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Author Page for Ben Ehrlich

BENJAMIN EHRLICH (Contributing Editor) is a writer living in New York City. In 2009 he earned a Bachelor of Arts degree with highest honors in Literary Studies from Middlebury College, where he was also a three-year member of the varsity basketball team. Ben is currently at work translating the non-scientific writings of Santiago Ramón y Cajal, the Nobel Prize-winning “father of modern neuroscience.” During the day he is known as “Dr. Recess,” as he holds a PhD in the Recess Arts from Recess University. His interdisplinary dissertation included a theoretical analysis of the Law in kickball team-picking, advanced wiffle ball physics, and Eastern methods of boo-boo healing. It is as yet unpublished.

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“Bad Poetry Disguised as Science”

[ 0 ] May 28, 2015
Image credit: Peter Gamlen for The Guardian

Image credit: Peter Gamlen for The Guardian

Nautilus has a fascinating article about the psychologist Julian Jaynes, author of the influential cult classic The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind. In it, he argues that ancient peoples were not conscious; one half of their mind spoke to the other with ugidance in the voice of the gods until about 3000 years ago, when self-awareness emerged. Jaynes conducted animal behavior research as a graduate student at Yale before moving to England to become a playwright and actor. “O, what a world of unseen visions and heard silences,” his only book begins, “this insubstantial country of the mind!” Jaynes’ theory treats consciousness as a cultural rather than biological phenomenon, which is not a popular view these days. However, more than one neuroscientist that I know has cited Julian Jaynes and his The Origin of Consciousness as an inspiration for entering the field.

The Late Reverberant Sound

[ 0 ] May 15, 2015

In the Brain and Creativity Institute at USC, there is a small concert hall, with a grand piano dormant on the shining wooden floor. There are about a hundred empty seats, with the front row almost hugged against the stage. The space was designed by renowned acoustic engineer Yasuhisa Toyota, whose Suntory Hall in Tokyo has been called “the jewel box of sound.” While the traditional “shoebox style” pits the orchestra at one end with an audience seated in rows, his “vineyard style” surrounded the orchestra on all sides with clusters of seats at different angles, like the sloping terrace of a vineyard. After the Berlin Philharmonic was destroyed in 1944, the architect Hans Sharhoun observed that “people always gather in circles while listening to music informally,” and the Berlin Philharmonie was born. Since the 1960s, vineyard style has also appeared in Denmark, China, Finland, and France. The most striking aspect of Cammilleri Hall at USC are the walls. The pattern of embossed bars reminded me of the Super Mario video game or Morse code dashes in oversized Braille. This design seems purely aesthetic, but the walls themselves are positioned for early reflections of sound back to the middle of the hall (“the more diffuse reflections at lower frequencies are profitable for the late reverberant sound”). But there is something more important still. Bruce Adolphe, composer-in-residence at the Brain and Creativity Institute, boasts that the walls are soundproof, which is good because, in the room just next door, there are neuroscientists reading data off of fMRI and EEG. Between the artists and neuroscientists, sound that travels and does not travel, the echoing and feedback, make for one of the most resonant environments for interdisciplinary creativity in the country. For founders Antonio and Hanna Damasio, music is essential to the life of the brain.

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The serried terraces of a vineyard, unknown.

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The “vineyard style” of acoustic engineering, Cammilleri Hall at the Brain and Creativity Institute, USC.

On the other hand, the office space features open glass cubicles, with no barriers to sound. Funded by the university as well as anonymous private donors, the Brain and Creativity Institute, in collaboration with the Thornton School of Music at USC currently supports ten research projects, including “The Brain and Music Program.” Dr. Assal Habibi explained that this project has followed 75 children from Los Angeles schools since the age of 6 (this is the second or third year) in order to gauge the effects of music education on a wide array of mental functions. Of the 75 kids, 1/3 take after-school music, 1/3 take after-school sports, and 1/3 take nothing. The scientists test all subjects in executive functioning skills, musical skills, motor development, and pro-social and emotional development, which is the hallmark of their lab (another project at the Brain and Creativity Institute is called the “Feelings Program”). Music training follows a Venezuelan model called El Sistema, which “emphasizes intensive ensemble participation from the earliest stages, group learning, peer teaching and a commitment to keeping the joy and fun of musical learning and music making ever-present.” Everyone is required to play a string instrument. In the end, the researchers want to share their data with policy-makers, hopefully affecting the way we fund our schools. Music is not a separate component of education; it is integral to the learning process, and there needs to be communication between the arts and sciences to prove its value for children. Hopefully, the work of The Brain and Creativity Institute will reverberate for a long time.

 

A World Without Words

[ 1 ] May 10, 2015

Lotje Sodderland was a lovely, bright, talented, and sociable young woman living in London. In November 2011, she woke up in the middle of the night with an excruciating pain in her head. She was conscious, but she could not think. After stumbling to a hotel across the street, she collapsed on the bathroom floor. Two days later, she woke up from an induced coma. She had suffered a severe stroke (the result, she later learned, of a rare developmental malformation of blood vessels in her brain). Although her face and body are no different, she will never be the same. This is like the Hasidic view of the afterlife, quoted by Ben Lerner as an epigraph for his recent 10:04: “Everything will be as it is now, just a little different.” In her new world, Sodderland has a visual field loss, with no peripheral vision on her right-hand side, and severe aphasia, a communication disorder affecting comprehension and expression. She also has a film, called My Beautiful Broken Brain, an extraordinary new perspective on trauma and selfhood, and a nearly imperceptible scar beneath her dark blonde hair.

Lotje-Brain-website-361x360In The Odyssey, Odysseus returns to Ithaka after twenty years, as a stranger in disguise. Penelope almost recognizes him. asks for news of her lost husband, but almost recognizes the man standing before her, whom we know to be speaking about himself in the third person. “We have had all kinds of strangers in distress come here before now,” Penelope says, “but I make bold to say that no one ever yet came who was so like Ulysses in figure, voice and feet as you are.” ‘Those who have seen us both,”Odysseus says in Book XIX, “have always said we were wonderfully like each other, and now you have noticed too” This is one of my favorite lines. While his old nursemaid Euryklea is washing his feet, she sees a certain scar on his thigh and “the whole truth comes out.” “My child,” she says, “I am sure you must be Odysseus himself, only I did not know until I had actually touched and handled you.” Odysseus’s scar, which he was hunting on a mountain with his grandfather; Lotje’s scar is from emergency neurosurgery to his parietal and temporal lobes. Perhaps The Odyssey is not about distance from place or the journey home, but rather it is about the indelible pain of being-in-time and persistence of self-recognition. No one else can know our wounds, which are always inside of us. “Whatever pain achieves,” Elaine Scarry argues in her seminal text, The Body in Pain: Making and Unmaking Our World, “it achieves in part through its unsharability, and it ensures this unsharability through its resistance to language.” The world of grief is a world without words.

eb00ad73-53a4-4564-9c3d-7f8ad18a1ab4-1020x914Lotje Sodderland is a lovely, bright, talented, and sociable young woman living in London. She recently spoke at the launch event for her new project, “A World Without Words,”a collaboration with the poet and curator SJ Fowler and material engineer Thomas Duggan. Three-and-a-half years have past. If you did not see her film, you would never know that she suffered a stroke. The film is a lyrical reflection on her experience, with footage from her recovery and therapy, interviews with family and friends, and archival material from her childhood. In the trailer, we watch her struggle to speak, fail to read words, and break down into tears. Her experience reminds us of our own vulnerability; “this could happen to anyone,” as someone says in the movie. “I am different than I was,” Sodderland says in the film. “Maybe I’m never going to be the same.” “I’ve discovered this portal, somewhere where I can get completely lost, an extraordinary new place, where my brain once was.” On display in the Apiary Gallery in London were some hallucinatory drawings. In her visions and dreams, Lotje saw monsters. We may never be able to tell our story, but art is a means of communicating experience. We travel through worlds and bring back scars. Our odyssey ends when we share them.

Happy Birthday, Cajal!

[ 0 ] May 1, 2015

Happy Birthday to Santiago Ramón y Cajal, “the father of modern neuroscience,” who would be 163 today. Cajal was born in Petilla de Aragón, a tiny village high in the mountains of northern Spain. On this same date, when he turned 36, Cajal declared the independence of the nerve cell in his self-published journal Revista Trimestral de Histología normal y patológia. (Images courtesy of the Cajal Institute in Madrid.)

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SciArt in America

[ 0 ] April 27, 2015

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For those of you who haven’t heard of SciArt in America, a new organization founded by Julia Buntaine, check it out! They have a magazine (submit to their Flash Fiction contest) and put on events based in New York City.

Book Spinal Nervous Systems

[ 0 ] March 13, 2015

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by the artist Barbara Wildenboer
(via Paris Review Daily and Colossal)
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