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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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.

 

 

 

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

 

 

 

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.

~

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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