Painfully conscious

I’ve just finished reading Melanie Thernstrom’s 2011 book The Pain Chronicles, a journalist’s inquiry into the concepts that “define” pain and the medical discoveries concerning chronic pain, in addition to a bit of memoir as a narrative device. Although I have experience with chronic pain myself, the part of the text that most interested me comes in her concluding chapters, in which she gathers the variously-disciplined evidence of her enterprise to suggest that pain is the ultimate test of the mind-body problem (thank you, René Descartes). The experts Thernstrom interviews disagree on how much we do know or can know about the human brain and how it processes anything, let alone such a complicated psycho-physiological event as pain. Some of them believe human beings will make enormous technological discoveries to unlock our brains’ workings, but the majority seem to have learned from research that each “a-ha!” leads only to further complications. Discussing the outlook for future fMRI scanning in brain research, Dr. John Keltner tells the author:

[N]obody has come up with a rich and complicated enough model to analyze the complexity of the distributed patterns of neural  networks and deduce anything like underlying rules…We’re literally grappling with the fundamental aspects of human beings. We naively believed that pain is simple–it hurts or it doesn’t hurt–so there should be a single brain state we could see every time someone is in pain. But what we’ve stumbled into is the discovery that there’s a relative universe of hurt–that hurting is an immense, rich, and varied human experience associated with an unknown number of possible brain states.

I find some of these analogies, and some of this language, appealing–I can think of poems that express “a universe of hurt.” I embrace the idea that hurting is immense, rich, varied, and human–we are aware (conscious) that we hurt, that others hurt, that hurt can be painful even when it is not caused by a toothache but through loss of a friend or lover…the beloved other, the pain in ourselves. Isn’t compassion born of this awareness? Does art have a place here, too? I wonder.

Thernstrom concludes with the agreement of several expert researchers: “pain and suffering are properties of the mind” [my italics]. That means pain is, at least in part, a property of that elusive thing we generally call consciousness. Scott Fishman of UC Davis explains that “[t]he mind is like a virtual organ–it doesn’t  have a physical address that we know of.” Consciousness, these researchers imply, is not merely the sum of firing neurons, a process that can be considered on some level mechanical. Thernstrom asks, “Do we need to understand consciousness itself in order to understand pain?”

If so, that is a tall order, one the author posits is analogous to understanding aesthetics (what is beauty?). But though the task appears daunting, the discoveries en route make the trek valuable.

Even if we never understand the answer.

neural matrix fiber topography, Johns Hopkins University

neural matrix fiber topography, Johns Hopkins University

Diversity. Not.

I must admit, it is challenging to read Elizabeth Kolbert‘s book The Sixth Extinction without feeling a bit of dread.

Nonetheless, the book is informative and fascinating–even funny at times–and well worth reading if you are the type who can get beyond your anthropocentric leanings and attempt to view the long-range picture from a scientific, if not exactly neutral, viewpoint. Her main argument is that we are, indeed, in the midst of a 6th mass extinction era and that human beings are “the weed” that most likely is the cause of these numerous extinctions–and not just since the industrial revolution, but eons before that. Humans travel more effectively than almost any life form, and that leads gradually to a loss of diversity. Read the book to find out how that works.

I find interesting parallels with socio-cultural trends in the ecological struggle for and against diversity. Niche-dwelling creatures or societies adapt to some challenging environment and develop or evolve ways to deal with adversity–cold temperatures, constant rain, saline soils, whatever. Nomadism, for example, is a way to adapt to seasonal weather challenges.

When an ‘alien’ enters a niche area, it usually dies off; but if it can adapt, there is hybridism or conquering. Tolerance, it turns out–living peacefully in tandem using the same resources–is not a common evolutionary strategy, though there are examples of symbiotic ecological relationships and, of course, parasitism of the sort that does not quickly kill off the host. Conquering generally means lost diversity.

When a niche organism ventures, accidentally or otherwise (forcibly, sometimes) into a new region as ‘alien,’ the special characteristics of the creature cause it to die or, in some cases, to have to adapt to a different set of circumstances…and diversity gets lost pretty quickly that way. In my region, for example, wetlands have experienced overruns of phragmites.

Does this sound like emigration? War? Forced removal of peoples? Indigenous populations killed off by measles or smallpox? Young people leaving remote areas to try to find work in cities? I see a metaphor here!

While human beings may try to celebrate diversity (which is better than using diversity to identify and exclude or punish “the other”), we probably cannot keep ourselves from becoming, over the centuries, less and less various. A homogeneous world seems, to me, to be a place impoverished through lack of niches and creative adaptation–but that’s what happens when mass extinctions take place: a depletion of kinds in the fossil record.

You might want to read Robert Sullivan’s New York Magazine article for even more recent scientific evidence if you’re not up to reading a whole book, though Kolbert is an engaging writer and I found her book to be a quick read. And below, some graphic illustrations from LiveScience. Fascinating stuff.

Here in the USA, alas, we seem to be helping the extinction of our own kind along by viewing diversity among people as dangerous. Compound this with a society that permits the ownership, hoarding, and use of deadly weapons on others and which cultivates a cultural tone of fear, anxiety, and entitlement, and there is strong evidence that the human weed will continue the slow but decided progress of the Holocene extinction.

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Chart of extinction events that wiped out most life on Earth.

Source:LiveScience

Unknowable

While reading up on some recent theories on evolution and reading for the first time (other than in excerpts) The Descent of Man, and Selection in Relation to Sex by Charles Darwin, I have returned to mulling over the problem of consciousness. What fascinates me is how this topic (consciousness) overlaps with philosophy, physiology, evolution–how and why we developed the brains we have with their attendant egos, theory of self, what-have-you–and with human constructs such as art and religion and morality, which I value for complicated reasons.

And out of curiosity, I took up Barbara Ehrenreich’s Living with a Wild God, which seemed to me a departure from her books until I realized that I was unfamiliar with her earlier work.

Ehrenreich’s book stems from her inquiry into a period of her own late adolescence when she experienced a kind of awakening that defied expression. For another sort of person, this might have been a spiritual encounter; but she was a self-described solipsist atheist who wanted explanations. The why of the world mattered to her–she was headed toward an education in science at Reed and Columbia University, though she did not know that yet when she had her ecstatic sensation. Reading Living with a Wild God reminded me of watching an animal tear and tear and worry at a carcass, not quite able to let go. The author fumes at her younger self for being so unforthcoming with details and suggests she may have been having a dissociative event, a small psychological break. Yet there were no symptoms of such a problem in her diary or in her memory.

She writes a bit about psychology, human consciousness, adolescent daydreaming, rational thinking versus imaginative beliefs, systematic or otherwise. After considerable wrestling and intriguing memoir, she admits that all she can do is speculate about what she felt:

There were no visions, no prophetic voices or visits by totemic animals, just this blazing everywhere. Something poured into me and I poured out into it. This was not the passive, beatific merger with “the All” as described by the Eastern mystics. It was a furious encounter with a living substance that was coming at me through all things at once, and one reason for the terrible wordlessness of the experience is that you cannot observe a fire really closely without becoming part of it…you will be recruited into the flame and made indistinguishable from the rest of the blaze…the only condition was overflow. ‘Ecstasy’ would be the word for this, but only if you are willing to acknowledge that ecstasy does not occupy the same spectrum as happiness or euphoria, that it participates in the anguish of loss and can resemble an outbreak of violence.

In the Bhagavad-gita, when Arjuna sees Krishna-manifest-as-All, the experience is not beatific, any more than Moses’ encounter with God as the burning bush relates an enmeshing with the One; the sense of merger with the energetic being remains absent–there is awe and a sensation that the human consciousness has been irrevocably rattled, altered, changed, but not that the human consciousness melds with that unknowable and indescribable Other.

What drew me to this book is that I had similar, though briefer, experiences when I was young. They tended to occur in flashes, and I associate them now with daydreaming and with a “losing of self”–I really have no words for it, though Ehrenreich’s “overflow” seems about right…one reason Bachelard’s writings on childhood and reverie resonate with me. It’s heartening to find another person, a well-known author, who also has found the experience impossible to formulate in language. I especially appreciate her suggesting “that ecstasy does not occupy the same spectrum as happiness or euphoria, that it participates in the anguish of loss and can resemble an outbreak of violence.” I identify deeply.

Some meditative practices aim to erase, temporarily, the boundaries that keep us from being truly in the world. Some religious practices aim to make the faithful “one with” the deity. Ehrenreich does not possess the kind of mind or personality that seeks answers in those ways. She’s frighteningly intelligent, well-educated, worldly, scholarly, sensible, socially and culturally aware, fiercely atheistic. Yet she cannot quite believe that what she felt, saw, knew, in her body and in her mind, was “simply” something her brain invented. After 50 years, she continues to wonder. I sense she is still tearing obsessively at the unresolved.

Maybe that is enough, to wonder. At any rate, wondering may be as far toward why as any of us human beings will ever get.

The knot of contrariety

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Sometimes, human beings feel contrary: irritable, grumpy, stubborn. It does not matter that we may be well-versed in rational critical thinking, or aware that a Zen approach can offer balance, or that an understanding of the psyche, or studies of consciousness, or even immersion in some sort of spiritual practice might help us to clear whatever baggage happens at this moment to burden us.
We’re just cranky, and for the moment, we feel justified in our contrariety. Here’s Walt Whitman:
I too knitted the old knot of contrariety,
Blabb’d, blush’d, resented, lied, stole, grudg’d,
Had guile, anger, lust, hot wishes I dared not speak,
Was wayward, vain, greedy, shallow, sly, cowardly, malignant;
The wolf, the snake, the hog, not wanting in me,
The cheating look, the frivolous word, the adulterous wish, not wanting,
Refusals, hates, postponements, meanness, laziness, none of these wanting…

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What appeals to me in the passage above is not so much Whitman’s confession–any of us might admit to others our foibles and our sins–but the extravagant and beautiful mode of his expression: lists, near-synonyms, expansions on meanings, metaphors following the verbs, nouns, and adjectives, “none of these wanting.”

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Hog… [His name is not Walt]

What appeals to me, really, is the way these lines make the litany of our petty evils so beautiful to behold. Perhaps that indicates that the aesthetics of a poem move the purpose beyond mere description and into the realm of art. I will be reading more about this in the coming week as I make my way through the book Feeling Beauty: The Neuroscience of Aesthetic Experience by G. Gabrielle Starr.

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Meanwhile, I am threading my way through the thorny knottiness of everyday life, trying to shed my contrariety as I proceed.

Knotted vines

Knotted vines

Ink art

Last weekend, I went to New York with friends to see the Ink Art exhibit at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. The art, all of which is contemporary (the oldest artist represented was born in 1953), has been installed in the museum’s extensive Asian galleries alongside ceramic, sculptural, religious, and paper works going back centuries.

The rationale behind this juxtaposition, says the museum’s site, is to point up “how China’s ancient pattern of seeking cultural renewal through the reinterpretation of past models remains a viable creative path. Although all of the artists have transformed their sources through new modes of expression, visitors will recognize thematic, aesthetic, or technical attributes in their creations that have meaningful links to China’s artistic past.” That certainly proved true for me; and I cannot decide which was more intriguing, the similarities or the differences.

The young artists in Ink Art employ age-old cultural tropes: the triptych, the scroll, woodblock printing, calligraphy, moody landscapes, ideograms, ink, and repetition. The resonance with Chinese heritage is palpably authentic and is often employed in the service of criticism, mostly criticism aimed at the destruction of cultural icons and of the environment (some of the represented artists are exiles). Mounting the exhibition in the Asian galleries meant that the visitor confronts the historical and the contemporary simultaneously.

In Yang Yongliang’s “View of Tide,” the artist uses digital photography collaging to replicate the mood of an ancient Chinese landscape scroll which, on closer inspection, reveals that the austere and mystical imagery of sea and mountains has been composed of smokestacks, highways, powerlines, and the like. I found this work powerful as commentary and shocking in the best possible way.

Being a word person as well as a visual art appreciator, I was especially drawn to the section of the exhibit called “The Written Word.” The highlight of this section is Xu Bing’s installation “Book from the Sky”. My friends and I–avid readers all–entered this room and felt shivers of recognition and joy at the concept of a room-sized, descending, ascending, wall-to-wall book. (I urge my readers to click on the link for a peek.) The information plaque notes “while the work is inspired by the form and typography of traditional Chinese woodblock publications, faithfully replicating every stylistic detail of traditional Chinese printing, not a single one of its roughly 1,200 characters—each printed with type hand-carved by the artist—is intelligible. Each of these imaginary characters conveys the appearance of legibility but remains defiantly undecipherable.” The paradox and the beauty of the concept are amazing; in addition, I find it oddly thrilling to think of the imagination and the craft and simple hard work Xu Bing put into creating meaningless calligraphic pictograms, cutting them into woodblocks, and repetitively setting up the careful lines in rows on long scrolls.

What emerges when the scrolls are installed on ceiling, walls, and floor manages to be indecipherable but not meaningless. There is in fact much opportunity for meaning in “Book from the Sky,” and for discussion and interpretation and playfulness.

One example: after reading about “Book from the Sky” and taking in the environment for awhile, my friend Mark commented, “Imagine if you were a beginner learning Chinese script, and you encountered this room. You might just spend hours in here trying to figure out whether you could read any of it…I mean, if  you hadn’t read that it was indecipherable. Or even if you had that knowledge, maybe you’d spend a long time here thinking that at least something in all this text meant something you could translate. Wouldn’t that be awfully frustrating?”

Or maybe that’s the point?

Carved type for “Book from the Sky” by Xu Bing

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Conceptual metaphor. Art. Thinking. Decipherability; communication. These are large ideas, and crucial ones in the scope of human community. Without art–how can we encounter such metaphors? How would we share them?

Psychobiology & art

Greg Dunn’s gold-leaf neuroscience art: “Gold Cortex”

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Howard Gardner once said aesthetics is considered the “dismal branch of philosophy” and that psychobiology, the scientific examination of art, might therefore be called the “dismal psychology.” This view derives from the difficulty of pinning down what qualifies as art, the artistic process, the artistic personality, and the like–especially the challenge of trying to categorize, measure, and in any genuine way evaluate art. Psychobiology as a discipline is new to me; is it merely an earlier form of behavioral neuroscience? How does aesthetics play a role? I went looking.

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Here is an excerpt from D.E. Berlyne’s abstract of his exploration into stimulus behavior and art (including humor), Conflict, Arousal, and Curiosity, written in 1960:

The highly variegated human activities that are classed as art form a unique testing ground for hypotheses about stimulus selection. They consist of operations through which certain stimulus patterns are made available, and so they must unhesitatingly be placed in the category of exploratory behavior. The creative artist originates these patterns, the performing artist reproduces them, and the spectator, listener, or reader secures access to them and performs the perceptual and intellectual activities that will enable him to experience their full impact.

It’s intriguing to note the different ways a social scientist (Berlyne was a psychobiologist) uses language to write about a generally-considered subjective subject: art. Different in tone and terminology than the language a philosopher or artist would employ, the description characterizes yet another inquiry into the ontology and the exercise of art and the artistic process:

The content of art can range over virtually the whole scope of human communication. It may be used as a source of information about the appearances of objects, the course of historical events, the workings of human nature, as a means of effecting moral improvement, as a vehicle for propagating religious, political, or philosophical ideologies. Art is, however, distinguished from other forms of communication by …the communication of evaluation. While human beings may produce art and expose themselves to it for an endless variety of reasons, collative variables must play their part, as they do in all forms of exploratory behavior. They underlie, in fact, what is commonly called the “formal” or “structural” aspect of art.

The author is interested in whether psychosocial behaviors, culture-building, and communication all derive from exploratory behavior and stimulus-response and what role evaluation plays in the assessment of art, its social or moral value, artistic merit, “timeless” art, and to some extent the very making of art.

The psychology of aesthetics offers intriguing insights–if one can get past the jargon. From the little I have read about it so far, the science seems to share a few points with phenomenology: its task, according to Dr. William Blizer, is to “describe observable phenomena and to note associations and correlations among them which enable such phenomena to be predicted, controlled, and explained.” In psychobiology, the “observable phenomena” are “the behavior of the creative…artist and the appreciator.” Philosophy and psychology are strange bedfellows, though; throw aesthetics into the mix and the entire project begins to seem suspect. I am not at all sure that these inquiries end up explaining–certainly not predicting or controlling–anything about art.

I admit I prefer to read such musings when the makers themselves are doing the exploring. Nonetheless, this little intellectual excursion led to my discovery of Greg Dunn‘s amazing neuroscience designs, one of which appears above. Who knew the brain was so gorgeous?

Poet’s truth

Hilary Mantel writes her protagonist’s view of 16th-C. poet Thomas Wyatt in Bring Up the Bodies:

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…you trap him and say, Wyatt, did you really do what you describe in this verse? He smiles and tells you, it is the story of some imaginary gentleman, no one we know; or he will say, it is not my story I write, it is yours, though you do not know it. He will say, this woman I describe here, the brunette, she is really a woman with fair hair, in disguise. He will declare, you must believe everything and nothing of what you read… You tax him, what about this line, is this true? He says, it is poet’s truth.

When Wyatt writes, his lines fledge feathers, and unfolding this plumage they dive below their meaning and skim above it. They tell us the rules of power and the rules of war are the same, the art is to deceive; and you will deceive, and be deceived in your turn, whether you are an ambassador or a suitor. Now, if a man’s subject is deception, you are deceived if you think you grasp his meaning. You close your hand as it flies away. A statute is written to entrap meaning, a poem to escape it. A quill, sharpened, can stir and rustle like the pinions of angels.

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There’s inspiration for you. Now to locate my sharpened quill.