A good start. Possibly.

My most recent reading material is The Feeling of What Happens: Body and Emotion in the Making of Consciousness, by Antonio Damasio. Damasio is convincingly on the neurological/evolutionary trail to recognizing how consciousness operates and why we have developed it, though he allows for mysteries we do not yet and may never understand.

Damasio is clearly not a dualist who thinks the consciousness can exist separately from the body (one of his previous books is aptly titled Descartes’ Error). He doesn’t address the “soul” in The Feeling of What Happens, but argues that reason requires feeling in order to operate effectively, that feeling is a more “conscious” form of emotion, which is “unknowing” in the sense we call consciousness and is founded upon core consciousness, which is reliant upon the physical organism…a vastly complex array of cells, nerves, you name it, generally self-regulating and not by nature in particular need of a conscious mind.

So next time someone tries to explain why a situation happened and just says, “It’s complicated,” maybe you ought to accept that. Because, apparently, it’s really really really complicated!

http://www.isys.ucl.ac.be/descartes/images/Descartes.gifThat does not keep people like Damasio from trying to track down what goes on in the minds of sentient beings.

Having just read Flow, I immediately thought of what Csikszentmihalyi says about the way true flow experiences depend upon deepening levels of complexity–that’s how we keep from becoming bored by routinization of a task. Dennett suggests that consciousness consists of layers: “multiple drafts,” and Damasio calls the human brain, and the brain-body unit, a series of “systems within systems.” But there is no little self, no metaphorical or actual homunculus, at the very bottom of the system, or at the very top. There are only more and varied connections, he asserts–with profound respect and amazement at what biology has wrought.

I also thought about Csikszentmihalyi’s idea of a life project. Some years ago, I began a journal devoted to exploring my poetic project and learned that I do not really think about my writing as a project per se, at least not in the formal sense of poetics. [Here’s Dorothea Lasky harping on the whole concept of a poetic project, in a bit of refutation aimed at poetry critic David Orr.]

What I think I was doing, in fact, was trying to figure out my life project, in the way Csikszentmihalyi defines that concept. What is my life’s philosophy in terms of guiding tasks, principles, goals, projects, challenges? Is teaching part of the package? Motherhood? Gardening? Writing? Human relationships? Learning? Speaking of human consciousness, do I have a conscious path or goal?

Maybe my goal is to keep on amid the complexity and to relish it as much as possible, since it is unavoidable. And perhaps by accepting the complications, I will find my life becomes simpler. That could be a possible outcome–right?

I think of Reineke writing on Marcel Proust’s narrator and his struggle with status, jealousy, conformity, and desire. I read the Proust novel(s) when I was in my early 20s and found his narrator frustratingly neurotic but also a little too familiar, as my life experiences in many ways mirrored his. Eventually, he learns that the way to cure the pain of desire is to discipline himself to let go of desire itself; (and no, neither Proust nor his narrator were Buddhist).

And what happens when he gains this recognition is that he can write the novel. He develops flow, and a life project.

I am past 50, a good time to establish more consciously what my life project is. I know it involves relentlessly and joyously learning new things. I think it will include poetry in some way. And discipline of some kind, conscious effort. For now, those things constitute a good start.










Familiarity & awe

The region I live in is not known for dramatic landscapes–no big sky, no ragged peaks or ocean shoreline, no palms, grand flora, impressive architecture. Nonetheless, there are days such as this one when my familiar commute fairly glows with beauty. In the long slant of mid-autumn morning sun, the half-harvested soybean fields shimmer under frost: beige never looked so glorious. Even the big agricultural gleaner glimmers with ice crystals. The sky’s washed with upswept cirrus clouds, and backlit dogwood leaves cling like maroon pennants to silhouetted branches.

Perhaps my aesthetic appreciation of the view is due to a neural release of dopamine responding to images processed through my eyes’ rods and cones; that understanding, if true, in no way lessens my awe.

As I head toward the campus building, the clamorous urgency of wild geese momentarily catches me by surprise. Welcome.

More on poetry & the brain

I remain pretty busy with the October poetry workshop and mid-term evaluations, so I’m going to cheat a bit by adding a link to Poet’s Quarterly, which is featuring in this issue one of my brief essays.

Click on this sentence to take you there. (Probably there is a way to embed the post, but I have not quite figured that out and lack the time today to look into it.)

Giving in secret

“All the poems I have written were written for love.” ~ W.H. Auden

But when you give to the poor, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your giving will be in secret…” Matthew 6:3-4


Acts of compassion, great or small, are good for us. I state this not because of ancient Greek philosophers’ concepts about the Good, nor out of any religious dogma, but because psycho-neurological studies almost definitively align with this aspect of received wisdom. Hanson writes, “Compassion draws on the anterior cingulate cortex (ACC) and insula,” which help us observe (or “read”) the reactions of others, an action critical to the survival of a social species. It turns out that when we pay attention to others, we are more likely to help them; that’s how the average human brain works.

Unfortunately, human beings often stop paying attention once we think we have ascertained another person’s intentions and have passed an internal judgment upon them. We tend not to attend past that initial observation. Thus, we may miss actual intentions. Usually this miscommunication of intent leads to problems, but not always. Some people desire to hide their deeper intentions, and not because those intentions are “evil” or even merely narcissistic.

Viz: W.H. Auden, as portrayed in this quietly-written, reflective essay by Edward Mendelson in The New York Review of Books (March 2014). Mendelson begins:

W.H. Auden had a secret life that his closest friends knew little or nothing about. Everything about it was generous and honorable. He kept it secret because he would have been ashamed to have been praised for it.

Auden was a Christian who had an often challenging relationship with his religion (being homosexual did not help with the dogmatic wrestling match). In this essay, Mendelson says that “Auden had many motives for portraying himself as rigid or uncaring when he was making unobtrusive gifts of time, money, and sympathy. In part he was reacting against his own early fame as the literary hero of the English left.” The author also looks at Auden’s era: Fascists, Nazis, dictators, and how they managed to sway so many potentially and otherwise “good folks” to bad causes, the use of “good/evil” in the literature and intellectualism of those times and the writers who used celebrity to lionize their causes–a posture Auden found distasteful.

Yet Auden was willing to make himself distasteful, socially awkward, arrogant, in the service of a hidden compassion. There’s no good word for this in English. “Modesty” does not suffice. “Humility” does not quite hit the mark, either.


It seems to me that Auden, and others like him (there are others, many undiscovered), chose to follow Jesus’ words in Matthew 6:3.

A contemporary person may ask why all the modesty. After all–a good deed is a good deed. Does keeping it “hidden” increase the inherent goodness? Are anonymous philanthropists somehow more authentic to the concept of compassionate giving than those who allow their names to grace buildings and organizations? Those people who benefit by good works and kind acts–surely they feel a desire to thank whoever is responsible, so why disguise the giver?


One possible answer: compassion does not need a specific object, though that is generally how we learn compassion in the first place.

The gratitude a human being feels when he or she is the receiver of a kind, anonymous act has no immediate object. We do not know whom to thank. Although the receiver’s response may initially be one of suspicion, in most cases the sense of gratitude will be directed more widely into society; the receiver of a kindness is more likely to be kind to others, to perceive others as potentially benefactors or at least to view other people with less suspicion and envy–because the secret donor is somewhere among all of us.

The secret gift works to spread compassion to all sentient beings.


It turns out that, as far as the brain is concerned, doing good sets up a kind of feedback loop. Doing good for others improves how good we feel in general. Not how good we feel about ourselves in an egotistical way but how good we feel mentally, emotionally, and even physically.

Love is all you need

Love is all you need

We not only write for love. We live for love.




Consciousness reconsidered

A few months back, I was reading about consciousness (see here and here). This article on “brain tubules” caught my attention, although I admit to considerable skepticism as to how applicable, or even correct, this research will turn out to be. The material seems exciting–quantum vibrations in the brain!–because of the possibilities inherent in a synthesis of chemistry, biology, and physics and how such synthesis could lead to a theory of human consciousness.

The earliest article I could find on this theory dates to 1998 (an abstract is here). I suppose I should now break down and tackle Werner Loewenstein’s Physics in Mind: A Quantum View of the Brain. But I have a huge to-read list at present and no time or concentration to get to those books. Besides, at the moment I find myself more concerned with the less empirical side of consciousness theory. I mean: belief, attitude, faith. Those non-provable abstracts that nevertheless seem so much a part of most human beings’ operating systems…the things that psychology and neurology do not seem able to answer and that keep philosophers continually at work (the only true knowledge being the knowledge that one knows nothing).


And maybe, as Daniel Dennett suggests, the very idea of consciousness is an illusion–the brain evolving to fool us through perception.


This bust resides in the Louvre, and was found here: http://www.humanjourney.us/greece3.html

This bust resides in the Louvre,
and was found here:

Do our brains fool us through our perceptions of emotion, too?


And how does this affect how we understand, say, literature, or art? Poetry, for example: Is it possible to deconstruct the pleasure I take from a poem into quantum vibrations in connective synapses as a result of the evolutionary process and, if so, where does the knowledge get me?

Would I still love the poem? (I think I would.) Would I consciously love the poem, consciously find pleasure and surprise in it, once I understand fully the process and development of consciousness? (Why not?) Would such knowledge flatten my emotional or aesthetic attraction to the poem? (I doubt it.)

If loving my perception of art, my relationship with it or attachment to it, is “merely” an evolutionary development, that does not cheapen or devalue the way I feel.


What brain studies and consciousness studies have to say about faith may perhaps set up more antagonism between science and consciousness-as-non-biological/i.e. religion, spirituality, etc. By faith I mean not necessarily religious faith but any non-provable conjecture, some of which are imaginative and potentially marvelous, not to mention potentially true. Some statements can be disproven but not proven…and there is the apagogical argument…and then there is the definition of faith (or belief) as Wikipedia defines it: “Faith is subjective confidence or trust in a person, thing, deity, or in the doctrines or teachings of a religion, or view (e.g. having strong political faith) without empirical evidence, or as confidence based upon a degree of evidential warrant (as in a Biblical sense).”

That empirical evidence thing is the perpetual stumbling-block, yet–paradoxically–it’s also what makes faith so appealingly…human. Yes, maybe we are fooling ourselves. And maybe that’s what is so marvelously cognitively neurologically fruitful and imaginative about the whole human endeavor.

Ignore more?

One of my brothers-in-law has been visiting from Berlin during the holidays. His young adult children all live in the U.K., and it is enjoyable to hear what they are doing and how they navigate the world as they grow–having children of their own, pursuing academic degrees or careers in the arts–and finding parallels between their lives and their American cousins’ lives. My brother-in-law (Lee, a jazz musician, listen here on YouTube) told me he recently asked his older son what the most valuable skill for the next couple of decades was likely to be. The answer surprised him:

“The skill of learning what to ignore,” his son said.

When Lee pressed a bit further for clarification, his son explained that “information overload” and real-time social and other media, along with television and Google Glass and smart phones and whatever next gets developed, overwhelm the human brain to such an extent that people tend to lose the ability to sort or to prioritize. When we get distracted, we become less efficient; several recent studies suggest that there are costs to trying to do everything at once.

So, according to my nephew (who is studying neurology at Oxford), those of us who learn to shut out unnecessary information are likely to be more successful in a highly-communicative, highly-technological social landscape. The difficulty is knowing what kind of information is unimportant. Another difficulty is that our brains are wired to sense everything. In fact, our brains are already highly developed to screen out “useless” information. Managing an even more intentional focus will not necessarily be as automatic. It may be something we have to learn: i.e., a skill.

I think I need to re-develop my ability to ignore things. It seems likely that a lack of intentional focus and time away from technology would get me working on my poetry more than I have been. One way to regain this skill might be to recharge my mindfulness/meditation practice. The intentionality of the practice, and its conscious use of both awareness and screening or letting go, seems valuable enough over all that it would be well worth the time away from multitasking.

One possible “New Year’s Resolution,” then?

Ignore more.


Brains on literature

Here’s a brief article that references a small study of how the human brain responds to reading poetry:


“Some people say it is impossible to reconcile science and art, but new brain imaging technology means we are now seeing a growing body of evidence about how the brain responds to the experience of art. This was a preliminary study, but it is all part of work that is helping us to make psychological, biological, anatomical sense of art.”

Here’s another short write-up from The New York Times on a somewhat similar topic, research into how reading literary work (specifically fiction, in this experiment) improves social skills–empathy and the ability to interpret other people’s feelings in particular.


The article says that “after reading literary fiction, as opposed to popular fiction or serious nonfiction, people performed better on tests measuring empathy, social perception and emotional intelligence.” The psychologist researchers are from my alma mater, The New School for Social Research, and their work connects intriguingly with theory of mind studies.

What makes literary fiction challenging to read is the same thing that makes it so richly rewarding to the human brain: critical thinking is required, inference, active engagement with the text, the need to recognize and validate other points of view than one’s own and, often, to speculate on motives and meanings:

In literary fiction, like Dostoyevsky, “there is no single, overarching authorial voice,” [David Comer Kidd] said. “Each character presents a different version of reality, and they aren’t necessarily reliable. You have to participate as a reader in this dialectic, which is really something you have to do in real life.”

Interdisciplinary understanding of the importance of the arts to human consciousness, learning, and compassion: Am I surprised?

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.

Ontologies and inquiries

{ ? }


This week, amidst the whirl of returning students, I have accidentally paired my reading of Douglas Hofstadter’s book I Am a Strange Loop with Jim Holt’s Why Does the World Exist?

How did all of this get started? In the most concrete and specific scenario, I had been slowly savoring Hofstadter–and, let’s face it, trying to “get” the math he occasionally employs–and happened across a copy of Holt’s book, which is a faster read, when I didn’t have Strange Loop to hand. Next thing I know, I’m deep into both texts which, naturally, overlap in several ways. Now, I find myself pondering the beginnings of abstract things like consciousness, which may not be abstract if you think along the lines of E. O. Wilson but which Hofstadter suggests exists as both a top-level abstract “thing” that pushes around its foundational, physical “things” such as synapses, neurons, molecules. And I think about Descartes and the mind-body problem and, oh, while I’m at it, the Big Bang theory and the “what was there before the big bang?” question.

Holt’s book turns to the metaphysical inquiry, “Why is there something instead of nothing?” It’s a question I asked myself when I was about 6 years old. Hofstadter deals mostly with the (perhaps metaphysical) concern: “What is consciousness?” That’s a question I asked a bit later in life, though certainly I asked it before I was in my twenties.

Both authors employ philosophy and math in the service of trying to make sense of these inquiries; and while Holt’s investigation is a bit more physical-cosmological in nature, it may not be necessarily so–lots of the theories floating around out there sound pretty metaphysical to me! Hofstadter employs many analogies, as is his wont (see, in particular, his 1979 book Gödel, Escher, Bach). Hofstadter also gets a bit more into neurology, of course–we are talking about consciousness, after all, and it may reside in our brains–and slightly into the arena of psychology. Holt takes a more journalistic approach, using interviews and readings to cite past and current thinking on the topic of existence. The subtitle of his book is “An Existential Detective Story.”

So far, I enjoy both books, though they differ in significant respects.

Meanwhile, at work I am mainly dealing with adjusting-to-updated-software issues and helping-students-with-advising questions and explaining drop-add and pass-fail and comp-rhet and the difference between Elementary Spanish I and II. Keeps my brain flexible and gets those neurons firing. {Right??}

I haven’t finished reading either book yet. I may have more to say about the synthesis of these two books after I’ve let my brain settle down.

Art and “human intelligence”

I’ve gotten almost to the end of Brian Boyd’s intriguing and well-argued book On the Origin of Stories, which makes fairly large claims about sociality, cognition, theory of mind, art, and storytelling (ie, fiction) given an evolutionary perspective (art as adaptation). The first 200 pages lay the foundation for his claims; he provides evidence from the “hard” sciences, most often biology and neurology, and from archeology, anthropology, and psychology, to back up his theory that art is an evolutionary adaptation humans developed in order to live as social animals. And that art is necessary for human cognition in terms of further developing intelligence and the ability to communicate among our peers: it is cognitive play, practice and skill strengthening for mind and muscle.

Big claims, and occasionally hard to “prove” from the hard sciences. I believe he does a good job with that set of proofs, but I’m not a scientist. His claims based on social sciences—anthropology, sociology, psychology—are very convincing; but many people have arguments with those fields because they are so apparently subjective. Most exciting to me is the way Boyd synthesizes neurological findings with evolutionary developments.

Actually, most exciting to me are his chapters on the Odyssey, but that may be because I am a literature geek. He essentially writes a literary analysis of the Odyssey based upon the inferences and findings in the first half of this book (evolution) rather than the customary literary analysis grounded in, say, context or culture of style or theme, ad infinitum. The resulting analysis is, for me, a truly exciting way to look at Homer’s work and why it matters now, as well as why it mattered then.

Boyd comes close to making the assertion that Homer made Socrates possible, and hence all of Western civilization’s philosophy and social intelligence. Of course, he is careful not to go that far in his argument—he steers as far as he can from logical fallacies— but the thought certainly feels planted in the reader’s mind. His argument does suggest that metacognition in human beings is the definer that makes us human, and art as more-than-play separates human from not-human. He also demonstrates that the Odyssey offers great leaps beyond older epics and posits that the author(s) composed the epic for contemporary audiences that were capable of intelligent, sophisticated, “modern” thought processes; the piece is therefore not primitive literature, as some critics claim.

Boyd’s work has also turned my thoughts to how the attributes of attention, perspective and foreknowledge, overturned expectations, audience-sociality, false belief, cooperation and competition work in the poem as well as in narrative. Granted, many poems have a narrative framework, however thinly sketched, but not all of them do. When there is no narrative frame, these other aspects of storytelling (audience expectations in particular) take precedence and can be employed in almost infinite ways, bounded only by imagination and the willingness of the reader to pay attention as the writer earns that attention through a host of innovative or traditional skills.

A last thought…I spent the long weekend visiting octogenarian friends, both of whom are wonderful tellers of stories. The value of such people to human society is priceless:

“Story by its nature invites us to shift from our own perspective to that of another, and perhaps another and another.”  ~Brian Boyd