Apr 14 2013

Analysis of a Passage from Aleksandra Rogowska’s “Categorization of Synesthesia” (Research Project)

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In “Categorization of Synesthesia,” an article from the Review of General Psychology, Aleksandra Rogowska writes, “Acquired synaesthesia or postaccidental synaesthesia occurs independently and unwittingly during adulthood as a result of biochemical brain changes, neurological dysfunctions, or permanent damage done to the nerve as a result of accident or disease (such as cancer, multiple sclerosis, or migraines; Jacome, 1999; Podoll & Robinson, 2002; Rao, Nobre, Alexander, & Ceowy, 2007; Ro et al., 2007; Villemure, Wassimi, Bennett, Shir, & Bushnell, 2006)…The phenomenon of synaesthesia becomes constantly present in perceptual processes from the very moment of its first occurrence” (215).

In other words, Rogowska explains that  changes in the brain during adulthood can result in permanent synesthesia. Thus, according to this explanation–and an understanding that stresses can alter the brain, which Margaret E. Kemeny explains in her article “The Psychobiology of Stress” (128)–the phenomenon of synesthesia may come about as a result of social stresses that cause biochemical/neurological change. In “The Yellow Wallpaper,” it is possible that the protagonist’s synesthesia has developed “independently and unwittingly” as a result of her social situation, which is comprised almost exclusively of her husband.  This form of synesthesia might explain the protagonist’s seemingly spontaneous symptoms of hallucination. And it would also fit well with literary criticism that explains “The Yellow Wallpaper” as a story about women’s struggle against oppressive patriarchy.

Works Cited

Kemeny, Margaret E. “The Psychobiology of Stress.” Current Directions in Psychological Science 12.4 (2003): 124-29. JSTOR. Web. 14 Apr. 2013.

Rogowska, Aleksandra. “Categorization of Synesthesia.” Review of General Psychology 15.3 (2011): 213-27. PsycARTICLES. Web. 14 Apr. 2013.

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Apr 14 2013

John Wray’s “Lowboy” Captures the Schizophrenic Mind through Free Indirect Discourse

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In John Wray’s novel Lowboy, which is about the misadventures of a schizophrenic teenager in the New York City subway system, the author exposes the schizophrenic mind through the use of a narrative method known as “free indirect discourse.” Free indirect discourse is a style of third-person narration that contains first-person thoughts and speech. When done correctly, it can transport the reader from an objective perspective to the subjective point-of-view of the character without using quotation marks.

For instance, on pages 93-94, when Lowboy is on the train heading toward his love interest, Emily, the narrator explains, “Unreality broke over him again, stronger and more emphatic than before, but this time he was able to endure it. It’s a wave, that’s all, he told himself. A wave like any other. You can ride it like a surfer if you want to.” Had the narrator directly explained the protagonist’s thoughts, the effect would be different: the reader would not be examining Lowboy’s mind but would instead be examining the narrator’s assessment of Lowboy’s mind.

It is also interesting that on page 94 the narrator provides the reader with Lowboy’s mental map of the train car. In a sense, this illustration is a form of free indirect discourse, too; the narrator shows us (third-person narration) a picture Lowboy produces in his mind (first-person).

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Apr 10 2013

Project Proposal (Draft Two)

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In Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s short story “The Yellow Wallpaper,” the protagonist suffers from what many readers quickly identify as madness. She experiences hallucinations while shut up in the attic of her summer home. She sees patterns in the wallpaper of her room that others do not, and sometimes catches a glimpse of a figure, “a strange, provoking, formless sort of figure, that seems to skulk about behind that silly and conspicuous front design” (Gilman). Perhaps most interesting—and perhaps unrelated to these symptoms of madness—she experiences her wallpaper’s yellow color synesthetically in terms of smell. She describes it as “Such a peculiar odor, too…The only thing I can think of that it is like is the color of the paper! A yellow smell” (Gilman).This leads me to my research question: what role does synesthesia play in the story?

Last semester, I read “The Yellow Wallpaper” for the first time in an American literature survey class. We studied the text and the protagonist with a primary focus on the feminist issues they raised. “The Yellow Wallpaper” is widely discussed in terms of hysteria, an antiquated and sometimes misogynistic term for a disorder which falls under a spectrum of conditions now known as “conversion disorders.” However, research that thoroughly analyzes the story through the lens of synesthesia has not yet been published. With the help of modern scientific research, I think that an examination of the protagonist’s synesthesia could reveal nuances that have been overlooked in the past.

Specifically, I plan to examine the way Gilman uses synesthesia in “The Yellow Wallpaper” to illustrate conflict by both literal and figurative means. The way the protagonist’s husband responds with disbelief to her claims about the behavior and qualities of the wallpaper has more obvious implications for her role as a woman in the relationship. But what does synesthesia, a phenomenon where the subject experiences an out-of-the-ordinary crossing of perceptions—where s/he perceives something completely different from what others perceive—mean symbolically? At this stage of my research, my hypothesis is that synesthesia is an ideal mental/neurological phenomenon for driving home the story’s more frequently examined theme of women’s struggle to achieve freedom.

To investigate further I will need sources in the form of both scientific research and literary criticism. In the last decade or so, scientific evidence for synesthesia has arisen through research using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI); I have already obtained a scientific article titled  “Functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging of Synesthesia: Activation of V4/V8 by Spoken Words,” which will hopefully help demonstrate synesthesia as a real phenomenon. I will also need sources that identify and explain the subjective experience of synesthesia and provide a general overview of the condition, such as “Synesthesia” by James Ward. It will be useful to find sources on the history of synesthesia as a diagnosis and on how synesthesia was viewed in medical as well as social spheres in Gilman’s days (could Gilman have been aware of such a phenomenon?). Also, debates in the scientific community about the degree to which synesthesia is fixed or related to social context would be useful in examining the potential nature/root of the protagonist’s synesthesia. I have also located an article titled “An Inquiry into the Nature of Hallucinations: I,” which was published five years after “The Yellow Wallpaper” and explains, “Hallucinations are secondary sensations. The simplest state of hallucination is found in the phenomena of synesthesia” (Sidis). I will consider the synesthesia in this story as a basic form of hallucination, and what that may mean for the theme of women’s struggle for freedom. Synesthesia as a literary device—what the device involves and/or signifies in literature—is discussed in “Literary Synesthesia” by Glenn O’Malley. And finally, I will need a source that analyzes the theme of women’s freedom in “The Yellow Wallpaper” to bridge the gap between scientific and literary analyses.

 

Works Cited:

Perkins Gilman, Charlotte. “The Yellow Wallpaper.” Boston: Small & Maynard, 1899. N. pag. Gilman, The Yellow Wallpaper. Web. 30 Mar. 2013.

Sidis, Boris. “An Inquiry into the Nature of Hallucinations: I.” Psychological Review 11.1 (1904): 15-29. PsycARTICLES. Web. 9 Apr. 2013.

One response so far

Apr 07 2013

Research Project Proposal (Draft One)

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In Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s short story “The Yellow Wallpaper,” the protagonist suffers from what many readers quickly identify as madness. She experiences hallucinations while shut up in the attic of her summer home. She sees patterns in the wallpaper of her room that others do not, and sometimes catches a glimpse of a figure, “a strange, provoking, formless sort of figure, that seems to skulk about behind that silly and conspicuous front design” (Gilman). Perhaps most interesting—and perhaps unrelated to these symptoms of madness—she experiences her wallpaper’s yellow color synesthetically in terms of smell and emotion. This leads me to my research question: what role does synesthesia play in the story?

Last semester, I read “The Yellow Wallpaper” for the first time in an American literature survey class. We studied the text and the protagonist with a primary focus on the feminist issues they raised. “The Yellow Wallpaper” is widely discussed in terms of hysteria, an antiquated and sometimes misogynistic term for a disorder which falls under a spectrum of conditions now known as “conversion disorders.” However, research that thoroughly analyses the story through the lens of synesthesia has not yet been published. With the help of modern scientific research, I think that an examination of the protagonist’s synesthesia could reveal nuances that have been overlooked in the past.

Specifically, I plan to examine the way Gilman uses synesthesia in “The Yellow Wallpaper” to illustrate conflict by both literal and figurative means. The way the protagonist’s husband responds with disbelief to her claims about the behavior and qualities of the wallpaper has more obvious implications for her role as a woman in the relationship. But what does synesthesia, a phenomenon where the subject experiences an out-of-the-ordinary crossing of perceptions—where s/he perceives something completely different from what others perceive—mean symbolically? Why is synesthesia an ideal mental/neurological phenomenon for driving home the themes of the story?

To investigate further I will need sources in the form of both scientific research and literary criticism. In the last decade or so, scientific evidence for synesthesia has arisen through research using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI); a scientific article on this would help demonstrate synesthesia as a real phenomenon. Also, debates in the scientific community about the degree to which synesthesia is fixed and related to social context would be useful. So would articles that identify and explain the subjective experience of synesthesia. Finally, sources on synesthesia as a literary device and on the themes of “The Yellow Wallpaper” will be necessary to bridge the gap between scientific and literary analysis.

 

Works Cited:

Perkins Gilman, Charlotte. “The Yellow Wallpaper.” Boston: Small & Maynard, 1899. N. pag. Gilman, The Yellow Wallpaper. Web. 30 Mar. 2013.

One response so far

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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