Tag Archives: Antonio Damasio

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
http://www.camillemartin.ca

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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.

Gowin

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):

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
http://www.camillemartin.ca