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By Nathan Bierma

Content & Context

The Books & Culture Weblog


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."

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.

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."

Everyone, Boyer says, has a "catalogue" of concepts about agents and objects; religion only tweaks these concepts to the point of imagining interaction with supernatural agents. Religious and superstitious fear of forbidden or impure objects, he says, is related to the general human dread of dirt, disease and danger. "The lesson of the cognitive study of religion is that religion is rather 'natural' in the sense that it consists of by-products of normal mental functioning," Boyer concludes. "In other words, religious thought activates cognitive capacities that developed to handle non-religious information." The good news, we may conclude, is that scientists might come to realize that religion is rational. The bad news is that they, like Damasio, will reduce religion to being purely functional—just a way of getting along in the world.

• If all this thinking about thinking is making your brain hurt, you may have illustrated Robert Fogelin's point in his book Walking the Tightrope of Reason: The Precarious Life of a Rational Animal. The tightrope walker must keep her balance amid "the extremes of relativism and rationalism," as reviewer Kenneth Baker summarized in the San Francisco Chronicle last year. Rationalism says you have to prove something before it's truth; relativism says truth is entirely contingent on context. Not surprisingly, we've tried to rationalize our way out of this impasse, Fogelin writes. "It seems unacceptable that philosophy's demand for rigor could be the source of intellectual disaster. So even though skeptical scenarios have unsolvability written on their faces, the idea persists that there must be some philosophical way to eliminate the skeptical problems they generate. I find success in this direction wholly unlikely." Baker doesn't say how Fogelin advances our understanding of this postmodern snag, but he does say the book warns us to resist indulging in theory and instead become "entangled" in the world.

Related: -John Stackhouse on "Wolterstorff's Philosophical Archaeology," in the current issue of B&C (article available online next week)
-The changing nature of research space, third item here
Music and the mind, from the New York Times
The brain, the genes, and depression, from the London Guardian
More on the neuroscience of happiness, from the Times (excerpted here)
The Vision Thing
Part Three: The brain, the soul, and consciousness
Part Two: The completeness and fluidity of consciousness
Part One: Don't believe your eyes


From the New York Times:

  • GAMBELLA, Ethiopia - Bath time here is a communal affair. Everyone grabs a bar of soap and heads down to the river. As they stand naked in the water a few feet from one another, lathering and rinsing in unison, people from Gambella's various ethnic groups appear at ease. The Anuak, the Nuer and the highlanders all use the Baro River as their tub. Appearances can be deceiving. Ethnic clashes over the last six months have killed hundreds in this remote region of western Ethiopia. … From the riverbank on a recent evening, a longtime resident gazed at the hundreds of bathers, explaining who was who. … As they bathe together, everybody keeps an eye out for crocodiles, a real threat in these waters. Once they are dried off and clothed and heading back home, it is one another they eye warily.
  • BERLIN - This city is, by any definition, a great world capital, though you almost would not know that walking into the departure hall of Tempelhof Airport, which is as quiet as an old-fashioned dentist's waiting room, a very large one with gleaming linoleum floors, a soaring ceiling and the almost audible sound of History whispering someplace. … The Airport Authority and the city-state of Berlin have, after long deliberation and much protest, decided to close down Tempelhof, thereby bringing to an end one of the longest and most important stories in aviation history. In a city where a certain wall came down 14 years ago and where, more generally, it all reeks of a memorable past, a downtown airport might not seem all that important. But if and when Tempelhof—site of the Berlin airlift of 1948 and 1949—really does close its doors, there is no doubt that something quintessential to Berlin will have been lost.
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Nathan Bierma is editorial assistant at Books & Culture. He writes the weekly "On Language" column for the Chicago Tribune.

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