Archive for March, 2013

Mar 25 2013

Ironic Panel in David B.’s Graphic Memoir “Epileptic”

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On p.224 panel 4 of Epileptic, David is explaining his brother’s recent exorcism to his ghost pals while wandering the forest behind his house (which also doubles as the “forest” of his mind). He explains that his mother, whose idea the exorcism was, did not actually believe his brother was possessed by the devil but that he was “rather inhabited by something undefinable.” One of the ghosts qualifies this something as “Something far beyond our level of awareness,” and the other two laugh uncontrollably. They find the notion that something exists outside the realm of everyday reality–something whose shadow alone we can see–absurd.

At the same time, they themselves are mere figments of David’s imagination. They exist exclusively in David’s mind, and I am not sure where exactly, and to what extent, they are “real.” This ironic panel just goes to show how complicated David’s consciousness is: he is capable not only of imagining these ghosts, but of making them disagree with him about abstract notions of reality–all within his mind.


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Mar 20 2013

Idea for Seminar Research Project

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Last semester, my American literature class read Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s “The Yellow Wallpaper,” a short story about one woman’s experience with utter madness. I was fascinated, and as I read and reread it several times, I began to notice certain patterns in the narrator’s description. The yellow wallpaper of her room, which metaphorically represents her perception of being trapped, appears to follow her everywhere. It leaves “yellow smooches on all my clothes” and “creeps all over the house” and “gets into my hair.” But perhaps most striking is the way that the color yellow does all these things by becoming material, by becoming a “yellow smell.”

While “The Yellow Wallpaper” is more often thought of as a tale of hysteria, I would like to consider its synesthetic elements and explore what they mean for the story. How does color-odor synesthetic perception of the yellow wallpaper, “a dull yet lurid orange in some places, a sickly sulphur tint in others,” reflect the hellish experience of the central character? How does diagnosing her as both literally and figuratively synesthetic shed light on her experience? Is her figurative synesthesia–her perception of reality that is fundamentally different from that of her husband–really madness at all, or are these differences the source of her madness?

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Mar 19 2013

Conversation Between Antonio Damasio and Alva Noe on Mrs. Dalloway

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Noe: Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway is a rich illustration of the idea that consciousness is not fixed within the organism but arises through the interaction of body, brain, and world.

Damasio: On the contrary. Characters such as Septimus illustrate the way that consciousness, even core consciousness, is shaped by the brain’s processing of objects as images. These objects may be imagined, and the distinction between imagined and “real” objects may sometimes be blurred. Thus, the brain is the center at which our awareness of the world is achieved.

Noe: But even when the brain imagines these objects as real, it only does so based on its processing of environmental stimuli. Studies show that if an infant is visually deprived (for example, by being blindfolded indefinitely) early enough in development, he or she might never develop mature vision. Thus, the environment is key not only to consciousness but to the very structure of the brain.

Damasio: It is true that the shape of the brain is influenced by the external world. However, your explanation does not account for the remarkable variations and consequences of consciousness. It is not the environment that gives us meaning but we who give the environment meaning. The phenomenon of extended consciousness gives rise to an autobiographical self, which places objects in the context of the the organism’s life. These objects are the metaphorical paint for the painting of one’s self. But the artist responsible for this painting is nonetheless the brain.

Noe: Your explanation assumes a conclusion you set out to reach: namely, that there is a rigid border between “we” and the environment, between our individual consciousness and the world surrounding us. But, in fact, no such border has been identified scientifically. Mrs. Dalloway is a testament to the way consciousness exists not as a fixed point but as a dynamic process that occurs at the locus of brain, body, and world–a phenomenon just as much external as internal.


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Mar 15 2013

Damasio: Key Behavioral Response Patterns Dictated by Incentives

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In Chapter Two of Antonio Damasio’s Self Comes to Mind, the neuroscientist explains unconscious response systems as an early evolutionary adaptation designed for maintaining homeostasis. He further explains that incentives, both positive and negative, are crucial to these response policies by reinforcing and prioritizing some behaviors over others in critical situations. These response processes do not necessarily demand a mind, conscious or unconscious [e.g. nematodes sometimes behave socially even though their brains, comprised of a measly 302 neurons, cannot give rise to mind (60-61)], and according to Damasio, “The entire operation is as blind and ‘subject-less’ as gene networks themselves are.” Put another way, incentive-based behavioral response systems developed even prior to the advent of  the mind in order for “a successful, economic execution of the cell’s business plan”  (55-56).

About a week and a half ago, I wrote a blog response to Siri Hustvedt’s The Shaking Woman about experiments conducted by Benjamin Libet and colleagues that suggested that neurological activity anticipates our actions even before we consciously “decide” to execute them. I wondered what these observations meant for the age-old question of free will: can we claim to have true volition if our decisions are predetermined by our brains? Dualistic assumptions aside, the answer appears to be no.

But what Damasio seems to be suggesting takes this conclusion a step further. He claims that navigating through increasingly complicated human circumstances requires forethought, emotion, memory, etc. (key elements of subjectivity). However, he also says that our incentives themselves are not guided by consciousness (56); consciousness only aids us by “allow[ing] the beneficiaries to create novel solutions to the problems of life and survival” (62). Ultimately, we still end up pursuing the same primordial incentives whether we are conscious or not. Consciousness appears to be just another route–more complex and economical, to be sure–to the same ends we might have pursued without it, and we are essentially slaves to these incentives. Once again, the term “free will” becomes at its clearest undefined.


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Mar 10 2013

Exhaustion: A Damasian Object

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Sometimes, when the weather is warm and sunny, I like to go for a jog in the park. I’ll stretch for a good fifteen minutes beforehand to avoid prematurely exhausting myself. As I run, I begin to feel slowly intensifying muscular tension. My calves may start to tire, the arch of my foot may spasm, and most painful of all, my oblique abdominal muscles may cramp up. My body endures the beating of the concrete against my feet and the pressure of my joints breaking the collision of my bones. What I am describing may not sound like a single event, and that is because it isn’t. However, the sensations that these events elicit are actually a series or cluster of “images,” or by neurologist Antonio Damasio’s definition, “mental pattern[s] in any of the sensory modalities.” The tactile images of my foot hitting the ground and my skin sweating and my muscles pulling add up to represent my state of exhaustion, which according to this model would constitute the “object.” In essence, images are sensory patterns that reproduce in our minds an object in the environment, which at times may include our own bodies.


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Mar 08 2013

Leviathan Movie and its Woolfian Resemblance

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The other day I saw the recently released documentary Leviathan at the IFC Theater, and the first thing I thought (after thinking about the jarring sounds and gross fish images leaping off the screen) was that the movie resembles Mrs. Dalloway in its wave-like effect. The camera’s perspective is that of a moving speck of consciousness that washes over different parts of a monstrous fishing boat and captures its various angles in sweeping ebbs and flows. See the trailer below and you will see what I am talking about.

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Mar 07 2013

Alien Feeling When My Hand Goes Numb

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Sometimes, when I lie down on my arm for several minutes, my hand goes numb. This is a common experience that I am sure most people can relate to–when a limb “falls asleep” after a period of compression. Just yesterday my right hand lost sensation for a few minutes while I was watching TV. It wasn’t so much that I could no longer feel my hand as it was that my hand had come to feel almost alien. By this I mean that my right hand no longer felt like it belonged to my body, and I experienced a sort of temporary body disintegrity. I reached over with my numb hand to touch my other, and experienced an odd dissonance: My right hand, which was still capable of reduced sensation, felt my left hand, and my brain interpreted the contact accordingly. However, while my left hand felt a hand touching it, in an odd way it didn’t feel like me touching my own hand. Part of me interpreted my numb hand as my own, and part interpreted it as foreign.

Maybe this is a reflection of the paradoxical split-conjoined dynamic of the brain hemispheres. Both hemispheres were interpreting the information correctly, but for some reason, maybe because the brain was receiving irregular information, the two halves did not match up. Though I cannot say as a matter of fact what was actually going on in my brain on a neurological level, I can still attest to the discord, the physical dizziness my hands experienced. And though my explanation is almost entirely speculation, I strongly believe it to be true.

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Mar 05 2013

Benjamin Libet’s Experiments and the Question of Free Will

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In Siri Husdvedt’s book The Shaking Woman the author mentions a series of experiments conducted by neuroscientist Benjamin Libet in the 1980’s that “demonstrated, against most people’s deepest intuitions, that up to half a second before we make a conscious decision to act, move a wrist or finger, for example, the brain precedes the movement with an electrical change called a ‘readiness potential,’ an RP, which can be measured.” According to Hustvedt, these results suggested that behind every conscious act is a preceding unconscious process in the brain. Meaning that voluntary actions might not actually be so voluntary at all.

For a long time I’ve wondered whether volition, or the mental process of willing to do something, is actually the cause of conscious human behavior. We are aware of our actions when we take out the garbage, turn on the TV, or write a composition. But does awareness, or even a sense that we are willing our behaviors to happen, necessarily mean that we are consciously deciding them? Perhaps volition occurs outside of our actions. We have all seen and heard others sleep walk or sleep talk at some point in our lives. And when we wake those people , they are often disoriented. They may claim that they have no recollection of what they did while asleep and that they had not willed to do anything. Maybe conscious behavior and volition are two separate but concomitant consequences of brain activity, I figured.

But after reading about Libet’s experiments, it occurred to me that there may be a third possibility: perhaps the brain’s unconscious decision to act precedes volition. Maybe volition, which is a mental occurrence, comes after our brains have already decided on a behavior. But there is a problem inherent in this interpretation. If volition isn’t actually willed, then it is meaningless–then notions of will are not only illusory but paradoxical. This presents a fourth possibility: that consciousness is indeed the reconciliation of unconscious decision and subsequent volition.

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