Category Archives: Schooling

The Penumbra

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The utter mystery of what transpires beneath the folds of the brain is profound. And love, more perhaps than any other emotion, reaches into nearly every dark shadow of our gray matter. Our brains want love, need love, and are improved by love. And sex too for that matter. According to The Scientific American Book of Love, Sex, and the Brain, by Judith Horstman, not only are love and sex good for your brain, they are good for it in different ways. More than that, one merely has to think of love or sex to benefit.

Just the thought of love or sex can improve brain performance, but in different ways. Thoughts about the two states have different impacts on performance: Love makes us creative, whereas sex makes us analytical (Horstman 88).

A friend jokingly asked me, which, in that case, would be better for SATs? Sex, obviously—but who has to tell a teenager to think about sex?

Can it be said that sex is left brain and love is right brain? On the face of it, it makes sense. Sex is obviously very action, ‘now’ oriented, necessarily focusing on details of the event. Love, on the other hand, is expansive and discursive, reaching into the future, and back into the past as well.

And this all made me think of another book I just finished, The Emotional Life of Your Brain by Richard Davidson. To easily test this notion of right and left thinking (and I did test a friend to verify) one can think about a slightly complex question involving language (the example question in the book was: name three synonyms for boredom) one looks to the left (which the right side of the brain controls) whereas when the question is a mathematical question requiring some thought (how many corners does a cube have?) one searches into the right field of vision for the answer. This is one of the ways scientists determine that the right and left hemisphere of the brain dominate different modes of thinking.

But here is an interesting consideration: likewise, when we recall negative memories we tend to look to the left as the right side of our brains is activated. Positive memories will induce a rightward gaze.

positive and negative emotions are distinguished by activation in the left and right prefrontal cortex, respectively (Richards 31).

Davidson’s research led him to discover that “positive” and “negative” emotions were largely processed in different regions of the brain. Why might this be, he asks? He speculates that it comes down to qualities that every emotion balances between: “approach” and “avoidance.”

Whether to approach or avoid is the fundamental psychological decision an organism makes in relation to its environment (Richards 39).

It is fundamental, and the brain has evolved in such a way, perhaps, in order to keep these two competing drives neatly separated.

But back to sex and love. One can see how this may fit in. Sex depends upon an “approach” sort of instinct—that seems obvious. Does that mean that love reigns in the “avoidance” hemisphere? It would seem so. I hasten to interject here that, I think, one must step away from value judgments about “positive” and “negative” for a moment to follow my train of thought. There is much more going on in each hemisphere of the brain than can be reduced to “good” and “bad.” Not to mention the obvious fact that each brain is individual (a driving thesis in Richard’s book), complex, and each region of the brain deeply, inextricably interconnected. So, that said, the more I read about the subject, the more I begin to see a pattern which begins to lead my research question: is love a mechanism that works under the constraints of avoidance or limits. Why yes, of course: I love this and not that, I love you and not someone else.

I am starting to see love as a beautiful process which quiets the noise of all the myriad choices we would otherwise be overwhelmed by. It makes for specificity. It simplifies and concentrates by naturally encouraging an avoidance of things I don’t love.

I have been focusing on the senses’ relationship to the emotion of love, and I see this sort of manifesting in those realms as well. It’s quite fascinating. I have to think more on this, follow my thoughts more thoroughly, but one thing that I find truly lovely about our brains, and love in the brain, is the complexity and the simplicity: an unavoidable truth that there is a wholeness in the peaks and valleys.

 

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Our Hearts

IMG_6744The problem with the burgeoning, if thrilling, forays into the neurology of love and the study of the brain with its recipe of chemicals and influences both inborn and learned, is that at the end of the day—what do we know? It is not that we know nothing, of course we know a lot—oxytocin, vasopressin, dopamine, serotonin, and all the attending receptors, neuropeptides and neurotrophins—we know the ingredients! But what does it make?

Love, as a topic of scientific inquiry, has long suffered from a reputation of frivolity as far as reasoned science is concerned, particularly romantic love. As Kayt Sukel relates in her book Dirty Minds: How Our Brains Influence Love, Sex, and Relationships, the attempts to approach romantic love while maintaining a vestige of objective scientific pride resulted in no studied structures of understanding and a lot of very dry synonms:

There was already ample evidence in neuroscience literature to suggest that love was a worthy topic of research. But the scientists never called it such, avoiding it like the dirty word it is. Instead they referred to the related topics of pair-bonding, monogamy, attachment, and mating behaviors (3).

Perhaps if we call it pair-bonding we won’t remember what fools for love we are. Nice try guys, but love is now a subject that is being given some serious attention despite the fact that many of us—those who come up with terms such as mating behaviors included—make asses of ourselves in allegiance to this essential aspect of our beings.

The science is new and inconclusive. Oh, but the temptations to conclude! To draw deep breathes of poetic justification over the mundane chemical imbalances precipitated by love.

Take neurotrophins, also called nerve growth factor (NGF), they are proteins involved in synaptic plasticity—which is the ability of the connections between neurons to change (36). In couples who report to be wildly in love, or “romantically afflicted” (ha. ha.), the levels of NGF in the blood stream are significantly elevated (37). Like all hormone hysteria associated with the event-encounter (as Alain Badiou terms it) of falling in love, the levels taper off and normalize after one to two years, but scientists can see there is a strong elevation during the seismic event of falling in love. What scientists can not yet tell us is—why? And to what purpose?

The rate at which hard-scientific analysis can devolve (or evolve, depending on your disposition) into straight-up poetry of speculation, at least for me, is enough to make one’s head spin. It is too hard to end with we don’t know. For goodness sake, these proteins are involved in synaptic plasticity!

Doesn’t it sound lovely and logical? Positively poetic? One falls in love and what is the first thing that has to happen? You must change. You must allow the other to change you. That our brains chemically pave the way for these changes to transpire on a synaptic level is beautiful. Love does that.

In Praise of Annoyance

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2011 portrait of my annoyance by my then 9-year-old Augustus

The happenstance of the stacks is a wonderful thing. One finds a call number, consults the map and marches purposefully to the floor, section, stack on which the book they seek lays waiting. And then something happens. All the neighbors call out, “read me! read me!” You could say I am a sucker, or you could congratulate me on passing thousands of other books and resisting them all, save one. But with a title like Annoying I couldn’t even pretend to resist.

There’s never a time when a fly buzzing around your head isn’t annoying (24).

That’s for damn sure. And it turns out (contrary to popular belief) I am not a mad woman for getting thoroughly annoyed by a mosquito that conducted flybys over my head for a full hour before I had to wake up the other morning. Even when I begged it to simply bite me and be done with it, even when I covered my head with the pillow—it persisted.

According to Joe Palca and Flora Lichen, the authors of Annoying: The Science of What Bugs Us, there is a legitimate reason to be annoyed, and it does not solely depend upon your disposition. In the case of buzzing insects, it is the roughness of the sound (the change of amplitude over time) which is something that we notice and are hardwired to become annoyed by if the roughness is distracting. Which a mosquito’s is. It is not predictable: the sound starts and stops randomly, the volume a stochastic nightmare. And, we don’t like that.

The irritant alarm is ancient. Unlike smell and taste, which appear to have evolved multiple times over the course of history, the signal for irritation has been conserved since the Cambrian period. Our ancestors—in fact, the ancestors of all vertebrates and invertebrates—had this protein [TRPA1 which stands for “transient receptor potential A1” pronounced “trip-a-one”]five hundred million years ago, meaning these chemicals could have been annoying life on Earth for half a billion years (237).

So perhaps my one hour of mosquito torture pales a bit in comparison to that time frame. Still, it is actually helpful to know that these reactions are innate. It’s not just you. Or me. We don’t like overhearing cell-phone conversations, not because they are mostly inane, but because our brains prefer to predict. When you can only hear one side of the conversation you can not predict when the person is going to start talking again or how they might answer based on the other end. And this is annoyingly distracting. The distractibility of it gets in the way of simply re-focusing our attention. Our brains are mostly set up to help us make sense of the world and one could look at annoyance as a sort of first-defense mechanism. The brain is geared to let us know when it can not work optimally. Most of us don’t let annoyances become anything other than annoyances, and some of us should just let me others be annoyed when they are seriously annoyed (my friends, not un-coincidentally, tell me ‘annoying’ is one of my favorite words).

But what of annoying people?

Is it possible to come up with a shorthand test, one that simply measures how annoying someone is? (164)

According to Robert Hogan who runs a management consultant business—yes. He breaks “the annoying inventory” down into three parts: irritable, arrogant, and picky. In the book there are a series of questions you can answer true/false, or on a scale, to assess how annoying you may be. The problem is, of course, that one of the hallmarks of annoying people is that they do not know or believe that they themselves are annoying!

Annoying: The Science of What Bugs Us, is a fascinating book that covers a lot of ground: physics, chemistry, biology, psychology, sociology, anthropology, history, philosophy, and on and on. Being annoyed is a complex matter. But, I feel I have been helped in understanding myself and others better. I have, on occasion, been accused of being overly-anylitic, but I swear it does help me to be able to stop and analyze a situation— why is that person or thing annoying me? —Oh! because my brain is unhappy, or—oh! that’s right. because they are fucking annoying! Once I know the source it is easier to then deal with the problem, or keep the lid my annoyance accordingly. It is when annoyance flares into anger that people start to have real problems. So I  say, let’s all embrace our mild defender: annoyance. After all, to be annoyed is to be alive.

Love, Logic, Love

The requirements of logic and the needs of a beloved supersede any contrary preferences to which we are less authoritatively inclined. Once the dictatorial regimes of these necessities have been imposed, it is no longer up to us to decide what to care about or what to think. We have no choice in the matter. Logic and love preempt the guidance of our cognitive and volitional activity.
—Harry G. Frankfurt, The Reasons of Love (66)

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Waclaw Szymanowski, Blooming Apple Tree 

I am involved in a year-long research project,* and now have an official reason to indulge my insatiable curiosity on the subject of love—oh joy! I mention it only to preemptively explain the expected preponderance of books about love, the senses, and neurology that may be forthcoming. Although, it occurs to me that there may already be a preponderance—or at least a driving theme— of such books in my reading habits. So be it.

There is a striking and instructive resemblance in the matter between love and reason. Rationality and the capacity to love are the most powerfully emblematic and most highly prized features of human nature. The former guides us most authoritatively in the use of our minds, while the latter provides us with the most compelling motivation in our personal and social conduct (64).

As Harry Frankfurt states, in his book The Reasons of Love, love and logic are what dignify us—they are “distinctly humane and ennobling in us” (64). The entire book is dedicated to examining the preeminence of love in our lives. The mere fact that “caring” distinguishes our attention; our affection; our past, present and future proves, by his lights, the very quiddity of the emotion. Why do we love? Because we care. Not selfishly, or even unselfishly—to use words such as ‘selfish’ or ‘unselfish’ distorts the question—love is a sine qua non condition of being human.

Bertrand Russell alludes to “the restfulness of mathematical certainty.” Mathematical certainty, like other modes of certainty that are grounded in logically or conceptually necessary truths, is restful because it relieves us from having to contend with disparate tendencies in ourselves concerning what to believe (65)

When we commit to loving, we no longer have to deliberate, consider, or weigh the options. That declaration of love—the ‘I love you’ (as Alain Badiou so eloquently described in its form of “stage fright”) is the leaving-off of doubt for the restfulness of certainty. The comparison to logic is clear, and yet, and yet…we all know that love is more prone to distortion than logic (although—politics, for one, could cure one of that notion as well). And we all know that certainty is the domain (again, Bertrand Russell, not to mention Voltaire) of fools and fanatics. Still, when I think of my own children I understand love perfectly. There, in my heart, is a restfulness like no other.

The fact that we can not help loving, and that we therefore cannot help being guided by the interests of what we love, helps us to ensure that we neither flounder aimlessly nor hold ourselves back from definitive adherence to a meaningful practical course (66).

Love, like logic, is constrictive in that we are compelled through the very laws of each to obey. That we do not necessarily choose whom to love is important. Who can solve the mystery of why this person and not that person? Frankfurt suggests that this is a form of freedom. The stage fright of ‘I love you’ is, in this light, a respectful fear of certainty. Given the horrific events in Orlando I am more afraid of people who hold rigid beliefs than I have ever been. I have never understood absolutism, belief, certainty, dogmatism….And yet I do think that love, as a manifestation of certainty, like logic, may inhabit unique space. Neither is capable of doing harm on its own, although both are often used to excuse acts of perversity which defy the very meaning of the words. Love and logic simply are.

One doesn’t choose to love their children anymore than one chooses to believe two plus two equals four. That seems obvious. Not having to constantly re-evaluate or reassess those truths is freeing. Frankfurt sticks to child-parent love for a reason, as he states it: it is a more pure love without all of the distractions of romantic love. Yet for all the complications and distractions, it remains true that all love is freeing in that it is binding. It binds us together and limits how we behave in accordance to what is good for the beloved and the lover: the demands of profane love, that which cares and is caring.

 

*I will be a 2016–17 Kahn Institute Fellow, in the “Shaping Perception” project. My proposed project, which may change slightly as my research develops, is on the relationship between the senses and the emotion of love.

Sacrificing a Thousand Apparent Truths

The brain, as I have said before, needs to acquire knowledge about the permanent, essential and constant properties of objects and surfaces, in a world where much is continually changing. To do this, it must discount all the changes that are superfluous, indeed an impediment, to acquiring that knowledge; it must, in the words of Glees and Metzinger, ‘sacrifice a thousand apparent truths’ 
—Semir Zeki, Inner Vision (185).

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14th & 1st, L line Florist, Victoria Accardi (2016)

The question, what is art? is one of seemingly perpetual interest and discussion. I’m not quite fool enough to attempt an answer, nor to even believe that an answer is possible, but one thing I do believe is that art is the constant. As far back as our human minds can stretch into our history—there is art. I therefore think a better question is, why is that? Semir Zeki, in his wonderful book Inner Vision proposes a possible basis upon which an answer to that question can begin to be understood. Zeki begins, within his field of expertise: the neurology of vision.

[The] proliferation of newly discovered visual areas, many of which are specialised to process different aspects of the visual scene such as form, colour and motion, [raise] important questions about why the brain needs to process different attributes in different compartments […] vision is an essentially active search for essentials (21).

What Zeki proposes is that art, essentially, works the same way, or, shares the same purpose.

The neurological definition of art that I am proposing—that it is a search for constancies, during which the artist discards much and selects the essentials, and art is therefore an extension of the functions of the visual brain—is meant to have very broad applications (22).

By which he means that our aesthetic likes and dislikes are not covered under his thesis, but do rely upon it, because, “art must, after all, obey the laws of the brain” (125). And the laws are much more complex and fascinating then one might think. It is not simply a straight shot from “seeing” to “understanding,” both of these processes are more complex and more tightly bound to each other than previously imagined. The fun thing about Zeki’s work and passions, is that he looks to other vital areas of life, like love and art, to present evidence which science is newly discovering, but which art has always understood—at least insomuch as art unknowingly (innately?) exploits and reflects the brain’s method of organizing information. On the one hand, that seems obvious—painting (which is Zeki’s focus in this book) is obviously a ‘visual’ art and so it stands to reason that ‘successful’ art must obey visual parameters and preferences of line, color, form, and motion.

The brain, as it turns out, has highly specialized cells that are uniquely interested in single attributes—like color, form, or motion—and these cells are both concentrated in areas of the brain and also widely diffused (most dramatically in the cells concerned with form). More than that:

Recent experiments that have measured the relative times that it takes to perceive colour, form and motion show that these three attributes are not perceived at the same time, that color is perceived before form which is perceived before motion […] This suggests that the perceptual systems themselves are functionally specialized and that there is a temporal hierarchy in vision, superimposed upon spatially distributed parallel processing systems (66).

Fascinating stuff. The book expounds on all manner of visual maladies which have done a lot of work in showing just how specialized the processes are and then goes on to look at art (mostly modern) to point out philosophical consistencies between what artists (impressionists, cubists, modernists, fauvists) say they are trying to explore or achieve with what we know (which is some, but not all) neurologically about what the brain’s visual system tries to accomplish. Zeki’s brilliance is that he conjoins two disciplines for the same purpose. Artistic inquiry naturally has a longer, richer history than neurological inquiry, and yet the former seems to possess what artistic discourse lacks: the promise of quantitative and qualitative comprehension (seems to, at least….). Art has always been a difficult subject to capture in language, as Zeki writes,

Language is a relatively recent evolutionary acquisition, and it has yet to catch up with and match the visual system in its capacity to extract essentials so efficiently. To describe the power of art in words constitutes, in the lines of T. S. Eliot, ‘a raid on the inarticulate, with shabby equipment’ (9).

All the same, sometimes we come out with some hilarious accuracy: Mondrian, for instance, whom we all know had a deep and abiding appreciation for the brain’s preference for horizontal and vertical lines, heroically defended the wisdom of our visual organizing system to Theo van Doesburg (founder of De Stijl group) writing to him:

Following the highhanded manner in which you have used the diagonal, all further collaboration between us has become impossible. For the rest, sans racune (115).

Well. What more can one say?

 

*painting by my daughter Victoria Accardi. To see more of her work go here.

Language Is an Heirloom

One cannot understand their mode of existence as long as the differentiation of basic concepts such as nature and culture, societies and individuals is not counterbalanced by the qualification of their relationships, by instruments of synthesis. Language and knowledge are examples of the latter.
—Norbert Elias, The Symbol Theory (131)

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The Symbol Theory by Norbert Elias (1991) is a book that attempts to highlight the need to form an integrated theory that not only describes that thing we, as humans, do with sound-symbols, but more importantly describes the synthesis of knowledge, thoughts and language. Try, if you can, to separate any one from the other. It is not what we do with language, but rather, what language does to us.

The nature of language cannot be understood if one uses individual actions as a point of departure (20).

Elias makes a compelling case that the studies of linguistics, epistemology, and consciousness can in no way be separated. Without language how does one have thoughts? Without language, or sound-symbols, as he names it, how can one come to any realm of consciousness as we understand it? How can one have any sense of “knowledge?”

Human societies and human languages can change to an extent inaccessible to the societies and means of communication of apes. The structure of the latter is still largely genetically fixated or, in other words, species-specific (29).

And this is an interesting point. Beyond the individual level, as a species, apes (for instance) are only able to act on a species level—their language skills are species-specific and as such have limits of mutability, in that it varies very little from group to group and needs some sort of evolutionary change to leap over to the sort of language/knowledge complexity we enjoy. Humans, by virtue of our language which is not species-specific but rather societally-specific (in our Tower of Babel way) with the ability to grow, alter, expand or contract our “knowledge” of the world regardless of the actual sound-symbols (languages) we are employing, and with the ability to create anew at any instance, communication with another human. It is a factor worthy of a system of study.

Descartes, is based on a strange assumption which is rarely stated explicitly. It suggests that the cognitive functions of human beings developed initially on their own independently of a world to be recognized and that human beings having at first developed without object of cognition at some time, as it were by accident, entered an alien world. That, however, is a fable. Human beings have developed within a world (98).

For instance, I give you the photo I took this morning of a group of trees in the park. Our knowledge tells us that, in my part of the world, trees grow in dirt, not water, and yet, I can take the photo and relate to any English speaker in the world the events that caused these trees to be immersed in water (the power and glory of the storm last night! Thunder and lightening, pounding rain and surging water tables!) these are specificities  and temporalities that are lost without language. This knowledge means nothing without the power of language to communicate. But, Elias would go further, because, consider how it is we know, in the first place that trees mostly grow in dirt? The idea that we come into the world and learn to speak, as if language somehow stands outside of knowledge,  negates the accumulative effect of our history and culture. It sets up strange desperate “ologies” that, in truth, are utterly un-seperateable.

Concepts such as ‘nature’, ‘culture’ and ‘society’ are telling examples of the tendency to treat as separate entities set apart from each other problem fields at a high level of synthesis, symbolically represented by different substantives surrounded by a fog-like aura of ideological undertones (38).

This creates a sort of “intellectual apartheid” in which it is impossible to begin to understand what is it that makes us human. For Elias an important aspect is “by acquiring the skill of sending and receiving messages in the codified form of a social language, persons gain access to a dimension of the universe which is specifically human” (47) He goes on to say that this acts a a fifth dimension, because it is within the four dimensions of time and space that all species act, but our ability to communicate and identify ourselves through and because of our sound-symbols is a post-animal state of being.

There is nature, there is culture, there is knowledge, scientific or otherwise, there are politics, economics and the all-embracing symbols of language, but how they all cohere with each other is a question that is rarely asked and hardly ever answered (89).

But we can’t help ourselves. We want to know. We want absolute beginnings and we want discrete theories of our world and our place in it. Elias is sympathetic. His only point is that when we begin to consider just how unique and complex our sound-symbols are, then we can begin to see a theory evolve which may help us understand how we got here, and more importantly, give us the perspective to see that perhaps we are really at the beginning:

I like best the suggestion that our descendants, if humanity can survive the violence of our age, might consider us late barbarians. I am not indulging in reproaches. Humans have to go through a long period of learning how to live with each other in peace. Our uncertainty, our inability to eliminate violence, are part of this learning process. No teachers are at hand. Outside help, evidently, is not forthcoming (147).

*title from p.129

The Nectar of Mathematics

It is better to do the right problem the wrong way than to do the wrong problem the right way.
Richard Hamming quoted, Julian Havil, Impossible: Surprising Solutions to Counterintuitive Conundrums (50)

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My kind of geometry: The Doughnut

I was deep into my morning walk a few weeks ago when a powerful craving for doughnuts caught up with me. But proper doughnuts require a little time and a small crowd to partake in the pleasure, so I waited until the right moment.

For every complex problem, there is a solution that is simple, neat, and wrong (H.L. Mencken quoted, 82).

I find that I tend to read a math book or two every year. I’m not sure what it is in me that compels me to plow through the complex equations that I have little to no real understanding of, but I do it anyway. I like the ideas that the math symbolizes, I suppose. I take a strange pleasure in relating events in my life to mathematical equations.

A recipe is like a math equation: n( x + y) (s/t/r) + nfº = Ne (That’s n ingredients, multiplied by speed and time of rotation, plus n degrees fahrenheit, equals the nectar of mathematics: in this case: Apple-cider doughnuts.). Of course we ran into some problems.

Now that we have complex numbers properly placed and our mind receptive to lurking difficulty, we will consider what should be a simple computation for a calculator (44).

Ah yes, the lurking difficulty. Well, that is something one must always be prepared for. I had my heart set on apple cider doughnuts. My children and I were all visiting friends who had kindly procured all the necessary ingredients. I only needed 1/2 cup of apple cider (which I would reduce to 2T) and my friend wondered what to do with rest as they didn’t care for cider. I told her not to worry, my boys would take care of that. The next morning, I awoke, ready to prepare the dough when I realized our error. I neglected to tell the boys that there had been a reason, other than their enjoyment and ever-lurking thirst, for the purchase of the cider. They had made quick work of it. Good communication is important. In math, baking and life—that holds true.

Put succinctly, to increase the chances of success the team must adopt the somewhat counterintuitive strategy of being wrong together, not correct together (53).

Something strange that I love about math, as it feeds some sort of philosophical truth I seek, is that not only can there be multiple ways to reach a solution, but there are multiple solutions to a problem. It just depends on what system, matrix, or units of measurement and/or data you are using. There is not as much firm ground as we like to think. There are just abstract ideas and evolving methods of problem-solving.

Of course making apple cider doughnuts is not that complex of a problem. I solved the equation, in fact, by a simple adjustment of words. Rather than making Apple-cider Doughnuts I replaced the 2T reduced apple cider with milk and renamed the solution: Plain Doughnuts.

*title from p 128: “Certainly, [the proof] is more secure and in looking at it we can taste the nectar of mathematics…”