Thursday, October 28, 2010

The circle

Time for me to close this little experiment, this public song of myself and my ideas. I have to admit being strongly influenced by this season of dormancy and decomposition. I feel a need to acknowledge how many things this year ended - the short time with my dear cat being only one - and, by doing so, opening myself to hope that life will continue to offer me beginnings.
 Autumn is not just about sadness and the foretaste of winter's death-like stillness. Before leaves and other plant matter release their nutrients to the soil, air, and water, they seem to partake of the fourth element: fire. What better way to go than in the blaze of glory, embodying light? It's as if life itself sings out before departing.

Life continues through recycling, but also by metamorphosis: the transformation of one form to another.

So this may not be my last stab at the blog idea. A new one will likely tie into a new project - book research, perhaps, that needs airing and feedback while in progress - or one of the main threads of this first blog. Human evolution and our dietary habits are on the top of my list. Of course, poetry and ecology will run through everything....

Come springtime, who knows what will appear from the awakening soil?

Sunday, October 24, 2010

A challenge or a sign?

I had a talk with an old friend a week ago. The conversation ended up on the subject of "hitting a brick wall." (It is somewhat related to my previous post.)
When you encounter a set-back of some kind - an experimental flaw, a series of obstacles on the path to a goal, or a huge lack of support from all around you as you embark on a new project - do you see that as a challenge to be overcome, or a sign that the matter at hand is not meant to be?
My friend and I only succeeded in parsing out the problem. No easy formula occurred to us for determining which is which. I guess every dilemma has its own unique factors.
I imagine the age you are when you hit the brick wall is quite significant. Young people are inexperienced in most things, so they will find themselves ill-equipped more often than someone older, generally speaking. The brick wall is more likely to be a challenge. Education can overcome it.
They still have to ask if they should continue taking flute lessons or not, try for the football team for the fifteenth time or change to baseball (or no competitive sports at all), stop pining for that girl in biology class and look elsewhere for love, or take the bar exams for the nth time.
As a writer, I have heard many stories of famous books that were rejected by publishers more than 20 times before someone savvy enought to see the genius in the work took it on - making history. Good example, the 1960s travel memoir The Kon Tiki. How did the author keep trying? Did he ever wonder if the constant rejections "proved" it was a dud? Maybe so - but the determination (or benign sort of egotism) made the author go on, ultimately to success.
That difficulty was a challenge.
To someone else, a sign - not to quit her day job. Being a published author didn't seem to be in the cards. (Giving rise to another potential discussion here about "destiny." No ... I won't go there.)
On another note: no word from any of you out there. Four more days and I'm out of here, unless I hear otherwise.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

To Everything, a Season

Many years ago, I had a very good friend who was a Jehovah's Witness. The friendship would not have persisted over more than a decade, starting in our late teens, had M. pushed his beliefs on me. He was very respectful. But I remember one visit when we were in our mid-twenties, when he finally showed me one of his pamphlets. I had a look-through out of curiosity and was appalled. I had never heard of the Rapture - that fundamentalist Christian belief in some sort of global purge and selection of the holy - so the pamphlet was my first taste of the idea that destroying the planet and starting over was a good way to deal with sin (broadly defined). At that very moment, I learned that many people, religious or not, seek to solve a difficult problem by clearing the slate - instead of doggedly working to fix whatever's wrong.The concept of a cleared field or blank sheet of paper or uncluttered desk focusses the mind incredibly. (In the case of the Rapture, we are not supposed to think of all the people who must die horribly in order to leave the planet "clean.")
Since then, I have seen much evidence of this. Of course, stories abound of stubborn/crazy/devoted writers or researchers or explorers. James Joyce took 18 years to write Finnegans Wake. The Australian who discovered Heliobactor pylori, the bacterium that causes stomach ulcers, fought years to convince a whole cadre of medical skeptics that he was right, until his proof became irrefutable, and controversy became accepted dogma. They were ultimately thanked for their informed monomania.
But giving up might be more common - either because of laziness or wisdom. (We can never know how many projects have been ditched prematurely.) To be sure, hard work is, well, hard work - and the easy way out is enticing. However, it can be folly to ignore any number of signals saying, this ain't gonna work, honey, try something else while you still have the strength. Sometimes it's better to clear the slate and start over. It's not weak, it's wise.
The really, really tricky part is to know when you're onto the right thing - and keep fighting for it - and when it's better to quit.
I've been thinking of this all year - for one thing then another. (Why now? Is it correlated with my age?) At stake are time and energy, two very precious commodities. Hope is a basic human feeling, both adaptive and maladaptive. My dilemma: is keeping my hopes alive a help or a hindrance? Am I a dreamer and a fool? Should I face reality (with the facts I have at hand) and get on with the rest of my life, pouring energy into more certain outcomes?
On a related note, this blog is nearing its first anniversary. I have been wondering if I really have more to say on the subject of connection. Also, the almost complete lack of feedback makes me think I'm writing into a void - the reason I was reluctant to start a blog in the first place!
Perhaps the time has come to bring it to an end, and start another, entirely about neuroscience.
If I don't hear any howls of protest by October 28, I'll sign off then.

Sunday, September 26, 2010

Various love states

Not too long ago, someone asked me, “What’s the difference between friendship and [romantic] love?” Hard to say sometimes, especially when everything seems right between two people who hang out together.
Many people still believe that men and women cannot be friends with each other without sex entering the equation sooner or later. While this may be true, I know from personal experience that it may manifest itself as nothing more than perfectly harmless “behind thinking” - acknowledgment that you “could” get together (assuming you’re both heterosexual), but never would in a million years. (If there is more tension and attraction than that, well, things need to be discussed.)
I have felt respect and affection for many male friends, and they for me. The word “love” eventually crept into letters and even declarations after especially good visits. Some of the men involved were attached at the time, others not. But we all knew what the word meant. It made us feel good to hear it. Connected.
That kind of love has plenty in common with the common use (i.e., in a romantic context). Both imply loyalty, emotional intimacy (lots of stories and advice exchanged), affection, delight, and commiseration in times of strife. But in friendship, a line is drawn somehow. There may be physical affection – even without considering the new spin on this called “friends with benefits” – but there is no sense of belonging to each other, of being a self-contained unit, a couple.In neurological terms (can't resist), in friendship there is a brake on the release of oxytocin - and that limits the amount of intense attachment. (Adding "benefits" pushes the envelope.)
Romantic love itself is complex, as most people know by the age of, say, 15. Since it pivots on the couple, the “universe of us,” it is all-enveloping and all-consuming … until it shifts into something else. It either burns itself out, shatters on impact with undeniable and unworkable difficulties, or settles into a quieter but far stronger version of its fiery debut.
People who enter long-term relationships often bewail the settling-down stage, saying “the romance has died.” If they still really enjoy being with each other and have a friendship plus a sense of being a unit, then they are likely uninformed about the nature of human emotions (fireworks don’t last indefinitely!), and should realize how lucky they are. (A total lack of togetherness and pizzazz is another matter altogether, and indicates true trouble.)
The all-consuming stage is the exciting part: exciting like a roller coaster, a combination of near-death terror and out-of-body delight! It is probably nature’s way to get us to mate – always a dangerous enterprise, especially for women – by giving us temporary brain damage. (This may be less a joke than it sounds.) By the time we recover, we are either hip to Sweetie’s faults, or we are bound to him or her for the long haul.
In any case, the bond is what counts, not the brain damage that preceded it (as amazing as that can be).
In some ways, what happens is that a kind of friendship settles in – the best kind of friendship imaginable. You have someone there with whom you can be your truest self, and vice versa. You have shared the most intimate aspects of your mind and body. You look to the same future. You make each other grow through pruning and TLC.
The ancient Greeks saw love as eros, phileo, agape, and storge. Eros is not just sexual love, but the need to see Beauty in another another person. It is a manifestation of the life force. Phileo is love of humanity, generalized or individualized (as in love of a friend). Agape is most interesting: it is proven through selfless action rather than feeling - so is closer to the word "respect." Finally storge is the long-lasting love within a family. 
Clearly, romantic love combines or should combine all of these aspects of human emotion. Is the answer to the question: friendship is everything but eros?

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

"Drowning in possibility"

Today, I return to one of my earlier themes on this blog, neuroscience.
I just read another of Jonah Lehrer's postings on his blog, Frontal Cortex. He asks, are distractible people more creative? As someone who is definitely both easily distracted and creative, I'd have to say yes.Others may beg to differ.
I love the quotation Lehrer takes from that great melancholy Dane, Soren Kierkegaard (author of such laugh fests as Sickness Unto Death, which I had to read in Philosophy class), undoubtedly referring to (what else?) the downside of multiple options: "Drowning in possibility."
When the mind is alert enough to pull in sights, sounds, smells, scraps of conversation, odd juxtapositions, interesting coincidences and the like, it feels like a huge gift from the universe. Poetry and other kinds of leaps of faith will arise from the synthesis of the right things rushing in together at the right time. It's a heady experience. No wonder many creative people say they feel like idle observers in the creative process: it's as if they hardly have to do any work at all to get something golden. (That's an illusion, of course. Everything involves hard work at some point - 99% perspiration, right?)
However, all that sensation rushing in can cause a log jam. That's why we need discipline, guidance from the Master, and so on. The selection process (instinct, carefully employed memory, experience, education) has to work, otherwise what occurs is far worse than an embarrassment of riches. It may bring creativity to a complete stop. (Been there, done that.)
The modern world provides access to millions of data to anyone with a computer. And yet a distractible person can be overloaded even while walking down the street. In the extreme, of course, it's mental illness.
No wonder we think there's a thin line between genius and madness. Creative people walk that line almost all the time.

Monday, September 13, 2010

Gardening as Metaphor

After this morning's rain, a cleansing wind swept in and opened the clouds. I finished reading a very good book - Allegra Goodman's latest, The Cookbook Collector - and headed to my community garden plot as the sun beamed down.
For a variety of reasons, one of them a kind of benign neglect, I have been allowing my little plot to do its own thing. Being the end of the summer, and not the middle, members of the Compositae Family tend to be most visible. Many species of sunflowers, asters, and goldenrod appear everywhere in the Eastern forest zone. The predominance of yellow hues really brings to mind light and flames. How fitting!
However, it's an embarrassment of riches. My plot is tiny, so a large Rudbeckia plant (pictured) and several Jerusalem Artichoke/sunchoke plants (Helianthus tuberosum L.) took over. My carrots, new arugula and sorrel were all overshadowed by the towering stems and foliage.
Today, since the sunchokes had stopped flowering, I felt I had permission to yank them from the soil. I pulled up about 10 plants in all, and harvested the potato-like tubers. The stems and spent flowers all went into the compost pile. Their day in the sun was over. To everything a season!
I certainly opened up the plot to what's left of the year's useful sunshine. My undernourished leaf and root crops might have a chance now.
According to Kahlil Gibran (if I recall my adolescent reading of The Prophet), "love will be your growth, but it will also be your pruning." Indeed, a very close connection to another person can lop off the odd "dead branch," much like on an old rose bush, allowing us to grow better. (I'm thinking of the loss of bad habits and routines, and openness to new plans.) Gibran also might have meant weeding the garden of the soul. Love forces us to re-evaluate ourselves by changing our surroundings like the shifting seasons; things we took for granted no longer apply, at least not in the same way. It may be comforting to cling to old ways of thinking, and allow the status quo to continue without question. However, well-timed change can do wonders.
Not too late to let in more light. In my garden, at least six weeks remain for the greens to catch up, and I may have a nice salad to go with some delicious sunchoke fritters in October.

Friday, August 20, 2010

The Middle Way

I was at a wedding last week-end. The bride and groom are young - mid-20s - and full of more positive emotions than you'd expect in the average newlyweds. They have very good emotional intelligence - something more useful in navigating life's ups and downs than basic I.Q., according to several studies I've seen. That ability to roll with the punches and stay positive can pull a person through rough patches, and make the smooth patches more likely!
A wedding is about many things, including the future - which we tend to associate with looking up. (The Chinese character for "tomorrow" means literally "bright day.") We enjoy attending weddings because of the amazing energy given off by the couple at the centre of their family, friends, and community. Celebration and exultation feel good - everyone knows that.
The opposites, mourning and despair, feel bad. Most people try to avoid them at all costs (even if the experience of very low mood can bring new insights and depth). However, almost no one tries to avoid exultation. It's wonderful to feel high on love or joy or pride - what possible downside could there be?
Buddhists advise the Middle Way: neither extreme joy nor extreme sorrow. Extremes tend to distort thinking, and place too much focus on the self (which is supposed to be "forgotten" in the scheme of things). Balance is key.
Dancing with a large group of people to very joyous music (see photo) - in fact, most fast dancing - brings about changes that easily veer into exultation, even ecstasy (removal of the self). An experience like that is too be savored, but in moderation. Too much joy, like too much sorrow, interferes with attention. And attention is a crucial aspect of dealing with life - through all its inevitable ups and downs.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

The Consumer Disconnect

I'm back - but not from a vacation in the usual sense. I have been in town the whole time, but enjoying a break from my routine. It has nothing to do with work (though that has changed to accommodate the "vacation") and everything to do with a rediscovered friend. When two old friends can talk this easily after decades of separation, they can either cry over the lost years, or celebrate the reconnection and hold onto it tightly (this time). So far, my friend and I are doing the latter. Onwards and upwards, time's a'wastin'.
The great wealth to be found in interpersonal connections versus material wealth is evident to any lonely heiress sitting in a penthouse with a silent phone. But that truth is never so strongly felt as when we actually experience that connection ourselves, and realize we wouldn't trade it for the fanciest house or wildest vacation.
I sometimes feel, in this blog and in my day-to-day mutterings, as if I am a broken record, going on and on about friendship, love, attachment, and connection on the one hand, and the fallacy of materialism and the consumer ethic on the other. So it is good to see that I am not alone in my proselytizing. A cultural "meme" may be gaining speed, likely due to economic necessity rather than philosophical enlightenment - but so what? Where you get your epiphany doesn't matter as much as the getting it in the first place.
Check out this NY Times article in the Business section of Sunday's paper. It employs the usual examples of people "downsizing" and simplifying their lives, supplemented by testimony from academics about how true happiness is found in other people and the activities that bring us together (e.g., trips, classes, sports) not in heaps of things.
I look forward to a day when such articles aren't published because, d'uh!, we already know this about our species. Love: great! Stuff: not so important.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Thought for the Day

"Until one is committed, there is hesitancy, the chance to draw back ... The moment one definitely commits, then Providence comes too. All sorts of things occur to help one that would never otherwise have occurred ... Whatever you can do or dream, you can begin it. Boldness has genius, power and magic in it. Begin it now."
- Goethe

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

"Home Remedies" for Depression

Sometimes it doesn't matter where an idea comes from, only whether it has value. Intellectual vanity should not be a factor. Good ideas must not wither in the dark.
From time to time, I come up with a clever pun or joke and feel pretty pleased with myself - until someone "steals" it (i.e., comes up with the same idea independently). There goes my unique invention! I am not amused (anymore).
I am a little less annoyed, ironically enough, when one of my theories about this or that is similarly poached by the collective unconscious, so to speak. Having labored in virtual solitude about so many things, I find it gratifying - not to mention a bit flattering - when someone with an academic post or another kind of visibility has the same idea as mine. Whereas many of my thoughts may have almost no chance of being heard (outside of this blog), other people's work may find a much bigger audience. Almost nowhere is this more important than in the realm of public health.
Case in point this morning was an article in the Guardian. Dr. Steve Ilardi, a psychologist at the University of Kansas, has just written a book called The Depression Cure. He argues that medication to beat the blues is largely ineffective. What works, in his opinion (and mine), are lifestyle changes - that conform with our evolutionary past.
"Our standard of living is better now than ever before, but technological progress comes with a dark underbelly. Human beings were not designed for this poorly nourished, sedentary, indoor, sleep-deprived, socially isolated, frenzied pace of life. So depression continues its relentless march."
 Although I have never suffered from clinical depression - that slough of despond into which no one wants to fall - I have been melancholic, low, blue, and even in despair many, many times. I have always resisted medication, primarily because I knew from my teens that if bad feelings can be triggered by certain environmental factors (darkness, isolation, stress), then they can be similarly alleviated by others. Ilardi is saying basically the same thing. Strangely enough, he cites the very things I have been using myself, and counselling others to use: a good diet, rich in omega-3 fatty acids (for the nerve cells, especially in the brain itself); sufficient sleep; the company of good people; satisfying activities for "flow" and just plain distraction from bad thoughts; and outdoor activity (sunshine, exercise).
Sounds simple, doesn't it? Alas, modern life precludes almost all of it! Processed foods are nutritional deserts. Long work days leave little time for fulfilling hobbies or time with people we love - or want to get to know. And city life removes us from nature: the animal spirits and soothing bath of green we evolved to have around us.

Saturday, July 10, 2010

"Community" Garden

Just this week, I heard something I had been dreading: more evidence that the community garden where I have my little patch of Eden (left) will be erased to make room for condos - large numbers of sterile, green-hating condos.
I have to get my hands on the documents (or the ones allowed into the public eye - I doubt everything will be available, she mutters cynically) before I can do anything, such as draft a protest letter, citing environmental impact, etc. But I am already discouraged by talk (with fellow gardeners) of the strict and blind adherence to ye olde Bottom Line exhibited by the city council. In order to attract more wealthy tax payers to the area, they will wipe out a large area of useful green space (not a vacant lot), and take with it the place where people like me find solace and a bit of actual sustenance, and where many young people congregate to play baseball in the nearby field. That will all be gone next year or the year after. I asked my informant whether there is any chance of swaying the council with an angry protest from the lot of us, and she said that the gardeners and local neighbors (who benefit from green space, and would suffer from increased traffic) are generally resigned to the fact that the council only thinks of money and will not engage in democratic discourse. Defeated before we begin.
Everyone - whether truly busy (see "Insidious Busyness" below) or gifted with ample time, such as many retirees - has been conditioned by big business to be an individual first, and later (if ever) part of a community.
The system is self-perpetuating, even without veering into illegal or unethical behavior. 
What do we do about it?
Stay tuned. I ain't finished with these self-serving, life-negating, community-blind fascists with dollar signs for eyes just yet.

Sunday, June 27, 2010


While cleaning out a closet last week, my mother came upon a cache of my old stuff. I went through a pile of it yesterday, and what stood out most were the letters - about 30 of them, all from the same period in my life.
There was a time when I would have a bundle of letters and postcards (plus copies of some of my own letters) as thick as a loaf of bread by the end of every year. (Now I'm lucky to have three letters per year!) Over maybe 15 years of corresponding with this one or that one, I had an average of five steady correspondents per year. Other people would write only when on vacation, and yet others would drop a line once in a blue moon (and usually, but not always, apologize profusely for the gap). With long-distance rates being so high then, it was the main way to keep in touch over the summer, or after someone moved away.
I have made every effort to save these letters. However, due to many moves, some of these bundles have gone astray. The pile my mother just found was from my teens and early twenties. So the majority of the letters came from classmates between Grade 8 and early university - a very turbulent and highly charged time in anyone's life, let alone that of a sensitive person such as myself or any of the people I tended to hang out with. I was inundated with nostalgia as I read those handwritten letters last night. It was mostly a pleasant experience: happy memories of good people, plus sadness over days gone by. Several things came to mind as I leafed through the pile.
  1. How often, and emotionally, even notoriously taciturn male friends wrote to me! Since some are still in my life to whatever extent is possible (?), I can compare, say, a young Michael or Paul with the middle-aged one. Sad to say, they are very much the same in some respects, but not in an emotionally revealing one. Perhaps life has taught them to be more closed and circumspect.
  2. How valuable a handwritten letter can be - and not just because even the simplest message from a friend says "I'm thinking of you and wish we could be talking in the same room instead." The paper is tangible - a sensual detail. The handwriting reveals character - and you don't have to be trained in graphology to find it useful. The words can also be compared or contrasted with the handwriting - e.g., a cheery letter scribbled in an erratic hand might suggest a friend is hiding anxiety or illness. 
  3. How electronic mail, great boon to keeping in touch across the globe that it is, has all but rendered letter writing obsolete. I feel sorry for the young people who have grown up with instant communication through electronic devices and have few if any records of these often banal but occasionally precious exchanges. And what they do have is printed out from a screen - not scribbled in one friend's fountain pen ink, or another's warm slant (with the drawings of fairies at the bottom of the page presaging her future career as an artist).
To all of you who wrote to me back then - Dale, Belinda, Claude, Paul, Michael, Sandy, Mary, Brad, Lucie, Marie-Hélène, Malcolm, Margaret - thank you for writing to me and doing so with feeling. I am not going to throw out your letters and postcards for a long time, if ever!
Everyone: buy some paper and stamps, and send someone special a short letter! Won't finding a reply in your mailbox be worth a hundred e-mails?
More than ever, it will show you mean to connect, not just pass on information.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Why Are Men Smarter than Women?

I was listening to a Guardian podcast on genius when it occurred to me why more men get credited with advancing society, leading most men and lots of women, incidentally, to believe that men are smarter than women. A lot of it has to do with the differences between male brains and female brains, and what society expects of each sex.
(Men also have been doing a very good job of holding back society - through wars, various kinds of harmful dogma, self-serving beliefs and practices - but that's another post perhaps. This "paradox" supports a recent observation that men tend to occupy the extremes of good and bad, while women occupy more of the middle ground.)

Genius is a complex phenomenon, and often identified only in hindsight. A quirky little boy or girl with strange ideas and perspectives will probably be noticed for being different, but not valued for his or her individual outlook unless it yields a discovery, invention, remarkable work of art, or the like. In other words, if you're going to stand out, you have to earn acceptance more than the average person!
Not every genius with the potential for that breakthrough ticket to public acceptance and even adoration finds the right opportunities to shine. We'll never know how many Marie Curies, Isadora Duncans and Virginia Woolfs died in childbirth or toiling in a field - not to mention the Mozarts, Newtons, and Picassos coughing away in attics unable to find the money for basic materials.
To get to that invention or symphony, a person needs talent and opportunity, no doubt about that. But personality - mainly, determination and belief in oneself and one's work - probably separates the sheep from the goats most of all.
That's where male-female brain differences - and how society boldfaces them - come in. Men in general have a greater ability to take a project and focus on it to the exclusion of everything else. The modern cliché of the unkempt computer nerd has historical precedents in the mad scientist or long-haired crazy composer. Men are also more likely to be collectors (another form of monomania). Women are better multitaskers and generalists. While shallow thinking and attention combined with a talent for forming connections can have brilliant results, they do not tend to translate into works of genius. Gregor Mendel grew hundred of pea plants before he was able to discern the patterns of trait inheritance later called genetics. Not only was he incredibly patient and focussed and smart, he was a monk with no other job, no bills to pay, no kids to run after! If a woman did something similar, she'd be called an oddball for opting out of her "true role" as a wife and mother.
If men discover more, change more, it may be because they use their intelligence for deep focus - and tend to find support in family and community for doing so. They also may be more singleminded when it comes to pursuing a socially peripheral project that they alone find worthy; women tend to listen to criticism more.
Things are changing a little. Women with the ability to devote long hours in the lab or at the writing desk are scorned far less than they used to be, and the opportunities needed to advance (money, education, support) are more abundant in many parts of the world. But the female need to form interpersonal connections (and be praised for the ones she does form) may preclude the creation of those really big breakthroughs - the ones that make it into the history books, even if most tend to be written by men.

Sunday, June 13, 2010

Crushed Empathy

Hard to read in parts (I skipped them, I'm not ashamed to admit) but superb and well overdue in a national paper is this New York Times article on the connection between violence towards animals and violent, unempathetic behavior in general.
Finally, forensics labs and law enforcement agencies across the U.S. are making this long-obvious link (what's Canada doing?). Many serial killers were later found to have tortured local pets, and many family abusers have been animal abusers - it's all about a lack of sensitivity to the pain of others, worn down by abuse they endured themselves (directly by adults or by their impoverished and dangerous environment). It is also, of course, about power and control. If you feel the boot-heel of the universe is grinding your face everyday - to paraphrase Orwell - then you will try to hold yourself together by hurting the nearest convenient target: say, a puppy or a toddler. Mental health depends on having a degree of control over one's life. Tragically, violence against weaker beings is the only control available to some people.
Randall Lockwood is at the A.S.P.C.A.'s forensics department.
Along with possible early abuse or genetic and biological components, Lockwood also spoke of the frequent association between environment and acts of violence, how poverty often creates the sense of persecution and injustice that makes some people feel justified in striking back in order to gain the sense of power and control they otherwise lack.  
Nobody in their right mind needs to be told that severe conditions (neglect, abuse, hunger, toxic and understimulating surroundings) tend to give rise to severe children. But it seems to be one of those items of common knowledge that no one wants to admit - if admitting means addressing it and fixing it. It means admitting to horrible living conditions in otherwise rich cities. It means admitting systemic cracks in certain cultures within cultures. For example, many poor boys join gangs because they have no fathers around to give them direction, no job prospects, and often no one to love them or accept them except gang members. But gang membership is a cruel kind of acceptance, involving the crushing of any innate empathy - as empathy is equated with weakness.
The brain is a highly plastic organ, ready to adapt to whatever environment it finds itself in. It doesn't always adapt in a way conducive to the greater good.
No child is an island: whatever stunts his growth, stunts the entire community. And the companion animals we bring into our homes are part of that community, too. We ignore their abuse at their peril and our own.

Thursday, June 10, 2010

The Power of Music

My favorite band in the world is Arcade Fire. Got to see them in a concert in 2007 - standing room only. Amazing show, if a bit hard on the legs and back. Last night, after I heard of one of their famous "secret" freebie shows, I saw them again. Yep, had to stand (more than two and a half hours in all) but it was definitely worth it.
I won't go into raptures about the band - they hardly need my praise, given their worldwide adoration by fans and fellow musicians (e.g., David Bowie). The totality of the experience is what remains with me.
First, there was the anticipation: when I finally got to the outdoor spot, saw the stage set up and fans gathering, I knew I was in for a treat. Then there was the show itself, which began spot on 8:00 and lasted as long as a paid concert - about 90 min. Wow. There were about four songs from the latest album, several from the first, and not enough (IMO) from the second. The band members' enthusiasm was electrifying. Win Butler, the lead singer and songwriter, said he was truly overwhelmed by the turnout (more than 5,000!). "And I'm not shitting you," he added. I've never seen him so happy.
The music, some of it familiar, some of it new and exciting, made me forget about the past month for a few hours. I was filled with the power of music - and by the power of a shared experience. I admit I taped several performances (for my own record), and when I played them back, I actually enjoyed seeing hands waving, fists punching the air with joy, and rhythmic clapping. The crowd was part of my "forgetfulness" for sure.
We connected over a shared emotion, and we temporarily lost our sometimes proud, sometimes narrow, individualism.

Thursday, June 3, 2010


On May 29, exactly three weeks after he died, we buried Pablo here.
Not under this tree, but almost opposite it. I did not feel right about recording any other aspect of the operation.
My friend, whose property this is in the southeastern part of Ontario, did all the heavy lifting - literally and figuratively. I am deeply grateful.
Burial means different things to different people. Closure. Return to the soil. Memorial spot. Something physical in a spiritual realm.
For me, burying my dear cat was mostly a way of staying true to my beliefs (as it would be, in very different ways, to others) - namely, honouring the cycle of life. I wanted him returned to the cycle, and my friend did us the supreme honour of allowing us to put Pablo in his soil. It certainly helped that the place we chose was beautiful. Of course, a dead cat, like a dead human, cannot know the difference between a gorgeous spot and a landfill - when you're dead, you're dead - but since there seems to be a deeply human instinct against desecrating a body, placing it somewhere lovely is the final dignity we can show the loved one. It made me feel a little better.
(I suppose part of that instinct is highly personal: we would not like to think of our dead body being tossed to the vultures or dumped like trash somewhere, even though - again - once you're dead, you feel nothing.)
This is not the only burial I have experienced lately. The only way I can get back into my routine is to bury my feelings. Now and then, I allow them to resurface, and the pain is as strong as ever. I allowed myself to be deeply connected to that animal, and the loss is terrible.
I see this as some kind of rehearsal for losing a member of my own species one day, one who means as much or more to me as Pablo. I don't think I will be quite as successful with the burial of that grief.

Monday, May 24, 2010

Fairy Tales and Social Regulation

On Saturday, I went to see an amazing example of the latest technology in film restoration. Thanks to bigwigs like Martin Scorcese, a true film classic, The Red Shoes, is now available to a new generation of film buffs.
The Red Shoes is probably the ultimate ballet movie, and maybe the ultimate art movie. Not only is there a great story - lifted from the fairy tale by Hans Christian Anderson - but it features surprisingly deep character development, so we really get an idea of what it's like to run a dance troop, audition before a megalomaniac producer, and find fulfillment in one's art form. (When is the last time you felt a movie explored character like a novel? Only when you see a golden oldie do you see how satisfying it is to watch. Sometimes it's easy to think modern film consists of special effects with a few people thrown in. But I digress.)
The original fairy tale is a variation on the Faustian bargain. Faust agrees to sell his soul to the devil in exchange for worldly ambitions. The dancer in "The Red Shoes" never encounters the devil, but he is there in spirit: giving her fame through he power of the red shoes, at the cost of love, and then her life.
Victoria Page, in the story about the story, dares to be ordinary: she loves a man and marries him, neglecting her art. The megalomaniac insists she return to her art, renounce her husband, and achieve greatness. The choice literally sends her over the edge.
The lesson or moral of so many fairy tales is so remember the social contract and not to allow self-interest (set in place by the will to survive) to take up too much energy and focus. Kindness is rewarded. Selfishness and excess ambition are punished. These tales were probably written to instill social values in children (through benign subterfuge, except in particularly gory stories - and there are no shortage of those!). Yet they were also entertaining and immensely satisfying to adults - mirroring their sense of justice and fair play.
These days, we still desire social regulation, but the way we tend to go about it can be frightening. Modern Faust stories usually involve women being punished for choosing ambition (or even too much energy on an ideal) over relationships. (Men are rarely if ever chastised for the same - because they are still defined by work, not connections to others.) On the scarier end, we have Hollywood movies featuring vigilante justice: men going outside the law to exact revenge on criminals.
Can you think of any classic fairy tale with such an obvious message as "The Red Shoes"?

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Nibbling with the Eyes (or Ears)

Part of my grief over the loss of my little friend is due to the abrupt change in habit. Being able to be close to Pablo several times a day produced oxytocin in my brain - a neurotransmitter known to counteract stress. (No wonder pet therapy is a growing concern.) Oxytocin is most strongly produced between mother and child, but can appear in other loving exchanges. Pablo was a very touchy-feely feline - unlike other very sweet cats I have known over the years. How I miss his big, velvety paws!
Late last year, a series of fortunate accidents brought books on social isolation to my attention, including Loneliness, by John Cacioppo. One of the things he mentions in that book is something called "social snacking." In lieu of actual contact (a "meal") with a loved one, people e-mail, call, text, and gaze at photographs.
Yesterday, when I had a friend over, I showed her several years of Pablo photographs. To my surprise, it gave me solace, not pain, to see him in all those poses. I realize now I was nibbling to keep from starving. His beauty - and, if I may be immodest, my skill as a photographer - was very gratifying. I remembered how lucky I was to have that handsome animal in my life.
Today, I found this Guardian article on long-distance consolation. Seems just hearing the sound of your mother's voice can lower stress hormones (cortisol) and raise oxytocin!
The need for connection is so great, we evolved back-up measures. Reach out and touch somebody, indeed.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Patterns and Pathos

In late October 2008, my 16-year-old cat, Sara, lost the use of her hind legs. I brought her to the vet's, left her there for observation, and came home. It was a particularly gloomy day, even for late autumn, with a sky like a cataracted eye. As I stood in the living room in a daze, wondering what would happen with her (there was a slim chance she would recover), I heard a raptor cry outside. I looked out, thinking I might see a Peregrine Falcon (as I'd seen elsewhere in the city). A smaller bird landed on a wire, upright like a raptor, not a songbird. Luckily, I had my binos. It was an American Kestrel (pictured)! Given the rarity of a bird of prey in the city, and the nature of the day, I found my innate sense of superstition kick in. I saw the bird as an augury of death. (Sure enough, Sara had to be euthanized.)
Two weeks ago, just as Pablo started to act a little quieter than usual, I heard that screech again, same window. I went out and saw a kestrel chasing a pigeon (that was about its own size - talk about eyes bigger than your stomach!). Oh no, I thought, what happened last time I saw a kestrel fly overhead?! That was pattern recognition of the worst sort.
If that were not strange enough, as my husband and I returned home from a walk on Saturday, mere hours after saying good-bye to Pablo, a kestrel cried out as it flew across the street from our apt.
It is a very useful adaptation to see patterns amidst the chaos of information that pours into our senses every moment, and from the myriad events and phenomena out there. The trait is so finely tuned, it tends to look for patterns even when coincidence better explains what's going on. I suppose culture, personal experience, and wisdom (which may never come!) help us separate true patterns from false ones - and prevent us from hanging people for the latter.
In my case, it is a combination of birdwatching awe and an overdeveloped sense of narrative, for the want of a better term, that led me to frame these phenomena. When we are in the grips of a strong emotion - grief, love, anger - the tendency is greater. It pays to keep perspective.

Sunday, May 9, 2010

Good-bye to a Writer's Best Friend

Yesterday, I lost Pablo, one of the best friends I have ever had. Most cats are good companions for writers, but Pablo was the best. He loved life, loved us, and even taught us several distinct types of his vocalizations. How many cats have different sounds for "feed me" and "cuddle time, please?"
The study of our relationships with animals (and nature in general) has dominated my life work, dovetailing with my studies in neuroscience, ecology, and even poetry. The animals we bring into our homes are welcomed (or merely tolerated) for many reasons: as servants (mouser cat, guard dog), companions, child substitutes, but most of all (in my opinion) as surrogates for the wild animals out there, which are largely beyond any attempts at communion.
When I connected with Pablo – through sight, sound, touch, and smell – I engaged with the Other, to be sure, but our 13 years of cohabitation made him part of my Self as well. The reason I am in mourning now for the loss of the little mammal with the big character is that something has been ripped out of the fabric of my world. I often chided myself for loving him “too much.” Now my memories of doting on him and being adored in return are truly a consolation. He was no “merely tolerated” cat. He was not “just a cat” either.
When he developed mysterious symptoms late last year, I flew into a panic (not exactly making me popular at the animal clinic). When the danger seemed to pass, I relaxed - if not 100%.
Something – perhaps something epigenetic from his mother (allegedly abused while she carried him and his six siblings) – disturbed his internal organs at some point in his life. Most recently, in early February, he stopped eating for a week, freaking us out after we discovered that cats cannot live off their fat. (In fact, it’s a ticket to liver failure if they start off obese.) I force-fed him a nutritional supplement and yogurt, and after we brought him back from a second visit to the vet’s in one week, he went right to his dish and chowed down. The all-clear was sounded. A few expensive tests and much head-scratching later, I found myself holding back from loving him as much as before, and swearing I would cherish every minute with him. I was no longer in denial about his mortality. (Losing another cat, 16-yr-old Sara, more than a year ago, brought this into sharper relief.)
I tried to prepare (and it did help), never suspecting the end would come quite so soon.
When his appetite slowed about 10 days ago, he lost weight noticeably. Then a few days ago, he began breathing more heavily. We brought him in on Saturday morning, and the x-ray showed an enlarged liver, and cloudiness around the lungs obscuring the heart. The vets had us recorded as requesting “no heroic measures” in Feb., so I am not sure if there would have been any therapies on offer had we asked. But the vet who examined Pablo told us she would not want to extend his suffering, either. So with a clear conscience we decided to euthanize him.
My husband said his good-byes, and then I stayed with Pablo for about half an hour. He connected with me one more time, on his terms, as if to remind me what we had had for more than 13 years. It was both heartbreakingly touching and deeply consoling. I want connection, and that was Pablo's final gift to me.
I can't believe he's gone. Nothing much else seems to matter right now.
However, that feeling too will pass. Life always continues, even if a little tattered at the edges.

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Poetry & Pollution

Those who know me well would never (I dare say) accuse me of sticking my head in the sand about world events. I read depressing things all the time (though less than I used to). When you write about science, especially the environment, it comes with the territory.
However, one thing I refuse to read about in detail - and sometimes read about at all - is an oil spill. My empathy with filth-covered creatures, and even with seaweed dotted with tar blobs, goes on high alert. It's just too painful. Time for me to be selfish and turn the page. In a way, the reports are only preaching to the converted (I of the Church of No-Oil, don't you know).
But plenty of people are far from converted, yet they too turn the page. What of them? Is a sickening litany of corporate incompetence or criminality, dying birds, poisoned turtles, ruined livelihoods, and environmental devastation the best way to tell them we need to change our energy needs sooner rather than later?
If not, then maybe we should use another way into the mind: through the heart. A novel called Uncle Tom's Cabin alerted people to the plight of slaves - undoing more legalized brutality than any number of petitions gathered by well-meaning abolitionists. Poetry can also appeal to our natural tendency to empathize with fellow humans in trouble and even with other species - even with the abstraction called an ecosystem.
In the excellent on-line environmental journal, run by my friend Simmons Buntin out of Arizona, a recent post features the Chilean poet and Nobel Laureate Pablo Neruda's poem about a terremoto (earthquake), almost presaging the Big One of 1960. (It was the biggest ever recorded anywhere, by the way: an 8.8.) Although he wasn't commenting on that seismic event - or even on an earthquake, being an intensely patriotic and political man - it got me thinking about communication of world-scale events.
Where are our modern observers of environmental change?
Ian McEwan's latest book, Solar, concerns climate change. I hope more novelists as clever as he will follow suit. What of other creative genres?
I imagine there will be "nature" poets as long as poetry exists, but environmental poetry is something else. It is more than an "is" (the way things are). It is an "ought" (the way things should be). In other words, it is commentary. As vitally important as journalism may be, the commentary found in good environmental poetry could really make a difference. Maybe "the environment" won't be #176 on a list of promises next time there's a major election.

Thursday, April 22, 2010

EARTH DAY - 40 years on

I remember what I was doing 40 years ago. (Frightening, isn’t it?) I was a student at St. Francis of Assisi Elementary. Our teacher made us clean the schoolyard. We had some idea that someone in the U.S.A. had just invented Earth Day and chosen April 22 as the first one. Mostly, it was just a day to fight pollution in the way we were told.
Soon after I noticed things happening. All around, the environmental movement was beginning. Even as a girl, I realized that pollution (water and air) was bad, and clean wild areas had to be protected. I had visited a few and felt I belonged there. Whatever sullied those places hurt me. I felt the earliest sense of being one with it all, even if the implications were to take years to emerge. My understanding took decades.
However, that sense of connection that came so easily to me may not have to be “instilled” in anyone! It may be innate, like a baby’s gripping reflex, or the bond between mother and child, which seems to merge their very consciousnesses. If it is innate, it does need to be maintained and shaped, encouraged and nurtured. Otherwise, it will wither, and other forces (e.g., materialism, and anti-social influences that want us all to stand alone) will propel our ambitions instead of this love.
Or at least this is what I hold firm. How else to explain that the mad hunger for plasma TVs and tiny social isolation devices masked as connection units (cell phones) supplants any awareness of the birds on the trees or the plants underfoot? If you doubt my words, ask an 18-year-old boy to name one local bird and what it eats, or a gardener to point out a native plant (versus the hybrids most gardeners prefer).
Earth Day has been celebrated for 40 years. Think of how far we’ve advanced in our understanding of the biosphere – yet how much forest has been lost to toothpicks or construction boards, how much more CO2 now warps the atmospheric currents, how every ocean will be riddled with our plastic for eternity, and how many more human beings now crowd out what remains (about 2.5 billion extra people in four decades) of the habitable areas of the planet since 1970. All those people threaten to squeeze out the fresh water, the land, the food, the wild creatures - yet the hope for everything lies with those people, too!
The more that changes, the more everything stays the same.
I am still that little girl, seamlessly one with the wetland dragonflies and red-winged blackbirds.
What are you?

Thursday, April 8, 2010

Community Garden

A few days ago, I took this photo of my dwarf daffodils, opened 3 to 4 weeks early.I am not sure what to make of the premature departure of winter in early March, but I cannot complain if this is the result.
I have never owned a house, and doubt I ever will, but the prospect of having a garden might compel me to transcend my fear of having to deal with repairs, mortgage, etc. There is nothing quite like watching things grow to heal the spirit! I'm sure many people can relate to this, whether it is a bed of blooms they planted themselves, or a patch of wild flowers discovered in a nearby spot. In my case, I have been blessed with a community garden plot a mere five minutes from my small apartment.
For the past two years, I have planted and nourished various flowers and vegetables in my plot, with many degrees of success. The sandy soil proved too much of a challenge for some species. The resident rodents (squirrels, groundhogs, rats) gnawed my tomatoes and ruined a few squashes in other gardens. Variable rain took its toll. Yet, thanks to ample sunshine (and my daily administrations), I harvested beans, peas, herbs, small potatoes, sunchokes, and carrots.
If I were Supreme Ruler, I would see to it that every city had such plots, with supplies for anyone unable to afford them, and instructions on how to grow food.
What a wonderful way to promote self-sufficiency, meet people, and heal the spirit at the same time.

Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Mindfulness and Creativity

Two years ago, aware for some time of the concept of mindful study as an integral part of Buddhism, it struck me that I had been diminishing the value of anything I loved doing if it was not "worth" something. In my case, if it didn't further my knowledge or produce a written project, it was a waste of time. Trouble was, I enjoy doing artistic things, and always have. Using my right hemisphere intensively now and then gives the busy left one (language and logic) a nice break. (And sometimes, if I'm lucky, I create a thing of beauty - for myself and maybe for others.) But I noticed that when I painted, for example, I rushed through canvasses, or did only one or two small ones in one day, and did a poor job. Not enough focus or devotion to craft! After my realization, I decided I should either paint and be mindful, present, or not bother at all.
The result was a new resurge in my abilities. Since then, I have painted several satisfying works. When I take such a break, it really is one, and not a waste of time or anything else.
This is one of last year's efforts. Only after it was finished did I realize why I painted a top-heavy tree. It represents all the projects I was taking on at the time, some quite pleasant (hence the luxurious foliage). But the tree will break if the wind blows too hard. My numerous projects were unsustainable. 
So, in addition to being a good exercise in mindfulness, and a welcome break from words, such projects can also provide a bit of insight into what's going on in my life - perhaps things I don't want to admit otherwise!

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Seasonal Transitions

My readings of Zen & the Brain have slowed down a bit in the past week. Part of this has been due to the nature of the material - not the easiest to pick up and breeze through! But I am continuing, and sharing what I find with others. I find if I can explain it to someone in simple, everyday terms, I must have a fundamental grasp of it.
One relatively minor thing I discovered was the fact that in Japan there are more than four official seasons. The Japanese regard seasonal transitions as kinds of seasons unto themselves. Well, if not in the Southern Hemisphere, we in the Northern one are definitely in the middle of one of those unofficial seasons. Everywhere, things are mid-way between winter and spring - with spring predominating so far. Small, soil-hugging spring ephemerals of the horticultural variety have been appearing in gardens for the past two weeks, more like alpine or Arctic plants than Temperate Forest zone ones (my bioregion). If the warm weather persists in the next fortnight, the tulips, daffodils, irises, and so on will stretch to normal heights. Then we really will know we are in Spring proper. Until then, we'll be in this as-yet-unnamed season, unsure what coats to put away or leave out, nervous about storing winter boots, and superstitious about hiding the snow shovel.
Transitions are interesting because they embody ambiguity, a concept the human mind finds fascinating and troubling. We enjoy our categories, don't we? I don't need to remind anyone of either the benefits of classification or the terrible costs.
Zen teachings encourage the mind to embrace the Oneness of all. The challenge - one of many, I suppose, in a highly disciplined practice - is to break down (artificial) fences and see the underlying connections. We cling to those cozy categories and refuse to acknowledge their evanescence and arbitrary narture. With concerted study, the mind can learn to recognize the innate tendency to group things as like or not-like, and transcend those areas of disconnection. An "easy" place to start would be the human species, which we now break down into classes, religions, cultures, skin colors, and on and on. Those differences are indeed there - diversity exists in the world of humanity and most everything else - yet they also do not exist.
Try holding that thought in your mind for a few minutes. It's not exactly a Zen koan, but it will do until a real Zen master comes along to suggest one!

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Zen and Oneness

One thing is everything
all things are One.
If you know only this, then
don't worry about attaining perfect knowledge

- Master Seng-ts'an
I chose the blogspot name "poetryandecology" for a good reason. Both poetry & ecology are realms of connection. Ecology sees the interconnection of all life - from a relatively simple food web to certain complex genomic elements shared by many or most species. Poetry uses metaphors and symbols to form connection between ideas and images.
Zen realizes this and trains the brain of the practitioner to know (almost viscerally rather than cognitively) the Oneness of the universe. We are not alone. Each of us is immensely important - a part of this tremendous whole - and yet very small. On a fundamental level, none of our problems is of great consequence. But the only way to see this is to stand back and see the big picture.
Not easy. Thus the need for study!
That's why I keep reading.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Why Zen - and now?

Although I have read a few chapters of Zen & the Brain today, it's mostly about the neuroscientist author's own introduction to zazen, so not as translatable into a blog summary (+ comment) as the earlier passages. Before I go back to the beginning of the book and summarize and comment upon them, I think I should explain my fascination with Buddhism - not just the Zen subset - and how a book combining Zen with neuroscience is a perfect fit for me, at this time.
I'm at a stage of my life where I feel both more hope and more despair than ever before. Age has brought wisdom, which says plenty of seemingly paradoxical things, e.g., life is full of joy and life is full of sorrow. Patterns start to form from formerly unconnected facts or phenomena (probably a good definition of wisdom in itself).
With many gloomy and challenging things ahead, such as the infirmities and deaths of loved ones, I want to maximize my cognitive and emotional strength, for my sake and theirs. The obvious refuge for many people in search of strength would be a religion, but I have a natural aversion to the organization of spirituality (and many other things). Buddhism is a way of looking, of living, not a religion, though it is often classified as one.
My studies in neuroscience have clarified many lifelong mysteries for me - and will continue to do so, no doubt! One thing is the serenity afforded by being present: quieting the distracted mind (which causes stress, a body-bruising force) and narrowing one's attention. We could all do with more serenity. In fact, many of our so-called vices are convoluted (futile) means of seeking the silence of the sacred grove - as we live in crowded cities, lead frantic lives, and can barely hear ourselves think.
I think discovering a permanent means of focus, attention, and serenity - through breathing exercises, and so on - would be a healthy, cost-free, and easily accessed alternative to eating, drinking, shopping, watching movies, and other stop-gap measures. (They are all fairly harmless in themselves - note I did not include illegal drug use - but if used instead of what really leads to the desired goal, they are empty.)
My desired goal is mindfulness. Distraction diffuses energy, wastes it. And I cannot be mindful or present or attentive unless I find a way of calming my monkey mind (what a great term), convincing it that everything will be all right.
A formidable task: "I" do not really believe this quite yet....

Monday, March 22, 2010

Zen and the Brain

Last week, I made a very short report on Antonio Damasio's Looking for Spinoza. Well, as good and as inspiring as that book is, I think I have found a better one. It's called simply (appropriately) Zen and the Brain. The author is James H. Austin, M.D.
Although it is a very long (700 pages) and incredibly complex book - ambitiously combining, as the title suggests, both explanations of Zen Buddhism and the neurological underpinnings of the practice of zazen (meditation) - it is a relatively easy one to read.
I find myself looking forward to sitting down with it, and reading one to four (short to medium-length) chapters at a time.
Yesterday, after reading Chs. 8& 9 on the Self - a topic integral to the practice of Zen and many other mystical pursuits - I thought it might be a good idea to start sort of a blog-within-a-blog. As I read the book, I could touch upon the salient features of each chapter or group of chapters. If anyone wants more details, let me know. I hope I will hear from those out there interested in inquiring about this fascinating interface of disciplines.
Please join me!

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Ahead of His Time

Last week, I finished reading Looking for Spinoza: Joy, Sorrow and the Feeling Brain, by neuropsychologist Antonio Damasio. Very thought provoking. There is not a lot about Spinoza’s work per se, but enough (specifically, his Ethics) to compel me to check out more about this under-appreciated thinker.
Many things we know about the feeling brain, thanks to in-depth studies, often involving high-tech machinery, Spinoza figured out in his little garret in 17th-century Amsterdam, with nothing more than pen and paper and an amazing imagination. For his sins, he was exiled from the local Jewish community, and marginalized as philosopher for decades. (But that's another story.)
What drew me to the book was the neuroscience. What kept me interested, despite a frequently opaque writing style and difficult subject, were the applications to my larger project – of which this blog is a small part.
Damasio speaks of the balance of the individual and society (although those are my words), and the role of feelings in the lives of social animals such as ourselves. Like some of the researchers I have talked about in previous posts, he notes how we have evolved to feel empathy, guilt, shame, regret, loneliness, and so on because of their utility in social interactions. Such traits may have meant the difference between life or death at one time (and still do, though perhaps not so dramatically).
The study of feelings has been the stock in trade of psychologists of all stripes for as long as psychology has existed as a profession. More recently, brain scientists have joined in, tracing emotions to this or that area or structure, and postulating – as Damasio does – why it is present in all healthy human beings, and what happens when it is damaged or absent. But, as he says, “Any complex mental function results from concerted contributions by many brain regions at varied levels of the central nervous system rather than from the work of a single brain region conceived in a phrenological manner.”
It’s funny that he alludes to phrenology. That was the one-time practice of reading a person by the bumps on the skull. There are old drawings of bald people with areas of the skull labeled as this or that trait; sometimes, reading neuroanatomy, one cannot help but recall these early attempts at understanding the last frontier of scientific endeavor. But we have made tremendous strides since then - even if vast universes of discovery remain.
More about this, and related studies, another day.

Thursday, February 25, 2010

How Eating Made Us Social

I was reading an old (2006) magazine called The Sun a couple of days ago. (Great periodical, by the way.) There was an excerpt from Michael Pollan's "instant classic" The Omnivore's Dilemma. In that section, he explains the meaning of omnivore, and describes in lucid, economical language how the human diet has shaped and been shaped by what we are. He points out that we have evolved social eating in part because we are highly varied eaters. We have so many choices out there, we are also apt to make mistakes. The emergence of solitary eating is a fairly recent one in our evolution.
I got to thinking how solitary eating is not just a quirk of modern life - like multitasking or 24/7 accessibility - it is a kind of revolution in the history of the human diet. Never before have so many people thought it perfectly normal to consume food stuffs alone. Of course, many feel weird walking into a nice restaurant to sit alone, but they will eat on the run, eat at home, or eat in fast-food emporia all by their little selves - without batting an eye. In fact, all around them may be other people reading or listening to personal music devices while ingesting some of their daily nutrients (or what passes for them).
We are meant to be social creatures for many reasons: the difficulty of childbirth, the challenge of rearing children, the hazards of hunting, and so on. But something as apparently benign as eating is more dangerous than it initially appears. Kings used to employ royal tasters to ensure that whatever they ate wasn't laced with poison from their enemies. Similarly, we have always eaten together to maximize the opportunity for learning from the "tasters" around us. If brave cousin Thad ate that pretty red fruit he discovered, and then keeled over from stomach poisoning, then you knew not to eat that fruit yourself. It was never enough to depend on nature - your taste buds, nose, eyes, memory - to save you from illness or a gruesome death. We have had to use culture - cuisines (optimal food combinations), taboos, preferences, legends & lore - to instruct us what to eat, how and when. Not only did that lower the death-by-nasty-surprise rate, it raised the nutrition & enjoyment of what we consumed.
Solo dining tosses that adaptation out the window. It could be another reason for the epidemic of obesity. If you eat alone, you probably eat more - and enjoy less. Is it another reason loneliness shortens your life span?

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Insidious Busyness

We all take for granted that our world runs at a fast pace. In fact, it accelerates every year. Technology is obsolete almost before a gizmo is out of its packaging. People are on the go 24/7. Private time is almost an anachronism, what with GPS chips in the near-ubiquitous cell phone (something I may end up acquiring later this year, after resisting all this time), and the concept of all-access work and personal relationships. These new issues of time and space are bound to have unforeseen (or, at least, unplanned-for) repercussions.
For one, being busy distorts one's sense of priority. I have seen this in many people I know. They are forced to be expeditious due to 10-hour workdays, child-care demands, commutes, etc. They schedule almost the entire 24-hour period down to the minute. Try getting these people to add another responsibility to their list. Or, try asking them to do anything: they will see it as an unfair drain on their time and attention. (Often it is attention that is the precious commodity, especially when some tasks consume almost no time at all - or consume time otherwise wasted.) They get resentful, stressed, even self-righteous.
Busy people like these (and not all have this attitude towards task management) will be the last to adopt voluntary measures for the betterment of the community. For example, they may resent having to separate their garbage into true waste, recyclables, and compost - because they are just too busy, damn it! In reality, the extra bother involved barely requires another minute or two per disposal act (if the appropriate bins are nearby, of course). The issue is not time, as I say, but attention. While being busy genuinely alters cognitive function, a significant measure of self-permission factors into it all. ("I am a BUSY PERSON. I have BETTER THINGS to do than sort trash!")
Okay, you say, so the guy doesn't want to sort trash. He's a CEO with 3 kids, for crying out loud. Fair enough. But one household sending all its trash to the landfill is multiplied many times over in a society that does not value social responibility enough to allow people time to think outside of their million little survival and pseudo-survival tactics. The insidiousness of busyness is not only the way it shrinks a day, precluding valuable time with children or aging parents, or just a good soak in the tub alone. It's the way it shrinks the circle of concern.
Many people neglect the planet at large: it's just too abstract to love. More are apt to donate money to disaster victims or buy Fair Trade items, for example, to help strangers in other lands. More yet will aid their compatriots, and many more deem their local community important. Of course, family tends to get the highest level of concern.
But make someone busy, and he's going to start shutting down what matters, one concentric circle at a time. Companies that take a pound of flesh from their employees - threatening them with lay offs if they don't do overtime, for example - may end up ruining their family life as well as their community participation. In today's economy, people are so grateful to work, they will sacrifice almost anything to stay employed.
As more and more companies feel entitled to overwork their people, this trend will go viral. Like loneliness, this becomes contagious. Indeed, it is a kind of isolation - that we are manipulated into creating ourselves.
If your mind tends towards conspiracy theories, it's easy to see this as intentional: divide and conquer works well under dictatorships, so why not here? Does being a democracy protect us from deliberate social fragmentation? I think not.
The upside of the economic slump may be (and I try to be optimistic) a reassessment of human values. It may not lead to an up-tick in recycling, but it could mean more parks crowded with families on week-ends, just being together - and seeing other families doing the same. Get enough of that going on - for almost no money - and we may see rebirth of the cohesive, politically active community.

Friday, February 5, 2010

More Work on Social Networks

As can be seen to the right, I follow wunderkind Jonah Lehrer's blog, The Frontal Cortex. Yesterday's post was The Isolated Mind. He cites an article on grief, in a recent New Yorker, by Megan O'Rouke (which I have yet to read). Both she and he discuss the increased atomization of human society - more and more focused on the individual instead of the group. We are both brains - neurological systems which process inner and outer stimuli - and parts of larger systems of other brains (our own species, mainly, but arguably the brains of other species as well). Any study or belief system that examines either the individual or the group, while disregarding the other, misses a vital aspect of the human experience. I like what Lehrer says about how current research and social trends ignore the connections that define us, choosing to see us isolated minds instead.
But we are not meant to be alone: The private events inside the brain depend, in larger part, on where we are and who we are with. It reminds me of something Nicholas Christakis, who studies human social networks along with James Fowler, recently told me: "The story of modern science is the story of studying ever smaller bits of nature, like atoms and neurons," he said. "But people aren't just the sum of their parts. I see this research as an attempt to put human beings back together again."

Thursday, January 28, 2010

What Use is Biodiversity?

This blog post by BBC News writer Richard Black returns to our attention the perennial dilemma amongst environmental activists (and anyone trying to change the world for the better by asking others to make an effort): why bother? As this is now the International Year of Biodiversity, the question is why bother saving all those species out there? What use is biodiversity? (What has it done for me lately?) Here are a few things it does for you, all summed up neatly as "ecological services." (You want service, you got it.) * The nitrogen cycle; * The carbon cycle; * The water cycle; * Some additional aspects of the weather (e.g., microorganisms seed clouds, which end up making rain); * Filtering of waste water by bivalves (e.g., clams), plants, and other millions of organisms in streams, marshes, and estuaries; * Decomposition of dead plants and animals (by the very big all the way down to the microscopic); * Pollination by bees, bats, and butterflies of most of the crops billions of people depend on for their daily diet. Consider that the rest of the life on this planet - with the exception of millions of penned-up domesticates, race horses, and most pets - would do quite fine with no more humans, we would last only a few weeks if all the insects died off at once. If all the bacteria died, we wouldn't live even that long. So many people live in their little bubbles of processed air, food, and water that they forget how everything they need to live ultimately comes from a living being. What use is biodiversity? More than you are or I am. Maybe more than the whole lot of us.

Monday, January 18, 2010

Haiti and Hope

After posting last week on the way hospitals symbolize the best of humanity, I realized that the recent earthquake in Haiti has brought out the good in many people as well. Natural disasters of extreme proportions pull us together, though when numbers of suffering individuals tend to boggle the mind, our empathy can also shut down. In any case, the existence of organized charities, and relief agencies like the Red Cross Red Crescent shows the widening circle of concern, an almost artificial one, considering that we evolved to think of our children, families, and tribes first. Forming even temporary bonds with strangers in other countries is a sign of civilized behavior for sure. Last night, I indulged a guilty pleasure and watched the Golden Globe awards show. Meryl Streep won another award, and once again seemed embarrassed by it. (The phrase "an embarrassment of riches" may have been coined for her!) She did not mention Haiti, as a few other (I'm sure) well-meaning actors did. But she suggested that she felt guilty for all her good fortune while things like earthquakes and so on happen in the world all the time. But then she added that she found inspiration in her mother, a perennially cheerful woman, who urged her to enjoy herself and be grateful that she had a profession which enabled her, essentially, to write a huge check! Whining about her guilt and refusing to accept accolades from her peers and others would not put a morsel of food in a child's mouth. Perspective (and practical use of her wealth) could make a difference. Well said - and quite convincingly sincere. Pity it probably got lost in all the drinking and smirking!

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Hospitals and Hope

I once read a book called The Accidental Tourist (later made into a movie with William Hurt and Geena Davis), where the Davis character muses about hospitals. If an alien came down and watched an ambulance drive up to an ER and get surrounded by health-care workers, the alien would think us remarkably compassionate beings. What a strange institution a hospital is, when you think about it: a building dedicated to altruistic behavior. Several floors of highly organized departments, run by people with various levels of medical or administrative training, the whole beehive-like structure designed to receive injured or ill humans and either heal/cure them, help them deal with their problems, or usher them to a relatively painless, peaceful death. I was at a hospital on Tuesday, helping a relative with day surgery. The staff was efficient and gentle, for the most part, and everything seemed to go well. I handled language differences (between patient and workers), read over instructions for post-op care, and offered support. My relative was understandably stressed and vigilant, but appreciated every smile and reassurance through the ordeal. You don't have to be anxious like my relative to find hospital admission an intimidating experience. Issues about the reason for being admitted aside, the fact that your sense of personal dignity and autonomy is greatly compromised - perhaps even taken away completely - shakes the Self to the core. Whether it is wart removal or open-heart surgery, the basic set-up of handing your body and feelings over to strangers is the same. For people unused to trusting others, or ceding control, it must be particularly hard to deal with. The first healers were likely women, caring for their own children, then their siblings and mother (fathers and husbands might be away often or dead), then the children of friends, and on and on, until the circle of concern widened beyond genetic bonds to the pseudo-genetics of close associates. (That is, people who are not likely related, but feel related due to shared values, etc.) Eventually, in small groups, gifted herbalists and healers tended to all, and passed down their skills to daughters and granddaughters. Medicine changed when men took it on; the way skills were acquired and shared was institutionalized. Women were excluded for many centuries. Today, we take for granted the presence of hospitals in most settlements, and their cohorts of strangers caring for other strangers. Hospitals are symbols of hope: places where connections form, howvere temporarily, and selfless behavior exhibited, without an obvious or immediate evolutionary explanation.

Monday, January 11, 2010

2010: UN Year of International Biodiversity

This week, we begin the UN Year of International Biodiversity. The true wealth of our planet - life, in its varied, mysterious, awesome, and miraculous forms - is under a much bigger threat than ever in the geological record. There have been five great extinctions in the Earth's past, including the Cretaceous-Tertiary (K-T for short) one 65 m years ago, which wiped out most of the dinosaurs (most, if you believe that some became birds). Scientists now believe that we could be heading for the sixth great extinction. The rate at which species are vanishing is far greater than in any precious time. (See this article in the Guardian today for an overview of the current crisis, and why this Year is important.) It is particularly sad to see the reaction of so-called educated people (who supposedly should know better) when confronted with the knowledge that species are disappearing right before our eyes, in some cases, or quite invisibly - long before anyone could give them a name and status. The utilitarians say, "What do I care if some beetle goes extinct, unless it's a cure for something?" The fatalists say, "There have been extinctions before, and life came back, eventually." (Yes, but you'd have to wait a few million years!) While others say that extinction is a normal part of speciation, the process by which genetic changes in one species lead to the creation of a new, distinct life form. The species comes into being and, sooner or later, it goes away. (That is why we no longer see cave bears or pterodactyls.) Jared Diamond, physiologist turned paleontologist and anthropologist, and author of such must-reads as Guns, Germs and Steel, and Collapse, says in an earlier book, The Third Chimpanzee:
Dismissing the exinction crisis on the grounds that exinction is natural would be like dismissing genocide on the grounds that death is the natural fate of all humans.
It is a crisis. And while some of the losses may indeed be "natural" (I will not hazard a proper definition of that here), most are the direct consequence of the actions of most adaptable and single-minded species on the planet, Homo sapiens. Our need to simplify the environment before we can inhabit it has led to deforestation, drained swamps, irrigated deserts, cleared mountains, introduced species of plants (e.g., crops or gardens) and animals (livestock, pets), and urbanization. If our numbers had remained small - the total human population didn't reach one billion until around the year 1800! - these "adjustments" would hardly show. But we have grown to an unsustainable size, and spread into almost every nook and cranny, changing as we go. The rest of the millions of species with which we share this finite space, and on which we depend, have to accommodate us. Adapt or perish. When are enough people going to wake up and see the connections?

Thursday, January 7, 2010

The Hidden Toll of Terrorism

We have all heard the news about the Christmas Day bomber. A whole plane loaded with people experienced a "near miss" (actually, it was a near disaster) thanks to the quick wits of a few passengers, who thwarted the man's plans as he started to carry them out. Now we have to endure further indignities in the name of security - a shapeless concept if there ever was one - including what my friend Fred calls "bawdy scanners." How apt.
But see-through screening devices and longer line-ups are the least of it. What terrorists have done quite successfully - along with killing and maiming untold numbers - is scare us. Well, yes, terror is their business, no surprise. They want us to be uneasily vigilant. They want our social webs to tear. Divide-and-conquer is a very old strategy.
Fear is a very primitive emotion (meaning it goes way back in our genetic heritage), and it does strange things to an animal, human or not. It distorts reality. It creates divisions where bonds once existed. And it makes everyone and everything guilty until proven innocent. Your life may depend on these black-and-white criteria. But how much harm has been done because of them?
I hope someone in the social sciences eventually performs a study on the levels of xenophobia in a few sample cities, preferably before and after a significant terrorist event. Is the average citizen more suspicious of the Other because of the talk about screening and profiling and so on? Have we been permanently jolted out of a hard-earned sense of ethnic integration in some of our biggest cities?
I hope not. I cannot be the only one who would dread to go back even 20 years in terms of cultural acceptance of "differences." (The Dominant Social Paradigm being centered on the White Upper-middle-class straight male.) We still have a long way to go, but what wonderful strides forward we have made in so many lands. It would be horrible to regress at this point, to forget we are all part of the family of humanity.
Long live the rainbow community!

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

New Year's Revolution

A very happy 2010 to all!
I came upon this over the holidays and thought it would be a good note on which to start the new year. Hard to follow in everyday life, perhaps, but aren't all resolutions a bit of a challenge?

I honor your gods.
I drink from your well.
I bring an unprotected heart to our meeting place.
I hold no cherished outcome.
I will not negotiate by withholding.
I am not subject to disappointment.

Some little things that go a long way: Pat the tethered dog shivering outside the store (if he lets you). Smile at a stranger. Read a poem and say 'thank you' to the poet (who may never know your gratitude). Share a meal. Renew your vows - with everyone who means something to you. And have a wonderful year of further adventures on this special planet.