Tag Archives: consciousness

The Shake-Speared Brain: A Theatre of Simultaneous Possibilities

Yes.

Philip Davis pleasures his brain with shifting Shakespearean syntax, measures the results on an electroencephalogram, and finds evidence that powerful writing can literally change the ways in which we think …

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From THE READER

  I have always been very interested in how literature affects us. But I don’t really like it when people say, “This book changed my life!” Struggling with ourselves and our seemingly inextricable mixture of strengths and weaknesses, surely we know that change is much more difficult and much less instant than that. It does scant justice to the deep nature of a life to suppose that a book can simply “change” it. Literature is not a one-off remedy. And actually it is the reading of books itself, amongst other things, that has helped me appreciate that deep complex nature. Nonetheless, I do remain convinced that life without reading and the personal thinking it provokes would be a greatly diminished thing. So, with these varying considerations, I know I need to think harder about what literature does. And here’s another thing. In the last few years I have become interested not only in the contents of the thoughts I read—their meaning for me, their mental and emotional effect—but also in the very shapes these thoughts take; a shape inseparable, I feel, from that content. Moreover, I had a specific intuition—about Shakespeare: that the very shapes of Shakespeare’s lines and sentences somehow had a dramatic effect at deep levels in my mind. For example, Macbeth at the end of his tether:

And that which should accompany old age, As honour, love, obedience, troops of friends, I must not look to have, but in their stead Curses, not loud but deep, mouth-honour, breath Which the poor heart would fain deny and dare not.

I’ll say no more than this: it simply would not be the same, would it, if Shakespeare had written it out more straightforwardly: I must not look to have the honour, love, obedience, troops of friends which should accompany old age. Nor would it be the same if he had not suddenly coined that disgusted phrase “mouth-honour” (now a cliché as “lip-service”).

I took this hypothesis—about grammatical or linear shapes and their mapping onto shapes inside the brain—to a scientist, Professor Neil Roberts who heads MARIARC (the Magnetic Resonance and Image Analysis Research Centre) at the University of Liverpool. In particular I mentioned to him the linguistic phenomenon in Shakespeare which is known as “functional shift” or “word class conversion”. It refers to the way that Shakespeare will often use one part of speech—a noun or an adjective, say—to serve as another, often a verb, shifting its grammatical nature with minimal alteration to its shape. Thus in “Lear” for example, Edgar comparing himself to the king: “He childed as I fathered” (nouns shifted to verbs); in “Troilus and Cressida”, “Kingdomed Achilles in commotion rages” (noun converted to adjective); “Othello”, “To lip a wanton in a secure couch/And to suppose her chaste!”‘ (noun “lip” to verb; adjective “wanton” to noun). The effect is often electric I think, like a lightning-flash in the mind: for this is an economically compressed form of speech, as from an age when the language was at its most dynamically fluid and formatively mobile; an age in which a word could move quickly from one sense to another, in keeping with Shakespeare’s lightning-fast capacity for forging metaphor. It was a small example of sudden change of shape, of concomitant effect upon the brain. Could we make an experiment out of it? We decided to try to see what happens inside us when the brain comes upon sentences like “The dancers foot it with grace”, or “We waited for disclose of news”, or “Strong wines thick my thoughts”, or “I could out-tongue your griefs” or “Fall down and knee/The way into his mercy”. For research suggests that there is one specific part of the brain that processes nouns and another part that processes verbs: but what happens when for a micro-second there is a serious hesitation between whether, in context, this is noun or verb? The main cognitive research done so far on the confusion of verbs and nouns has been to do with mistakes made by those who are brain-damaged and thus on the possible neural correlates of grammatical errors and semantic violations. Hardly anybody appears to have investigated the neural processing of a ‘positive error’ such as functional shift in normal healthy organisms. This truly would be a small instance of inner drama. We decided to experiment using three pieces of kit. First, EEG (electroencephalogram) tests, with electrodes placed on different parts of the scalp to measure brain-events taking place in time; then MEG (magnetoencephalograhy), a helmet-like brain-scanner which measures effects in terms of location in the brain as well as their timing; and finally fMRI (Functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging), those tunnel-like brain-scanners which focus even more specifically on brain-activation by location. I knew nothing much of this: I am indebted to Professor Roberts and to Dr Guillaume Thierry of Bangor University who joined us in the enterprise. With the help of my colleague in English language Victorina Gonzalez-Diaz, as well as the scientists, I designed a set of stimuli—40 examples of Shakespeare’s functional shift. At this very early and rather primitive stage, we could not give our student-subjects undiluted lines of Shakespeare because too much in the brain would light up in too many places: that is one of the definitions of what Shakespeare-language does. So, the stimuli we created were simply to do with the noun-to-verb or verb-to-noun shift-words themselves, with more ordinary language around them. It is not Shakespeare taken neat; it is just based on Shakespeare, with water. But around each of those sentences of functional shift we also provided three counter-examples which were shown on screen to the experiment’s subjects in random order: all they had to do was press a button saying whether the sentence roughly made sense or not. Thus, below, A (“accompany”) is a sentence which is conventionally grammatical, makes simple sense, and acts as a control; B (“charcoal”) is grammatically odd, like a functional shift, but it makes no semantic sense in context; C (“incubate”) is grammatically correct but still semantically does not make sense; D (“companion”) is a Shakespearian functional shift from noun to verb, and is grammatically odd but does make sense:


A) I was not supposed to go there alone: you said you would accompany me. B) I was not supposed to go there alone: you said you would charcoal me. C) I was not supposed to go there alone: you said you would incubate me. D) I was not supposed to go there alone: you said you would companion me.


What happened to our subjects’ brains when they read the critical words on screen in front of them? So far we have just carried out the EEG stage of experimentation under Dr Thierry at Bangor. EEG works as follows in its graph-like measurements. When the brain senses a semantic violation, it automatically registers what is called an N400 effect, a negative wave modulation 400 milliseconds after the onset of the critical word that disrupts the meaning of a sentence. The N400 amplitude is small when little semantic integration effort is needed (e.g., to integrate the word “eat” in the sentence, “The pizza was too hot to eat”), and large when the critical word is unexpected and therefore difficult to integrate (e.g., “The pizza was too hot to sing”). But when the brain senses a syntactic violation there is a P600 effect, a parietal modulation peaking approximately 600 milliseconds after the onset of the word that upsets syntactic integrity. Thus, when a word violates the grammatical structure of a sentence (e.g., “The pizza was too hot to mouth”), a positive going wave is systematically observed. Preliminary results suggest this:


(A) With the simple control sentence (“You said you would accompany me”), NO N400 or P600 effect because it is correct both semantically and syntactically. (B) With “You said you would charcoal me”, BOTH N400 and P600 highs, because it violates both grammar and meaning. (C) With “You said you would incubate me”, NO P600 (it makes grammatical sense) but HIGH N400 (it does not make semantic sense). (D) With the Shakespearian “You said you would companion me”, HIGH P600 (because it feels like a grammatical anomaly) but NO N400 (the brain will tolerate it, almost straightaway, as making sense despite the grammatical difficulty). This is in marked contrast with B above.


So what? First, it was as Guillaume Thierry had predicted. It meant that “functional shift” was a robust phenomenon: that is to say, it had a distinct and unique effect on the brain. Instinctively Shakespeare was right to use it as one of his dramatic tools. Second the P600 surge means the brain was thus primed to look out for more difficulty, to work at a higher level, whilst still accepting that fundamental sense was being made. In other words, while the Shakespearian functional shift was semantically integrated with ease, it triggered a syntactic re-evaluation process likely to raise attention and give more weight to the sentence as a whole. Shakespeare is stretching us; he is opening up the possibility of further peaks, new potential pathways or developments. Our findings show how Shakespeare created dramatic effects by implicitly taking advantage of the relative independence—at the neural level—of semantics and syntax in sentence comprehension. It is as though he is a pianist using one hand to keep the background melody going, whilst simultaneously the other pushes towards ever more complex variations and syncopations. This is a small beginning. But it has some importance in the development of inter-disciplinary studies—the co-operation of arts and sciences in the study of the mind, the brain, and the neural inner processing of language felt as an experience of excitement, never fully explained or exhausted by subsequent explanation or conceptualization. It is that neural excitement that gets to me: those peaks of sudden pre-conscious understanding coming into consciousness itself; those possibilities of shaking ourselves up at deep, momentary levels of being. This, then, is a chance to map something of what Shakespeare does to mind at the level of brain, to catch the flash of lightning that makes for thinking. For my guess, more broadly, remains this: that Shakespeare’s syntax, its shifts and movements, can lock into the existing pathways of the brain and actually move and change them—away from old and aging mental habits and easy long-established sequences. It could be that Shakespeare’s use of language gets so far into our brains that he shifts and new-creates pathways—not unlike the establishment of new biological networks using novel combinations of existing elements (genes/proteins in biology: units of phonology, semantics, syntax , and morphology in language). Then indeed we might be able to see something of the ways literature can cause affect or create change, without resorting to being assertively gushy. I do not think this is reductive. Cognitive science is often to do with the discovery of the precise localization of functions. But suppose that instead we can show the following by neuro-imaging: that for all the localization of noun-processing in one place and the localization of verb-processing in another, when the brain is asked to work at more complex meanings, the localization gives way to the movement between the two static locations. Then the brain is working at a higher level of evolution, at an emergent consciousness paradoxically undetermined by the structures it still works from. And then we might be re-discovering at a demonstrable neural level the experience not merely of specialist “art” but of thinking itself going on not in static terms but in dynamic ones. At present there is of course no brain imaging system that allows the study of continuous thought. But the hope is that, within experimental limitations, we might be able to gain a glimpse within ourselves of a changing neurological configuration of the brain, like the shape of the syntax just ahead of the realization of the semantics. In that case Shakespeare’s art would be no more and no less than the supreme example of a mobile, creative and adaptive human capacity, in deep relation between brain and language. It makes new combinations, creates new networks, with changed circuitry and added levels, layers and overlaps. And all the time it works like the cry of “action” on a film-set, by sudden peaks of activity and excitement dramatically breaking through into consciousness. It makes for what William James said of mind in his “Principles of Psychology”, “a theatre of simultaneous possibilities”. This could be a new beginning to thinking about reading and mental changes.

(Philip Davis is editor of The Reader magazine, and teaches in the School of English at the University of Liverpool. This article first appeared in The Reader, Number 23, pp. 39-43, and was prepared in collaboration with Neil Roberts, Victorina Gonzalez-Diaz, and Guillaume Thierry.)

Hat tip: Arts & Letters Daily

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The Most Basic Form of Mind Control is Repetition

By Adam Cosco

The Most Basic form of Mind Control is Repetition on IMDB: imdb.com/title/tt1789950/

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This is a persistent feeling…

“This is a persistent feeling in a poet but staying alert to all the ways one is coerced into denying experience, sense and reason is a huge task…”

Published on crt

The Poetics of Disobedience by Alice Notley

via latesummersupper

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Everything Is A Remix: THE MATRIX

EVERYTHINGISAREMIX.INFO

ROBGWILSON.COM

EDITED BY Robert Grigsby Wilson

PRODUCED BY Kirby Ferguson and Robert Grigsby Wilson

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1969 Alice in Wonderland by Salvador DalĂ­

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Frontispiece

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Down the Rabbit Hole

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The Pool of Tears

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A Caucus Race and a Long Tale

Alicedali5

The Rabbit Sends in a Little Bill

Alicedali6

Advice From a Caterpillar

Alicedali7

Pig and Pepper

Alicedali8

Mad Tea Party

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The Queen’s Croquet Ground

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The Mock Turtle’s Story

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The Lobster’s Quadrille

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Who Stole the Tarts?

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Alice’s Evidence

The Lewis Carroll classic illustrated by Salvador Dalí 

Published by New York’s Maecenas Press-Random House in 1969 and distributed as their book of the month, the volume went on to become one of the most sought-after Dalí suites of all time. It contains 12 heliogravures, one for each chapter of the book, and one original signed etching in 4 colors as the frontpiece, all of which the fine folks at the William Bennett Gallery have kindly digitized for your gasping pleasure.

via Brain Pickings | Maria Popova + WBG

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Resign

 

18 November 2011

Open Letter to Chancellor Linda P.B. Katehi

Linda P.B. Katehi,

I am a junior faculty member at UC Davis. I am an Assistant Professor in the Department of English, and I teach in the Program in Critical Theory and in Science & Technology Studies. I have a strong record of research, teaching, and service. I am currently a Board Member of the Davis Faculty Association. I have also taken an active role in supporting the student movement to defend public education on our campus and throughout the UC system. In a word: I am the sort of young faculty member, like many of my colleagues, this campus needs. I am an asset to the University of California at Davis.

You are not.

I write to you and to my colleagues for three reasons:

1) to express my outrage at the police brutality which occurred against students engaged in peaceful protest on the UC Davis campus today

2) to hold you accountable for this police brutality

3) to demand your immediate resignation

Today you ordered police onto our campus to clear student protesters from the quad. These were protesters who participated in a rally speaking out against tuition increases and police brutality on UC campuses on Tuesday—a rally that I organized, and which was endorsed by the Davis Faculty Association. These students attended that rally in response to a call for solidarity from students and faculty who were bludgeoned with batons,hospitalized, and arrested at UC Berkeley last week. In the highest tradition of non-violent civil disobedience, those protesters had linked arms and held their ground in defense of tents they set up beside Sproul Hall. In a gesture of solidarity with those students and faculty, and in solidarity with the national Occupy movement, students at UC Davis set up tents on the main quad. When you ordered police outfitted with riot helmets, brandishing batons and teargas guns to remove their tents today, those students sat down on the ground in a circle and linked arms to protect them.

What happened next?

Without any provocation whatsoever, other than the bodies of these students sitting where they were on the ground, with their arms linked, police pepper-sprayed students. Students remained on the ground, now writhing in pain, with their arms linked.

What happened next?

Police used batons to try to push the students apart. Those they could separate, they arrested, kneeling on their bodies and pushing their heads into the ground. Those they could not separate, they pepper-sprayed directly in the face, holding these students as they did so. When students covered their eyes with their clothing, police forced open their mouths and pepper-sprayed down their throats. Several of these students were hospitalized. Others are seriously injured. One of them, forty-five minutes after being pepper-sprayed down his throat, was still coughing up blood.

This is what happened. You are responsible for it.

You are responsible for it because this is what happens when UC Chancellors order police onto our campuses to disperse peaceful protesters through the use of force: students get hurt. Faculty get hurt. One of the most inspiring things (inspiring for those of us who care about students who assert their rights to free speech and peaceful assembly) about the demonstration in Berkeley on November 9 is that UC Berkeley faculty stood together with students, their arms linked together. Associate Professor of English Celeste Langan was grabbed by her hair, thrown on the ground, and arrested. Associate Professor Geoffrey O’Brien was injured by baton blows. Professor Robert Hass, former Poet Laureate of the United States, National Book Award and Pulitzer Prize winner, was also struck with a baton. These faculty stood together with students in solidarity, and they too were beaten and arrested by the police. In writing this letter, I stand together with those faculty and with the students they supported.

One week after this happened at UC Berkeley, you ordered police to clear tents from the quad at UC Davis. When students responded in the same way—linking arms and holding their ground—police also responded in the same way: with violent force. The fact is: the administration of UC campuses systematically uses police brutality to terrorize students and faculty, to crush political dissent on our campuses, and to suppress free speech and peaceful assembly. Many people know this. Many more people are learning it very quickly.

You are responsible for the police violence directed against students on the UC Davis quad on November 18, 2011. As I said, I am writing to hold you responsible and to demand your immediate resignation on these grounds.

On Wednesday November 16, you issued a letter by email to the campus community. In this letter, you discussed a hate crime which occurred at UC Davis on Sunday November 13. In this letter, you express concern about the safety of our students. You write, “it is particularly disturbing that such an act of intolerance should occur at a time when the campus community is working to create a safe and inviting space for all our students.” You write, “while these are turbulent economic times, as a campus community, we must all be committed to a safe, welcoming environment that advances our efforts to diversity and excellence at UC Davis.”

I will leave it to my colleagues and every reader of this letter to decide what poses a greater threat to “a safe and inviting space for all our students” or “a safe, welcoming environment” at UC Davis: 1) Setting up tents on the quad in solidarity with faculty and students brutalized by police at UC Berkeley? or 2) Sending in riot police to disperse students with batons, pepper-spray, and tear-gas guns, while those students sit peacefully on the ground with their arms linked? Is this what you have in mind when you refer to creating “a safe and inviting space?” Is this what you have in mind when you express commitment to “a safe, welcoming environment?”

I am writing to tell you in no uncertain terms that there must be space for protest on our campus. There must be space for political dissent on our campus. There must be space for civil disobedience on our campus. There must be space for students to assert their right to decide on the form of their protest, their dissent, and their civil disobedience—including the simple act of setting up tents in solidarity with other students who have done so. There must be space for protest and dissent, especially, when the object of protest and dissent is police brutality itself. You may not order police to forcefully disperse student protesters peacefully protesting police brutality. You may not do so. It is not an option available to you as the Chancellor of a UC campus. That is why I am calling for your immediate resignation.

Your words express concern for the safety of our students. Your actions express no concern whatsoever for the safety of our students. I deduce from this discrepancy that you are not, in fact, concerned about the safety of our students. Your actions directly threaten the safety of our students. And I want you to know that this is clear. It is clear to anyone who reads your campus emails concerning our “Principles of Community” and who also takes the time to inform themselves about your actions. You should bear in mind that when you send emails to the UC Davis community, you address a body of faculty and students who are well trained to see through rhetoric that evinces care for students while implicitly threatening them. I see through your rhetoric very clearly. You also write to a campus community that knows how to speak truth to power. That is what I am doing.

I call for your resignation because you are unfit to do your job. You are unfit to ensure the safety of students at UC Davis. In fact: you are the primary threat to the safety of students at UC Davis. As such, I call upon you to resign immediately.

Sincerely,

Nathan Brown
Assistant Professor
Department of English
Program in Critical Theory
University of California at Davis

 

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