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?”

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

~ Emily Dickinson

 

 

 

Head in a book

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

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

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.

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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.

 

 

& more difficult books…

Difficult books” ends up being one of my most-blogged-about topics. I like to challenge my brain with concepts that rattle the typical, with texts that force me to slow down and puzzle through my tangled thoughts. Right now, I am slowly reading two difficult but extremely rewarding books: Ann Lauterbach‘s The Night Sky: Writings on the Poetics of Experience and Elaine Scarry‘s The Body in Pain.

Both of these writers use plenty of source material that synthesizes (or sometimes argues with) their concepts and explorations. In many cases, these are books new to me, but Lauterbach also quotes from and is inspired by some of my own favorites: Whitman, Emerson, Dickinson, William James. Lauterbach combines what my students would call a geeky interest in theory (literary and social) with anecdote, musings, and a collaged or transgressive approach to the argument or critique. This is to say I admit I do not always know where she is going with her essays, even at the close of them. And yet–her interweavings fascinate, her choices surprise. She’s a master of the pithy definition (“Poetry is…”), but she allows for many perspectives, many definitions.

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Brad Hammonds/Flickr Creative Commons

Scarry’s text covers a different domain, though theory certainly has a place in her book. The Body in Pain examines what pain is–semiotically, physically, its interiority, its defining characteristics, the portrayal of pain in art and literature and what that tells us about the body, the Self, and the shared understanding but individual experience of pain. I have not gotten much beyond the second chapter of her book, but I already feel myself inquisitive about aspects of human pain that I had never even considered before; who thinks about pain except when feeling, or anticipating feeling, pain? Of course we know what pain is–until we try to describe our experience of it to another person.

I’ve had that frustrating experience numerous times (here’s Ally Brosch of Hyperbole & a Half with the best solution to pain charts), but I have not devoted much time to exploring why pain is so individual despite our universal recognition of its existence; also, it had not occurred to me why we so often doubt others’ pain. Scarry says we have developed no particular understanding of the phenomenon, one reason she undertook the writing of this book.

Meanwhile, the semester continues apace and my students are interested in argument after all, it appears; and the bounty of late tomatoes has arrived with much processing to do before they all rot. My time spent blogging will be brief in the coming weeks. 🙂

 

On absence

I have experienced a felt absence lately, a sense of missing.

Maybe the world is too much with me. I have responses to the Stanford rape case, responses to the Syrian refugee crisis, to the US presidential campaign, to the mass murder at a gay nightclub in Orlando; responses to some personal challenges, as well–health: my own and loved ones’, among other concerns.

Responding represents the equal and opposite reaction to any action, in a Newtonian metaphor. And what my body and my mind these days are saying to me is “step back, reflect.”

Humans love immediacy–the rapid Twitter argument, the comments on opinion posts, the punch in the gut. Animals need rapid responses in order to negotiate a world of predator and prey; humans, however, (and, more than most of us realize, many other animals) also possess the ability to reflect on what the feelings are. What they may mean. How that meaning may alter our responding mechanisms. We can–if we pause to do so–put ourselves in the place of the Other, imagine different perspectives that may color our responses.

Sometimes, we may need to absent ourselves awhile. To put some distance between our feelings and the conflicts we engage in. We need feelings and we need thoughts, we need responses and we need observation from other viewpoints.

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It occurs to me that poetry is the conversation between the rational, languaged mind and the mind of feeling and imagery. This effort involves the same mind at work on two or more fronts, the human brain constructed as it is to handle multiple levels of feedback, feedforward, and association.

Poetry isn’t “about emotions.” It’s an art that employs language to represent the tension between the rational and the feeling, the mind’s mighty efforts to engage with the difficult and the heart-stirring.

This is how reading about neuroscience enhances my interpretation and understanding of what poets do. I read difficult books and eschew spending time on the internet. I sit on my back porch and ponder. A buzzard swings to and fro above, gliding on the updrafts. I try to heal myself. I cannot heal the world.

 

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The morbid book group

[FYI, readers, I have a poem in this anthology, which relates to this post.]

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A little over a year ago, I was invited to participate in a book discussion group that  focuses on texts that offer varying perspectives concerning health, surviving cancer, different cultural views of aging, and dying; books on “dying well,” hospice and palliative care, and on hope and healing; books on chronic pain and on neurology and the medical establishment, on birth traditions, on the history of medicine. We have also read The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying by Sogyal Rinpoche, Still Here by Ram Dass, and discussed books that have topics such as placebo effects, psychology, alternative medicines, the pharmaceutical industry, hospitals, the training and practice of doctors, and the death & dying ‘industries,’ including works by authors with personal and moral perspectives on how to live (and how to die). The people involved have included a pediatric palliative care expert, a NICU nurse, a hospice team spiritual counselor, a minister, a former nurse and massage therapist who’s a tai chi instructor, and others–most of us “of a certain age,” by which euphemism I mean we have been living through the experience of having parents in extreme old age and of having long-time friends who now contend with chronic or potentially fatal illnesses. At least one of us has survived cancer.

For a perspective on how most Americans view a serious study of such topics, I offer my husband’s assessment. He calls this “the morbid book group.”

In fact whenever I mention that I participate in a book group (a popular American activity), people ask me if the group has a theme; I tell them, “The theme is medicine, and wellness, and how we die.” And there’s inevitably a pause, and usually my friend asks, “Isn’t that kind of depressing?”

No. It has not been depressing, in fact. I have gained more than I can say from these books and from our small group discussions: information, perspective, philosophy, insight, dare I say wisdom? Not to mention freedom to talk about those things we tend to evade in polite conversation, the space in which to say “This really sucks” or “This saddens me deeply” or to ask, “What can we do?” The book selections have led to great discussions–and have helped me to forge some new friendships as well as to confront and accept different points of view on controversial issues surrounding health care. And death, yes (hello morbid books!), and grief, and–most of all–compassion.

Difficult books? Challenging reading? Have I ever shied from it? I relish exploring this kind of non-fiction-fact-science-ethics-cultural criticism. Participating in this book group is one of the highlights of my current life experience; it’s up there with my long-running poetry critique group and my MFA years in terms of transformational engagement and exchange of ideas.

Below, a list of some of the books we have read and talked about. Just in case any of my readers wish to begin a morbid book group of their own.

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Radical Remissions, Kelly A. Turner

Knocking on Heaven’s Door, Katy Butler

Buddha’s Brain, Rick Hanson

Death’s Door, Sandra Gilbert

Living with a Wild God, Barbara Ehrenreich

Still Here, Ram Dass

Being Mortal, Atul Gawande

The Anatomy of Hope, Jerome Groopman

The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying, Sogyal Rinpoche

Birth, Tina Cassidy

The Empathy Exams, Leslie Jamison

Counterclockwise, Ellen Langer

The Pain Chronicles, Melanie Thernstrom

Choosing Civility, P.M. Forni

Healing Spaces, Esther M. Sternberg

Die Wise, Stephen Jenkinson

…& more ahead, as we plumb consciousness, placebos, the medical hierarchy, and compassionate ways of living in the world. By the way, readers–suggestions for further readings are welcome!

 

 

Rest & reading

It’s been a busy week, and I am exhausted mentally and physically; I am taking the three-day weekend as relaxation time–which means: reading, mostly. Currently, my “difficult books” concentration is Maimonides’ Guide for the Perplexed, though I am not finding it as challenging as I expected, because Maimonides is a good teacher! I am not among his target audience, however, as I am a woman. He was quite forward-thinking for a 12th century Talmudic scholar with an Aristotelian bent, but women were not considered qualified to study the deep mysteries of metaphysics. [Alas, I read without repentance for my heresy.]

My reading also means catching up with blogs I follow. Here’s the link to Theodora Goss’s latest musings on aesthetics and beauty–a lovely blog-essay. I hope you will read it.

ann e michael