Beautiful brain

While waiting for the snow to evaporate and melt, the gardener experiences agitation; the days are longer–it must be time to plant seeds…but the soil is too wet and too cold.

Fortunately, there are always books! I have read Daniel Dennett on religion, George Lakoff on the embodied basis for philosophy, and am plowing rapidly through Ruth Whippman’s (acerbic and very funny) America the Anxious.  Also I am slowly savoring an anthology of Jewish women’s poems, The Dybbuk of Delight, that I randomly discovered in the library.

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But here’s a book I want to own, when I can justify more book purchases: Beautiful Brain: the Drawings of Santiago Ramon y Cajal, because Art! because Neuroscience! because Beauty! The blog Hyperallergic says the drawings are going to be touring museums (see The Dynamic Brain Drawings of the Father of Neuroscience), which might also become a must-do for me when the exhibit travels to New York City next January.

What Cajal was doing back at the turn of the last century still inspires artists, not just medical scientists, today (see my post on Greg Dunn’s neuro-artworks). These compellingly beautiful and quite accurate drawings may also inspire poets and armchair philosophers who have lately spent a great deal of time pondering the resilience of the brain and the challenges that rupture a sense of self when cognition is interrupted.

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Credit goes to Abrams Books for these graphics and for the decision to publish this beautiful text.

 

 

Garden breach

Summer solstice. The robins are on their second brood; mulberries are ripening, and the bluebirds have arrived for the feast.

Fifteen years ago, we set up my garden to be as impregnable as possible from incursions by deer, groundhogs, and rabbits. We accomplished this by digging a narrow trench on the perimeter, lining the trench with wire mesh fabric, and filling the trench with gravel–after setting the steel posts and putting the steel wire fencing in place. The strategy even deterred weeds for about three years.

But rain and snow and air and therefore rust, along with ground heave and the occasional bump by lawnmowers, have had their way. While deer still ignore the plot, this year, bunnies have breached the fence. It’s time to find a new way to keep them from the edges.

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I have previously written about how fringes and perimeters can be boundaries or places of activity and fluidity, so it seems I am a hypocrite for keeping my rabbits at bay. Maybe I ought to find a balance? Living with their denuding of my carrot tops?

–No, they’ve plenty to eat in my lawn and in the meadow. The balance goes both ways.

Their persistence interests me. Their movements are both awkward and graceful. Their ears are translucent in the early morning sunshine. I don’t mind having them around as long as they stay out of my vegetable patch, and they feed the owls and hawks, whom I also enjoy.

All along the edges…

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Curious information note of the day:

According to neuroscientific studies, less than 0.1% of the information carried in the optic nerve at any given moment passes through the visual attentional gateway (“bottleneck”) after the attentional gateway recognizes a cue; the cue evidently serves as a gating mechanism to regulate the flow of image data.*

What this implies (I think) is that the bunny I manage to spot under the leafy tomato plant in my garden gets processed as “bunny” once my saccadic eye movements, taking in the huge quantity of data from a day outdoors in summer, recognizes something in the shadows that signals “rabbit?” and then filters out other, distracting data from my view.

At which point, behavioral habit kicks in and, like Mr. McGregor, I dash after Peter with a hoe.

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*partial quote/paraphrase from “Dynamic Routing Strategies in Sensory, Motor and Cognitive Processing,” Van Essen, Anderson, and Olshausen 1994 MIT Press Large-Scale Neuronal Theories of the Brain, ed Koch & Davis.

 

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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Awareness, openness, & … magic mushrooms?

In a recent New Yorker article about potential medical uses for psilocybin (“The Trip Treatment”), science, culture, and food writer Michael Pollan interviewed researchers in neuroscience, medicine, and psychology. The medical potential of psychedelic drugs is not something I can comment on from reading just one article; what intrigued me most about this piece is how these drug studies overlap with studies on cognition, metacognition, consciousness, and spirituality. The medically-controlled “tripping” that volunteers have undergone overwhelmingly resulted in some form of what we term mystical or spiritual (for lack of a scientific term) feeling.

It’s almost impossible to consider these realms of experience without questioning concepts such as “soul” or “self-awareness.” Pollan writes:

Roland Griffiths is willing to consider the challenge that the mystical experience poses to the prevailing scientific paradigm. He conceded that “authenticity is a scientific question not yet answered” and that all that scientists have to go by is what people tell them about their experiences. But he pointed out that the same is true for much more familiar mental phenomena.

“What about the miracle that we are conscious? Just think about that for a second, that we are aware we’re aware!”

A man after my own heart. It is amazing, a kind of miracle. And we get consciousness and metacognition without any drug intervention at all. It just springs into our beings at some point, as we create ourselves from lived events and construct speculative worlds and an understanding (though often flawed) of other minds.

Here is another fascinating result from the psilocybin studies that may make us revise our ideas of interpersonal relationships, personhood, and creating a self. Pollan writes:

A follow-up study by Katherine MacLean, a psychologist in Griffiths’s lab, found that the psilocybin experience also had a positive and lasting effect on the personality of most participants. This is a striking result, since the conventional wisdom in psychology holds that personality is usually fixed by age thirty and thereafter is unlikely to substantially change. But more than a year after their psilocybin sessions volunteers who had had the most complete mystical experiences showed significant increases in their “openness,” one of the five domains that psychologists look at in assessing personality traits. (The others are conscientiousness, extroversion, agreeableness, and neuroticism.) Openness, which encompasses aesthetic appreciation, imagination, and tolerance of others’ viewpoints, is a good predictor of creativity.   [italics mine]

Openness, aesthetic appreciation, imagination, tolerance, creativity…and one researcher in neuropsychopharmacology suggests that this sort of un-boundaried openness signifies a temporary regression to an infantile state, very much as Freud hypothesized. I thought instead of Bachelard and the childhood reverie state.

Intriguing, that pharmacological work of this sort makes neuroscientists resort to citing William James and Sigmund Freud on mystical experience and the subconscious!

[Robin] Carhart-Harris believes that people suffering from other mental disorders characterized by excessively rigid patterns of thinking, such as addiction and obsessive-compulsive disorder, could benefit from psychedelics, which “disrupt stereotyped patterns of thought and behavior.” In his view, all these disorders are, in a sense, ailments of the ego. He also thinks that this disruption could promote more creative thinking. It may be that some brains could benefit from a little less order.    [italics mine]

I wonder if the aesthetic experience itself, when wholly engaged, can sometimes act like a drug on the art-viewer’s or art-maker’s being. When one reads the poem that rearranges one’s world, doesn’t it disrupt stereotyped, familiar, habitual patterns of thought? That’s what happens for me when I encounter great art of any kind. It is close to mystical.

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Mimesis

Mimesis: “Imitation, in particular. 1.1 Representation or imitation of the real world in art and literature”… “a figure of speech, whereby the words or actions of another are imitated” … “the deliberate imitation of the behavior of one group of people by another as a factor in social change” (OED).

“Nature creates similarities. One need only think of mimicry. The highest capacity for producing similarities, however, is man’s. His gift of seeing resemblances is nothing other than a rudiment of the powerful compulsion in former times to become and behave like something else. Perhaps there is none of his higher functions in which his mimetic faculty does not play a decisive role.” —Walter Benjamin (“On the Mimetic Faculty,” 1933)

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From time to time, I mull over mimesis and its role in human learning. Research on animal behavior since Benjamin was writing has somewhat undermined his assertion that the “highest capacity for producing similarities” belongs to human beings, but the concept remains generally accurate. What I notice among my students, however, is the human ability to perceive differences. My students much prefer to focus on what makes things different than on what makes them similar, but perhaps the reason is that similarities seem so obvious (due to our capacity for “producing similarities”) that we take them for granted. I introduce poetry to my students as an ancient art derived from exactly what, no one is certain, but likely from invocation or ritual or song or the human desire for narrative–and I tell them that it has been carried along through history by, among other compelling things, mimesis–that mimetic faculty we possess that makes us want to repeat or copy, in order to learn, to love, to pass along, to entertain, to communicate, to enjoy. We can look in the mirror and see another human’s face, or our own faces slightly changed through the process of copying another.

The mimetic urge has a long history among those people who intellectualize. Theories of Media (Univ. of Chicago: W. J. T. Mitchell) glossary offers a concise but comprehensive “mimesis” entry authored by Michele Puetz–the article in which I found the Benjamin quote above. (By the way, the Theories of Media glossary project is a great resource!) As I looked through my go-to philosophy resources, though, I was left with the distinct impression that the concept of mimesis has moved from the realm of the philosophical–Plato and Aristotle are our main thinkers on mimesis in the philosophical arena, so that’s pretty far back–and into the realms of sciences, both social and biological. Mimetic response has been researched, and speculated upon, by psychologists, cultural anthropologists, and neurologists (see the initial excitement about “mirror neurons” in this 2006 New York Times article). The term has found considerable employment in the writings of Rene Girard, whose writings span cultural anthropology, literary criticism, psychology, theology, and philosophy.

Writes Gabriel Andrade, in the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy:

“Girard believes that the great modern novelists (such as Stendhal, Flaubert, Proust and Dostoevsky) have understood human psychology better than the modern field of Psychology does. And, as a complement of his literary criticism, he has developed a psychology in which the concept of ‘mimetic desire’ is central. Inasmuch as human beings constantly seek to imitate others, and most desires are in fact borrowed from other people, Girard believes that it is crucial to study how personality relates to others.”

Clearly, human psychology and biology cannot be simplified to mere reflection and copying, but it is equally clear that the metaphor of mirroring can be fruitful as we explore the complexities of mind and consciousness, culture and art. Sometimes I take on the role of educator; and when I do so, I recognize the need for student learners to imitate, to hear information repeated, and to attempt to create their own “similarities.” Sometimes I take on the role of poet; and when I do that, I am clothed in centuries of form, rhythms, sounds, similes, stylings and borrowings and references: copies and reflections, altered through time.

Mirrored Room by Lucas Samaras

Mirrored Room by Lucas Samaras Photo: © Albright-Knox Art Gallery/CORBIS

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A brief aside: When I was eight or nine years old, I went with my parents to an art museum–it may have been the Chicago Art Institute–and there was an installation of Lucas Samaras’ piece “Mirrored Room.” [See the photo at left.] I was deeply impressed by the mirrored room, partly because it was inside this artwork that I finally understood, metaphorically, the concept of infinity. I was awed by the many diminishing selves I could see, the way a single “I” could change (in size), and by the tricks of light and how easily one could get lost in such a small space.

The mirrors copied me.

Mimesis implies something active, a borrowing, a taking–a kind of theft, on the one hand, and a kind of tribute or ritual motion on the other. It is also inherently continuous. The behavior does not stop at the first copy; it is carried on, perhaps through generations, like DNA.

Here is the brilliant Anne Carson:

“[It’s] what the ancients mean by imitation. When they talk about poetry, they talk about mimesis as the action that the poem has, in reality, on the reader. Some people think that means the poet takes a snapshot of an event and on the page you have a perfect record. But I don’t think that’s right; I think a poem, when it works, is an action of the mind captured on a page, and the reader, when he engages it, has to enter into that action. And so his mind repeats that action and travels again through the action, but it is a movement of yourself through a thought, through an activity of thinking, so by the time you get to the end you’re different than you were at the beginning and you feel that difference.”

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Carson describes how I feel when I’ve read a poem or novel that moves me deeply. For that matter, it is how I feel when I find a work of visual art, or a play or dance, that seems to speak with immediacy to my own sense of experience, which arouses my passion, compassion, or emotion and alters my entire psyche for awhile– “by the time you get to the end you’re different than you were at the beginning and you feel that difference.”

Sometimes I even manage to compose a poem that gives me that sense of feeling different than I was at the beginning. On those rare times, I may look at myself in the mirror and see a changed face.

 

Psychobiology & art

Greg Dunn’s gold-leaf neuroscience art: “Gold Cortex”

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Howard Gardner once said aesthetics is considered the “dismal branch of philosophy” and that psychobiology, the scientific examination of art, might therefore be called the “dismal psychology.” This view derives from the difficulty of pinning down what qualifies as art, the artistic process, the artistic personality, and the like–especially the challenge of trying to categorize, measure, and in any genuine way evaluate art. Psychobiology as a discipline is new to me; is it merely an earlier form of behavioral neuroscience? How does aesthetics play a role? I went looking.

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Here is an excerpt from D.E. Berlyne’s abstract of his exploration into stimulus behavior and art (including humor), Conflict, Arousal, and Curiosity, written in 1960:

The highly variegated human activities that are classed as art form a unique testing ground for hypotheses about stimulus selection. They consist of operations through which certain stimulus patterns are made available, and so they must unhesitatingly be placed in the category of exploratory behavior. The creative artist originates these patterns, the performing artist reproduces them, and the spectator, listener, or reader secures access to them and performs the perceptual and intellectual activities that will enable him to experience their full impact.

It’s intriguing to note the different ways a social scientist (Berlyne was a psychobiologist) uses language to write about a generally-considered subjective subject: art. Different in tone and terminology than the language a philosopher or artist would employ, the description characterizes yet another inquiry into the ontology and the exercise of art and the artistic process:

The content of art can range over virtually the whole scope of human communication. It may be used as a source of information about the appearances of objects, the course of historical events, the workings of human nature, as a means of effecting moral improvement, as a vehicle for propagating religious, political, or philosophical ideologies. Art is, however, distinguished from other forms of communication by …the communication of evaluation. While human beings may produce art and expose themselves to it for an endless variety of reasons, collative variables must play their part, as they do in all forms of exploratory behavior. They underlie, in fact, what is commonly called the “formal” or “structural” aspect of art.

The author is interested in whether psychosocial behaviors, culture-building, and communication all derive from exploratory behavior and stimulus-response and what role evaluation plays in the assessment of art, its social or moral value, artistic merit, “timeless” art, and to some extent the very making of art.

The psychology of aesthetics offers intriguing insights–if one can get past the jargon. From the little I have read about it so far, the science seems to share a few points with phenomenology: its task, according to Dr. William Blizer, is to “describe observable phenomena and to note associations and correlations among them which enable such phenomena to be predicted, controlled, and explained.” In psychobiology, the “observable phenomena” are “the behavior of the creative…artist and the appreciator.” Philosophy and psychology are strange bedfellows, though; throw aesthetics into the mix and the entire project begins to seem suspect. I am not at all sure that these inquiries end up explaining–certainly not predicting or controlling–anything about art.

I admit I prefer to read such musings when the makers themselves are doing the exploring. Nonetheless, this little intellectual excursion led to my discovery of Greg Dunn‘s amazing neuroscience designs, one of which appears above. Who knew the brain was so gorgeous?