Self as social

I’m an introvert. I need and, indeed, quite enjoy people–but in small groups and short doses. Much as I love you, I may still need to retire alone with a book or journal or a long walk in the meadow by myself to re-charge my energies, which are low enough to begin with these days.


Potter’s curled-tight hedgehog, my animal totem

I think of that as alone with my Self. But recent reading along neurological, evolutionary, and psychological lines has me questioning this Self that seems to own its singular consciousness, and makes me consider the self-less consciousness of, say, Zen Buddhism.



From Carl Zimmer’s book Soul Made Flesh:


Finding the mechanisms of consciousness will not mean we lack a true self. It’s just that this self looks less and less like what most of us picture in our heads–an autonomous, unchanging being that has a will all its own, that is the sole, conscious source of our actions, and that distinguishes humans from animals. All animals probably create some kind of representation of their bodies in their brains, and humans simply create a particularly complicated model…

The human self did not reach this complicated state on its own. Thought is more like a node in the social network of our species…The human brain can make a series of unconscious judgments about people…in a fraction of a second. In recent years, neuroscientists have been mapping our the networks that make this social intelligence possible, and one of their most astonishing discoveries is that a picture of the brain thinking about others is not all that different from a picture of the brain thinking about oneself. Some neuroscientists think the best explanation for this overlap is that early hominids were able to understand others before they could understand themselves.      [italics mine]

In the foregoing passage, Zimmer cites Damasio, M. D. Lieberman, and an academic-philosophical article by Endel Tulving (2001) titled “Episodic Memory and Common Sense: How Far Apart?” that basically shows how little we can depend upon our own memories as “fact” and how deeply we engage in forms of storytelling to connect our memory episodes. It is possible that our general knowledge of things-as-they-are (including the behavior and “minds” of other beings) evolved before our ability to recall episodes of experience. Tulving writes:

…when we wonder which came first, episodic memory (experiences) or semantic memory (facts), common sense tells us that the answer is episodic memory. Information gets into semantic memory “through” episodic memory: First an individual has a particular experience in the course of which he, say, learns a new fact, and later on he can use the knowledge thus acquired independently of any remembering of the original learning episode as such.

This is what many experts in the area of memory have believed (and many still do) ever since the distinction between episodic and semantic memory was drawn. The careful reader of papers in this issue will be able to spot statements to this effect in various chapters. Nevertheless, although the jury is still out on this question, and although the final answer may turn out to be of a kind that almost always is reached at the end of debates (“well, it all depends”), I believe that the correct view is the reverse of common sense: information gets into episodic memory through semantic [general knowledge] memory.

He closes with the observation that “evolution is an exceedingly clever tinkerer who can make its creatures perform spectacular feats without necessarily endowing them with sophisticated powers of conscious awareness.” Darwin would not disagree.

Now to mull over the idea that my self is part of a wide-ranging network of human relationships, and hence not so entirely my “own.” Ha–I find myself of two minds (or more!) on this one.  😀

Science & philosophy

The small, religiously-affiliated university at which I work graduates, percentage-wise, a large number of baccalaureates in the sciences although it offers a liberal arts-based core curriculum. How does that affect what coursework students must do? For starters, two Theology courses and one Philosophy course are required for graduation.

Three critical-thinking method, scholarly courses ought not to be more than a student in the sciences–or any other discipline–can handle; but I hear a bit of resentment among the undergrads. They question the necessity of abstract ethics classwork, wondering how such material will be applicable to a fast-paced, technologically-advanced, science-oriented career or life. Philosophy doesn’t seem to be a skill set to them.

SocratesWhile I fundamentally disagree, I take their point. With so much new information coming at them, info-savvy young people might well feel skeptical about what they can gain from reading texts by Plato, Aristotle, Augustine, or Aquinas.

Philosophy has been around for millennia, though; empirical science as we know it–with electron microscopes, satellite-mounted telescopes, petri dishes and x-rays–is brand-spanking new by comparison. The techniques we use today seem concrete and tool-like rather than theoretical; yet as every real scientist knows, the only way developments occur is through hypothesis–theory–claim–assertion–question–pushing the envelope of the known.

Which is what philosophers have been doing for thousands of years.

The budding scientists and medical-studies researchers I encounter seldom realize that without philosophy, science would not exist. Philosophers asked the “why” questions, came up with theories and categories, tried to see into a future that might someday have the technology to confirm or refute the theories they came to solely through human observation and deduction. Problem-solving skills. They were the scientists of their day, and the methods of thinking they came up with are those that contemporary scientists in all disciplines continue to employ. Descartes

Descartes, 1640s

A wonderful book on the way philosophy developed into biology (to take just one of the scientific disciplines) is Marjorie Grene and David Depew’s The Philosophy of Biology: An Episodic History.

The authors–a philosophy professor and a rhetoric professor–provide a history lesson in science, taking us by steps and by leaps into the development of a scientific (empirical) skill set as derived from insightful cognitive understandings of those Dead White Guys on whose thinking Western philosophy is based.

finch beaks

Darwin’s finches, 1840s

Now, I am not an advocate for a strict return to the Western Civ canon; I think university education should diversify into exploring (and questioning) other modes of cognition, culture, and philosophical approaches. Yet it seems to me imperative that students continue to study, and learn to value, the history of human thought. You can be a nurse without a thorough background in Aristotle’s categorical concepts; you can learn the drill about washing hands, donning gloves, and inserting catheters–all practical, concrete skills. You can understand the rationale for all of those skills; that’s true, and practical.


Cajal’s drawing of a pyramidal neural cell, 1913

Nurses today, however, should have the thinking skills to solve unexpected problems rapidly and rationally, which is how things play out “in real life,” to deduce that something’s going wrong even when the readouts look stable, to recognize that the hurried intern added an extra zero to the number of milligrams of medicine prescribed. They need enough background in the history of medical care-giving to question a doctor or administrator when the ethics of a patient’s care seem to be at risk. These problem-solving skills are not only crucial, they are philosophically-based.



I will dismount from my high horse now. With all the disorienting information being bombarded at me these days, I need a poem to reorient myself. Here’s one by Mary Oliver.

Snowy Egret (by Mary Oliver)

A late summer night and the snowy egret
has come again to the shallows in front of my house

as he has for forty years.
Don’t think he is a casual part of my life,

that white stroke in the dark.


We shake with joy, we shake with grief.
What a time they have, these two
housed as they are in the same body.


Coincidence & synthesis

I adore random synthesis. I love how coincident information, ideas, and experiences connect to enrich my understanding or pique my interest.

Today, a friend sent me a link to a chapter from the Dalai Lama’s book and another friend sent me to New York Magazine‘s Science of Us blog to read Cody Delistraty’s piece on the neurology of poetry reading. Meanwhile, I have been cleaning my bookshelves and reading Jane Hirshfield’s Ten Windows.

books1Delistraty’s essay reports on a study (in Germany) conducted by Eugen Wassiliwizky, a researcher at the Max Planck Institute for Empirical Aesthetics, on what happens in the human brain when people read or hear poetry. The Institute has sponsored quite a few studies on the neurological responses to the arts, which offers researchers not just the findings from one area of aesthetics but the opportunity to compare responses across artistic disciplines.

For example:

…[Neurological] responses… seemed to be unique to poetry: Scans taken during the study showed that listening to the poems activated parts of participants’ brains that, as other studies have shown, are not activated when listening to music or watching films.

The authors also found evidence to support the idea of poetry’s pleasure as a slow-building experience, or what they called a “pre-chill”: While listening to poems they found particularly evocative, the listeners subconsciously anticipated the coming emotional arousal in a way that was neurologically similar to the reward anticipation one might get from, for instance, unwrapping a chocolate bar.

Delistraty notes that in this study, “the poetic lines that most emotionally stirred people were also most memorable for them later.”

Our brains ready themselves for surprise, delight, arousal, some emotional leap in the poem–even before the poem ends–anticipation. I know that feeling well. We are anticipating some kind of surprise or delight as the poem unfolds in our reading or listening real-time imaginations: a kind of freedom that we anticipate but cannot expect (the poem may surprise us in ways we had not anticipated; or it may disappoint our hopes).

Hirshfield writes:

On the one hand…poetic transformation occurs by what might be called the paradox of intimate distance. The freedom inherent in art to choose stance, attitude, approach, form, word, is in itself an act of emancipation. When distance increases…we often feel more, not less, because we are able to take in the whole.

What we “take in” as whole includes the phenomenon of reality, even though the poem operates in the imagination–another paradox. Reading a good poem, then, opens consciousness. bkmk-violet

I realize that in the years keeping this blog, I have never yet found a satisfactory understanding of what makes human beings conscious or from whence consciousness originates; but that’s one reason I keep reading and writing, Socratic gadfly that I am. And that brings me to the third random reading that, to my mind, synthesizes well with the essays I’ve mentioned. Here’s an excerpt from one of the Dalia Lama’s books that was posted on Lion’s Roar, a Buddhist-oriented website. In this chapter, His Holiness has been visiting with neurosurgeons and brain researchers at the cutting edge of medical science–people deeply, empirically engaged with the science of the human mind:


The Buddhist understanding of mind is primarily derived from empirical observations grounded in the phenomenology of experience, which includes the contemplative techniques of meditation…

The view that all mental processes are necessarily physical processes is a metaphysical assumption, not a scientific fact. I feel that, in the spirit of scientific inquiry, it is critical that we allow the question to remain open, and not conflate our assumptions with empirical fact…A crucial point about the study of consciousness, as opposed to the study of the physical world, relates to the personal perspective. In examining the physical world, leaving aside the problematic issue of quantum mechanics, we are dealing with phenomena that lend themselves well to the dominant scientific method of the objective, third-person method of inquiry… In the realm of subjective experiences, however, the story is completely different. *


Part of what makes poetry, or any art form, “work” is that appeal to the subjective. Subjectivity excludes the empirical; there’s always, somehow, more to art than science can explain–wonderful as science is. Delistraty writes, “poetry transcends…methodical scrutiny. It valorizes the unconscious, opening us up to new perspectives; it implies the possibility of unlimited pleasure.”

Hirshfield names that pleasure, that surprise, that alteration within the reader “hope” –a wonderful synthesis.



* The Universe in a Single Atom by His Holiness The Dalai Lama; full discussion on

The study of–

Earth Day. March for Science. Global weirding. Polar ice caps. Phenology, biology, meteorology, chemistry, zoology, entomology, geology…all the ologies: “The study of.”

Ways we learn about who and where we are and how to live where we are and with those who have been there before us and on whom we–usually without realizing it–depend.

Scientists tend to justify their work by citing how factual it is. They believe it is necessary to have facts. But there are people who question these facts and who peg scientists as dry, heartless unbelievers. How wrong that concept is. Let’s look at scientists as people who study. Observers. Curious, inventive people. People who push the envelope of the “known” and who inquire into assumptions. Science evolved from philosophy, after all.

And there is so much at stake. We are all stakeholders in this environment, in this universe that extends–as far as we mortals know–infinitely. But scientists are working on that.



March for Science–Philadelphia.


So many reasons why “the study of” matters.

Citizen scientist

From as far back as quite early childhood, I have been interested in science: zoology, botany, biology, entomology, physics–if I had been mentored differently, I might have become a researcher instead of a poet. I possess that quality of curiosity that pushes for details, a trait that people refer to as ‘geeky.’ For me, it is fun to contribute my backyard observations to The Dragonfly Woman’s research or to the Eastern Pennsylvania Phenology Project, which asks for assistance from ‘citizen scientists.’ This evening, I am taking some elderly best beloveds to a fundraiser concert for March for Science.


March for Science logo. The March is April 22, 2017.


Empiricists have to begin as observers, and here’s where my science and poetry passions twine. Today’s backyard notes involve gray squirrels and the hypothesis that they learn behavior swiftly through their (many) generations.

My backyard is essentially a lawn and meadow, quite open, with two pear trees and a quince almost halfway between the property lines, both of which feature narrow woodlots and brush hedgerows. For 16 years, we had a dog; between the dog’s presence and the fact of hawks–of which there are many–gray squirrels seldom ventured from one side of the property to the other. Both woodlots are replete with walnuts and sumac and wild cherries, so squirrels really did not need to get across the meadow.

As of last year, though, they have learned they can cross the lawn in relative safety, as long as they exert haste and stop nowhere along the way. The dog died, but the hawks are still around.


Gray squirrels by Beatrix Potter, “The Tale of Timmy Tiptoes.”

They may have learned this behavior last summer, when a mid-season drought led to very thirsty squirrels who were brave enough (no dog!) to dash to the pear trees and harvest pears. Juicy!

So now, they race across the lawn…to have sex. Squirrel sex is a frolic of prinking, rolling, tumbling–a bundle of tails and feet, a flurry of gray and white fur at the foot of a tree, dry leaves scattered by the wrestling. Then the pair scurries off side by side. Today is actually the first time I have witnessed squirrel mating, though clearly it occurs frequently to judge by the numbers of these creatures in our yard.



From Potter’s “The Tale of Timmy Tiptoes”

I think of Beatrix Potter as an excellent example of the citizen scientist. While her paper on mycology concerning the reproduction of fungi via spores [“On the Germination of the Spores of Agaricineae“] was not accepted as science at the time she wrote it, her observations were correct.

Her drawings of animals are marvelously accurate, even when she puts them into dresses, jackets, bonnets, and tiny slippers. Though she personifies them, she chooses human attributes that suit animal behavior rather than the other way around.


Science, then, is close reading of the world’s phenomena, not really so different from literary scholars with their close reading of texts. Poets also view the world with close reading–observation, curiosity, changing perspective–asking questions about what we think we know. And revelations sometimes occur. Like squirrel behaviors, including squirrel sex; like spores, and the life cycle of salamanders, and dragonfly swarms.

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.

Rational & connected

When I instruct freshman college classes in essay-writing, it’s clear to me that few students (usually around 18 years old) have any understanding of what it means to be “rational.” They often believe they are rational thinkers because they are good at math or interested in a scientific discipline or eager to study law, medicine, or economics–all factual and rational pursuits, in their minds, though they tend to think based on gut instinct and social upbringing. I have spent considerable time pondering this reality, which affects my pedagogical approach. In the presidential election cycle years the situation seems especially obvious…and problematic.


I wonder how much of the gut/emotion-responses’ validation, retroactively, by “rational thinking” evolves from psychology or human nature, and how much from culture. Culture is due to connectedness influences: we want to be identified as part of, or differentiated from, the community of human beings around us. Psychology overlaps with culture; I may be a bit out-of-date, but it seems that the study of psychology tends a little more toward the individual’s nature, even accounting for the “nurture” aspect of individuality, which is culture-based. And people who are US citizens have by and large been raised in a capitalist culture, a form of capitalism spurred to dazzling speed and pushed into far-reaching areas of culture/nurture by our for-profit media system.

The resulting culture flowered into persuasion-based, desire-based “needs.” My students and I are acculturated into seeing and judging, seeing and desiring, and confusing want with need. That approach works for businesses that need to make a profit; they have to make their audiences yearn for products. Gut-based persuasion works better than rational persuasion; ask any marketing campaign designer. Connecting one person’s “need” with the community’s perceived “need” also works.

These urges are not rational approaches to purchasing, budgeting, prioritizing, or voting. If, however, one’s job is to analyze buying trends, examination of the efficacy of such approaches is rational indeed. Thus analysis, any form of analysis, should be scientific and rational and based upon a genuine understanding of human beings–our natures, our connections, our influences. Call it interdisciplinary, or synergistic.

How can analysts learn about the gut instincts and unreliability and cultural natures of their fellow humans? An excellent way is through studying the arts.

Of course, I would end up here.

Sciences, if we consider them rational pursuits not entirely independent of one another–granted, that is another conversation–likewise should not be independent of the arts and humanities. The visual and kinetic arts produce sensations that feel emotional yet which can be critically analyzed, rationally pursued and discussed. Novels inform readers of the vagaries and irrational motivations of the human heart; they tell us about character and culture and urgency. Poems tell us, in ways that science never has been able to elucidate, what feels most true. (See Fiona Sampson’s article in The New Humanist, though I admit she provides a biased view, as she is editor of that journal).

This semester, my students and I will be examining what it means to be rational in an academic argument. Perhaps we will go further than that, but I do not expect to change their hearts.

alice-heart1 copy