Sunday, June 20, 2004

I am my memories

Imagine: you've been the victim of a horrific terror attack. The flashbacks will keep you up nights for the rest of your life. Doctors can give you a drug to blur the memories, but the government insists that you not take it since information you may be able recall could help fight terrorism.

Imagine: you've been in a terrible accident. The experience will cause long-lasting psychological trauma unless you take a drug that causes amnesia - but you will also forget details that could lead to the conviction of the person responsible. You're conscious, but in great pain; you have ten minutes to decide before you go into surgery. What will you do?

A New Scientist interview (24 April 2004, p46) with Richard Glen Boire, co-founder of the Center for Cognitive Liberty and Ethics in Davis, California, explores what the freedom of thought means once drugs can influence mental processes.

The examples above are not completely fanciful; people who take the beta blocker propranolol within six hours or so of a traumatic event have a reduced recall of that event.

Since we construct our sense of self moment by moment through recall, such drugs change who we are. To my mind, the changes are much more profound than cosmetic surgery, performance enhancers or even mood altering chemicals like Ritalin.

Saturday, June 19, 2004

Why porn works

New Scientist reports that empathy may be a very simple brain process: our brains simply transform what we see into what we might have felt in the same situation. (Research by Christian Keysers et al., University of Groningen, Neuron vol 42, p 335.)

MRI scans showed that the secondary somatosensory cortex - which was though to respond only to physical touch - lit up when a subject saw other people being touched.

Monkey see, monkey feel, in other words.

A corrolary is that someone who's lonely and out of reach of a friendly touch should go see a romantic movie; seeing people hug each other should generate the same warm feeling as being hugged would do.

I wonder whether reading about touch, or hearing a story, would also light up the same region of the brain; romantic fiction suggests that it would.


blinks in the half-dark
always at my gaze's edge
wow, they're real - fireflies!

if you sent you mail
asking for a quick meeting
would you say OK?

sparrows don't worry
about realizing their dreams
at least, I hope not

Sunday, June 13, 2004

Surf's up on 405

I live a block away from Interstate 405. The roar of traffic never stops. It's more of a rush than a roar. I'm told I should imagine that it sounds like a waterfall or the sea breaking against a long beach, but to me it just sounds like 405. It has both volume and direction, and it is a backdrop to more local sounds.

A bird chirping is a sound against traffic, not a sound in itself as it would be in the stillness of a forest. You hear both; figure and ground are equally present. In a quiet place the silence has a sound, too, if only as the rushing of blood in your ears, but it is equi-present.

You have to find sound here, you have to sieve it out. It isn't presented on a silver platter of stillness. It is less precious, more contingent, and always on the verge of being overwhelmed by the aural context.

This, perhaps, is the urban experience. You have to work at extracting meaning from the other human artifacts. So much is lost because it's drowned out. And listening becomes pattern matching; you hear what you looking to hear. Like spread spectrum radio, you can extract a signal from below the noise floor if you know what you're looking for. Finding the unexpected is hard - even harder than usual - when there's so much interference.

Saturday, June 12, 2004

beyond bullets

Cliff Atkinson's obsessed with PowerPoint; his blog beyond bullets is about how people can communicate better using this tool. He's an independent management consultant, and he believes that "hidden inside PowerPoint is a powerful antidote to toxic organizational communications." He makes his money, it seems, by teaching how to communicate better.

I don't know about toxic communications, but his tips do seem to be be a way to disprove the old saw, "Power corrupts, and PowerPoints corrupts absolutely."

Saturday, June 05, 2004

The Good Bad Boy

Alison Lurie's essay The Good Bad Boy in The New York Review of Books (link courtesy of Arts & Letters Daily) shows that Carlo Collodi's Pinocchio is a much darker and complex character than Walt Disney's remake. It describes the progression from infant to adult as a metaphorical journey from inanimate object to animal to human, and draws lessons about the price that will be paid for idleness. For example, here's Lurie on Pinocchio's stay in Funland: "The moral (as true today as it was in Collodi's time) is that poor boys who quit school and hang about doing nothing and enjoying themselves are apt to end up as exploited and overworked laborers—or possibly dead."

Disney's version is shown to be pabulum; and it makes me wonder about the eclipse of Grimm's Fairy Tales in today's childhood culture. I was exposed to some of them as a child, but by no means all; they're completely invisible these days.

However, children's appetite for grim stories remains, of course; these days it's satisfied by Harry Potter and his ilk.

A sweater has been defined as something a child is made to wear when its parents are cold. Likewise, sugar-coated stories are what they made to listen to in order not to frighten the grown-ups.