26 February 2012


Filed under: Culture, Psychology — ktismatics @ 9:07 am

If you are a carrier of a particular set of genes, your probability of committing a violent crime goes up by eight hundred and eighty-two percent. Here are statistics from the U.S. Department of Justice, which I’ve broken down into two groups: crimes committed by the population that carries this specific set of genes and by the population that does not:

Offense                                                 Carrying the genes                 Not carrying the genes

Aggravated assault                                         3,419,000                                             435,000

Homicide                                                              14,196                                                1,468

Armed robbery                                               2,051,000                                             157,000

Sexual assault                                                    442,000                                              10,000

In other words, if you carry these genes, you’re eight times more likely to commit aggravated assault, ten times more likely to commit murder, thirteen times more likely to commit armed robbery, and forty-four times more likely to commit sexual assault. The overwhelming majority of prisoners carry these genes, as do 98.4 percent of those on death row. It seems clear enough that the carriers are strongly predisposed toward a different type of behavior — and these statistics alone indicate that we cannot presume that everyone is coming to the table equally equipped in terms of drives and behaviors.

…As regards that dangerous set of genes, you’ve probably heard of them. They are summarized as the Y chromosome. If you’re a carrier, we’ll call you a male.

– David Eagleman, Incognito: The Secret Lives of the Brain, 2011

23 February 2012

Interpreting the Alien Zombie Within

Filed under: Fiction, Language, Psychology — ktismatics @ 10:56 am

In the campy cult movie Evil Dead 2, the protagonist’s right hand takes on a mind of its own and tries to kill him. The scene degenerates into a rendition of what you might find on a sixth-grade playground: the hero uses his left hand to hold back his right hand, which is trying to attack his face. Eventually he cuts off the hand with a chain saw and traps the still-moving hand under an upside-down garbage can. He stacks books on top of the can to pin it down, and the careful observer can see that the topmost book is Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms.

As preposterous as this plotline may seem, there is, in fact, a disorder called alien hand syndrome. While it’s not as dramatic as the Evil Dead version, the idea is roughly the same. In alien hand syndrome, which can result from the split-brain surgeries we discussed a few pages ago, the two hands express conflicting desires. A patient’s “alien” hand might pick up a cookie to put it in his mouth, while the normally behaving hand will grab it at the wrist and stop it. A struggle ensues. Or one hand will pick up a newspaper, and the other will slap it back down. Or one hand will zip up a jacket, and the other will unzip it. Some patients with alien hand syndrome have found that yelling “Stop!” will cause the other hemisphere (and the alien hand) to back down. But besides that little modicum of control, the hand is running on its own inaccessible programs, and that’s why it’s branded as alien — because the conscious part of the patient seems to have no predictive power over it; it does not feel as though it’s part of the patient’s personality at all. A patient in this situation often says, “I swear I’m not doing this.” Which revisits one of the main points of this book: who is the I? His own brain is doing it, not anyone else’s. It’s simply that he doesn’t have conscious access to those programs.

What does alien hand syndrome tell us? It unmasks the fact that we harbor mechanical, “alien” subroutines to which we have no access and of which we have no acquaintance. Almost all of our actions — from producing speech to picking up a mug of coffee — are run by alien subroutines, also known as zombie systems. (I use these terms interchangeably: zombie emphasizes the lack of conscious access, while alien emphasizes the foreignness of the programs.) Some alien systems are instinctual, while some are learned; all highly automated algorithms become inaccessible zombie programs when they are burned down into the circuitry. When a professional baseball player connects his bat with a pitch that is traveling too fast for his conscious mind to track, he is leveraging a well-honed alien subroutine.

Alien hand syndrome also tells us that under normal circumstances, all the automated programs are tightly controlled such that only one behavioral output can happen at a time. The alien hand highlights the normally seamless way in which the brain keeps a lid on internal conflicts. It requires only a little structural damage to uncover what is happening beneath. In other words, keeping the union of subsystems together is not something the brain does without effort — instead, it is an active process. It is only when factions begin to secede from the union that the alienness of the parts becomes obvious…

Not only do we run alien subroutines; we also justify them. We have ways of retrospectively telling stories about our actions as though the actions were always our idea. Thoughts come to us and we take credit for them (“I just had a great idea”), even though our brains have been chewing on a given problem for a long time and eventually served up the final product. We are constantly fabricating and telling stories about the alien processes running under the hood.

To bring this sort of fabrication to light, we need only look at another experiment with split-brain patients. As we saw earlier, the right and left halves are similar to each other but not identical. In humans, the left hemisphere (which contains most of the capacity to speak language) can speak about what it is feeling, whereas the mute right hemisphere can communicate its thoughts only by commanding the left hand to point, reach, or write. And this fact opens the door to an experiment regarding the retrospective fabrication of stories. In 1978, researchers Michael Gazzaniga and Joseph LeDoux flashed a picture of a chicken claw to the left hemisphere of a split-brain patient and a picture of a snowy winter scene to his right hemisphere. The patient was then asked to point at cards that represented what he had just seen. His right hand pointed to a card with a chicken, and his left hand pointed to a card with a snow shovel. The experimenters asked him why he was pointing to the shovel. Recall that his left hemisphere (the one with the capacity for language) had information only about the chicken, and nothing else. But the left hemisphere, without missing a beat, fabricated a story: “Oh, that’s simple. The chicken claw goes with the chicken, and you need a shovel to clean out the chicken shed.” When one part of the brain makes a choice, other parts can quickly invent a story to explain why. If you show the command “Walk” to the right hemisphere (the one without language), the patient will get up and start walking. If you stop him and ask why he’s leaving, his left hemisphere, cooking up an answer, will say something like “I was going to get a drink of water.”

The chicken/shovel experiment led Gazzaniga and LeDoux to conclude that the left hemisphere acts as an “interpreter,” watching the actions and behaviors of the body and assigning a coherent narrative to these events. And the left hemisphere works this way even in normal, intact brains. Hidden programs drive actions, and the left hemisphere makes justifications. This idea of retrospective storytelling suggests that we come to know our own attitudes and emotions, at least partially, by inferring them from observations of our own behavior. As Gazzaniga put it, “These findings all suggest that the interpretive mechanism of the left hemisphere is always hard at work, seeking the meaning of events. It is constantly looking for order and reason, even when there is none — which leads it continually to make mistakes.”

This fabrication is not limited to split-brain patients. Your brain, as well, interprets your body’s actions and builds a story around them. Psychologists have found that if you hold a pencil between your teeth while you read something, you’ll think the material is funnier; that’s because the interpretation is influenced by the smile on your face. If you sit up straight instead of slouching, you’ll feel happier. The brain assumes that if the mouth and spine are doing that, it must be because of cheerfulness.

– David Eagleman, Incognito: The Secret Lives of the Brain, 2011

16 February 2012

Ways of Worldmaking

Filed under: Fiction, Language — ktismatics @ 10:44 am

It is often said that the job of language is to report or reflect or mirror reality, but the power of language is greater and more dangerous than that; it shapes reality, not of course in a literal sense — the world is one thing, words another — but in the sense that the order imposed on a piece of the world by a sentence is only one among innumerable possible orders. Think about what you do when you revise a sentence: You add something, you delete something, you substitute one tense for another, you rearrange clauses and phrases; and with each change, the “reality” offered to your readers changes. An attempt to delineate in words even the smallest moment — a greeting in the street, the drinking of a cup of coffee, the opening of a window — necessarily leaves out more than it includes, whether you write a sentence of twenty words or two thousand. There is always another detail or an alternative perspective or a different emphasis that might have been brought in and, by being brought in, altered the snapshot of reality you are presenting… Sentence writers are not copyists; they are selectors…

[W]hen we write a sentence, we create a world, which is not the world, but the world as it appears within a dimension of assessment… The skill it takes to produce a sentence — the skill of linking events, actions, and objects by a strict logic — is also the skill of creating a world. Philosopher Nelson Goodman calls this process of creative representation “ways of worldmaking.” We commonly call those ways “styles.”

– Stanley Fish, How to Write a Sentence (2011), pages 37-40

11 February 2012

New Rules of the House

Filed under: Reflections — ktismatics @ 10:36 am

I’m glad when people read and comment on the blog. Off-topic comments? Not a problem. What I don’t like is when commenters start sniping at each other, or at me.

No one will be banned from commenting for what they say here or on other blogs. Comments moderation stays on, meaning I approve all comments before they’re posted. There will be no more editing by me of comment content in order to purge the offensive bits. If in my judgment there’s any trash talk directed at other bloggers, the whole comment is trashed. I will try my best to enforce these standards consistently, even if it means deleting some salient or entertaining remarks.

Thank you. Now can I get anyone another cup of coffee?

10 February 2012

Evil Dead 2 by Raimi, 1987

Filed under: Movies — ktismatics @ 1:39 pm

8 February 2012

Stoner by Williams, 1965

Filed under: Fiction — ktismatics @ 11:41 am

It quieted enough for everyone in the room to hear the door at the rear of the hall creak open and to hear a distinctive, slow shuffle of feet on the bare wood floor. They turned; and the hum of their conversation died. Someone whispered, “It’s Lomax,” and the sound was sharp and audible through the room.

He had come through the door, closed it, and had advanced a few steps beyond the threshold, where he now stood. He was a man barely over five feet in height, and his body was grotesquely misshapen. A small hump raised his left shoulder to his neck, and his left arm hung laxly at his side. His upper body was heavy and curved, so that he appeared to be always struggling for balance; his legs were thin, and he walked with a hitch in his stiff right leg. For several moments he stood with his blond head bent downward, as if he were inspecting his highly polished black shoes and the sharp crease of his black trousers. Then he lifted his head and shot his right arm out, exposing a stiff white length of cuff with gold links; there was a cigarette in his long pale fingers. He took a deep drag, inhaled, and expelled the smoke in a thin stream. And then they could see his face.

It was the face of a matinee idol. Long and thin and mobile, it was nevertheless strongly featured; his forehead was high and narrow, with heavy veins, and his thick waving hair, the color of ripe wheat, swept back from it in a somewhat theatrical pompadour. He dropped his cigarette on the floor, ground it beneath his sole, and spoke.

“I am Lomax.” He paused; his voice, rich and deep, articulated his words precisely, with a dramatic resonance. “I hope I have not disrupted your meeting.”

Lomax was quite drunk, though not ostentatiously so; he walked carefully, as if he carried a burden over uneven terrain, and his thin pale face shone through a film of sweat. The liquor loosened his tongue; and though he spoke precisely, his voice lost its edge of irony, and he appeared without defenses.

He spoke of the loneliness of his childhood in Ohio, where his father had been a fairly successful small businessman; he told, as of another person, of the desolation that his deformity had forced upon him, of the early shame which had no source that he could understand and no defense that he could muster. And when he told of the long days and evenings he had spent alone in his room, reading to escape the limitations that his twisted body imposed upon him and finding gradually a sense of freedom that grew more intense as he came to understand the nature of that freedom — when he told of this, William Stoner felt a kinship that he had not suspected; he knew that Lomax and gone through a kind of conversion, an epiphany of knowing something through words that could not be put in words, as Stoner himself had once done, in the class taught by Archer Sloane. Lomax had come to it early, and alone, so that the knowledge was more nearly a part of himself than it was a part of Stoner; but in the way that was finally most important, the two men were alike, though neither of them might wish to admit it to the other, or even to himself.

They talked till nearly four in the morning; and though they drank more, their talk grew quieter and quieter, until at last no one spoke at all. They sat close together amid the debris of the party, as if on an island, huddling together for warmth and assurance. After a while Gordon and Caroline Finch got up and offered to drive Lomax to his rooms. Lomax shook Stoner’s hand, asked him about his book, and wished him success with it; he walked over to Edith, who was sitting erect in a straight chair, and took her hand; he thanked her for the party. Then, as if on a quiet impulse, he bent a little and touched his lips to hers; Edith’s hand came up lightly to his hair, and they remained so for several moments while the others looked on. It was the chastest kiss Stoner had ever seen, and it seemed perfectly natural.

Stoner saw his guests out the front door and lingered a few moments, watching them descend the steps and walk out of the light from the porch. The cold air settled around him and clung; he breathed deeply, and the sharp coldness invigorated him. He closed the door reluctantly and turned; the living room was empty; Edith had already gone upstairs. He turned the lights off and made his way across the cluttered room to the stairs. Already the house was becoming familiar to him; he grasped the balustrade he could not see and let himself be guided upward. When he got to the top of the stairs he could see his way, for the hall was illumined by the light from the half-opened door of the bedroom. The boards creaked as he walked down the hall and went into the bedroom.

Edith’s clothes were flung in disarray on the floor beside the bed, the covers of which had been thrown back carelessly; she lay naked and glistening under the light of the white unwrinkled sheet. Her body was lax and wanton in its naked sprawl, and it shone like pale gold. William came nearer the bed. She was fast asleep, but in a trick of the light her slightly opened mouth seemed to shape the soundless words of passion and love. He stood looking at her for a long time. He felt a distant pity and reluctant friendship and familiar respect; and he felt also a weary sadness, for he knew that no longer could the sight of her bring upon him the agony of desire that he had once known, and knew that he would never again be moved as he had once been moved by her presence. The sadness lessened, and he covered her gently, turned out the light, and got in bed beside her.

The next morning Edith was ill and tired, and she spent the day in her room. William cleaned the house and attended to his daughter. On Monday he saw Lomax and spoke to him with a warmth that trailed from the night of the party; Lomax answered him with an irony that was like cold anger, and did not speak of the party that day or thereafter. It was as if he had discovered an enmity to hold him apart from Stoner, and he would not let it go.

7 February 2012

Waiting in Vain?

Filed under: Culture, Reflections — ktismatics @ 4:03 pm

3:30 pm — Trudging through the snow, coming home from the library, reserved copy of Evil Dead 2 in hand. A high school kid stands on the corner, probably waiting for a ride — no coat, just a black Bob Marley t-shirt.

“Birthday today,” I say to the kid.


“Bob Marley’s birthday today.”


“Dammit. Well, happy birthday.” I wave as I pass by; the kid waves back.

5 February 2012

Once Upon a Time in the West by Leone, 1968

Filed under: Movies — ktismatics @ 9:55 am

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