Literary Darwinism

March 28, 2011 § Leave a comment

The latest public discussion about the fate of literary criticism features The Literary Darwinists. With articles appearing in The Boston Globe, The Chronicle, The Nation and elsewhere, there’s a certain buzz. Literary Darwinists are reacting to the rather pitiful — and undisputed — state in which literary criticism finds itself. Particularly within the academy, literary studies is floundering as a discipline without a clear sense of how to move forward. A good deal of what’s written is such convoluted nonsense that reading it amounts to self punishment.

Ouch! Kind of related to my last post.  Read Morgan Meis’ piece here.


March 28, 2011 § Leave a comment

I suspect that the reason there is so little criticism of the bizarre attempts to marry literary and other arts to neuroscience, biology, and the rest, is because the research itself is often so naively and ignorantly based, and more importantly because the jumping about between different logical levels, or between discourses, seems either deliberately disguised or, more probably, a manifestation of  pervading naive ignorance. Certainly, approached precisely and with knowledge, some research does support a small but valid substratum of neurosychology and neurophilosophy in general, and we give this specialised field the name of neuroaesthetics. Generally, however, the wild and nonsensical claims made are possibly even more absurd than the heavily funded mish mash of fragments that led to programmes associated with “emotional intelligence”. Funnily enough, reading “literature” was/still is claimed to be a contributor to this meaningless virtue, as well as being a training in cognitive style, learning to concentrate (remember “minfulness”?)  and most triumphantly of all to inculcate something called moral development. I   recently received a flyer for a conference about “reading and wellbeing. Its most startling claim was that it has now been proved that reading “serious and classic literature” helps people recover from depression. I eagerly went to the link provided. Two separate groups of depressed people read together over a year, and this included reading aloud. At the end of the year most improved that their depression had lifted to some degree.  It’s not worth going into the nine or ten basic methodological and statistical areas. What’s more important is the breathtaking idiocy of claiming that a study such as this offers “proof”: there has never been a long term scientific study of empirical data that claims “proof” for its findings. The usual scientific method is to raise problems with claims, to dispute, to aim to discover how even the most widely held beliefs in the scientific communities are always tentative. But this is – or should be – ABC stuff. What is more alarming is that words such as “depression” or “wellbeing” represent transparent concepts whose meaning is clear. Even “reading”, surely, is a many-levelled, multidimensional complex activity.

In coming posts I will be looking at some of the conceptual muddles around “depression” (with a simple and limited aim of suggesting that there are many, many feeling states that may be “labelled” as depression — just as, and this is a refraction of how language works, there are many states that come under the word “love”).

As for a concept like “wellbeing”: I’m currently reading The Tears that made the Clyde by Carol Craig. Dr Craig is Executive Director of the Centre for Confidence and Well-being, and very much believes in the powers of helping individuals towards greater autonomy and happiness. However, her book – beautifully resting upon literary references throughout – is a plea to focus upon the historical, economic, cultural factor’s of Glasgow’s position as at once a ‘city of cool’ and a city of the most dreadful inequalities, human misery and illness. The “Glasgow effect” has baffled researchers: in the foreword to the book, Professor T.M.Devine writes that “numerous and imaginative” intervetions into such factors as life expectancy, incapacity, alcohol and drug addiction and obesity have had “little better than partial and limited” positive results. I think perhaps that the numerous interventions into ill-being throughout the UK will show, do show, very good outcomes for some individuals and demographic sectors, but for many – the most deprived/vulnerable/disdvantaged (and all such abstract concepts being shifted between pilcy makers’ desks)- , the beginning of the beginning of understanding the root problems is to acknowledge the historical and political (in the broadest sense which includes economic distribution, and, perhaps as importantly, the regulation of cultural representation) dimensions of those who suffer most.

It may be that – and no small costs are involved – the “official” interventions into ill-being, those from government services, education, liberal media, the bigger charities and foundations are, while being far from useless in helping those in need of help today, perhaps unwittingly the central dynamo of a hegemony which perpetuates a continuing lack of focus upon the structural bases of deprivation.

I’ve been an avid reader all my life and love it; I’ve also enjoyed reading and writing) groups. I’ve seen people flourish in them. In an organisation where I currently work, far more people flourish with outward bound activities, drama, yoga, football. Horticulture is popular in organisations that help people with mental health problems, so too photography, music, singing, dance, art. Most of these activities involve mixing with other people, all of them help transcend the quotidian and utilitarian. They are fun, they give pleasure. I don’t think they need to claim miracles for their efficacy or funding applications. Extraordinarily difficult as it would be anyway to even begin a properly rigorous research project into how an activity may improve me emotionally, cognitively and morally, I find the very idea offensive. I have a serious and enduring mental health problem (and as it happens, I fall into several categories of economic and employment disadvantage), but I’m not daft.

Greco-Roman Therapeutic Wisdom

March 23, 2011 § Leave a comment


I’d recommend two sites which look at classical philosophy in relation to “wellbeing” (a concept which now means almost anything, hence nothing, but since everything includes what I’m writing about here, it will do as a shorthand).

One is by psychiatrist and philosopher Neel Burton, at Outre monde. He’s written a well reviewed introduction to classical philosophy (which I haven’t read yet), as well as several books dealing with mental health. Although the entries on classical thought are not overtly linked to ‘mental health’, I think that their subject matter which relates to human nature reminds us of a time before medicalisation. There are many posts too specific to psychiatry and its history.

The second is by journalist and writer Jules Evans, The Politics of Wellbeing. I’ve recently discovered this very good site and signed up for a weekly newsletter. Jules Evans writes: I’m a British journalist and writer who writes about philosophy, psychology, politics and culture. I’m also a visiting researcher at the Centre for the History of Emotions at Queen Mary University. You can find out more about me, and read some of my articles, at I believe that Greco-Roman philosophy is an immensely rich but neglected source of therapeutic and spiritual wisdom. I want to help increase public awareness of it, helping to introduce it into schools, promoting scientific research on it, organizing events about it, and writing about it, as well as trying (haphazardly) to practice it in my own life.

Psychiatrist as Flaneur?

March 18, 2011 § Leave a comment

Recent wanderings into and around speculation upon the places of the mind and feeling have encountered Sebald, Melville and the whole set of museum pieces such as “Debord”, “Benjamin”, “De Quincey”. This would be the Museum of Psychogeography, the latter word a meaningless catachresis that nevertheless circulates as does dust. Metaphors of mind and feeling, cities of God and Man, skies of gloom and dreadful nights are the “territory” of wandering, both an abstract fashion statement and the possibilities afforded by the power of a truly startling metaphor (which, after its birth can never be repeated to the same frame of experience: as Kierkegaard pointed out, the only true repetition possible is the repeated failure to repeat). Well, anyway.

Neil Scheurich has a post called…

The Psychiatrist as Flaneur

He refers to The New Yorker review of Teju Cole’s first novel, “Open City” (Random House), a novel that:

…. does move in the shadow of W. G. Sebald’s work. While “Open City” has nominally separate chapters, it has the form and atmosphere of a text written in a single, unbroken paragraph: though people speak and occasionally converse, this speech is not marked by quotation marks, dashes, or paragraph breaks and is formally indistinguishable from the narrator’s own language. As in Sebald, what moves the prose forward is not event or contrivance but a steady, accidental inquiry, a firm pressurelessness (which is to say, what moves the prose forward is the prose—the desire to write, to defeat solitude by writing). The first few pages of “Open City” are intensely Sebaldian, with something of his sly faux antiquarianism. On the first page, the narrator tells us that he started to go on evening walks “last fall,” and found his neighborhood, Morningside Heights, “an easy place from which to set out into the city”; indeed, these walks “steadily lengthened, taking me farther and farther afield each time, so that I often found myself at quite a distance from home late at night, and was compelled to return home by subway.”

The protagonist is a young psychiatrist, half-German and half-Nigerian, encountering multiracial New York. Scheurich, in his comment, says that while the novel is not about psychiatry per se (“convincing because he is first and foremost a human being, and only secondly a shrink;  he is not defined by his profession.  Indeed, he mentions his work only in passing, although with compelling insight.”), the straddling of the normal and abnormal, as Scheurich puts it),  does throw light on psychiatric practice. Scheurich quotes:
On that day, with these thoughts of Signs and simpling in mind, I had tried to give my friend an account of my evolving view of psychiatric practice.  I told him that I viewed each patient as a dark room, and that, going into that room, in a session with the patient, I considered it essential to be slow and deliberate.  Doing no harm, the most ancient of medical tenets, was on my mind all the time.  There is more light to work with in externally visible illnesses; the Signs are more forcefully expressed, and therefore harder to miss.  For the troubles of the mind, diagnosis is a trickier art, because even the strongest symptoms are sometimes not visible.  It is especially elusive because the source of our information about the mind is itself the mind, and the mind is able to deceive itself.  As physicians, I said to my friend, we depend, to a much greater degree than is the case with nonmental conditions, on what the patient tells us.  But what are we to do when the lens through which the symptoms are viewed is often, itself, symptomatic: the mind is opaque to itself, and it’s hard to tell where, precisely, these areas of opacity are.  Ophthalmic science describes an area at the back of the bulb of the eye, the optic disk, where the million or so ganglia of the optic nerve exit the eye.  It is precisely there, where too many of the neurons associated with vision are clustered, that the vision goes dead.  For so long, I recall explaining to my friend that day, I have felt that most of the work of psychiatrists in particular, and mental health professionals in general, was a blind spot so broad that it had taken over most of the eye.  What we knew, I said to him, was so much less than what remained in darkness, and in this great limitation lay the appeal and frustration of the profession.

Neuromania and Descartes’ Error

March 6, 2011 § Leave a comment

Raymond Tallis has an interesting review in The New Statesman of two new books, by Nicholas Humphrey and Antonio Damasio. Since Tallis’ forthcoming book is entitled Aping Mankind: Neuromania, Darwinitis and the Misrepresentation of Humanity one imagines correctly that he is no fan of what he refers to as:

. . .the coupling of neuromania and Darwinitis (which) has given birth to emerging disciplines based on neuro-evolutionary approaches to human psychology, economics, social science, literary criticism, aesthetics, theology and the law.

These pseudo-disciplines are flourishing in academe and are covered extensively in the popular press, in articles usually accompanied by a brain scan (described by the writer Matt Crawford as a “fast-acting solvent of critical faculties”). Only last month, David Brooks asserted in the New Yorker that “brain science helps fill the hole left by the atrophy of theology and philosophy”.

Tallis is not only a widely experienced clinician but also a neuroscientist himself and, more to the point, immersed in literary and philosophical discourses. His review represents that strand of opposition to the current assorted ‘manias’ for this or that quasiphilosophical ideology that either explictly or implicitly dispenses with such messy complexities as culture, human nature (or, at least, the denial of such an entity), aesthetics, history (in the very broad sense), and almost everything we used to talk about without a single reference to a neuron). Personally, I think that to the extent that such reductionist discourses exist is no more than a contemporary manifestation of the will to explain everything with one sweeping theory (something not peculiar to only religion), and the vacillation between nihilism and eternalism/utopianism: the latter sees within the brain sciences its own oppositions with those who wish to embody brain and mind within the evolved biology of the animal as a whole, against those who annihilate the body from consideration at all,  focus on a free-floating ‘mind’ (earlier centuries gave us the free-floating soul which is entirely separate ‘stuff’ than the merely human body and mind; now we have the urge to unite AI with the genius  freed from blood, sweat, tears, suffering, pain, love, comradeship, sacrifice – it’s a form of prayer, a mysticism).

Personally, I like Damasio, and having read a fair bit by him, forgive his clumsiness at times. He is a lucid explainer of brain anatomy and function, and since I have an interest in the ’embodied mind’ (Lakoff and Johnson), the ‘extended mind’ (Chambers et al) and ‘the literary mind’ (Mark Turner), Damasio’s emphasis upon the unity of body and brain and mind, and the restoring to a cenntral place of feelings and emotions, I find much in his ‘philosophy’ to be consistent with my own. Besides, since we would each have to be extraordinarily naive not to recognise that we each adhere to implicit ways of seeing, ways of being, ways of organising thoughts, all of them learned from the deep undertows of cultural history, we would be equally naive to reject a writer or thinker whose underlying schemata differed from our own. In fact we should expect more often than not such differences.

Reading Descartes’ Error just now, it would be  routine for an average undergraduate to present several objections to some of the premises and conclusions, to highlight some of the confused thinking. I do think, however, that this book represents a welcome introduction to new ways of thinking about neuroscience and the human situation, and it’s withstood the test of time despite attracting so much criticism.

Head in the Clouds

February 14, 2011 § Leave a comment

Last year I bought a lovely little pocket book from he UK Meteorological Office about cloud identification and some of the weather that goes with them. It’s a peaceful and calming ‘hobby’, watching the clouds go by; it has its uses too because I’ve gained a rudimentary understanding of what weather may be imminent and that’s a bonus for a keen photographer. Of course, the clouds I see never look exactly like the pictures in the book, but then again birds I spy rarely oblige by looking exactly like their representational images in guidebooks.

The image above is taken from a nice article in The Boston Globe about attempts to control clouds and the weather.

There’s something deeply and perennially appealing about the idea of controlling the weather, about deciding where rain should fall and when the sun should shine. But failing at it has been just as persistent a thread in the human experience. In a new book called “Fixing the Sky: The Checkered History of Weather and Climate Control,” Colby College historian of science James Rodger Fleming catalogs all the dreamers, fools, and pseudo-scientists who have devoted their lives to weather modification, tracing the delusions they shared and their remarkable range of motivations. Some wanted to create technology that would be of use to farmers, so that they would no longer have to operate at the mercy of unpredictable droughts. Others imagined scenarios in which the weather could be weaponized and used against foreign enemies. Still others had visions of utopia in which the world’s deserts were made fertile and every child was fed.

Perhaps you can see where I’m going here? Visions of social utopia by managing human behaviour, managing human brain chemistry; therapeutic interventions to individual “weather” systems of mood and feeling and thought?

You’d think, given mankind’s record of unflappable ingenuity, we would have had weather figured out by now. But after decades of dedicated experimentation and untold millions of dollars invested, the world is still dealing with droughts, floods, and 18-foot urban snowbanks. What is making this so difficult? Why is it that the best we can do when we learn of an approaching snowstorm is brace ourselves and hope our street gets properly plowed?

The problem is that weather conditions in any given place at any given time are a function of far too many independent, interacting variables. Whether it’s raining or snowing is never determined by any one overpowering force in the atmosphere: It’s always a complicated and unpredictable combination of many. Until we have the capability to micromanage the whole system, we will not be calling any shots.

The neatness of mathematics we may secretly aspire to in controlling the weather seems doomed to failure. Complex systems are, well, complex. A good introduction to complexity theory I read some years ago by M.Mitchell Waldrop is accessible and invigorating. As far as we know, save the universe itself, there is nothing so complex as the human brain. The most advanced computer has not reached the stage of an autonomous amoeba. The brain is, of course, necessary for mind, but mind is extended into its relationship with the environment, most especially the social environment where the complexity of an individual mind is but a drop in the ocean of “Mind”. Your mind and my mind have no inside or outside: for some purposes we may say that the drop contains the ocean, for others that the ocean contains the drop.

Our ‘neat’ division of such conventional “entities” as mind, matter, feelings and so on do make life bearable, and we need narratives to remain stable. But whereas there is, unless I am lying or deluded, a correspondence with the action I perform when i say, “I have sliced a piece of bread”, it is absurd to suggest that slicing or otherwise employing tools upon the brain can so divide the mind into neat, easily manageable sections. Certainly brain surgery’s and other interventions are tremendous gifts as they advance to reverse or ameliorate malfunctions of bodily action, more and more each year, actions that restore vision, attack Parkinsons, and so on. The functional efficacy of such interventions cannot be in doubt, but where the interventions into mind and feelings is concerned it’s another story.

Psychiatrist Neil Scheurich touches on this in one of his blog posts:

In this month’s American Journal of Psychiatry a study by Kenneth Kendler, M.D. et al demonstrates shared genetic vulnerabilities to a range of mental disorders.  Basically, it is yet more evidence that disorders such as Major Depression, Panic Disorder, and personality disorders are not discrete natural kinds, but rather are continuously variable manifestations of underlying genetic interactions, and these manifestations vary over time according to environmental context.  With medications we try to nudge biological systems one way or another along a dimensional spectrum, whereas with psychotherapy we attempt to adjust social, interpersonal, and intrapersonal situations.  What we cannot do is to hit a target like an antibiotic hits a microbe or alleviate a deficiency a la insulin.

I cannot recommend too highly Matt Ridley’s Genome: an autobiography of a species. It’s a fascinating and provocative as well as informative read (although it was published in 199 and things have moved on considerably). We have here in discussions of human DNA at the microscopic level major variables that add to the complexity of mind. What is so clearly shown is that the relationship between nature and nurture is itself fluid and variable over time. While some tiny chromosomatic differences are indeed fatalistic determinants of a number of dreadful illnesses in a few people, for most of life, “Grey indeterminancy, variable causality and vague predisposition are the hallmarks of the system….. simplicity piled upon simplicity creates complexity. The genome is as complicated and indeterminate as ordinary life, because it is ordinary life.”

The New Phrenology?

February 11, 2011 § Leave a comment

I have been away for some time relative to my usual rate of posting. Partly this is because of a feeling of spending too much time thinking about feelings rather than getting on with feeling them. Nevertheless, in recent weeks I have been reading poetry and novels which I’ll be coming back to. I think still, despite reservations, that literature has a good deal to offer (me, anyway) as insights to human beingness.

Also I’ve just begun at last on Damasio’s Descartes’ Error, having read his later work already. I’ll report back on that as I shall with The Master and His Emissary. Regarding the latter, I have to say I’m looking forward to it now after being a bit sniffy without having looked at it; probably because I thought it was a reductionist account of brain science – which it isn’t.

The excellent Neurocritic has another great post today challenging such reductionism. It begins:

In the November 2010 issue of Perspectives in Psychological Sciences, a Special Section on “Neuroimaging: Voodoo, New Phrenology, or Scientific Breakthrough?” (Diener, 2010) looks back at the infamous paper by Vul et al. (2009) and forward into the future. In one of the articles, an extended analogy is made between modern neuroimaging and the phrenology of yore (Poldrack, 2010):

Imagine that fMRI had been invented in the 1860s rather than the 1990s. Instead of being based on modern cognitive psychology, neuroimaging would instead be based on the faculty psychology of Thomas Reid and Dugald Steward, which provided the mental “faculties” that Gall and the phrenologists attempted to map onto the brain. Researchers would have presumably jumped from phrenology to fMRI and performed experiments manipulating the engagement of particular mental faculties or examining individual differences in the strength of the faculties. They almost certainly would have found brain regions that were reliably engaged when a particular faculty was engaged and potentially would also have found regions in which activity correlated with the strength of each faculty across subjects.

Gall’s ambition and vanity are now ‘activation for judgment about self versus others’, localized to medial prefrontal cortex. Friendly attachment/fidelity have been transformed into ‘viewing a friend versus viewing a stranger’, associated with right temporoparietal cortex.