Category Archives: Humans: Study of

About this Category: Brain & Mind

In development.

Under the topic “Brain & Mind,” you will find texts and artifacts related to our cognitive processes: literally, how we think about the future. This section will cover research findings from neurology (e.g. brain scans), psychology and related disciplines, as well as philosophical topics related to how the mind frames and contemplates the future.

Notes: The Anthropocene

In September 2017, an esteemed group of scientists — geologists, physicists, chemists, archaeologists, geographers, biologists, and oceanographers — published a milestone paper in a relatively new journal called Anthropocene. Launched just four years previously, the journal followed the creation of its titular concept, but preceded the official declaration of that concept’s reality.

The Anthropocene is the notion that this particular time on planet Earth, the time when humans are changing global ecosystems and geophysical patterns in profound ways, deserves its own name. The Holocene is the name given to the last 10,000 years, after the glaciers melted and we restlessly nomadic humans began to settle down and invent houses, agriculture, cities, nations, economics and technology.

The Anthropocene is the result.

In the article, which is entitled “The Working Group on the Anthropocene: Summary of evidence and interim recommendations,” the scientists declare the Anthropocene to be “stratigraphically real.” Here is what these words mean, in practical terms: we are leaving an indelible, geological mark on the planet.

Imagine a time, millions of years from now, when humans no longer exist (at least in our current form — perhaps we will have become clouds of sentient energy, wafting through a multi-dimensional cosmos, with vague memories of the blue-green planet of our birth). Imagine that the geologists of that time, who  have evolved from one of today’s lower mammals, start digging. What will they find?

At a certain layer of rock, which will be proven to be roughly the same time, all over planet Earth (or whatever they shall call their home in the solar system), the geologists will discover evidence of a profound transformation. They will find sudden changes in erosion patterns, and in the way sediments shift along ancient river beds. They will find molecular evidence of changes in the carbon cycle, the nitrogen cycle, the global dispersion of phosphorous and other elements. They will note a precipitous (in geological terms) rise in sea levels, and a rapid decline in polar ice. They will find the fossil evidence of extraordinary species that once walked the planet, but suddenly went extinct; and they will find evidence of other species, never before seen in the fossil record, that suddenly appear everywhere, in massive numbers.

It is unlikely that these future geologists will know that we called the new animals dogs and cats, cows and chickens, though they will be able to trace their evolutionary roots to wolves, larger cats, wild oxen, and a jungle bird from the area now called Southeast Asia. They will certainly find bountiful fossil evidence of our species, homo sapiens. But they will have no way of knowing that we called the extinct species elephant, pangolin, gorilla, rhino.

Finally, they will find copious “technofossils”, the geologically preserved remains of homo sapiens’ technology and industry. These might include plastics, buckyballs, graphene. The most surprising find will be the sudden appearance of plutonium, an element that occurs very rarely in nature, among deposits of uranium, but that suddenly will be seen as lightly distributed over large areas, “as  though it had rained from the sky”  they might say — which is exactly what happened.

The arrival of the Anthropocene as a concept appears to concern the scientific analysis of the recent past, because much of the academic debate around its introduction has circled around when, exactly, to declaim its historical beginnings. Should one draw the line in geological time at 1945, when the first atomic bombs began their rain of uranium and plutonium and other radioactive fallout? Or should we dial the clock back a few thousand years, to the global spread of agriculture?

In any event, the principal value of the Anthropocene is not as a tool for looking back in time, but for looking forward. Understanding that we have altered certain mega-processes in the Earth’s systems beyond restoration, that the stable and predictable conditions of the Holocene’s ten thousand years are in some definitive sense over, is a great mental aid in thinking about the future.

We are not just constantly changing our human world; we are creating a new Earth.

Notes: The Everyday, Dreamlike Symbols in our Lives

Note that this was drafted in 2009, when this site was first created. The style of working for this book has changed since then.

Not the original T-shirt – this is a digital reconstruction. The real t-shirt fell apart and was recycled a few years after this post was written.

I have a black T-shirt, acquired in Tasmania, Australia, that depicts a Tasmanian Devil. Or rather, it used to depict the Devil, which is a very endangered species. The whole idea of the T-shirt was to show the Devil the way you might actually see it, if you came upon it at night, when it is out hunting. The shirt was black (now ten years old, the shirt itself has faded to dark gray), and the image of the Tasmanian Devil was very faintly imprinted, in white and gray. You could see it clearly, but you had to look carefully. It’s mouth was open, showing the array of very sharp teeth and the fierce demeanor that earned it the name “devil.” A little ruff of whitish fur on the throat was the brightest spot in the image.

The shirt has been a favorite, and I often wear it in winter, under my standard turtleneck. After so many washings, however, the Tasmanian Devil is no longer discernible. A tiny whitish spot is all that remains of this once subtle, yet ferocious image.

This is quite in parallel with what has happened to the Devil itself, which is on the verge of extinction owing to an epidemic that emerged in recent years and is wiping out the species, in a macabre fashion. The disease is a virus-born cancer that causes tumorous growths on the face of the Tasmanian Devil, turning its scary little face into a true horror of suffering for the animal.

When I look at my Tasmanian Devil T-shirt, I get a tiny feeling of vertigo. The history of the shirt is a history of the animal. The animal is fading, the image of the animal has faded. Of course, I do not mean to imply that there is any connection between them, other than the fact that I am projecting symbolic meaning onto this process. But that feeling of symbolic meaning that I get when thinking about my shirt is very close to the feeling of being in a dream. The imagery around one is loaded with symbolic potential. The events in the dream may roughly mirror the events of real life, but altered, translated into a different place, different people. The event in a dream may not be at all the same as the event it mirrors in real life, and yet one recognizes it immediately as “the same.” One feels the link.

Somehow, sitting with that odd parallel between Shirt and Animal, I feel the animal’s plight more keenly. Though the symbol is very much an abstraction — and a totally constructed one — it makes my relationship to the Tasmanian Devil somehow more tangible and concrete.

The notion that everyday occurrences could have symbolic meaning used to be a predominant human experience. Ancient Sumerian texts, written in cuneiform, include guidebooks to the interpretations of signs and symbols in everyday life — what it might mean, say, to encounter a snake in one’s path. These days, we call all such experiences of falsely mapping an everyday, natural, explainable occurrence over to a premonition of future events, or events happening somewhere distant, or anything like this, a “superstition.” Humans everywhere still struggle to free themselves from the oppressive nature of superstitious belief.

And yet … isn’t there something lost if we banish all sense of meaning from the everyday, dreamlike symbols of our lives?

Notes: Talking About Dreams, Sharing Dreams

Note that this was drafted in 2009, when this site was first created. The style of working for this book has changed since then.

People in the industrialized world — which is rapidly becoming the whole world — rarely talk about their dreams. Dreams are becoming a more and more marginalized part of the modern human experience. Dreams are generally discounted, and not taken seriously. They have become a kind of “brain noise,” explained away by vague references to emerging neuroscience; or, and perhaps this is more problematic, they have become “symptoms.” One talks seriously about dreams only in a psychotherapeutic environment. To talk about dreams at other times risks being psycho-analyzed by others, or even being stigmatized, in a minor sort of way, as a person with psychological “issues.” Revealing dreams to anyone other than, say, your bed-mate is somehow a breach of appropriate social boundaries. Talking about your dreams in other social contexts — at a party, at work, might just be taken as proof that you are a little less stable than you should be.

Very few people actively cultivate their capacity to remember dreams, to think about them, to talk about them with others. But the fact remains that we all dream, every night, four or five times. This is an undisputed scientific fact. We usually don’t remember all (or sometimes any) of these dreams in the morning, but if awakened in the midst of them by a researcher looking for the tell-tale signs of “Rapid Eye Movement” and certain brain wave patterns, we can nearly always describe them.

Dreams are therefore a central, universal part of human experience. And yet, no scientist can yet explain to us exactly why we dream, or how our dreams are put together, or why they often feel so vivid, so real.

Of course, in metaphorical terms, dreams are hugely celebrated: everyone should “have a dream,” the world debates the merits of the “American Dream,” many popular songs reference them (“Dream Weaver,” “Girl of my Dreams,” “Dream, Dream, Dream”). Critics have often noted that people going into a darkened movie theater are essentially having a shared, dream-like experience. And yet … dreams still remain something close to a taboo topic in ordinary conversation.

This is the background for my own reluctance to write about my dreams on the World Wide Web. It feels almost like an act of personal courage, or foolhardiness, to do so. But it would be inauthentic to write a book about dreams — as concept, as metaphor, as phenomenon, as synonym for visions— and not say something about my own, actual night dreams.

Night dreams have in fact been a rich and wonderful part of the experience I call “my life,” for all of my fifty years of cycling between wakefulness and sleep. As I child, I dreamt intensively, and eventually lucidly — “awakening” within a dream and then directing it in ways I found pleasant or comforting or exciting. This was a necessary skill, too, because of trouble with recurring nightmares: lucid dreaming, the practice of becoming aware that you are dreaming and then choosing whether to wake up or continue in some new direction, became part of a solution to a childhood fear of night and of the dark. The habit of attending to my dreams — which were usually not lucid, but were always intense and vivid — followed me through my teen years and into adulthood.

My first professional jobs were in social work and counseling, so naturally dreams became even more interesting then. Encouraged by professional dream therapists and Native American ceremonialists — with whom I was working side-by-side, as part of an experimental treatment program for mentally disturbed young people — I began writing down my dreams, a practice I still maintain. My growing capacity to remember my dreams in vivid detail came in hand when, in New York during my 20s, I saw a Jungian analyst for a couple of years. This experience contributed both to my own understanding of my dreams, but also to the feeling that dreams were somehow private and overly revealing, something one should not talk freely about. Sometimes thinking about my dreams helped me sort out truly difficult problems from my early family life; and sometimes, they provided me inspiration and clarity about my waking dreams, that is to say, my ambitions and aspirations in life. For example, I made the decision to go to New York and try my hand at music and songwriting partly because of a very powerful dream, which came to me while camping in the great redwood forests of Northern California. The central image of that dream — a guitar, spinning ten meters above the ground, on a beautiful fountain of light — moves and inspires me to this day.

These days, I do not write down every night’s harvest of dreams, only those that seem to cry out for more reflection, or that stir me in some way. For example, while at a recent colloquium in France, I had a long, detailed dream about running a different seminar, that was in turn visited by a different teacher. He was showing the participants how to do different yoga-like positions that were “new equilibrium points,” new ways of balancing on the Earth. These positions were so specific that I drew them as pictures in my journal. I could only laugh at the close link between what I was hearing about every day (in French) and what my brain was doing with the inputs, in a “mash-up” with my own personal and professional life, my history, etc.

In this dream, one of the “equilibrium positions” was remarkable, for it involved floating a few centimeters over the Earth. Here is how it worked. You lay on your belly, and took hold of a pair soft cloth handles that looked very much like rabbit ears. These were fastened to the floor. Then you slowly stretched out your legs, lifted your hips, and rose up on your elbows, seeking the “equilibrium point.” When you found it, you could raise your elbows … and you would find yourself floating. It worked, explained the man leading this seminar, because one was in a sort of “mini-orbit” position, a point where gravity and the centrifugal forces were in balance (equilibrium). It required physical precision as well as mental calm and clarity, and he spoke of both angular momentum and personal equanimity. The experience of floating like that, ten centimeters above the ground, holding on to a pair of soft rabbit ears, was both exhilarating and a bit funny, and when one achieved it, one laughed in delight.

In the dream, it all seemed strangely plausible — “Why haven’t physicists thought of this before?” — and of course very vivid and real; but of course it’s nonsense in physics terms, just a confused jumble of concepts. It’s the image, the multi-layered metaphor that’s most intriguing: finding equilibrium, floating above the Earth …

I told this dream to my daughters, aged 5 (nearly 6) and 7, because we talk about our dreams once in a while, over the breakfast table. A day or two later, the 5-year-old said, “Daddy, you know that dream you had about holding onto rabbit ears and flying? I have that picture in my mind now all the time. It’s really fun!” Somehow, sharing my dream with her was a way of sharing a little bit of mental delight.

I wonder what modern life would be like if we talked more regularly, and more freely, about our dreams?

Book: The World in Six Songs (Levitin)

Image resultNote that this was drafted in 2009, when this site was first created. The style of working for this book has changed since then.

Daniel J. Levitin’s book The World in Six Songs scratches an intellectual itch that I didn’t know I had.  As a singer and songwriter who also works on sustainable development theory, practice, policy, data, etc., I resonate strongly with his combination pop music producer and neuroscience.  I’m only 25 pages into the book, but it is compulsive reading for me, as it opens up one of several new topics in this research that have only occurred to me since starting this blog — in this case, the role of the arts, poetry, music generally in framing our capacity to envision the future.

Levitin writes about six kinds of songs — friendship, joy, comfort, knowledge, religion, love.  I wonder if I will agree with him, by the time I’ve finished reading, that these categories are comprehensive?  Where do songs of longing, hope, and wonder fit in, for example?  I just wrote one of those recently (called “Set the World Right Again”) and can’t imagine that fitting easily into one of those six categories.

On the other hand, I write a lot of “knowledge” songs, that is, songs that try to make ideas more memorable.  These have fallen out of fashion in the modern world, says Levitin; we have only the ABC’s and number songs and the like to remind us of how central such songs were in earlier eras.  So perhaps my own “Exponential Growth,” or the new little ditty on the weird economics of discounting the present value of natural resources (“Damn the Discount Rate”), are actually old-fashioned.

Levitin’s central thesis appears to be that music and poetry — and their union in song — is at the very heart of human cultural and even recent biological (in the case of the brain) evolution.  Not, “I think therefore I am,” but “I create, therefore I am human“.  An interesting thesis, easy to accept if one is of a creative temperament.  And a great starting point for the question:  to what extent is our ability to imagine and create better futures dependent on our capacity to create, for example, songs as well?