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I live with the nonchalance of the witless, clutching at unsupported convictions on matters political, religious, and social, about which we can know nothing except what we interpret from our impaired position behind the curtain, everything mediated by the brain, everything adrift in the cosmos.
This dark edged sentence appeared in a recent email from my friend Andrew. He’s got a way of seeing that comes in strong and stops me short. But always well crafted. He does words so well.
But he isn’t far off from recent findings in neuro research. Evidence is emerging that substantiates his view of brain function that is undaunted by the force field of our personality or impressed in any way with our precious determined will.
From a review of David Eagleman’s new book, Incognito, by Laurence Phelan in the Independent:
When Galileo observed that we are not, in fact, at the centre of our solar system, man’s initial shock at the dethronement gave way to an exponential increase in his awe at the vastness and complexity of the universe.
In Incognito, the neuroscientist David Eagleman argues that something analogous happened in the 20th century. What Freud intuited and neuroscience has confirmed is that the vast majority of your neural activity occurs at levels for which the conscious you, “the ‘I’ that flickers to life when you wake up in the morning”, just doesn’t have security clearance. “The conscious mind is not at the centre of the action in the brain; instead, it is far out on a distant edge, hearing but whispers of the activity …. A mere 400 years after our fall from the centre of the universe, we have experienced the fall from the centre of ourselves.”
Things which seem to come naturally to you, such as instincts, appetites, perceptions, desires and motor functions, seem so, not because they don’t require much brain activity, but because they’re the product of neural sub-routines that run more efficiently when the conscious mind isn’t invited to get involved. A large part of Incognito is dedicated to the ingenious experiments, fascinating behavioural quirks, and bizarre case studies from which we can nevertheless infer what’s going on in there. For example, why can’t you tickle yourself unless you’re schizophrenic; how do Parkinson’s medications cause compulsive gambling; and what’s going on when a patient has Anton’s syndrome (the failure to recognise one’s own blindness), synaesthesia (the condition in which sensory perceptions are blended, such that one might hear a colour), or alien hand syndrome (which is much as it sounds, and disturbingly like a scene in The Evil Dead)?
So where does free will come in? What about creativity, the extraordinary occurrence of genius, or the prescient abilities of psychics? I like living with mysteries, so knowing the definitive neural place of residence for these really unexpected aspects of an individual isn’t what I care about. What concerns me is generic, widespread human behaviors that are unconscious and deadly, like being a species that continually reverts to war and destruction, or cannot grasp the need to preserve the health of the world. Sometimes the only response is to just beam me up Scotty.
*This may be a dated reference. You might need to have come of age in the 60s and 70s to recognize this reference to legendary routine by the Firesign Theatre. It was great stuff back then and still a reasonable observation.
Thank you Regina Hackett at Another Bouncing Ball for highlighting the latest from quirky dry-humored phenom Miranda July. Her films (Me and You and Everyone We Know) and writing (No One Belongs Here More Than You) dance me into a conceptual space that is reminiscent of Yoko Ono’s installation art in its smooth side swipe of everything you were expecting. I don’t know anyone who is undertaking a set of projects quite like hers.
Hackett contrasts July’s latest with “art of self” master Cindy Sherman’s staging genius:
In the late 1970s, Cindy Sherman was the star of her own B-movies. She remains the central figure on her own stage. Recently, Miranda July changed Sherman’s conceit, becoming Polonius to Sherman’s Hamlet – an easy tool, deferential but aspiring to larger things.
July plays at this Poloniusizing with the film Kramer vs Kramer:
This is too good.
And July’s website is pure July: The splash page is a simple black and white text box with the following instructions:
ENTER SECRET PASSWORD
(you know the password, just clear your mind and look within. it will probably be the first word that you think of.) (if this doesn’t work, try looking at a candle for a few seconds.)
Whatever word you enter takes you to the next page and a message in a gaudy oversized font:
YOU OBVIOUSLY KNOW WHAT I’M TALKING ABOUT.
Yeah, I do.
Maggi Hambling, another sassy candidate for “ladette” along with Tracey Emin, is an English artist whose work I follow and whose approach to art and life is refreshingly direct.
Here’s her kind of epigrammatic wit from a piece in the Guardian:
Are you healthy?
Early every morning, at least. I do a couple of knee stretches in the park while hitting a tennis ball for Lux, my Tibetan terrier. At breakfast I take a mixture of 12 pills and capsules then hope for the best.
What exercise do you take?
Passionate (but on the whole rather static) tennis, once a week.
How do you relax?
On my bed with a large whisky and Coronation Street in an effort to keep in touch with reality.
Have you ever had therapy?
Once upon a time (in 1983) I visited a famous psychiatrist, on the insistence of an insane girlfriend. He didn’t speak for three months and I left. He was a very round person, and when I told him I’d had enough he shrank into a stick insect before my eyes. At age 60, I started therapy again in the hope of coping. My lady does reply now and again, and it helps, hugely.
How much sleep do you need?
Like most people, more than I get.
Is sex important to you?
Of course. Sadly, as a Scorpio, it’s inevitable. But as fellow Scorpion Picasso said: “Art and sex are the same thing,” so I’m always at it.
Do you worry about your weight?
Constantly. And with good reason.
Attitude to smoking?
Love it, love it, love it. Gave up at 10am on 10 October 2004. Now restrict it to funerals, weddings and other disasters.
How much do you drink?
Too much and not enough.
Attitude to drugs?
Cocaine best, but hangover worst.
Are you happy?
As a manic depressive, it’s either very “yes” or very “no”.
Have you ever spent a night in hospital?
A couple in casualty: once after a wasp sting, then after an oyster. I’ve given up both.
How do you feel about cosmetic surgery?
Don’t approve, but would love some.
I swear by…
Steak tartare at The Ivy.
On the lighter side:
My friends over at MadSilence have posted about the Washington Post’s Second Annual Peeps Diorama Contest. Yup, that’s peeps as in marshmallow squishy chicken Easter candies.
To view a slide show of a number of the entries this year, here’s the link at the Washington Post.
I was intrigued by an article in the Summer 2007 issue of the MIT Sloan Management Review titled Discovering “Unk-Unks”, by John W. Mullins.
“Unk-Unks” is an engineering term that means unknown-unknowns.* Mullins, a professor at London Business School, focuses his article on entrepreneurs since he contends that the Unk Unks are the mostly likely obstacle to a startup long term success.
But it is also a concept I can use in my line of work. How does as artist go about making a list of what you can’t see and don’t yet understand? Market research conducted in the imaginal zone?
I’d rather think of the Unk Unks as a playful invitation to dance, to float freely in the nonlinear realms, to prognosticate with abandon, to envision at will, to give way to reverie, lollygagging and daydreaming.
Besides, I can’t employ a word that playful to describe portentious doom or demise. It’s the squeeze sound of a child’s stuffed animal, not a sad fate or a villain lurking just around the next corner.
* This cheery and essentially upbeat term should not be confounded with the now infamous passage from that former Dark Lord Defense Secretary, Donald Rumsfeld, spoken with a straight face at a press conference during the early days of the Iraq nightmare: “There are known knowns; there are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns; that is to say we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns — the ones we don’t know we don’t know.”