Overweening Generalist

Saturday, November 3, 2012

Human Brains: Enchanted Looms, Electro-Colloidal Computers, Flying Lasagna, and Other Grey Matters

A Generalist trying to study and write about the human brain seems bound to tax attention: there's simply so much there to get all worked up over, especially since the 1990s "Decade of the Brain" and the resultant supernovae of imaging machines, knowledge of genes and epigenetics, experimental psychologies, and an ungainly amount of scientific data. No PhD in Neuroscience can keep up with all of it; one must specialize. We now have Neuroeconomics. Finally!

But the Generalist is at free play in the dense, massive fields.

I had wanted to do an entire blogspew on the materiality of the human brain, simply because I find descriptions of it so trippy. Full Disclosure: I have never held a human brain in my hands. But I've read and seen enough from people who have, or surgeons who have performed brain surgery, to palpably - in my imagination - "feel" the majesty of it all. But first: the human brain from another level: how we perceive or make "reality," and how tenuous it all seems.

Two Quotes From Disparate Recent Readings
We've learned a lot about how memory works in the last 20 years, but there's a lot left to learn. Just about any textbook minted in the last ten years will discuss how different declarative memory ("knowing that") works versus procedural memory ("knowing how"...like navigating a stairwell, riding a bike, or tying your shoes).

Discussing recent findings using imaging machines, Amiri, Lannon and Lewis write, "While explicit memory (basically: declarative- OG) is swift and capacious, a fallacious sense of accuracy attends its frequently erroneous returns. New scanning technologies show that perception activates the same brain area as imagination. Perhaps for this reason, the brain cannot reliably distinguish between recorded experience and internal fantasy." - A General Theory of Love, p.104

Before you go thinking about you and your friends and everyone you love here - not to mention how this might impact "personal responsibility" and the Law! - dig this quote from Douglas Rushkoff's Program Or Be Programmed: Ten Commands For The Digital Age:

"But the latest research into virtual worlds might suggests the lines between the two (digital models of reality and our own being-in-the-world models - OG) may be blurring. A Stanford scientist testing kids' memories of virtual reality experiences found that at least half the children cannot distinguish between what they really did and what they did in the computer simulation. Two weeks after donning headsets and swimming with virtual whales, half of the participants interviewed believed they had actually had the real world experience. Likewise, Philip Rosedale - the quite sane founder of the virtual reality community Second Life - told me he believes that by 2020, his online world will be indistinguishable from real life." - p.69

[Note: This all may dovetail mindblowingly with Nick Bostrom's ideas about humans being a computer simulation, which I touched on HERE, and this recent article, "Physicists May Have Evidence Universe Is A Computer Simulation". Caution: If you you're not familiar with these ideas yet and have wanted to do a psychedelic drug such as psilocybin mushrooms but can't find any, these ideas may prove an adequate substitute.]

Three Pound Universe: Dissection Witness
I liked Zoe Williams's brief article on her experience in the room with a neuropathologist and his "special chopping board and really sharp knife." I'll watch anything on the science channels on TV that are about the materiality of the brain, and I can't get enough of reading about the sacred object you're using now to decode what I'm trying to say. For us, it seems plausible that the brain is the most complex object in the universe. And when Williams describes it as "jaundiced pallor and pronounced bulge, like pickled eggs," it activates those circuits in my own brain that have to do with...surrealism.

Maybe that's just me.

Dr. Gentleman, who seems to love his job of slicing and dicing recently deceased brains, works for a UK brain bank devoted to researching Parkinson's, Alzheimer's, and Multiple Sclerosis, roughly in that order. He can use the naked eye to read the sorts of suffering the human underwent. It's always interesting to hear about something like, for example, strokes.

"'It's pot luck with strokes,' he explains at one point - you can have a stroke and not notice. Or you can have a stroke that leaves you with a cystic cavity, or what a layperson might call, a big hole in your head."

Gentleman cuts away in front of the journalist, pointing out, "that's the main event; personality, executive function, reason." I find the high number of errors interesting: people while living had been diagnosed with some brain disease - they and their loved ones were at least given a name for their malady - and far more often than I would've thought, it was wrong, judging by the visual evidence of the physical insults of the person's actual brain. Clearly, we have a long road to hoe here.

All this stuff not only puts me in the mood of surrealism, but concomitant to this, in encountering the actual material brain, a combination of dreamlike wonder juxtaposed with ghastly existential terror, back to dreamlike wonder. And quite often a dark humor suffuses the scene.

If you're still interested in this stuff, HERE's another: cutting through the deeply-buried pineal gland. You can thank me later.

                                                            Richard Brautigan

Richard Brautigan's Brains, "Literally"
You can make this stuff up, but you must have an eldritch, poetic mind. But this story is true: poet J.J. Phillips wanted to do research on the counterculture novelist/poet Richard Brautigan (have you read Trout Fishing in America?). Stephen Gerz tells the story in his edifying book blog Booktryst in a post "Novelist Richard Brautigan's Brains At Bancroft Library: A Grand Guignol Adventure," which you must read; I can't do it justice.

Maybe I should've posted this on Halloween.

I take some odd and demented delight in knowing most of the action here took place in my neighborhood. The owner of Serendipity Books, Peter Howard? His legend grows by the year. Did he know for sure that's why some of Brautigan's papers were so messy? Phillips had to call in a coroner to confirm. And what of the librarians at the UC Berkeley Bancroft Library? Phillips thought they were acting "squirrelly and obfuscatory." And I think Phillips has a point: what if Brautigan had had Mad Cow disease?

Being a fan of Codrescu, I can only imagine his reaction upon hearing the story. Wow.

Another Poet
I'd like to leave you with a link to "Brain," by C.K. Williams. Here the brain is traversed by the poet, a cavern, a maze of corridors...and where is a comforting soul?

Who knows what's real? All "I" - this is my brain speaking here - know is, I'm hungry and it's time for dinner, so I bid this spew adieu.


Cleveland Okie (Tom Jackson) said...

Anybody besides me wonder if Brautigan was a Beatles fan? "He blew his mind out in a car .... a crowd of people stood and stared/They'd seen his face before"

Not only did I recognize the photo of Brautigan, but yeah, I read "Trout Fishing in America" and some others, too. Really, anybody of a certain age with literary pretensions had to read this guy. You were probably just old enough to catch him in his heyday.

michael said...

Jeff Beck, when he entered his fusion period (Blow By Blow and Wired) had a tune called "Scatterbrain."

I had a look into Brautigan about 10 yrs ago, when I was reading a lot of choice nonsense and surrealist texts.

My memory (I know I could Google it, but I think memory, at times, even faulty memory, can be valuable and telling, if not interesting) of Brautigan's suicide was that he lived in Bolinas (a counterculch artist/writer community near San Francisco), and was all alone when he shot himself at his desk. And - I'll fact-check my memory in a few minutes - no one found him...for "some time."

To change the subject entirely, I confess to being in 99% agreement with the little girl in the viral video who cried because no one will stop talking about "Bronco Bama" and Romney. 99% because I don't think I cry quite as much.

And who will win? I don't know.

Who will lose? I feel I do know:

Almost all of us.

Cleveland Okie (Tom Jackson) said...

I love the video, too. You should be glad you don't live in Ohio, where we likely get more political ads than anyone else in the country.