Ktismatics

30 March 2012

Neuropath by Bakker, 2009

Filed under: Fiction, Psychology — ktismatics @ 8:14 pm

Samantha frowned. “The Argument?”

“That’s what we called it.”

“So, what was it?”

“Remember how I said science had scrubbed the world of purposes? For some reason, whenever science encounters intention or purpose in the world, it snuffs it out. The world as described by science is arbitrary and random. There’s innumerable causes for everything, but no reasons for anything.” …He leaned back, holding her gaze. “You do realize that every thought, every experience, every element of your consciousness is a product of various neural processes? We know this because of cases of brain damage. All I have to do is press a coat hanger past your eye, wriggle it around a little, and you’d be utterly changed.”

*   *   *

The brain uses sensory inputs to generate a continuously-updated representation of the world. There are various ways of tricking the brain into seeing and hearing things that aren’t really there: sleep deprivation, sensory deprivation, drugs, direct manipulation of the neurons. Does our susceptibility to induced hallucinations persuade us that our brains are always hallucinating, that our representations of the world are an illusion, that we imagine the world we see and hear?

The brain also generates a continuously-updated representation of its own activity. When I think that I’m making a decision, I might only be tuning in to a slightly-delayed internal representation of synaptic firings that have already taken place in my brain, outside of my conscious awareness. If that’s the case, then do I regard decision-making as an illusion, even if it’s my own brain that’s firing the synapses? If I came to the conscious realization that all of my decisions have already been made by my brain outside of my conscious awareness, would my brain then start making different “decisions” or stop making them altogether? If, conversely, I lost my self-consciousness, so that my conscious internal representation of my brain’s ongoing activities were removed, would my brain start making different decisions or stop making them altogether?

Suppose goals, plans, and intentions are all illusions, because everything we do or think is caused. Would awareness that our future orientation is an illusion cause us to change our goals, plans, and intentions — which, after all, are only illusions anyway? Conversely, if we are stripped of the illusion of making goals, plans, and intentions, would we think or act differently?

Suppose, by tweaking our brains in the appropriate places, we could be made to hate what we love, to lust after what we fear. Would we conclude that all of our untweaked emotional responses are illusory?

If we realized that our appetites were hardwired by evolution, would we conclude that our inhibitions have no evolutionary purpose and no hardwiring and thus could be disregarded completely? Would we arrive at this conclusion even if we had already become persuaded that deciding not to satisfy a desire to fuck or kill someone isn’t really a conscious decision at all, but is actually caused by our brains’ unconscious activity?

I would answer “no” to each of these questions; the characters in Neuropath evidently answer “yes.”

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23 March 2012

Monkey Mind

Filed under: Psychology, Reflections — ktismatics @ 10:59 am

You know that constant chatter going on inside your head, flitting from thought to thought like a monkey swinging from vine to vine, distracting you with its urgency, clamoring for your attention, keeping you anxious all day and waking you up at night?

Me neither.

15 March 2012

Papa’s Legacy

Filed under: Reflections — ktismatics @ 11:08 am

When he was about thirty my friend married a divorcee fifteen years his senior. She came from money, and her first husband had made money as a top executive with a company you’ve heard of. When he left her she went to work, which is where my friend met her. He was diligent but not particularly ambitious, reliable if not romantic: evidently he represented for her the more authentic way of being to which she then aspired. I stood up with the groom at the wedding; afterward he moved in with her and her two teen-aged children. Everything in the elegant townhouse was a shade of white: the rugs and carpets, the sofa and stuffed chairs, the grand piano, the linen on the dining room table where my friend and I sat drinking a whole bottle of amaretto together one Saturday afternoon.

The daughter, a vivacious go-getter, was an accomplished high school student who went on to graduate from a top-tier university. Afterward she built a business selling yachts, or maybe it was thoroughbreds. The son was a different sort: indifferent academically and, as far as my friend could discern, indifferent generally speaking. After dropping out of high school he hung around home for a few months, a concentrated aimlessness that evidently persuaded him that he needed to get tougher, more disciplined, more focused. And so he enlisted in the U.S. Marine Corps.

It didn’t go well for him at boot camp, and after a month or so he was given his general discharge from the Marines. He returned to his mother’s house for a few more months before deciding on a new plan: he would go stay with his father.

His mother, my friend’s wife, opposed the idea. The boy’s father had left her for a younger woman; afterward his relations with his ex-wife and daughter had been acrimonious. He rarely called his children on the telephone; he never visited them. The son, though, admired his father. Handsome, rugged, charming, successful, sophisticated, the father was everything the son was not but wanted to be. Evidently it had been the father who encouraged the son to join the military. And now the father was inviting the son to come for a long visit, maybe even to move in with him.

Leaving the family for the young girlfriend was only the first tack in this man’s midlife course change. He fancied himself an adventurer and a writer in the tradition of the author whose work and life he most admired: Hemingway. And so, quitting his corporate career and his young girlfriend, he moved to Idaho to ski and to write. A year later he was growing a beard and buying a place on the beach in Key West. Supposedly he was cooking up some entrepreneurial scheme to finance the boating and fine dining and gambling, which was the reason he gave for sharing the Key West place with his new business partner, a man he had met in Idaho. We’re fixing the place up, the father told the son; come on down and help.

A week later the boy was dead, having hanged himself in his father’s Key West beach house. I’m pretty sure he left a note; I don’t know if the father ever told the mother what it said. Within a year my friend’s wife had begun an affair with a man in her commuter carpool. The divorce took another year to be finalized.

14 March 2012

Hemingway Jazzes the Mirror Neurons

Filed under: Fiction, First Lines, Language, Psychology — ktismatics @ 9:26 am

When you first start writing stories in the first person, if the stories are made so real that people believe them, the people reading them nearly always think the stories really happened to you. That is natural because while you were making them up you had to make them happen to the person who was telling them. If you do this successfully enough, you make the person who is reading them believe that the things happened to him too. If you can do this you are beginning to get what you are trying for, which is to make something that will become a part of the reader’s experience and a part of his memory. There must be things that he did not notice when he read the story or the novel which, without his knowing it, enters into his memory and experience so that they are a part of his life. This is not easy to do.

– Ernest Hemingway, “On Writing in the First Person,” in A Moveable Feast

8 March 2012

Neural Imitation of Life

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

Recent neural imaging research has demonstrated that, when watching someone else perform a particular action, the viewer experiences neural firing patterns in the brain that are similar to those associated with actually performing the action. It has been proposed that these “mirror neurons” serve as the structural and functional underpinnings for mutual empathy, understanding, and imitation. In effect we unconsciously simulate others’ actions, and the intentions motivating those actions.

As a side benefit, mirror neural activity enables the observer to live vicariously through those they observe. It’s one reason why movies and TV are so engaging: what we watch characters doing on-screen we simulate neurally as if we ourselves were doing it.

It turns out that the mirror neurons are activated not only when watching. Reading works too.

Here’s the abstract from this 2009 article by Speer et al., informatively entitled “Reading Stories Activates Neural Representations of Visual and Motor Experiences” (emphases mine):

To understand and remember stories, readers integrate their knowledge of the world with information in the text. Here we present functional neuroimaging evidence that neural systems track changes in the situation described by a story. Different brain regions track different aspects of a story, such as a character’s physical location or current goals. Some of these regions mirror those involved when people perform, imagine, or observe similar real-world activities. These results support the view that readers understand a story by simulating the events in the story world and updating their simulation when features of that world change.

In the study, 28 native English speakers read excerpts from One Boy’s Day, a nonfiction observational account of the everyday activities of Raymond, a 7-year-old boy. In the four excerpts, ranging from 8 to 11 minutes, Raymond wakes up, plays before going to school, performs an English lesson at school, and participates in a music lesson. The text was displayed on an LCD screen. The experimental subjects were hooked up to a functional MRI machine, which recorded their brain activity while reading. And it turned out that the readers’ neural patterns changed simultaneously with their reading about Raymond’s activities changing. The subjects’ fMRIs lit up in the same areas of the brain that would be activated if they themselves had been performing the activities instead of textual Raymond. The study authors summarize their key findings:

These results suggest that readers dynamically activate specific visual, motor, and conceptual features of activities while reading about analogous changes in activities in the context of a narrative, while reading: Regions involved in processing goal-directed human activity, navigating spatial environments, and manually manipulating objects in the real world increased in activation at points when those specific aspects of the narrated situation were changing. For example, when readers processed changes in a character’s interactions with an object, precentral and parietal areas associated with grasping hand movements increased in activation. Previous studies of motor execution and motor imagery provide strong evidence that the portion of premotor cortex identified in this study performs computations that are specific to motor planning and execution (Ehrsson et al., 2003; Michelon, Vettel, & Zacks, 2006; Picard & Strick, 2001). These results suggest that readers use perceptual and motor representations in the process of comprehending narrated activity, and these representations are dynamically updated at points where relevant aspects of the situation are changing.

They conclude:

Overall, these data make a strong case for embodied theories of language comprehension, in which readers’ representations of situations described in language are constructed from basic sensory and motor representations (Barsalou, 1999; Glenberg, 1997; Zwaan, 2004). However, the use of perceptual and motor representations to guide story comprehension may be an example of a more general, fundamental principle of cognitive function. Brain regions involved in motor function are active when viewing another person execute an action (Rizzolatti & Craighero, 2004). When viewing a movie, somatosensory and motor cortices increase in activity during scenes showing close-ups of features such as hands and faces (Hasson, Nir, Levy, Fuhrmann, & Malach, 2004), and similar correspondences exist between the regions involved in perceiving and later remembering auditory and visual information (Wheeler & Buckner, 2004). Thus, the use of sensory and motor representations during story comprehension observed in the current study may reflect a more general neural mechanism for grounding cognition in real-world experiences. Language may have adopted this general mechanism over the course of human evolution to allow individuals to communicate experiences efficiently and vividly.

Now doesn’t that just set your readerly and writerly neurons aquiver?

7 March 2012

Show Don’t Tell?

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

A printed text can neither show nor tell.

An audiotape or radio program can tell, but it cannot show.

A photograph or painting can show, but it cannot tell.

A movie or TV show can do both.

6 March 2012

Engaging with On-Screen Fictional Characters

Filed under: Fiction, Language, Movies, Psychology — ktismatics @ 10:15 am

I’ve been giving some thought as to whether engagement with fiction isn’t more easily triggered by movies and TV shows than by texts.

People are embodied: they confront the world from a particular physical locus within the world. Each of us sees the world literally from a particular point of view; i.e., from the vantage point afforded by our eyes, which swivel and focus on the world from atop a moving platform. So too with sound: we hear the world via the sounds that our ears pick up. Cameras and microphones provide a much closer simulation to the subjective experience of being-in-the-world than do written words describing sights and sounds.

Empathy, perspective-taking, simulation: these are some of the means by which humans understand one another’s points of view. Humans encounter other humans not as disembodied minds or emotions but through embodied physical encounters with other embodied beings more or less like themselves, through touching their bodies, looking at their faces, watching their actions, jointly participating with them in the world.

And through hearing what they have to say. The species continued to evolve genetically even after spoken/aural language began to emerge as a human capability, so the nearly irresistible aptitude for becoming adept users of the cultural artifact that is spoken language is built into the genes. Young children acquire language competence in the context of interpersonal encounters, specifically those types of encounters characterized by joint attention to and engagement with some aspect of the world. Being able to understand what someone else has to say requires the ability to infer the speaker’s intent to communicate, as well as the ability to adopt the speaker’s point of view. Language acquisition thus depends on an already-developed capacity for interpreting others’ facial expressions, gestures and intentions, as well as on the intrinsic motivation and capacity for imitating them. Empirical research demonstrates that these proto-linguistic human capabilities rely on innate neural capabilities that gradually become honed through repeated direct experiences with other language-users as together they explore the shared physical environment. This fine-tuning of a child’s innate ability to participate in a linguistic interpersonal environment develops instinctively, unconsciously, outside of self-awareness.  Again, the characters who walk and talk in the world projected onto the movie or television screen present a reasonable simulation of this real-world linguistic environment. So it seems likely that on-screen dialogue spontaneously triggers in the listener those same unconscious empathic and role-taking connections with the speakers that occur in real-world conversation.

Written language is a cultural artifact that appeared very late on the prehistorical scene — too recently to have affected the human genome. It’s not universal: many cultures never developed a written form of their language, even though people born and raised in those cultures possess the intellectual capabilities required for developing competence in reading and writing. Even in cultures with rich and deep textual traditions, kids always become quite fluent with spoken language before they acquire even the rudiments of written language. Reading and writing are skills more like riding a bike than like understanding spoken language. These skills are built on a scaffolding that’s innate, and once honed through repeated practice the skills become second nature. However, learning them in the first place demands conscious attention.

Back to fiction. On screen we watch people doing things in an environment, formulating and pursuing intentions in a world, scheming and fighting and fucking and talking with each other. Let’s presume that our engagement with fiction depends on triggering our abilities, genetically transmitted and honed through interpersonal experience, to empathize with and to simulate other people as they engage intentionally in the physical and interpersonal environment. The on-screen bodies and faces and actions and voices aren’t physically there in a material world you share with these characters, but you do watch them with your eyes and hear them with your ears. They are closer to embodied beings than are characters who appear in fictional texts, characters whose physical appearances are not seen but described, whose actions are not watched but recounted, whose dialogue is not heard but read.

Since texts did not comprise part of the evolutionary environment, and since the ability to read depends on conscious attention, it seems likely the reader’s engagement with fictional characters rendered in textual form is less instinctive than it is with characters in movies and TV shows. As a simulation, on-screen activity certainly lacks the physical tangibility of our real-life engagements with people in the world. Still, on-screen fiction offers a much closer approximation to material reality than does written fiction — a visual and aural simulation that is arguably more likely to trigger our unconscious visceral engagement with unreal other people in an unreal world.

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