Tuesday, October 11, 2011

It's All in the Rhythm

When I first started blogging here, one of my motivations was to dig into the question of how poetry affects (that is, creates affect in) a reader. Most specifically, how is that feeling created when we read or hear a poem and the hair stands up on the backs of our necks, we feel a tingling along our spines, we feel, as Emily Dickinson said, as though the tops of our heads have been removed, or, as James Wright says, as though we are breaking into blossom.

My reading over the last couple of years, most importantly in Joseph LeDoux’s The Synaptic Self, but also in work by Damasio, Hofstadter, Dehaene, and others, has led me to believe that we are feeling in those moments the brain learning in a dramatic and intense way. In those moments we are experiencing the brain doing what it always does, what it exists to do—gathering information and storing it away, using data to build schemas of experience that it can refer back to in the future when it needs it—but it is doing so in a particularly rich mixture (which would make sense if you assume that the most affective poems are those that have the richest language).

LeDoux and others have discovered in the last 50 years or so that we learn (and “we” come into being, LeDoux argues) via a process called “synaptic plasticity”, which works via a process whereby the frequency or intensity of a synapse’s firing strengthens that synapse and thus creates memories (whether explicit memory [accessible, such as what I had for breakfast today] or implicit [memories whose conscious access is not required, such as my knowledge of how to cut and eat a grapefruit]). This is a highly simplified version of what actually happens, but it sums up the process.

Usually this synaptic firing doesn’t just involve a single axon and a single dendrite, just as one might guess when thinking about the process that creates all of our memory banks and our ability to communicate via language. Almost all firings are multivalent, involving input from several different locations among groups of neurons. The resulting complexity should be coming into focus here. To boot, there are several different “systems” of input. Each of the senses has its own input system, for example. All of these inputs are pulled together in the frontal lobes and the “working memory” before being either imprinted into long-term memory (if that is the fate of the data) or forgotten.

It seems to me that those moments of poetic intensity are moments when we are feeling the brain going through this rich, complex process in a very short period of time, which surely involves the release of a great deal of serotonin and/or other neurotransmitters—that chemical burst is probably responsible for the sense of blossoming or head removal, the tingling, which is quite similar to the “aha” moment one feels when a difficult problem has been solved—as though a veil has been removed. That seems like a possible theory to me, at least. A particularly intense poem (which is why I like to use very short poems as a test) or an intense moment in a poem (such as the end of a poem, where both a sense of closure and an opening up can evoke such feeling in the reader) is likely to bring energy from multiple linguistic directions in a rhythmic manner—high frequency and intensity of firing. Maybe someone out there is already doing hard research on this idea re: language processing?

This new research suggests that my wondering/wandering here may not be far off the right track. Mehta and Kumar have discovered that there are optimal frequencies of synaptic firing that encourage learning. It’s not that learning is optimized by the highest intensity of firing (cramming for a final an hour or two before the exam), but that there are lower frequency points that are ideal. You’ll get a clearer sense of this by reading the article. My guess is that some poems (or songs or prose fiction or cinema) that are novel to the reader or listener are able to hit just the right frequency of incoming data that is resonant with the ideal rhythm of the involved neurons so that this fast learning blossoms into the brain (or perhaps an emulation of fast learning). I’m not suggesting that the rhythm of the poem is the same frequency of the data being processed by the neurons, of course, because they work on the scale of many spikes (or firings) per second. Nor am I suggesting that there is a single rhythm that all poems should target—synapses have different ideal frequencies according to distance down the dendrite, apparently, and synapses become desensitized with use (learning) so that the ideal frequency for further learning decreases. This variability suggests that the experience would vary among readers, which is borne out by experience. Not everyone will get the same blossoming or tingling sensation I got when I first read this poem (and still do, to a lesser degree):

Praise be to Vishnu.
His hands fondle in secret
The large breasts of Lakshmi
As though looking there
For his own lost heart.

Tr. W. S. Merwin

But it is entirely possible that the rhythm of the poem is one factor in determining or affecting the rhythm of the synaptic firings, or the synergy among multiple firings.

Now, if I just had a functional MRI to test out some short, intense poems on some folks… (and a friend with some experience running such experiments!)

It also occurs to me that the idea of relation between an embodied rhythm and the effects of poems will ring a bell for those familiar with the arguments of Fred Turner and other neoformalists who wanted to find a model for the iambic line in the rhythm of the heart beat. It seems that they might have had a good idea in principle, but were looking at the wrong organ—or perhaps weren’t looking at enough organs.

Thursday, September 15, 2011

The Self is a Community

Very interesting post here from Peter Freed's blog Neuroself. His argument (the argument of his blog as well as of his article) is one I've forwarded here from a couple of other sources, including Hofstadter--there is no such thing as the unitary self (which many Buddhists have understood for quite some time). We appear to be composed of many selves, and our selves work in a kind of network (Borg, anyone?) both to produce the experience of individuality and the experience of community.

A question for my students: what would this theory suggest about the notion of artistic "voice"?

Saturday, July 30, 2011

How Neural Nets Work

This witty experiment with artificially engineered neural cells provides a great glimpse into how neurons can respond to external stimuli to send out signals. It's not quite "intelligence" as the article exaggerates, but it absolutely demonstrates an essential component of human intelligence.

Thursday, July 14, 2011

Can Computers Learn Natural Langauges?

Apparently so: http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2011/07/110712133330.htm

And if the ability to use information for creative ends, as I suggested in an earlier post, defines "knowledge", then this story suggests that computers can acquire knowledge.

What remains to be seen, though, is whether can be aware that they have knowledge... and I think that probably won't happen until our technology is sophisticated enough to run android systems (see previous post on embodiment: http://thinkodynamics.blogspot.com/2011/06/i-human.html).

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Absence of Empathy = ?

A new one definitely to check out. The reviewer is absolutely correct, though, that some people will be infuriated by the equation of the root causes of "evil" and autism (Zero-Negative vs. Zero-Positive personalities). [Click title for link]

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

I, Human

Poet, philosopher, and science writer Brian Christian has a fun piece in the March 2011 Atlantic (which is adapted from his book The Most Human Human [Doubleday 2011]). In the artcile Christian describes participating in the 2009 Loebner Prize competition, which is an annual exercise that puts the Turing Test to AI entrants and humans alike to determine the Most Human Computer (which goes to the program that fools the most human interlocutors into believing it is human) as well as the Most Human Human (which goes to the human that leaves the least doubt in the minds of human interlocutors that s/he is human).

The Turing Test is intended to test whether an artificial intelligence can “think”— the test assumes that we would know that the artificial intelligence is capable of thinking if it can convince us in a blind conversation that it is human.

Never mind the problem of assuming that intelligence must be human-like (or that it must be expressed in ways similar to the ways humans express it). The real problem is that the Turing Test doesn’t test intelligence at all. It tests the appearance of intelligence. It tests the ability of human programmers to program that simulacrum. The classic rebuttal is that appearing sufficiently intelligent is being intelligent. I’ve gone back and forth over this one for some time, and Christian’s article—along with my recent reading in Antonio Damasio’s Self Comes to Mind—has convinced me that appearing intelligent—no matter how apparent—cannot be equated with being intelligent.

Eventually, in asking these sorts of questions, one comes down to the nature of intelligence, of knowledge, of mind, of awareness, of self. What does it mean to say one is intelligent? What does it mean to say one possesses knowledge? That one has a mind? What’s the difference between mind and self? And how can one test for any of those things? What does it mean that a computer is able to “spin half-discernible essays on postmodern theory” [Christian] yet is unable to compose a joke more complex than the most basic pun?

There are, of course, degrees of intelligence. Watson is more intelligent than my microwave oven, and you, dear reader, are more intelligent than Watson. But what does that statement mean? Watson clearly can store more information than my microwave; your brain might store more information than Watson, but surely a version of Watson could be built that would store far more information than your brain. But as the recent Jeopardy match proved, more information storage (that is, more memory) is not the answer to achieving intelligence. In the questions that Watson missed, the errors clearly came from a lack of context. Watson took wrong turns in his decision trees (associations) when he did not have adequate depth of knowledge. Okay, what does that mean—depth of knowledge? What is knowledge?

Knowledge is not mere information, not merely filled memory banks. Knowledge is stored information that the holder is able to use in a creative way—to write a sentence, to paint a representational picture, to plant a crop, to build a house, to make up a joke. In order to use this information, the holder must know that it knows (that is, it must have a sense of truth; which is not to say that the holder can only use true information). One of the greatest accomplishments of Watson is that his creators gave him a sense of what he knows he knows (a percentage likelihood that he had sufficient information to get the right answer)—which gave him the ability to choose whether or not to ring in. So Watson has some knowledge—he holds information and is able to determine how reliable that information is and when it is reliable enough to venture an answer. It’s conceivable even that Watson could acquire the knowledge necessary to instruct someone (or a crew of robots) on how to build a house. This level of knowledge clearly, though, would be less complex than the knowledge that a human contractor would have, because the contractor will have worked on actual houses, will have experienced what it is to build a house, which is a level of complexity that Watson cannot have.

Why can Watson not have that experience? Because he does not have a body. Damasio and others have demonstrated at this point that human intelligence is embodied, that it rises from a triple function of the brain—its regulation and mapping of the rest of the body, its mapping of relationships to objects outside the body, and an additional layer of mapping of its own activity in the process of mapping the body and objects outside the body. That is, our intelligence rises from a combination of self-reference and context. Watson cannot have that context because he not only cannot perceive his environment, he also cannot perceive his “body” and has no regulatory function that monitors his physical existence and attempts to repair it when necessary (infection, hunger, thirst, fatigue, nutrition, hygiene); in the absence of either of those, it goes without saying that Watson cannot map the relationship between the two. Even if Watson were to be equipped with a more complex version of today’s facial recognition software, he would not have a function that maps what is perceived relative to his “self”—it would only be a function to add more information (recognition of objects) with no deep context.

But what does this necessary organicism, this relationship between self and non-self tell us about our intelligence? Christian says:

Perhaps the fetishization of analytical thinking and the concomitant denigration of the creatural—that is, animal—and bodily aspects of life are two things we’d do well to leave behind. Perhaps, at least, in the beginnings of an age of AI, we are starting to center ourselves again, after generations of living slightly to one side—the logical, left-hemisphere side. Add to this that humans’ contempt for “soulless” animals, our unwillingness to think of ourselves as descended from our fellow “beasts”, is now challenged on all fronts: growing secularism and empiricism, growing appreciation for the cognitive and behavioral abilities of organisms other than ourselves, and not coincidentally, the entrance onto the scene of an entity with considerably less soul than we sense in a common chimpanzee or bonobo…
…It’s my belief that only experiencing and understanding truly disembodied cognition—only seeing the coldness and deadness and disconnectedness of something that really does deal in pure abstraction, divorced from sensory reality—can snap us out of it. Only this can bring us, quite literally, back to our senses.

That is, seeing what intelligence is not should help us to better see what our intelligence is, help us to see and appreciate ourselves and each other better. Should.

Could Watson or another computer be equipped with a complex sensory apparatus and self-referential monitoring processes that could achieve the complexity of human intelligence? Yes, it’s possible. Mind, after all, is simply a function of a physical system—our bodies. But our technology has a long way to go before it catches up with millions of years of evolution which compacted immense computing power into an amazingly small space—and did so organically with intricate backup systems, redundancies, and shortcuts. We have a long, long, long way to go before Lt. Data or the androids of Bladerunner, AI, or I, Robot.

All of which is to say that we are far inferior engineers to nature.

Monday, February 14, 2011

Who is...?

In the struggle to create an artificial intelligence that is truly “intelligent”, rather than a mere imitation of intelligence, the greatest obstacle may be ambiguity. AI software tends to have trouble with teasing out the meanings of puns, for example; it’s one of the ways of getting a machine to fail the Turing Test. Computers have gotten pretty good at playing chess (IBM’s Big Blue defeated Grand Master Garry Kasparov in a well-publicized event), but until now haven’t graduated far beyond that level of complexity.

Well, IBM is at it again, and their new system, Watson, is going on Jeopardy up against the game show’s two biggest winners. It’s a very big deal, because Jeopardy’s clues frequently are built around puns and other kinds of word play—ambiguities that often throw machines off their game.

This story from NPR summarizes it well, but there’s an interesting and commonly held assumption expressed in this story that I think warrants re-examination. The piece reports that systems like Watson have trouble with ambiguity because, though they can understand relations among words (that is, they can identify syntactic patterns and figure out how a sentence is put together, using that information to hone in on what kind of question is being asked), they can’t understand the meanings of words because they don’t have experience to relate to those words.

Embedded in this claim is the assumption that humans do have experience (of course!) and that our experience comes from direct, unmediated access to the world around us. When we read the word “island” we have a deep understanding of what an island is, because we’ve seen islands.  Computers can’t do this, because they haven’t experience islands or even water or land, the argument goes. This is a version of the Chinese Room argument—the argument that semantics cannot be derived from syntax.

This argument just doesn’t hold up in my way of thinking. First of all, some humans (desert dwellers, for example) may have never seen islands, but that would not inhibit their ability to understand the concept of island-ness. Helen Keller became able to understand such concepts though she had neither seen nor heard anything from the physical world.

Second, our perception of the external world is not unmediated. Our perceptions are generated by a hardware system that converts light into electronic signals, which are then processed and stored in the brain, not unlike the way the digital camera converts light signals to images on your laptop. Research shows that there is a clear delay between physical processing and awareness of perceptions. And the complexity of human perception is starting to seem less and less unique; computers are becoming better and better at being able to process physical information like images and sounds—face recognition and voice recognition software, for example; or the apps that can identify your location according to your photo or can identify a song according to a snippet that you record. The main difference is that in humans, there is an intelligence behind the process; in the computer there is not.

Which leads us ultimately to the question that Watson’s creators are trying to answer. What is intelligence?

The answer must be in the way the information is processed. Intelligence is likely ultimately to come from the complexity of association (including self-relexiveness, a kind of association) that is embedded in the system. The human brain is in a constant state of association and context building. My brain has been working on context and association building for 45 years (and that is a kind of experience). Why shouldn’t computers be capable of this kind of processing—that is, of learning? (Computers are, of course, capable of learning—in adaptive computer games, for example—just not yet at the level of complexity of humans.)What we don’t completely understand about human cognition are the processes used to find information—is it a vertical searching system, a horizontal searching system, some hybrid of vertical and horizontal with some trial and error thrown in? Something else? We just don’t know yet.

But cracking the code for pun recognition and “understanding” word play and jokes may get us a big step closer to an answer. Watson may lose, and he may win (he probably will win, as he did in trail runs for the show). If Watson loses, I hope he won’t feel badly about it; many humans have trouble with ambiguity, too.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Cocktail Party in the Membrane

NPR ran this piece yesterday about some research on bats and how they distinguish communicative noises made by their colleagues from the background noise of their echolocation blasts. The piece mentions that this research will be useful in helping to figure out how human brains focus in on certain particularly useful noises and ignore presumably unimportant noises from the background (such as focusing on a conversation at a loud cocktail party). Turns out that in the bats, at least, it's as if many different neurons are constantly reporting "Here's what I hear. Here's what I hear...", and certain neurons are good at telling the neurons around them to stop listening and reporting so much on the background noise so they can hear the communicative audio. And those neurons that are quieting down the others become particularly noticeable in their own reporting, because all else is quieter around them.

This also happens to be a good description of a range of theories on how the brain is able to make ongoing, constant decisions about what to pay attention to and what to tell the rest of the body to actually do (both "voluntary" and "involuntary" actions). As I've mentioned in previous posts, the theory goes something like this--neurons or groups of neurons in the brain are constantly arguing with each other, trying to make their case about what is important or not important. When one set of neurons wins that argument (when they are successful at getting more attention than other neurons), then a decision has been made to direct attention and energy in that direction.

So, at least in terms of how some portion of our brains work, we may not be that different from bats. Or maybe even bat terriers.

Friday, November 5, 2010

The Picture Gradually Comes into Focus

More and more research confirms memory distribution in the brain, providing answers to many questions such as why it is that local brain injury doesn't cause more global memory loss, the way other functions are frequently affected by local injuries.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

The Elegance of Empathy

I don’t read a lot of fiction any more. I find that most contemporary fiction is fixated on realistic representation and rarely rises above the muck and mechanics of the imagined world, and, thus, ends up wallowing in sentimentality, whether that sentimentality is for the imagined world, for the characters, for the author’s lost past, for the idea of representation itself, or some combination of the above. It’s not enough for a fiction to take me to another place—it needs to take me there and give me the sense that the landscape moves and that the architecture of the landscape is alive with thought, moves my thought, changes me. What’s the point of reading a book that doesn’t change me? I want to read

Something [that] moves house inside me—yes, how else to describe it? I have the preposterous feeling that one existing inner living space has been replaced by another. Does that never happen to you? You feel things shifting around inside you, and you are quite incapable of describing just what has changed, but it is both mental and spatial, the way moving house is.

A reapportioning of space, yes (of memory/storage space?), but also a derangement of time:

When we had been good pupils we were allowed to turn [the snowglobe] upside down and hold it in the palm of our hand until the very last snowflake had fallen at the foot of the chromium-plated Eiffel Tower. I was not yet seven years old, but I already knew that the measured drift of the little cottony particles foreshadowed what the heart would feel in moments of great joy. Time slowing, expanding, a lingering graceful ballet, and when the last snowflake has come to rest, we know we have experienced a suspension of time that is the sign of great illumination. As a child I often wondered whether I would be allowed to live such moments—to inhabit the slow, majestic ballet of the snowflakes, to be released at last from the dreary frenzy of time.

Renée Michel, one of the two narrators of Muriel Barbery’s The Elegance of the Hedgehog (Europa Editions, 2009), speaks these lines, part of her ongoing meditation throughout the book on art, intelligence, identity, language. She is an Everywoman philosopher, and she’s read not only her Marx and her Husserl but also, apparently, her Dennett and her Dawkins. If she hasn’t, in any case, Barbery certainly has (in fact, she has taught philosophy at Bourgogne and Saint-Lo).

The novel hovers around some of the central questions in current cognitive studies—What good is intelligence (or consciousness)? What is the function of art? What is the connection between language and identity? What is the role of empathy in the making of the person? Where does the individual begin and end? The book approaches all of these questions with a narrative efficiency that astounds me and that is far too complex for me to briefly describe here. Suffice it to say that it is a masterpiece of the novel of ideas genre. In many ways—in its use of innovative structure, its reliance on a subtle argumentative strategy, its combination of humor and philosophy—it is reminiscent of The Unbearable Lightness of Being, without the authorial intrusions, the fixation on the erotic, or the unlikeable characters.

Aside from the pleasure of reading the book, which includes the pleasure of seeing Barbery get away with using phrases like “dreary frenzy” (credit to translator Alison Anderson), the book repeatedly reminds me of one of the questions that I began with on this blog—what is going on in the brain when we experience that shift of mind that I find most epitomized in the short poem, but which happens in much great art—that moment where both space and time seem to alter (see the two quotes above from Hedgehog)?

The second of the two narrators, a twelve-year-old named Paloma, shares my interest in the short poem. She is a devotee of haiku and of Japanese culture in general, which she finds an elegant vessel of both Profound Thoughts and The Movement of the World. Paloma’s central goal in the book is to learn something; that is, to exercise the main function of the brain.

But there’s more than one way to learn. In addition to the cerebral approach of cognitive theory to explaining visceral and intellectual responses, there’s another response that neuroesthetics must take into account if it is to be taken seriously as a way of approaching art—the emotional response (and it does—see the past meetings of the annual Neuroesthetics conference). Paloma, here, describes a school choir concert:

Every time, it’s the same thing, I feel like crying, my throat goes all tight and I do the best I can to control myself but sometimes it gets close: I can hardly keep myself from sobbing. So when they sing a canon I look down at the ground because it’s just too much emotion at once: it’s too beautiful, and everyone singing together, this marvelous sharing. I’m no longer myself, I am just one part of a sublime whole, to which the others also belong, and I always wonder at such moments why this cannot be the rule of everyday life, instead of being an exceptional moment, during a choir.

When the music stops, everyone applauds, their faces all lit up, the choir radiant. It is so beautiful.

In the end, I wonder if the true movement of the world might not be a voice raised in song.

This, by the way, is also the way I feel, despite myself, every time I attend my childrens’ choir and orchestra concerts. When your own kids are involved, it’s easy to feel empathy; but it turns out that in the face of good art—well, okay, art—we’re wired to feel empathy (mirror neurons in action).

Paloma’s “true movement” refers to her attempt to discover before she dies (by suicide--she doesn't do it) whether there is anything worth living for—she conducts her search in two journals: a profound thoughts journal, where she “play[s] at being who I am”, and a Movement of the World journal, where she meditates on bodies and objects. Renée, meanwhile, has spent the last fifteen years convinced that there is no point to living and has spent most of her life in a kind of hiding, disguise, incognito. Both of these characters learn a great deal about each other, about their mutual friend Kakuro Ozu, and about themselves, primarily via empathy and via art. In this, both of them would agree with Semir Zeki when he argues that art has the same function as the brain—to acquire knowledge. If they are right, then this novel is without a doubt a work of art. One would be hard pressed not to learn anything from it; and I have no doubt that Barbery learned a great deal in the process of writing it.

Art is an empathetic experience that promotes the spread of knowledge (information).

So, another question: what’s the difference between empathy and sentiment(ality)? Is there a difference? Is the difference that empathy contains The Movement of the World? It has the potential to change the receiver, whereas sentiment(ality) merely confirms the receiver’s preconceptions? Empathy appeals to actuality (whatever that is) or truth (whatever that is) or at least the search for actuality/truth, whereas sentiment(ality) appeals to a fantasy, a (necessary) fiction? Empathy promotes the spread of information, whereas sentimentality inhibits it? Now, that’s interesting…


My friend Joe Ahearn, who is studying information systems at UT, sent me an article earlier today on information system theory and definitions of information that involve changing image systems and/or changing a receiver’s cognitive structure. That is, I would think, “moving house”, "feel[ing] as though the top of my head has been removed." More soon…

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Restropo (or "Bad Brain")

All this talk about the human brain making all of our decisions before we even are aware of making decisions, by the way, is no indication that the human brain is particularly good at making decisions. For the most part, it's stuck in a battle of memes,which tends to be won by bad memes; and also stuck in a battle between memes and animal instinct, which tends to be won by the beast.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Secret Agents

New York Times ethics columnist Randy Cohen appeared on NPR’s “On Point” on August 10. Among the many interesting things he had to say, two caught my attention in particular. If the two points interest you, you should go listen to the show, because I’m really only using what Cohen had to say as leaping off points into some half-baked (or tenth-baked) ideas here. But Cohen is worth listening to.

Cohen’s first point that caught my attention was that humans have an ethical/moral faculty only because that faculty has evolved in them. Faculties that evolve have a reason for evolving (a function), and in humans that faculty functions to make it easier for groups of humans to live together.

In that way, morality and ethics are like politics, religion, family, marriage, etc.—the grand structures of community where we find “meaning” in living. These grand structures, along with other large structures of different kinds (art, poetry, gender, baseball, fun, etc.) and smaller structures (dessert, hiking, blogs, veganism) are called by some thinkers (Richard Dawkins was first) "memes". Memes are the structures around which our thought and our culture are constructed, or even the very vessels of thought itself—the vessels that carry meaning from one human being to another via the vast ocean of consciousness. This idea (or meme) of The Meme somewhat ironically fits in very well with materialist approaches* to consciousness, because it provides a theory for the movement of ideas within and among individuals without the necessity of free will or souls.

Even while putting aside the question of whether humans are truly moral/ethical beings and whether it’s healthier to maintain incredulity toward some of those metanarratives, it’s clear that the concepts of ethics and morality are strong drivers in most human culture. The question becomes how those concepts, those memes, become active in individual lives, how they find root in the individual brain…

…which leads me to the second of Cohen's comments to catch my attention: that it’s not always a good idea to act upon our moral/ethical impulses immediately. This statement caught my attention not because of its content, but because of its assumption that it is possible for one to act upon a moral/ethical impulse. Recent research shows that “we” don’t really choose our actions at all (see posts from last couple of weeks—in the language that I’m using here, I’m playing with the very trap that I warned against before: the idea that “we” are something other than our brain functions). Research clearly shows that there is a delay between the moment when decision making actually occurs in the brain and the moment when we become aware of having made a decision.

What could it mean, then, for someone to give us advice about acting on moral impulses, if we aren’t really in control of our decision making? Shouldn't we all just face the fact that all decision making is illusory and we should therefore just stop trying to make decisions and just let the world happen, willy-nilly? Does it mean we should stop trying to write poems and just let them come out whenever they happen to come out? Going down that path, we eventually lead to an individual who does nothing, says nothing, never moves, ceases to exist. But isn’t every action “choosing to act”?

I think a possible answer to the problem of moral/ethical advice and action in the face of the absence of free will lies in the fact that, as I argued in a previous post, when we make forward-looking statements, we are really describing ourselves as we have arrived at that point in time, describing our being up to that point, describing, in short, our evolution. When Breton writes in the Surrealist Manifesto about seeking the integration of waking life and dreaming life, he is describing his intellectual life up to that point, describing the influence of Freud and the Symbolists and Dada and World War I and everyone he’s ever known and everything he’s ever read upon him at that moment. When the Flarfists reject originality and the personal in poetry, they are describing the effects of postmodernism, contemporary culture, the history of art and poetry, everyone they’ve ever known, and everything they’ve ever read upon them at that moment. When Kent Johnson or Catullus writes about other poets, or when any poet writes as another poet (persona), he is revealing parts of his own personal composition. In other words, a large set of memes has been worked into a set of relations in the mind of Kasey Mohammed—and, in fact, they are “Kasey Mohammed”. The work of Kasey Mohammed is a revelation of the memes that compose Kasey Mohammed, or some portion of them; so in one sense Eliot was wrong. All of our work is a revelation of personality—or some part of it—if we think of personality as our meme components. Eliot was right to seek empathy as the proper ground of poetry, though; and he clearly was trying to avoid the trap of "personality" as something individual and hermetic, as opposed to a sense of self linked to other selves (via memes).

People are meme machines.

How is it possible, then, to be an agent in the world when it’s not even possible to intend?

Remember that the decision-making process in the brain seems to involve the input of many “experts” within the brain all making separate arguments; if one argument doesn’t immediately take precedence, the brain pauses. We call this pause “doubt”,” “indecision”, “hesitation”, “confusion”, etc.; in the time it takes for the feedback loop that is our consciousness to become aware of the decision under deliberation, it also becomes aware of the counter-arguments, the doubt. Sooner or later the brain settles on the counsel of its experts and “makes up its mind” and the self-awareness loop indulges itself in the illusion that it was involved in that process all along.

We seem to have gotten along pretty well these past several thousand years working under that delusion. And we certainly would not be able to function well if we took the lack of free will to its absurd conclusion and became completely and utterly passive (actually, that would be impossible without serious mental illness, because, for one thing, we would starve to death). So what is the middle ground? In what way does this knowledge become useful to us? In other words, why should we care enough to expose, discuss, and work against (or work mindfully within) the delusion of free will?

Because we are people, and people are meme machines, and the function of a meme machine is to contribute to the evolution of memes.

It is the individual poet’s (and the visual artist’s and the musician’s and the teacher’s and the politician’s) job to contribute to the evolution of memes. This is why the most exciting art is always the “new”, or the art that puts a new spin on the old. If memes are not evolving in the art, then the art is doing next to nothing. Does that mean the individual work of art must be progressive, must be formally innovative, must experiment? Not necessarily. The individual work of art might put pressure on certain memes through its content rather than its form or structure.

You might ask again: if there is no free will and no decision making, then how does it make sense to say a poet has a job? It makes sense because what a poet thinks of as her forward looking plan, her manifesto, is a description of her evolution. Alice Fulton already has evolved into a poet. Kasey Mohammed is already a poet. W. S. Merwin and Ann Carson and Brenda Hillman and Peter Streckfus and the thousands of other people who write poems are all products of poetry evolution. Poeting is what they do. They’re just doing what they were memed to do, and in so doing they influence the readers and poets and friends with whom they come into contact. So the importance of being a poet, the importance of being a politician, of being oneself is not revealed in the success of being oneself or in meeting one’s goals; it is revealed in one’s success at building memes in other minds, whether those memes have to do with poetry or plumbing or peaches.

It might seem, then, that we can say that the goal of poets and artists and politicians and teachers should be to change the world. In fact, a real artist or politician or teacher, etc. can’t help but change the world in one way or another, because they are traffickers in memes. They change the world not by intending to, but by being loci of meme traffic, and their brains have already decided for them whether or not they will be an active locus. Their job, then, is to go where their brains lead them. In doing so, they reveal their own evolution to others and influence others by their actions and speech. So, even though Cohen’s belief that he can choose to act or choose not to act on moral/ethical impulse is a delusion (as is that deep-seated belief in all of us), he is an agent in the world and does have influence because he speaks on NPR and in the Times and says things like “don’t act on moral impulse” which became a small part of my moral/ethical architecture alongside “be the change you want to see” and “all people are created equal”, and now it is a small part of your moral/ethical architecture. What are you going to do with it? I don’t know, and neither do you. But if that bit of advice fits in well enough within your moral/ethical architecture, who knows… it might become a poem, or a book, or a blog entry, and in some small way, Randy Cohen would be its co-author.

* Materialist/Determinist approaches to consciousness are not to be mistaken for the kind of Cosmological Determinism that holds a preset and unavoidable future, which would seem to require a more stable, certain, and down-pinnable situation than our quantum-fluctual universe would provide.

Monday, July 26, 2010

Are We Not Borg?

This Op/Ed piece by Galen Strawson appeared in the NY Times a few days ago. Strawson is the author of Selves: An Essay in Revisionary Metaphysics, which I have not read yet. The Basic Argument summarized by Strawson here lies at the heart of my question a few weeks back about where poetic content comes from. How much of poetic composition is active (in the sense that the poet is the agent of the content, the Director, if you will) and how much of poetic composition is a play among language, culture, and consciousness?

The argument over free will seems to me very similar to the argument about consciousness (does either exist?). Consciousness clearly seems to be a “real” phenomenon until we take granular enough a look at the brain's processes, where the reality of consciousness seems to fizzle into the firings of neurons. Free will clearly seems to be a real phenomenon until we take granular enough a look at the brain's processes (or even thermodynamics), where, at some point, choice seems to fizzle away into a deterministic barrage of particles too complex for us to track.

Does the poet choose to put words in a certain order or does it only seem to her that she does so? Is she making the decision to construct or to revise in a certain manner, or is she only enjoying the show and taking the credit while her brain does the work?

Part of the problem here is in the question and in the understanding of what a self (or consciousness) is. When we say "I decided to do X", what we often mean, consciously or unconsciously, is that there is an "I" inside my skull who directed my brain to make the decision to do X, or who informed the brain that we are going to do X. This thinking is another manifestation of Cartesian duality, the idea that the self is something other than or in addition to the way the human brain works. We assume because we feel ourselves thinking and because we seem to be pushing the neurons around that the self is something other than—and perhaps in control of—the flashing of neurons. Furthermore, we tend to believe, consciously or unconsciously, that if we can’t think of ourselves as being in there pushing around the neurons (because the science indicates that we shouldn’t), then we’ve been robbed of something—namely, our selves. We think that if we are aware of our own thoughts, then there must be someone in there who is the one aware (above and beyond the thoughts).

The experiment with monkeys that William Egginton cites in Sunday’s response to Strawson has been reproduced in various versions with human subjects with the same results—namely, confirmation that there is a delay between the moment when the brain, having processed input, determines to take action and the moment when the subject moves to take that action (how could there not be such a delay?). But even more telling is that there is a delay between the moment the brain determines to take action and the moment the human subject is aware of having made such a decision.

The argument of cognitive determinists is that the “self” is essentially the feedback loop (or set of many feedback loops resulting from the many connections of our nervous system’s multiple inputs to our episodic memory) that associates the present state and actions of the body to that body’s past and to certain patterns constructed in memory that correspond to other people, ideas, places, etc. That feedback loop inhabits a kind of continuous present of the space/time between the brain’s computations and the moment the brain’s command to act is carried out, almost instantaneously—so nearly instantaneously that it seems simultaneous, and thus “caused” by our consciousness.

Seen this way, there really is little difference between saying “I decided to do X” and “my brain determined to do X”; it simply requires a slight shift in the way “I” is conceived.

But back to the poets: The Surrealists were fond of automatic writing as a way of letting the subconscious speak naturally and directly (though “speak” may be the wrong word here). Like many other poets of their time and since, they were interested in getting rid of the influence of the ego in poetry, an interest they shared with widely disparate poets despite the obvious differences between the “raw” automatic writing and games of Surrealism and Dada and the more “cooked” versions of this attempt to avoid the “lyrical interference of the ego” by Olson and to “escape personality” by Eliot, among others.

But who is doing the attempting to escape ego? Again these poets are trapped in the Cartesian perspective, which circumscribes their efforts to describe their intentions, their poetics; the poets seem to be able only to express their aesthetic/ethical drives as a battle to circumnavigate the self and get to the mind that seems to lie below or alongside the self. Perhaps Breton’s submersion in psychoanalysis, with its architectural conception of selfhood, prevented him from seeing that his real struggle was not to achieve selflessness in order to get to the genuine workings of the mind (he was already there, as are we all), but a struggle for selflessness as a way to achieve empathy, a struggle of which he was quite conscious in his (Communist) politics. Breton believed that he needed to avoid the mythology of selfhood in order to write genuinely, and he even thought was able to see around the mythology of intention (thus the role of automatic writing and chance operations). But he was not able to see around the mythology of free will (as opposed to “free union”?).

To put it another way: What is an intention (indeed, an ethics, an aesthetic, a politics, or a manifesto) without free will? And what succor is there without free will? The only succor, of course, is The Collective, which is sometimes known as The Universal and whose only access road is empathy and which frequently apotheosizes in the guise of one deity or another.

In Eliot, modern alienation overbears all, and the natural enemy of alienation is empathy. If one escapes from personality, what does one escape into? Tradition (a.k.a. The Collective).

This all, of course, is terrifying to the typical citizen, who can only see political and ethical empathy as a version of militant Fascism or Socialism, as a completely assimilated hive of nameless workers, or as a particular layer of hell where everyone is deprived of facial features and is required to wear a uniform (which they also believe to be required of Socialism).

But, again, back to the poets: If all of the choices are made before we are aware of them, including the choice to continue making choices (editing/revising), then where are “we” in the process of poetic composition? Is there any real difference between automatic writing and extensive revision (as in “The Wasteland”, revised both by Eliot and by Pound)?

Again, the answer requires just a slight shift in the way we look at the “we”—we are those brains making the choices. Poetic composition requires both our active participation and the play among language, culture, and consciousness simultaneously, because a self is the play among language, culture, etc. as filtered through a single brain.

So, yes, there is a difference—and it can be derived from the Basic Argument. A) We cannot be held responsible for being who we are (since “who we are” is determined by forces beyond our control—genetics, geography, diet, culture, etc.). B) Our brains select our words and actions before we become consciously aware of that selection. C) Therefore, our brains are selecting words and actions that are based on “who we are”, and D) when we believe we are making statements of intent we actually are making statements of identity.

When we write our poetics, our aesthetics, our politics, our ethics, we are merely describing our selves. Some of us are raw, some of us are cooked; some spontaneous, some deliberative.

It only requires a slight shift in how we think of “intention”. But do you want to call that "free will"?

Shantih shantih shantih

Monday, July 19, 2010

The Dream in the Mirror

If my recent posts regarding Hofstadter’s theories on selfhood interest you, then you should go see Inception. I won’t go too far into it for fear of spoiling the film for you, but I will say that the film seems to take a lot of recent cognitive theory as a kind of foundation for most everything that happens in the film. Memes, strange loops, the construction of consciousness on the foundation of episodic memory, it’s all there. One might even say that the architecture of mind provides the very setting of the story.

My favorite image from the film is an infinite regression (the film is full of doubling), which calls to mind Hofstadter’s writing on strange loops. When Ellen Page’s character (not so subtly named Ariadne) first begins experimenting with “building” environments inside dreams, she constructs facing mirror walls with herself and DiCaprio’s character standing between the mirrors, creating a series of infinite images of the two of them. Hofstadter uses an image of this kind (a camera pointing at the monitor showing the camera’s feed) as the model for what he calls “strange loops” and a metaphor for consciousness. It’s a stunning image in the film; I wish I could find a still of it to share with you here. There's a very bad quality pirated clip (shot in a theatre) onilne, but I won't link to pirated material here.

The image also immediately reminded me of an image I saw in another film last week—Escape from the Planet of the Apes, of which I caught a few lucky minutes while flipping channels. In one scene, there is an interview where an expert (Dr. Otto Hasslein) is asked to explain how time travelling apes could be possible. [Okay, I’ve stopped laughing now and can return to typing.]

I wasn't able to find a clip of this scene, but here is a link to the screenplay. Read shots 45-51. The explanation even uses the term “infinite regression.”

The explanation provided is ludicrous as a response to the question of time travel, but it is actually a very good way of imagining Hofstadter’s idea of the strange loop as the source of consciousness. The landscape in Hasslein’s metaphor gets represented by an input/output mechanism (could be a person, a robot, but here, let’s call it an “artist”) and the very attempt of the mechanism to “put itself in the picture” (that is, to see itself) creates the infinite regression, or strange loop, that is consciousness. What would it take to make a robot capable of making that leap, of asking that question?

This is all related to Gian Lombardo’s comment here a few weeks ago regarding Uncertainty and the inability of an observer to both be part of the system and to measure the whole system. But the argument made by Hofstadter and others is not that we don’t need to measure down to the fine grain, we only need to see the effects of the fine-grain mechanics (in fact, that’s what consciousness is, what thought is). The thought (the memes, the software) pushes the fine-grain mechanics around. Thinkodynamics.

But back to that image of the facing mirrors. This image, like many images in Inception (the Penrose stairs, the sudden intrusions of memory into the present, etc.) is designed to establish and reinforce a basic assumption about selfhood in the film, and, of course, refer us back to the film itself as a mirror of experience and a metaphor for our episodic consciousness. Where among all of the episodes is the self? Is it the conglomeration of the episodes? Or is consciousness the act of gazing back through the episodes and seeing the gaze reflected back? An infinitely regressing image of a wrench is just an image; an infinitely regressing image of an infinitely regressing image that wonders which iamge is the "real" one is a consciousness.

Naturally, I want to extend these questions, then, in regard to poets. Some poets seem to be interested only in the landscape. Many poets seem to be interested only in the collecting consciousness (or just the self without a bit of interest in the collecting, even). The poets that interest me most tend to be those who are trying to figure out how the collecting consciousness fits into, is a part of, and relates to the "landscape". Stevens, Williams, Ammons, Charles Wright, Olson, later Brenda Hillman, early Jorie Graham, Gary Young, Cendrars, Charles Simic in Dimestore Alchemy, Jack Spicer, John Yau leap to mind.

Monday, July 12, 2010

Creepy Simulacrum...

... or approaching AI? Or there already?

“Even if I appear clueless, perhaps I’m not. You can see through the strange shadow self, my future self. The self in the future where I’m truly awakened. And so in a sense this robot, me, I am just a portal.”

I would like to know whether this was a very-well written canned response or whether Bina48 came up with this "herself". If she came up with it herself, then is understanding the possibility of having a self the same thing as actually having one? It seems like it's probably language that Bina48 has simply borrowed from the original Bina, though--text from original Bina's recorded conversations which Bina48 has scanned using some algorithm as a likely appropriate response to the interviewer's question.

Thursday, July 1, 2010

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Self a(nd)(s) Genre

It occurs to me that the statement in the last post "there would be no self without other selves to constitute it" is an echo of Todorov on genre (all genre comes from other genre). Self and genre are both complex collections, complex patterns. "Self" and "genre" also are both signifiers used to refer to things that don't really exist as unitarian, self-enclosed entities.

In the Wind

A few days ago, I attended an ash-scattering ceremony for a recently departed friend, Jack Myers. Several of us gathered there took turns saying a few words, then sprinkled some of his ashes into the wind at the end of a stone quay in Winthrop Harbor, almost within shouting distance of Deer Island, where many American Indians during and after King Phillip’s War were interned (and interred) and where many refugees from the Potato Famine were processed (many died).

During dinner before the ceremony, Jack’s wife, Thea, spoke of not being able to think of being in certain situations, with certain people, in certain places without him. I was reminded not only of Hofstadter’s chapter about his wife, but also of a recent incident at home when I used a phrase that my departed friend used frequently—not only did I use his phrase, I said it the way he would have said it, and in my mind I heard him say it and saw him saying it. I mentioned this episode and Hofstadter’s theory of selves as patterns repeatable in multiple brains, and another old friend of Jack said, “My mother is definitely still in my brain, and she won’t get the hell out!”

It’s easy to dismiss that kind of relationship as simple influence, but it’s more complex than mere influence. These patterns are not just memories—they are active. They are agents in our personalities and partially constitutive of our behavior.

All of this adds a new level of depth (at least for me) in thinking about persona poems (taking on the voice of someone else in the poem) and gives me a new appreciation for a poet like Ai, whose persona poems are among the most vivid of any I know. Does this mean that Ai (also recently departed) was particularly adept at taking on the vision of others—that is, that she was a particularly gifted empath? Or might it mean that she simply was able to let the multiple aspects of her own “self” speak? Is there a difference? Is there a difference between writing a persona poem in the voice of another person and attempting to write from an impersonal (or a-personal) position? Is that possible?

I’ve long had problems with the idea of “voice” in poetry, largely because one of the most useless axioms of creative writing instruction is “you must find your own voice”, as though we all have only one true voice and the job of the poet is to find it and cling to it like a hidden treasure. Wouldn’t it be more useful to say that the poet’s job is to become attuned to multiple voices, to allow one’s attention to voices change, to modulate? Jack was a poet, and he did just that. By the mid-80s, he had a distinctive, ironic but sincere, tragicomic voice that Seamus Heaney called “wise in its pretense of just fooling around.” He was a post-confessional poet and a link in the line of conversational poets between Richard Hugo and Marvin Bell at one end and Billy Collins, Bob Hicok, and Tony Hoagland at the other. He could very easily have clung to that very successful voice and written the same kind of poem for the next 30 years. But he didn’t—he knew that he had too much to learn about himself and about the world, too much to miss by not exploring new ways in which poems can get said.

I’m sure Jack thought of the voice in all of his poems as being identifiably and distinctively Jack, himself. But that kernel of self is merely an illusion—for Jack, for example, it was made up of his childhood in Winthrop, his children, his love for the ocean, lobstering, his jobs as a house painter and mailman, Jungian psychology, Zen, his teaching, his teachers, all of the poets he read and loved, etc. All of these agents had a direct bearing on his “voice” in his poems; in what way is it useful to think of that multitude of things as a single thing, a unitarian voice? Isn't voice, as Hofstadter might say, just a pattern? Or, to look at it another way, isn't all voice persona? Either the poet speaking as someone (or something) else (or as nothing) , or the world speaking as the poet?

This line of thought also brings to mind Bloom’s Anxiety of Influence argument, in which the poet is in agonistic competition with his/her significant predecessors (the father). Bloom’s argument is attractive in that it acknowledges the inherent difficulty in the attempt to establish voice in a poem and acknowledges that voice comes out of other voices, but one must realize that one can never get there. There is never a point where one can say “I have established an original and unitarian voice free of the influence of my predecessors.” One can never slay the father, or Jung, or the lobsters (whether of the arsenic or organic variety), or Neruda. It’s impossible; there would be no self without other selves to constitute it.

I think Jack would essentially agree with the argument that the self is made up of many components, but I think he would in the end take issue with the idea that there is no central self. He was a student, after all, of Zen. But I also think he would point to the fact that one can readily recognize a Myers poem, a Sexton poem, a Ginsberg poem as evidence that there is something essentially “I” in there. He would also argue that one would be unable to write meaningful poems if it weren’t for some gathering force and if it weren’t for a central set of wants, hopes, regrets. Many times I heard him rail against “postmodernist relativism” and “deconstructionist mumbojumbo” in favor of the lyrical self, regardless of whether or not it is an illusion. And here he is doing it again.

Thursday, June 24, 2010

Morris Musings

...wondering whether the brain's (or should I say the mind's?) power to create anosognosia is related in any way to its creative powers, to the relative strength of different minds to create convincing alternative (literary) worlds? Is more anosognosia at display in a poet whose interests lie mainly in interiority (the personal, confession, the lyrical self) or in a poet whose interests lie mainly in exteriority (objects, the external world, actuality)? Which ignores more?
Also wondering whether anosognosia and other similar disruptions are merely errors of thought  without physical manifestations (that is, there's nothing wrong with the brain, just with the ideas it's processing). Are they high-level errors without low-level (mechanical) problems. This is not only a "who's pushing whom around in there?" question, it's also an assumption (that there are such errors of thought or processing) that provides the entire basis of psychoanalysis. Ramachandran's work with phantom limbs certainly seems to support the idea that some problems are in the ideas of which the mind has convinced itself and stored away and that those ideas can be "cured".
And what about language here? How much of the self/not-self disconnect is complicated by the subject's use of language and the attachment of language to a sense of self? The attachment of language to body parts?

This is your brain; this is your brain in denial...

In Part IV of Erroll Morris's series at the Times, Morris's expert summary of VS Ramachandran's work on anosognosia reveals good evidence in favor of the "many experts" model; the brain arguing with itself over what is reality--half of the brain faithful to somatic reality, half of the brain faithful to a version of reality, a narrative about reality, or an alternate reality that it must maintain in order to keep a stable sense of "self".

Sunday, June 20, 2010

NYTimes.com: What Is I.B.M.'s Watson?

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Uniqueness in Jeopardy

MAGAZINE   | June 20, 2010
Smarter Than You Think:  What Is I.B.M.'s Watson?
The category is artificial intelligence. This question-answering computer system is ready to challenge some flesh-and-blood "Jeopardy!" champions.


If you think the idea of a self distributed over several locations (people) is sheer lunacy, then you should check out a lunar drama called Moon, directed by Duncan Jones (who also happens to be the son of The Man Who Fell to Earth). Sam Bell believes himself to be the lone employee working on a 3-year contract on a moonbase to harvest a new energy source and send it back to Earth. Sam, it turns out, is a clone who discovers he is a clone by accidentally meeting a fellow clone and who, with the help of a self-aware, emoting, intelligent computer named GERTY, discovers a cache of other unawakened clones stored away in a hidden storage room in the base. [By the way, we know that GERTY emotes because of the emoticons displayed on his screen. You might argue that a machine cannot display true empathy and that the emoticons are displayed only in response to an algorithm the computer uses to recognize an interlocutor's emotion based on speech and behavior patterns. My response would be "What is empathy other than the ability to recognize emotion and to respond to it appropriately?"]

Sam and his fellow clones either are designed to die after three years of service (the “contract”) or it’s a flaw in the cloning process—that point is never made clear. If the clones are not “programmed” to fall apart at that point, then there are at least memories “downloaded” into the clone mind not only to suggest a personal history that is reinforced by fictional communiqués from family back home, but also to justify getting the clones into a transport pod for return home that actually turns out to be an incinerator.

The spookily-voiced (by Kevin Spacey) GERTY is a kind of obverse of HAL—vaguely threatening, but in the end “there to help” Sam. GERTY helps Sam in ways that one would think would be contrary to his programming, as Sam actually says at one point (“But I’m here to help you, Sam”, says GERTY). Later, GERTY says something to Sam about his programming, and Sam tells him “We’re not programmed; we’re people!” Or a person—the Sams and GERTY share memories, they feel empathy for each other, they contribute toward common goals, they argue with each other about the best way to go about reaching those goals in a way that is similar to our own internal arguments.

The Sams believe for most of the film that communication with Earth had been cut off three years earlier when a satellite went down. In reality, the link is merely being blocked and GERTY is able to unblock it and have direct communication with the outside world. Later GERTY helps Sam avoid the signal blocking and Sam is able to contact his home; he discovers that his daughter is 12 years older than he thought her to be and that another Sam (the original, we presume) is back home.

One also could read the moon itself as a kind of brain, with its gray, bumpy surface, its multiple bases with specific functions (input/output, collection/storage, etc.) multiple functionaries (the Sams, GERTY) that speak to each other, a great deal of “storage”, the desire of the functionaries within the brain to speak to “the outside” and work towards certain goals together.

This setup is enriched by the fact that Sam Bell is played by Sam Rockwell. This casting (in fact, we are told that the role was written as a "vehicle" for Rockwell) encourages us to extend the analogy beyond the limits of the film. When an actor “plays” a character, the character in the film take on the person-ness of the actor. Tess of the D’Urbervilles will forever be Nastassja Kinsky, for example, in the minds of those who have seen the film. Surely, also, the actor must “become” the character to some degree (and the better the actor, the greater the degree); That becoming doesn’t just go away at the end of the film. Sam Rockwell is forever also the Sams. So, in addition to reading the moon as a kind of big brain in this film, one can also read Moon as a kind of uber-self, containing a number of component selves working together.

Moon was made on a budget of only $5 million, and the effects and light (models, not CGI) are beautiful. Check it out!

Saturday, June 19, 2010

Just as your self is made up of numerous selves that are difficult to disentangle or even to distinguish absolutely, it's difficult to draw hard and fast lines between "your body" and "not your body". Are your vegetables part of your body? Is the farm that grew your vegetables part of your body? Is your yard (including the septic tank) part of your body? Do those circles widen? For example, is the water source that feeds the farm that feeds you part of your body? Where does that water come from? And is the creek that collects the runoff from your yard, then feeds the local river which ultimately runs to the sea part of your body?

Well, now this is part of your body. [Thanks to PZ Myers for posting the link on his blog, Pharyngula.]

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Link Links

One cognitive theory that seems to have a lot of support (as well as debate) these days is the “neuronal workspace” model, or one of its variations (its primary developer, Daniel Dennett, called it at first the “multiple drafts” model and later revised it as “fame in the brain”).

It essentially goes like this—the brain holds many little specialists or bots or machines or functions or daemons or departments or tools (or some other term you’d like that indicates a non-aware device that is designed to do a particular job) that go about doing their jobs quite well (whether that’s recognizing letter/sound combinations, recognizing color, processing depth, etc. etc.), and when they’ve done their jobs they all talk to each other along amazingly rich connective paths and figure out who has the best information or best combination of information for the particular moment. That is, processing (and “consciousness”) is distributed across the brain rather than being localized in a particular center or arbiter; it is an alternative to the Cartesian model, which posits a kind of “theatre” model in which “we” are the consumers of our own consciousness (as opposed to being our own consciousness). In the Cartesian model, the processing happens and then it gets delivered to the “conscious” area of the brain; in the workspace model, there is no difference between the processing and the coming into consciousness. I’m oversimplifying here, but I don’t think I’m misrepresenting; if I am, I welcome correction (I’m no specialist!)

In this model, association clearly jumps into the front and center among modes of thinking. In his great tome Consciousness Explained, Dennett offers an excellent description of how our episodic memory might work: great associative chains of links with multiple redundancies so that any one memory is connected (hyperlinked) to many other memories (so maybe, more accurately, multihyperlinked).

.. in place of the precise, systematic “fetch-execute cycle” or “instruction cycle” that brings each new instruction to the instruction register to be executed, we should look for imperfectly marshaled, somewhat wandering, far-from-logical transition “rules,” where the brain’s largely innate penchant for “free association” is provided with longish association-chains to more or less ensure that the right sequences get tried out. (225)

I need not draw out here the obvious implications for imagination, association, brainstorming, etc.. What this all implies, to me at least, is that the associative thinking that we find commonly in poetry may be the most “natural”, or at least the most direct, form of thinking. Hofstadter carries the train of (associative) thought one step further and says that analogy building is at the core of consciousness (that's another long post). Robert Bly, of course, makes association (or “leaping”) the center of his argument in Leaping Poetry, but we need not assume that the leaping be done from image to image. The kind of linguistic association or wordplay you find in Charles Bernstein, Ron Silliman, John Ashbery, et al. is certainly a kind of leaping, and Bly says so. What’s interesting, though, is that we need not limit ourselves to imagistic leaping or to linguistic leaping. Bly, though, in his arguments for transparency of language (despite the opacity of image in some of the poets he endorses) seems to want to say that the language (the words) themselves don’t matter. And one might deduce just that from his translation practice—it’s what’s behind the words that matter to him.

So I suppose what I’m wondering here is whether there might be a parallelism between thought in the brain and language in the world—and whether there is no "behind". The human brain’s processing of information is consciousness; the language used to leap is the leap itself (rather than merely representing some quasi-mystical content in the images themselves).

I think Marinetti recognized or at least sensed this relationship. While he said that imagery is the lifeblood of poetry, he also called for speed, immediacy (non-mediation), precision (or prescision), minimal punctuation, disruption of syntax, and using only nouns and verbs. His attempt to get at the immediate image was through efficiency of language. There is no behind the language; the images are the language. Marinetti was trying to get the most direct access possible to the brain.

Marinetti, like Breton, was also interested in dramatic analogies, images, metaphors—assembling disparate objects into the same cognitive space. For Breton, these “collisions” brought together the dream world and the waking world; Bly wants images to bring together the shadow world and the world of light. They all seem interested in a poetry made of the most basic brain stuff.

But Marinetti used some interesting language in his “Technical Manifesto of Futurist Literature” that seems relevant to the multiple drafts model: “Analogy is nothing more than the deep love that assembles distant, seemingly diverse and hostile things. An orchestral style, at once polychromatic, polyphonic, and polymorphous, can embrace the life of matter only by means of the most extensive analogies.”

I suspect neither Dennett nor Hofstadter could come up with a more vivid analogy for the many drafts model; Hofstadter would love it, because it’s an analogy for analogy.

Sunday, June 13, 2010

Looped Ones

Last week I went down to Norfolk for my close friend Brian Brennan’s (surprise) birthday party and celebratory golf round. I took along with me Hofstadter’s I Am a Strange Loop, and on the plane ride back home I read H’s moving chapter about his wife’s death and H’s grappling with what it means when a loved one—that is, one whose being has become intricately entwined with one’s own being—dies: both what it means for the survivor and for the “self” of the loved one.

When we have close relationships with others—spouses, children, parents, close friends, even pets—those beings become parts of our personalities (or selves, or whatever term you want to use here). That’s not just a bathetic homily, it’s a real issue of what it means to have (to have built over time) a self:

If you seriously believe, as I do and have been asserting for most of this book, that concepts are active symbols in a brain, and if furthermore you seriously believe that people, no less than objects, are represented by symbols in the brain (in other words, that each person that one knows is internally mirrored by a concept, albeit a very complicated one, in one’s brain), and if lastly you seriously believe that a self is also a concept, just an even more complicated one (namely an “I”…), then it is a necessary and unavoidable consequence of this set of beliefs that your brain is inhabited to varying extents by other “I”s, other souls, the extent of each one depending upon the degree to which you faithfully represent, and resonate with, the individual in question. (248)

This passage reminded me of a poem by Robert Bly that my other close friend Dean Rader read at Abbey's and my wedding (and that I read at Dean’s wedding and that I believe Dean may have read at Brian’s wedding also). Bly’s poem places in an external metaphor what Hofstadter internalizes; the real, in-the-world phenomena that our close relationships effect. And this habit of the human brain to make “third bodies” (out of all of our relationships, not just marriages) is directly related to Hofstadter’s idea of the strange loop and how it makes us what we are—self-reflecting beings.

To boil it down to a ridiculously short summary, we have episodic memories. My episodic memory space, for example, is loaded with information about my wife, my children, my parents, Brian Brennan, Dean Rader, my other friends, my colleagues at work, my dog Moose, my childhood dog Butch, my college mentors, former teammates, etc. What I remember about all of those people and pets amounts to a version of their selves that is constructed in my mind (a self, again, can be thought of as a complex pattern of complex symbols in the brain). Those selves are nowhere near as complex, of course, as the versions of those selves in their own minds. But those versions in my mind are partially constitutive of my mind, and they serve as feedback sources. I might wonder for example, what my wife Abbey will think of this blog post, and I can imagine two or three precise scenarios that might characterize her reactions. These scenarios are not arbitrary guesses; they are based on Abbey’s personality, her behavior, her character, her interests, her reading and research interests, her relationships with Brian, Dean, Moose, our children, etc. Hofstatdter’s question is this—how close is that version of Abbey that exists in my mind to being a “self”? How close is the Abbey in my mind to the Abbey in Abbey’s mind? What about the Brian Brennan in Abbey’s mind? What about the Brian Brennan in my mind? What about the Moose in my mind? Ah….

Does Moose (our five-year-old Chocolate Lab/Newfoundland mix) have a mind? If so, how complex is it as compared to that of a human five-year-old? A human 6-month-old? Hofstatder’s argument is that since there are degrees of symbols in brains, there are degrees of selfhood. A dog certainly behaves based on past experience (whether consciously or not), certainly is able to respond to the mood of an owner, certainly has “personality”; but does a dog have access to episodic memory? And if so, is the dog able to relate a constantly revised self-image to a constantly revised bank of those episodic memories? Clearly not.

So, then, is the “Moose” in my mind more of, less of, or the equal of the “Moose” in Moose’s mind? What if I imagine him being able to think? Then is that Moose more of a “self” than the actual Moose?

When we were in grad school, Brian had a cat named Bosco. Bosco certainly had a personality and Bosco most certainly had become a part of Brian’s identity. In fact, Bosco was such a strong part of Brian’s identity that when Bosco passed away, it took several simultaneous replacement cats to make up for Bosco’s absence. What happened when Bosco passed away? His body died certainly, but the “Bosco pattern” certainly is still active in Brian’s mind and even in my mind. While I was at Brian’s house I briefly saw one of his current cats, and I couldn’t help but project Bosco’s personality onto that cat. Bosco is still acting on my reality and on Brian’s reality; Hofstadter’s wife is still acting on his reality in a far more complex way—so complex that at times he finds himself thinking that he is seeing for her things that she would liked to have seen, or speaking for her, or acting on her behalf in a manner in which she would have acted.

Hofstatder sees this multiplicity of selves as “levels” almost like quantum levels; his argument is (partially) that our episodic memories, self-reflective ability, and our ability to leap among these levels (which amount to feedback loops) combine to create “strange loops” (which have paradoxical elements I won’t get into here) that don't just contribute to our sense of self; they are our sense of self.

At one point during my visit to Norfolk, Brian’s nine-year-old daughter Katharine asked him (referring to me) “Is he your friend or your brother?” We responded almost simultaneously—Brian said “Both, really,” and I said “The answer to your question is ‘Yes’”. But, in fact, we are more than either. Along with our wives, our children, our other close friends and family members, we are a significant part of each other.

As for Brian’s age and his golf game (a "loop", by the way, is a caddie's term for a round of golf), I’ll say only that he shot his age on the front nine.

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

My good friend Joe Ahearn sent me an interesting article a few weeks ago—“Constructing Meaning When Reading Poetry: An Expert-Novice Study”, by Joan Peskin of the University of Tornoto. It appeared in the journal Cognition and Instruction (Vol 16, No. 3. [1998]). The study (though limited to only 16 subjects) purports to compare how “experts” construct meaning while reading poems to how “novices” construct meaning while reading poems.

It seems like a useful idea, but, in practice, the study seems only to confirm that expert readers are experts because they’re more highly trained and have developed a couple of reliable strategies (“textbase” and “the situation model”) from the network of references, structures, quotes, forms, and patterns they’ve accumulated in their reading histories; also that having difficulty reading poetry makes it less likely that one will enjoy reading poetry. Didn't we know those things already?

Now, this article is from 1998, which on one hand seems pretty dated, but on the other hand seems quite recent, especially given the fact that there seems to have been little or no study done on this topic since Peskin. But I have to say I have a couple of problems with Peskin’s approach.

First, she makes the same mistake that 95% of all high school English teachers make; she presents the high schoolers with 400-year-old poems written in an “English” that only vaguely resembles our own. One of the poems presented to the readers is Marvell (“On a Drop of Dew”) and the other is Spenser (“Lyke as a Huntsman”). The study doesn’t take into account the difficulty of reading what amounts to a dialect that only the experts have been trained to interpret. If we were only testing the ability to read poetry (and not testing the ability to interpret 16th-17th Century English), we would present the novice poems in the contemporary native dialect of the test subjects. If the study needed to present a range of difficulty, that could easily be accomplished with poems in modern or contemporary English (one Billy Collins’s “easier” poems alongside one of Ashbery’s “more difficult” poems, for example, though I have problems with the dichotomy that comparison establishes, too).

Secondly, Peskin is biased toward the idea that “Poetry communicates universal human truths.” [That’s the first sentence of her paper.] Really? Always? She’s looking for one kind of poem and one kind of reading, namely the kind of reading —the close reading of New Criticism—that has dominated our high school classes for half a century and has kept those high school teachers churning through antiquated poetry that Peskin’s study clearly shows the high school students are not prepared to understand. But those are the poems that work well with the New Critical approach, because they are written in a strategy (metaphorical conceit) that confirms what the New Critics wanted to believe about poetry, or wanted to promote in poetry.

Peskin says: “Poetry, on the other hand, tends to compress, and in doing so, it inclines toward the comparisons and condensation of figurative language. By emphasizing image formation, it often disregards syntax, the connectives and linear order of language. It seems, then, that the construction of meaning when reading poetry must make far greater demands on the inferential process.” She even goes so far as to use her paper to argue in support of a pillar of the New Critical program—the idea that there is “an identifiable and objective meaning in the text”, that there are strategies that any reader can be trained to use to decipher a poem, that “an assumption that poetry reading is personal and natural would blur any distinction between an experienced or inexperienced reader.” In fact, she admits that she chose the Marvell and the Spenser because they seem to her to have limited readings, which she clearly desires.

I see this problem regularly in the poetry courses that I teach. Students (and I don’t just mean high school students here—I’m including upperclassmen) have been consistently led to believe that poetry is by its nature difficult, that it is supposed to be difficult to read, that its meanings are supposed to be deciphered rather than apparent, that reading poetry is a kind of game that is open only to the initiated. It seems to me that Peskin’s study comes out of that kind of thinking and reinforces it.

To Peskin’s credit, she makes a stab at acknowledging that there may be some value in reader-response theories, though she refers to them (borrowing language from LM Rosenblatt) as “biased overemphasis on feeling, on the search for childhood memories.” Again, is that really reader-response in a nutshell? She seems to cite Eco on reader subjectivity more as a matter of professional obligation than in the spirit of inquiry, so her fourth and final research question (whether the readers are satisfied with their own readings) seems empty and tacked on.

But the paper is useful to me, at least, for a couple of reasons—for highlighting the importance for expert readers of what Peskin calls textbase (“a mental representation of the propositional relations in a specific text” ) and the situation model (“the cognitive representation of that area of domain knowledge that is relevant for the particular text”) mentioned earlier—that is, the ability to recognize how a text is put together and the ability to bring knowledge outside the text to bear on the reading of the text. These are exactly the things that we train our professional readers to do. Peskin does a good job of relating these strategies to Culler, to Fish, to Eco.

If only she’d related it all to the practice of contemporary readers and the kinds of things that real novice readers might actually encounter in the contemporary world outside an English Lit class.

An aside:

My favorite moment in the paper is when Expert reader #3 says of one of the poems “The poem is incredibly beautiful… The circle imagery is reflecting the rhyme-scheme which reflects the name of the poem which is about the round perfection of God. It’s all so beautifully interconnected it makes me shiver.” Is this one of those “top of my head taken off” moments I mentioned in an earlier post? I don’t think so.

Here, #3 is quite simply perceiving beauty. The moments I’m talking about are subtly different—moments where a sudden shift in internal vision occurs, where an entirely new linguistic path has been trod in previously undiscovered territory, where a shift in perspective or an unexpected turn or a sudden revelation or epiphany or turn of phrase makes the reader feel as though, literally, they have undergone a bodily transformation, a feeling that diminishes when the experience is repeated, when the territory is learned. On repeat, it’s as though the brain has been there, done that; the reader may experience a minor version of the initial response, but it’s a pale comparison, as though the brain recognizes that the reader wants to repeat the experience and is obliged to approximate it. Or… is there a subtle difference between what I’m describing and beauty, after all?

If, as Neuroestheticians like Semir Zeki claim, "visual art has an overall function, which is an extension of the function of the visual brain, to acquire knowledge" and, as  Stanislas Dehaene and other researchers have clearly shown, reading is a function of the visual brain, then...
...no, there might not be a subtle difference. I thought I was pursuing the point where knowledge acquisition and memory meet some yet undescribed phenomenon related to reading. But it appears that what I'm trying to describe may simply be the perception of a kind of beauty; and its function is related to the acquisition of knowledge.
Furthermore, this all is evidence that beauty resides, then, in the interaction between a reader (listener/viewer/audience) and a text (performance/painting/film), not in the intrinsic qualities of the object itself; and that is what reader-response theories are all about (and where aesthetic theory should meet scientific investigation--Neuroesthetics!)

Sunday, June 6, 2010

Empathy and the Individual Talent

A friend recently sent me a link to a post by Mike Young on <HTML GIANT> that started out with a promising mention of Antonio Damasio’s The Feeling of What Happens: Body and Emotion in the Making of Consciousness; the post fairly quickly moves on to something else, but it does point out Damasio’s interesting distinction between emotion and feelings. The distinction brought to my friend’s mind Pound’s declaration that only emotion endures, and it brought to my mind Eliot’s discussion of emotion and feeling in “Tradition and the Individual Talent”.

Damasio and Eliot seem to be working off diametrically opposed conceptions of emotion/feelings. Eliot argues in essence (and Pound seems to have a similar idea in mind) that emotion is, well, an affective idea—an abstraction that is available commonly to many individuals simultaneously (we all are able to understand the emotion in Lear’s downfall, for example)—whereas feelings are hermetic, limited to individuals. Damasio, meanwhile, (according to Young) defines emotion as grounded in the body and defines feelings as our awareness of emotion.

While these two ways of looking at emotion and feeling are essentially flip-flopped (for Eliot emotion is the more general, while for Damasio emotion is the more specifically grounded), they have a link. What both Damasio and Eliot are attempting, at least in part, is to come up with a way of thinking about emotion/feelings that leave some portion accessible only to the individual while some other portion is available to a communal experience. Young’s characterization of Damasio’s distinction seems to be that there is some function in having both feelings and emotions—namely, that being conscious of one’s feelings or emotions has some evolutionary value. So what we’re really talking about here is empathy (which clearly has evolutionary value to social creatures); and I suspect that when Pound says “only emotion endures” he really is talking about empathy as well.

Whether we call them feelings or emotions or neurochemical reactions, those individual, internal moments can be pushed out into the world (ex-pressed) by description, by metaphor, by association, by rhythm and music, but they can only be felt by the expressing individual, who must hope that the individual affect rises to the level of public affect (which seems a bit different from the truism of the specific rising to the level of the universal--or is it?). You might have feelings after reading one of Pound’s poems, but they’re not the same feelings he felt; you certainly have access to the same emotions as Pound, though (the River Merchant’s Wife’s sorrow, for example). MUST empathy be the goal, then, in poetry that seeks an emotional connection, because it provides the path between those internal states and those more publicly accessible states?

One common criticism of contemporary poetry is that it either is without empathy (though it’s usually expressed as a total absence of emotion or human feeling) or, on the contrary, is limited to expression of private, personal feelings. My sense is that a lot of the (“experimental”) work that is accused of lacking emotion, feeling, or empathy is usually work that seeks to find connection on levels other than the affective; a lot of the work that is accused of being limited to mere expression of feeling (confessional) is rarely, at least among the most successful practitioners, without empathic availability.