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By Nathan Bierma


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THE VISION THING: PART FOUR

As I noted the last time I blogged about perception and the brain, the burgeoning field of neuroscience is being illuminated by some vivid writing that gives lay readers alluring access to scientific insights. The latest example is An Alchemy of Mind by Diane Ackerman, which was published last month (and excerpted in the New York Times Science section). Describing herself as "as artist, a poet, who rejoices in the revelations of science," Ackerman tells this interviewer that she delved into neuroscience in order to "both capture the scientific reality of the brain but also a sense of what the experience of having a brain and mind feels like. This book is a celebration and a kind of factual tour." In a review in the San Francisco Chronicle, author William Kowinski says Ackerman indeed delivers a "meeting of science and sensuality," placing the brain at the center of "memory, personality, imagination, consciousness and creativity."

Ackerman appeared with neuroscientist Antonio Damasio at the Printer's Row Book Fair last month in Chicago, on a panel considering "Emotions and the Brain" (the panel was hosted by Chicago Tribune cultural critic Julia Keller, whose three-part series on the victims of brain injury ran last year). As Ackerman read from her work, her poetic prose and inventive turns of phrase—she writes, "Language is so difficult, only children can master it"—were striking, but so were the excesses of a New Age sensibility. Responding to an inquiry from the audience, Ackerman said she didn't believe in a governing God, since governance is too coercive an act to impose on free living things, and instead affirmed a vague belief the spiritual union of all of life. Her observations, however, more than her explanations, enliven our understanding of creation and how we perceive it.

• In the Times excerpt, Ackerman describes the brain as a pattern recognizer, giving cohesion and meaning to human consciousness. "Given just a little stimuli, [the brain] divines the probable. When information abounds, it recognizes familiar patterns and acts with conviction. If there's not much for the senses to report, the brain imagines the rest," she writes. This helps us live, even though looks can be deceiving. "I think of the mind as a comforting mirage that the brain creates so that we will feel continuous and real," she writes. "Though, of course, we live from one illusion to the next."

Related:
Companion page to William Gibson's novel Pattern Recognition
B&C editor John Wilson on the pattern recognition of critic Hugh Kenner

• Ackerman's co-panelist at the Printer's Row Book Fair, Antonio Damasio, has also been praised for his "flair for writing about science and an enthusiasm for philosophizing," as scientist Ian Hacking wrote in the New York Review of Books last month. But because Damasio is a neuroscientist, he invites more scrutiny from scholars in his field. Hacking says neuroscientists have picked apart Damasio's third book, Looking for Spinoza: Joy, Sorrow, and the Feeling Brain, in a New York Times and review and a recent book called Philosophical Foundations of Neuroscience.

Hacking is somewhat gentler on the book, but does have his doubts about Damasio's claim that feelings are the result of emotions—feelings happen in the mind after emotions happen in the body. Hacking says Damasio goes too far in tracing emotions to internal, rather than external causes.

One of the biggest disappointments of the work of Damasio, Ackerman, and modern science in general, which seldom comes up in the media, is reducing functions of the body and mind to mere survival techniques. For example, Damasio says that feelings are a form of "life regulation," a way of maintaining equilibrium with our surroundings and evolving. What about joy for its own sake, or for God's sake? It's empirically inexplicable, so it doesn't come up.

Related:
Consciousness and memory in fiction, from freelance critic Joseph Conlin

• It's ironic that an article in Skeptical Inquirer on religion and the brain would be authored by someone named Pascal. The article, from the March 2004 issue of SI, is adapted from Pascal Boyer's 2001 book Religion Explained: Evolutionary Origins of Religious Thought. Boyer challenges the conventional assumption that religion is caused by "the sleep of reason," or the suspension of rational thinking that enables fantastical notions about God and heaven. Now that advances in brain mapping enable scientists to see the brain in action, Boyer says, it is clear that there is no distinct portion of the brain that develops religious beliefs. "On the contrary, religious representations are sustained by a whole variety of different systems," he says, adding that "all these systems are parts of our regular mental equipment, religion or no religion."

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