Archive for February, 2013

Feb 28 2013

Freudian Interpretation of a Memorable Nightmare

Published by under Uncategorized

Dream of an early September night, 2012:

It is warm, and I am outdoors with a group of four close friends–all of whom are Orthodox Jews. The sun is still high in the sky, and it becomes clear that we are hiking in a state park somewhere in New York. Eventually, the sun starts to set. All of a sudden it occurs to me that Shabbos (the Jewish day of rest) is about to start, and I am nowhere near home, where my family strictly observes the day. Our walking accelerates to a hasty skipping, and we finally arrive at a train station that resembles an LIRR stop. But there is ostensibly no train running on that line that day or any time soon. The tracks are buried under river rocks, each the size of a fist. A lone elderly man is slowly shoveling them: he scoops up shovels full and tosses them aside, making virtually no progress over the course of the several minutes we spend watching him. A friend and I walk over the man to ask him what is going on with the train, and he does not answer. He doesn’t even seem to hear us. So we decide to head over to the next station and, hopefully, bypass the clot. The sun is starting to vanish over the horizon, and my friends are strolling and laughing while I am beginning to panic. They don’t seem to be bothered at all by the fact that it is about to get extremely dark in the forest. I realize that I haven’t seen Y for a while–Y being the only other guy in the group–so I ask the three friends at my side if they have seen him. One of them turns around and, spotting Y behind us, chuckles and says, “Oh, there he is. Trailing behind, clowning around like the clown he is.” I turn around to face Y, and discover that he has become a zombie and is gnawing at his own hand, or the bloody nub that remains of his hand.

 

Analysis:

It becomes clear that we are hiking in a state park somewhere in New York. The scene was probably set in the forest somewhere north of New York City because earlier that week I had visited Tuxedo, New York, which is located on the border of Harriman State Park. The forest also has been known to symbolize confusion, chaos, and danger in global literature.

All of a sudden it occurs to me that Shabbos (the Jewish day of rest) is about to start, and I am nowhere near home, where my family strictly observes the day. At the time when I had this dream, observance of Orthodox laws and traditions were a source of  anxiety for me. Shabbos was probably especially anxiety-provoking because of the element of time that was tied into its observance: after sundown on Friday, most of my regular activities, including anything that involved electricity, were completely off limits. The idea of being forced to transgress halakha (Jewish law) in order to make it home, where my family would know that I had publicly desecrated Shabbos by taking the train, was an unpleasant thought. And, of course, there was the setting sun in the dream, which effectively shouted tick tock, tick tock.

The tracks are buried in river rocks, each the size of a fist. A lone elderly man is slowly shoveling them: he scoops up shovels full and tosses them aside, making virtually no progress over the course of the several minutes we spend watching him. A friend and I walk over the man to ask him what is going on with the train, and he does not answer. He doesn’t even seem to hear us. These rocks clearly represent another obstacle to getting home and another source of anxiety. The rocks are a variation on sand in an hourglass. The old man represents my friends’ and my inability to overcome the obstacle, and his apparent deafness and sluggish manner represent the hopelessness of our situation.

I realize that I haven’t seen Y for a while–Y being the only other guy in the group–so I ask the three friends at my side if they have seen him. One of them turns around and, spotting Y behind us, chuckles and says, “Oh, there he is. Trailing behind, clowning around like the clown he is.”  My friends’ profuse laughter is an added source of stress. Just as in our frivolous hike in the forest, what normally would seem like innocent fun becomes childish irresponsibility. Their laughter betrays an unreliability that at the time of the dream I sometimes believed was a fact of all people I would ever find myself in any sort of relationship with. As a matter of fact, throughout the dream I was the one leading the group and trying to find all the answers. The old man was a prime example of how I perceived others to be unreliable and impotent.

I turn around to face Y, and discover that he has become a zombie and is gnawing at his own hand, or the bloody nub that remains of his hand. This part of the dream was extremely disturbing. The night of the dream, before I fell asleep, I had looked up images for “screwed up face,” as in the common facial expression, for a short story I was writing at the time. One of the results was a horrific picture of a deceased burn-victim’s face, which had been nearly melted off. This was almost exactly the face that I saw on Y’s body. A  couple of weeks before the dream, my friend Y had also told me that he had begun to eat non-kosher food, which deep down I interpreted, in a very visceral sort of way, as self-consuming. This wasn’t an actual belief of mine in a moralistic sense, but a deeply-ingrained feeling that had solidified through my religious and cultural upbringing.

 

Notes for Freud:

While Freud’s method of dream-interpretation reveals a lot about the way we think about our dreams, I am not sure that it can actually allow us to cut into our dreams as much as it can help us reflect upon our reflections on our dreams. This is an inevitable consequence of the fact that all dream-interpretation is done in retrospect.

 

4 responses so far

Feb 27 2013

More Synapses in Brain than Stars in Galaxy

Published by under Uncategorized

I was reading an article from the March 2011 issue of Discover magazine titled, “Numbers: The Nervous System, From 268-MPH Signals to Trillions of Synapses,” when I came across a really interesting fact about brain synapses. Apparently, there are at least 100 trillion in every human brain. That is around a thousand times more than the number of stars in the Milky Way Galaxy.

Each synapse represents a neurological (and probably mental) connection. The way they work is that a neurochemical is passed from one neuron to the next across a synapse to deliver a message and spark further activity in a chain of brain events. Each of these brain events may have an independent or interrelated mental consequence/thought. Synapses form through learning and biological development, and continue to change until the end of a person’s life. They also become stronger with repeated use.

The idea that a person’s unique set of neural connections can take any one of such a gargantuan number of permutations is mind-boggling. It is a testament to human mental diversity. More importantly, in my view, it suggests that the number of ways humans can experience consciousness is indefinite.

http://discovermagazine.com/2011/mar/10-numbers-the-nervous-system#.US1VqFfEaQk

2 responses so far

Feb 21 2013

McEwan’s Prose Style in “Saturday”

Published by under Uncategorized

McEwan’s novel Saturday mimics the style of Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway in its representation of the storyline through stream of consciousness. The story is told from the third person omniscient perspective, and the narrator frequently dips into the mind of the characters, in particular Henry, for long stretches.

To give the reader a sense of the protagonist’s mental clockwork, Henry’s thoughts are often embodied in jargon that is quotidian to Henry but alien to the typical reader. Henry finds himself on the cusp of a street fight after getting into a car accident, and his immediate thoughts are biological explanations for Baxter’s (the other accident victim) volatile behavior. The narrator observes, “…there remains in a portion of his thoughts a droning, pedestrian diagnostician who notes poor self-control, emotional lability, explosive temper, suggestive of reduced levels of GABA among the appropriate binding sites on striatal neurons” (92). Henry is a neurosurgeon, and to represent the character’s stream of thought the diction must at times be clinical. But, true to the erratic nature of consciousness, Henry’s thoughts aren’t so neat and predictable, either. While he is in bed with his wife and sexually aroused, thoughts ranging from his mother to Saddam Hussein percolate through his mind. Even Henry recognizes the absurdity of the implicit associations (39).

Also similar to Woolf’s style is McEwan’s use of what Zunshine calls recursive, layered intentionality to represent consciousness. For instance, when Henry is sitting in the hospital break room eating lunch, Heather tells him a story about her son-in-law’s mistaken arrest for armed robbery. To grasp this brief anecdote, the reader must enter the narrator’s mind, then Henry’s, then Heather’s, then her son-in law’s. When we read the words, “But his alibi was perfect,” we might hear the voice of Heather, or her son-in-law, or both.

 

 

One response so far

Feb 19 2013

Zunshine and Woolf’s Representations of Consciousness

Published by under Uncategorized

In “Theory of Mind and Experimental Representations of Fictional Consciousness,” Lisa Zunshine explains that a major part of what makes reading Mrs. Dalloway difficult for so many readers is its layered, recursive intentionality. It is hard for many readers to follow an event seen from a perspective viewed by another viewed by another viewed by another viewed by another (five layers), according to a study conducted by Robin Dunbar and his colleagues.

But, as Zunshine points out, it is precisely this difficulty in reading Mrs. Dalloway that is so revealing about the human mind: “…we can show that it is by paying attention to the elite, to the exceptional, to the cognitively challenging, such as Woolf’s experimentation with the levels of intentional embedment, that we can develop, for instance, a more sophisticated perspective on the workings of our ToM [Theory of Mind]” (17). Woolf portrays consciousness in Mrs. Dalloway as a wave that loops unto itself and is often manifest in a confusing and chaotic form. The recursive representations of consciousness in and confusing aspect of the book are entirely necessary for the points Woolf is trying to make.

However, I think Zunshine’s point about autism is moot. She explains that cases of autism reveal that Theory of Mind, or “mind-reading,” is not simply learned but arises through a “cognitive architecture” that does not exist in people with autism. She writes, “This account of Grandin’s ‘library’ suggests that we do not just ‘learn’ how to communicate with people and read their emotions (or how to read the minds of fictional characters based on their behavior)—Grandin, after all, has had as many opportunities to ‘learn’ these things as you and me—but that we also have evolved cognitive architecture that makes this particular kind of learning possible” (4). Obviously there is a profound difference mentally between someone with autism and someone without autism. Why is it necessary to use an example of a person without the Theory of Mind adaptation (or the adaption of cognitive architecture necessary to achieve Theory of Mind) to demonstrate the adaptation in the majority of people? This adaptation could have been identified just by considering that no other species can achieve “mind-reading.”

3 responses so far

Feb 19 2013

Annotated Passage 2 (Zunshine)

Published by under Uncategorized

“To compensate for her inability to interpret facial expressions, which at first left her a ‘target of tricks and exploitation,’ Grandin has built up over the years something resembling a ‘library of videotapes,’ which she could play in her mind and inspect at any time—‘videos’ of how people behaved in different circumstances. She would play these over and over again, and learn, by degrees, to correlate what she saw, so that she could then predict how people in similar circumstances might act’ (259–60). This account of Grandin’s ‘library’ suggests that we do not just ‘learn’ how to communicate with people and read their emotions (or how to read the minds of fictional characters based on their behavior)—Grandin, after all, has had as many opportunities to ‘learn’ these things as you and me—but that we also have evolved cognitive architecture that makes this particular kind of learning possible. If this architecture is damaged, as in the case of autism, a wealth of experience would never fully make up for the damage.” (From “Theory of Mind and Experimental Representations of Functional Consciousness,” Zunshine p. 4)

 

Notes:

-Author cites Grandin case study as evidence that Theory of Mind is not and cannot be fully learned.

-For those born without capacity for Theory of Mind, social cues must be deciphered deliberately and rationally.

-“Library of Videotapes”– A metaphor for Grandin’s mental storehouse of memories, which she reviews in order to comprehend social cues.

-Cognitive Architecture– Metaphor for skeleton of cognitive ability that is fleshed out with experience.

 

As Zunshine explains at the beginning of the essay, to understand how and why we understand the social cues in Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway, we must examine the source of human “mind-reading,” also known as “Theory of Mind.” I chose to annotate this passage because it effectively explains how Theory of Mind is not simply learned but is rather rooted in mental conditions that arise very early in human development. It also offers useful metaphors to deliver a picture of what it is like for a person born without the ability to achieve Theory of Mind.

One response so far

Feb 15 2013

Thoughts on Mrs. Dalloway (The Book)

Published by under Uncategorized

I had a difficult time following the storyline of Mrs. Dalloway. Not the general plot, which for the most part involved roaming the streets of London and revolved around Clarissa’s party, but the finer details of plot and character development. There was just so much noise and so many voices. One moment it was a neutral bird’s eye view of a scene, and the next (and with tenuous transition) it was one of Septimus’s absurd and anxiety-provoking mental rants. It was very difficult to keep track of everything that was happening. But I think this was kind of the point Woolf was trying to make about consciousness. Clearly, as Francine Prose explains in her introduction to the book, the story is not about shell shock or planning a party.

Rather, the story takes on this bewildering dimension because that is one of the main aspects of consciousness that Woolf wants to reveal. When the narrator delivers one of Septimus’s delusional scenes, he/she says, “But he himself remained high on his rock, like a drowned sailor on a rock. I leant over the edge of the boat and drowned, he thought. I went under the sea. I have been dead, and yet am now alive, but let me rest still; he begged (he was talking to himself again–it was awful, awful!)” (255-6). In these four lines there are as many as three voices: the narrator’s, Septimus’s, and Rezia’s (the comment in the parentheses). All of these voices ultimately can be traced back to Woolf.

Through these quick but smooth shifts in perspective, Woolf seems to be depicting a complex quality of consciousness–an overarching, shared consciousness that extends beyond the boundaries of the individual body (this would debunk the notion that Woolf was concerned only with the interior functions of the mind). Consciousness, according to the metaphor she uses throughout the book, is a wave that washes over people. Individual identity is the reconciliation of all the buzzing and ticking of the collective consciousness. So even though it is sometimes unclear who is thinking what in the story, maybe it really doesn’t make much of a difference one way or the other because in the end consciousness can be traced back to a single external source.

3 responses so far

Feb 07 2013

Clarissa Sees and Feels the Sea

Published by under Uncategorized

In the beginning of Mrs. Dalloway, before the part where Clarissa hears the gunshot, Clarissa experiences London and its people in terms of tumultuous bodies of water. When she first steps out the door of her house and feels the crisp morning air, it is “like the flap of a wave; the kiss of a wave” (195). The wave brings pleasant sensations to her skin. But she senses intuitively that something is about to go wrong, and so the wave of fresh air is also “chill and sharp and yet…solemn” (195). Stopping in Piccadilly to look at the omnibuses, she has “a perpetual sense…of being out, out, far out to sea and alone” (200). The metaphor of the waves/the sea, which first appears to mean consolation, now suggests fear of death and loneliness.

When Clarissa confronts the existential question of what happens after death, she appears to be comforted in the belief that she will somehow live on “on the ebb and flow of things” (201), the hustle and bustle of London, together with Peter. Clarissa sees what she wants to see, and projects the metaphor of the wave onto the situations she encounters. Her feelings are vivid and often rooted in the five senses, but they are also painted by this over-arching metaphor. Her environment affects her state of consciousness, and vice versa.

3 responses so far

Feb 04 2013

Consciousness is a Die

Published by under Uncategorized

I once saw a show on the Science Channel (it might have been “Through the Wormhole,” but I can’t say for certain) where the narrator explained an idea that consciousness is based on the ability to self-reflect. Often, people say that they are “self-conscious” when they feel especially self-aware. We cannot really prove that we are aware of ourselves, but we know it as well as we know anything else.

But what about other people? How do we know that they are actually conscious and that they aren’t just fleshy cyborgs pretending to be conscious. We have no way of proving that when you tickle your brother he actually feels tickled, or that when your friend is smiling she is actually happy. It is sort of like looking at a six-sided die. You cannot see all six sides at one time, only three at max. For all you know, when you are looking at one side, the other numbers disappear. They may cease to exist altogether, and you cannot prove that they still exist without looking at them or having someone else look at them and report the findings. And yet you know that they are still there. Similarly, you cannot prove that normal, living people are conscious, but as healthy humans we believe with certainty that they are.

 

4 responses so far

Feb 03 2013

Qualia of Tasting a Penny

Published by under Uncategorized

Though I can’t recall a particular instance when I put a penny in my mouth, I can remember the way a penny tastes. It’s not a flavor that one easily forgets. If I had to compare the experience to something else, I would say that it is a little like putting a few grains of salt on your tongue, excepts its colder, more metallic, and almost electric. And you can feel the tingle first at the tip of your tongue, and then later toward the middle. It’s a bit sour, maybe more bitter than sour, and come to think of it, it tastes a little like blood. The combination of hard surface, density, and flavor makes you very conscious of the roof of your mouth. It’s not a revolting taste, but it certainly isn’t pleasant either. And I imagine that if I were to taste a penny right now, I would probably feel the middle of my tongue being pricked, painlessly, by something like tiny pins, for a brief flash of a few milliseconds. The pin-pricking would feel a little like a small insect landing on and sticking its feet into my tongue. Then my mouth would water near the end of my tongue, as if in a useless attempt to wash away what clearly does not belong there.

2 responses so far

Spam prevention powered by Akismet

Skip to toolbar