Your Brain is not the Boss

(2005)

Searching for the Why of Buy: Researchers scan for insight into how marketing may brand the brain’s preference for products and politicians” is one of those unbelievably significant stories that got buried in the Martha Stewart news last week, even though it was on LA Times‘ Page 1, Sunday edition. Science stories, especially neurology, go nowhere in contemporary America. I think they fly in the face of the fundamental philosophy that man is the master of his own destiny, or the liberal arts anti-science attitudes, and obviously play against scripture. [This is no longer so true.]  And, although various experts downplay this in the story [also no longer true], this will no doubt begin to be used as a tool by advertisers, political consultants and parties, and by the entertainment industry. Probably some religious groups as well. And that is just in this country.

20th century totalitarianism was only made possible with the rise of mass electronic media, especially radio and to a lesser extent film.  Without radio supplying the message nationwide without the possibility of answering back, and without films providing the visual to match those messages, the propaganda upon which the mass and unquestioning obedience to the totalitarian message relied would not have been possible. Certainly not to the degree necessary to create a Nazi Germany and a Soviet Union*.

Well, those days are over.  The collective human mind of a nation is no longer waiting pliantly to be shaped by messages from a speaker or the silver screen. No one is able to gain the critical mass necessary any longer to create a totalitarian regime through the mass media with all of the other outlets for dissent and contradictory information, overwhelmingly driven by the Internet.  So a new means is necessary to get inside brain, all that subliminal stuff we used to fear from blipped messages in commercials.  And, with the rise in cognitive and neurological knowledge—which is actual hard knowledge and not as much guesswork as in traditional psychology—it will soon be possible to tailor messages so that they fit neatly into our minds, into our very consciousness.  We will react as we kick when tapped on the knee with a rubber hammer.  We will connect with a product, a candidate, a leader the same way a man can’t help staring at a glimpse of a shapely thigh, or a woman reacts to the sound of a crying baby.  It will be that simple.  And it will be in but a few years.  This will remain in the realm of science fiction for maybe a few months.  And then everything changes.  Think about it: just as Al Gore (or whoever) could never have predicted that his Internet would bring down tyrannies, Marconi would never have imagined Hitler being elected after broadcasting his speeches on the radio. Edison could not have envisioned the Nazi Party employing their own newsreel crews. (Hell, the Wright Bros would never have figured on Hitler flying from campaign stop to campaign stop via airplane…also a first.  But we are off message, as they say.)

Get ready to be read, folks.  I believe it was the Firesign Theatre who said your brain is not the boss. Your brain will belong to your boss. Well, parts of it.  At least for a generation or two, until the mind evolves beyond these cheap tricks (the mind…not the brain itself; the mind seems to be able to shape itself much faster than the actual organ containing it). Do I think we’ll have a return to totalitarianism?  Or perhaps a new sort will blossom?  No…there are still too many outlets for dissent in the electronic media, mainly via the Internet. And the totalitarian movements of the first half of the twentieth century were possible only because of the sudden existence of one-sided mass media out of a world of telegraphed news stories and village gossips. But things will certainly change.  We will buy things we didn’t know our brain knows we need.  And we will vote for people we didn’t know our brain would need to vote for.  We will do all these things because we are still a subspecies of bipedal apes–homo sapien sapien–just a couple hundred thousand years in existence, and our minds, well, don’t know any better. Literally.

* see my essay Stalin on the Phone.

I flunked out of pre-Algebra

I flunked out of pre-Algebra in high school, so they had me take it in summer school where I passed with–I kid you not–a D minus. I think it was a mercy D-minus. I have an excuse, though, because whatever thought processes are used in any math beyond basic arithmetic sets off petit mal seizures and I end up out of it and nauseous. It took me years to figure this out, though. I thought I just hated math.

My IQ test results must have been interesting. I have no idea what score (or scores) I received, but I probably did well on the language stuff, and the basic arithmetic stuff, then bottomed out when it went beyond that. I remember taking an IQ test in high school. They’d herded us all into the auditorium and handed out the test sheets. I was whizzing through the language section thinking I was smart, then made it through the adding and subtracting easily enough, but then it began to get abstract and I began to get fuzzy. I never thought much about it though. Decades later the reason dawned on me one boring day at work when I started one of those online IQ tests. Those were all the rage at the time, one of the first annoying internet trends. This was years ago. As soon as it got to the more advanced questions with shapes, etc, my brain fizzed out and I felt sick. Limbs go numb, tongue heavy, and this fuzzy thickness descends and a sort of creeping nausea comes on. Ah ha, I thought to myself, and have avoided anything like that since. Can’t believe it took me thirty years to figure that out. The exact same thing used to happen to me in math class. I was a tough kid, though, not prone to complaining and figured everyone was like that too. Never imagined it meant something was wrong. My neurologist wasn’t the least bit surprised when we discussed it. It happens, he said. With epilepsy anything can happen. Some epileptics talk to God. Some have spontaneous orgasms. Me, algebra makes me sick. Not as fun, though probably less embarrassing.

I’m very leery of physics and philosophy for the same reason. I could never make head or tail out of either and I suspect it’s because trying to think like that sets off little electro-chemical firestorms in my frontal lobe which then spread to the temporal lobe and fuck shit up nicely. Maybe not, I may just not be bright enough to figure them out, but why take chances. Life sciences I’m fine with, though. Earth sciences, linguistics. My great regret in life is not pursuing a science career, but there was no way. You need math, and all I can do is simple arithmetic.

Certain kinds of modular maps will set me off too. Not long after I made the mistake of taking that IQ test I made the mistake of trying to read the stupid arty map in the Getty’s Top of the Hill garage. Hiply modular, way modular, expensively modular. A regular map just wouldn’t do, not at the Getty. I studied it for maybe fifteen seconds and suddenly I was in a haze, a little lost, and I couldn’t remember anybody’s name. My wife got us to our seats.

Anyway, I eventually learned that if trying to read anything made me feel out of it or sick, to stop reading it immediately. Took me thirty years of epilepsy to figure that out. Some writing will set me off too. It used to be a problem. Apparently over the years I’ve learned to write in ways that doesn’t set off my epilepsy. Couldn’t tell you how, but I rarely get sick writing anymore.

But I can take all the strobe lights ya got.

Executive functions

Epileptics are used to memory loss…that’s just part of the package and to be honest you don’t really notice it that much because you don’t remember what you forgot. But as I age and the brain has burned itself out from several decades of too much electro-chemical energy and seizure meds, I’ve started losing executive functions…that is, my organizational and planning abilities. And that is driving me nuts. I used to be incredibly organized. I got things done, stuck to schedules. Was always aware of what I was supposed to do. I laid out tasks to be done each day, each week, and did them. Now suddenly things I plan on doing don’t get done, and I have no idea how they didn’t get done. It is so frustrating. If we ever get on our feet again I will get a business manager or an office manager, somebody to manage my affairs. And anyone that has known me a long, long time–and certainly anyone that used to work with me–can see the irony in that statement.

The good thing is that there is no loss in smarts or creativity. Hell, I’m a better writer than I ever was. If I could I’d write all day long. That I can do. I just can’t plan things very well.

I get asked about writing a book all the time. Well….you have to plan a book. Those long narratives just don’t happen. I could put together a helluva collection, though. In fact, I’ve been planning to for ages. But that is something else that hasn’t gotten done.

This is just ridiculous.

My wife, of course, lost much of her executive functions in 2008 when her heart stopped for five minutes. She’s back, smart as hell, funny as ever, but she can’t plan worth a damn either. In sickness as in health, man, in amnesia as in confusion. That’s us. The perfect couple. Which we are, actually.

Oh well. Life’s trajectory can be odd. If I’ve flaked on any of you lately, this is why.

p.s.: I completely forgot I’d written about this already. Now that is funny.

Tuesday something

(written a couple years ago….)

It’s Friday morning, and here’s the old people medical news, plus a ten pen cent discount. Good article in AARP magazine about the meds you take and why you can’t remember anything. Luckily for me both my anti-seizure drugs (that sounds much nicer than anti-convulsants) are listed so now I have twice the excuse for not remembering your name or what I promised or where I am. Plus the good thing is that I have twice the excuse for not remembering your name or what I promised or where I am. And here’s an article about the meds you take and why you can’t remember anything. Thank god it’s Thursday. Or Tuesday. Though it doesn’t look like Belgium. Or Weld, for that matter. And I read somewhere that some meds affect your memory.

I was going to say something.

Memory! That’s it. And you thought I couldn’t remember anything.

Tuesday Weld, looking like she forgot something.

Tuesday Weld, looking like she forgot something.

Ruminating over brain damage and other fun things on a Memorial Day weekend‏

(2008)

Fighting off a bug this weekend and catching up on my reading. So I’ve been going through a big stack of cognitive/neurology newsletters I get…why I get them I don’t recall. Brain in the News. Interesting stuff, though, all kinds of articles. There’s a lot of talk about brain injuries suffered by Iraqi veterans (this was 2008), particularly due to concussions caused by roadside bombs. Not much good news. Very profound after effects with a lot of changes in memory, skills and most fascinatingly behavior–victims can get quite nasty, vile and dangerous even. Scary. It is astounding how much damage can be caused to the brain by concussion alone.  Which got me to thinking….

I wonder during the First World War, especially on the Western Front, just how many concussions were inflicted upon the soldiers who were subjected to all that shell fire?  Millions of shells were fired. Hundreds of millions*. Falling in a very small area, upon enormous numbers of men, for four years. Even accounting for all the duds and the non-explosive gas shells, that is an incredible amount of explosions in a small area upon a lot of guys over a long period of time. Who knows how many of those soldiers were concussed, and how often? There must have been, then, enormous numbers of men in postwar Europe who suffered from the after effects. So……….did those after-effects collectively have an effect on post war Europe? Did those hundreds of thousands–maybe millions–of concussed soldiers with all those classic symptoms of paranoia and hostility and rage and depression and confusion—were they in numbers sufficient enough to actually alter the social and political atmosphere of societies and nations in the post-war years? Pre-war and post-war Europe were much different places. Post-WW1 Europe was much more violent, rent by extremism and sociopathic political movements. And I wonder if any of that mass brain damage among the men of Europe in the twenties and thirties somehow made Nazism possible? Would normal people ever have fallen for it? Hell, was Hitler himself a victim of post-concussion effects…is that what made him so evil?  He spent time in the trenches, exposed, and was nearly blown to hell a couple times. A lucky bastard….but did he suffer after effects?

Just an idea. But the Europe of 1918 to 1945…man, that is one inexplicably berzerk place.

Another horrible phenomenon that fascinates me is all these incredibly violent ‘armies’ of boys in Africa. They seem to be raised from the masses of orphans left by AIDS. There must be tens of millions of orphans in Sub-Saharan Africa, and in many places so many adults have died or are dying that the social structure is simply not capable of taking care of them. Hence sociopaths collect them, Manson-like, into armies and as they’re just kids they make ideal killers. Of course, HIV is becoming less lethal as the more virulent versions kill their hosts and like malaria soon it’ll just incapacitate but leave the hosts capable of bearing and raising children. The supply of AIDS orphans will drop, and those armies will disappear. Funny how that happens.

It’s interesting that the Spanish flu pandemic had a mortality demographic somewhat similar to AIDS in that it killed almost exclusively people in the 18 to 35 year range (roughly..I can’t remember the exact age range but it was young adults. The reason for this, incidentally, is that people above that age and kids below hat age had a resistance they’d developed after being subjected to a flu strain that the vulnerable group in between missed…and perhaps missed because of a strain of flu they had as children.) The flu killed tens of millions in Europe in 1918-19. I am guessing, then, that it left millions of orphans, especially combined with so many fathers having been killed in the war. It’d be interesting to see how many young Nazis in the early thirties were orphans, if the incidence was higher.

Anyway, a little something to ponder on Memorial Day I guess.  War and it’s leftovers seem to linger long after the shooting stops.

Notes: Continue reading

Verbs not adjectives

[This was an email from 2010 that attempted to explain what I had drunkenly been describing to a friend at one of our parties. I failed. But she was terribly nice about it. I found the email later, turned it into a blog post. Then I realized I hadn’t discussed metaphors at all–which I always advise to use sparingly because the reading brain tends to trip over them–and worse yet, couldn’t discuss them. So I decided to do more reading up on metaphors. Now, reading this again, I don’t see why I thought this piece failed, as it works fine without the metaphor discussion. Whatever. This is what happens when college drop outs try to think like smart people.]

Ya know, L., I just remembered we were talking at that party about my verbs-instead-of-adjectives thing. Here’s the LA Weekly piece I was describing:

Lockjaw and Prez made him pick up the saxophone. This was New Orleans. There was a teenaged “Iko, IKo”, the very first. By ’63 he’s in L.A., playing Marty’s every night, and players—Sonny Rollins, everybody—dropping by, sitting in. Steady work with Basie and the Juggernaut and Blue Mitchell. Twenty years with Jimmy Smith. A million sessions for Motown and Stax, and first call for a slew of singers—that’s where you refine those ballad skills, with singers. Live he slips into “In A Sentimental Mood” and everything around you dissolves. There’s just his sound, rich, big, full of history, a little bitter, maybe, blowing Crescent City air. He gets inside the very essence of that tune, those melancholy ascending notes, till it fades, pads closing, in a long, drawn out sigh. You swear it’s the most beautiful thing you’ve ever heard, that song, that sound, and you tell him so. He shrugs. “It’s a lifetime of experience” he says, then calls out some Monk and is gone.*

How that piece happened was I asked to do a pick on an upcoming Herman Riley gig at Charlie O’s. He was one of the great tenor saxophonists and yet a virtual unknown. I called him up for a few comments before writing. He spilled for a half hour, his whole life. It was overwhelming. I didn’t dare cut him off. He was one of my heroes. So I just dashed off some notes and then pulled them together. I had 200 words, tops, to work with.  I probably had 400 words first draft. Kept winnowing. Reducing.  Down to the verbs. It’s nearly all verbs, action. I had a real good friend at work I used to instant message all the time, and I became fascinated with how language was used in our messages. By how brief a message could be if reduced to the verbs, and how much of an impact it would have. It could be quite visceral. I was doing a lot of heavy thinking about neurolinguistics then, how language works mechanically in the brain. It seemed to me that action was much more effective than description, and could get across the same info. Furthermore, when you used verbs instead of actions, the brain—by means of mirror neurons—automatically pictures what is being described without any necessary descriptive context—it somehow fills all that  in. That means that virtually no description is needed beyond bare hints. I never say where it is I am seeing him play here, even though that is based upon an actual event (a Charlie O’s gig I had just seen.) But even so, invariably the response from readers was “I felt like I was there”. Where exactly? It doesn’t matter. All that matters is the action.

The brain is more powerfully affected by action than anything else in language. It sees something or even reads about something and the exact same neurons that are used to actually perform the action are stimulated. I just picked up a glass of water. In your mind the exact same neurons that you would use to pick up a glass of water fired off as if they were picking up a glass of water and not me writing that I had. No matter…whether you do it, watch it, or read about it, the effect is the same. And that is why narratives that are based on action instead of description, that describe movement, things take place in time, are so powerful. **

That being said, you have to think about perspective, and not from the point of view of the writer but of the reader. I believe it works this way: if you describe something in first person the reader’s mind has to visualize the action, then interpret it into you taking the action, and then interpreting that action as if they were doing it themselves, and then imagining you doing so, etc, etc. That’s a lot of steps. Third person works the same way pretty much.  Second person, in English, anyway, is impossible to pull off—you do this, you do that, etc. Very cumbersome. Our language is not grammatically designed to pull that off easily (but that’s another lecture….) So I use an implied second person. Everything I do is first person, but I remove myself (by not using the first person pronoun much) and let the reader get the feeling that it is actually he that is doing/seeing/hearing what I describe. Again, this shortens the steps necessary for the brain to interpret what it is reading into understanding.  I’ve noticed that the fewer steps required the faster the language is retrieved by the brain and the more powerful the impact. And good writing is all about impact. You want to move people, you have to increase the visceral impact of the prose. And to do that you need to think about how it is that the brain turns the words you right into thoughts it can visualize. It’s verbs, baby.

The brain is designed for verbs. It sees in verbs. It has instantaneous perception in verbs. Adjectives take extra thinking. You don’t want extra thinking. You want your words to turn themselves into those units of perception that lay beneath language, that existed before language, and you want that process to occur as quickly as possible. Think of porn. The sexual excitement people get viewing it is not literary. It’s older than that. As is love. And just about anything else important. I mean the hell with language. You have to get beneath it. You have to aim for the centers beyond the brain’s language centers, because that is where the feeling is. That is where you move people. And the most direct way to get there is action, verbs.

It interesting to note that vision was initially a matter of detecting motion, indeed a matter of detecting the change in light. If a primitive animal was hiding and suddenly all was light, it meant something might have exposed it in order to eat it. Or if the light suddenly changed to dark, it meant something blocking the light might be there to eat it. This implies movement. Go forward half a billion years or so and amphibians detect movement and not much else. You can see this in a frog to this day. A fly sits on a leave three inches from the frog, the frog can’t see it.  The fly takes flight and zap, it’s the frog’s lunch. Reptiles can see more than amphibians. Mammals more still ***. But the fundamental basis of recognition remains movement.

Adjectives reflect a much more sophisticated vision and awareness of what is being seen. Adjectives require observation and analysis. There is no equivalent of mirror neurons for the kind of information adjectives describe. You watch a tennis player serve the ball, the mirror neurons fire in exactly the same way in your brain as they do in the tennis player’s brain even though you are not actually moving. They reflect the motion. But the neurons that fire to let you know that you are seeing a tennis player with red hair, a blue shirt and a green tennis ball, they do not fire in the same way the tennis player’s does. The only automatic understanding of what you see is the parts of the brain that detect motion, that is action. Those have been firing off in brains for hundreds of millions of years. They are part of the fundamental infrastructure of the brain, much as the hypothalamus deep in the temporal lobe controls the fundamental 4 F’s (feeding, fighting, fleeing and mating) of human and mammalian behavior, and reptilian and amphibian and fish behavior****. That is, going back over half a billion years (though way back when it was not necessarily a hypothalamus per se in other animals, I believe, but the things that evolved into our own hypothalamus). Mirror neurons are also an ancient part of the brain. Information relayed through mirror neurons is understood instantly by the brain. Whatever you write that fires them off will be much more quickly and powerfully–indeed viscerally–responded to by the reader. In fact, you have only to give the absolute barest amount of descriptive detail, since the brain seems to automatically fill that in. If you say you walk into a room and sit in a chair, the reader’s brain automatically seems to provide all the details it needs to understand the scene. The reader gets that “it feels like I’m there” feeling. And nothing gets a response from readers more than prose that makes them feel as if they are part of the action. Makes them feel they are the one actually walking into the room and sitting in a chair. Or sitting in a bar and seeing and hearing a saxophone player.

Plus you should spell good.

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Notes: Continue reading