Mind & gray matter

After an interlude of fiction-reading and the start of the semester, during which there is little time for personal reading, I have returned to some of the topics of neurology, consciousness, and the evolution of the story-telling mind that have so often diverted me from–yet influenced my thinking on–poetry.

Just a brief overview of my “difficult books” of the past four or five years…I have a background in philosophy and, to a much lesser extent, theology. Both disciplines endeavored over thousands of years to explain why we think the way we do and why or how we reason, make decisions, and make clearly unreasonable decisions.

The Free Will paradox, the Mind-Body Problem, ethics, tribalism, the body politic, you name it.

My thinking tends to sway slightly Eastern in terms of intention, mindful behavior, and non-theistic compassion despite my being raised pretty much Western Protestant with Enlightenment ethics and values (also compassion, as based upon the teachings of Jesus).

Throw in a bit of psychology built upon philosophical foundations, Freud, William James, Darwin, Thoreau, and my constant searching for what makes a being conscious, and I end up with an eclectic but not unreasonable reading list.

Also poetry. But I digress.

Here’s the barest outline of my more recent forays into understanding the probably not-understandable: I read Stuart Kauffman’s book At Home in the Universe to obtain a grasp of a chemistry-and-statistically-based (Boolean) thinking concerning how consciousness may have arisen in the universe and whether we Earthly human beings may not be entirely alone as conscious beings in a huge and expanding cosmos. Frances Crick’s The Astonishing Hypothesis offers a biologist’s view of how we ought to go about trying to study consciousness and its evolution based upon biological science. Douglas Hofstadter’s I am a Strange Loop, a deeply engaging look at an interdisciplinary concept of consciousness, examines evolution, biology, neurology, and a bit of physics and philosophy; Dennett & Lakoff’s Philosophy in the Flesh grounds philosophy in neurological underpinnings. Just to be sure the physicists are not overlooked in my overview of consciousness, I’m now reading Werner Lowenstein’s Physics in Mind: A Quantum View of the Brain.

Referenced in almost all of these books are Patricia Churchland, the D’Amasios, Thomas Nagel, Thomas Kuhn, Charles Darwin, Descartes, and Kant.

To name a few.

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What good has this reading done me, in terms of understanding what constitutes consciousness, from what it is derived, and how it evolved? Do I know any more than I did about human beings? I certainly know more about the human body, especially the brain, than I did. I know more about the cellular level of information processing and more about theories people have posited during the past centuries–and what aspects of those theories seem to have had either intuitive, reasonable influence or scientific (empirical) value.

That last paragraph appears to be question-dodging, doesn’t it?

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I love to read. I love human beings. I love the phenomena of the visible and experiential world. I love the urgent fuel of creativity. Can that be enough, for now?

In time, maybe I will come to accept the fraying of the consciousness, the decay of memory and the intimate Beloveds as they fade into senility or pass out of the tactile world.

 

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Truth as relationship

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What is truth? Is there an absolute truth? Is truth relative? Can it be relative and simultaneously absolute? I have not been much of a sojourner on the path to truth, because other things interest me more; however, in 2017, what constitutes truth has become a topic of contemporary discussion–in the most superficial ways imaginable.

And as I have been reading about Josiah Royce in Harry Cotton’s text, the definition of truth and the concept of The Absolute (the philosophy of which Royce and his dear friend William James often argued over) raise their abstract heads and ask for understanding.

Royce insists that truth is not something that happens. It’s not a verb, though people often employ the concept of truth when referring to occurrences: It happened just this way, so I know it is true. That’s a scientist’s empirical truth, or a pragmatist’s truth, someone who believes in his or her own experiences–a truth-in-action. It is also by nature individual in essence.

Just so, says Royce, but what happens to that truth-in-action once the action has stopped, the occurrence is over? Is the event still true? It is now past, and therefore has passed into the realm of memory or idea. Any number of other probabilities could have occurred in experience but did not, and it would be impossible to disprove all of those possibilities in order to prove something that happened as “true.” Cotton sums the thinking up (and you’d have to read Royce’s work on this idea to get the better picture) as “Indeed, no series of events can determine the truth of an idea.” Rather than being an event, Truth, says Royce,

…is a relation whereby various possible or real objects, events, ideas, counsels, and deeds are joined, in ideal at least, into one significant whole. This whole is no one event, or mere set of distinct events. It is a connected life process.    [my italics]

I cannot say I am wholly convinced by Royce’s philosophy in general; but I do like the concept of truth as “a connected life process,” which–to my own mind and given my predilections  about life and consciousness and truth–rings true.

 

Difficult books & the death of reading

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Philip Yancey worries about “the death of reading” in a recent Washington Post opinion piece; he says that even he, an inveterate reader and possessor of several thousand books, finds it harder than it once was to read for several hours each day. He feels distracted by modern technology’s urgency yet suggests reading–now more than ever–offers not just intellectual but neurological rewards:  “neuroscience proves…it actually takes less energy to focus intently than to zip from task to task. After an hour of contemplation, or deep reading, a person ends up less tired and less neurochemically depleted, thus more able to tackle mental challenges.” (Yancey does not cite the study, so I cannot do so; I think he picked this information up from Nicholas Carr’s book The Shallows).

I find I still have time to read; but I am not a well-respected writer of books, articles, opinion columns, and blogs, nor am I asked to appear in public as a speaker very often. Yancey has a life that requires hours at a computer. My life contains less urgency from an audience, although my students–when classes are in session–certainly supply a sense of “prioritize me!” that can get distracting.

Most of us recognize that there are many forms of urgent distractions in our lives.

Anyway, I continue to apply myself to books.

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My latest difficult book has a bit of family history. Royce on the Human Self was written by one of my father’s college professors, J. Harry Cotton, and published in 1955. Harry Cotton was a Presbyterian minister who later taught at Wabash College, where my father encountered him. My dad gave me this book a month ago, saying, “I thought you might be interested in this one. I came across it in my shelves and read it, thinking I’d never read it before. But apparently I had, because I see that I annotated it in the margins. And I hadn’t recalled that he inscribed it to me.” The human self must overlap with consciousness, so why not introduce myself to Royce, especially given the circumstances?

Josiah Royce is not a name I encountered in Philosophy coursework, even when I was studying William James’ work (it was undergraduate study, so we did not get to James’ correspondence with Royce and their disagreements over the Absolute; James & Royce were colleagues and very good friends).

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My father notes the misspelling of his name by Dr. Cotton. I note the logic chart my father annotated above.

Royce’s philosophy was rather Hegelian–he studied in Göttingen–and he was a long-time proponent of “idealism” (defined in what strikes me as a rather phenomenologist way) based upon his rendering of what constitutes the Absolute. According to the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy entry, “In his later works, Royce reconceived his metaphysics as an ‘absolute pragmatism’ grounded in semiotics.” Royce moved from idealism into the possibility of objects, which took him for awhile on a symbolic logic train of thinking. He loses me a bit there, despite Dr. Cotton’s quite clearly-written summaries.

An intriguing aspect of the book, for me, is my then-22-year-old father’s marginalia. Sometimes, his notes–in handwriting that has hardly changed in 60 years–make a comment [“Royce denies a self-evident truth contra-Descartes”]. More often, there is a question, or some underlining, that suggests where his interests lay. I notice he seems to have skimmed over the “Logic as the Science of Order” chapter (that’s a section I found to be a bit of a slog myself).

I wonder whether the last chapter, which covers Royce’s late thinking on Christianity, the problem of evil, and salvation, would have made any sense to a person as young as my dad was in ’55. By the time Royce got to his most mature philosophical thinking on god and the human self, he was in his 50s and had experienced the loss of a young adult son to “madness” and typhoid. These are the sort of events that mature the thinking of a thinking and feeling human being such as Royce obviously was. In our early 20s, few of us have that kind of depth to our understanding of mortal, ethical, or spiritual issues.

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Nevertheless–my father, influenced to some extent by his Uncle Raymond and by Harry Cotton–chose to go to graduate school in Theology. He may not recall whether Royce’s work on Salvation or Christianity had any bearing on his decision. But I wonder. I think of my dad–a classic extrovert, despite his prodigious reading habits–when I read the following words by Royce concerning the community and the relational aspect of the human self (in the Absolute, or in god, as referred to by the use of his in this quote):

And as the moments of my finite thought are to me when I reflect upon my own meaning and upon the relations of many moments of my life, so my neighbors and I are to the larger Self when, discoursing together about the same objects, we find ourselves as it were but moments in his inclusive unity.

All one. There are many philosophies and theologies that stress that premise.

 

 

 

Muses & musings

Muse, verb–from Merriam Webster online

intransitive verb
1:  to become absorbed in thought; especially :  to think about something carefully and thoroughly

2:  archaic :  wonder, marvel

transitive verb
:  to think or say (something) in a thoughtful way

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Muse, noun–from American Heritage Dictionary online

1. Greek Mythology Any of the nine daughters of Mnemosyne and Zeus, each of whom presided over a different art or science.

2. muse 

a. A guiding spirit.

b. A source of inspiration: the lover who was the painter’s muse.
3. muse Archaic A poet.

[Middle English, from Old French, from Latin Mūsa, from Greek Mousa; see men-1 in the Appendix of Indo-European roots.] (It’s worth going to this link to the Appendix if you are a word geek.)
 ~

Musing, on a hot summer day, evokes Whitman’s lines:

I loaf and invite my soul,
I lean and loaf at my ease observing a spear of summer grass.

I observe a spear of summer grass, a meadow of milkweed, a small bee but a loud one buzzing about the hole where last year the grass wasp nested. Because it is a national holiday, the road construction crew next door has been absent, allowing me to hear the bees and the wind chimes and the bluejays screaming at the redtail hawks.

My poetry Muse, assuming I have one, has also taken a vacation.

In the meantime, there is summer novel-reading to do (Elena Ferrante‘s Neapolitan quartet, Margaret Atwood’s Hag-seed, and others). I do have my day job, but I have scheduled a travel vacation and am musing on what to pack, wondering what it will be like to be in a new place…wondering if my Muse will follow me as inspiration or will guide me in some new direction. Even at my age.

It’s always possible.

~

Invoking Whitman again:

There was never any more inception than there is now,
Nor any more youth or age than there is now,
And will never be any more perfection than there is now,
Nor any more heaven or hell than there is now.

You will find me outside, in the shade, musing on perfection.

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Depression & friendship

When I mentioned to an acquaintance that I am reading Andrew Solomon’s The Noonday Demon: An Atlas of Depression, the look on her face pretty much summed up how most people feel about the topic–why would I want to read about something so upsetting?

A few sections of Solomon’s book are hard to read but, surprisingly, some of it is laugh-out-loud funny. Humor definitely acts as a leveler for the challenges life brings us; Solomon admits to “being afraid of a lamb chop” and other anecdotes that are not merely self-deprecating–they are somehow universal, at least they are if you are a person who has had a relationship with the Noonday Demon. His descriptions of how his friends bore with him and supported him through his deepest katabasis are hilarious, humiliating, sad, and unbelievably moving.

Simultaneously, I’m reading The Five Invitations: Discovering What Death Can Teach Us about Living Fully, by Frank Ostaseski. Obviously, that text is on the reading list of “the morbid book group.” The approach is mostly Buddhist, but Ostaseski does a good job of gently suggesting that bringing more moment-by-moment, alert compassion into our lives daily can ease many of the burdens of human suffering by making us aware that all of us suffer and that suffering, shared, becomes less of a weight or stressor in our lives.

Friendship keeps us sane. It does so partly through that sense of community in which many hands make light work. And it brings us back to sanity, sometimes (not always–there is no “always” in the human sphere). For many persons, relatives are friends. Other people have no friendships within their families but have friend-relationships that act as similar, or even more powerful, support. The luckiest people have both.

I am one of the lucky ones. Today, while thinking about consciousness and suffering and depression in the human condition, I want to acknowledge the loving, sane difference a friend made in my life: David Dunn, poet, jazz aficionado, baseball fan, Trekkie, fellow laborer in the mines of the abyss, 1955-1999.

Reading these books while navigating the recent loss of an elderly long-time friend has unleashed a reflective current that, while a bit sorrowful, does not feel like depression. There’s gratitude in this rivulet, happy memories and rueful ones–more like inspiration than desperation. That may be because the friendships are still supportive. Relationships don’t die when the friends die; a powerful relationship lasts far longer.

Depressed people feel unlovable and, unable to accept the clear evidence that they are indeed loved and valued, manage to behave in ways that make themselves and others miserable. They don’t mean to hurt others; in their pain, they think that they deserve to be abandoned and their crazy words and actions create a self-fulfilling prophecy of isolation. It takes a surprising amount of strength to be a person who undergoes depressive episodes (they are so exhausting, physically and mentally–see Solomon’s book). And it takes incredible strength to love and stand with a deeply depressed person.

David Dunn, who experienced depressions far more debilitating than my own, acted as my tether when I started to drift too far. In my younger days, that drifting often led me toward Charybdis. In turn, I helped David when he was low; we shared poems of others and poems of our own, shared books, fears, and insomnia tales. We held one another upright in the throes of some pretty miserable days.

I miss him. Though I am much, much better now, I do not think I could have survived those years unscathed without his quiet acknowledgment of my pain and the presence of his friendship. The idea that we can accept what life brings us without bitterness or anger or blame, yet without resignation or helplessness, seems a tough task for the people in my culture. David Dunn could not always attain that balance for himself, but his acceptance of me taught me more than I ever realized at the time.

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“There is something brazen about depression. Most demons–those forms of anguish–rely on the cover of night. To see them clearly is to defeat them. Depression stands in the full glare of the sun. You can know all the why and wherefore and suffer just as much as if you were shrouded in ignorance. There is almost no other mental state of which the same can be said.” ~Andrew Solomon

 

Depression narratives

I have been an avid and interested reader of books, usually memoirs, describing the authors’ experiences with depression, unmanageable grief, or depressive episodes. There are a number of reasons for my interest, one being that I have an interior depression narrative of my own and the other because of my passion for delving into concepts of consciousness. Consciousness and depression must be intimately linked, of course; a person cannot feel depressed if he or she lacks a reflective sense of self or Mind. Sorrow differs, but some grief is so deep that depression enters in and squeezes the soul dry. Each narrative contains parallels to other narratives, and yet each is as unique as the author. We are “storytelling animals,” and the impetus to tell the story of depression may be to help others or to assist in re-knitting the disjunctions depression creates in consciousness.

For example: This Close to Happy, Darkness Visible, An Unquiet Mind, H is for Hawk, Hyperbole and a Half, The Year of Magical Thinking, The Solace of Open Spaces…even in the relatively brief Chapter 75 of Bruce Springsteen’s memoir Born to Run–there are dozens of such memoirs on my bookshelves, and this list does not even mention the books by poets, psychologists, and philosophers who have explored the human challenges of depression. [I have not yet read Andrew Solomon’s Noonday Demon; but it is on my list.]

Porcelain doll, “Rain,” by Alexandra Koukinova of “Alexandra” Company.

Because I am a writer, these narratives, and the lyric inventions crafted by poets, teach me much about how to explain the un-nameable, to describe–in words–the kind of numb grip that a depressive crash or a monumental grief exerts on a person’s sense of self, or even of language (which fails); the way depression shrinks into nothingness a person’s feeling of shared community/communion/communication with others, even with beloved others. There’s a story there, the story of how the story itself gets subsumed by stasis.

In these cases, metaphor: the person is the story; the story loses its narrative, tapers off, stands still. No longer interesting, expressive, alive.

Unfortunately, I know that feeling. I know how it arrests creativity and savages my ability to write.

~

Why do we “get” depressed? What does depression do to the brain? Does the brain itself cause depression? Despite the insights medical researchers have gleaned about neurological networks, cells, synapses, the anatomy of the organ we call “the brain,” there are no answers to these questions; the former can be tracked through scans to some extent, but there is seldom a “before” MRI or PET scan with which to compare “normal” and “depressed” in a unique individual. A New York Times Health & Science article from 2005 puts things pretty succinctly:

” ‘I think that, with some notable exceptions, the community of scientists was excessively optimistic about how quickly imaging would have an impact on psychiatry,’ said Dr. Steven Hyman, a professor of neurobiology at Harvard and the former director of the National Institute of Mental Health. ‘In their enthusiasm, people forgot that the human brain is the most complex object in the history of human inquiry, and it’s not at all easy to see what’s going wrong.’

For one thing, brains are as variable as personalities.”

brainOne of the problems is determining causation: which was first, the disease or a perceived (and possibly inaccurate) difference in brain structure or function? Is it chemical or hereditary, or is it traumatically-induced? Or are we not really seeing a difference in brain structure? Why do medications work for some people but not others? And why and how do medications work, exactly? Twelve years after Carey’s NYT article, psycho-neuro-biologist folks still do not know any definitive facts, though there is slow movement toward progress. [For a quite up-to-date and thorough but readable article about the complexities involved in depression, I recommend Harvard Health Publication’s online pamphlet “What Causes Depression?”]

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From the standpoint of a person who has had a lifelong relationship with depression, I’m not sure I need a cure at this point. My depression narrative includes taking a pill that seems to help considerably; but that has not been the magic bullet that alleviated a chronic, possibly chemical, condition. What has balanced my conscious mind with my chemistry is at least as likely to be related to support, friendship, talk therapy, cognitive behavioral changes, personal motivation, love, reflection, experience, information, aging, writing, spiritual study, Zen, nature, environment, valuable work, art, and tai chi.

The Nautilus article (cited below–do consider reading it) suggests there may be an “up” side to depression:

In a study of 61 depressed subjects, 4 out of 5 reported at least one upside to their rumination, including self-insight, problem solving, and the prevention of future mistakes.

“It may be best to let depression work its miserable magic, under protective supervision.”

“Most episodes of depression end on their own—something known as spontaneous remission…” says Steven Hollon, a professor of psychology at Vanderbilt University.

The Nautilus article cites several researchers who use the evolutionary model of fitness and bargaining, concepts that Marjorie Grene might caution us away from relying too heavily upon. Drake Baer of The Science of Us, whose article was certainly titled by editors, not scientists, writes “that, in some circumstances, depression may be, in the arc of a life, yielding of insights and personal meaning. All of this is in no way meant to minimize the suffering that depression can cause — but to suggest the uses that it may serve.”

Baer’s article dwells upon the idea that there are structural and cultural concepts at work in the identification of, experience of, and healing of depression; that the “illness” or disease resides in the subjective, non-empirical, non-testable world of human consciousness (interiority). I’m on board with that suggestion. Baer closes by relating depression to katabasis, an ancient Greek word that refers to the inexorable downhill slide, the descent into the underworld, the sinking down into darkness.

Baer writes that “Katabasis leads to catharsis; not coincidentally, there’s a shared theme in the personal narratives of people who reach midlife with a sense of well-being and generativity toward others: redemption.”

My personal depression narrative, just past mid-life (by some reckoning), suggests redemption. Which is to say there’s hope.

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Totally cheesy rainbow photo.

See also: http://psycnet.apa.org/journals/rev/116/3/620/

http://nautil.us/issue/45/power/does-depression-have-an-evolutionary-purpose

http://nymag.com/scienceofus/2017/02/a-new-way-to-understand-and-treat-depression.html

Please, if you or someone you know and care about has challenges with depression, read the Harvard article linked in the text at very least; and check out the other links as well. This is as close as I ever get to a public service announcement, but the urgency is explicit.

Beautiful brain

While waiting for the snow to evaporate and melt, the gardener experiences agitation; the days are longer–it must be time to plant seeds…but the soil is too wet and too cold.

Fortunately, there are always books! I have read Daniel Dennett on religion, George Lakoff on the embodied basis for philosophy, and am plowing rapidly through Ruth Whippman’s (acerbic and very funny) America the Anxious.  Also I am slowly savoring an anthology of Jewish women’s poems, The Dybbuk of Delight, that I randomly discovered in the library.

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But here’s a book I want to own, when I can justify more book purchases: Beautiful Brain: the Drawings of Santiago Ramon y Cajal, because Art! because Neuroscience! because Beauty! The blog Hyperallergic says the drawings are going to be touring museums (see The Dynamic Brain Drawings of the Father of Neuroscience), which might also become a must-do for me when the exhibit travels to New York City next January.

What Cajal was doing back at the turn of the last century still inspires artists, not just medical scientists, today (see my post on Greg Dunn’s neuro-artworks). These compellingly beautiful and quite accurate drawings may also inspire poets and armchair philosophers who have lately spent a great deal of time pondering the resilience of the brain and the challenges that rupture a sense of self when cognition is interrupted.

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Credit goes to Abrams Books for these graphics and for the decision to publish this beautiful text.