Thank you for the excellent article “The Unleashed Mind,” by Shelley Carson. It’s very refreshing to read that people with eccentric, novel and even schizophrenic ways of thinking are often very high functioning, talented, intelligent individuals who can use their strange perceptual experiences to access beauty, originality and creativity.
When I telephoned my partner, a highly creative person, and read her the paragraph in Carson’s article in which the question is posed, “Do you often feel like a square peg in a round hole?” her prompt response was “My peg isn’t even on the same plane as the hole.” Another startling affirmation of the complexity of artists’ daily cognitive input.
Cherry Hill, N.J.
Your May/June 2011 cover illustration may indicate a not too subtle prejudice against highly creative people. It would seem better suited to an article entitled “The Unhinged Mind.” I notice that not one of the nine people shown on page 25, said to be “known for their quirks,” has even a remotely maniacal expression on his or her face, unlike the subject of your cover art. If a person had never known any creative people, one look at this cover would be enough to make him or her want to avoid them, if at all possible. Hardly an unbiased appraisal.
“Fatal Attraction,” by Christof Koch [Consciousness Redux], describes how parasites such as Toxoplasma gondii can affect their hosts’ behavior to suit their survival needs. I’d like to point out that this effect may not stop at parasites. There are a myriad of bacterial organisms that call our bodies home. To think that over the many millennia none of them could have evolved to influence us to act toward the survival of their species would be naive.
We are not just human, we are an ecosystem, and organisms in an ecosystem—be they humans, beavers or ants—often alter their ecosystems to suit their needs.
commenting at www.ScientificAmerican.com/Mind
WHITE MATTER CONSCIOUSNESS
I found “The Hidden Brain,” by R. Douglas Fields, to be exciting reading. This and other research are lending credibility to the conjecture that consciousness is a function of glia, not neurons.
Many who practice meditation are aware that consciousness can be free of the usual verbal chatter of our minds. It may be that what we call our self, or the “I” in our perception of self, is made not of patterns of electrochemical synaptic logic (neurons chattering) but rather the aggregate experience of the mass of glial cells, each one contributing its particle of consciousness to the whole. The mental sensations of self, desire, fear, love and hate seem better understood in the light of Fields’s discoveries about the manner in which glia interact with neural synapses and interact with one another.
Most striking of all is that we may be approaching an understanding of why we feel so strongly that our minds and bodies are split. Functions of the subconscious may be subconscious because they are neural rather than glial. A simple thought experiment: when you first wake up in the morning, your thoughts may be sluggish, but your consciousness is so fully active that you are aware you are thinking sluggishly. It is indeed ironic, as Fields describes, that we have long ignored the glial functions of thought processes, thinking of them as merely support for the nervous system, in a manner similar to the ancient Greeks thinking the brain was simply an organ for cooling the blood.
FAULTY DEPTH PERCEPTION
Allow me to take a stab at what might be behind White’s Effect, described in “Colors Out of Space,” by Stephen L. Macknik and Susana Martinez-Conde [Illusions]. The mystery is why the gray bars appear brighter when surrounded by white stripes and darker when surrounded by black stripes. I think the effect occurs because of the way our visual system quickly arranges a scene’s depth. By interpreting the illusion this way, the left side is composed of solid black columns partially obscured by a translucent rectangle, whereas the right side is composed of the same solid black columns now obscuring a solid gray rectangle that is also presumably in the columns’ shade. In this case, our visual system quickly deduces that the translucent object is a lighter color and closer and that the shaded object is a darker color and farther away.
LEFT BRAINS, RIGHT BRAINS
“What Are You Looking At?” by Nathan Collins [Head Lines], reports a bias. It also nicely falls prey to—or preys on—another. Our level of awareness is not just a function of our sensitivity to social cues, as the study of liberals and conservatives suggests.
We are not simply in the herd (sensitive) or out of the herd (independent). We are also rational and irrational. To rephrase to make the point less politically charged: sensitivity is not always irrational, and independence is not always rational.
As a graduate of the University of Nebraska–Lincoln, I chuckled at the “politically correct” interpretation of the study that liberals would be more sensitive to social cues. Two thoughts occurred to me: first, “liberals” in Lincoln would very likely be “conservatives” in New York or California—neither term was defined. Second, could it be that the “liberals” were of lower intelligence or, because of confusion, took longer to focus?
I recommend Milton Rokeach’s classic The Open and Closed Mind: Investigations into the Nature of Belief Systems and Personality Systems (first published in 1960), which posited that there are closed individuals on both ends of the political spectrum. His awareness and research is still relevant 50 years later.
SAD IN ENGLISH
I was fascinated to learn that personality can vary according to the language one is using, as described in “Speaking with Affect,” by Nathan Collins [Head Lines]. It reminded me of a story I once heard about language and depression.
Over two decades ago a therapist colleague of mine in London was treating an Italian patient for mild depression. His approach was to get the patient to identify the internal dialogue she used to “tell herself” that she was a failure and so trigger a depressive state; he then worked to shift her trigger phrases to more positive ones and so create a more positive outlook.
The work was done in English because that was the therapist’s first language and the client was also fluent. But having achieved the treatment goal, my colleague deemed it necessary to repeat the exercise in Italian.
He asked her, “What words do you use in Italian to trigger your depression?” A look of extreme puzzlement came over the client’s face as she replied, “But I can’t get depressed in Italian!”