Tag Archives: science

The Shake-Speared Brain: A Theatre of Simultaneous Possibilities

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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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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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I define the power elite as myself and my friends

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Coldcut’s tribute to Robert Anton Wilson. Part of the Royal Festival Hall’s Ether Festival (by Dancing Fish)

Robert Anton Wilson

RAW Poetry

Midnight Haiku

Mottled blueblack sky.
A sudden moon — briefly! Then:
Blueblack mottled sky…

Robert Anton Wilson (born Robert Edward Wilson, January 18, 1932 January 11, 2007), the American author of 33 influential books, became, at various times, a novelist, philosopher, essayist, editor, playwright, futurist, libertarian and self-described agnostic mystic.

Wilson described his work as an “attempt to break down conditioned associations, to look at the world in a new way, with many models recognized as models or maps, and no one model elevated to the truth”. His goal being “to try to get people into a state of generalized agnosticism, not agnosticism about God alone but agnosticism about everything.  Bob said Model Agnosticiam consists of never regarding any model or map of the universe with total 100% belief or total 100% denial. Bob’s Maybe Logic inspired the creation of the Maybe Logic Academy. Once when asked if he saw himself as a philosopher, he replied, “I am more of a speculator.”

Raw

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Reassemblage: From the Firelight to the Screen

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Reassemblage (1982)

by Trinh T. Minh-ha 

 Produced by Jean-Paul Bourdier

Reassemblage is Trinh T. Minh-ha’s first film. It was filmed in Senegal and released in 1982. This film was part of a three year work on ethnographic field research in West Africa through the Research Expedition Program of the University of California, Berkeley. In Reassemblage Trinh explains that she intends “not to speak about/Just speak near by,” unlike more conventional ethnographic documentary film. The film is a montage of fleeting images from Senegal and includes no narration, although there are occasional statements by Trinh T. Minh-ha. None of the statements given by her assign meaning to the scenes. There is music, silence, sometimes Trinh views a movie, refusing to make the film “about” a “culture”.  It points to the viewers expectation and the need for the assignment of meaning. The audience is left with a sense of disorientation.

 

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An ethnographic study; by Vietnamese Feminist Filmmaker. Filmmaker Trihn Minh-ha’s experimental documentary “Reassemblage” is for all intents and purposes a film about the people of Senegal. But Trinh has a higher purpose in mind. The film if self-reflexive in that as it is as much about documentaries themselves as it is about the people of Senegal. Trinh calls into question the conventions of the documentary and how such films have the power to manipulate the way in which the audience sees. She constantly reminds her audience that they are watching a movie through many filmic techniques. For example, at times she cuts sound completely to emphasize the fact that she has the ability to manipulate what we are feeling. By taking away the music (African drumming in this case), a tool filmmakers often rely on to tell us how we SHOULD be feeling, we are left to our own devices and must figure out on our own what we are seeing, what it means to us, and why. At times this makes viewing her film fairly difficult, but ultimately it’s a rather interesting and thought-provoking experience.

via benitomaciascanton

Minhha

Trinh T. Minh-ha is a filmmaker, writer, academic and composer. She is a world-renowned independent filmmaker and feminist, post-colonial theorist. She teaches courses that focus on women’s work as related to cultural politics, post-coloniality, contemporary critical theory and the arts. The seminars she offers focus on Third cinema, film theory and aesthetics, the voice in cinema, the autobiographical voice, critical theory and research, cultural politics and feminist theory.  She has been making films for over twenty years and may be best known for her first film Reassemblage, made in 1982. She has received several awards and grants, including the American Film Institute’s National Independent Filmmaker Maya Deren Award, and Fellowships from the John Simon Guggenheim Foundation, the National Endowment for the Arts and the California Arts Council. Her films have been the subject of twenty retrospectives. (Continued)

via Wikipedia

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hat tip: bright stupid confetti

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Unwinding Reel: Ken Kesey’s First Trip

Ken Kesey’s First LSD Trip Animated | Open Culture


Back in 1959, Ken Kesey, then a grad student in Stanford’s creative writing program, started participating in government-sponsored medical research that tested a range of hallucinogens — LSD, psilocybin, mescaline, and the rest. As part of the research project, Kesey spoke into a tape recorder and recounted the ins-and-outs of his hallucinations. These tapes were eventually stored away, and Kesey went on to write One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, a book that now sits on TIME’s list of the 100 Best English-Language Novels since 1923.

A half century later (and ten years after Kesey’s own death), the LSD tapes live again. This week, the filmmaker Alex Gibney will release Magic Tripa new documentary that revisits Kesey’s fabled road trip across America with the Merry Pranksters and their psychedelic “Further” bus. (Tom Wolfe, you might recall, famously covered this trip with The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, published in 1968.) Taken from the new film, the sequence above mixes the rediscovered tapes with some artful animation, and it captures the whole mood of Kesey’s first trip …

via Open Culture

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In the Wave by Walter Russell

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Outsider scientific-mystic Walter Russell developed a lifelong philosophy based on the unifying principles of forces within the cosmos – what seems like a kind of pseudo-scientifically framed offshoot of non-dualism. The most interesting elements his work are the diagrams and charts illustrating his books. They document an idiosyncratic understanding of natural phenomena such as light, magnetism, thermodynamics, waves and vibration.

Esa Ruoho has collected together many illustrations from Russell’s key works in Flickr sets – images from the books The Secret of Light, The Universal One and Atomic Suicide. The ‘In the Wave’ set contains charts with painted colour spectra and elliptical prismatic shapes denoting light waves, electrical vibrations and magnetism.

A strong theme running through Russell’s schematics, especially evident in his ‘Home Study Course’ is the correspondences of geometric equivalences and orders. The charts resemble sets of musical scales, denoting frameworks of periodicity and harmony within particular natural systems. Many of the diagrams, at first glance, might easily be be misinterpreted as modern musical notation…

…It might just be the case that Walter Russell’s genius, and his diagrams, can only be decoded at a later moment in time. His friend Nikola Tesla had advised him to lock away his work in a safe for 1000 years – because humankind was not yet mature enough for it.

Diagrams and paintings by “outsider scientific-mystic” Walter Russell 

via The secret of creation lies in the wave | but does it float + data is nature

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Glass Art by Steffen Dam & Micha Maria Karlslund

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Steffen Dam & Micha Maria Karlslund Glas

incredible pieces that appear to contain plant and sealife…

they are, however, made entirely of layers of blown glass.

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A Grain of Sand

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A Grain of Sand – Nature’s Secret Wonder

The Amazing Microphotography of Dr. Gary Greenberg

Every grain of sand is a jewel waiting to be discovered. That’s what Dr. Gary Greenberg found when he first turned his microscope on beach sand. Gemlike minerals, colorful coral fragments, and delicate microscopic shells revealed that sand comprises much more than little brown rocks. Amazing microphotography showcases spectacular colors, shapes, and patterns. Join Dr. Greenberg as he explores the science and beauty of the sand grain. With this captivating volume, you will never look at a beach the same way again.

Author and photographer Dr. Gary Greenberg is a visual artist who creatively combines art with science. He has a Ph.D. in biomedical research from University College London and holds 17 patents for high-definition 3-D light microscopes. Dr. Greenberg lives in Haiku, Hawaii.

via Marjan Zahed Kindersley + Lost At E Minor

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