At sundown

The disintegrating physical and mental situation of an elderly best-beloved recently has led me back (after a brief pause) to readings in neurology and consciousness. It has also led me to reflect on the tasks memory accomplishes for us and how the need to tell a story seems to reside deep in whatever “makes us human.” Many poems, perhaps most of them, are “inspired” by memories and a need to tell. So I will indulge myself by giving a narration here, and perhaps poems will follow later.

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The best-beloved has been in and out of hospitals, rehabilitation centers, and so-called independent living placement and appears to have developed a very common but not-commonly-talked-about cognitive disarray, or hospital-induced delirium, that medical personnel call “sundowning” when it occurs in Alzheimer’s patients. But my patient does not have Alzheimer’s disease. Her meshing of realities must have been triggered by something else, but the possible factors are many. We may never figure out what it was that pitched her into delusion and lack of compassion, turning her into a person we barely know.

She took good care of her body. At 90, her physical self is in better shape than many people 20 years her junior. Her brain–and hence, her mind–has not stayed as healthy as the rest of her. Several small strokes deep in her brain began to alter not just her gait but her personal focus. Long years of hearing loss no doubt altered how her brain processes input. The reading I have been doing (most recently Carr’s The Shallows, Sacks’ On the Move, and Damasio’s Looking for Spinoza) indicates that the human brain is “plastic” but not necessarily “elastic.” It can modify in response to damage or training, but that does not mean it will spring back to the way it was before. In extreme old age, the process of adaptation slows. The brain becomes less resilient. For reasons no one really understands–a host of possible culprits includes hormones, glutamates, serotonin production, medicines, genetic predispositions, and environmental factors among others (a perfect storm…)–persons who have been sharp and cogent may suddenly experience delusions, often leading to paranoia, confusion, loss of affect, lack of social filters, violent and contrary behavior.

And we ask, “What happened to the soul I love?”

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If we believe in souls, we have faith that somewhere under the changeling is the best-beloved. In flashes, she may return to us. If we believe that the brain is the person, the transition from best-beloved to aggressive complainer is harder to accept. Damasio seems to believe the brain is the person. I find it hard to agree with him fully, though I have been learning a lot about neurology in the process.

Metaphors or analogies for the situation seldom seem, to me, quite to capture the wrenching feeling I have when encountering sundowning. The idea of disintegration seems inappropriate in this case, because she recalls who we are and her mind is not collapsing so much as morphing in unaccountable ways. Threads unraveling? No, not really; the metaphor of a quilt coming undone, maybe, or an intricately-woven tapestry shredded apart–but that’s far too simplistic.

Think of the mind: it encompasses the brain with its regions for motor, somatosensory, auditory, and visual processing; the body, which takes in those physically-produced inputs; memories; thoughts; feelings, which are thoughts spurred by emotions; and a host of complex inter-relationships we cannot even begin to map. Somewhere in all of this is the person, the “self.” At least, as far as we have so far been able to speculate (though not everyone agrees; see my post on Hofstadter & Parfit. Parfit suggests personal identity is an invalid construct).

Perhaps an environmental analogy would suffice, being complex enough for comparison. She is the planet Earth, aging and adaptable, but not endlessly adaptable; her healthy balance has been thrown off by things she may not have had any control over. In whole regions, she becomes inhospitable. Poisoned. Dry. Hot. Overrun with invasives. She seems not to like us anymore, but that is not what’s going on at all. In fact, she’s dying.

Maybe that’s taking the metaphor too far. But in difficult times, one reaches far. There is hope she may recover at least some of her Self, and in the meantime, we have stories in which she plays a role. Mnemosyne–awaken in the consciousness of those who know her. Telling the stories is a step toward letting go.


Mere philosophical speculation

I have been reading more of Daniel Dennett. One of his earlier books, Brainstorms, consists of essays and talks and thus, being available to read in short bursts, has served as my intellectual entertainment in between the busy social events of this particular June.

I liked three of his essays better than the others. The first one in the book describes, explains, and argues for “intentional systems;” the author also does a fairly good job of asserting that philosophers and psychologists ought to study computer models of intelligence as a means of leaning more about human intelligence. He does not make lots of mechanistic claims, however–he does not suggest human beings are mere soft machines, and he gives a good argument in Chapter 11 as to why we cannot make a computer that feels pain. But he does separate, by degrees, the differences between basic consciousness states and consciousness that exhibits intentionality, and he separates basic consciousness from simple instinct–something that confuses many people when they are posed difficult questions about non-human animal “minds”.

His essay “How to Change Your Mind” offers terrific, logical insights about human “feelings,” “intuitions,” and opinions. Dennett shifts the perspective on the psychological question of why it is so difficult for human beings to “change their minds” and to give genuinely rational (or mechanistic) reasons for doing so.

The book’s final chapter, “Where Am I?” is available as a PDF at this link, and here Dennett offers a much more entertaining and readable philosophical thought experiment on personhood (and consciousness/mind) than Derek Parfit posits in his book Reasons and Persons. Those readers who are interested in how a thought experiment can argue for the existence of a person-as-consciousness-state without embodiment-in-carbon-based-materiality, without the usually-required religious or spiritual crutch, but also without the dense counterarguments of Parfit’s approach, may wish to check out this chapter.

Granted, I understand that many people feel thought experiments are a monumental waste of time, tantamount to navel-gazing; others feel sure that teleportation out of fleshly bodies is the stuff of science fiction (emphasis on the fiction). But as our inventions permit us to test out theories that once were “mere philosophical speculation,” all kinds of surprises may await us. Quantum physics was an imagined idea, for example, that scientists have been able to revise and explore in a more machine-based way…Thomas Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions does, often, operate historically as he envisioned the process. The recent excitement over teleportation of coded data provides an example of mechanical testing of theories (here is a good basic article on the experiment for the layperson, with graphics and a Star Trek image, and here is the scientist-written article).

All of which is fascinating, yet none of which decreases my enjoyment of a run of perfect June summer days. Incarnate, I attempt meditation. There is honeysuckle on the breeze. Insects whir and buzz around me; sun warms my left shoulder. Time for consciousness. Time to be here, among the things of this world.



Consciousness as multiple drafts

Daniel C. Dennett’s 1991 book, Consciousness Explained, has kept me entertained and interested for a couple of days now. How could I refuse a book with that title? And Dennett–whose conversational writing style appears to toss off one idea after another in quick succession–actually stays mostly true to classic philosophical reasoning in his arguments as he endeavors to make claims for what consciousness is. He begins with phenomenology as one way to initiate the concatenation of empirical science (physics, biology, neurological research) with logic. He dispenses with Husserl and the early Phenomenologists but invents his own form–hyperphenomenology–breaking phenomena into three divisions and exploring each until he arrives at a way to destroy the long-held concept of the mind, hence consciousness, as “Cartesian Theatre,” and replace that model with a construction more biologically sound.

The book is far too complex to summarize, but the concept he develops that most appeals to me is what he calls the multiple drafts theory of consciousness. Dennett draws upon neurological and psychological research as well as past and current philosophical thinking to propose that what we term consciousness may consist of multiple narratives created through physical input, memory processing, and other processes that result in fraction-of-a-second “revisions” in thinking. Narratives! Revisions! As a writer, I can certainly relate to this idea. The theory of multiple drafts consciousness would explain many phenomena, such as the unreliability of eyewitnesses, the repression and re-constructing of traumatic experiences, the embellishment of stories (as Dennett puts it, “What I should have said at the party becomes what I said at the party”)…and it has examples in the way we “tell” fiction, movies, and family stories.

Currently, I am engaged in the work of revising dozens and dozens of poems. Many drafts. Many narratives, many layers. Subtle shifts in perspective or story or language or style–which version is the real me? All of them, across a continuum.

Derek Parfit’s Reasons & Persons suggests some of the same conclusions through a more traditional philosophical approach (harder to read than Dennett’s often-humorous prose which is geared more toward the non-philosopher and which employs considerable neurological and psychological research as part of its rational evidence).

Although these texts intrigue, and are convincing, they remain speculative. For me, the science aspects of the inquiry remove none of the mystery or delight I experience in terms of my own consciousness. Nor do they negate my sense of myself as individual, unique as to perspective, or whole in myself and in the cosmos. I know that many people resist the idea that consciousness is not soul, who feel that scientific research somehow diminishes human beings into–what? Fancy hardware for intelligent software? Automatons with the illusion of free will? Purposeless life forms? Robotic zombies with no moral bearings?


A continuum version of tao

Apparently, we desire awe; but knowledge doesn’t have to kill awe.

I find myself fascinated with the ideas posed by Douglas Hofstadter wherein he theorizes consciousness-as-continuum (see this post). People love to default to a black & white way of analysis, thinking, and judging, but everything in nature contradicts that concept. No doubt our brains, wired to make quick decisions using the simplest shortcuts, sieve out a great deal of content and then justify later (Daniel Kahneman’s book Thinking Fast and Slow covers this process in fascinating depth). It’s simply easier to think of balance as tao, perfectly harmonious black and white, or to sort people or objects or ideas into yes-or-no categories. But the distinctions are seldom so clear–there’s a continuum that stretches from the black to the white, as in the spectrum, as in the fringes of a forest or a meadow, as in the so-called races of human beings, as in places where societies and cultures meet and often intermingle, as in the coastline of the sea or a riparian environment. And all of those things are awesome, even miraculous.

In Dennett’s Chapter Five, “Multiple Drafts vs. the Cartesian Theater,” he offers this diagram:


dennett003It’s a proposed version of what happens when we think.

You will have to read the book to decipher this illustration; but I recognize in it the way I tell a story, think about a story, remember an event, record an experience, and the narrative method of the many kinds of stories (many genres, many media) that I love.

One thing it is not is straightforward. We have all those revisions to make, to layer our experiences with, to explore along the fringes of, and to find deeply miraculously awesome. Wading among my drafts now, I feel revitalized. These reflections and revisions are part of my Self as a conscious being in a physical and wonderful world.




Consciousness & cosmology

"Syntax" by Steve Tobin. Copper, bronze.

“Syntax” by Steve Tobin. Copper, bronze. What can be said about all the things we think make up an “I”?


I’ve completed I Am a Strange Loop and Why Does the World Exist? and found, not entirely to my surprise (but to my delight–braiding and synthesis!), that the existential, metaphysical, and cosmological aspects of both authors connect intriguingly. Thomas Nagel, an important “philosopher of mind,” appears as an influence in both of these writers’ books, and Einstein and Plato and Heidegger. Both authors end up citing Derek Parfit’s work, and Holt even interviews him! It turns out that trying to determine the “reason” the world exists at all is not that different from trying to understand what consciousness is made of and where it resides.

After taking up mathematical proofs and several philosophical arguments, as well as neurological science as a basis for the evolution of “mind,” Hofstadter’s book gradually takes apart the mind-body problem that Descartes made so iconic for Western civilization’s thinkers. He keeps returning–and that’s an appropriate word–to the metaphor of looping. He looks at the strange loops of Escher’s drawings and of string theorists’ rolled-up dimensions and alerts us to how crucial the concept of self-reference is to the theory of consciousness.

The need for self-referentiality in a fully “human” consciousness gets him to the idea of “small-souledness” (among, say, such beings as mosquitoes). What portion of our selves makes us able to think about thinking, for example? Is that identity, or consciousness? What’s the difference? Here is where Parfit comes in. Hofstadter writes that Parfit “staunchly resists the idea that the concept of ‘personal identity’ makes sense. To be sure, it makes sense in the everyday world we inhabit…we all more or less take for granted this notion of ‘Cartesian Ego’ in our daily lives; it is built into our common sense, into our languages, and into our cultural backgrounds.”


If we care at all about what there may be beyond our everyday lives–and certainly people like Hofstadter, Holt, Bachelard, and me, among others, do care–we need to get “meta” in our meditations, which invariably leads to paradoxes and thorny tangles. Hofstadter’s book also engages with his ‘personal life’ (if, indeed, a personal identity or personal life exists). When his wife died, he found himself engaged in the seemingly unanswerable question of “Where did Carol go?” Did “Doug-and-Carol,” the shared dreams and lives and understandings of two people who knew one another intimately, simply vanish when Carol’s body died? Hofstadter cannot fathom that this shared identity “goes poof” when the body stops. He, after all, still feels connected to the Doug-and-Carol shared consciousness.

It feels real to him. So–what is consciousness? From whence does it emanate, or originate? Is it real, or is it an illusion–is there no such thing as the personal identity we hold so dear that we cannot even imagine ourselves any other way than as an “I”? (Are feelings real?)


Jim Holt’s book likewise gets more personal as the chapters progress and as he wrestles with his existential inquiry through texts and interviews. That seems quite appropriate: how can we use language to untangle what language itself makes vague and confusing? (See Tobin’s sculpture “Syntax,” above, for a physical view of loopy entanglement and potential words). Holt’s inquiry initially seems based on the abstract, mathematical, physics of why/how the universe got here; but he ends on the metaphysical and philosophical…whereas Hofstadter entertains the metaphysical from the get-go but employs mathematics, psychology, and brain physiology as well as philosophy. And they encounter similar quandaries, paradoxes, and uncertainties. Both authors essentially come to a similar conclusion about the mystery of existence, though they accept or compromise with their conclusions in slightly different ways. Then again, they are different people who have lived different experiences. Reading both books has been, for me, a valuable experience and one that’s made me examine my own thinking about being.


Apropos of these musings, and thanks again to Popova of Brainpickings, here’s a few more words on some contemporary thinkers who have theorized as Holt has (in particular, Lawrence Kraus) in the debate on Something vs. Nothing: “What is Nothing”


…And, apropos of nothing in this post, but to lighten the mood, here’s an amusing little blog from The New Yorker about pilcrows & pound signs & ampersands.


The word “inspiration” is from the Latin inspiratio: to blow into, to inflame. I began musing on inspiration today while on a walk with Spouse and Dog, during which the idea of muse came up in conversation (with Spouse; Dog kept her own silent counsel). He observed that he had never had a muse and asked if I had ever had one. I said I cannot think of ever having a person serve as my muse, but perhaps other things have played that role.

“Isn’t a muse a person?” he asked. We discussed, then, the difference—as each of us saw it—between a muse and a mentor. He has had mentors at various stages of his life; I think most of us encounter someone along the way who serves as a sage, a guide, a teacher, or as a role model. That person certainly offers a kind of inspiration. A muse, however, seems to connote inspiration of a different character or quality from mentorship. The muse acts as trigger, someone or something whose mere presence elicits a creative urge. The muse inflames, blows on the spark of creativity and ignites it.

Richard Hugo’s book The Triggering Town is justifiably famous among creative writers, particularly poets, for its author’s sensitive explanation of a source for the creative process and his description of how inspiration percolates into the creative act. He uses the example of American towns that act as triggers for memories or conjure of specific details of place and personhood. The town becomes muse. In a similar way, works of ekphrastic poetry may employ art as muse (though not always). For other creative people, music provides that initial flicker of inspiration—which seems especially fitting, given the word “music” originates from the word for the Greek muses themselves: mousike techne “art of the muses” from mousa, “muse.”

Mousa itself derives from the ancient proto-indo-european linguistic base *mon-men-mn, most closely associated with the meaning “to think, to remember.” Inspiration, though we feel it emotionally, psychologically, even physically at times, takes us into our minds, where the creativity takes place and can be formulated into art.

Much of my inspiration over the years has come from what people tend to term “the natural world”—as if we humans were not a part of that. But other things spur my creativity, including art and things I read. Having finally completed Parfit’s Reasons and Persons, I am now consuming more easily-digestible fare and finding much to inflame my interests in Alberto Manguel’s 1995 book A History of Reading, which I highly recommend.

Perhaps I will later find time to discuss the joys and pitfalls of reading several books at once. Meanwhile, I plan to spend the last light of a late winter afternoon observing hawks and woodpeckers.

Kalliope or Calliope, Athenian-style, the muse of epic poetry.


larch cones by Ann E. Michael

I am almost finished reading Parfit’s Reasons and Persons, and I think his conclusions about the self (person) in society and as individual are valid; I have long questioned the self-interest theory of philosophy but only on an intuitive basis as I am no philosopher, merely a student of the discipline.

What strikes me after having read this lengthy and rationally-argued book is that there are so many ways philosophical reasoning does actually intersect with that “most irrational” of impulses, art.

Here is a lovely excerpt from poet David Ignatow, from an essay he wrote in 1971:
“There is no contravening another person’s sense of himself and his world. We must accept it on his terms, though we need not accept it for ourselves…men and women have discovered themselves as individuals, and that this sense of individuality is something among them…In affirming themselves, they affirm all others.”

He later adds that poetry “is formed by the terms with which the person sees himself.”

It seems to me that Ignatow possessed an excellent understanding of the psychological and emotional as well as the rhetorical aspects of poetry–indeed, of any art.

Reasons and felines

“Like my cat, I often simply do what I want to do.”

This sentence begins Derek Parfit’s book Reasons and Persons, a lengthy series of philosophical arguments examining the validity of the self-interest theory, examinations of hedonistic and altruistic behavior, among others,  as rational responses to life, and why people choose to do what is against their own or their community’s best interests (i.e., behave “irrationally”)–as well as whether irrational behavior is ever justified and why.

At right, my favorite cat, Topsy. He does what he wants to do.

Parfit’s book has been a good refresher course for me in how philosophers actually work, devise their analogies, create and endeavor to solve dilemmas, clarify and limit their claims, etc.

But frankly, my brain hurts. (See Monty Python skit, below).

There are times one simply wants to think less about the things that matter, and that desire may not be rational but is certainly human. So while humans do have the opportunity to be reasoning creatures, they also have the opportunity to be like cats: to do what they want to do.

Or not to do, as the case may be.

At present, I’m assessing student work for final grades. This work is rational and should be carried out as objectively as possible against specific criteria. This work is one of the jobs teachers do, besides the job of endeavoring to impart information and to encourage critical thinking on the part of the students. It’s my job, I get paid to do it, and I take it seriously. Nevertheless, today I find myself tired of being the reasoning person.

And so, because I cannot slink over to the sofa and curl up on a pile of blankets, I am posting this: