Author Archives: Sam Cooney

About Sam Cooney

Distributor of cordless microwave ovens. Manic leg-crosser. Harbinger of the future. Has Batman complex, will travel.

mirror, mirror (neurons) on the wall

Below is an excerpt from the introduction chapter in Such Stuff as Dreams: The Psychology of Fiction by Keith Oatley:

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Representation of models in the brain

In 1996 a group of researchers led by Giacomo Rizzolatti made a discovery that set the world of neuroscience abuzz. It was of neurons that fired either when a monkey saw a particular intended action – picking up a small piece of food – or when the monkey itself performed the same action. The researchers called these mirror neurons. They provided evidence for a principle that had long been considered in the psychology of perception, called analysis by synthesis. The idea was that when we perceive some human – produced action, we do so by being able to synthesize the same action ourselves. The importance for reading and understanding of stories is that, perhaps, when we understand an action as we read about it in a novel, our understanding depends on making a version of the action ourselves, inwardly.

One cannot directly record the activity of mirror neurons in human participants; it would be totally inappropriate to implant electrodes in people’s brains. So, to study this possibility in humans, researchers have created what computer people call work-arounds. One work-around is to use functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI), with which it has been found that when participants observed or read phrases relating to foot, hand, or mouth actions, there was activation of the regions of the brain that are used in making these same actions: A different kind of work-around has been to use a method called transcranial magnetic stimulation. Here, parts of the brain known to be directly responsible for initiating actions are stimulated briefly and gently (from outside the skulls of humans). For instance, the researchers stimulated the part of the brain responsible for making hand movements and when they did so they could record electrical activity of the muscles of the hand. They did the same for foot movements. What would happen now, the researchers asked, if the human participants were stimulated in this way and at the same time were asked to listen to a brief sentence that concerned making either a movement of the hand such as “He played the piano” or of the foot such as “He kicked the ball?” They found that when participants listened to sentences concerning hand movements, the electrical activity recorded in the hand muscles in response to the transcranial stimulation was reduced. This reduction did not occur when participants listened to sentences about foot movements or sentences that did not indicate movement. Similarly, when listening to sentences about foot movements, the stimulation-elicited electrical activity in the foot muscles was reduced as compared to the activity that occurred when listening to sentences about the hand or to sentences that were not about movement. The explanation of the reduction of electrical activity in the hand or foot muscles in response to the stimulation was that the parts of the brain concerned with initiating hand or foot movements were already occupied with understanding the sentences that concerned those movements.

Putting this another way, what these researchers found was that when we understand a sentence, as well as activation of the areas of the brain concerned with hearing and language there is also activation in the areas concerned with making the same actions ourselves.

The researchers interpret their findings in terms of mirror neurons. Recognition of an action in the imagination when we hear or read about it involves brain systems responsible for initiating that action.

In recent experiments, Nicole Speer and her colleagues had participants read whole short stories while they were in an fMRI scanner. When readers were engaged in a story, the researchers found that, at the points in which the story said a protagonist undertook an action, activation of the brain occurred in the part which the reader himself or herself would use to undertake the action. So, when the story-protagonist pulled a light cord, a region in the frontal lobes of the reader’s brain associated with grasping things was activated. When the protagonist “went through the front door into the kitchen, ”there was increased activity in a region that is activated when the reader views spatial scenes. The writer gives the cues, and the reader imagines a door, or imagines entering a room and seeing what it might be like. As I do, in this book, the researchers in this study describe reading as a process of simulation, based in experience, and involving being able to think of possible futures. These experiments indicate that, based on their experience, readers construct an active mental model of what is going on in the story, and can also imagine what might happen next.

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Such Stuff as Dreams: The Psychology of Fiction

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wha tdoe si tfee llik et ofl yove rplane teart h?

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sentences

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An artist and musician named Amy Winehouse died a few weeks ago.

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Since then there has been quite a bit of noise about it. These are the words that seem to crop up most often: drugs, music, alcohol, death, cure, habit, shame, pity, talent, genius, addict, clean, rehab, therapy, media, pain, attention, scrutiny, suicide.

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Winehouse created songs and performed them, songs that really struck at people. She also had a penchant for addictive substances, and struggled to achieve an inner mental balance.

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One of Winehouse’s most lionised tunes is called ‘Rehab’. For all intents and purposes this song has been deemed and actually seems to be markedly autobiographical with its references to drugs, dependence and death.

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They tried to make me go to rehab but I said ‘no, no, no’
Yes I’ve been black but when I come back you’ll know know know
I ain’t got the time and if my daddy thinks I’m fine
He’s tried to make me go to rehab but I won’t go go go

I’d rather be at home with ray
I ain’t got seventy days
Cause there’s nothing
There’s nothing you can teach me
That I can’t learn from Mr Hathaway

I didn’t get a lot in class
But I know it don’t come in a shot glass

They tried to make me go to rehab but I said ‘no, no, no’
Yes I’ve been black but when I come back you’ll know know know
I ain’t got the time and if my daddy thinks I’m fine
He’s tried to make me go to rehab but I won’t go go go

The man said ‘why do you think you here’
I said ‘I got no idea
I’m gonna, I’m gonna lose my baby
so I always keep a bottle near’
He said ‘I just think you’re depressed,
this me, yeah baby, and the rest’

They tried to make me go to rehab but I said ‘no, no, no’
Yes I’ve been black but when I come back you’ll know know know

I don’t ever wanna drink again
I just ooh I just need a friend
I’m not gonna spend ten weeks
have everyone think I’m on the mend

It’s not just my pride
It’s just ’til these tears have dried

They tried to make me go to rehab but I said ‘no, no, no’
Yes I’ve been black but when I come back you’ll know know know
I ain’t got the time and if my daddy thinks I’m fine
He’s tried to make me go to rehab but I won’t go go go 

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Winehouse passed away by herself, in her apartment, in her bed.

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An artist and musician named Elliott Smith died in October 2003.

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In the years since the same words that have been used to sketch Winehouse, mentioned above, have been used in just about any dialogue about Smith. Drugs, music, alcohol, death, cure, habit, shame, pity, talent, genius, addict, clean, rehab, therapy, media, pain, attention, scrutiny, suicide.

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Smith created songs and performed them, songs that really struck at people. He also had a penchant for addictive substances, and struggled to achieve an inner mental balance.

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My favourite Smith tune is called ‘King’s Crossing’. For all intents and purposes this song has been deemed and actually seems to be markedly autobiographical with its references to drugs, dependence and death.

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The king’s crossing was the main attraction
Dominoes falling in a chain reaction
A scraping subject ruled by fear
Told me whiskey works better than beer
The judge is on vinyl, decisions are final
And nobody gets a reprieve
And every wave is tidal – if you hang around
You’re going to get wet
I can’t prepare for death any more than I already have
All you can do now is watch the shells
The game looks easy, that’s why it sells
Frustrated fireworks inside your head
Are going to stand and deliver talk instead
The method acting that pays my bills
Keeps a fat man feeding in Beverly Hills
I got a heavy metal mouth that hurls obscenity
And I get my check in from the trash treasury
Because I took my own insides out
It don’t matter ‘cos I have no sex life
And all I want to do now is inject my ex-wife
I’ve seen the movie and I know what happens
It’s Christmas time, and the needles on the tree
A skinny Santa is bringing something to me
His voice is overwhelming, but his speech is slurred
And I only understand every other word
Open your parachute and grab your gun
Fall down like an omen, a setting sun
Read the part and return at five
It’s a hell of a role if you can keep it alive
But I don’t care if I fuck up
I’m going on a date with a rich white lady
Ain’t life great?
Give me one good reason not to do it
(Because I love you)
So do it
This is the place where time reverses
Dead men talk to all the pretty nurses
Instruments shine on a silver tray
Don’t let me get carried away
Don’t let me get carried away
Don’t let me be carried away

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Smith passed away by himself, in his house, by stabbing himself in the chest with a kitchen knife. His girlfriend was in the shower.

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In probably his most well-known work, a book titled Suicide, Émile Durkheim wrote, “Not every suicide can therefore be considered insane, without doing violence to language.”

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Language is, for want of a better phrase, the best thing in this world. It is the bridge, the river, and the space in between. Both Winehouse and Smith were fluent in the language of music. Smith was also gifted in the language of words – evidence of this can be seen in the lyrics above, with its layers and its phrasing and its stark naked vernacular.

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It might be possible to do violence to language, but language cannot ever be entirely killed, and this fact is an affirmation of everything quotidian.

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a tale of clothes swapping and more (ft. David Foster Wallace)

click to engorge

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neurasthenics are always underdoing sad and arduous calisthenics of the brain, but they shouldn’t worry!

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“If in fact, as we have shown, neurasthenia may predispose to suicide, it has no such necessary result. To be sure, the neurasthenic is almost inevitably destined to suffer if he is thrust overmuch into active life; but it is not impossible for him to withdraw from it in order to lead a more contemplative existence. If then the conflicts of interests and passions are too tumultuous and violent for such a delicate organism, he nevertheless has the capacity to taste fully the rarest pleasures of thought. Both his muscular weakness and his excessive sensitivity, though they disqualify him for action, qualify him for intellectual functions, which themselves demand appropriate organs. Likewise, if too rigid a social environment can only irritate his natural instincts, he has a useful role to play to the extent that society itself is mobile and can persist only through progress; for he is superlatively the instrument of progress. Precisely because he rebels against tradition and the yoke of custom, he is a highly fertile source of innovation. And as the most cultivated societies are also those where representative functions are the most necessary and most developed, and since, at the same time, because of their very great complexity, their existence is conditional upon almost constant change, neurasthenics have most reason for existence precisely when they are the most numerous. They are therefore not essentially a-social types, self-eliminating because not born to live in the environment in which they are put down.”

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—from Émile Durkheim’s Suicide: A study in sociology

(Translated by John A. Spaulding and George Simpson)

…illegally download an illegal torrent of some Durkheim’s books here, if you want to be illegal.

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Werner Herzog is such a smart aleck!

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The collapse of the stellar universe will occur—like creation—in grandiose splendor.

—Blaise Pascal

“The words attributed to Blaise Pascal which preface my film Lessons of Darkness are in fact by me. Pascal himself could not have said it better.

This falsified and yet, as I will later demonstrate, not falsified quotation should serve as a first hint of what I am trying to deal with in this discourse. Anyway, to acknowledge a fake as fake contributes only to the triumph of accountants.

Why am I doing this, you might ask? The reason is simple and comes not from theoretical, but rather from practical, considerations. With this quotation as a prefix I elevate [erheben] the spectator, before he has even seen the first frame, to a high level, from which to enter the film. And I, the author of the film, do not let him descend from this height until it is over. Only in this state of sublimity [Erhabenheit] does something deeper become possible, a kind of truth that is the enemy of the merely factual. Ecstatic truth, I call it.”

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—The rest is here.

 

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a poem by John Forbes intittled ‘Antipodean Heads’

I wish we could be nicer
like the Americans

instead we are caught
halfway between

a European sense of style
you can always be at home in

& the Aborigines’ knack
of passing the time—they know

that nothing matters too much
between now & forever, unlike

the industrious American
who looks around & sees

that Fate applies her chisel
to his own particular face

so when he stares back at Her
he’s warm & essential

not reaching for a quip or a flagon
because he knows these things
are part of what he is

the way a mountain
is carved with the heads
of his Presidents

& we are left to wonder
what shape another 200 years

will leave Ayers Rock in.

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