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Ashes to Ashes

[ 0 ] June 11, 2011

REVIEW: Soul Dust by Nicholas Humphrey (Princeton University Press, $24.95)

British psychologist Nicolas Humphrey’s Soul Dust is a work of pure theory.  The author fashioned it to be an earth-shattering book, or “the book that shows the fly the way out of the fly bottle.”  But the earth is quite a massive planet, not easily shattered.  And its shattering would have to be a matter of hard facts, because the fact is that words hardly matter.  I do not want to write about what Soul Dust is not, though.  Humphrey’s hubris and pretension have motivated him to craft a deep and reflective work full of good ideas.  It is a celebration of consciousness.  Because as the Bible says: “(Soul)dust thou art, and unto (soul)dust you shall return” (Genesis 3:19).  While we are here we ought to recognize our special experience.

Humphrey does unfold a logical argument: that consciousness is “the product of a highly improbable bit of biological engineering: a wonderful artwork of nature that gives rise to all sorts of mysterious impressions in our minds, yet something that has a relatively straightforward physical explanation.”  He is an ardent materialist who insists that miracles do not happen. When conscious experience arises in a person’s mind, it is the outcome of events in the brain.  This bedrock tenet has anchored the exploration of many neuroscientists such as Giulio Tononi and Christof Koch.  They provide data; Humphrey aims to provide direction.

Why did we evolve to be conscious?  Humphrey writes: “We can be sure it did not happen accidentally.  It must be the result of natural selection favoring genes that underwrite the specialized neural circuits—whatever they actually are—that sustain the illusion of qualia, giving rise to the magical mystery show for the first person.  And it is axiomatic that this will have happened only if those lucky enough to be spectators of this show have somehow been at an advantage in terms of biological survival compared with their less fortunate cousins.”  Unfortunately for hungry theorists, there is no substantial evidence of consciousness in the fossil record.

Nicholas Humphrey

Brains—ashes to ashes—are perishable as we are.  We usually examine language or art, emergent properties of consciousness—which is itself an emergent property of the brain.  Skull size cannot really tell this story.  The truth about the evolution of consciousness may prove impossible to prove.  Humphrey’s theory is suggests that at some point existing sensory feedback loops were adjusted to give rise to phenomenal states.  Who knows?  Perhaps this can be investigated, perhaps not.  The words are not yet full of meaning.

Humphrey dedicates a the second part of his book to the importance of consciousness.  “I think that what the natural history reveals is that consciousness,” he writes, “makes life more worth living.”  Consciousness gives us ego, an illusion that motivates us to strive throughout life, despite death.  Consciousness gives us “the pleasures of being there as who you are and are becoming.”  Humphrey is most comfortable and convincing in this psychological realm.  His main point about science is to look at the problem of consciousness, magic trick that it is, from a different perspective.  Although he leaves that work for the scientists, Humphrey has done a service for our epistemology.  There must be dual foci—micro and meta—in order to solve difficult problems.  It was a pleasure to engage with the book Soul Dust, just as it is a pleasure to peel and eat a ripe orange or meet a beautiful smiling dog.  Open your eyes, open a book, but somehow, however, never ever forget:  This is awesome.

Under the Covers: A Review of “Portraits of the Mind”

[ 5 ] December 10, 2010
“Portraits of the Mind: Visualizing the Brain from Antiquity to the 21st Century” By Carl Schoonover; Foreword by Jonah Lehrer. Published by Abrams, 2010. [amazon]

You should never judge a book by the cover — unless that book is an Abrams book.  The American company was the first to publish art and illustrated books, which have been resting on coffee tables and standing out on shelves since 1949.  We have all —at one time or another, perhaps unknowingly — flipped through an Abrams Book.

Perhaps it was Graffiti World or Vanity Fair: The Portraits or Earth from Above or The Art of Walt Disney.  Pick a famous artist — maybe Monet, Manet, Magritte, Matisse, Modigliani, Michelangelo, Munch, or John Vincent Millais or Marlene Mocquèt (to mention merely Ms) — and treasure copies of his or her work on the glossy-faced pages your own handheld, hardcover gallery.  Most recently, someone at Abrams had the bright idea to collect in a traditional art book the most beautiful scientific images of the brain. Columbia University neuroscience Ph.D student Carl Schoonover became the author of the project, which is now the newly-released Portraits of the Mind: Visualizing the Brain from Antiquity to the 21st Century (Abrams, $35).  Its cover — intricate, colorful, and breath-taking — is indeed a reflection of the revelatory richness inside the book itself.

But you should never — ever — judge a brain by its cover.  This is the message of Portraits of the Mind (as well as 2009’s Cajal’s Butterflies of the Soul, and this magazine).  To the naked eye, that three-pound mass of colorless, wrinkled tissue  looks utterly unappealing to most anyone who is not a hungry zombie.  The ancient Egyptians, for example, chucked the brain out during mummification because it was considered unnecessary for the afterlife.  The mind, on the other hand, has traditionally been represented by a spectacular mess of tangled philosophical, psychological, and literary theories clogged with dense wastes of words — with the -itis and the -osis­ and the -ism — that are in a way creative and often incessantly discussable but entirely fanciful and irrelevant to the question of truth.  Because the mind is the brain; the brain is the mind.  No need to invent  before we first observe.  And — as it turns out — that ugly-looking lump inside our skull is in fact more wonderful and awesome than in our wildest dreams.

>Click images to enlarge.


The stunning visual data on the pages of Portraits of the Mind — from drawn to digital —  demonstrate that we are made of magnificent matter.  Though the book also provides valuable context with essays from leading scientists and captions from Mr. Schoonover, its pictures are worth more than any number of words anywhere.

But if we want words, let them be poetry:  ‘Beauty is truth, truth beauty, — that is all/ Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.”  So ends “Ode on a Grecian Urn” by John Keats.  Portraits of the Mind by Carl Schoonover is proof that — under the unsightly cover of the most complex organ in the known universe — this romantic ideal is reality.  Our brains are truly oh-so-beautiful.

REVIEW: The Mind’s Eye by Oliver Sacks

[ 3 ] November 17, 2010

There are two types of authors in the world: the one who can fill the back cover of his book with a giant photograph of himself, and everyone else.  Oliver Sacks—whom the New York Times once dubbed “the poet laureate of contemporary medicine”—belongs to the first group.  His newest book, The Mind’s Eye, is a collection of stories about people who lose essential faculties but nonetheless manage to live rich lives.  The hardcover release (Knopf, $26.95) also offers a rare over-sized headshot of Dr. Sacks, his face in place of a summary.

This is strangely appropriate, though, because The Mind’s Eye is a personal book.  Although there are four patients through whom we learn about alexia, aphasia, and stereoscopy (Sue, a neurobiologist, has the three-dimensionality of our world revealed to her in her fifties), the main character is Dr. Sacks himself.  We observe his diligent diagnostic procedure and delight in his research tangents; we follow him through his clinical experience and into the swimming pool.   But it is when Dr. Sacks himself becomes the patient that The Mind’s Eye separates itself from its ten sibling books.

In 2005, Dr. Sacks noticed “a sort of fluttering, a visual instability” while at the movies.  The rest of the chapter “Persistence of Vision: A Journal” is the moving, fifty-seven-page account of the author’s eye cancer, including drawings of visual changes.  Here is a particularly intense entry:

DECEMBER 22, 2005

4 A.M.:  Woke.  Cold.  The fear.  I open my right eye.  The Darkness has grown again, is coming to encircle my little island of vision, my fixation point, my fovea.  Soon it will be engulfed entirely.

After surgery to remove a tumor, Dr. Sacks lost vision in his right eye.  There is a large chunk of his visual field that he can neither see nor be conscious of.  As is the case with all the patients in the book, a neurological disability causes irretrievable loss.

But The Mind’s Eye is not about loss; it is about adaptation.  Each patient who appears in the book, major and minor, finds ingenious ways to carry on.  As usual Dr. Sacks, who has so popularized the brain, shows us both its frailty and its strength.

The Parallel Film: Herzog’s “Cave of Forgotten Dreams”

[ 9 ] October 7, 2010

Cave of Forgotten Dreams is the latest film from German director Werner Herzog. The film premiered in New York City on October 2nd at The New Yorker Festival.

Director Werner Herzog (left) inside the Chauvet cave.

When Werner Herzog was granted access to film in the very secretive Chauvet cave in France—sealed for 30,000 years with pristinely preserved Paleolithic wall paintings, and discovered in 1994—he at first resisted his producer’s suggestion that he document it in 3D.

“I have seen Avatar,” Herzog said, much to the delight of the crowd gathered for the Q&A following the New York premiere of his new film, Cave of Forgotten Dreams, last Saturday evening at The New Yorker Festival. “Everything you see in the film [Avatar] is completely articulate in three dimensions. Beyond what you’re seeing on screen, there is no space for fantasy, no space for you to complement, to complete the film on a different level… I have created a dictum: Yes, shoot a porno film in 3D. Not a romantic comedy. So I am a skeptic of 3D movies.”

But something about the images on the very three-dimensional surfaces of the cave walls at Chauvet changed Herzog’s mind: “It was immediately clear this was to be shot in 3D, from the moment I saw the paintings,” he explained.

And a wise choice it was. Herzog’s use of 3D fits the environment he’s documenting: uneven, curved, and jagged cave walls. These Paleolithic artists used the dimensionality of the cave surfaces, with all their contours and shadow-casting edges, as their canvases upon which images of horses, bison, rhinos, and other animals were rendered. The results appear almost animated in the flickering light, and in some cases even have multiple limbs drawn in a sequential row— an effect Herzog refers to as “proto-cinema” in the film’s narration, and one that he purposefully strengthened by shifting the light sources on the cave wall as he panned and floated his camera along its surface.

Despite his skepticism of 3D filmmaking, Herzog somehow still allows us space to contemplate and “complete” the film within us while we watch these images through our silly 3D glasses. “Allowing the audience the parallel movie within yourself, that was my challenge with this film,” he said.

So how do we approach these images, the first known human artistic objects in the world, and how do we imagine the people that created them, so far from us in time?

I imagine the parallel film that ran within me while watching Cave of Forgotten Dreams is not so different than the parallel film that ran within the observers of this art as they gazed at it millennia ago, perhaps in a ceremonial setting with shadows dancing along its surfaces. And the reason for this similarity in experience, however improbable it is across such a gulf in time and in human ideas about the world and existence, is that I share with these distant ancestors a brain that has not changed very much in its physical properties. The ideas contained within it may seem wildly different, but consciousness, art, and the self are deep phenomena that extend back even beyond the creation of these images. We may never know the specific use or meaning of these images for their creators, but I do think a deeper meaning— an essential quality of communication—can be strung across time and space to the movie theater, where we sit behind our 3D glasses.

Herzog points us in this very direction. On Saturday, he ended his Q&A with a statement that provides an invaluable directive on how to begin to handle these millennia-old images: “Don’t ever trust a movie. Trust in imagination. Trust in your own ecstasy. Trust in the ecstasy of truth.”

A section of the cave paintings at Chauvet.

However mysterious in its meaning and use, the cave art at Chauvet is a record of the consciousness of its creators, and it is strikingly ego-less. As one scientist remarks in the film, these people were probably far more “permeable” than we are today—permeable between the spiritual and the physical, the identity of a human and that of an animal or a plant. We encounter ego-less artwork that bespeaks the permeability between a single creator and a community, gathered in this dark cave that seems to engender a collective human experience, and it challenges our Western notions of “the artist.” Yet in the silence, even as we hear our own heartbeat, we feel some eerie presence of these people in the images they have left us. The ego in the images is not of individuals, but rather of a species that has triumphed in the material world and is now able to represent what they see on the inside: the images flashing through their minds now externalized, dancing on the walls of a cave. In a sense, walking into this in 3D cave feels like walking into the mind of a people long disappeared, and we are confronted with the splendor of their visual memory of the world around them.

And this is the parallel film that plays out within us. In neuroscience, consciousness is sometimes described as an awareness of thought itself, a lighthouse gazing into the abyss of the unconscious as it plucks information, ponders and predicts, constantly forming the narrative of our thought.

Art then emerges as perhaps our best record of this narrative of human consciousness, a record which scientific analysis of neurons and firing patterns would be hard pressed to match with any subjective or objective force.

The concept of permeability mentioned by the scientist in the film is helpful in thinking about art on this most essential of levels, dating back to the first single-celled organism. For the perception of the world, the awareness of our own brains at work as we sift through memory and emotion, and the transference of the internal back into the external through art is the same basic principle of permeability that allowed the first living cell to at once separate itself from the physical environment, yet still give and take what it needed to survive and reproduce, to use something internal to change the external world, and thus affect other organisms.

As we try to imagine our ancestors who lived 30,000 years ago through the visual (and perhaps spiritual) consciousness they recorded in these images, our own egos seem small. Something larger and collective in nature makes its voice heard. It is the beating of our own hearts in the presence of ancient minds deep within this mountain, as we seek to reach out across the void and communicate with something or someone, just as they did. This is the point of departure where Herzog’s ecstatic imagination takes over and creates a parallel film inside each of us.

Additional links:
  • Judith Thurman’s New Yorker article about the Chauvet cave art
  • Variety review of Herzog’s film
  • Cave of Forgotten Dreams to open 2010 DOC NYC Fest

The Gorilla You Might Miss

[ 1 ] July 13, 2010

Comic by Jeremy Finch

Something strange happened to me on my last day of elementary school.  I was twelve-years-old.  It was around lunchtime and I was sitting in the back of my homeroom class eagerly imagining the so-soon summer when suddenly—behind me—I heard an opening door.  The whole class turned around to see about the sound.  We were all of us utterly stupefied; for in walked a gorilla, followed by the school principal, followed by my mother holding a camcorder.  The gorilla sauntered over to my desk.  He handed me a bushel of bananas, lifted me out of my chair, and started shaking me violently—all while grunting great gorilla noises (“ooo-ooo-aa!-aa!-aa!” et cetera et cetera).  At this point—according to the video tape—my smile fell to a flat-line and I lost most of the color from my face and neck.  Yes, I knew that this was not a real gorilla but rather a human in a gorilla suit.  But still:  What the @#$%?  Finally the gorilla, afraid—he would later claim with uniquely human empathy—that I might faint, unmasked himself.  It was my father!  He gave me a sandwich, did a gorilla dance, fielded some questions, and then left.  By this point I was not too hungry.  Through the window, I saw him taking pictures with some younger children during their recess period.  Yes, I knew this was just my father being himself—a fun-loving ape.  But still:  What the @#$%?

According to the new book The Invisible Gorilla (Crown. 289 pp. $27)—by the cognitive psychologists Christopher Chabris and Daniel Simons—if had I been more focused on Mrs. Lippman, the chalkboard, and intransitive verbs I might never have noticed that gorilla in my midst. The book, its title, and this retrospective insight derive from the now world-famous “Selective Attention Test(over 300,000 YouTube hits). Go ahead, try it.  This bizarre and brilliant experiment—which won the 2004 Ig Nobel prize, given to achievements that make people first laugh and then think—illustrates a phenomenal human limitation called inattentional blindness: if you are not paying attention, you might not see that which you are not expecting.  50% of people do not see the gorilla.  For Chabris and Simons, this result serves as the crowning example of one of the “Ways Our Intuitions Deceive Us”—the book’s subtitle.

The Invisible Gorilla (Crown. 289 pp. $27)

The Invisible Gorilla has six chapters, each one devoted to an everyday intuitive “illusion:” of attention, memory, confidence, knowledge, cause, and potential.  As evidence, each chapter features a mash-up of psychological research and pop culture reference—chiefly from film and television.  The writing is light and clear, though the anecdotes begin to run together and become redundant.  One particular gimmick really got to me, though perhaps it is the fault of an editor.  (After all, writers must stick together and stubbornly blame the editor).  I am talking here about the title of chapter three: “What Smart Chess Players and Stupid Criminals Have in Common.”  Or a section of chapter five, the chapter about cause that has the most serious implications—though woefully under-explored—about our meaning-making species, “What Mother Teresa, Quentin Tarantino, and Jenny Mchy All Know.”  Call it the illusion of relevant relatedness.  To quote the stand-up of Craig Ferguson, that great Scottish sage:  “Yes . . . I have noticed that some things are like other things.”

Chabris and Simons never claim to be writing a hard science book, though.  They are in favor of soft intellectual foodstuffs, which are easier to chew and more likely to be digested by the lay public.  The Invisible Gorilla is appealing and accessible, an undoubtedly triumphant application of the popular psychology formula, and sales will most likely reflect this smooth and shiny presentation.  It is likely, therefore, that Chabris and Simons will have the privilege of publishing another book, which is certainly a good thing.  If you enjoyed Freakonomics and any of Malcolm Gladwell’s books—though Mr. Gladwell is at times a direct target of the Gorilla‘s poop-flinging—you should pick up a copy of The Invisible Gorilla.   Because you never know when your life might be interrupted by an ape.

For more, listen to Daniel Simons, co-author of The Invisible Gorilla, interviewed on this month’s Beautiful Brain Podcast:

Interview with co-author Daniel Simons (MP3)


Consciousness Squandered

[ 0 ] June 7, 2010

Contributor Ben Ehrlich reports on Saturday evening’s “Consciousness: Explored and Explained” event at the 2010 World Science Festival in New York City.

Sometimes it is helpful to be reminded that certain things can go wrong even in spite of right intentions.  Tell me that the appealing actor Alan Alda will moderate a conversation about consciousness featuring the expert neuroscientist Dr. Giulio Tononi and the inimitable screenwriter Charlie Kaufman, and I might even offer to bring the donuts.  As part of the World Science Festival, such an event did in fact take place Saturday night in the Kaye Auditorium at Hunter College.  But a billing is never a guarantee.  Unfortunately, “Consciousness:  Explained and Explored” was infinitely less enlightening than it might have been.  I fault a lack of donuts.

In March I had the pleasure of watching Charlie Kaufman share a Brainwave stage at the Rubin Museum with the physicist Brian Greene (see our review of that event here).  I was moved.  Not only did the two men bravely explore a most enticing and daunting intellectual realm—Time, part of the Conceptual Pantheon that also includes Consciousness—they did so with the utmost respect for one another and for the spirit of intellectual exchange.  Their chemistry, born from a combination of mutual curiosity and humility, was refreshing to witness.  After all, such a public forum exists to hatch and incubate the hardest questions, not to engineer easy answers.  But the questions must lead somewhere that is definitively away from nowhere.

Charlie Kaufman, Alan Alda, and Dr. Giulio Tononi

Left to right: Charlie Kaufman, Alan Alda, and Dr. Giulio Tononi

That is why I was so frustrated to hear a moderator—Mr. Alda—who spoke too much and said too little.  Yes, he represents the layman and thus seeks out the simple explanations that sooth most audiences.  This is undoubtedly an important role.  But Mr. Kaufman is also a scientific layman.  Only, he has proven so naturally capable as a questioner.  Conversely, Mr. Alda cultivated a completely uneven discourse that was skewed towards Dr. Tononi and—it must be said—towards Mr. Alda himself as well.  This left Mr. Kaufman as tragically disengaged as a silent songbird.  Moreover, Mr. Alda was incapable of stopping himself from interjecting insistent shtick into the mix.  Why include such a performer, I wonder?  When there are but ninety minutes to discuss the most fascinating and complicated topic in neuroscience, a topic that inspires universal interest because of its inextricable essentiality to the human experience, why waste even a second on anything else?  The immoderate steering of Mr. Alda—who ought to have taken a back seat—leadfootedly zoomed the audience past the truly unique scenery that exists in the mind of Mr. Kaufman.

But, in fact, most of the words during the event belonged to Dr. Tononi, who made repeated, valiant attempts to provide a metaphorical tie-together for the scattered discussion by comparing our conscious experience to a film.  Dr. Tononi’s theory of consciousness—the integrated information theory—is based on two important principles.  First, there is the fact that we always experience consciousness as being wholly unified—integrated.  It is impossible to separately focus on the sub-components comprising a certain stimulus.  A red ball can only be interpreted as a red ball and not merely as a ball, or a red object.  Second, there is the fact that our brain somehow contains an innumerable repertoire of percepts.  Think of the diversity of distinct moments in a minute, or a day, or a life.  The brain is able to generate uniqueness, to chose from a seemingly infinite amount of information in order to form specific and coherent experiences.

One neuroscientist told me with appreciation after the event that Dr. Tononi does not dumb his science down.  This is true; although he used a quarter of his slides, he explained a few important concepts such as “binocular rivalry,” a bizarre and fascinating phenomenon of visual perception.  If a different image is presented to each eye, the brain can only alternate between them.  It cannot combine them to form one picture.  Dr. Tononi also introduced some relevant clinical examples of abnormal consciousness, staples of classical neurology that always serve as effective illustrations.

But the Internet can be such a teacher too; in my opinion, the reason to attend a live dialogue such as “Consciousness: Explored and Explained” is to witness the participating parties pushing themselves forward with the synchronized back-and-forth of an intellectual handcar.  Although this particular event ran off-track, it did lead me to once more appreciate when something like it was done so well.  After all, nothing can go right every time.  But that will not stop me from attending.

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