough? (Usually, as determined by a health care insurer…alas, my family has been snarling with too-general insurance categories lately, so I am sympathetic to Fins’ perspective).

These are tough areas to investigate, and his argument is that physicians and researchers have not spent enough time investigating them. He also asserts that this would not be a waste of money on irreparably-injured patients, because we can learn much about the brain’s capacity to heal through observation, therapy, and scans of such people. He takes pains to be certain his readers recognize how much remains unknown about the brain and human consciousness. (Here, I refer my own readers to Douglas Hofstadter’s book I Am a Strange Loop).

In the Storr article cited above, Greg Downey, co-author of the blog Neuroanthropology, cautions: “People are so excited about neuroplasticity they talk themselves into believing anything.” And it is true, there’s a chance of false hope and huge disappointment here. But the brain does exhibit an astonishing ability to rewire itself–in the body.

Which brings me to Lakoff & Johnson’s text. Lakoff calls himself a cognitive scientist, not a philosopher. He says, “In 1978, I discovered that metaphor was not a minor kind of trope used in poetry, but rather a fundamental mechanism of mind.” He and his colleagues have gone on to provide a body of evidence to support this claim that they’ve been working on since the late 90s.


neural matrix fiber topography, Johns Hopkins University


As a poet interested in neurology and in philosophy, these claims interest me. As a person whose elderly best-beloveds are now beginning to show evidence of significant cognitive lacunae…or “decline”…I am interested in losses of neural plasticity, or perhaps a misfiring in the processes of rewiring. The evidence of such losses are, indeed, embodied. Gaps in the ability to recognize metaphor or analogy appear. On a recent visit, the nonagenarian said, “I can no longer seem to say any of the things I want to say, that I hear in my head, but can’t…can’t seem to…make. Make into the world. Do you know what I’m saying?”


A word is dead
When it is said,
Some say.
I say it just
Begins to live
That day.

~ Emily Dickinson




Head in a book

I am tackling some fairly difficult texts* at the moment and, when I need to find something less academic, have interspersed them with poetry and short fiction. In the latter genre, Ted Chiang‘s work has been a marvelous discovery for me. His speculative fiction derives its plot points from scientific and mythological sources. Though his writing style differs from hers, much about the short stories reminds me of the late Octavia Butler‘s work. “Understand” is a fascinating perspective on intellect vs consciousness, “Tower of Babylon” a lovely mythology that owes something to Borges, Calvino, archeology, the Hebrew Bible, and torus theory.

As to poetry, I’m reading Moira Egan‘s sometimes hilarious and often authentically moving Hot Flash Sonnets. Although “women of a certain age” can easily relate to the apparent topic of the sonnets, these poems appeal to much more than insight into female physiology or stereotyped emotionality/mood swings; they are about desire of many kinds, about taste and sex and grief, aging and joy–moments the world opens up to us and sings (in sonnet form!).

Yes, I know history is going on around me; and here I am with my head in a book.

It’s better than having my head in the sand. I’m learning something!




*Philosophy in the Flesh; Untranslatable: A Philosophical Lexicon.

AWP ahead

I have been looking at my bookshelves with a certain apprehensive dismay.

They are…overfull. Here’s part of the shelving where I keep poetry collections. I can’t fit any more in without some “weeding.”


And then there are the other bookshelves, five or six of them, that are also becoming piled high with wonderful and interesting texts.

Now, this would not necessarily constitute a problem. I love books. I refer to many of them often, and I re-read some of them, and I lend some out to friends. A few of the books are even slightly valuable, as the majority of them are out of print.


The reason I am thinking about the bookshelf issue is that in a month, I am heading to Washington, D.C. for the annual AWP Conference & Bookfair. I have missed the past few conferences because they were held in Los Angeles, Vancouver, and the like; I cannot take that much time off work nor easily pay for the airfare. But D.C. is not far away! I am not presenting this year, but I will be attending.

The Bookfair, though–it is a haven for book lovers who are fond of hard-to-find literature, small-press poetry and fiction, little journals and big anthologies, teaching texts, new authors. I know I will return home laden with books.

Where will I put them? Is it time to prepare for additions by donating a few of the current volumes? Should I just purchase more bookshelves? Well, I guess I will solve that problem later. For now, I eagerly await the conference.

What is American?

I have been setting up new training for the students I hire as writing tutors. My tutors are terrific students who understand coaching, modeling academic writing behaviors, and conventional essay structure better, often, than correct use of commas. Anyone can eventually figure out commas, though–that’s not the best use of a student’s time in a tutoring session. Writing tutoring works best when the tutor and student engage in understanding the assignment and the reading and then, mutually, figure out the most appropriate means of expressing the student’s stance and response. Only the final draft needs a bit of window-dressing for academic correctness, though that certainly is important…more important to some instructors than it is to others, and more important to some students than it is to others!

What I’ve lately come to recognize is that my tutors need a little more guidance in how to assist non-native-English-speakers. The need is not merely pedagogical–such as how to coach someone in the correct use of articles or of adjective-noun word order or verb agreement. The need is also cultural: my tutors should possess an awareness of cultural and ethnic variations in background that make content-reading, prompt-interpretation, and the structure of essay-writing far more complex than they may realize.

The college at which I work is small, religious-based, suburban, regional, and only recently multi-ethnic. My tutors tend to be from fairly privileged high schools and are, after all, quite young (undergraduate sophomores, juniors, and seniors, the oldest among them is only 22). I’m continually impressed by their willingness to expand their horizons–many of them have taken semesters or mission trips abroad, for example. Several of them have asked me for advice on how to conduct tutoring sessions with “ESL” students. Hence, some training is in order.


I encounter this new generation of students in my office, as well; and recently, one of them asked me what she could do to “become American more quickly.” She has been in the US for two years, and she does not know what to read or what to watch to guide her more rapidly into American culture other than self-help books, popular TV, and internet sites, which she finds unfathomable and uninteresting: Everyone speaks too quickly. She misses all the allusions. The material seems shallow and risqué.

Reasonable conclusions on her part. She is bright and observant.

My feeling is that cultural appropriation is American culture, and vice versa, but that notion is a bit theoretical for the writing center. One has to start somewhere, so what path can I show her? She is so eager, yearning written all over her face and her posture–and so full of questions that in her naivete she believes I can answer.

My tutors and I need to recognize ourselves as cultural informants§, and to proceed to assist students to write as clearly in US/American-English as possible while respecting the diverse knowledge and cultural differences we are liable to encounter more frequently as our institution becomes more open and diverse–a welcome diversity that will change and enhance the college mission.

My tutee’s earnest question has primed my thinking–what is “American”? Every time we converse with a student, we are inadvertently cultural ambassadors; we represent the culture that we unwittingly just are. So now, as we help at the sentence level, we ought also to think about who it is we are and what we can do to help newcomers to acclimate.

How? I believe the students we tutor will offer the best and brightest assistance in that direction.


§ See Staben & Nordhaus, “Looking at the Whole Text”


Speaking of difficult books…and I know I told myself to read more poetry (and I am, really, most recently Michael Burkard’s Fictions from the Self)…I am entranced and overawed by Barbara Cassin’s amazing Dictionary of Untranslatables: A Philosophical Lexicon. Here’s a thorough and intelligent review by Michael Kinnucan, going into more depth than I have time to post on this blog. What I want to mention about the text is its beauty and its acknowledgment of ambiguity, a quality that translates (ha!) into every aspect of human existence: our ambiguous relationships with our environments, with other humans, with our foods and our governments, our psyches, our cosmos.


We cannot write about the act of translation without encountering ambiguity. We cannot really address philosophy without acknowledging that differing perspectives [context, culture, era, psychology, and of course, language] pose serious complications to understanding across languages and cultures. And even within a culture! For jargon and specialized terms can make understanding by even the most educated layman very, very difficult indeed.

While Cassin’s tome–and it is a collaborative work, with many brilliant people as contributors–presents itself as a philosophical lexicon, the connections with other disciplines (psychoanalysis, for example, with Freud’s famous coinages, and certainly poetry) are unavoidable. It may be challenging to translate the German Schicksal, a Kantian form of the idea we call in English fate, but in such cases the reader is generally going to be familiar with Kant and perhaps aware that the subtle connotations may vary. Take the word sign, however, and each reader–even those who have linguistics or anthropology or philosophy as a background–brings his or her own connotations to the definition and to the problem of translating what any individual author means by the use of the word.

Maybe this doesn’t sound fascinating to you. I relish it! And who knew (I sure didn’t) that even the word reality is a neologism, “coined by Duns Scotus” in the 13th century?

At 1200 pages of small type, this text is a tool, not a beach read. What a find, though. I have no doubt I will be referring to it for years to come, and that it will keep me wallowing in marvelous ambiguities.