Archive for January, 2008


January 29, 2008

    Much has been written recently about the development of the human brain.  Not that long ago, even Hillary and Bill hosted a colloquium on early neurological development.  Small wonder really – brains are us.   

  The development of a brain is a dynamic interactive process beginning shortly after conception.  Its ultimate configuration is an amalgam of the genetic raw material wired up in response to environmental inputs.  “The world develops the mind” writes researcher Robert Ornstein.   

  An example Ornstein cites is illustrative.  A two year old boy developed a small growth on his left eyelid.  Treatment involved covering that eye for two weeks.  Later, during his first grade eye test, it was determined that he was blind in that left eye.  Subsequent investigation found nothing at all wrong with the eye itself.   

  ‘Sup with that?  It was simply because the eye had been covered during a critical time in the development of the boy’s visual system.  At that point, certain neurons were looking for a live connection.  Finding no stimulation at the left eye, some withered and others connected with the right eye.  Sadly, that particular process rapidly becomes complete and immutable.    

  Neuronal selection is what it is called.  Neural Darwinism.  The sum total of a zillion similar interactions directly influences the wiring pattern of each brain.  The process yields a unique mind with its own collection of constellations.   

  A fertilized egg is thus an incipient cosmos; a big bang as it were.  Guess who guides its evolution.      

What, Me Worry?

January 25, 2008

  “Everything great in the world comes from neurotics.  They alone have founded our religions and composed our masterpieces.  Never will the world know all it owes to them nor all that they have suffered to enrich us.”     

  Agree with Proust?  Or rather his character Boulbon speaking from the depths of Remembrance of Things Past?  The words are often quoted, but not always to the same end.     

  There are some who apparently believe that Proust had his character speak thus to highlight his idiocy and prove himself a fool.     

  Others, including healers of various stripes, would wholeheartedly accept face value.  What else, they would ask,  could catalyze breakthroughs, innovations, or even personal growth other than some sort of inner conflict conscious or un?     

  Picture a starving artist in his or her garret.  Powerful forces would have to conspire to thwart pursuit of goals more toward the center of the range of possibilities.         

  Furthermore, individual neurosis (let’s just define it as mental conflict, interior pain, questioning) may well have been (and be) the elemental unit of the evolution of consciousness and society and civilization.     

  In an interview [WSJ 1/23/08] Daniel Day-Lewis said: “Perhaps I’m particularly serious because I’m not unaware of the potential absurdity of what I’m doing…. There’s the potential for a certain kind of nobility in the work.  Because, after all, if you’re not exploring human experience in one form or another, it seems that maybe there’s something missing in one’s life.”        

  What’s the opposite?  McMurphy in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest after his lobotomy – and Chief Broom before?

Let’s Dance

January 24, 2008

In a letter to Oliver Sacks (unanswered, but oh well) I referred to fascinating artilcle he wrote in the New York Review of Books in 1990 – “Neurology and the Soul”.  I asked about his statement that “This evoluton of self…is made possible…by the strengthening of connections within neuronal groups in accordance with the individual’s experiences and needs and beliefs and desires.  This process “cannot arise, cannot even start, unless there is movement.  It is movement that makes possible all perceptual categorizations.”

Recent articles in the Boston Globe [1-13-08] and the WSJ [1-15-08] describe new research in “the emerging field of embodied cognition”.  Investigators do indeed believe that movement and gesticulation enhance cerebration.  “People think with their bodies, not just with their brains…arm movements can affect language comprehension…children are more likely to solve mathmatics problems if they are told to gesture with their hands…”

Makes me wonder first about related ramifications to couch (or computer) potatoism.  Would those most lethargic among us somehow be diminished by more than just the time lost?  Furthermore, would those at the other extreme be operating on some sort of an elevated plane?  One of a state of kinesthetic omniscience like, say, Gene Kelly in American in Paris, or Tiger Woods, or Mia Hamm dribbling through a line of Amazons and getting off a shot?

Finally,  what then is going on mind/bodywise with those in “flow” in situations of great personal risk – in battle or on a lonely tightrope high above the ground or a ski racer rounding a turn at 75mph?

Conquistadors of the Useless

January 21, 2008

  OK, everybody has read somewhere that there are more connections in one’s brain than there are stars in the universe.  Still, given all the possibilities, what sort of constellation would yield a ‘Conquistador of the Useless’? (French alpinist Lionel Terray’s self description) 

  Much to the chagrin of my wife, the Buddha, and other reasonable folk disdainful of metaphysical inquiry, it’s a question that has disturbed my rest for nearly all of my fifty plus years.  Perhaps it is related to the fact that I share the same birthday and thus sign as George Leigh (“because it’s there”) Mallory.  (Gemini)  

  I’m not there yet, but my research has begun to bear fruit and I at least have an idea what role mountains have and what part they might continue to play in the evolution of consciousness.Good news too, there’s sex involved. Julian Jaynes connected several of these issues in his ponderously titled, but enthralling The Origins of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind.

  The sex part.  Jaynes held (and offered compelling evidence) that it was the relatively sudden development of brainpower that propelled sexuality from its more perfunctory role in mating into the pervasive dynamo we know today.  Think about it – what would your sex life be without the ability to reminisce, ruminate, and look forward? 

  But how did the human analogue of pollination come to be writ so large?  Air-conditioning some believe, in a manner of speaking. When our anthropoid bipedal ancestors left the trees for the savannah, they left behind shade, protection from the sun’s searing rays.  Since a primary order of business for a warm blooded creature is temperature regulation, most importantly that of the brain, incremental improvements in an ability to radiate heat would be a distinct advantage.  Particularly in the sub-Saharan environment.  Thus an incipient outer bit of tissue might have proven advantageous first as a radiator, later a tool designer, and much later an ‘art film’ producer as natural selection grew the cortical covering.     

  However, Jaynes theorized that, even after development of the cerebral cortex, functioning of the humanoid brain was not quite modern.  A key aspect of his hypothesis was that the still preconscious brain was characterized by intermittent hallucinations.  Both visual and auditory, these were experienced as proclamations of gods and were catalyzed by a range of stimuli.       

  Mountains among other things.  Even today, it’s not too tough to recall the incredible feelings of awe inspired by a view of the Tetons, a look down into the Grand Canyon, or from atop the Bastille, or Rainier.  They form a connection to immanence not casually left behind.   In fact, as our forebears migrated, they developed means that at the very least allowed for the manifestation of those feelings wherever they set up camp or built cities. 

  Prehistoric burial mounds, Hittite ziggurats, and The Cathedral of Notre Dame are all examples.  Regarding this last, Abbot Suger, the French cleric behind Gothic architecture described the experience he had in mind to engender as “metaphysics of light”. The manipulation of space and light continues to characterize the practice of great architecture.  Recently, for example, a huge generating plant along the Thames in London was converted into the Tate Modern museum of art by a pair of Swiss architects.  Entry into its cavernous great hall evokes a similar constellation of feelings while dissipating neurotic thought and making the visitor receptive and ready to see.   

  Whew! This tortured path has long led me to assume these evocations and the activities of their origin like climbing and skiing, to be vestigial or at least atavistic.  And further, that their pursuit is dangerously quaint and more akin to bugs being drawn to light than to celestial connections.  Recently however, consideration of the convergence between certain lines of neuroscience and spirituality has led my wandering mind in another direction.  I’ve come to the conclusion that these feelings of awe, of immanence, of new direction might rather be precursorial.  

  Perhaps those of us willing, eager to leave certain comfort behind for unnecessary experiences of adventure may have something in common with those on the periphery of, say, Mayan society long ago.  Mesoamerican artisans and craftspeople maybe.  What were they thinking as they led the way to the jungle leaving home, the priests, and nobility behind?      “Gee, if only they had cut out more hearts and run more thorns through their tongues and genitals we would all be in clover now.”  

  Or not.  They must have been anxious in the extreme because of diminished resonance with what had for generations represented the foundation of their experience.  In any case, brooding and doubting had to be better than being the next in line.  The call of the wild proved irresistible.  Furthermore, Jaynes presented evidence showing that similar metamorphical events were occurring in roughly contemporaneous cultures around the world. 

  Is there a lesson in all of this some thousands of years later?  Well, is there?  I guess it depends upon the dominant society and its continued success or a lack thereof…  Does anyone still think we are at ‘the end of history’?   Whither now the zeitgeist?    Ah whatever.  But hey, the next time you’re enjoying the view, hold that thought.  Remember, in wilderness is the preservation of the earth.  And who knows what else.

Pick a lot, talk a little

January 17, 2008

  Ya, I was the guy “The Great Coonyard” was “Mouthing Off” about in Ascent 1970.   Did a few routes and moved back to Iowa.  Well maybe not the guy…      Never been able to drown out the urge though. Haven’t been able to kick it.  Have had to find new ways to ‘feed the rat’ as a dude was heard to say at Snell’s field long ago.   

  A Home Depot not far from my house has a block retaining wall about 25 feet tall and 300 feet long.  I hid a five gal water jug in the bushes nearby and would run over with a small pack, load the jug, and traverse back and forth.  Arms ‘d get plenty tired after a few laps and I’d start to get scared if near the top. Perfect.     

  I’d do this at about 5AM so as not to draw attention.  But last spring a couple old ladies began to power walk across the parking lot at its base.  They’d be flapjawing and pumping their arms like, well, you know.  Looks stupid as hell.     

  By the end of June I was starting to get fit and looking forward to a foray west when one morning, as I was shaking out near the top, Colonel Sanders peered over.  The women stopped below to watch.     

  “Boy” (I’m 55) “if I find you here again, I’m gonna have to call the cops”.    

  “I’m not hurting anything, I’m …”     

  “Whatever.  Ya fall and sue, it’ll be my behind.  Those women down there keep calling so we know.  I’m sick of talking with ‘em”.  

  I looked down and they quickly averted their gaze and flapped away like pigeons from the Bastille Crack.  Annoying, scary even,  but not a life changing event. At least that’s what I tried to tell myself – glad not to be one of the poor saps that shared their roost.                 

Marshall Dillon

January 16, 2008

OK. Best job I’ve ever had was as a cook in Aspen.  Skied all day, went to work at 4:00 PM, made decent money. Clint Eastwood came in the kitchen once – just after the Eiger Sanction came out. Lived in Telluride for a while. Sun Valley. Yosemite. BC. Boulder too.  Now I’m 55 and living in Iowa.  Offered each of my three kids a car if they promised not to go to college.  No takers.  The oldest went to Bowdoin in Maine and spent her junior year not far from Chilean Patagonia.  The other two spent at least part of their college careers at CU Boulder.Closest gym is at a state u about an hour away from here.  Last time there I got “way schooled”.  Everything was “sweet”.  Mentioned that I’d had two kids in Boulder and was asked if I’d ever climbed in the gyms there… No one’d heard of Eldorado.  This all came to mind for some reason the other day while I was looking down at a cop looking up at me near the top of a perfect hand crack. It split the backside of a parking ramp.  We were about 25 feet apart and it was near dark. I was trying to decide if I could top out and move on quickly enough to avoid having to explain anything to him. Or to the Old Lady for that matter.  Just then, as Marshall Dillon turned to look at a growling dog rounding the corner he stumbled over a drainpipe and dropped his flashlight.  Bingo.  I slapped the top and made for the far stairs.  The exit sign wasn’t alpenglow, but the descent was trouble free.  Sweet.