Monday, December 28, 2009

Don't Edit Your Inner Monkey

On the week-end, instead of making my rounds of the party circuit, I finished reading Loneliness: Human Nature and the Need for Social Connection, by my new hero, John T. Cacioppo, and William Patrick. Just as interesting as I had anticipated. I will comment further on this in future posts.
This morning, found a somewhat related article in the Globe and Mail, "Forever in touch: a giant step back," by the well-known anthrolopogist Lionel Tiger (memorable if only for his carnivorous name). Dr. Tiger repeats a complaint that crops up now and then about our virtual society, and how much the young - who grew up with it, and often little but it - are missing from life. By relying on Twitter, Facebook, and e-mail instead of letters, let alone the very basics of face-to-face encounters, people are short-changing their inner monkeys. All primates, Dr. Tiger points out, spend their waking hours touching and/or looking at each other. People who are cut off from others do very little, and sometimes go days without either eye-gazing (even briefly) or touching in a kind manner. (In desperate moments, bumping into someone in the crowded bus might count as "touching," but it shouldn't, should it?)
He is particularly concerned that all this electronic communication provides a filter - editing, he calls it - for self expression. Hard to edit yourself when you're face to face with a friend! But you can do that when e-mailing or writing about yourself in, er, a blog....
Communication about who you are and what matters to you - all the way down to the minutiae of your hobbies or daily routine - is becoming more imortant than connecting with one other person at a time in a meaningful manner, or the whole of humanity, through cultural links.
The proliferation of new and different and more media results in good part because from Montessori School on, folks are enjoined to be creative, express themselves, achieve their potential. But the clear message – requirement – of the new primate attention structure is that editing the self comes first. Only maybe then express it.
Is it possible that learning how to read a book skillfully and comprehend and appreciate the bravery of the world's pageant of artists, players, dancers, building-makers et al. will take precedence over confecting a new website for M&M collectors?

Reading this, I cannot help but hope this here blog is a wee bit less pretentious than all those vanity projects out there. Of course, most bloggers believe theirs are valuable, or they wouldn't start them. But many, many blogs go idle for months, according to Harper's magazine, suggesting that their true import eventually emerges to the very persons writing them!

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

on 'The Road'

Saw the film adaptation of Cormac McCarthy's The Road yesterday afternoon.
Although prepared by the reviews, and the reading of the book more than two years ago, I was still affected.
1. The devastated areas in the film, so I hear, were all actual scenes of devastation: no special effects. The highway that goes nowhere is in Pennsylvania, and I figure the swampy areas and overgrown roads and abandoned houses are in Louisiana. The worst such scene is probably in Oregon: burnt and clear-cut forest for as far as the eye can see.
2. The flashback scenes showing the world as we presently know it (minus the real places I list above) are heartwrenching. The director, James Hillcoat, lingers just long enough on the things that will be annihilated. The color alone is enough to make you weep.
3. The impossibility of relying on the natural world - which we evolved to do - hit me as an environmentalist. I discuss this (after reading the book) in my Globe & Mail review of post-apocalyptic fiction last year. (At present, unable to upload this review as image. Contact me if you want pdf version.)
Without technology, without nature, and barely with any sustenance, human life is pared down to the relationship between parent and child. Love is all that remains in a ruined world.
McCarthy deserves all the praise he has received and will continue to receive for this profoundly thought-provoking tale.

Friday, December 18, 2009

Climate Change Disconnect #3

The talks in Copenhagen are drawing to an uncomfortable close today.
The morning radio (Canada's wonderful CBC, in my case) was full of assessments and prognostications, few even remotely favorable.
I did hear what amounted to an addendum to Wed.'s post on the two Disconnects by way of an interview with Quebec journalist Cleo Paskal. Her new book, Global Warring: How Environmental, Economic, and Political Crises Will Redraw the World Map, says it all. The coming disruptions will change the world as we know it.
Climate Change Disconnect #3: thinking that ecology is some sort of isolated subject, without a single tendril connecting it to any other human realm.
As long as we continue to think that nature is "out there" somewhere over the rainbow (and something tells me we won't be this stupid too much longer), then the repercussions to the way we do business, rear and teach our children, feed ourselves, fight disease, and just try to get along will be be enormous.
Ms. Paskal or someone else during this morning's discussion (hey, I hadn't had my tea yet) mentioned climate refugees. To take one recent and dramatic (but relatively small) example: Hurricane Katrina. The people displaced from that event alone experienced great hardship and caused social disruption that police and social services were ill-equipped to handle. It all cost $100 billion. One event. In one of the richest countries on Earth.
Nature (Hurricane) -> human displacement -> econo-politico-social chaos.
Connect the dots, world leaders. There's plenty outside the high palace walls that may eventually affect you!

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Disconnects in Copenhagen Talks

I admit I have not been doggedly following the Climate Conference in Copenhagen, choosing instead to dip in now and then, hoping to pore over the conclusions on the 19th, or so, after it all ends.
What seems to be grabbing headlines this week is the nightmare in logistics - too many concerned lining up for too few conference-center seats - and the resulting riots and arrests. (I imagine only NGOs, comprised of brave and arrestable young folk, are those being dragged into paddy wagons by the Danish police, not governmental delegates.)
I was dismayed this morning to see that the head of the Conference, Danish Environment Minister, Connie Hedegaard, resigned her post (why?), and was replaced by Prime Minister Lars Rasmussen. I know little about him except his rightwing views. That doesn't bode well in these talks, where rightwing, bottom-line policies seem to hold sway.
Climate Change Disconnect # 1: when trying to draft an international CO2-reduction agreement, the emphasis remains stubbornly fixed on economics over ecology.
Whether the whiners are climate change activists or deniers, their main contention sounds like a warped mantra: how much is this going to COST?
Too many politicians are in thrall to Big Business and dare not make a false move lest they upset the people pulling the strings. Even Obama has been talking out of both sides of his mouth: delivering soothing lines about our grandchildren's future with one breath, and uttering noncommittal sound bites with another.
Not too surprisingly, ecology gets forgotten - the oh-so-fragile web of life affected by rising temperatures and other physical phenomena. In some cases it's culpable ignorance or outright defiance. In others, it's a plain lack of scientific literacy (something Obama, to his credit, has addressed - if only in a R&D context.)
The NY Times Dot Earth blogger, Andrew Revkin, today points out
Climate Change Disconnect #2: the absence of any mention of overpopulation.
It's easy to blame cars and other CO2 emitters with the blanket of heat-trapping gas around the globe. But how do you suppose it got quite so out of hand? There are no evil elves belching smog from the center of the Earth. The number of human beings on the planet correlates with the the number of cars, factories, intensive farming operations, and coal-fired power plants. The best way to minimize the growth of problem areas is to minimize the need for them in the first place - by limiting population growth.
The first Disconnect hits us in the wallet. The second Disconnect hits us where we live. Two enormous taboos clutter the road to a sustainable future.

Friday, December 11, 2009

We Live How We Eat

Cleaning up some older newspapers this morning, I came upon the back-page essay of the October 18 New York Times Book Review. It's called "Families, Class and Culture," and was written by author Arlie Hochschild.
Hochschild points out that Americans "step into and out of relationships faster than couples in Europe, Japan and Australia." So-called family values still may make a majority of the population opt for the public commitment of marriage, but a significant (and growing) number of these people also divorce, sooner or later. They may not be commitment shy (a common complaint), but they are emotionally restless. (The trend is not so much monogamy as serial monogamy - as they go on to marry/cohabit again, sometimes many times.) In the other parts of the industrialized world (presumably chosen as comparisons for their comparable degrees of modern benefits and afflictions, which may affect family values), couples stick together longer.
Interesting, of course. But what struck me was the parallel she drew between this in-and-out mentality and fast food. Easy, cheap, and quick belly filling not only resembles easy, cheap, and quick pairing, it actually may influence the phenomenon. It forms a not-so invisible cultural influence that shapes our mental processes. Those include how we feel about other people.
In a book I have been writing for some time, I argue that food choice has shaped the human brain, particularly where our relationships (and, by extension, the family unit) are concerned. Does the way we eat dictate how we live, how we love?
I agree with Hoschild's suggestion that "slow food" - a backlash to fast food - could be the new model for our relationships. Perhaps we would take our time and think twice before forming a household with someone if relationships weren't so "cheap."
I wouldn't want divorce to return to being the difficult and shameful event it was when I was young - being trapped in a truly bad marriage is a nightmare - but the pendulum may have swung to the other extreme. When the door to the room is half-open all the time, are you as careful with whom you choose to share that room?
We have harmed the planet with our cavalier attitude towards the living beings we raise and catch for food. Hundreds of millions of people take for granted the fact that millions of creatures live and die horribly for us. Life is cheap - maybe it always has been, on some social or cognitive level. But that doesn't mean that some reflection on this general disregard would be futile.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

The Body Electric

Today, a significant departure from recent themes, but still in keeping with the general one of connection.
I was reading a newspaper this morning - well, I glanced at the columns devoted to the climate change summit in Copenhagen going on this week. To be honest, I really wanted to read, to be informed (a weakness as a well as a strength), but it all seemed to blur.
So my eye strayed to an ad on the same page. It was about gift giving - this being the year's annual (global) summit on materialism, of course - specifically, the ever-popular electronic gift, the "gadget." (The very word suggests nonsense, frivolity, the unneeded.) So seductive, ubiquitous and gradually encroaching has been the gadget plague that we have barely realized it. Jokes aside about "crackberries" and the teenager who cannot leave her cellphone down for more than a minute without reaching for it like some kind of lifeline: toys (entertainment) and tools (useful, even essential items) are now indistinct in our collective consciousness.
Furthermore, these things don't run on air and a prayer. Does anyone stop to think of how many units of energy each toy-tool requires per day, week, year? And how millions of other little vampires like it are plugged into wall outlets around the world every day, sucking the electricity that's created by tumbling water, steam, burning coal, or nuclear reactions?
Cars, planes, crops, and the poor cows we enslave for their meat, milk, and hides are blamed for the ever-thickening blanket of CO2 surrounding the planet (and rightly so). But don't forget the little things. They sure do add up to pack a punch!

Sunday, December 6, 2009

The Evolution of Appetites

I mention in Wed.'s post that the human race has been lonely (i.e., so many of us feel isolated so often, and so deeply) for too few centuries to allow evolution to help us adjust/adapt. So we must either suffer or use cultural compensations. (The latter may work well, such as when we pursue spiritual exercises, or fail miserably, such as when we turn to addictions to shopping, drinking, and technology to "fill the hole that cannot be filled.")
Why is evolution so darn slow?
Genetic mutations are typically accidental and infrequent, for one thing. And any that just happen to be good require the organism to gain a reproductive advantage by having them. So if you are the first person born with the ability to go on long treks alone without going mad and hallucinating companions (humans or gods), then that's great for you if you have to risk your life on such treks, then you survive to marry a hot chick and have lots of healthy babies. (Evolutionary biologists do lots of sexy thought experiments like this.)
Since young people die of all sorts of things before they mature, there is no way of knowing how many fabulous mutations have arisen over the millennia, only to die with them. (And many adults with good traits have failed to have children, as well - same difference.)
Physically crucial traits, such as the ability to feel pain or hunger, are very strongly selected for: people who cannot feel their bodies' needs to avoid injury or seek food die pretty young. But psychological problems can be overridden. (Which may partially explain why genes for depression have not been weeded out over time.)
Pangs of loneliness have been as useful to us (as social animals) as hunger pangs. But the fast-paced modern world has, perversely, made food more available to appease hunger, and made companionship less available. We have adapted neither to seeing too much yummy, affordable food everywhere, nor to seeing too few friendly faces around us. The results are epidemics of obesity and loneliness.
While many of us nostalgically recall earlier times (say, 100 years ago), where everyone knew everyone else in town, and people had lifelong relationships, I doubt anyone would want to have the food scarcities and food poisoning of the same era. Modernity has given with one hand (greater physical sustenance) while taken away with the other (fewer strong communities and interpersonal relationships).

Thursday, December 3, 2009

Patterns - Real and Imagined

When seemingly related but random events start to overlap in time, it's easy to believe "something's going on here - maybe it's worth looking into." The human mind has a built-in pattern-detecting mechanism, for the want of a technical term, and it gets us into probably as much trouble as it keeps us out of.
I doubt my recent foray into "superstition" is anything but completely harmless - except for the fact that it is evidence that I do not think rationally all the time (when it's necessary to think rationally, I hasten to add). I'm referring to multiple appearances of John Cacioppo and his work on loneliness. First the webcast, then the coverage this week by the Globe and Mail, and today - even a bit weirder - a small review of his book Loneliness in the April 2008 SEED magazine I just happened to flip through!
What are the odds? we ask, wanting to see a pattern, a semblance of order in this most disordered world. But it is nothing more than coincidence, a cluster of events that resemble each other. We need connection so much, we see it almost everywhere. It's like seeing bunny shapes in the clouds, instead of just puffs of white.
It is, as I say, harmless to attribute causation in my case - thinking that all these mentions of Cacioppo and his work are "trying to tell me something" - but the "de-randoming" of random events will frequently defy reason, and often have nothing to do with intuition, either. It is false causality - potentially dangerous when applied to morality. Witches were burned at the stake for less than a couple of reported cause-and-effect "facts."
The worst that will probably happen to me is that I will buy his book, read it instead of something else in my to-read pile, and end up writing an essay on the same subject. Okay, maybe not so harmless! Time and energy are precious!

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Is Loneliness Contagious?

In a previous post, "Perceived Isolation," I mentioned a lucky find while trawling the web (actually, trawling usually uses a web or net!). It was a webcast of a fascinating lecture by social neuropsychologist John Cacioppo.
In the December 1 edition of the Globe and Mail, this article appeared on the very same work, with focus on one eye-catching aspect: the way people can "catch" loneliness from each other. I cannot do it justice here, so please give it a read. Suffice to say, it rang true to me as someone who has been on both ends of such psycho-social infection over the years. Not pleasant in either case!
Evolution finely honed our facial muscles, the facial recognition parts of our brain, our intuition, and our ability to learn very complex language (e.g., poetry) that variously befriends, delights, enlightens, and consoles. But the amount of time that loneliness has plagued our species has been insufficient for evolution to help us adjust. No wonder it causes so much psychic pain (and its physical manifestations).
If biology is too slow, culture will have to compensate!!

Monday, November 30, 2009

Shared Intentionality

Yesterday, I wrote about being civilized - a process that involves rules of conduct in order for the individual to think of others as well as his- or herself. Tomorrow's NY Times (print edition) will feature this article about a study by Dr. Michael Tomasello. He has written a book called Why We Cooperate, which explores the roots of getting-along behavior. The article takes a look at how it arises in children. Tomasello believes that the willingness to help others comes about naturally (i.e., is innate). This is contrary to the beliefs of many scholars who believe that cultural influences (whose rules I mentioned below) shape a child's behavior, and basically minimize the likelihood that he'll be a two-year-old (=me-me-me) forever.
The essence of this helping behavior is what he calls "shared intentionality," or the development of group think ("me to we," as social activist Craig Keilburger has called it).
Interesting work - and let's hope more such findings emerge as further food for thought.

Sunday, November 29, 2009

How to be Civilized

What makes us human? That is an ongoing debate, though some people cite "language," "technology," and "culture." They are wrong, of course, because nonhuman animals have all three, albeit in very different forms. A better description of human uniqueness might be "civilization." Not just the formation of societies - ants do that far better - but cities and civilian rules of conduct. We have developed highly sophisticated rules of conduct that are, whether their inventors realized it or not, ways of balancing the innate need to survive ("selfishness") with the needs of the group (altruism or cooperation). This balance would have existed before we moved into cities (the origin of the term), but the intense crowding (relative to pastoral or hunting-and-gathering times) made externalized, recorded rules an absolute necessity to avoid anarchy. Other social animals have rules of conduct - otherwise chimpanzees and bonobos, for example, would not appease each other after a fight - but they are not Socratic, Confucian or Jeffersonian. Homo sapiens grapples with complex matters of psychology and sociology and comes up with ways of minimizing suffering and maximizing overall peace and prosperity. Since there is still plenty of suffering in the world, it would seem the efforts by the Great Minds over the millennia have been in vain. But try to imagine for a moment where our species would be now if not for their devotion to explaining human nature. We may have destroyed ourselves centuries ago.
One of the greatest personal dilemmas is to think beyond our own needs. A relatively easy one is concrete: e.g., giving a friend the last cookie. Many humans limit their "generosity" to the concrete - if only in the spirit of enlightened self-interest (e.g., reciprocal altruism, where the favor is expected to be returned one day). Social animals are incapable of any other kind.
Abstract selflessness is the truest test of character, of being civilized. Not many people are capable of denying or even hurting themselves in order to honor an ideal. Ideals don't say thank you. They don't return favors. Many organized religions recognize this psychological dilemma, and promise rewards in the hereafter. (They are still abstract, but at least your selflessness seems to involve cause and effect.) Community respect can also serve as reward for such things as patriotism and volunteerism. (Of course, the most generous of givers are anonymous.)
I heard Jonathan Safran Foer on the radio this morning talking about his book Eating Animals. (See earlier post below.) He repeated something from his book, an excerpt of which I read a few weeks ago. Hearing it, I was moved again. His beloved grandmother narrowly survived death by starvation in WWII Russia. One day, a local man offered her a piece of meat. She refused - because it was pork, and her principles (=Mosaic laws) forbid its consumption. As affecting as that image may be, that was not the moving part. It was how she responded to her grandson's flabbergasted question: you wouldn't eat it, even to save your life? She said, "If nothing matters, there's nothing to save."
By thinking beyond - sometimes way, way beyond - the skin of the Self, we create meaning. And that unites us a human beings, and makes life worth living.
I will think about that the next time I nearly buy something my research has taught me hurts another person or creature. In moments of weakness, I find myself saying "I am the only one doing this, so why bother?" That's why.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Only Balance

It's been a few days now since the headline-generating news about mammograms. (Another, similar, study on tests for cervical cancer went relatively unnoticed.) In a nutshell, the new study suggests that women have been misled (most likely with the best of intentions) about the efficacy of frequent mammography (radioactive photographs of the breast) and - perhaps most shocking - the self-examination that has been drummed into them for decades like a mantra. Predictably, Letters to the Editor, and interviews with professionals and advocates for women's health issues have responded angrily. The study advises less frequent screening, for a variety of reasons backed up by years of data. The angry individuals assert that screening can save lives, with minimal cost or bother. (Few people, I noticed, mention the radiation involved in frequent screening - regardless of its efficacy.)
I cannot be the only woman who reads both sides of this contentious issue and asks herself whom to believe? Even with my science training, I find it a huge muddle of pros and cons to weed through. No wonder there is so much disrespect for scientists in the general public!
I had not intention of trying to come to a conclusion here. I want to bring this up because it reminds me of one of the human mind's great weaknesses: the inability to achieve balance. It is far easier to dwell in one ideological extreme or the other than to strike a happy medium. We can all think of an example of someone who didn't just convert to a noble cause, but became an insufferable zealot. And I have met many people who either really love something or really hate it - no in between.
The Buddhists understood this tendency well. They advise the Middle Way. Neither abject poverty and hair-shirt self-deprivation, nor distracting self-indulgence should be your goal (differing quite signifcantly from many religions). Similarly, you should avoid either plunging into despair or soaring into exultation: both wreak havoc on the spirit. Simple lifestyle, serene demeanor ... how easy to prescribe and how difficult to attain in this modern world!
As for the conflicting schools of risk assessment: to our inherent human frailty, we have medical technology, statistics, and politics to add to the mix. How do we choose the right point on the spectrum from fear to reassurance?

Friday, November 20, 2009

The Big Disconnect

I am not naive enough to think that a flurry of bestselling books on food ethics (such as those by Michael Pollan and Eric Schlosser, to name but two) has ushered in a New Age of environmental awareness - as wonderful as most of those books are. Still I found this disturbing to read this morning. It's even more disturbing because the writer is well respected, and undoubtedly read by millions.
Anticipating reader objections, Mr. Foer writes that people might say “social-justice movements” have “nothing to do with the situation of the factory farm,” that “human oppression is not animal abuse.” But he adds that in his view we interpret the legacies of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Cesar Chavez “too narrowly if we assume in advance that they cannot speak against the oppression of the factory farm.”
It’s arguments like this that undermine the many more valid observations in this book, and make readers wonder how the author can expend so much energy and caring on the fate of pigs and chickens, when, say, malaria kills nearly a million people a year (most of them children), and conflict and disease in Congo since the mid-1990s have left an estimated five million dead and hundreds of thousands of women and girls raped and have driven more than a million people from their homes.
The writer of this tired argument is Michiko Kakutani, main book reviewer of the New York Times. The book in question (which I have yet to read, except in excerpt) is Eating Animals, by young wunderkind novelist Jonathan Safran Foer. It would be interesting to see a debate between two famous people like these, but I doubt it will happen anytime soon. So this sad disconnect between different kinds of suffering - that are, really, all of a piece - probably will go unchallenged outside of this space. I have heard this argument so many times, I am tempted to let it go and sigh in resignation. But suffering - and the humane person's responsibility towards it - must never be ignored or dismissed. It is one of the central questions of existence, the subject of countless, anguished philosophical discussions through the ages. The only way I can "understand" Ms. Kakutani's point of view is to consider the weight of this anguish: surely it is too great for most people (perhaps her included) and the only way to alleviate it is to draw lines around one kind of suffering and say it doesn't deserve attention until all other "more important" kinds of suffering vanish forever. (What kind of world would that be? Sounds like an alternate reality.)
The way I explain this fallacy - which is partially predicated on the assumption that compassion is a finite commodity, like the hours in a day, and must be divided up wisely - is to look at one subset of suffering, human disease. There are so many opinions about how to allocate time, energy and money to fighting this or that disease that I highly doubt that a single strategy exists. Some "deserving" diseases get hardly any attention, while "undeserving" ones are awash in funds. Yet, when asked, would a compassionate person dare compare the suffering of a Malawian child wracked with malarial chills and a NY poet with AIDS? How about different kinds of cancer? How about cancer versus starvation? You can twist yourself in knots trying to justify caring for one, while waving away the other for its lack of relative importance, and just end up looking coldhearted. They all matter, don't they?
Aye, but the beings who are suffering are all human! That's the rub. We climb onto an entirely new level of Us and Them when we cross the species divide.
That's the Big Disconnect: that human suffering trumps all other kinds. 
The problem with that is complex. But I do know that people who eat animals should buy more consciously and compassionately if only due to self-interest: the animal whose suffering they dismiss could be dinner. Hard to be truly disconnected from something that eventually becomes part of you!

Monday, November 16, 2009

More Brains

Just finished reading Jonah Lehrer's Proust Was a Neuroscientist. The all-important "hook" of the book is the way art can explain science. Lehrer demonstrates this by exploring a famous artist's uncannily prescient insight into the way the human brain functions, anticipating (often by decades) current neuropsychological research. Proust dealt with memory - perhaps obviously, given his most famous book. Gertrude Stein anticipated Noam Chomsky's language theories. Stravinsky, in the The Rite of Spring, not only caused a riot amongst an audience accustomed to symphonic music, but challenged the way we perceive beauty in sound. Virginia Woolf wrote about the self in ways that broke new ground. Paul Cezanne forced us to see differently. Walt Whitman dared to express his feelings in startling ways. George Eliot brought science to bear in her fiction, reflecting Darwin's growing influence. And French chef extraordinaire Auguste Escoffier, inventer of the menu, discovered the fifth flavour, which the Japanese call "umami," and understood how we can learn how to taste (and appreciate food covered in sauces, I imagine).
Lehrer's original premise is more than a crass book-marketing schtick. He rides what seems to be a wave of art-science reconciliation. C.P. Snow famously called art and science the "Two Cultures" (like east and west, destined never to meet), and there will be those who cling to this stark division to their last breath. But how refreshing it is to see thoughtful, insightful, and engagingly written portrayals of the overlaps - interdependencies or interconnections - that existed all along. Highly recommended.
"When we venture beyond the edge of our knowledge, all we have is art." (p.197)
How many of us have been moved by a fictional account (book or film) of a major historical event, after being unconcerned when it was just "facts"? Framing an event within a powerful narrative - with human emotions and human lives that appeal to our empathy - can be the best way to convince people that something significant happened, or that anything happened at all. Think "Schindler's List" versus all the true-life accounts of the Holocaust. My personal epiphany about this came about 20 years ago when I read Isabel Allende's The House of the Spirits, which ends with a (fictionalized but all too real) account of the 1973 coup in Chile that led to her uncle Salvador Allende's assassination. Although I knew the story, the novelization hit me powerfully.
Although I write plenty of nonfiction, it is important to remember how we all love a good story, and are perhaps more likely to engage with an issue if it's contained in art (writing or anything else).

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Perceived Isolation

The things you run into on the web. I cannot remember what I searched last week that brought me to this title, and the excellent webcast lecture by social neuroscientist, John Cacioppo. "Connected Minds: Loneliness, Social Brains, and the Need for Community" is the title of his lecture, though dynamic relationship between health and loneliness was what caught my eye as a header.
Using a truly telescopic approach - going from micro to macro and back - Cacioppo explains how human brains evolved to feel loneliness when we perceive isolation, just as we evolved hunger pangs when our stomachs are empty. The key term was "perceived siolation" because, as we all know, you can be lonely in a crowd, maybe even lonelier than when you're actually physically alone. Perceived isolation causes the body (cued by the mind) to become hypervigilant. And no wonder. If you are either totally alone, or you feel you may as well be (because those around you don't bother with you, understand you, or show you sufficient caring), you had better watch your own back! Hypervigilance has many repercussions, among which is sleep disruption.
The loneliness-in-a-crowd feeling - of not belonging in the tribe in which you happen to find yourself - used to be something associated with travellers (think country boy arriving in the city), and free-thinking edge-dwellers ("no one understands me"). Some of these people manage to pour their angst into art or inventions or long-term projects that require solitude, and end up helping the world (not necessarily the human part of it). While others, feeling unjustly rejected by the pack, become lone wolves, loose cannons, social outcasts - dangers to others and themselves. I don't need to remind anyone how some of those stories play out.
We are social animals and need to feel connected in order to feel safe in our skins.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

A Review From Last Year

A little after the fact, perhaps, here's my review of Your Inner Fish, by paleontologist Neil Shubin. Quite naturally, I emphasized how his discovery of a fish ancestor (and ancestor to us all) supports Darwin's Tree of Life and the idea that every living being is connected to another somehow - through a surprisingly conservative genetic legacy. The web of life indeed.
(Click on image to read enlarged version.)

Wednesday, November 4, 2009


Today I spent a few hours at the Montreal Neurological Institute (MNI or "the Neuro"). There was a panel dicsussion in the morning, and, after lunch, a tour of some facilities. This year is the 75th anniversary of the world-renown centre, which excels in the study of the final frontier: the human brain.
I was struck anew by many things while there today: my love of neuroscience, which goes back to my undergraduate days at McGill; the intense curiosity of the average neuroscientist, quite unlike the curiosity one might expect from all scientists, but will not find to the same degree; the excitement that pervades the place, even though the adjoining hospital is full of very ill people who may not recover.
The Neuro began with Dr. Wilder Penfiled in 1934, and some of the young people who began with him are still alive, active (and curious) well into their 80s and 90s. Once again, we're reminded: if you don't use it, you lose it - and these remarkable students of the brain use it plenty.
The head of the Neuro, Dr. David Colman, impressed me by stating how many politicians seem to expect research funding to yield a pay-off of some kind - as if it's not enough to let smart people explore nature and see what they find. They have to have "results" and that means results that save or make money for society, including the politicans. It reminds me of the people (again, usually politicans) who don't want to save a forest unless you can prove that it's useful to do so (e.g., it yields cancer drugs or lumber). The instrumental-value mindset pervades all levels of human endeavor.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Autumn drear has crept up on us in this part of the world, bringing chilly foreshadows of winter and its associative symbols of dormancy, inactivity, and death. Poets have a long tradition of drawing their strongest tropes from natural phenomena, of course, and even the non-reading public is aware of pathetic fallacy - rain denoting sorrow, for example - whether or not it was taught in school. It just seems part of our nature to, well, turn to nature to explain how we feel.
Ecology, however (no matter what my blog title may suggest), differs from poetry in many respects. For one thing, it does not make value judgments on seasons, weather, or any other phenomena. Everything must die - otherwise there would not be life in the first place. Rain (and snow and sleet) must fall. In temperate zones, seasons are fairly sharply - sometimes very sharply - delineated. We cannot help but find our lives rise and fall in rhythm with them.
While snow and shorter days restrict growth, winter does not mean death. And even though is is hard to associate anything but "rebirth" with spring, in reality, life has been ongoing, neither dying nor coming back to life. (I sense religious imagery creeping in here - but leave that topic to another day perhaps.)
I find myself wandering into these realms this week, because health and mortality are very much on my mind. The timing of certain worrisome events is mere coincidence. Yet I cannot ignore it. The growing season is winding down. I am reminded of other lives winding down - loved ones. The connection is there if I choose to find it. And once I make that decision ("poetry or ecology," I suppose, is a little too facile) then I have to use it effectively.

Monday, October 26, 2009

Latest review

America's Gifts

This is one of my latest book reviews. It's from ROVER ARTS, a Montreal online arts and entertainment magazine.
Welcome to my web site, ONLY CONNECT. I will be providing links to my published book reviews and articles, and posting daily entries on various subjects of interest.
The essence of ONLY CONNECT (which comes from a poem by W.H. Auden) is the interface of poetry and ecology, the first an art, the second a science, both based on finding and honoring interrelationships.
If something touches on either one of these areas, I'll explore it.