September, 2016

My brain is like the Bermuda Triangle. Information goes in and then it’s never found again.

Reading Ellison’s Invisible Man through the magnifying glass of mind and consciousness can follow his (unconscious?) rhetorical style towards those subjects. After the explosion scene that left our narrator hospitalized, we come across two doctors who decide to play mind games (both physically and verbally) with the protagonist. They use a machine that will perform just like a prefrontal lobotomy: a “surgical procedure in which the nerve pathways in a lobe or lobes of the brain are severed from those in other areas. The procedure formerly was used as a radical therapeutic measure to help grossly disturbed patients with schizophrenia, manic depression and mania (bipolar disorder), and othermental illnesses” (Encyclopedia Britannica). The following source from Live Science explains how Dr. Barron Lerner, a medical historian, and professor at NYU Langone Medical Center, explained that “The behaviors [doctors] were trying to fix, they thought, were set down in neurological connections. The idea was, if you could damage those connections, you could stop the bad behaviors.”

 frontal-lobe

After taking a brutal hit from an explosion and having been around chemicals that cause skin irritation, the narrator wakes up with what seems to be a migraine and says “My head–that burning eye . . . ” (232). I wasn’t sure if the narrator was talking about his eye burning specifically or it was a literary technique used by Ellison to refer to the “third eye” in terms of the pineal gland. I’m no doctor, but I don’t think a lobotomy-like procedure is necessary for a patient who just regained consciousness after a brutal life-threatening explosion. I take this scene as an allusion to white supremacy and its attempt to control sociocultural consciousness (definition: the awareness that a person’s worldview is not universal but is profoundly influenced by life experiences, as mediated by a variety of factors, including race, ethnicity, gender, and social class).

 

Another allusion I came across was the narrator’s mention of ice throughout the night at Mary’s. The page consists of “. . . emotion-freezing ice . . . A remote explosion…had caused the ice cap to melt and shift the slightest bit. But that bit, that fraction, was irrevocable. Coming to New York had perhaps been an unconscious attempt to keep the old freezing unit going . . . I was wild with resentment but too much under “self-control,” that frozen virtue, that freezing vice. . . And while the ice was melting to form a flood in which I threatened to drown” (page 259-260). I considered this passage to be a reference to Freud’s mental iceberg image. The lobotomy-like procedure damaged certain levels of the mind of our narrator. Although he is still able to communicate in some forms, he lost his identity and a few memories. The ice cap is still stable but like he mentions, it started to melt and shift in ways that were “irrevocable.”

 

freuds-iceberg-2

Duality

Hustvedt’s attempt to write an autobiography about an incident that took place during a tree dedication for her father ends up turning into a sort of research project about the scientific findings of multiple mind/body disorders – it’s successes, fraud claims and how it tries and aims her towards her own diagnosis. Placing the book besides Neurocomic tends to complicate the ideas in both since more factors are to be taken into consideration. Neurocomic looks into the biological aspects of the brain whereas The Shaking Woman gives insight on the effects different socioeconomic variables and life experiences have on a person.

Neurocomic does a great job portraying visually and textually where certain parts of the brain are located, their functions, how they function, their correlations, disputes and so on. It’s ending, though, leaves us with the ultimatum that we have only gotten so far with the workings of our brain. With The Shaking Woman, Hustvedt takes us further past the brain and on the path of dualism and its plausibilities as she sheds light on scientific experiments that have yet to be considered “organic” or definitive. In Neurocomic, Ros and Farinella write “The idea of yourself as ‘someone’ inhabiting your brain is nothing but an illusion; a reflection that the brain has of its own body and actions. . . We have the power to deceive ourselves and see things that do not even exist” (124-125). But, do we have the power to do this? It depends if we’re talking about our conscious or unconscious self.  Hustvedt supports the idea of dualism indeed holding a place in our brains as she brings up the Nobel Prize winner Roger Sperry, “Each disconnected hemisphere behaved as if it were not conscious of the cognitive events in the partner hemisphere . . . . Each brain half, in other words, appeared to have its own, largely separate cognitive domain with its own private perceptual learning and memory experiences” (51). This is a claim that highly supports the idea of an unconscious. She continues this claim with the emergence of people having a “demon” or “alien” hand (or body part), one that would contradict and fight against the other part of the body that is out of the conscious person’s control.

Ultimately, it’s tough to argue between the two. Scientific research helps us try and come to a conclusive decision about a certain thing, but when that thing is barely visible yet at the same time is visible, the topic becomes more and more complex.

Eco-biological synaptic networks and limbic resonance – possibilities?

Hogwarts126

 

After watching the Wachowski’s Sense 8, I couldn’t help but get the term eco-biological synaptic network out of my head and onto this blog. Farinella and Ros’ Neurocomic gives a great explanation of the synapse in our brain and its functions. They write that “. . . an axon and dendrite come into close contact and information is transmitted from one to the other. They do this without actually touching each other . . . ” (38, emphasis mine). What struck me was that the axon and dendrite can deposit the information without coming in contact which got me thinking about the characters in Sense 8. All are in different areas and time zones yet, at times, each receives the same neurological  senses. Although this isn’t close-contact, it got me thinking about monozygotic twins – and I personally am good friends with 3 sets of twins. Twins claim to share a telepathic connection, saying that they know what the other is feeling and thinking. Surprisingly, most of the time this turns out to be quite true. The other twin is indeed having some sort of emotional or thoughtful distress that the other twin is able to pick up. I know this seems far-fetched since many people claim to have this sort of connection despite being genetically identical – best friends, family members, or a person one hangs out with for a very very long period of time are sometimes able to do things like finish one another’s sentences. This reminds me of the movie Stuck on You featuring Matt Damon and Greg Kinnear and the novella “The Corsican Brothers” by Alexandre Dumas. Both include the idea that twins – in this case, conjoined twins – share telepathic powers and are still able to mentally, sometimes physically, feel one another after being surgically separated. But do you think this is actually possible?

Neurocomic goes on to explain through Bernard that “synaptic transmission is not continuous. Instead neurotransmitters are released in many little packs called ‘quanta’ enclosed in a vesicle” (42). So does this mean that the telepathic connection between each twin, or even in the case of Sense8’s characters, happen only in spurts depending on the experience or actions happening to each of them? For example, I started to think about the movie Lucy (2014) featuring Scarlett Johannson (bare with me with these movie references, I think I’m on to something). The beautiful voice of Morgan Freeman starts to emphasize on the estimation that humans only use 10% of their brains capacity and what would happen if we were able to control 100% of our brain. When Riley inhales the psychedelic chemical DMT during episode 1 at around 56:15, she is then able to, perhaps, for lack of a better term, control most of the neurological effects that have been happening within the show.

To wrap things up, I guess what I’m trying to aim towards is if humans were capable of controlling the functions in their brain, how far are we able to go with it? Does genetics play a role in our capabilities of synchronizing with one another through limbic resonance and an eco-biological synaptic network?

Thinking about Thinks

Lodge’s novel Thinks indeed capitulates to reductive and deterministic ideas about the brain. The novel simplifies these ideas by using Helen’s obliviousness to neuroscience as the gateway to readers’ gaining insight on the topic, or, as Ortega and Vidal put it, it is the “vehicle for conveying to the reader cutting-edge knowledge on cognitive neuroscience, artificial intelligence, and connectionism” (339). The tour that was given to Helen by Ralph once they reach the second floor of the Centre for Cognitive Science is also a tour given to us readers. Appearing quite early in the novel, the explanation of each thought experiment is a way for Lodge to make the rest of the novel more comprehensible for readers while also incorporating the fact that the science behind consciousness is a cup yet to be filled. Helen asks Ralph “What was the point of it?” when introduced to yet another complex thought experiment to which he replies “I forget. Another anti-functionalist argument, I think. Most of these thought experiments are” (52). We see another appearance of the scientific doubt when Douglas explains consciousness again to the oblivious, yet dumbfounded, Helen, “It’s been suggested that the phenomenon of consciousness is a series of continuous collapses of the wave function” (127). “Suggested” is a verb of uncertainty in which Lodge is letting his readers know that there have been multiple instances in which scholars or scientists attempted to learn and identify the mental states or consciousness of people or things through these experiments but have faced difficulties in doing so without complete evidence to support their assertions. This backs up Roth’s claim that “the neuronovel in its present form presents the experience of a cognitive defeat” and that “[w]e imagine science might get there, but it hasn’t yet.”

It’s hard to sustain the term “cerebral subject” in this novel because I’m not sure if we’re looking at Ralph, Helen, or Lodge as the subject since he is the creator of both (I really had a hard time comprehending this one. Comment your thoughts on this).

Roth writes that “McEwan’s neuronovels are of the hard variety” and that the other neuronovels he mentions are “soft[er].” In this case, I would consider Lodge’s novel Thinks as a soft neuronovel but also a psychological novel using Roth’s definition of it as a novel “about the workings of a mind.” Thinks acts as more of a guide into neuroscience than a full-on neurological novel itself. Although Ralph tries to record every detail of his mind, it is still limited to us since, in my opinion, thoughts and verbal speaking are two separate functions. But, we are still given a substantial amount of scientific information that is also brought up in the other works Roth refers to despite the amount of focus on characters with neurological deficits.

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