Saturday, June 5, 2010

I have questions.

Some of those questions are:
  • What is consciousness, and how is it made?
I suppose that that sentence composed of two questions really is a mirroring of the same question. I suppose, too, that most of my other questions would self-resolve if I had the answer to that doubled/split question.

The other questions I have have mostly to do with poetry:

  • What makes some poems extremely memorable and other poems extremely forgettable?
I suspect that both memorability and hair-stand-upability have to do with novelty (can "creativity" be defined as "the ability to combine novelty and usefulness in a particular social context"?). Does a poem novel to the reader require the brain (and/or the mind) to work in a new way, to change itself in order to process; that is, does a novel poem require the brain to learn? What I would like to discover, or have someone else discover, is that those hair-on-the-neck, head-taken-off, mind expanding (or "blossoming") experiences are quite simply the process of a learning organism taking pleasure in being aware of learning something new. In other words, that consciousness is self-aware learning. Surely someone else already has thought about/tested this idea?
  • But why take so much pleasure in some learning and not in other learning? Is it the poem's music that makes the learning pleasurable?

  • What does it mean to “take pleasure” in learning?

I have other questions about language, too:
  • “I experience my consciousness”—isn’t that at least a double if not a triple or a quadruple redundancy?

  • Or, in other words, as Daniel Dennett argues, isn’t consciousness just the process of the human brain being itself rather than some product that sits on top of the brain’s processes?

  • Wouldn't such a product sound suspiciously close to a “soul”?

  • If consciousness is NOT a product that sits on top of the brain’s processes, but is rather the typical human brain’s processes themselves, then how is it that we can talk about consciousness by talking about thinking, ideas, abstractions; how is it that, as Dennett says, function is as function does? Am I the only person who finds this truly astounding? As though the top of my head had been taken off?

On the other hand, it’s not the slightest bit astounding that we can discuss how to fly an airplane without discussing jet engine mechanics.

And more questions about poems:

Praise be to Vishnu
his hands fondle in secret
the large breasts of Laksme
as though looking there
for his own lost heart.
Mapuche Ranger

When I asked to click a picture of him with the Patagonias in the background he refused. From that perspective he was invisible.

On Growing Old in San Francisco

Two girls barefoot walking in the rain
Both girls lovely, one of them is sane
Hurting me softly
Hurting me though

Two girls barefoot walking in the snow
Walking in the white snow
Walking in the black
Two girls barefoot never coming back.

seem to produce that hair-on-back-of-neck, or head-removed, or noticeable shift in internal vision, or aha moment, or wow factor, or “fame” (Dennett--but I'm using his word in a different context and in a different way than he uses it) more frequently or more readily than longer poems?
  • And why is it that those poems might do it for me, but not for you?

  • Is there something other than mere "taste" (whatever that is) in my reading history (or in my “self”) that primes me to be moved by those poems? What could that possibly be or mean?

  • What does it mean to be moved by a poem? Who is pushing whom around in there?
If I were really lucky, someone with access to functional MRI would say to me, “I’m interested in these questions, too. Let’s see what’s happening in the brains of readers while they’re reading some of these poems.”

Since that’s unlikely to happen, I started a blog. It’s called mirror mirror. Maybe someone (you) will read it on occasion and will have an article, or a theory, or an experiment, or a thought experiment, or a study, or a link, or an idea that will shed some light or contribute to a conversation.

I’m no expert. I’m just interested.

And, by the way:

  • What is an expert?

And also by the way:
  • Once I dump a bunch of questions here, will I have more questions in a few weeks or a few months or will this blog, like a poem, exhaust itself only to be abandoned after such intense thinkodynamics? How much do we ever really abandon?
  • Is language the pure product of consciousness? And, therefore, are we in our words?
Mirror, mirror…


  1. That first question brings up the old conundrum in physics: the observer alters the experiment. To truly be able to define and examine consciousness, one would have to be "beyond" consciousness. Anyone volunteering to step away from consciousness?

    This question stands out: "Does a poem novel to the reader require the brain (and/or the mind) to work in a new way, to change itself in order to process; that is, does a novel poem require the brain to learn?" I'm now thinking of poetry readings where the audience seems to nod (in recognition) almost uniformly and simultaneously. Is any learning taking place there? Do most people gravitate to poetry to acknowledge (or validate) what they already know and feel?

    So many good questions, so little time...

  2. It seems to me the "a-ha" moment can't exclusively reflect learning, but at least in part (maybe in whole) be the act of recognition. Which is much of the reason we laugh at a stand-up comic who shows us our world in a way that perhaps no one has yet put words to, but we intimately recognize nonetheless.

  3. @Gian--Dennet and Hofstadter have convinced me that the Uncertainty Principle doesn't apply in studying consciousness precisely because we can talk about the functions (function is as function does), observe results just as in any other field of biological inquiry, AND include subjective reports in that pool of evidence. We don't have to be outside consciousness to understand it any more than we have to be outside digestion to understand it. That is, I'm adopting, with Dennet, an anti-mysterian stance on consciousness.

    As to your other point, and I think Chris is making a similar point--no, I don't think most people go to readings to learn anything or to have their minds or brains changed, so I doubt that that actually happens for those folks (that is, I suspect they rarely feel as though they've had the tops of their heads removed). And if they did, they'd probably think it was because they'd been "inspired" or had witnessed "true creativity" or something similar, which probably is another way of describing the actual brain/mind event I'm calling "novelty". So, I'm not really that interested in why people seek out poetry or what they get out of it--I'm interested in knowing what IS happening WHEN someone experiences one of those top-of-head-removed moments.

  4. Ah, but we don't think via digestion. I'm just saying by using our consciousness to understand consciousness we might be warping it in ways we cannot comprehend. That's not to say we shouldn't make attempts.

  5. Lots to ponder here, Brian. What does it mean to be moved by a poem? Strangely, right here next to the computer, are three index cards with the word "Moved" underlined at the top. They were written in a rush 2/24/2010. The meandering notes begin: "I often say I am moved by something. What does that mean? Well, I am so shaken in spirit, it feels as if my body has moved as well .... The lines, like a train, have transported me from here to somewhere new, sometimes a place very faraway, an unplanned destination. The poem has roared past my home stop and delivered me elsewhere altogether."

    And in response to CHaven, these words from my recent blog post comparing poetry and comedy: "Somehow the dark and twisted little laugh is what saves me again and again. I see a strong link between comedy and poetry ... they can work the same way. Metaphors and jokes ... think about it. Disparate things magically/absurdly linked. The way they cinch together the far edges of the universe. The way they turn things inside-out. The beautiful surprise of both. (Back in time, during an author interview, the interviewer asked me if there was anything I had left out in our discussion of poetry. Yes, humor!)"

    Enough for now -- so many intriguing topics, thinkers and poets. Damasio, Bly, etc. ... love it. Thanks, Brian.