To this hour bewail the injury

It seems I grew up in a male purdah -I think all men did, and perhaps most still do. And yet, the triumph of women in academics, business, and sports in particular, has begun to open the male curtain a little. No longer would most of us be surprised to find women competing at the highest levels in sports as disparate as, say, rugby and tennis, soccer and hockey -albeit in their own leagues for now. Still, this is a fairly large departure from the days when sports were largely -if not completely- male dominated.

Women were not thought to have either the temperament or the musculature important for effective competition that their male counterparts so obviously possessed. Add to that their differing hormones which suited them for the roles to which society had long assigned them, and males felt they could relax in their smug complacency, secure in the knowledge that there were things that women just could not do -and also had no desire to.

Furthermore, because of the nuisance of the cyclic fluctuations in female metabolism, sexual differences were often discounted as too expensive and too variable to be taken into account in medication design and testing, so many of the drugs available on the market that were only tested on males were assumed to work as well in either sex. Unfortunately -although predictably- this led to problems in both outcome and side effects. In fact, I discussed some of these issues in an essay I wrote several years ago: https://musingsonwomenshealth.com/2016/10/12/women-are-from-earth/

More recently however, although many sports have become increasingly aware of the different types of dangers in their respective competitions, it comes as no surprise that there was an assumption that the occurrence of concussions in female athletes mirrored the frequency, symptomatology, and outcome in their male cohorts.

I don’t wish to embark upon a gendered jeremiad, because studies and evidence of sex difference is slowly accumulating, and in the more gladiatorial sports, there still seems to be a preponderance of men, so perhaps it makes sense to start with the effects of concussions on them -but nevertheless…

Thank goodness there was an interesting essay on female concussions in an article in BBC Future entitled, helpfully enough, Why women are more at risk from concussion written by David Robson: https://www.bbc.com/future/article/20200131-why-women-are-more-at-risk-from-concussion

‘Concussion is changed neurological function as the result of a bump, blow or jolt to the head. The violent movement of the head causes a momentary release of various neurotransmitters that throws the brain’s signalling out of balance. It can also cause the neural tissue to swell and reduce the flow of blood to the brain – and along with it, the glucose and oxygen – starving our nerve cells of their fuel… The potential long-term impact of concussion is now well known and has led many sports associations to change their rules and procedures to reduce the danger of injury. But there is low awareness of the potentially higher risks to female players and the possible need for differing diagnosis and treatment, including among healthcare professionals… Recent research… suggests that female athletes are not only more likely to sustain a concussion in any given sport; they also tend to have more severe symptoms, and to take longer to recover.’

I still remember the words we once used to describe the symptoms in boxers towards the end of their careers: punch-drunk. Of course, I was fairly young then, but I don’t remember the word ‘concussion’ being used with any frequency; I assumed an appreciation of the concept was fairly recent, and yet ‘Concussion is thought to have first been distinguished from other types of brain injury more than 1,000 years ago, by the Persian physician Rhazes, but sex differences in concussion have only been the subject of serious research within the last two decades or so.’ Then again, ‘The sex differences in concussion were also obscured by the fact that many of these injuries are the result of accidents in sport, and girls and women were historically less likely to compete in events where concussion has attracted most attention.

‘Tracey Covassin, who is now based at Michigan State University, has been one of the leading researchers looking at potential sex differences in concussion… In soccer, basketball and softball…  she found that female players are almost twice as likely to suffer a concussion as male ones.’ And their symptoms were often different. ‘While male concussions are more likely to be followed by amnesia, for instance, female ones are more likely to lead to prolonged headaches, mental fatigue and difficulties with concentration, and mood changes… Female athletes also seem to require more time for those symptoms to disappear.’

The problem is that sometimes the differences were attributable to sexual stereotyping and hence glossed over. That’s a fraught subject with many of the (largely male) therapists, but where there’s smoke, there’s often fire. For example, ‘Some researchers have proposed that it may be due to the fact that female necks tend to be slimmer and less muscular than male ones… the brain is free to move within the skull – it is like jelly tightly packed into a Tupperware container – and this means that any sharp movement of the head can cause it to shift around, potentially causing damage.’ So, ‘anything that helps to protect the skull from sharp movements should protect you from concussion – and that includes a sturdier neck that is better able to buffer a blow.’ Currently, there are a few team physiotherapists who have devised exercises to help strengthen these muscles -especially in rugby players where padding and helmets are certainly not de rigueur.

There are other theories why female concussions are different. For example, ‘small anatomical differences within the brain itself. Female brains are thought to have slightly faster metabolisms than male ones, with greater blood flow to the head… if a head injury momentarily disrupts that supply of glucose and oxygen, it could cause greater damage.’

There is even some evidence that the cyclic nature of female hormone production may also play a role in susceptibility to concussions. For example, ‘Researchers at the University of Rochester School of Medicine and Dentistry… found that injuries during the follicular phase (after menstruation and before ovulation) were less likely to lead to symptoms a month later, while an injury during the luteal phase (after ovulation and before menstruation) resulted in significantly worse outcomes.’

Clearly research of female concussions is still in its early stage, but even these preliminary findings might suggest some possible mitigating strategies. For example, some studies have demonstrated the benefit of suppressing endogenous cyclicity in hormone production with, say, oral contraceptives.

And yet, perhaps the most hopeful thing is the recognition of the dangers of concussion in both sexes. It isn’t something that only occurs in high-contact sports like rugby or hockey; it’s something which crosses the gender divide with seeming ease. It’s the mask we’re beginning to see through, the condition that finds itself harder and harder to camouflage.

Let me swallow the sunset and drink the rainbow

Colour has always held me in thrall. I suspect I can trace its origins to those pre-recollection times when my mother read to me as I sat pointing at pictures in whatever book she had chosen for my bedtime. I had my favourites, I imagine, but all I can remember from those very early years were the vivid colours. They seemed more important than the words she spoke, or perhaps more accurately, they were the words, alive and beckoning from the page -depictions of things I suppose I was yet too young to understand. But, as the poet Kahlil Gibran once wrote, Let me swallow the sunset and drink the rainbow. And in those days, I think I did.

There are still faint traces of this atavism that linger in the colours I see in numbers, but I hesitate to attribute beauty to the pallid tints afforded to me from a lingering synaesthesia in my doddering years. They possess no magic -in fact, I rather think I’d like to colour them in bolder pigments that would elevate them like saints from their boring lists.

But there I go again -the need to colour things is strong, yet unfulfilled. Although my father tried his best to guide my hand, I never managed to colour within the lines of the many books that called me to my crayons. In looking back to those halcyon days, I suspect I saw the outlines as prisons I needed to escape -early evidence, maybe, of how I saw edges more as links to things around them, than boundaries that brooked no trespass.

At any rate, now that I am in Macbeth’s famous yellow leaf, I have begun to realize the subtle allure of margins. More often than not, they are only beginnings -invitations to explore what lies beyond. To experience only that which is insensibly glued to us is not to transgress, and yet skin is merely the introductory handshake with the world.

Of course, with age comes the inevitable rationalizations of both past behaviours and current epiphanies: things to excuse my inability to confine myself to standard doctrinal crayonal restraints -times when I no doubt felt I could label my obvious lack of talent as youthful exuberance. Seeing what others could not, outside the lines.

But in those almost ante-Gutenberg days, the choices I was offered in the colouring books to which I was privy, were not legion -a few standardized animals, and the occasional landscape which almost always included a house with a smoking chimney. None of these encouraged much experimentation outside the lines without confusing whatever archetypal subject with which I was forced to contend. Indeed, in retrospect I’m surprised that any of the obediently constrained colouring book acolytes ever succeeded in Art or Philosophy -or Life, for that matter- although I suppose there has always been more support for those who obey the rules.

The subject matter has changed however, I’m happy to report. As I was browsing through my Smithsonian app archives, I was drawn (sorry) to an article reporting on new colouring opportunities that promised great things: https://www.smithsonianmag.com/smart-news/100-museums-transformed-their-collections-free-coloring-pages-just-you-180974116/

Written by Katherine J. Wu, a science journalist, as well as a PhD. in Microbiology and Immunobiology from Harvard, she notes that most classical historical art is preserved and guarded in museums, and is almost never made available to public crayons.

Recently, however, ‘with the annual  #ColorOurCollections social media campaign, the world’s art enthusiasts can try them out. The idea was apparently first launched by the New York Academy of Medicine Library [NYAM] in 2016. People can ‘download, color and reimagine thousands of black-and-white artworks sourced from dozens of cultural mainstays around the world. Currently at 101 strong, the list may continue to grow and is already encroaching on last year’s roster of 114 participants.

‘Among the institutions advertising their contributions are representatives from the academic world, including  Harvard University’s Countway Library and the University of Waterloo, as well as museums like  Les Champs Libres and the Huntington Library. The only commonality shared by the thousands of prints and drawings available on the NYAM website is their black-and-white appearance.’

There is a time-limit for these downloads (already passed, I’m afraid) but ‘this year’s illustrations—as well as a large repository of past submissions—will remain available to download.’

The temptation was overwhelming, and so I risked the ever-present threat of being phished and followed the links. Some of the drawings were just too charming to resist, so I have to admit to planning a trip to Walmart to stock up on crayons -I still feel more comfortable with them than coloured pencils with their oh-so precisely sharpenable points that seem programmed to stop on their own at each and every line they encounter.

I ended up buying a 96-pack box of crayons online, though, since I was there anyway. Do you remember what it was like in a candy store when you were a child and your mother asked you to choose, oh maybe five, from the thousands of specimens on display? I always chose the brightest coloured wrappers, not realizing that what they contained seldom lived up to their appearance. I suppose what I’m getting at is that I should probably have chosen the basic crayon box of 16 (Maybe it’s not in their best interests to sell an even smaller-sized selection) because I really only used the red (for the sundry brick walls and chimneys), blue (for the sky -what else?), and green (by now, I’m sure you can guess) -childhood habits, I imagine. I did colour-shift once or twice though, once I really got into it.

Sometimes a building, or the garden in front of it seemed to beg for what I would now rationalize as an aura and I would grab a yellow and engage in what might seem to be random smears outside the lines. I tried orange and pink on a whim, but they seemed garish somehow -like Parkinsonian blunders. Not at all what I was striving for.

And yet, I’m beginning to wonder if I was actually striving for anything other than proving to myself that there’s still a remnant of the younger me inside. My hoped-for free form seemed contrived at my age. And that which drew gasps of admiration for my extra-linear adventures when I was a toddler, now seemed to bespeak something far more ominous than naïve playfulness. At my age, I suspect it is not seen as a mere idiosyncrasy. Society is harder on its elders than its children for their misadventures, I fear. More suspicious. More circumspect.

It was epiphanous that I suddenly recognized the freedom I had to lose were I to leave evidence of my folly in plain view. Even the crayons might arouse concerns -provoke questions I would as lief avoid. It is perhaps enough to live through youth but once; any return may be judged as an ill-advised trip through the mirror, so I have donated my uncoloured downloads to the community kindergarten. Perhaps I will return some time to see what they have decided to pin on their walls; I’d like to see if they have dared to show any crayonal attempts by their children that stray beyond accepted boundaries. Of course, maybe they only use soft felt pens with sharply pointed edges and raised, built-in borders to colour nowadays -I forgot to ask…

Is time really out of joint?

I imagine there comes a time for each of us when we finally realize we are getting old; a time when we feel that we are just catching up on news so aged that we were only children when it first arose. Information so old that I’m not sure what it should be called –opinion perhaps; or, since it is still around and circulating quietly and seemingly  immune to the cobwebs draped across its shoulders, wisdom…? And although some things may really be changing quickly, others are just now soaking through like water in a thick sponge and seem new to me.

I realize that not even young people can stay au courant with everything -the trick, I suppose, is to specialize one’s interests. Mine were never all that well defined, it seems; apart from my particular professional métier, the rest was spread as unevenly as the peanut butter on my morning toast. Retirement merely allowed me to pile more toppings on it, I fear -some of them dated, albeit untarnished by their ages, and, as far as I can tell, unburdened by a best-before stipulation.

Thus did I discover Simone de Beauvoir’s writings as I began redabbling in the existentialist work of Sartre. The two of them were an item, you remember. At any rate, I soon realized I would need some help, so it was with no little relief that I happened upon an edifying essay by Kate Kirkpatrick, a lecturer in religion, philosophy, and culture  at King’s College London among other things. https://aeon.co/essays/simone-de-beauvoirs-authentic-love-is-a-project-of-equals

‘The desires to love and be loved are, on Simone de Beauvoir’s view, part of the structure of human existence. Often, they go awry. But even so, she claimed, authentic love is not only possible but one of the most powerful tools available to individuals who want to be free… In The Second Sex (1949), Beauvoir argued that culture led men and women to have asymmetrical expectations, with the result that ‘love’ frequently felt like a battlefield of conflicting desires or a graveyard for their disappointments… As a young philosophy student in Paris, she had already recognised that some conceptions of ‘love’ legitimated injustice and perpetuated suffering.’

Some of what she observed in those days no longer obtains, of course -Zeitgeist evolves along with societal values- and yet there are still things to be learned from her writings. Pitfalls to avoid in our headlong rush for change.

‘Beauvoir’s ethics were shaped by a tradition according to which whom and what we love plays a pivotal role in whom we become.’ And love, as difficult to define then as now, ‘was abused to legitimate forms of hierarchy that were anathema to love itself.’ As she saw it in her early writings, love had two components: self-interest (narcissism), and devotion – the former plagued by forgetting there are two in love and that love must seek the good of the other, whereas the latter (devotion) can be suffocating -a form of ‘moral suicide’ in its abnegation of self.

‘Ethical love, by contrast, consists in what Beauvoir calls ‘equilibrium’ and ‘reciprocity’. In equilibrium there is self-giving without self-loss: lover and beloved ‘simply walk side by side, mutually helping each other a little’.’ And yet, suppose one of the two does not feel equal -or feel they have not earned or deserved the love of the other? ‘The ‘most fruitful’ type of love, Beauvoir claimed, was ‘not a subordination’, but rather a relationship in which each person supported the other in seeking an independent, individual life.’

Despite my lengthening toll of years, I have to admit that, although her initial observations make sense, I am more intrigued by the direction in which they evolved. Obviously, unlike De Beauvoir, I had not taken as much time or effort to analyze the question of love. Throughout my life, I suspect I have been more a captive than a general.

Later, reflecting on the parable of the Good Samaritan, Beauvoir came to realize that ‘One is not the neighbour of anyone. One makes the other a neighbour by treating him as a neighbour in action.’ Love required action. There was a growing concern about the meaning of life that was rife in France towards the end of WWII that bred the existentialist movement, one of whose champions, was Sartre. Beauvoir (in Pyrrhus and Cinéas) suggested ‘an answer to the problem of how human life could have value, and how ethics could have a foundation, without a God to provide them. Her proposal was that, in the absence of a divine law-giver, our actions should be oriented to the human others because, even without an infinite being, our actions can take on an infinite dimension by being witnessed.’ We need to love and be loved; we need to be affirmed.

But there is a middle road. ‘Devotion can be tyrannical – it claims to want the good of the other but in fact it imposes a value on the other that might not be of his or her choosing. The ‘ethics of self-interest’ [narcissism], by contrast, assumes that only I could meet the other person’s need for justification: it makes the other a satellite, whose value is contingent upon being in my orbit… What is truly needed, on Beauvoir’s view, is that the other be respected as ‘a freedom’: as a person who is perpetually becoming, with projects for her life that must be of her choosing… there must be two freedoms, both of which respect the value of freedom in each other – such that neither of them suffers the mutilation of subordination.’ Reciprocity, in other words.

Much as I continue to have trouble forcing myself to struggle through Tolstoy’s War and Peace, I’m still trying to psyche myself into reading her Second Sex, but like eating, it’s probably wise to stop when you’re full. In a sense, we all have rumens in our brains that allow us to re-chew what we’ve read to make more sense of it -put it in a more contemporary context, perhaps.

I suspect, for example, that most of us are at least more aware of the existence of hierarchical societal roles that still begrudge women their rightful places in the world. Even the ability to see that there are hierarchies is a victory of sorts; it seems almost unbelievable when we remember that at one time men could claim ‘that it was just in their nature to dominate women – and that it was in women’s nature to submit.’ It was culture that was sanctioning this, and just as society has been evolving, so too, however slowly, has the male Weltanschauung.

In Beauvoir’s day, ‘many women were taught that their value was conditional upon being loved by men, girls were encouraged to conceive of themselves ‘as seen through the man’s eyes’, to fulfil men’s fantasies and help them pursue their projects rather than dream dreams or pursue projects of their own… [mistaking] the desire for love for love itself.’

Of course, it’s still deceptively easy for either sex fall into that trap, I fear, And yet, it was people like Beauvoir who helped us to understand that we create our own shadows. I suppose it’s never too late, but I wish I’d studied more about her than Sartre when I was young… although maybe you have to be old to really understand the wisdom, eh?

The raven himself is hoarse

There was a time when I thought I finally had a handle on gender: it’s a spectrum, right? It’s not defined by biology or chromosomes -it’s how you think, how you feel, who you are. It should not merely be assigned, it should be assumed. And just when I thought I was escaping from the biases of another era, and beginning to see the wisdom in Bell Curve thinking, I found myself wandering in yet another labyrinth. It was only a matter of time before I met the Minotaur, I suppose.

But it all made sense: we are what we feel inside, no matter our outward assignation. And, let’s face it, none of us is always the same person -we evolve both in time and place; who we are at work, or in public, may not be the same as who we are at home and with friends. I am large, I contain multitudes, as Walt Whitman confesses in his Leaves of Grass.

I am old now, and have never felt the urge to leave my tent; I do not feel imprisoned, nor deprived, and yet I can understand that others may wish to leave the flap unfastened. My own multitudes are those of ideas, not identities -sexual or otherwise- but as I say, we are all different and I have no problem with that.

Still, I enjoy opinions and ideas that trespass on Shibboleths, so I was intrigued when I came across an essay about the gender spectrum by the philosopher Rebecca Reilly-Cooper, from the University of Warwick: ‘https://aeon.co/essays/the-idea-that-gender-is-a-spectrum-is-a-new-gender-prison

As she writes, ‘The word ‘gender’ originally had a purely grammatical meaning in languages that classify their nouns as masculine, feminine or neuter. But since at least the 1960s, the word has taken on another meaning, allowing us to make a distinction between sex and gender. For feminists, this distinction has been important, because it enables us to acknowledge that some of the differences between women and men are traceable to biology, while others have their roots in environment, culture, upbringing and education – what feminists call ‘gendered socialisation’.’

And, in what Reilly-Cooper sees as the radical feminist view, ‘[G]ender refers to the externally imposed set of norms that prescribe and proscribe desirable behaviour to individuals in accordance with morally arbitrary characteristics.’ That view, by the way -although I have difficulty with it- is the one which I had finally come to understand: imposed gender is a caste system, a hierarchical one in which males occupy the highest rank, and socialization proceeds accordingly. ‘So, for the radical feminist, the aim is to abolish gender altogether.’

The author, however discusses another view of gender -the queer feminist view- that  ‘what makes the operation of gender oppressive is not that it is socially constructed and coercively imposed: rather, the problem is the prevalence of the belief that there are only two genders.’ The choice isn’t simply a binary one -gender is a spectrum.

But now Reilly-Cooper’s training as a philosopher enters. ‘If’, she posits, ‘gender really is a spectrum, doesn’t this mean that every individual alive is non-binary, by definition? If so, then the label ‘non-binary’ to describe a specific gender identity would become redundant, because it would fail to pick out a special category of people.’ Even the binary of Tall/Short is relative, because nobody is absolutely tall -it is merely a comparison between that individual and the average height in whatever population we are considering.

And, ‘If gender, like height, is to be understood as comparative or relative, this would fly in the face of the insistence that individuals are the sole arbiters of their gender. Your gender would be defined by reference to the distribution of gender identities present in the group in which you find yourself, and not by your own individual self-determination.’

An interesting conclusion, especially if you expand the concept. If gender is a spectrum, that means it’s a continuum between two extremes, and everyone is located somewhere along that continuum. I think of myself as a man, and yet someone is likely to be further along the spectrum towards manhood, and would therefore be more of a man than me… Whoaa.

The author takes it further, of course: ‘In reality, everybody is non-binary. We all actively participate in some gender norms, passively acquiesce with others, and positively rail against others still. So to call oneself non-binary is in fact to create a new false binary.’ Or, if you want to ‘identify as pangender, is the claim that you represent every possible point on the spectrum? All at the same time?’ And if you don’t ‘accept that masculinity should be defined in terms of dominance while femininity should be described in terms of submission… whatever you come up with, they are going to represent opposites of one another.’

I love the way philosophers approach things, don’t you? The next question she asks is ‘how many genders would we have to recognise in order not to be oppressive? Just how many possible gender identities are there?’ Her answer: ‘7 billion, give or take. There are as many possible gender identities as there are humans on the planet… But if this is so, it’s not clear how it makes sense or adds anything to our understanding to call any of this stuff ‘gender’, as opposed to just ‘human personality’… The word gender is not just a fancy word for your personality or your tastes or preferences. It is not simply a label to adopt so that you now have a unique way to describe just how large and multitudinous and interesting you are. Gender is the value system that ties desirable (and sometimes undesirable?) behaviours and characteristics to reproductive function.  Once we’ve decoupled those behaviours and characteristics from reproductive function – which we should – and once we’ve rejected the idea that there are just two types of personality and that one is superior to the other – which we should – what can it possibly mean to continue to call this stuff ‘gender’? What meaning does the word ‘gender’ have here, that the word ‘personality’ cannot capture?’ Bravo!

So, should the default then, be ‘cis’ (i.e. personal identity conforms with birth sex)? She has an answer to that one, too: A ‘desire not to be cis is rational and makes perfect sense, especially if you are female. I too believe my thoughts, feelings, aptitudes and dispositions are far too interesting, well-rounded and complex to simply be a ‘cis woman’… Once we recognise that the number of gender identities is potentially infinite, we are forced to concede that nobody is deep down cisgender.’

And remember, ‘To call yourself non-binary or genderfluid while demanding that others call themselves cisgender is to insist that the vast majority of humans must stay in their boxes, because you identify as boxless… The solution is not to reify gender by insisting on ever more gender categories that define the complexity of human personality in rigid and essentialist ways. The solution is to abolish gender altogether… You do not need to have a deep, internal, essential experience of gender to be free to dress how you like, behave how you like, work how you like, love who you like. You do not need to show that your personality is feminine for it to be acceptable for you to enjoy cosmetics, cookery and crafting.’ Amen.

Somehow, I feel that Reilly-Cooper has allowed me to peek under the canvass just a little -sort of like what I used to do when I was a kid and the circus came to town. I’m sure it did not go unnoticed, but nobody seemed to mind that I was fascinated with what was going on, and that I wanted to know how it all worked -and maybe even be invited in to ask some questions.

After all, curiosity is what leads to understanding -and isn’t it better to be interested than indifferent? Or worse, intolerant?

What about Now?

Now can be a tricky thing to police, I think; it keeps changing its clothes, and each time I think I finally recognize it, I realize I’ve mistaken it for somebody else. Someone from a different time, perhaps; someone who looks a lot like a friend in another place, but who is a stranger here with a similar face…

We should all try to live in the now I’ve read, but where, exactly, is that? And if I ever did run across it as I wander along the streets of my life, how would I recognize it? Or, perhaps more to the point, how could I pause there long enough to know I was in the right place -long enough to use it before it vanished as if it never really was?

There’s a lot of mystery to a now, you have to admit. Quite apart from it being infinitely evanescent, I imagine each one of them is different, if only by shades. A now on, say, Thursday, is no doubt different than a now on any other day, although I’ve never stopped long enough to analyze the contents, let alone committed any one instance to memory well enough for an accurate comparison.

Still, even if each now is in fact unique, why should any one example be privileged over any other? With an ocean to choose from, what advantage can be accorded to a single drop? And anyway, if the drop merely attests to the value found all around it, and is merely a representative of the whole, then is it sort of like the trailer-teaser of a movie, or the sample of a product that is intended to interest you in buying more? In which case, it is the whole that is being advertised, not the part. The part is incomplete: one page of the story, only.

And is any previous now equivalent to any new one? If not, are there any characteristics that should mark it for special consumption? Or should we just draw lots, throw dice, to choose? Even if I could stop long enough to find a now and valourize it, I am concerned I’d end up being saddled with the wrong one. A plain one; a defective one…

Metaphysics is certainly confusing; I see why it, and the most famous of its three children -ontology- has become the province of the Philosophers. Fortunately I stumbled upon an essay on the now in an essay by John Martin Fischer, a professor of philosophy at the University of California, Riverside; I have to confess it took me innumerable nows to read it, however. There’s nothing surprising in that, I suppose -still, it made me wonder if I could ever stay put in a now. https://aeon.co/essays/the-metaphysical-claims-behind-the-injunction-to-be-in-the-now

Fischer outlines the belief of various adherents -religious and otherwise- that ‘although it might seem to us that other times – past and future – are appropriate targets of attention, we can come to understand (intellectually and affectively) that in a fundamental sense… there is only the now, and thus our attention should be focused on it.’ The singularity of the now.

He is not convinced of the uniqueness of any particular now, however; he suggests that although we are, in reality, only present in the now, it is actually a trivial observation. Indeed, ‘now is an indexical term. That is, it’s employed flexibly to point to the particular time when it’s used, not the same time every time it’s used.  Similarly, the term here is an indexical term, employed flexibly to refer to the place where it’s uttered, not the same place wherever it’s uttered. Now is a temporal indexical, and here is a spatial indexical.’ I like that.

‘It’s thus not true that it’s always now, in the sense that it’s always the same time… Interpreted so that it’s correct, the intuitive idea that it’s always now doesn’t support the crucial inference that we should focus on the present because of its singularity.’ To paraphrase that apocryphal woman who, when challenged to answer what supported the turtle she believed held the world in place, it’s nows all the way down -an infinite number, in fact. Each may well be a singularity… but so what? What makes any one of them so special? There will no doubt be others each claiming to be exceptional, but only because they are indeed different from the rest.

As Fischer says, ‘it’s that there’s no necessity or inevitability to focusing only on the present moment, based on the fact (if it is a fact) that it’s the only moment that exists or is real.’ And, since it is obviously true that we can neither act in the past, nor in the future and only in the present -the now– then shouldn’t we try to stay in it…? Uhmm, I’m not convinced there’s an option, frankly. And anyway, there are inevitable consequences of acting in any given now that spread into the future and so are not a part of that special ‘singularity’. So, let me repeat, why is it so special -and why would I ever want to privilege it as if it actually contained something more than temporal instantaneity? After all, as Fischer points out, ‘every way of inhabiting the now (including ‘being here now’) is also a way of taking up the past and orienting ourselves to the future.’

No, I’m afraid I’m not really convinced there are any special values to the nows that flash past us like individual frames on a celluloid movie reel. It’s the movie as a whole that is ultimately what each now contributes to: the story. That’s where we all live, after all.

I suppose that if we find the story unpleasant in passages, we might benefit by pausing for a now or two -perhaps in meditation, or conversation with a friend- but in the end, we have to join the succession of picture frames and get on with our lives. It’s how it works.

As Fischer concludes, ‘We have a choice about what we focus on, a choice not dictated by the unique present, if there is one. We are free to choose how we wish to be. We should indeed be here now, but not because the now is all we have.’ We think in Time, we love in Time, we live in Time. Perhaps we should enjoy what we have left of it. All of it…!

Comfort like cold porridge

I go a lot by taste. It has usually been a fair guide to what I’m eating, but in this era of plant-based meat, I’m no longer as sure. I’m certainly in favour of diminishing my ecological footprint, and a career as a Vegan is not really in the cards, I’m afraid, but lately I’ve been wondering how much I can trust the advertised contents -even when they’re listed on the label.

To start with, I’m not always familiar with some of the ingredients -or, for that matter, their possible health effects. It’s all very reassuring to see them listed, but I’m not sure how that helps the average person decide whether or not the product is safe for them, especially long-term. Most of us, I suspect, confine our reading to things like the caloric content, and maybe the amount of salt. I doubt that even the health-conscious delve much deeper than, say, the amount of fibre or perhaps whether or not it is gluten-free. The rest is largely a meaningless blur; we assume that the rest of the ingredients have passed some careful scrutiny by the health authorities and are deemed safe.

In fact, I suppose the fact that they are listed as present on the label means we can trust both their safety as well as their presence. Short of operating our own food analysis lab, the only other option is to try our luck with another product whose ingredients we find more reassuringly recognizable. Of course, the elephant in the room -or the jar- is the ability to trust whatever is listed. That may be a mistake.

And yet, perhaps I was already suspicious after reading a novel years ago during my impressionable university days. As with many of the books I’ve read, I’ve retained only interesting fragments that often had little to do with the main theme, but I do remember (I think) a scene in the 1906 novel by Upton Sinclair –The Jungle- that dealt with unsanitary practices in the meat packing plants in Chicago at the time. One of the workers fell into a vat of sausage meat and the because accident was purposely ignored, his body (I assume) was ground into somebody’s sausage. Not only did that have quite an effect on me reading about it some 60 years later, but it must also have shocked the public at the time, and led to greater regulation of the industry and the passing of a Meat Inspection Act.

But that was long ago, and I imagine most of us assume that things have improved steadily since then. Indeed they have, but human nature being what it is, there are always loopholes; there are always lapses in regulatory scrutiny.

I am an obsessive examiner of food labels, and have come to avoid most products that don’t display them. Of course, there are exceptions, where I have to trust the shop from which I buy them. Meat and fish, for example -only the store knows their source and whether they have good reason to believe what they have been told by the original seller.

You have to trust somebody, naturally, but what about the source the store itself relies on? How thoroughly do they investigate their providers? How vigilant should I be? How vigilant can I be?

I happened upon an article by John G. Keogh who is a researcher in Food Chain Transparency at the University of Reading. https://theconversation.com/fish-sausage-even-honey-food-fraud-is-hidden-in-plain-sight-130186

‘The globalization of the food chain has resulted in increased complexity and diminished transparency and trust into how and where our foods are grown, harvested, processed and by whom.’ And he suggests that this very complexity has allowed people to exploit the system. Unless the food is locally sourced, there is seldom the ability for the retailer to have personal knowledge of the origin of their groceries.

Indeed, ‘Before modern supermarkets, a local village or town grocery store stocked up to 300 items grown or processed within a 240-kilometre (150-mile) radius. In comparison, our post-modern supermarkets carry an average of 33,000 items that travel 2,400 kilometres or more.’ So, perhaps as a result, the ‘Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) suggests food fraud affects 10 per cent of commercially sold food. Various academic and industry sources suggest that globally, food fraud ranges from US$10 billion to $49 billion… If you add the sales of fake wines and alcohol, adulterated honey and spices, mislabelled fish and false claims of organic products, wild-caught fish or grain-fed meat, the numbers, and risks, increase significantly.’

Canada, as with most other developed nations, seems to be aware of the risks and has duly enacted regulations in an attempt to curb abuse, but the problem -not unique to Canada, of course- is in the enforcement. Apart from the vigilance required, it is hugely expensive, and the government has turned to genomics and DNA to detect some of the animal product deceptions. For example, there have been ‘a number of research papers uncovering food fraud and revealing the mislabelling of fish species in Canadian restaurants and grocery stores.’ And there was a paper ‘entitled “Re-visiting the occurrence of undeclared species in sausage products sold in Canada” as a followup to a previous study that showed a 20 per cent mislabelling rate for sausage… sampled from grocery stores across Canada [and] contained meats that weren’t on the label. The followup indicated 14 per cent of the 100 sausages tested still contained meat DNA that was undeclared on the label.’

I bought some fish the other day from a store I have come to trust. Of course the fact that it had a 25% off in a red sticker on the wrapper should have alerted something in my hindbrain, but I suppose I was in a hurry and thought it would make a delicious dinner. It purported to be steelhead -one of my favourites- but after I had prepared and barbecued it using a recipe I resort to for special occasions, it tasted suspiciously like Pink salmon. I loved it, though, so I wasn’t so much disappointed as surprised. So, even if it was mislabelled, I could think of no reason to complain to the store.

I still don’t buy sausages, though.

The rest is silence

There’s something special about place, don’t you think? For some, it is a beautiful sight -a mountain, perhaps, or a field of flowers basking in the sun. I agree, of course -vision paints a scene- but for me, it does not capture it. Not completely. Photographs are only quiet markers of things that cannot truly live in silence.

I am seduced by sound, but as I age, my ears, too, have yellowed with the years. I worry that I may eventually slip my anchorage and have to rely too much on sight. Already, I am dependent more on memory than I might wish. Audio ergo video I used to think; but really, it was more like audio ergo sum, however. For me, place is not merely accompanied by sound, described by sound -it is sound! Make a joyful noise, says one of the Psalms I remember from my childhood. I suppose I must have taken it to heart…

Now I will do nothing but listen. That is from a part of the Song of Myself  by the 19th century American poet Walt Whitman -only a part, because I have long treated myself to paring off the bits and pieces I wish to enjoy. I recognize the limits of judging something with carefully trimmed adjectives of course, but there you have it. At any rate, Whitman’s decision is a good one -profound in so many ways.

I’ve read Hempton and Grossmann’s book One Square Inch of Silence with interest and not a little dismay. They start their Prologue with a quote from the Nobel Prize winning bacteriologist Robert Koch, ‘The day will come when man will have to fight noise as inexorably as cholera and the plague.’ And then go on to say that ‘Today silence has become an endangered species. Our cities, our suburbs, our farm communities, even our most expansive and remote national parks are not free from human noise intrusions. Nor is there relief even at the North Pole; continent-hopping jets see to that. Moreover, fighting noise is not the same as preserving silence. Our typical anti-noise strategies … offer no real solution because they do nothing to help us reconnect and listen to the land.’

I am getting old, though: I love sound, and if it’s mixed in with a little noise, I welcome the challenge. After all, noise is really just sound from which meaningful information is missing, or at least difficult to extract -and if it’s not too loud, I say give me the chance. I suppose that’s why I cannot abide earphones when I walk or run through the woods: they imprison me. What I want to hear is the sighing and creaking of the trees in a passing breeze, the mysterious crackling of branches deep in the forest, or the gurgling of a creek hidden somewhere nearby. The distant pounding of a woodpecker is a plus, but I’ll accept the call of a solitary raven searching for who knows what in trees too far away to see. All are Imagination’s guest: the mysteries that scrape quietly against its windows, the rustling shadows that appear like tiny whispering moths heard only in the corners of its ever listening ears.

A few years ago I remember being summoned into the deep green forest, not by formal writ, or a surfeit of leisure, you understand, but by the lusty song of what I used to call ‘the wind-up bird’ because its song seemed to go on and on like in a wind-up toy I was given as a child. In fact, its proper name is Troglodytes pacificus but it prefers just plain Pacific Wren unless it’s being formally introduced at a conference. They’re really quite small, so I’ve never actually seen one in the trees. But since there seemed to be a trail leading towards the sound, I thought it might be an adventure worth pursuing.

It was a mountainous part of the coastal forest I’d never been in before, and I carefully noted the fluorescent red ribbons used as markers for the trail. It’s embarrassing to get lost in the wilderness, and you can get eaten, so I try to be careful. Sometimes, of course, it’s difficult to allocate sufficient neurological resources to keep track of everything at the same time and I soon lost track of the ribbons -and also the bird; I suppose it heard me thrashing through the bushes as I fashioned my own clumsy trail.

You sort of know which way is out on a mountain, though. If you started near the bottom, you go down. If you started from the summit, you still pretty well do the same thing. So I wasn’t worried. And besides, there’s quite a lot going on if you really listen. I have my favourites, of course -wind ruffling its way through a forest of needles is one, although with cedars, are they needles, or leaves? That question always keeps me occupied for a while -I don’t think anybody is willing to commit, however.

And then there’s the legendary tree falling in the forest, and whether or not it still has to pretend to make a noise if there’s nobody around to hear it. Mind you, it’s hard to know just how often that happens, but since I figured I was all alone and not shouting or anything, if I did hear one in flagrante delicto, as it were, that should count, eh?

Unfortunately, apart from me tripping on stray roots, and being scratched by curious bushes, I heard no tree fall… or maybe, it didn’t know I was around, and it fell in silence. I believe there are a lot of unreported mysteries on a mountain.

But I also listen for grunts and howls in the woods, random crackles behind me, or heavy breathing close by. These have a different cachet, depending where I am. In a place where I am only noticed if I smell appetizing, a different algorithm is called for. It seems to me that sometimes the Whitman Principle only applies at the starting block: it determines the direction to run. And so when I heard something snuffling nearby, I understood that the time for simply listening was over.

As I started to crash through the undergrowth, I realized that for several carved moments, I was sound incarnate. I began wondering how my frantic uncoordinated scramble must seem to the animals in the forest who were used to hiding in silence for their lives -I was demonstrating there was also life in noise.

It was just a prophylactic journey, of course -a tentative foray into sound; I wasn’t sure where, or what I had heard, but it had suddenly changed from an interesting scrunch of the kind I was so fond of hearing underfoot on the carpet of leaves, to the more menacing sound that predators are decidedly not fond of wasting.

Eventually, I stopped and listened again, but this time it was not menace that greeted me from the foliage, but a burbling stream that danced onomatopoeically over rock and root, humming gaily as it purred over boulders and whispered under fallen logs: a chorister’s dream. And, even though I had always been too shy to sing with others, I joined it in a shy and halting duet of pastoral celebration. 

But nowadays, when I walk alone in the forest, I find that I am often consumed with a question -this one of a different existential significance: is a person warbling to a creek really making a joyful noise if there’s no one around to hear him?

Fake lies?

Recently, I’ve been thinking a lot about truth, but not for the reasons you might expect. Not because of the abundance of ‘fake news’ about which we seem to be constantly reminded, and not necessarily because I’ve been occasionally embarrassed in a lie, nor because of the tangled web you wove when first you practiced to deceive.

Fake news and deception, not to mention outright lies, have been in the headlines in recent years, but deception is certainly not unique to our era -nor even our species. Think of bird behaviour to distract predators from their nest, cowbirds that lay their eggs in other nests to trick the foreign mothers into raising the alien young, or squirrels that pretend to bury acorns in one place, but in case they were observed, actually keep them in their mouths while they find another spot to cache them.

I grant almost universality to the practice of intended deception -especially where there is something being protected, if only reputation or status. And, given its ubiquity and seemingly relentless practice in humans, it has a long history of ethical debate. Deception, of course is different from lying -deception is more a case of misleading, whereas lying is saying something known to be false.

I am concerned by something a little different, however. I am vexed by what, at first glance, would seem to be a more trivial concern: does a writer of fiction actually lie? And if the medium is one that does not purport to be factual -a novel, say- is it even possible? How important is truth in a fictive world -as long as it is internally consistent? A character in that story can lie, to be sure, but how analogous is that to a real-life character doing the same thing?

Writers have strange thoughts -perhaps that’s why they end up writing- but nonetheless I have been curious about this for some time now. I wonder about the ethics of fiction -not malicious, or scandalous fiction, you understand (although I suspect even those are merely the far edge of the spectrum). As it applies to writing, the very definition of ‘fiction’ -from the Latin fingere, to contrive- suggests imaginative creation, not investigative reportage where false attributions are indeed ethically problematic.

I’ve written fiction for years now (putting aside the fact that I am not at all widely published) so have I been lying all these years? If one of my characters lies, or deceives, and it happens to be read by someone in the ‘real-world’ -trespassing, in other words- have those lies in some sense transgressed the real-world ethics? Soiled our nest?

You’re right, it is perhaps a trifling concern, and yet bothersome nonetheless; I despaired of ever seeing it as the subject of an understandable evaluation. But, on one of my wide-eyed explorations, I happened upon a thoughtful essay by Emar Maier, an assistant professor of philosophy at the University of Groningen. https://aeon.co/essays/how-to-tell-fact-from-fiction-in-fiction-and-other-forms-of-lies

He starts by considering the work of another philosopher, H.P. Grice who considers that ‘it all comes down to the assumption that communication is fundamentally a cooperative endeavour,’ and postulates what seem to be almost ‘Golden Rule’ maxims of quality in communication: ‘‘do not say what you believe to be false’ and ‘do not say that for which you have insufficient evidence’.’ And yet, we violate these all the time -we tell jokes, we exaggerate, we deceive, we use metaphors, we use sarcasm, and, of course, we tell stories. ‘In all of these cases there is a clear sense in which we are not really presenting the truth, as we know it, based on the best available evidence. But there are vast differences between these phenomena. For instance, while some constitute morally objectionable behaviour, others are associated with art and poetry.’

There is a difference, though, between violating one of Grice’s norms, and flouting it with, say, a sigh and rolling of the eyes. However untrue the assertion, it is readily recognizable as an exaggeration or even a lie that is not meant to be taken as true. On the other hand, ‘Liars… violate the same maxim, but they don’t flout it. Theirs is a covert violation, and hence lying has an altogether different effect on the interpreter than irony, sarcasm or metaphor.’

Fiction, however, is more complicated. A work of fiction ‘consists of speech acts that, for the most part, look like ordinary assertions.’ And yet, ‘As with lies and irony, there is no dedicated grammar or style for constructing fictional statements that would reliably distinguish them from regular assertions.’

So, ‘Is fiction more like the covert violation of the liar, or like the overt violation of the ironical speaker? Unlike the liar, the fiction author doesn’t hide her untruthful intentions.’ There are two ways to look at this, Maier says: either that ‘both fiction and lying are quality-violating assertions – ie, speech acts presenting something believed to be false as if it’s known truth’ or ‘we can analyse fictional discourse as constituting a different type of speech act, where the usual norms and maxims don’t apply in the first place.’

‘[T]he idea that both lying and fiction are just assertions of known falsehoods can be traced back to eminent philosophers such as Plato, who wanted to ban poets from his ideal society, [and] David Hume who called them ‘liars by profession’’.

I, however, am more convinced by the opinion of Albert Camus, who believed that ‘fiction is the lie through which we tell the truth’. At any rate, Maier goes on to observe that a ‘striking difference between fictional statements and lies is the fact that, while most lies are simply false… many philosophers have argued that the statements making up a work of fiction, even those involving clearly nonexistent entities, are not really false, but at least ‘in some sense’ true – viz… true relative to the fictional world in question.’ Now we’re getting somewhere -it’s context that matters.

A second difference between fiction and lies, is the emotional response -the paradox of- fiction. ‘[W]orks of fiction induce… a ‘willing suspension of disbelief’, allowing us to be emotionally engaged with commonly known falsehoods. Lies evidently lack this property: once a lie is exposed, suspension of disbelief and emotional engagement in accordance with the story’s content become impossible… the difference between fictional statements and regular communicative assertions lies not in some hidden logical operators in the fictional assertion, but in the fact that telling fictional stories is an altogether different speech act from the act of assertion that makes up our talk about the weather, or our newspaper reporting.’ Kind of what I suspected all along. ‘As the English poet and soldier Sir Philip Sidney put it in The Defence of Poesy (1595): ‘Now for the poet, he nothing affirmeth, and therefore never lieth.’

So, ‘it seems that fiction and lying are mutually exclusive, for they belong to distinct speech act categories, conform to different norms, and affect different cognitive states… since it is the text itself that generates the fictional world, the statements that make up that text should automatically become true in that world. When George Orwell wrote that ‘the clocks were striking thirteen’, it thereby became true in the fictional world of Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949) that the clocks were striking thirteen. Unlike for the historian or the journalist, there is no relevant world outside the text, relative to which we could fact-check whether Orwell miscounted. This line of argument can be summed up in the principle of authorial authority: the statements that make up a work of fiction are true in that fiction.’

Of course there are things like ‘imaginative resistance’ where internal inconsistencies disrupt belief, but writers -and certainly proof readers and editors- are pretty good at resolving these gaffes before they are hung out to air on the clothesline of publication.

At any rate, I’m not sure I’ve discovered many immutable truths in Maier’s treatment of fictive lying, but I feel better about my own ethics of make-believe. I do still wonder about the boundary markers at that razor-thin edge where well-written fiction seems real and induces real emotion. I suppose edges are usually like that, though: porous…

Counterfactualities?

Remember Plato’s Cave allegory? In his Republic he describes a scenario in which some people have spent their lives chained in a cave so they can only see the wall in front of them. There is a fire behind them that casts shadows on the wall that they have no way of knowing are only shadows. For these people, the shadows are their reality. There seem to be many versions of what happens next, but the variation I prefer is that one of the people escapes from the cave and discovers the sun outside for the first time; he realizes that what he had assumed was real -the shadows- were just that: merely the shadows cast by the actual objects themselves.

Sometimes we become so accustomed to seeing things a certain way, we find it difficult, if not impossible, to believe there could be an alternative view. Or assume that, even if there were another version, it must be wrong. But can we be sure that we are evaluating the alternative fairly and without prejudice? Can we assess it with sufficient objectivity to allow a critical analysis? Or are we unavoidably trapped in the prevailing contemporary Weltanschauung? It’s an interesting question to be sure, and one that begs for examination, if only to explore the world behind the mirror.

I stumbled upon an essay by Julie Reshe, a psychoanalyst and philosopher, who, after recovering from a bout of depression, began to wonder whether depression itself was actually the baseline state, and one that allowed a more accurate view of how things actually are: https://aeon.co/essays/the-voice-of-sadness-is-censored-as-sick-what-if-its-sane

I have to admit that I had to temporarily divorce myself from my usually optimistic worldview to be able to fathom her argument, and I found it rather uncomfortable. But sometimes it’s instructive -even valuable- to look under a rock.

As a philosopher, Reshe felt the need to examine both sides of an argument critically, putting aside preconceptions and biases. ‘Depressogenic thoughts are unpleasant and even unbearable,’ she writes, ‘but this doesn’t necessarily mean that they are distorted representations of reality. What if reality truly sucks and, while depressed, we lose the very illusions that help us to not realise this? What if, to the contrary, positive thinking represents a biased grasp of reality? … What if it was a collapse of illusions – the collapse of unrealistic thinking – and the glimpse of a reality that actually caused my anxiety? What if, when depressed, we actually perceive reality more accurately? What if both my need to be happy and the demand of psychotherapy to heal depression are based on the same illusion?’ In other words, what if I am actually not a nice person? What if there’s a reason people don’t like me?

Whoa! Suppose this is not a counterfactual? After all, other philosophers have wondered about this. For example, Arthur Schopenhauer whose deeply pessimistic writings about the lack of meaning and purpose of existence I have never understood, or the equally famous German philosopher Martin Heidegger who felt that anxiety was the basic mode of human existence. ‘We mostly live inauthentically in our everyday lives, where we are immersed in everyday tasks, troubles and worries, so that our awareness of the futility and meaninglessness of our existence is silenced by everyday noise… But the authentic life is disclosed only in anxiety.’ My god, where’s my knife?

And even Freud wasn’t optimistic about the outcome of psychotherapeutic treatment, and was ‘reluctant to promise happiness as a result.’ He felt that ‘psychoanalysis could transform hysterical misery into ‘common unhappiness’. Great…

And then, of course, there’s the philosophical tradition called ‘depressive realism’ which holds that ‘reality is always more transparent through a depressed person’s lens.’ And just to add more poison to the cake, ‘the Australian social psychologist Joseph Forgas and colleagues showed that sadness reinforces critical thinking: it helps people reduce judgmental bias, improve attention, increase perseverance, and generally promotes a more skeptical, detailed and attentive thinking style.’

All of which is to say, I suppose, ‘The evolutionary function of depression is to develop analytical thinking mechanisms and to assist in solving complex mental problems. Depressive rumination helps us to concentrate and solve the problems we are ruminating about… depressive rumination is a problemsolving mechanism that draws attention to and promotes analysis of certain problems.’

I have presented these deeply troubling ideas merely as an exercise in perspective, I hasten to add. Sometimes it is valuable to try to grasp the Umwelt of the stranger on the other side of the door before we open it. We can only help if we are willing to understand why they are there.

Part of the solution may lie in puzzling out Reshe’s counterfactuals. She seems to want to assign meaning to her former depression, as have many of the other people she mentions, to buttress her point. She also seems to feel that there was a time when that point of view might have seemed more mainstream. That nowadays there is just too much expectation of happiness -unrealistic expectations by and large, which presents a problem in and of itself. If we constantly expect to achieve a goal, but, like a prairie horizon, it remains temptingly close and yet just out of reach, we are doomed to frustration -a self-fulfilling prophecy.

And yet, it seems to me that resigning oneself to unhappiness, or its cousin depression, doesn’t represent a paradigm shift, but rather a rationalization that it must be the default position -and therefore must serve some useful evolutionary purpose; a position benighted and stigmatized because it advertises the owner’s failure to achieve the goal that others seem to have realized.

I’m certainly not disparaging depression, but neither am I willing to accept that it serves any evolutionary strategy except that of a temporary, albeit necessary harbour until the storm passes. And to suggest that positive emotions -happiness, contentment, joy, or pleasure, to name just a few- however short-lived, are illusory, and unrealistic expectations, is merely to excuse and perhaps justify an approach to depression that isn’t working. A trail that only wanders further into the woods.

I’m certainly cognizant of the fact that there is a spectrum of depressions, from ennui to psychotic and that some are more refractory to resolution than others, but that very fact argues against leaving them to strengthen, lest they progress to an even more untenable and dangerous state.

Perhaps we need to comfort ourselves with the ever-changing, ever-contrasting nature of emotions, and not expect of them a permanence they were likely never evolved to achieve.

Goldilocks, it seems to me, realized something rather profound when she chose the baby bear’s porridge after finding papa bear’s porridge too hot, and mamma bear’s too cold: it was just right…

Imagination bodies forth the forms of things unknown

The poet’s eye, in fine frenzy rolling,
Doth glance from heaven to earth, from earth to heaven;
And as imagination bodies forth
The forms of things unknown, the poet’s pen
Turns them to shapes and gives to airy nothing
A local habitation and a name.
Such tricks hath strong imagination.                                                                                                                   
Theseus, in Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream

Shakespeare had a keen appreciation of the value of imagination, as that quote from A Midsummer Night’s Dream suggests. But what is imagination? Is it a luxury -a chance evolutionary exaptation of some otherwise less essential neural circuit- or a purpose-made system to analyse novel features in the environment? A mechanism for evaluating counterfactuals -the what-ifs?

A quirkier question, perhaps, would be to ask if it might predate language itself -be the framework, the scaffolding upon which words and thoughts are draped. Or is that merely another chicken versus egg conundrum drummed up by an overactive imagination?

I suppose what I’m really asking is why it exists at all. Does poetry or its ilk serve an evolutionary purpose? Do dreams? Does one’s Muse…? All interesting questions for sure, but perhaps the wrong ones with which to begin the quest to understand.

I doubt that there is a specific gene for imagination; it seems to me it may be far more global than could be encompassed by one set of genetic instructions. In what we would consider proto-humans it may have involved more primitive components: such non-linguistic features as emotion -fear, elation, confusion- but also encompassed bodily responses to external stimuli: a moving tickle in that interregnum between sleep and wakefulness might have been interpreted as spider and generated a muscular reaction whether or not there was an actual creature crawling on the skin.

Imagination, in other words, may not be an all-or-nothing feature unique to Homo sapiens. It may be a series of  adaptations to the exigencies of life that eventuated in what we would currently recognize as our human creativity.

I have to say, it’s interesting what you can find if you keep your mind, as well as your eyes, open. I wasn’t actively searching for an essay on imagination -although perhaps on some level, I was… At any rate, on whatever level, I happened upon an essay by Stephen T Asma, a professor of philosophy at Columbia College in Chicago and his approach fascinated me. https://aeon.co/essays/imagination-is-such-an-ancient-ability-it-might-precede-language

‘Imagination is intrinsic to our inner lives. You could even say that it makes up a ‘second universe’ inside our heads. We invent animals and events that don’t exist, we rerun history with alternative outcomes, we envision social and moral utopias, we revel in fantasy art, and we meditate both on what we could have been and on what we might become… We should think of the imagination as an archaeologist might think about a rich dig site, with layers of capacities, overlaid with one another. It emerges slowly over vast stretches of time, a punctuated equilibrium process that builds upon our shared animal inheritance.’

Interestingly, many archaeologists seem to conflate the emergence of imagination with the appearance of artistic endeavours –‘premised on the relatively late appearance of cave art in the Upper Paleolithic period (c38,000 years ago)… [and] that imagination evolves late, after language, and the cave paintings are a sign of modern minds at work.’

Asma, sees the sequence rather differently, however: ‘Thinking and communicating are vastly improved by language, it is true. But ‘thinking with imagery’ and even ‘thinking with the body’ must have preceded language by hundreds of thousands of years. It is part of our mammalian inheritance to read, store and retrieve emotionally coded representations of the world, and we do this via conditioned associations, not propositional coding.’

Further, Asma supposes that ‘Animals appear to use images (visual, auditory, olfactory memories) to navigate novel territories and problems. For early humans, a kind of cognitive gap opened up between stimulus and response – a gap that created the possibility of having multiple responses to a perception, rather than one immediate response. This gap was crucial for the imagination: it created an inner space in our minds. The next step was that early human brains began to generate information, rather than merely record and process it – we began to create representations of things that never were but might be.’ I love his idea of a ‘cognitive gap’. It imagines (sorry) a cognitive area where something novel could be developed and improved over time.

I’m not sure that I totally understand all of the evidence he cites to bolster his contention, though- for example, the view of philosopher Mark Johnson at the University of Oregon that there are ‘deep embodied metaphorical structures within language itself, and meaning is rooted in the body (not the head).’ Although, ‘Rather than being based in words, meaning stems from the actions associated with a perception or image. Even when seemingly neutral lexical terms are processed by our brains, we find a deeper simulation system of images.’ But at any rate, Asma summarizes his own thoughts more concisely, I think: ‘The imagination, then, is a layer of mind above purely behaviourist stimulus-and-response, but below linguistic metaphors and propositional meaning.’

In other words, you don’t need to have language for imagination. But the discipline of biosemantics tries to envisage how it might have developed in other animals. ‘[Primates] have a kind of task grammar for doing complex series of actions, such as processing inedible plants into edible food. Gorillas, for example, eat stinging nettles only after an elaborate harvesting and leave-folding [sic] sequence, otherwise their mouths will be lacerated by the many barbs. This is a level of problem-solving that seeks smarter moves (and ‘banks’ successes and failures) between the body and the environment. This kind of motor sequencing might be the first level of improvisational and imaginative grammar. Images and behaviour sequences could be rearranged in the mind via the task grammar, long before language emerged. Only much later did we start thinking with linguistic symbols. While increasingly abstract symbols – such as words – intensified the decoupling of representations and simulations from immediate experience, they created and carried meaning by triggering ancient embodied systems (such as emotions) in the storytellers and story audiences.’ So, as a result, ‘The imaginative musician, dancer, athlete or engineer is drawing directly on the prelinguistic reservoir of meaning.’

Imagination has been lauded as a generator of progress, and derided as idle speculation throughout our tumultuous history, but there’s no denying its power: ‘The imagination – whether pictorial or later linguistic – is especially good at emotional communication, and this might have evolved because emotional information drives action and shapes adaptive behaviour. We have to remember that the imagination itself started as an adaptation in a hostile world, among social primates, so perhaps it is not surprising that a good storyteller, painter or singer can manipulate my internal second universe by triggering counterfactual images and events in my mind that carry an intense emotional charge.’

Without imagination, we cannot hope to appreciate the Shakespeare who also wrote, in his play Richard III:

Princes have but their titles for their glories,                                                                                                      An outward honor for an inward toil,                                                                                                                And, for unfelt imaginations,                                                                                                                                They often feel a world of restless cares.

Personally, I cannot even imagine a world where imagination doesn’t play such a crucial role… Or can I…?