Metaphor & mind

In a recent New Yorker article about the trial of Charleston church shooter Dylann Roof, Jelani Cobb reports that during the lead prosecutor’s presentation

Roof’s mother sank down on the bench as he delivered his opening statement, which contained details of the crime that had previously been withheld from the press. At a certain point, she slumped over. It seemed for a moment that she had fainted, but she was taken to a hospital, and it was later learned that she had suffered a heart attack. She survived, but did not return for the remainder of the trial.

In her situation, I might have had the same response. How metaphorical: the heart revolts from within–an embodied reaction. When I read about this incident, I thought of cognitive scientist/philosophers George Lakoff and Mark Johnson, who have been pioneering the concept that the mind and body evolved together and cannot be separated through the literal, analytical, categorical approaches of classic Western thought.

Languages the world over use body-based metaphors and gestures that reinforce how our  minds are integrated with and connected to our human bodies–we intuit from the gut; a situation makes our skin crawl; we place hands over hearts to demonstrate love, loyalty, compassion. Medical science confirms what people have long understood, in a “folk physiology” way, for years: emotional and intellectual stress has physical expressions and repercussions.

Lakoff and Johnson have been investigating such universal human phenomena since the 1970s. Their work has implications for a wide range of endeavors from artificial intelligence to brain trauma. In 1999, when Philosophy in the Flesh was published, they said Western philosophy needs to retool its thinking from the ground up, the ground being the body itself.

Reason, they assert, is as embodied as emotion; and their argument that intellectual functioning arises metaphorically through the physiological experiences of the (human) body is persuasive and extensively documented through research, particularly neurological research. Exactly where what we term “consciousness” arises may never be determined, but phenomenology, Taoism, and empirical science converge with what we are learning about synapses, cells, hormones, and the neural network to suggest there may be an answer as to how consciousness emerges; and that answer is likely to be biological.

brain

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The brain, the heart, the entire bodily system under emotional, mental, psychological duress, the conflicting moods of love, grief, anger, fear, and a chasm of misunderstanding; the terrible awe of disbelief–an embodied self might well collapse, physically, literally, under the metaphorical strain.

 

 

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.

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neural matrix fiber topography, Johns Hopkins University

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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

 

 

 

Further shifts

Shifts are necessary now and again. Here are a some I am undergoing.

For example, readers of this blog will notice that the writer’s focus tends to move from interest to interest, month to month, year to year. And yet there’s poetry to consider, always. During the past year, I have read more non-fiction books than poetry books. More history. More memoir. More science. I have been pursuing the consciousness and neurology and physiology texts.

I have learned a great deal from all of this reading, and it is inspiring. I find, however, that it’s taken its toll on my writing poetry.

My shift now: Read more poetry.

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But what about my love for difficult books?

Well, there is no doubt in my mind that poetry can be difficult. Difficult to write, difficult to read, difficult to understand. Time to go there, further and deeper.

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Another shift: in the spring semester, I will be teaching a more advanced course in writing comp and rhetoric, one that will be more challenging for the students and especially for me. One of the arguments I will be making to them is that they recognize the need for credibility in the sources they use as evidence.

Making that case runs rather counter to the way US society operates. We shall see how well I can make my argument to these young people.

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One further shift–certainly not the last. There’s my constant inquiry into consciousness…because sentience and human beings–and their brains, and their mind-body problems, and their relationships, and their stories and metaphors and art forms and pains–intrigue me endlessly, I turn to books and art for understanding. I do not expect to learn what consciousness is, where it originates, or how it came to be. But I ask because asking is interesting.

The reading has been enlightening. Philosophy, yes, and neurology and cultural anthropology. Oh, and evolution, religion, and medicine. Not to mention texts on death and dying (and the unanswerable “is that the end of consciousness?”).

My shift here lately has been to read less and to encounter more. I have been volunteering as a hospice companion/caregiver relief assistant, sometimes in the home but most often at the inpatient hospice unit at a nearby hospital.

quanyin

There are bodhisattvas among us, and I have met them on the ward floor. This particular shift does not mean I will never read another book on consciousness, but it has reminded me that kindness is a constant act and that kindness is conscious and aware. It does not reside in a book but in the daily world, which is all we have.

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I have to work on that in my own relationships, the ones that don’t take place on the hospice wing.

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May I prove resilient to these shifts. The days are incrementally longer now. Time to read poems.

 

 

Face to face

alice-heart1 copy

The physical, corporal power of poetry; the need for language and expression to originate in the body–these are concepts that resonate with me as a poet and that make poetry such a difficult art. For how can one be in the body through words? Words remove the physical language of the body which is so important a component of communication. That is why tweets and social media posts and email often work to the detriment of genuine understanding.

What follows are three rather diverse chunks of thinking concerning the corporal and the intellectual.

Ren Powell writes in her blog:

And it made me more certain than ever that the separation of the corporal and the intellect is truly the root of every evil. It’s why all the studies show that getting people to talk face-to-face, breaks down bigotry in a way nothing else ever will. A linguistically relayed concept has to be replaced by a body that we experience in the sensual world.

It brings me to Orr’s phrase to describe poetry: “the eros of language”. I think poetry is necessary because it bridges the gap between the corporal and the intellectual in a way no other writing can. Why we say novels that tell the truth are “poetic”. When we speak poetry, sing it, it becomes corporal. It’s funny that when we sing the word “love”, we are not supposed to sing “luhv”, with its stingy and clenched vowel, but we’re supposed to open the mouth, sing “lahv”- with a wide-open palate. Because it hits us in the gut with its beauty then. Openness.

And counter-wise (which should be a word),  we can infect our minds with the routine that reinforces ugliness: I believe writing or drawing words and images of hate can infect the body.

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Reading Ren Powell’s words, I thought immediately of two poems of Gregory Orr‘s, from his book Concerning the Book that Is the Body of the Beloved. Here they are:

How small the eyes of hate.
I’m not making this up
Or being metaphorical.
A man held a gun against
My head and I saw how
Small his eyes were
With what they refused
To take in of the world.
This happened beside
A small highway
In Alabama in 1965.
What history called
The Civil Rights
Movement; what I call
The tiny eyes of hate.

~

How large the eyes of love.
How the pupils dilate
With desire (I’m not
Making this up: science
Has proved it’s true).

Those eyes wide
And glistening: gates
Thrown open. What’s
Inside, free to flow
Out as feeling,
And the whole world
And the Beloved
Welcome to enter.

~~

I just saw the movie “The Arrival,” a science-fiction film based on Ted Chiang’s short story “The Story of Your Life.” Any movie whose main character has a PhD in Linguistics sounds intriguing to me. The narrative uses the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis as a kind of plot point: the theory that language molds culture. An underlying possibility in the movie is that perhaps it is language that gives us consciousness, transforms us into sentience, and–possibly–has the capacity to unite and heal us.

But it needs to be face-to-face, as in the movie, wherein Amy Adams encounters aliens in person, insisting that in order to interpret any new language she must experience the process of “speaking” personally, to judge body language, movements–not just sounds or written “text.” How we communicate teaches us who we are. In order to understand one another truly, we need authentic encounters, not slogans.

We need to bid each stranger as Beloved, “Welcome to enter.”

 

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Struggling with words

Some of the students I tutor in writing are English learners–advanced English learners, but still on the learning curve. They began speaking and writing English at age 10 or 14 or 16, or perhaps earlier, but in a family whose English defaulted to a “home” language. They often have vocabularies that far exceed my US-born students in scope, but they lack awareness of idiomatic preposition use or skills in standard English syntax.

My background is not in “ESL,” “ELL,” or the instruction of multi-lingual students. I have precious little training in that area, and no experience in translation. I do not even have fluency in any language other than my own; as a result, I have great respect for my students, who often are conversant in two, three, sometimes four languages or dialects. In truth, their language skills far outstrip my own. Yet they arrive at my door seeking help in writing, trying to understand how to write clear, concise sentences in a language they find mysterious and arbitrary in its grammar, its use of punctuation, and its rules about documentation, capitalization, and articles.bkmk-violet

The majority of them are from immigrant families, and they are among my hardest-working students. They take nothing for granted. Their frustration at not getting their ideas across on paper drives them to read more, to look words up in the dictionary (something few of my English-speaking students ever bother to do), to visit the writing tutors, to ask interesting questions about why the noun-count adjective comes before the color or quality adjective and when and why to use a rather than the as a preceding article.

They are excellent critical thinkers, probably because they have to solve problems continually: translating in their heads, figuring out whether a translator app will help them or not, deciphering figures of speech and cultural allusions, and navigating how to get around in the world outside their home base and home language.

Some of them have had to learn to handle stereotyping, ostracizing, bullying, and worse.

I admire their resilience and their youthful enthusiasm, and I recognize their dismay when nothing they try seems to work. The only aspect of their lives I am really privileged to help them with is their writing in English as they struggle with words. The rest they do on their own.

~

So here’s a story.

A student who has lived in the US for four years and who speaks one of the Asian languages regularly meets with me to go over her mathematics essays (these are basically chapter summaries with reflections). Her papers are usually well-structured and demonstrate considerable understanding of some complicated readings, but she does wrestle with article use and past-participle verb use in the various conditional tenses. Every once in awhile, though, she composes a sentence that completely throws me.

In a recent paper, her concluding paragraph contained the phrase “is not anhydrous warehouse confusion.”

[WTF?!] I had to wrap my brain around the possibilities of that one…so she pulled out her cell phone translator and we played around with it a bit: “without water,” a scientific term; I knew that had to mean “dry,” but why hadn’t she come up with the word “dry”? She knows that word. And “warehouse”? “Like store,” she said. [Storage? Dry storage? Confusion?]

After some laughter and some consternation, we realized that she was using a metaphor that means, essentially, dry facts. She wanted to write that mathematics is not just a set of confusing dry facts, as many people think it is. And we discovered that the metaphor in her language was not that different from the metaphor in English. But Google Translate doesn’t realize that!

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I got home and said to myself: somehow I have to write a poem that contains the phrase anhydrous warehouse😀

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Translation software, AutoCorrect and GrammarCheck are algorithms. They may be full of information, but they are not smart and they are not human beings. The genuine problem-solver, the best puzzler-outer, is the messy ol’ brain itself: human consciousness.brain

 

 

 

 

 

Words others have written

I’m still feeling a bit alexithymic. The epilogue of Canetti’s Crowds and Power seems so prescient to me,* though that may be because of the cognitive state I am in…trying to decide whether or not to dissociate myself somehow from society at a time when that approach seems appealing but irresponsible. Thoughts about consciousness, what it is, and whether it matters. Thoughts about the value (and what do we mean by value?) of poetry and the arts.

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My sister’s family, and my husband, were in New York City during the 2003 blackout; my husband was at home on September 11, 2001, but my sister and her family–who are long-time Manhattan residents–went through that experience. Some thoughts from Rebecca Solnit (see link below for a lengthier essay from which these words were excerpted).825px-eso_-_the_milky_way_panorama_by

Rebecca Solnit:

On the warm night of August 15, 2003, the Milky Way could be seen in New York City, a heavenly realm long lost to view until the blackout that hit the northeast late that afternoon. You can think of the current social order as something akin to this artificial light: another kind of power that fails in disaster. In its place appears a reversion to improvised, collaborative, cooperative and local society. However beautiful the stars of a suddenly visible night sky, few nowadays could find their way by them, but the constellations of solidarity, altruism and improvisation are within most of us and reappear at these times. People know what to do in a disaster. The loss of power, the disaster in the modern sense, is an affliction, but the reappearance of these old heavens is its opposite. This is the paradise entered through hell.

http://lithub.com/rebecca-solnit-how-to-survive-a-disaster/#

~night

*I may get to this in a future post.

Language & violence

“To have great pain is to have certainty; to hear that another person has pain is to have doubt.” Elaine Scarry

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I have finally finished reading Elaine Scarry‘s difficult book The Body in Pain. The subtitle is “The Making and Unmaking of the World,” which offers some idea of how large a topic is under consideration in her text. She examines torture, war, sports as metaphor for war, the creation of god(s), the interiority of and thus the difficulty of assessing pain, the Marxist and Judeo-Christian structures of imagining the world (“making” through art, government, the creation of objects, religions, and concepts), to name a few of her subjects. She considers the utter “unmaking” of torture and war as world-destroying and, ultimately, word-destroying; when the human is in deep pain, the utterances are essentially word-less–moans, grunts, screams–and the experience remains internal and unique to each individual:

“Whatever pain achieves, it achieves in part through its unsharability, and it ensures this unsharability through its resistance to language. ‘English,’ writes Virginia Woolf, ‘which can express the thoughts of Hamlet and the tragedy of Lear has no words for the shiver or the headache.’ … Physical pain does not simply resist language but actively destroys it.”

I love her theories (are they theories? explorations?) of imagination/imagining and creation/creativity. She develops this set of concepts in the transitional chapter “Pain and Imagining,” then applies her ideas to huge social constructs, not just to objects or individuals. I found it difficult to get my mind around the philosophical aspects of her argument–the denseness of her prose can  be tough, though never impenetrable. pain

What sprang to mind for me, among many other thoughts to mull over, is the pang I feel about recognizing that tools that change or make can also, almost always, be weapons as well. The hand or the fist. The sculptor’s knife or the assassin’s dirk. The stone that grinds corn or the projectile hurled at the opponent. The words that comfort, the words that wound. For a writer–a poet (“maker”)–that awareness hovers, always, in the background.

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Also, Scarry’s book made me mindful of how pain and sorrow employ the language of war and torture. This is irrefutable, and it saddens me. I wonder: is there any way around that fact?

If I could rephrase my pain into words that were not violence-based, could I re-frame my pain? Certainly language has a relationship with consciousness; could there be a placebo effect on my interior sensations if I were to re-name my “pain sensations” as something other than burning, stabbing, numbing, sharp?

Could I unmake the world of pain through a mindful habit of personal language?

[Note: this speculation is not where Scarry goes in her text; it’s just a thought experiment that I have considered based upon some of her observations.]