Category Archives: cognitive science

“Poetry, Art, Music—and the Gift of Synesthesia” (an image essay in Talking Writing)

A couple of years ago, Talking Writing published some poems of mine from Looms, a manuscript that has recently been published by Shearsman Books.

Martha Nichols, one of the editors, recently approached me about writing an illustrated essay about what it’s like to work in three disciplines: poetry, collage, and music.

I invite you to have a look at the resulting featured spread in Talking Writing and to explore the rest of the issue, which will be added to during the next few weeks.

Click the image below to view my collages and essay:

Camille Martin

Connie Deanovich’s Essence of Saint

the poem, then a brief essay

Requirements for a Saint

think of a saint
and you think
of the incredibly dull clothing of a saint
perhaps extreme temperatures
or the difficult terrain they travel
(everything about a saint draws attention to itself)
think of a saint
and your thought is not
of a train thrusting through lightning
but of wind that smells of wood
or a wet disease
(saint world is the world of the empty hand)
breath is sometimes banged out of copper
and so is a saint
often with bell attachments
I’ll make you a saint
from an unblemished code book
that must be read
in a German restaurant
where beer is served in glasses
wrapped in brown leather
when the cuckoo strikes twelve
this will be the moment
of ascension

Connie Deanovich, from Watusi Titanic (New York: Timken, 1996)

        When I think of Connie Deanovich’s “Requirements for a Saint,” I think of chairs—or rather, the chair, the mental image of the one that can reasonably represent the entire category of chairs. I see in my mind’s eye Van Gogh’s straw chair or my idea of a generic dining room chair. Actually, there’s no such thing as a completely generic chair (a visualization has to look like some kind of chair), but rather chairs of our quotidian experience. What I don’t automatically see is a lounge chair, an antique commode chair, or Lily Tomlin’s giant rocking chair. Continue reading

“I know I am traveling all the time”: The Twilight Dreams of Artur Lundquist

Excerpts from Artur Lundquist’s Journeys in Dream and Imagination (New York: Four Walls Eight Windows, 1991),
then a brief essay.

                                               I know I am traveling all the time, possibly with no interruptions, also with no tremors or noises, soundlessly and softly, and then I am no longer lying in my bed but stepping out into the world where everything is awake, sundrenched, comforting, and I am there clearly as a visitor, and I am quite at ease,

                                               it must be a dream journey I have undertaken, a definite dream journey where all is real precisely the way all journeys ought to be, but maybe one has to be dead in order to journey like that,

                                               by the way, how can I know I am not dead, even though I have no sensation of being dead, and it is as if I rest in a middle zone without feeling either warmth or cold or hunger or any human needs

* * *

                                               No wind, not even the slightest breeze, complete stillness and silence, yet I am traveling or have a definite sense of traveling, but how can it happen without a sound or feeling of movement,

                                               can I travel motionless or glide onwards without the least resistance from the earth or the air, can it be that time has stopped or speed no longer has a meaning, that I have reached the crossroads beyond motion and stillness . . .

                                               but yet I am here, can feel my body and sense my breathing, it is a nothingness that is definite, but without any wind or air or sound whatsoever, as if all but my own being has ceased existing,

                                               it amazes me somewhat, but it actually does not matter, why should I need wind and sound, that which exists does exist nevertheless, and I must be the one perceiving it, and that is surely sufficient to make me alive and capable of perceiving,

                                               I do not know what time has passed, but now I begin hearing something, at first vaguely, then with increasing strength, and soon, I can recognize a distant song by women, a choir like in a church but heard from a distance, the song rises and falls rhythmically, with different voices blending, lighter ones and darker ones,

                                               It is actually not beautiful, but it still makes an impression by its inherent certainty and power, yes, the song bears witness of a conviction that conquers silence and nothingness as if journeying by its own force and conquering all resistance,

                                               I feel that I am again traveling, that immobility and silence no longer reign, but I don not know what the women are singing or what the song means, it is simply there, filling the room which was only silence and emptiness

* * *

                                               The silence is like a fine spiderweb against my face, I cannot rub it off, it is simply there without being tangibly real, it does not flutter like a leaf in the breeze, nor is it entirely immobile, it feels like the impression of a wind that is already becalmed, it is hardly the beginning of the weave and it does not betray a pattern, it is the most insignificant matter, yet it makes itself known

* * *

                                               My dreams are of iron, so strong, so durable, but they soon begin to rust, eventually they fall off like flakes of rust and nothing is left of them, then I shift to dreams of dough so that I might bake and eat them, almost like bread,

                                               suddenly, as I sit at the table in good company, I am nauseated, I do not even have time to stand up and run to the toilet before I spew out a snake that curls out of my mouth, one piece with each spasm, like a birth,

                                               the snake lands in front of me, on the plate that is still empty, it is curled up, mottled, with a zigzag pattern on its back, more beautiful than a sausage and much longer,

                                               the snake raises its head and opens its jaws as if to say something but at that moment, I faint and I do not hear it.

I’m attracted to unusual states of consciousness in the history of literature, such as Hanna Weiner’s poetic conversations with the words that she saw projected, involuntarily, onto surfaces; and those “Kubla Khan’s” written during drug-induced altered states of consciousness. One of the most remarkable poetic records of an altered state of mind is Artur Lundkvist’s Journeys in Dream and Imagination: The hallucinatory memoir of a poet in a coma.

In 1981, at the age of 75, Swedish poet Artur Lundquist had a heart attack while giving a speech on Anthony Burgess. A friend administered artificial resuscitation and he was rushed to the hospital, where he lay in a coma in the intensive care unit for two months, his life sustained by a heart-lung machine. He gradually regained consciousness over the next few months, maintaining awareness for greater and greater periods of time. As soon as he was able to write again or at least to dictate to his wife, he attempted to re-capture the now-elusive dream visions that illuminated the two months of his coma as well as to set down the waking dreams that he experienced during the first year of his convalescence, intense and vivid ones in which his eyes remained open and during which reality mixed with unreality in a half-aware reverie. Such dreams are not uncommon for persons who have experienced a change in breathing patterns, as is the case being on a lung machine (1). Fortunately, Lundquist’s linguistic abilities were rusty but intact, and he was able to document his fantastical visions that arose during this fertile period of dreaming.

The memorable opening of his poetic journal of dreams, “I know I am traveling all the time,” suggests that he’s aware of his altered condition, and that the background noise of his mental state is his impression of traveling, paradoxically in “complete stillness and silence” and “without a sound or feeling of movement.” He exists “without distance in time and space” yet he feels that he is traveling “through time or space.” He can’t tell if he’s “lying in the same place” or “traveling without interruption.” He’s unaware of minutes and hours passing, “yet time is moving somehow.” It’s as though he existed in suspended animation while riding a train. He describes his state of mind during his convalescence as being full of contradictions: moving yet stationary, timeless yet in time, lonely yet also belonging, unaware yet on some level conscious. In this twilight state, while he’s on life support in the hospital, he dreams, sometimes about his own death and sometimes about the annihilation of the earth. Fantasies of nothingness, purposelessness, and oblivion haunt him in his awareness that his own consciousness could easily fritter away and end rather than be revived, and that eventually nothing will be left of the earth and all its life forms: “nothing that can see or feel or think remains in existence.”

His journey is metaphorical as well as viscerally sensed. The point of departure of the journey is a state of suspension in a world of silence and paralysis, as if he were in a cocoon. He seems to be neither conscious nor unconscious, and sometimes, for brief periods, he perceives the objects and people in his hospital room, but he’s helpless to make contact with them. The journey is one of transformation, and his destination is consciousness, the regained ability to speak and read, and ultimately, the ability to write about the journey of his dreams.

Yet he has no sense of destination in his dream journeys. What he has lost—his consciousness of place, of his body in a particular space, situatedness—becomes an obsession in his dreams. In a particularly poetic entry that is reminiscent of Stephen Dedalus’ meditation on place, telescoping from self to universe (2), Lundquist describes a village of farms in some detail, then zooms away:

                                               behind that the forest began, and the moors, the meandering creek and the half-overgrown lake, the cows who grazed without fences, knew the paths and followed them, and returned when it was milking time,

                                               then there was the church village and the whole parish, the district and the county and the whole country, and it was on earth in the universe, below the sun, the moon, and the stars, with years carved into tree trunks without revealing if the world was actually old or still young

Like Dedalus’ list, Lundquist’s image of an ever-expanding view tells of his wished-for certainty of place in an orderly world in which you know exactly where you are, even though there is a mystery about where you’re precisely bookmarked in the age of the world. When he does feel, in his dreams, a strong sense of self, that self feels alien to him: he doesn’t recognize the echo of his own shouting voice. It is absence and loss that most often shape his dreams, as when he envisions a couple buried alive after a strong earthquake, or a living, sentient stone mountain that is being cruelly and terrifyingly quarried by men who are more murderers than miners, or himself as the village idiot, “carry[ing] within [him] something that has never fully blossomed.” He’s in purgatory, a guest lost in a vast hotel, a village hidden in a mist. Corporeality and consciousness are absent or impaired, and desire—for life, for sexuality, for communication—is thwarted since the means necessary to fulfilling these desires are in a liminal state, halfway between action and immobility and unable even to know with certainty whether he is alive or dead.

Journeys in Dream and Imagination is a record of meta-dreams, meditations on Lundquist’s state of consciousness, dreams about the dream state. In the beginning of his journey, his dreams are “of iron, so strong, so durable.” However, this strong state of consciousness gradually starts “to rust,” and the dreams “fall off like flakes of rust” until they vanish entirely. He then switches “to dreams of dough,” which he bakes and eats, “almost like bread” that nourishes him through this period of amorphous half-consciousness. The metaphor of the consumption of dreams describes the interiority of his state of mind, and the next image of vomiting a snake that is also a giving birth to speech seems to signify his ability or desire to engage once more in communication with the world outside his twilight prison. Within his dream state, he sometimes interprets the vision he has just experienced, as when he sees trees growing between his toes and believes that dream to be a good omen, a “sign that life continues to grow inside me.” It is as though his consciousness were trying to solve the puzzle of its own impairment.

The necessarily interior turn during this period when perception of the outer world was subdued or shut off perhaps accounts for his awareness of his body, which he felt to be in a state of flux (the sensation of traveling, for example) and transformation: he has become something of a shapeshifter. In two successive dreams, he is transformed into a giant and then a miniature person, in the manner of Gulliver’s Travels. Proprioception is the brain’s ability to locate the position of the body relative to its own parts as well as to the exterior world. Since altered states of consciousness (during meditation or praying, for example) can change the strength of a person’s feeling of separation from or continuity with exterior space, other people, or objects, I wonder whether Lundquist’s dreams reflect disturbances in his proprioceptive sense of self in relation to others. During his convalescence, his brain was repairing itself—but was it also rehearsing, in a sense, the process of its own repair? Is this what the image of consuming the nourishing bread of his dreams signifies? If reinforcing the lessons of the day in a kind of rehearsal of knowledge is part of the function of dreams, as some neuroscientists studying sleep now believe, what was the purpose of Lundquist’s dreams, if indeed they can be said to have one? Why do so many of them have the feel of meta-dreams about the journey towards consciousness?

Regardless of the purpose of these dreams, it seems likely that Lundquist’s hallucinatory visions, alternately peaceful and nightmarish, represent his fears of being forever in a coma and his hopes of someday rejoining the realm of real people, objects, places. In his dreams, he creates worlds of uncertainty, where nothing can be pinned down as completely familiar and habitual; where communication is problematic or impossible, consciousness is present in some way but still suspended in a timeless, placeless journey; and where he is alien to himself and inhabits a world that is strange and unrecognizable.

His limbo is real and extreme, but there is something oddly familiar about his dilemma dramatized or described in his dreams, something that elicits the feeling that you’ve been there, too, in moments of doubt or frustration, when order dissolves, when thought fails to render its shiny nugget, when self seems irremediably scattered, when you feel alone on a teeming planet that seems to belong to another dimension, when talking to others falters and stumbles, when you no longer know who or why you are, and the world, faced ultimately with demise, seems pointless but stubbornly present. In his meta-dream stories investigating suspended being, the often surreal analogies for these states are almost endlessly inventive. But in them one can also read a description of what it is to be human, or to exist in “negative capability,” as Keats called the ability to live with “uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts without any irritable reaching after fact & reason.”

Part of the pleasure of Lundquist’s record is becoming aware that even in a coma, the mind can cut seemingly endless facets in which to reflect itself and rehearse the dramas—miniscule or vast—of its journey through the interior. If his world seemed to be a solipsistic nightmare from which he couldn’t completely awaken, he peopled that world with rich possibilities and a self-awareness that sometimes comes across as more lucid and knowing—for all its twilight uncertainties—than the consciousness he so desperately wanted back.

(1) I gleaned most of the information in this narrative of Lundquist’s heart attack and recuperation from Carlos Fuentes’ introduction to the book.

(2) He turned to the flyleaf of the geography and read what he had written there: himself, his name and where he was.

Stephen Dedalus
Class of Elements
Clongowes Wood College
Country Kildare
The World
The Universe

Camille Martin

Part 2: “I hate my birthday!”—Or, what do elegies by New York school poets have in common with the story of an Italian anarchist?

Yesterday, I wrote about the ways in which the tip-of-the-tongue experience is helping cognitive scientists to learn how the mind stores and retrieves information. When we struggle to remember something, we will sometimes begin with the conviction that we remember a fragment, such as the first letter of a name.

This phenomenon demonstrates to researchers that information about a word or other kind of memory is likely to be stored in different locations in the brain: aural sound of a word in one location, meaning in another, and spelling in yet another. Somehow, they coalesce regularly and rapidly. But sometimes they don’t: we might know the meaning of a word that is trying to surface, but the word itself remains in hiding. The knowledge that our unconscious mind knows more than we consciously know, and knows it sooner than we know it, is an eerie thought. It brings to mind Antonio Damasio’s succinct statement of the tardiness of conscious knowledge: “We are always hopelessly late for consciousness” (127).

And sometimes the process of remembering leaves traces, clues of its mysterious origins and ways, demonstrating the imbalance between conscious and unconscious thought and proving once more that the unconscious mind knows more and knows it sooner than the conscious mind. And this is what really fascinates me: becoming aware that some pre-conscious part of my brain seems to be trying to tell me something, to throw little hints my way until the memory surfaces and I experience the eureka moment.

“I hate my birthday!”
A memorable instance of this kind of pre-conscious associative process occurred a few years ago when I was traveling with a friend in Europe. During our stay in Italy, we visited Francesco, a friend who lived near Padua. The three of us had a terrific visit. We chatted at his apartment for a while, and then Francesco showed us a printing press where he and some friends edited an anarchist newspaper.

Our next destination was the South of France to see friends in Montpellier. As the train passed through Provence, I gazed out the window at fields of poppies and lavender. I became aware that there was a memory that was trying to surface in my mind, but when I tried to remember what it was, I drew a blank. I knew that it was something that had made an impression on me, that it was somehow important to me. And whatever it was, it was tinged with sadness.

As I watched the colourful fields pass by, wondering about the elusive memory, the following phrase occurred to me:

      heavenly fields of poppy and lavender

This phrase gave rise to this sentence:

      But the people in the sky really love /
      to have dinner and to take a walk with you.

I knew this to be from an elegy for Frank O’Hara by Ted Berrigan.

Again I made an effort to recall the mysterious memory, but no other thoughts arrived. I still had the feeling that a memory wanted to surface. Then the feeling saddened and more words arrived:

      I hate that dog.

I remembered that sentence as the last line in an elegy for Ted Berrigan by Ron Padgett. The poem describes hearing a dog bark in the night and feeling the emptiness of Ted’s absence.

I thought it curious that both lines that surfaced in my mind were elegies for poets. Somewhere in my brain there must be a file with the label “elegies for poets of the second generation New York school.”

The clues from this mental file were leading me toward my memory, and the last clue, “I hate that dog,” was the catalyst that allowed me to remember what had been trying to surface:

      I hate my birthday.

On remembering these words, I experienced a eureka moment: this was the memory that had been lurking in the depths of my unconscious! It was also a poignant moment when I remembered what had occasioned Francesco’s speaking those words.

During our visit with Francesco, I showed him a cd that I had bought in Paris of the French anarchist singer Léo Ferré. Francesco told me that Léo Ferré had died several years before, in 1993. I was surprised and saddened, because although I didn’t know much about Ferré’s life, I had come to love the music of this “anarchanteur.”

Francesco then spoke of an Italian anarchist singer, Fabrizio de André, who had died just a couple of years earlier, the date of his death unfortunately coinciding with Francesco’s thirtieth birthday. So great was Francesco’s admiration for De André that after the singer’s death, he hated his birthday.

So the original elusive memory did eventually surface, but it took a circuitous path involving lateral associations. It was as though my brain were tossing little clues along the path: it knew what I didn’t know, and it seemed to be in dialogue with me, coyly leading me in the right direction.

It seems to me that the memory that “wanted” to surface was always the same memory: Francesco telling me of hating his birthday because De André had died on that day. I felt that this was so because of the eureka moment that I experienced when the memory finally surfaced. And the various memories that surfaced along the path to remembering that event were like stepping stones leading to Francesco’s statement about hating his birthday.

The first stepping stone was gazing at fields of poppies and lavender from the train and thinking of them as “heavenly.” “Heavenly” suggests the mythical abode of the dead, and the path that led from “heavenly fields of poppies and lavender” to “I hate my birthday” follows a certain logic having to do with remembering one’s fallen friends and hating something that one associates with that friend’s death. So the associative chain might look something like this:

lavender and poppy fields desire to remember

desire to remember heavenly fields

heavenly fields heaven

heaven friend’s death

friend’s death hate things reminding me of that death

hate things reminding me of that death hate birthday

If by chance you have actually made it to this point in my little essay, you may wonder at my meditating on this memory in such detail. If I do, it is because the more I find out about the workings of the mind, the more strange and wonderful it all seems. I find it so incredible that in our daily lives we make associations without thinking about them much. But if we stop to think about how the mind actually gets from A to B, things become very complicated very quickly!

There is just one more thing I want to consider. Earlier, I characterized the unconscious as having agency: it tossed little clues in my direction and coyly led me in the right direction. I know that it’s misleading to personify my unconscious that way. After all, is it really accurate to suppose that my unconscious “knew” the identity of the memory that was “trying” to surface and “concocted” a logical path of stepping stones for me to follow? If that were true, then why would my unconscious “withhold” the memory and tease me with clues?

It seems more likely that my conscious mind started guessing about the identity of the memory, shooting out trial electrical impulses to neurons that might be associated with the memory of Francesco hating his birthday. After all, the fact that the emotional aura of the memory was present from the beginning means that I knew something about the memory, just not the memory itself (perhaps similar to knowing that a word you’re trying to remember starts with the letter “b”). As Lehrer points out in the essay that I cited in Part I, the mind “makes guesses based upon the other information that it can recall.”

In other words, the meta-cognitive knowledge that I wanted to remember something was unable to link directly to “I hate my birthday.” Somehow, the direct link at that time was too weak. However, there were stronger links from “I hate my birthday” to the indirect categories that I listed above.

So perhaps my conscious mind got to “I hate my birthday” by guessing along a kind of zigzagging path. That scenario is certainly less eerie than imagining an unconscious with agency, regardless of whether it’s beneficent or malevolent! But it takes nothing away from the strangeness of the mind’s ways.

As a tribute to De André and Ferré, below are links to videos of each in concert.

Works Cited

Damasio, Antonio. The Feeling of What Happens: Body and Emotion in the Making of Consciousness. Heinemann: London, 1999.

Camille Martin

Part 1: From Motorcycle to Biopsy: The Messy Desk of the Mind

Copernicus, Darwin, Freud:
hacking away at the pedestal
(with a pit stop at Total Information Awareness)

Freud traces the history of scientific revolutions as one of successive blows to “the naïve self-love of men.” In one blow, Copernicus disabused humanity of its belief in the centrality of the earth in the grand cosmic scheme. In a second blow, Darwin knocked humanity from the pedestal of its belief in the divine creation of humans as privileged beings who rank far above animals and plants.

But Freud reserves the coup de grace dealt to “human megalomania” for “the psychological research of the present time which seeks to prove to the ego that it is not even master in its own house, but must content itself with scanty information of what is going on unconsciously in its mind.”

Freud’s reference to the “megalomanic” view of human consciousness brings to my mind that most sinister creation of the post-9/11 Bush administration: the Total Information Awareness Program (TIA), brainchild of John Poindexter and Brian Hicks, devoted to ferreting out information on the identity, location, and plans of terrorists. There is an aura of unreality to the hubris of their creepy fantasy of omniscience, which would be appropriate to the surveillance ministry of a totalitarian regime in a science fiction dystopia—say, 1984. “Total information awareness” also seems to me an apt, if hyperbolic, way to describe the folk-psychological tendency to attribute to consciousness greater powers of awareness, concentration, objectivity, and memory than are warranted by this relatively focused and limited aspect of cognition.

In a more historical vein, Enlightenment thinkers extolled human consciousness as a supremely rational “master in its own house.” The belief in the power and scope of consciousness must have erected an enormous pedestal for it—a butte might better describe it—because after decades of hacking away at it, scientists are still discovering ways in which our over-inflated assessment of consciousness is based on illusions. It’s humbling to read about the experiments that demonstrate the conscious mind’s limitations: working memory is more limited, awareness of perception is more selective, memory is more fallible and susceptible to distortion, and sensory perception is a more creative process than previously thought. These illusions remind me of the sobering truism that consciousness is only the tip of the iceberg of cognition.

And that iceberg beneath the surface, with its vast storehouse of information and its inner workings, remains for the most part tantalizingly out of reach. The experience of hypnogogic dreams sometimes gives me the feeling that I’m dipping into a part of its vastness and getting a glimpse of its machinations. But mostly I’m unaware of the means by which I’m constantly being fed bits and pieces from my unconscious mind by countless little creatures of the deeps.

The tip-of-the-tongue syndrome
A mental phenomenon that we all know as the “tip-of-the-tongue” feeling can give us insight into the mysterious relationship between the unconscious and conscious mind. In a typical tip-of-the-tongue moment, we are unable to retrieve information that we are sure that we could remember if only we had access to it. But the link seems to be faulty, and we struggle. Perhaps we remember that the word we’re trying to remember begins with a “b,” and we might try different syllables beginning with that letter to see if we can trigger our memory. This kind of experience reveals to researchers some fundamental lessons about the way the brain is organized:

      One of the key lessons of tip-of-the-tongue research
      is that the human brain is a cluttered place. Our
      knowledge is filed away in a somewhat slapdash
      fashion, so that names are stored separately from
      faces and the sound of a word and the meaning of a
      word are kept in distinct locations. Sometimes when
      we forget something, the memory is not so much
      lost as misplaced.

      The messy reality of the mind contradicts the
      conventional metaphor of memory, which assumes
      that the brain is like a vast and well-organized file
      cabinet. According to this theory, we’re able to
      locate the necessary memory because it has been
      sorted according to some logical system. But this
      metaphor is misleading. The brain isn’t an immaculate
      file cabinet – it’s more like an untidy desk covered
      with piles of paper. (Lehrer)

If my memory is anything like my own office desk, I’m in deep trouble. But conducting experiments into the tip-of-the-tongue phenomenon can give us a glimpse into the way in which memory is actually stored—not neatly categorized but fragmented and scattered. In fact,

      the brain doesn’t have firsthand access to its own
      memories. Instead, it makes guesses based upon
      the other information that it can recall. For instance,
      if we can remember the first letter of someone’s
      name, then the conscious brain assumes that we
      must also know his or her name, even if we can’t
      recall it right away. This helps explain why people
      are much more likely to experience a tip-of-the-
      tongue state when they can recall more information
      about the word or name they can’t actually
      remember. (Lehrer)

In the study that Lehrer refers to, conducted by Lise Abrams, a person trying to recall the word “bandanna” can be successfully prompted with a word like “banish” because the latter word “activate[s] the same network of brain cells devoted to the sound” of the former. According to Abrams, tip-of-the-tongue experiences occur because the semantic connection is strong, but the phonological connection (the sound of the word) is weak. We have the feeling that we know what the word means, but we cannot speak the word.

And here’s where things get even more interesting: successful prompts need not be so direct. For example,

      Abrams has shown that showing people a picture
      of a motorcycle can help them remember the word
      “biopsy.” Because the idea of a motorcycle is
      connected in the brain to the word “bike,”
      which shares a first syllable with “biopsy,” the
      seemingly irrelevant cue becomes an effective hint.

Even when the subjects, asked to name the object in the picture, said “motorcycle” instead of “bike,” the tip-of-the-tongue problem of remembering “biopsy” was more frequently resolved than when a picture of, say, a helicopter was shown. So apparently, the proximity of “motorcycle” and “bike” in the brain can trigger the associative chain from “bike” to “biopsy,” even though one would be hard pressed to come up with an obvious associative link between “motorcycle” and “biopsy.”

Lyn Hejinian’s “incompletely reciprocal” lexicon
This kind of information flow reminds me of Lyn Hejinian’s remarks in “The Rejection of Closure” about lexical disjunction:

      Even words in storage, in the dictionary, seem
      frenetic with activity, as each individual entry
      attracts to itself other words as definition, example,
      and amplification. Thus, to open the dictionary at
      random, mastoid attracts nipplelike, temporal, bone,
      ear, and behind. Turning to temporal we find that
      the definition includes time, space, life, world,
      transitory, and near the temples, but, significantly,
      not mastoid. There is no entry for nipplelike, but
      the definition for nipple brings over protuberance,
      breast, udder, the female, milk, discharge,
      mouthpiece, and nursing bottle, and not mastoid,
      nor temporal, nor time, bone, ear, space, or world.
      It is relevant that the exchanges are incompletely

Although the analogy between Hejinian’s lexical disjunction and memory’s associative process isn’t precise, the idea in common is the sidereal associations that produce a circuitous path: the two degrees of separation between “mastoid” and “transitory,” and between “motorcycle and “biopsy,” result in two words with wildly different meanings but nontheless with a filament of associations connecting them. And it is possible for a chain of very selective indirect associations to lead us to the word that was on the tip of our tongue.

Tomorrow, Part II:
“I hate my birthday!”—Or, what do elegies by New York school poets have in common with the story of an Italian anarchist?

Works Cited

Abrams, Lise. “Tip-of-the-Tongue States Yield Language Insights.” American Scientist. May/June 2008.

Lehrer, Jonah. “What’s that name?” The Boston Globe. 1 Jun 2008.

Camille Martin

Hypnagogic Dreams: John Franklin’s Fig Newton on a Piano Stool

fig newton

Coloured Letters, Giant Body, Faces and Voices in a Crowd

Like many other people, I experience visual, auditory and sensory halluciations during that twilight state just before sleep, especially when I’m falling asleep reading a book. I’m still looking at the page of words, but the page has been transformed into colourful geometric patterns. It’s a bit like looking at one of those tests for colourblindness, only with letters instead of dots:

colourblind test

Sometimes the colours of the letters are aligned in diagonal stripes; they are always colourful and incandescent. I can no longer read the actual words; however, I’m aware that I’m still looking at the page when I fall into this state. Although the patterns don’t move, it does seem as though the page is a living thing. They are beautiful and strange.

Another kind of hypnagogic experience is what I call the “giant body.” I often have this experience lying down, although I have also experienced it, for example, driving a car on a monotonous highway. At its onset, I feel a heightened sense of proprioception – the sense of my body’s location in space. This segues into the feeling that my body has become very, very large. I’m a giant, like Gulliver in Lilliput. I feel myself expanding until I’m not sure of the boundaries of my body anymore.

Sometimes, the hypnagogic experience takes the form of seeing a succession of faces, each of which is distinct yet unknown to me. It’s as though each face were projected onto a mental screen for a few seconds before fading into the next face. In a variation on that kind of dream, I sometimes hear a crowd of voices buzzing incoherently. Every now and then, a louder and understandable voice emerges from the white noise of the crowd. The words, alas, are of a fairly mundane nature. I have dreamed short poems before, but it is unclear to me whether these would be called true dreams or hypnagogic dreams.

The last kind of hypnagogic experience is the most frustrating because of my inability to remember the insight or sequence of thoughts that came to me in that state. I know that I just had an interesting thought, but I cannot seem to make it surface again, so it remains an inchoate jumble. It’s as though, looking at the night sky, stars are less distinct when you try to look directly at them.

Hypnagogic dreams are more common than one might think. An 1996 essay in the British Journal of Psychiatry reports on a survey of 4972 people, ranging in age from teens to centenarians. According to the results, 37% claim to have had hypnagogic experiences. Fewer (12.5%) report experiencing the sleep-to-waking kind of dream called “hypnapompic hallucinations.”

Furthermore, none of the types of hypnagogic hallucinations that I have experienced is particularly unusual. The literature about hypnagogic dreams is full of descriptions of colourful geometric hallucinations, feelings of the dissolution of body and ego boundaries, visions of people and objects, auditory sensations, and the conviction that one could reveal brilliant insights into the meaning of life—if only one could remember them.

I note two striking qualities of my own hypnagogic dreams. First, the hallucinations are involuntary. That is, I can sometimes fully awaken myself if the dream state is shallow enough, but I cannot stop or direct the hallucinations while I’m in the hypnagogic state. Also, there is a noetic quality to the experience: it seems very real as it is happening. I have never mistaken a hallucination for reality, at least in the twilight states in which I do have some consciousness. I know that I am hallucinating and that my body isn’t really turning into a giant. But the hallucinatory experience has a reality of its own; somewhere in my brain, I am “seeing” geometric colours in front of me.

It is these two characteristics of the hypnagogic experience that remind me of synesthesia. As a child, I experienced musical tones as colours: C was white, D was yellow, E was orange, F was green, G was blue, and so forth. I knew that I was not actually seeing colours “out there,” yet the experience was in its own way very real, and also involutary.

I have studied a fair amount of the literature on synesthesia, and these two qualities are often mentioned in relation to the synesthetic experience. The case study by Richard Cytowic of a man who tasted shapes, for example, reports that when the man tasted mint, he experienced smooth columns before him. He found that taking amyl nitrate heightened his synesthesia; his reaction to mint became a visceral sensation of a thick forest of cool marble columns.

I’m not sure whether or how the experience of synesthesia and hypnagogic dreams are related. However, some people have reported synesthetic experiences during hypnogogia (Andreas Mavromatis, Hypnagogia: The Unique State of Consciousness between Wakefulness and Sleep.

John Franklin’s Ten-Year Hypnagogic Streak

My experiences of hypnogogic dreams seem to be of the garden variety, and not particularly creative. However, I recently found by chance an article by John Franklin on the subject of hypnagogic dreams that documents his hallucinations during such states. Franklin reports that in 1977, he started having hypnagogic dreams of surreal images, both two- and three-dimensional, as well as phrases and sentences charged with strange poetic juxtapositions.

Although Franklin claims not to have any special talents in poetry or art, his ten-year experience of hypnogogic experiences show a very imaginative capacity to juxtapose fairly unrelated images or ideas. The experiments of surrealism such as automatic writing come to mind.

He was able to draw the hypnagogic images from memory on awakening, but the texts presented the problem of being able to memorize only fragments before returning to full consciousness and writing down the words. Nonetheless, he was able to copy a great deal of them, perhaps improving with practice.

The “Fig Newton on a Small Piano Stool” that opened this post is one of his visions, followed by his description of it. Below are two more images and a few of his remembered poetic fragments.

I will only note that some of Franklin’s images and texts do not seem entirely random. Suppositions about the etiology of the odd juxtapositions would be guesswork. But an obvious example of an image hat has a rich palette of associations is the clever candy scoop made of candy. The reflexivity of this image strikes me as analogous to a metapoem: the candy scoop is not distinguishable in material from the candy that it picks up, in a similar way that a poem’s subject is itself or its creation.

Another example is the loaf of bread with the curled wires sticking out of it. The fact that I subconsciously erred in naming the image file “toaster” attests to a possible relationship: the wires seem to me to represent the curled heating elements inside a toaster.

The texts that Franklin reports are often poetically evocative:

“In a corner under scriveners
4 children played under water
In order for (some of) you to become scriveners
Children must play under water”

Assuming a close identity between the scriveners and the children, one interpretation could be that imaginative writers must be able to play “underwater,” perhaps a metaphor for the role of the subconscious in creativity.

Sometimes the words are mysteriously poignant: “Why some people have felt so different alone in the same sweater”

I suppose that in my brief and rather superficial attempt to attribute meaning to these images and words I’m grappling with the problem of how these hallucinations came to be in the first place. Why does the dreaming brain produce such odd cognitive hookups? To what extent are they random or meaningful? I wonder whether any scientist has used brain imaging technology to try to find out which parts of the brain are firing when a certain kind of hallucination is being produced. Franklin doesn’t report that he ever underwent such imaging, but it seems to me that his kind of very specific hallucinations of paintings and sculptures might yield some interesting insights.

For Franklin’s complete article and journals of images and texts, go to

candy scoop


“It is this: wife has cheese;
It is this: eyes have breath;
Every patient rack and chain go to him.”

“Air cooled in lungs
Air shined in frost”

“In a corner under scriveners
4 children played under water
In order for (some of) you to become scriveners
Children must play under water”

“Grasp the litter,
Hate the ladder,
Bend the letter of the law.”

“Hot sun on an afternoon wall
‘Tomorrow the trip is ended’
Tired bones, tired water In the lakes.
‘Who do These blue pots belong to?’
‘Oh, just let the grass grow!’”

“pithrametic revelation of gold guitars”

“Why some people have felt so different alone in the same sweater”

“Lavish upon me the next-to-nothing of fine wood”

Camille Martin

Serendipity and the Felon: Jiri Kolar, Emmet Gowin, and the Cognitive Iceberg

A few days ago, I was searching for images by one of my favourite collage artists, Jiří Kolář, whose last name, pronounced in his native Czech, sounds like “collage” (no doubt an example of true serendipity). I found two images from his series “Three Graces.”

Kolar 1

Kolar 2

I have admired these since I was first exposed to the work of Kolář at an exhibition at the Albright-Knox Gallery in Buffalo. He uses as source material Raphael’s painting of the Three Graces holding the apples of the Hesperides, which are supposed to grant immortality.

Raphael, Three Graces

The depiction of the three Graces of ancient mythology traditionally shows two facing the viewer and the third in front of them, with her back to the viewer. Kolář seems to be playing with that traditional positioning, manipulating the bodies of the Graces using symmetry and mirror imaging so that the three seem to be merging into two in the first collage, and into one in the second collage.

Around the same time that I was studying these collages, I began thinking of Southern photographers, like Clarence Laughlin, Bellocq, and Emmet Gowin. A search for images by Gowin led quickly to a photograph very familiar to me, Nancy, Danville, Virginia, 1969, featuring a double-jointed girl who intertwines her arms in front of her and delicately holds an egg in each hand.


Here’s where the question of serendipity started to surface. I found correspondences between Kolář’s Three Graces panels and Gowin’s Nancy to be striking: both have an otherworldly, delicate quality, and both depict females with oddly manipulated or twisted arms, holding round objects in their hands. I couldn’t help but wonder whether the association was entirely serendipitous or whether my mind had been leading me to Gowin’s photograph by a process of nonconscious association.

It’s possible that the association was fortuitous, but I don’t think that the idea of an associative process unbeknownst to consciousness is too far-fetched to be plausible. I can demonstrate stranger and more involved associative pathways in which my nonconscious mind seems to be feeding me hints, like a criminal toying with a detective, until the detective experiences the eureka moment and the elusive felon once again slips away.

But how can we really know whether a particular association, like my pairing of Three Graces with Nancy, occurred by chance? Neuroscientist Michael Gazzaniga notes that the brain is like an iceberg: upwards of 90% of cognitive functions are not available to conscious awareness. This unavailability of much cognition to consciousness can make it seem as though there were another thinking entity (or perhaps multiple entities) within us, one that knows far more than our imaginary little conscious homunculus knows, and knows it before the homunculus gets clued in. Here’s an outdated depiction of how the mind works, with all processes coming together in a central location to be understood by a central processor (shown here as the homunculus):


Of course, there isn’t anything like a little person inside our heads, or anything like a control centre in the brain, a central processing unit where perception and thought come together and the will of the cognitive CEO gets executed. This dualistic fallacy is known as the endless regression of homunculi:

"The endless regression of homunculi. The idea of instruction or information processing requires someone, or something, to read it. But a similar entity is then required to read the resulting messages, and so on, endlessly." Gerald M. Edelman, <em>Bright Air, Brilliant Fire: On the Matter of the Mind</em>, p. 80

"The endless regression of homunculi. The idea of instruction or information processing requires someone, or something, to read it. But a similar entity is then required to read the resulting messages, and so on, endlessly." Gerald M. Edelman, Bright Air, Brilliant Fire: On the Matter of the Mind, p. 80

After we have traced back our mental associations, the realization that something had been brewing in the deeps all along and that, as Antonio Damasio claims, “we are always hopelessly late for consciousness,” is unsettling. But I wouldn’t trade the dialogue with my teasing “felon” for a homunculus, or for serendipity, for that matter. In Kolář’s two collages, merging and symmetry have the effect, not of producing unity, but of accentuating disintegration. In the first collage, disembodied limbs and faces emerge out of nowhere, and in the second collage, the seemingly unified body is in reality disconnected from her head and feet.

Similarly, we can never merge our cognitive Graces or know them completely. That proposition once again buys into the idea of the mind as having a converging point of information, whereas scientists have discounted hierarchical and linear systems in favour of a multiplex system of connections that are “parallel, recursive, feedforward, and feedback” (Richard Cytowic, The Man Who Tasted Shapes, 156).

The idiom “my mind is playing tricks on me” aptly expresses the idea of a divided mind. Kolář’ plays tricks on our eyes with the mirrored image of the Graces merging towards a centre that can never unify them but only further discombobulate them.

I haven’t found a third panel in Kolář”s Three Graces series, but one can imagine that further unification of the image along the mirror’s edge would cause the Graces to vanish into thin air.

Unity is dysfunction, disappearance, stasis. A monotheistic brain cannot create a world.

Discombobulation is function, fertility.

And however mysterious and unavailable to consciousness are the tricks the Graces play on themselves, these tricks enable the mental associations from which we create our worlds. Like the girl holding the eggs in her twisted arms, they affirm creation and bring new realms into being.

Camille Martin

Laura Jensen: Degrees of Separation from Bad Boats

Mental associations are one of the big cognitive mysteries. Neurons connect in our brains almost effortlessly, without our being fully aware of the process. This morning a series of five associations led me from thoughts of Clarence Laughlin, the New Orleans surreal photographer who specialized in ghostly veiled women, masks, cemeteries, and antebellum ruins, to the title poem of Laura Jensen’s Bad Boats. How, exactly, does that happen?

And how’s that for burying the lead? Jensen’s poem hasn’t lost any of its appeal since I first read it about fifteen years ago.

“Bad Boats”

They are like women because they sway.
They are like men because they swagger.
They are like lions because they are king here.
They walk on the sea. The drifting
logs are good: they are taking their punishment.
But the bad boats are ready to be bad,
to overturn in water, to demolish the swagger
and the sway. They are bad boats
because they cannot wind their own rope
or guide themselves neatly close to the wharf.
In their egomania they are glad
for the burden of the storm the men are shirking
when they go for their coffee and yawn.
They are bad boats and they hate their anchors.

Laura Jensen, Bad Boats
The Ecco Press, 1977

Visit Laura Jensen’s blog:

Laura Jensen


Camille Martin