Monday, January 31, 2011

Dream, Wakefulness, and a Tale of Two Poets

Creative writers care very much about dreams. Perhaps because of what dreams might impart to them about human consciousness, themselves, about the past or about the future, or perhaps about what to write, or even how to write it. In 1379, Chaucer began a poem entitled “The House of Fame” which, according to John M. Fyler, is his “fullest exploration of the poet’s position and responsibilities, the sources of his knowledge, and the limits of his vision” (Fyler, 1987, p. 348). The poet wishes to tell us of the wonderful dream that he had on the tenth day of December, but first presents 65 lines on his confusion and amused annoyance concerning the splintered category of dream with its many near-synonyms, and on the dreamer’s frustration at the uncertainty of knowing what a dream means. He also wants to know why the prophecy of one dream occurs and that of another doesn’t. He muses over the possible causes of dreams: the balance of bodily humours, cognitive deficiencies, illness, imprisonment, distress, disruption of routine, hitting the books too hard, melancholy, or being “ful of drede” (Benson, p. 348).

An important source for Chaucer’s poem was Macrobius, a medieval thinker who based his classification on an earlier Greek work in which five kinds of dream were presented. The “nightmare” and the “apparition” are, according to Macrobius, not worth one’s while to interpret, as they have no predictive value (Macrobius, p. 49). The nightmare seems to be a product of mental or physical stress, while the apparition is a type of dream that occurs only in a hypnagogic state. The “oracular” dream is refreshingly straightforward: a pious person visits the dreamer and tells him or her of a future event and recommends how to deal with it. The oracular becomes a “prophetic” dream if the visitor turns out to be right. The “enigmatic” dream “conceals with strange shapes and veils with ambiguity” its own meaning (Miller, p. 50). In spite of his confusion, frustration, and sense of inadequacy before the concept “dream”, Chaucer’s narrator ploughs ahead, excitedly describing his dream in 2,048 more lines of verse that read like a story. The narrator’s poem (unfortunately, unfinished) is the dream. The implication here is that in dream theory of the time the dream-state consciousness was taken to exist across an ontological chasm from the consciousness of wakefulness. The dream seems to be somewhat pathological, but nevertheless, if it’s the right sort of dream, capable of conveying useful information, and also capable of occasioning an enjoyable read.

Five hundred and forty-five years later, André Breton, writer of poetry and prose, and everything in between, was rather obsessed with states of consciousness, regularly engaging in automatic writing with his colleagues. Automatic writing, of course, is not produced from the sleeping consciousness state, but much of Breton’s poetry reads like dream. Nevertheless, unlike Chaucer’s dream poem which is in verse, but reads like a story, a sample of one of Breton’s automatic writings from 1921-22, but published in the 1924 Poisson Soluble, might convince us that there is indeed an absolute difference in kind between dreamlike states and wakeful consciousness:

In the piece of school chalk there’s a sewing machine; the little children shake their curls of silvery paper. The sky is a blackboard erased minute by minute by the wind. “You know what happened to the lilies who didn’t want to fall asleep,” begins the teacher, and the birds begin to make their voices heard a little before the last train’s passing. The class is on the highest branches of the return, between the greenfinches and the burnt spots. (Breton, 1988/1924, p. 368-369).

Much of the stuff of dream is here: lack of calibration of size among elements, unexpected parts amalgamated into wholes, personification of objects, unexpected juxtapositions of people, objects, and places, and introduction of strange elements into familiar routines, a presentation strong on image and weak on logical concatenation. The assumption is no longer that the dream may convey useful predictive information, or indeed any information per se, but that there is value in the writer’s accommodating, as best he can, the mind’s production of images that seem not to be sculpted or concatenated through the mind’s logical processing, and perhaps that reading the product of a dreamlike state, that does indeed read like a dream, will prove a positive and aesthetically worthwhile experience.

Eighty-six years later, a very engaging review of research examining the relationship between the phenomenology and neurophysiology of dreaming, by Yuval Nir and Giulio Tononi, appeared in the February, 2010 issue of Trends in Cognitive Sciences. The authors review contemporary dream research, noting for example, that, participants in experiments report dreams (defined as “vivid, sensorimotor hallucinatory experiences that follow a narrative structure” [p. 88]) in both REM (rapid eye-movement) and non-REM sleep, contrary to earlier experimental work; that those aspects of wakefulness and dreaming that are similar in one’s personal experience are in fact similarly represented in the neural substrate; that there are developmental constraints on dreaming; that there is consistency between one’s cognitive capacities in dream and wakefulness; and that visuo-spatial capacity correlates better with dream quality than linguistic capacities. Further, there is reduced “voluntary control of action and thought” (p. 89); reflective thought (with some exceptions) is impaired: such oddities as we experienced earlier in the Breton passage are accepted without challenge; there is reduced awareness of self, which may contribute to the finding that the emotions of anxiety, anger, fear, joy and surprise are experienced in dreaming, but rarely are guilt, sadness, or depressive feelings; and memory is impaired within the dream. The authors also present a clear and detailed table in which the psychodynamic, activation-input-modulation, and neurocognitive models of dreaming are delineated.

Finally, Nir and Tononi ask, “Are dreams more like perception or imagination?” The response is cast in terms of the differential processing of “low-level sensory” and “higher-order” areas of the brain. If the first were triggering the dream-state, input from the brainstem to the visual cortex would then be meaningfully integrated by the higher-order areas. If the second were the trigger, motives would recruit the necessary mental imagery. The authors note that the critical tests determining patterns of signal flow have not yet been done, but the preponderance of empirical evidence points to initiation by higher-order areas. “If this view is correct,” they conclude, “waking consciousness is more like watching the news in real time, whereas dreaming is more like watching a movie created by an imaginative director” (p. 97). Thus, the research may not yet show that correctly interpreting a dream can tell us the future, but a picture of the neurophysiology of dreaming tells us much about the phenomenology of dreams, and perhaps something about creativity itself.

Benson, L. D. (1987). The Riverside Chaucer. New York: Houghton Mifflin Company.

Breton, A. (1988/1924). Œuvres complètes. Paris: Gallimard. (my translation).

Fyler, J. M. (1987). The House of Fame. In Benson, L. D. (Ed.) The Riverside Chaucer. (pp. 347-348). New York: Houghton Mifflin Company.

Macrobius. (1977). On Dreams. In Miller, R. P. (Ed.) Chaucer: Sources and backgrounds. New York: Oxford University Press.

Nir, Y., & Tononi, G. (2010). Dreaming and the brain: from phenomenology to neurophysiology. Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 14, 88-100.

Image: Chaucer from the Ellesmere Manuscript

Monday, January 24, 2011

Research Bulletin: What do millions of books say about us?

A fascinating article by Jean-Baptiste Michel (Harvard) and his colleagues was recently published this month in the journal Science. Michel collaborated with the Google Books team in order to analyze the content of millions of books that have been digitized. So far the project has been successful in converting over 15 million books into a digital format (~12% of all books ever published) and Michel analyzed a subset of about 5 million that were most complete. By using software to analyze this amazing corpus, these authors were able to make a number of fascinating observations about our culture and how it has changed over time. For one, our lexicon appears to have grown remarkably rapidly recently, with the size of language increasing by about 70% over the past 50 years. Their observations were not limited to language, however. The fame of individuals, as evidenced by mentions within books, also appears to have changed. Individuals of initial celebrity has been decreasing and the period for which people remain famous has also been shrinking. Overall, it appears that people are becoming more famous than before but this fame is also more fleeting than it has been in the past. Science was also found to be an unlikely route to fame, no doubt a depressing observation for the fame-seeking scientists among us. Lastly, and most appropriately for our site, although Galileo, Darwin, and Einstein are certainly well known, it is the psychologist Sigmund Freud who has a real grip on our psyche.

The article itself is easy to read and full of amusing wordplay. You can read the full article here, and I would encourage you all to do so in order to examine how they came to these fascinating conclusions.

Special thanks to Dr. Nathan Spreng (Harvard) for bringing this article to my attention.

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Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Quick Hit: National Reading Summit II

The National Reading Campaign is holding its annual summit in Montréal, from the 20th to the 21st. This group of like-minded and hardworking individuals are working toward the adoption of a national reading policy for Canada, clearly a worthy cause. Patsy Aldana, one of the founders of this campaign, was recently awarded the Order of Canada. For those of you who are unable to attend, they will be hosting a webcast that you can subscribe to. Simultaneous translation into English and French will be provided. It is an impressive group that they have assembled for this year's meeting, including Shane Peacock, Stanley Péan, and John Ralston Saul. Also speaking is Mr. Li, the principal of a fascinating and highly successful school centred entirely around reading. I had the pleasure of meeting Mr. Li and can attest to the fact that his approach to education has the potential to revolutionize how we view the role of reading in our schools. I would encourage all of you to consider participating in this summit via web-cast and helping to support this valuable undertaking.

(Videos from last year's summit have generously been posted on their website.)

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Monday, January 17, 2011

Art and War

In December 1865, John Ruskin gave a commencement a speech to the cadets graduating from the Royal Military Academy at Woolwich. It was based on a startling thesis – that war is a necessary precondition to art.

All pure and noble arts are founded on war; no great art ever yet rose on Earth, but among a nation of soldiers. There is no art among a shepherd people if it remains at peace. There is no art among an agricultural people if it remains at peace. Commerce is barely consistent with fine art, but cannot produce. Manufacture not only is unable to produce it, but invariably destroys whatever seeds of it exist. There is no great art possible to a nation but that which is based on battle.

In evidence, Ruskin traces the preoccupation with war and military images in art from Egypt to Greece, to European knights, and onward. My first thought in response to his speech was that from a scientific perspective, the evidence is, at best, correlational. I almost started making a list of confounding variables, then stopped myself to ask a question – not whether art indeed fuels war, but why would Ruskin choose to believe so.

War evokes death, and perhaps it is death that is the culprit without which there could be no art. Art arose around the same time that our predecessors chose not to throw their dead children and spouses away in the forest, but bury them with trinkets that would help them in the next world. So, perhaps it is the belief in the world that is invisible, transcending the senses, the world to be respected, propitiated, the world ever absorbing the dead, that made art possible. But there is, and always has been, death even without the war, so we are left searching further for Ruskin’s high esteem of the power of war to engender art.

A clue could lie in Ruskin’s low esteem of ‘practical’ Romans whose battle wasn’t as ‘poetical’ as that of Greeks or European knights. Here, the distinct evocation of the idea of honor and courage, battle for higher aim, even for its own sake, parallels the idea of art as the creation of objects whose function is not practical, but for its own sake, too. But here I diverge from Ruskin. Just as art is not for its own sake, but a connection to a world that is not material, but experiential or relational, so a war is never for its own sake, but either rapacious or relational. After all, Homer celebrates the reluctant and sometimes misguided battle of Achilles, dying to revenge his beloved Patroclus, but has no kind words for ever-acquiring Agamnemon. And so it is with the war in general. Below the layers of self-deceptions and justifications, it is motivated either by an instinct to acquire and dominate, or protect (or revenge the loss of) one’s relationships, one’s means of connecting to another.

And then perhaps there is the courage that inevitably follows when one is willing to face one’s enemy willingly and openly to protect something that they value more than their own life. It is the courage that in today’s world of various automatized means of destruction has been becoming extinct. How much courage does it take to destroy a life half-way across the world, by sitting in one’s cubicle and pressing a few buttons on the keyboard?

There could be many things without which there could be no art – death, suffering, courage to protect relationships of value at the cost of one’s life, even the existence of warriors unafraid to die for something they value more than their life. But war, with its rapacious greed, indiscriminate destruction, I think war is not one of them.

Ruskin, J. (1865/2008). Woolwich: John Ruskin observes that war gives birth to art. Lapham’s Quarterly, 1(1), 28-30.

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Monday, January 10, 2011

Lacunae: Unmentionables 2 of 2

"Then there is all the more need to regularize your position if possible," said Dolly.
"Yes, if possible," Anna said, in what had suddenly become quite a different--a quiet and sad--voice.
"Is a divorce not possible? I was told your husband had agreed..."
"Dolly, I don't want to speak about it!"
"Well then, we won't," Dolly hastened to say, noticing the look of pain on Anna's face. "But I see that you look at things too dismally." ...
... "Dolly!" she said suddenly, changing her tone, "you say I look at things too dismally! You cannot understand. It is too dreadful. I try not to look at them at all!"
"But I think you ought to. You must do all that is possible."
- Anna Karenina, part six, chapter 24
I paused last week on the idea that discursive silences might help support our ability to speak with others. What is left unsaid, of course, greatly constrains the realm of possibilities of what to say -- and agreement about what is unmentionable confirms participation in culture, as well as concord, as above ("Well then, we won't [speak about it]").

It is interesting to consider, however, thresholds in people's willingness to consign something to the realm of the unspeakable. Where Anna asserts that her condition is too dreadful to consider explicitly, Dolly disagrees, encouraging Anna toward exploration, or at least catharsis. Even if Anna's status is unspeakable in society (and if Anna is herself consequently invisible in just the tacit way that we might agree never to speak of something we all know), Dolly insists--pushing through her own discomfort--that the unspeakable ought to be discussed.

I tend to fall on Dolly's side in these matters, but I have become determined to better understand the functions of unspeakability, since unmentionables seem undeniably common. Without any attempt to be comprehensive here, and using a field of unmentionables with which I am most familiar as inspiration here (the "good food" movement), I consider a few of the functions of the unmentionable, with some eye toward what kinds of alternative discursive scaffolds might help substitute for such functions, in the event that a given conversational lacuna might have occasion to be explored.

Beside the obvious function of deferring things uncomfortable to think through (including the denial of complex motives), relegating something to the realm of the unspeakable plays the other obvious role of reducing social friction on things likely to create discord. Politics, religion, and football are all likely to rouse vigorous dissent--further, such topics raise expectations of polarized dissent: loud voices express strong opinions without much hope of exploration. Teams, parties, or faiths are often assumed to be inherited via geographic accident, and engagement in verbal jousting is likely to be propagandistic or performative rather than persuasive or interesting. Food topics fall into such polemics with alarming ease, as anyone who has heard specific diet proponents launch can attest.

The question of what to eat raises a second function of unspeakability: it helps to ease uncertainty. One stance often taken on the brink of the uncertain involves finding a level of generality at which disjointed perspectives might agree--and leaving conversation there. Christianity provides such a place to put conversation to bed for Catholic and Protestant; "religions of the book" suggest an even more distant resting place. "Let's not go there" is often a warning for domains for which we know that not enough (or none) of the conversationalists have enough knowledge to safely guide us through the perilous waters of assertion. Vegans who are certain that Colin Campbell's research supports plant based eating (and that the China study confirms that animal protein is toxic) square off against parents using dairy products as part of dietary interventions to attempt to improve the intestinal and neurological function of autistic children assertions and evidence fly back and forth, but often cut loose from the complex web of expertise and warrant that enable any sort of mutual comprehension, careful evaluation, or even sympathy. I often use food fights on the Web as examples in my teaching, as the arguments for and against something like canola oil provide useful cautionary tales for believing in science you can't understand.

The knowledge of the mayhem likely to ensue encourages people to avoid such fraught topics, effectively relegating them to one of the more interesting realms of unspeakable status: something difficult to talk about but that many people would genuinely like to know more about, if they could do so without considerable pain. Watch for pained yet hopeful facial expressions the next time dietary advice is broached.

It seems that these two challenges might be met with more premeditation and facilitation than we might usually be inclined to allot casual conversation. Importing expertise would not seem to be adequate, however, without some commitment to rapprochement, particularly if salient expertises seem incommensurate.

A third category of unmentionability afflicts the attempts of well-versed experts in their attempts to engage those with competing positions. Even if the requirements of cross-disciplinary, cross-perspective expertise have been well met--the explicit demarcation of uncertainties and assumptions, as well as description of methods, warrants, and interpretive frames--a significant lacuna undermines many attempts to address thorny topics. This blind spot is somewhat hard to pin down, but it is most obviously manifested in the attribution of strawman arguments to opponents. An example I often encounter involves the promotion of local food: critics of local food proponents often attribute to moderate locavores a geographical fundamentalism. While a local foods campaign might propose a goal of increasing (as in a Minnesota project with which I am engaged at the moment) the amount of locally grown food eaten in a region from 1% to 2%, with some projections of impacts for a range of local provisioning extending up to 15% of food procured within the region, critics usually assert that such a project really aims at 100% local food, and attack the weak spots of THAT scenario (the lack of chocolate, etc.). Such attacks often provoke heated counter-attacks, many of which may trip up on other domains of unspeakability--the uncertainties, complex motives, and incommensurate social goals of actors, for example.

Addressing these complex systems of parameters around what can easily be said would seem to require considerable willingness to experiment with dialogue on all parties involved. As the persistence of polarized political discourse demonstrates, despite our cultural affection for the debate form, attack and counterattack do not tend to open up more discursive territory. In fact, as much as ignoring something in the hopes it will go away, or at least become unmentionable, ploughing into unspeakable domains without some thought to the functions one might need to replace or allay is likely to increase the domain of what cannot be said.

Tolstoy, Leo (1878 /1918) Anna Karenina, trans. Louise and Aylmer Maude. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

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Monday, January 3, 2011

Lacunae: Unmentionables 1 of 2

As readers of OnFiction by now likely realize, I am fascinated by the narration of things that are difficult to discuss. Having been trained in the communicative tradition of planning theory, in which hopes for democratic governance are connected to efforts to build more transparent, accessible, and equitable communicative processes, I am inclined toward the belief that considerable effort is usually warranted to make things more rather than less able to be discussed.

This tradition is reflected amply in the (usually one-way) mirrored halls of psychology, where communicative traditions evoke exploration, revelation, and catharsis -- and I often encounter echoes of these traditions in popularized form, especially around universities, encouraging free exchange of ideas in classically liberal form. In situations where communication is being encouraged, I have often noticed pronounced difficulty engaging with the realm of legitimate obstacles to communication.

Prosaic examples illustrate the familiarity of such obstacles: some people speak more loudly than others; some are never in the conversation to start with; some topics are difficult to raise, or fall out of conversation quickly. Such examples may be encountered much more explicitly in fiction than they are noticed in everyday life, especially if we are ourselves invested, however unconsciously, in keeping something relatively unmentioned. In fiction (and here I keep thinking of Virginia Woolf's masterful play with what is spoken and what is not in To the Lighthouse or Mrs. Dalloway), we can witness the discomfort that ripples out from rifts in the smoothed fabric of unmentionableness, while in our own conversations, we are often too much of the cultures of discourse, axiomatic beliefs, and de facto assumptions to attend to the parameters of what cannot be said that hedge our choices of explicit verbal exploration.

We are comfortable enough with the elephant in the room, that which will remain unsaid, or is better left unsaid, or a decision to let us never speak of this again that it becomes an interesting challenge to mention the unmentionable. Next week, I will report further on explorations of what it might take to build comfort with breaching the silences that support what IS said.

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