Thursday, November 20, 2008
I was intrigued on November 13th 2008 at the National Humanities Center’s conference: “Autonomy, Singularity, Creativity” where Dr Oliver Sacks spoke. Dr Sacks, the keynote speaker, told the story of Mendeleev who, after years of study of the chemical elements, in a vivid dream conceived all at once of the periodic table of the elements and scribbled it on the back of an envelope. Following this was a description of Poincare and how he was going on a geologic trip, and the moment his foot hit the step to get on the bus, out of nowhere he realized that the equations he was manipulating in order to solve a problem in algebra were actually identical in form to those which characterize the non-Euclidean geometry [of Lobachevski]. It was not a problem he had been working on. It was a sudden realization that arrived fully formed. Then at the seaside while thinking of something else the sudden idea came to him that the arithmetic transformations of indeterminate ternary quadratic forms were identical with those of non-Euclidean geometry. Dr. Sacks then recounted another such revelation experienced by Berlioz in a dream where a new symphony unfolded. In this case, however, he was unable to act upon it, because he had to do other work upon awakening to pay the bills to support his family. By the time he got back to the subject of his dream he had forgotten too much, and the new symphony was lost, perhaps forever.
As I listened to these stories, as relayed via Oliver Sacks, who in my view was giving them new meaning and new context, I too had an epiphany or sudden revelation – for lack of a better word - relating to a familiar phenomenon that I had been amusing myself with for at least a year. I came away thinking that my phenomenon-related revelation was somehow connected to the phenomenon described by Dr. Sacks and perhaps might shed insight upon it. Yet, these two phenomena appeared totally different to me, and were it not for this sudden insight or rather the euphoria that I experienced I never would have connected them. Immediately afterward I described my new insight to some friends who also were present at Dr. Sacks talk. They liked it. The following day, I described it to Dr. Sacks after his scheduled morning talk. I believe he liked it too. I will provide more detail here and leave it to the reader to judge whether there is any deep insight into human thought in my connecting these two phenomena. Let me first say that as a graduate student I performed research in neurophysiology. Although I left the field, I have found myself revisiting it time after time. I have always been fascinated with how the brain works and the many unanswered questions, such as: “What is consciousness?” and “What is thought?”
For about a year I have been acutely aware of a phenomenon that I shall call “the small world phenomenon”. This awareness has been reinforced by how often friends would tell me they met someone on a cruise or on an airplane or by chance, say in a foreign country, and it turned out that the person they met: was a distant relative; or was married to a distant relative; or lived on the same block when they were children; or went to the same school; or was in the same class, etc., followed by: “It’s a small world’. When I hear this, I often think of what would have happened if they failed to meet the person because the timing was not exactly correct or if they missed meeting the person by seconds. I visualize one person turning down a corridor just as another – his or her long lost relative – emerges, and they fail to see each other and fail to meet. I call this a “near miss”. I also find it amusing that none of these coincidences would be manifest (would resolve) if they met the person but failed to speak to the “stranger” (lack of communication or perhaps lack of connectivity). If there were no communication, the nature of their hidden relationship would then not be revealed. I amuse myself further by thinking of the coincidences associated with the “small world phenomenon” as the tip of the iceberg, that is: the portion that is visible. The near misses of such encounters are not visible, and in effect are not perceived, yet there are probably so very many more of them: the portion of the iceberg that is under water and not seen. [Thinking of the “entire” iceberg may make the world seem conceptually “even smaller”.] Now, while listening to Sacks discuss the sudden deep insights of Mendeleev, Poincare, and Berlioz, the iceberg and the small world phenomenon flew into my mind. It was not merely a distracting thought but one that I felt to be of deep significance, as though I had solved a problem I had been wrestling with. But what was it? How did the iceberg relate to what Dr. Oliver Sacks was describing?
A few moments later I knew the answer. It was that the unconscious mind is always working, but it is like the submerged portion of the iceberg. There are an inordinate number of near misses and failures relative to the achievement of appropriate connectivity. When something connects and resolves, it is sent to the conscious mind, and a new thought occurs. Since our thoughts and memories are apparently “graded”, perhaps with emotional content. Unlike the bytes of a digital computer, they have associated with them varying degrees of “significance”. For a thought that resolves a long-standing problem that one has been arduously working on or a thought that uncovers a personal relationship that one was not aware of, the grading associated with the new thought is that much stronger. A thought with a “high grading” of significance transmitted from the unconscious to the conscience mind may well be strong enough to be remembered from a dream. I call this a natural consequence of the iceberg theory. Given the spatial and temporal nature of simultaneous or near simultaneous elements comprising action potentials, synaptic processing, neuropeptide interactions, and who knows what else in the human nervous system, there may very well be an enormous preponderance of “near misses”. The iceberg theory in the physical world seems reasonable as a deeper model of “the small world phenomenon”. Similarly, an analogous iceberg theory of human conscious and unconscious processes might explain the phenomenon described by Dr. Oliver Sacks: the sudden solution of a long standing problem; or the development of a unifying thought; or the birth of deep seeded creative insight of a purely abstract nature; or the creation of a unique musical composition.
Bruce Oberhardt, Ph.D
Saturday, November 15, 2008
But now it is time to hear Krakauer and Hayles...
As I continue this after the fact, I realize how many different ideas I was exposed to during the conference. From what I can accurately recall of Krakauer and his discussion titled "Architects of Matter & Information," humans have distanced themselves from nature. Humans differ from the rest of nature in the responsibilities – we modify the select environment of our own and of other animals. An example of this would be the atomic bomb and its effects. Krakauer said that the environment of the species is shaped by the species, for which he gave the example of the natural selection of the pepper moth. He continued on by speaking of the "cultural time travel" that artifacts from human history makes possible. The human species, along with many other species, constructs heritable riches but uniquely humans construct durable informational riches. In this way humans live not only in the present but in a vast, stored cultural history. To show these points he used a time versus space diagram and then showed how it could be, in a sense, manipulated to be a "life cone" or a "culture cone." But the thought that stuck out to me the most came at the end of the discussion where Krakauer said, "I think its time to forget Darwin and Aristotle." There is a new field and we can take far greater risks than just sticking with the traditional.
Hayles, to me, had probably the most unique presentation where she talked about the humanities themselves in a speech called: "How we Think: the Transforming Power of Digital Technologies." She said that in looking at the humanities there was the traditional versus the new digital humanities. She said the the National Humanities center building was built on the foundation of the traditional humanities. It has the open space for conversation and scholarly activity, yet during other times the scholars go into their own room and do research. It is the unconscious assumptions that she wants to explore in order to discover how relationship with digital humanity has changed the scholar is how they view their work and themselves. To look into this, she did research through interviews with sixteen people who are involved with digital humanities. This was in order to continue with forming a distinction between big Science and Big Humanities. Within this realm of thought, there is machine reading which changes the types of questions and answers according to Hayles. She gave examples of digital humanities works like that of Tanya Clement. The digital humanities are able to open the difference between peer review and online reviews. This further goes into the possibility of forming new alliances between the expert amateur and the expert scholar. After the discussion someone challenged that this digital humanities poses the problem of forgetting the human, to which Hayles responded that humans are writing the material.
A unique twist in the first afternoon presentation was that the two speakers were not physically present at the conference, and instead presented their material and ideas by a video feed. This did not take away from their ideas any. If anything, I thought that it correlated with the topic of "What's So Human About Human Nature?" After all, what other species on Earth would think or care to implement a practice of technology like communicating in digital form? None come to my mind. Tallis and Sapolsky followed this line of thinking, even with several differing views, as they presented the differences between humans and non-human species. Quite possibly the most controversial statement was made by Tallis who called all non-human creatures "beasts." Tallis opened up his arguments by outlining his position so that there would be no confusion about his beliefs later on in the presentation. I felt that his main point was answering the question of what the consequences of "darwinitis" are. The most striking consequence was the forgetting of autonomy, creativity and singularity. He also stressed that it is important not to miss what is right in front of us when determining similarities and differences. Humans have a shared history and a narrative of ourselves. We also can use abstract principles to justify our own actions and that of others. This and the concept of a theory of hidden laws and the thought of consciousness in non-human animals are just not a part of chimps. Tallis' most humorous point concerning our abstract way of thinking and showing our difference from non-human animals is that we are the only animal that will manufacture toilet paper and then go further and argue the merits of one type over another. The audience was entertained by the comment. A final comment on missing out on what is right in front of us is comparing actions of humans to say chimps yet failing to see how the actions are fundamentally different from one another.
Sapolsky followed some of the same ideas with his presentation entitled "Are we just another type of primate?" he began by talking about a conference that he went to where a fly neuroscientist proceeded to tell the scientists there studying Alzheimer's that because there are so many similarities between humans and fruit flies, that in order to study Alzheimer's one must begin to study the fruit flies. Sapolsky said that this scientist proved the opposing point that we should not study the fruit fly to solve the human problem of Alzheimer's, but study humans. To prove the point further about how ridiculous it is to study animals to find out about humans he used and example of female hamsters being put together and synchronizing their ovulation based on smell and related this to human females synchronizing in the same way in a dorm setting. He referred to this humorously as the "Wellesley effect." He continued on to further prove how there are no other animals truly like us. A main point is that animals use sex for reproduction purposes only whereas humans do not restrain sex to simply reproductive purposes.
This goes into the idea that there are domains that look similar between humans and other animals, but only until you look closer at them. There is a basic design found in both, yet humans have an added novel use. For example, aggression. Other animals will kill their own and will gang up on another. Chimps have even been found to have a form of "border control" with their territories. They will effectively take out an entire other group of chimps. Therefore, we did not invent genocide. But in difference, we have the ability to be passive aggressive, look the other way in a situation or even simply pull a trigger with little thought. Furthermore, there is an Air Force base in Nevada where the soldiers come into work and sit in an air conditioned room while remotely controlling air craft thousands of miles away and effectively killing people. One can only imagine the psychological problems that stem from this. And for a final example, Sapolsky demonstrated the human version of the Golden rule: "tit for tat." Vampire bats actually do use this same principle that humans use in being kind and cooperating with others until they back stab us, and then if we are double-crosses we will double cross them. Though both humans and the vampire bats use it, we use it differently. Sapolsky then humored the audience with the following example: "'Beat me,' said the masochist. 'No,' said the sadist."
Friday, November 14, 2008
Now for the conference. In Durham, nestled in the woods is the National Humanities Center. Its location is unique as it is close to the highway, yet when actually at the center all one can see through the glass paneling on some of the walls and the ceiling is trees and forest. The view of the forest from the offices is quite lovely and enviable by anyone who is used to seeing traffic from their office window. Inside the building itself the most striking thing I have noticed is the artwork. Each piece is done by a local man and combines elements of animals and humans in an abstract way with vibrant colors. One piece looks almost like two cats with human eyes and white mustaches, with one wearing glasses. Other pieces which are equally intriguing include horned human-like creatures and animals that can be distinctly identified, yet they have one or more human characteristics to add to them. The fact that surprised me is that the artwork is continually changing and being replaced by other collections. Apparently artwork is on a rotation, with these pieces being replaced by new artwork probably in December. When I inquired about it, I was told that it is refreshing for new artwork to continually be presented in the center. The center definitely seems like a place that is designed to promote creativity and collaboration with one's peers.
The conference should be starting soon, it is a few minutes until 9am, and people are steadily arriving and finding seats. On the two tv screens set up on either side of the stage there are questions that are being presented in a continual cycle. Each of the questions relates to the theme of the conference and is thought provoking. I hope that each of the speakers today will answer these questions from their own experience and drawing from their personal expertise.
And now it officially begins...
Anthony Appiah finished his discussion and I am getting a chance to write during the break before Oliver Sacks will present again. The discussion was titled "The Psychology of Ethics" and explored the theories and questions offered by our behavior in given situations and how they can relate to our personal ethics. He started out with the example of the classic trolley car example and then went further as he stated that the difference between this philosophical example and a real life situation is that in real life the multiple options are not given to the individual. This is where the ethical issues arise from. because now the individual must decide if certain actions are appropriate options on whether they are ethical or not. Appiah went further to say that differences in behavior can stem from differences in circumstances. Just because a person acts dishonestly one time under certain circumstances, this does not mean that that person is necessarily prone to be dishonest in all situations. This can segway into the field of virtue ethics in that people do not always act out of personal virtue and innate kindness. Sometimes they are displaying this behavior due to the circumstance that they have been presented with. Possibly, a seminary student is running late for a meeting so he is less likely to help someone in need even though he would know from his seminary training that helping the person is the right thing to do in that circumstance. Sometimes a person will help another just because they are in a good mood - they might have just had a satisfying meal at their favorite restaurant. Therefore, should credit be given to this person who is acting out of being in a good mood?
Certainly not. For that would encourage only acting in the kind manner when in a good mood. Appiah noted that truly compassionate people are hard to find, and it would be an interesting study to see how the people who actually help those in need, especially when running late to a meeting, differ from those who do not. His closing statement stuck with me the most, where he stated, "unless you know all the questions, you do not know which questions are truly worth asking." One question was asked at the end of this lecture that drew a relationship between Appiah and Sacks' comments made last night. It was stated that might it be possible to assume that the person who is willing to help another is simply acting out of a feeling of security. Sacks had made the comment last night that people who feel secure are able to be more creative. Therefore, it should be assumed that the smell of food from some one's favorite restaurant should be enough to make someone feel secure and comfortable and thus extend that good mood to another person. I found this an interesting correlation that definitely has some merit.
Continuing on after the correlation between Appiah and Sacks there was the second discussion following Appiah, a conversation between Oliver Sacks and Jesse Prinz. I had high expectations for this discussion after Sacks’ opening remarks last night. I was not disappointed in the least. The first statement made by Sacks was in response to the question about how he defined himself. He described himself as a doctor, kind of a country doctor, and not a writer. Though in describing his writing style that is more descriptive rather than explanatory, Sacks gave insight by saying that he seeks to know what it is like to be the person he is talking to. He wants to know how they are affected by what is going on, as in how they will respond to it, adapt to it and eventually survive it. He wants to hear people's stories, saying that everyone has a story in them and that medicine consists of stories. One interesting statement that was said as the questioning continued from this base, is that a deaf person will ascribe a difference between "deaf" and Deaf." Deaf will mean being a part of a greater community and having the benefits of that. It is definitely something to think about.
There has been a focus in the field lately of whether reductionism, describing psychology in terms of nerve function, is wrong. Sacks finds himself to be strongly reductionist, not believing in things that are not in body due to his background in chemistry. This led into a discussion about the future of the sciences and medicine. Before the 1980's most of the work in understanding the brain was done by talking to the person being studied. Yet this has shifted since imaging technology has come into play. This shift is not necessarily a good thing though, since it leaves something out. A statement that Sacks made last night seems to relate to this idea, where he said that we "are in danger of technology turning the doctor into a technician and the patient into an object. We must humanize technology before it dehumanizes us." Continuing on, there is hope for technological intervention that can give us the abilities that we do not have or need improvement on. Oliver sacks made the point that though there is hope for it, it may be at a cost we will not like. He said that at a younger age we all had the abilities of a savant but that these have been shooed out from that early age with the development of language skills. This causes worry as to whether a person would have to give up verbal skills in order to gain the "lesser" skills back, but maybe we could have both. There is evidence of people with frontal temporal dementia, I believe that is what it was called, where the people affected during the early stages had an onset of creative abilities. people who had never touched a paintbrush in their lives were creating these amazing works of art. Though at the same time, people with damage to the frontal lobe can sometimes begin to lack in moral ability and exhibit more criminal activity. Prinz joked that, "There may be some costs to being a good artist." Sacks commented that we sometimes do need "a little holiday from our temporal lobe," though this is within reason.
Wednesday, November 12, 2008
Anthony Appiah, Princeton University
Patricia Churchland, University of California, San Diego
Michael Gazzaniga, University of California, Santa Barbara
Michael Gillespie, Duke University
Katherine Hayles, Duke University
David Krakauer, Santa Fe Institute
Jesse Prinz, University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill
Peter Railton, University of Michigan
Oliver Sacks, Columbia University
Robert Sapolsky, Stanford University
Raymond Tallis, University of Manchester
Holden Thorp, University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill
Mark Turner, Case Western Reserve University