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 Psychology overlaps with culture; I may be a bit out-of-date, but it seems that the study of psychology tends a little more toward the individual’s nature, even accounting for the “nurture” aspect of individuality, which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

Growing, watching

Garden update: my valley experiences, once again, a bit of drought.

And I have scored a victory–possibly temporary–against the bunnies, thanks to some very hard, hot work by a pair of my best beloveds and lots of chicken wire. Now, as the weather gets into long spates of heat and humidity, I watch and wait while the garden does its growing.

I watch the tomatoes ripen. I watch the birds:


Three swallows among the tomatoes

The bluebirds enjoy perching on the fenceposts. This one doesn’t look too blue, but I promise it is a bluebird.


I guess I need a longer lens.

I watch the herbs and vegetables flower. The cilantro and dill flowers bring all kinds of pollinators to the garden. I found a new kind of very tiny bee this morning, but my camera doesn’t have the best close-up lens. It was a cute bee, very small, grey, and fuzzy.


The borage gets a bit thuggish but attracts pollinators; cilantro and dill manage to sow themselves among the onion rows.

The beans rows are missing, because the rabbits ate them all.


Speaking of bees and pollinators in general, I have found some lovely blogs by entomologists online, full of close-up photos, environmental information, and fascinating tidbits about bugs and their interactions with the flora and fauna that surrounds them. I am continually struck by the amazing interconnectedness of life when I read these posts. In addition, something about the sort of scientists who observe insects at close range and study their anatomy and life cycles seems to inspire a kind of geeky humor as they follow their biology passion into the field. Or maybe that quality exists only among the sort of entomologists who also blog!

Here’s one I like, Standing Out in My Field, the nature of a punny field biologist.

Possibly I should have followed my own third-grade dream of becoming “a scientist.” My tendency to watch things, especially as they grow–to be an observer–would have served me well in a scientific field discipline. Though it isn’t a bad quality for a writer to possess, either.


Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections revolves in part around a family’s interconnected–and expanding–circles of influence (of harm, mostly, but also of steps toward healing) as the “patriarch” begins to lose his health and independence. It’s a depressingly familiar scenario for many of us who have aged parents. I often hear anecdotes from friends and colleagues about how an elderly parent’s decline tears apart family connections and lately have been living the problem a bit more close at hand.

So I am mulling about how we are interconnected, and also about how we decide to narrate our connections: the stories we tell ourselves, the stories we tell others. That’s the poet/observer in me mulling; but I also want to find out more about the psychological side of the equation, so I recently read Christakis’ and Fowler’s book Connected: The Surprising Power of Our Social Networks and How They Shape Our Lives, which takes a social-science and statistical look at what connects human beings to other human beings. 330px-Broad_chain_closeup

Writers are often our keenest social observers, and as it happens, Hungarian poet and writer Frigyes Karinthy wrote a story (“Chains”) that more or less posited the six degrees of separation theory back in 1929. Franzen’s novels tend to explore how even seemingly-minor disruptive or dysfunctional human relationships create butterfly-effect chaos among those connected to it–even among people not closely connected to the ‘disrupter.’

Christakis and Fowler examine much more than the six-degrees theory, such as how those human connections build themselves into social cascades, cultural norms, support systems, clans, families, political parties, and economic outcomes. On the one hand, these claims seem obvious: of course our relationships are based upon shared connections, and of course those relationships have impacts upon our lives. We know this intuitively, but now scientists want to give us proof.

Stuart Kauffman’s book At Home in the Universe offers “hard science” studies (though based upon theoretical computer- or math-based simulations) in physics and biology that suggest random disturbances, or chaos, can create chain or even lattice-like behavior. He suggests that if molecules or genes behave the way the simulations do, the cosmos may continually undergo a sort of self-organization that leads to forming connections.

Hence: life. Or life as we experience it. In which small differences in initial conditions can be amplified into transformational events that do not affect anyone in exactly the same way.

That’s more or less the butterfly effect, but it could not happen in social situations among human beings if we were not so interconnected or interdependent. Social beings require other social beings as support systems: that’s how humans work (with, naturally, the occasional outlier).

butterflyOur poets, playwrights, and our fiction writers–the narrators of human existence–understand isolation and community in non-scientific but no less valuable and authentic ways. They have been telling us for thousands of years the many ways we are connected.

Maybe what the scientists should do next is read hundreds of years of great literature as evidence of how social networks shape our lives. Science can learn as much from the humanities as the humanities have learned from scientists…

What we, as observant human beings in a chaotic world, intuitively understand.


Diversity. Not.

I must admit, it is challenging to read Elizabeth Kolbert‘s book The Sixth Extinction without feeling a bit of dread.

Nonetheless, the book is informative and fascinating–even funny at times–and well worth reading if you are the type who can get beyond your anthropocentric leanings and attempt to view the long-range picture from a scientific, if not exactly neutral, viewpoint. Her main argument is that we are, indeed, in the midst of a 6th mass extinction era and that human beings are “the weed” that most likely is the cause of these numerous extinctions–and not just since the industrial revolution, but eons before that. Humans travel more effectively than almost any life form, and that leads gradually to a loss of diversity. Read the book to find out how that works.

I find interesting parallels with socio-cultural trends in the ecological struggle for and against diversity. Niche-dwelling creatures or societies adapt to some challenging environment and develop or evolve ways to deal with adversity–cold temperatures, constant rain, saline soils, whatever. Nomadism, for example, is a way to adapt to seasonal weather challenges.

When an ‘alien’ enters a niche area, it usually dies off; but if it can adapt, there is hybridism or conquering. Tolerance, it turns out–living peacefully in tandem using the same resources–is not a common evolutionary strategy, though there are examples of symbiotic ecological relationships and, of course, parasitism of the sort that does not quickly kill off the host. Conquering generally means lost diversity.

When a niche organism ventures, accidentally or otherwise (forcibly, sometimes) into a new region as ‘alien,’ the special characteristics of the creature cause it to die or, in some cases, to have to adapt to a different set of circumstances…and diversity gets lost pretty quickly that way. In my region, for example, wetlands have experienced overruns of phragmites.

Does this sound like emigration? War? Forced removal of peoples? Indigenous populations killed off by measles or smallpox? Young people leaving remote areas to try to find work in cities? I see a metaphor here!

While human beings may try to celebrate diversity (which is better than using diversity to identify and exclude or punish “the other”), we probably cannot keep ourselves from becoming, over the centuries, less and less various. A homogeneous world seems, to me, to be a place impoverished through lack of niches and creative adaptation–but that’s what happens when mass extinctions take place: a depletion of kinds in the fossil record.

You might want to read Robert Sullivan’s New York Magazine article for even more recent scientific evidence if you’re not up to reading a whole book, though Kolbert is an engaging writer and I found her book to be a quick read. And below, some graphic illustrations from LiveScience. Fascinating stuff.

Here in the USA, alas, we seem to be helping the extinction of our own kind along by viewing diversity among people as dangerous. Compound this with a society that permits the ownership, hoarding, and use of deadly weapons on others and which cultivates a cultural tone of fear, anxiety, and entitlement, and there is strong evidence that the human weed will continue the slow but decided progress of the Holocene extinction.

Chart of extinction events that wiped out most life on Earth.


Mere philosophical speculation

I have been reading more of Daniel Dennett. One of his earlier books, Brainstorms, consists of essays and talks and thus, being available to read in short bursts, has served as my intellectual entertainment in between the busy social events of this particular June.

I liked three of his essays better than the others. The first one in the book describes, explains, and argues for “intentional systems;” the author also does a fairly good job of asserting that philosophers and psychologists ought to study computer models of intelligence as a means of leaning more about human intelligence. He does not make lots of mechanistic claims, however–he does not suggest human beings are mere soft machines, and he gives a good argument in Chapter 11 as to why we cannot make a computer that feels pain. But he does separate, by degrees, the differences between basic consciousness states and consciousness that exhibits intentionality, and he separates basic consciousness from simple instinct–something that confuses many people when they are posed difficult questions about non-human animal “minds”.

His essay “How to Change Your Mind” offers terrific, logical insights about human “feelings,” “intuitions,” and opinions. Dennett shifts the perspective on the psychological question of why it is so difficult for human beings to “change their minds” and to give genuinely rational (or mechanistic) reasons for doing so.

The book’s final chapter, “Where Am I?” is available as a PDF at this link, and here Dennett offers a much more entertaining and readable philosophical thought experiment on personhood (and consciousness/mind) than Derek Parfit posits in his book Reasons and Persons. Those readers who are interested in how a thought experiment can argue for the existence of a person-as-consciousness-state without embodiment-in-carbon-based-materiality, without the usually-required religious or spiritual crutch, but also without the dense counterarguments of Parfit’s approach, may wish to check out this chapter.

Granted, I understand that many people feel thought experiments are a monumental waste of time, tantamount to navel-gazing; others feel sure that teleportation out of fleshly bodies is the stuff of science fiction (emphasis on the fiction). But as our inventions permit us to test out theories that once were “mere philosophical speculation,” all kinds of surprises may await us. Quantum physics was an imagined idea, for example, that scientists have been able to revise and explore in a more machine-based way…Thomas Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions does, often, operate historically as he envisioned the process. The recent excitement over teleportation of coded data provides an example of mechanical testing of theories (here is a good basic article on the experiment for the layperson, with graphics and a Star Trek image, and here is the scientist-written article).

All of which is fascinating, yet none of which decreases my enjoyment of a run of perfect June summer days. Incarnate, I attempt meditation. There is honeysuckle on the breeze. Insects whir and buzz around me; sun warms my left shoulder. Time for consciousness. Time to be here, among the things of this world.




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)


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

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.”


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.


Abstraction, evolution, & sky-beauty

I awakened this morning to a sunrise of surpassing beauty. As I drove to work, I remembered that the first poems I recall ever writing were about the wind and about dawn–perhaps I wrote other poems as a child, but these two are the only ones I remember: poems that celebrated something I found lovely in nature.

After the vivid morning sky, we had a day of rain; and on my commute home, a compelling sunset bookended the working day. I call these skies “beautiful” and would definitely regard my experience of looking at them as aesthetic.

And yet, it’s only the sky, some clouds, the sun, phenomena that science has explained. What makes it beautiful?

photo: Beejay Grob

photo: Beejay Grob (North Carolina coastal sky)

David Rothenberg’s 2011 book Survival of the Beautiful: Art, Science, and Evolution has accompanied me for the past week; I have been reading it when I can find time to read and to cogitate. Rothenberg speaks directly to the question of what makes us experience beauty, whether beauty is a human-only construct, and from where the qualities of aesthetic experience arise. He explores among other things whether beauty (especially in the form of art) evolved along with us, what makes it timeless (if it is indeed timeless), and whether our grounding in nature as earthly beings formed the grounding for what we deem beautiful.

And he considers symmetry and biology and abstract art and math and music. There’s quite a good deal of synthesis and speculation going on in this book.


Rothenberg writes that he is interested in whether humans’ developing education in abstractions–concepts and abstract arts–might produce an outcome that increases our appreciation of things in nature and the cosmos. He writes:

It might seem this century has freed us from interest in any kind of constricting form or function in art, but I want to test out a different theory: that abstraction in the arts has made us find more possible beauty in the natural world…as art exalts pure form and shape, the laws of symmetry and chaos found in mathematics and science seem ever more directly inspirational. Aesthetically, we become more prepared to see beauty where before we saw only the clues of beauty, its glimmers or possibilities…our minds are more attentive to an abstract kind of beauty that we can discover but not necessarily build or create.

It takes him several chapters to braid together the many strings of his interdisciplinary inquiries; but the upshot is that while I feel he does not answer the questions he begins with, he does deepen the reader’s thought process about art, beauty, and the evolution of ideas as well as of organisms. He says the interesting discussion lies not with what is or is not art, nor how to evaluate the individual merit of works, but rather “how artistic expression changes how we think in ways only art can accomplish.”


In light of Rothenberg’s musings on how natural-feeling abstract art can be, here are some examples: Barlow, Ellis, (contemporary) and Klee (modern).

Rothenberg concludes with some ambiguity about aesthetics and evolution, which suits his book-length and life-long explorations on the interweavings of these ideas; but he adds with certainty that “[b]iology is not here to explain away all that we love in terms of the practical and rational. That is not how nature works. Nor should we shrink from our natural astonishment at the magnificence evolution has produced.”


He mentions John Cage’s work and approach to composing, and I think Cage’s main point in so much of his work is getting us to listen, to see, getting us to be attentive. Viz Rothenberg’s words quoted above, maybe an integration of abstraction does open us to be more attentive to the beauty that exists in the world without any artist making it. We could not, in the past, have appreciated the fractal values of river deltas viewed from airplanes; and perhaps only natural (or trained) artists noticed how the twigs of a tree reiterate the shapes, angles, and curves of the branches, boughs, sometimes even bark. Now we know about Mandelbrot sets and fractal geometry, and those abstractions can generate beautiful patterns. Now we know the Fibonacci sequence of numbers–an abstraction–appears in snail shells and sunflower seed-heads.

We do not have to be mathematicians, chemists, art critics, environmental scientists, physicists, sculptors, violinists, composers, dancers, college professors or biologists to recognize patterns and symmetries, or to find that slight variations in the pattern enhance the experience through the kind of surprise and delight that I discover in great poems.

We just have to be attentive.



Science is poetic? A debate

Here’s a video I found entertaining and thought provoking–a scientist, a poet, and a philosopher discuss the intersection (or if there is an intersection) between poetics and science.

This debate hinges on a Richard Dawkins statement: “Science is poetic, ought to be poetic and has much to learn from poets.”

The home site is the Institute of Art and Ideas, which is also worth exploring a bit.

Poetic Theories: Can scientists learn from poets?

Ken Binmore, Mary Midgley, Ruth Padel.

What is your take-away from the discussion? I’m curious about which stance seems most convincing, though I suspect one’s fundamental opinion on such topics isn’t easy to change.

Enabling & stewardship

The season of seed catalogs is upon us, and I begin to fantasize about all of the vegetables and flowers I want to grow and how I will arrange my small garden area to accommodate them. I imagine having time to keep the rows cultivated and the foliage free of insect pests. Yes, I need to do some work on the fencing. And yes, some terracing might help where the garden’s taking a decidedly southeasterly dip. The asparagus patch finally played itself out, so it will need some restructuring and weeding; I’ll have an opportunity to use that area in a new way.

There’s snow on the garden now. All of this planning is purely speculative on my part. Yet–how clearly I can envision it, in my mind. One of my concerns is whether I’ll feel hale and hearty and energetic enough to get all of this work accomplished!

Ah, my garden-consciousness brings me to the mind-body problem, though perhaps in a more physical way than philosophers encounter it. My conscious mind imagines the garden that does not yet exist. Is that garden real or an illusion? What makes it possible for me to conjure it so vividly? Is it merely memory of past experience? If so, why does my imagination invent a slightly different garden–this year’s ideal? My animal self takes action, physical action (phenomenological action) in order to bring about fruition to feed the physical body that loves the taste of vine-ripe tomatoes and fresh beans and tender lettuces. Do my actions cause the plants to grow? No. I’m more of a steward or a guide. I help them get a better-than-average start.

This sort of thinking brings me around to a (2011?) post by biologist Stuart Kauffman, on the NPR philosophy blog.

Kauffman says:

We think we live in a web of cause and effect. We do. We also live in a web of enabling opportunities that may or may not be seized, and the living world, biosphere up, unfolds in a different way, creating ever new possibilities of becoming.

But these possibilities often can’t be stated ahead of time. No one foresaw Facebook when Alan Turing did his work in the first half of the 20th century. Nor can we foresee all the possibilities of the evolution of life.

Life is not a well-formulated, complex optimization problem to be solved. We do not know all the variables that may become relevant.

Science is my life, and it is wonderful. But science will not ultimately know everything.

In the world of modernity, our values have become badly deformed. Gordon Gekko’s “greed is good” has replaced “integrity, generosity, and courage” as our First World cultural ideal. Modernity does not serve our humanity well, although it does offer enhanced standards of living. We are reduced — to price tags, cogs in an economic system making often useless products in the name of forever GDP growth on a finite planet. The bankers corrupt themselves and our government. Our government does not yet realize that its better job is to enable, not command, to “garden,” to coach, to enable the creativity of its peoples, here and around the globe.

Yes, that’s it. I engage with my environment partly by enabling things to grow or flourish. The term enabling has garnered some negative connotation in recent years due to its use in psychology: we are warned not to enable alcoholics, manipulative people, or those who need to learn some grit and self-motivation. The idea of enabling is, however, essentially positive: to help, to nurture. In fact, I think I prefer to think of myself as one who enables the earth rather than as a steward–though both concepts suggest that we human beings must engage willfully with the world.

We have work to do here on earth. And I am well aware that I do not know, with my garden, “all the variables that may become relevant.” (Past complex variables have included drought, hail, flooding, and beetles.) My small part this year includes serving the land I temporarily inhabit as well as serving myself and my family our favorite foods.


My favorite sources for seed include: Seeds of Change, Territorial Seed Co., Peaceful Valley Farm Supply, and–while less on the organic spectrum, the British firm of Thompson & Morgan for its amazing variety of herbs, vegetables, fruits, ornamentals and grasses from heirloom to the latest hybrids. For American gardeners interested in some truly historical strains, Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello offers quite a selection.

(Photo: a previous year’s garden in May)

Cognition and storytelling

Apparently, there has been considerable excitement in the humanities and literature worlds concerning new discoveries in neurology and cognition. And while I have been thinking and reading along these lines for years in my own auto-didactic way, I’ve only recently stumbled upon the texts that specifically explore this cross-fertilization of the arts and sciences.

AWP featured a standing-room-only panel on the topic of Cognitive Science and Stories that alerted me to the work of Brian Boyd (more books for the to-read pile), for example; and just this past week, Annie Murphy Paul contributed an opinion essay titled “Your Brain on Fiction” to the New York Times Sunday Review. Oliver Sacks has, of course, worked along this territory for many years, mostly from the neurological viewpoint with research that suggests we consider the relationship of brain science to art. Leonard Shlain has written intriguing books on the subject as well; though he focuses on gender and visual/textual creativity in his earlier work (see The Alphabet vs. the Goddess), his more recent Art & Physics: Parallel Visions in Space, Time, and Light takes on the “rational” brain (physics) and the world and work of art.

The science, which encompasses both ‘hard science’ such as neurology and social science such as psychology, uses fMRI brain imaging and other forms of feedback measurement to record the brain’s responses to imagery, metaphor, descriptive writing, emotionally-evocative literary passages, and other stimuli to gauge how the human brain takes in such stimuli and which regions of the brain ‘fire’ when encountering the materials.

Associations rule. Reading is associative.  The word “coffee,” as it turns out, engages the olfactory regions; so does the word “cinnamon.” Tactile word cues (velvet, sandy, rough) arouse sensory regions, notes Paul. We associate meaning with senses. Or perhaps senses evoke, in the human mind, associated meanings. This is one reason poetry engages its readers; poetry works via a series of different types of arousals by association–allusions to previously-known information, metaphorical associations by means of sensory-related responses, stimulation of brain regions by word-association, and also cultural or social association (contextual cues, which may also be physical). All of this means that the act of reading is an embodied behavior–we are actively encoding physical settings and sensations while we read!

Human brains fill in the gaps in memory and in event-series that may or may not be related. Some of these neurological studies suggest human brains seek patterns…and construct narratives. Hence, story-making may be something that evolved along with the human cortex while we learned that a growl in the bushes is likely to equal a hidden predator and that if we convey this information by narrative (or metaphor) it will be recalled more quickly by our listener. If the listener is offspring, and the lesson is remembered and used appropriately, the genes survive another generation. That scenario sounds pretty scientific/Darwinian; but to a writer or artist, the scenario is lush with the possibility of story-myth-legend-fiction-poem-art.

Storytelling facilitates sociality, claims Tim Horvath, who explained to the attendees at the AWP conference that sociality is the biologist’s “reciprocal altruism.” Because fiction meta-represents life, it simulates possible life scenarios that can help to foster understanding and offers a way to test out possible social reactions to behavior in a way that is low-risk for the reader. The reader can imagine, or play along, with the rebellious heroine and through this adaptive play (reading can be a form of play) learn how others around her might react if she were to try a similar form of rebellion. Indeed, Marilynne Robinson agrees that “The great virtue of the best fiction is to teach compassion.”

I look forward to learning more about the cognitive side of human narrative. I love it when science and the humanities discourse with one another.