Sunday, July 31, 2016


Jupiter: View from Jupiter’s South Pole, from the Juno spacecraft, NASA, July 20, 2016

Mazury region, former East Prussia

In the forest near the lake we found,
half-buried in white sand,
a weather-scarred plaque
with the name of a German village.

We stared at the steep fence
of the Gothic alphabet.
Around, like a prayer for the dead,
the long shush of wind in the pines.

I repeated the name of the vanished
village like a spell. 

I thought we’d always find

that greenest of all the lakes,

crowned with the tallest pine 

where we sheltered from rain.
He put his jacket around me.

The needles shone with drops,

a forest of crystal. But I forgot
the spell — the lake 

among a thousand lakes,
the evenings hyphenated

with gold dashes of the fireflies.
The village weathered 

into silence —
a memory of a forgetting

I would remember all my life.

The name started with an A,

as in always, and ended
with an N, as in never.
In between, forest and wind —

the dead keening for the dead
in the amber forgetting of pines.

~ Oriana © 2016



~ “Carole Peterson’s research has found that small children can recall events from when they were as young as 20 months old, but these memories typically fade by they time they’re between 4 and 7 years old.

People used to think that the reason that we didn’t have early memories was because children didn’t have a memory system or they were unable to remember things, but it turns out that’s not the case,” Peterson said. “Children have a very good memory system. But whether or not something hangs around long-term depends on on several other factors.” Two of the most important factors, Peterson explained, are whether the memory “has emotion infused in it,” and whether the memory is coherent: Does the story our memory tells us actually hang together and make sense when we recall it later?

Steven Reznick explained that shortly after birth, infants can start forming impressions of faces and react when they see those faces again; this is recognition memory. Recognition memory is our most pervasive system. The ability to understand words and learn language relies on working memory, which kicks in at around six months old. More sophisticated forms of memory develop in the child’s second year, as semantic memory allows children to retain understanding of concepts and general knowledge about the world.

“When people were accusing infants of having amnesia, what they were talking about is what we refer to as episodic memory,” Reznick explained. Our ability to remember events that happened to us relies on more complicated mental infrastructure than other kinds of memory. Context is all-important. We need to understand the concepts that give meaning to an event.

False memories do exist, but their construction appears to begin much later in life. A study by Peterson presented young children with fictitious events to see if they could be misled into remembering these non-existent events, yet the children almost universally avoided the bait. As for why older children and adults begin to fill in gaps in their memories with invented details, she pointed out that memory is a fundamentally constructive activity: We use it to build understanding of the world, and that sometimes requires more complete narratives than our memories can recall by themselves.

And, as people get older, it becomes easier to conflate actual memories with other stimuli. Reznick told me of a distinct memory he has of riding in a toy wagon and tractor with his sister. The problem is that he doesn’t so much remember doing it as he remembers seeing himself do it, and he discovered why when he came across an old photograph of him and his sister riding in that very same wagon and tractor on the sidewalk outside their childhood house. He had forgotten having seen the photograph before but had remembered what it depicted, and the latter over time became its own memory.” ~


I find the part about false memories the most interesting. As a poet who has written many personal narratives, I also face an odd problem: I know I'd otherwise have forgotten all sorts of things. But poems are obviously not an accurate record. And that inaccurate record continues to haunt me and shape me.

"We tend to confuse memories with the real experience that gave rise to those memories.” ~ Daniel Kahneman


~ “For a long time, scientists thought childhood amnesia occurred because the brains of young children simply couldn't form lasting memories of specific events. Then, in the 1980s, Bauer and other researchers began testing the memories of children as young as 9 months old, in some cases using gestures and objects instead of words.

"What we found was that even as young as the second year of life, children had very robust memories for these specific past events," Bauer says. So, she wondered, "Why is it that as adults we have difficulty remembering that period of our lives?"

More studies provided evidence that at some point in childhood, people lose access to their early memories. So several years ago, Bauer and her colleague Marina Larkina decided to study a group of children to see what happened to their memories over time.

At age 3, the children were all recorded speaking with a parent about recent events, like visiting an amusement park or a visit from a relative. Then as the kids got older, the researchers checked to see how much they remembered.

And they found that children as old as 7 could still recall more than 60 percent of those early events, while children who were 8 or 9 recalled less than 40 percent. "What we observed was actually the onset of childhood amnesia," Bauer says.

It's still not entirely clear why early memories are so fragile. But it probably has to do with the structures and circuits in the brain that store events for future recall, Bauer says.

When a child is younger than 4, those brain systems are still quite immature, Bauer says. "It doesn't mean they're not working at all," she says. "But they're not working as efficiently — and therefore not as effectively — as they're going to be working in later childhood, and certainly in adulthood."

Some early memories are more likely than others to survive childhood amnesia, says Carole Peterson at Memorial University of Newfoundland. One example, she says, is a memory that carries a lot of emotion.

Findings like that are persuading courts to allow more eyewitness testimony from children, Peterson says. In the past, she says, courts thought children couldn't tell the difference between fact and fantasy. But studies have shown that they can, and that "the amount they remember is staggering."

The key to using children as witnesses is to make sure they are questioned in a noncoercive way, Peterson says. "They want to be cooperative," she says, "so you have to be very careful not to put words in their mouth.”

The Power Of Story

Another powerful determinant of whether an early memory sticks is whether a child fashions it into a good story, with a time and place and a coherent sequence of events, Peterson says. "Those are the kinds of memories that are going to last," she says.

And it turns out parents play a big role in what a child remembers, Peterson says. Research shows that when a parent helps a child give shape and structure and context to a memory, it's less likely to fade away.” ~

(No, it’s not the media! It’s attentional bias.)

~ “Consider how Amy looks at other people. She sees their features and figure, whatever good and bad parts stand out, a balanced assessment of their beauty. She has no special reason to pay extra attention to their good or bad parts, no special reason to judge them any particular way at all. At the end of the day, it just doesn’t much matter to her how other people look.

Contrast that to how much her appearance matters to her. How we look affects how people perceive us, how we perceive ourselves, how we feel walking down the street. Indeed, researchers have found that the more beautiful we are, the more we get paid, and the more we are perceived as honest and intelligent.

Like for most people, Amy’s beauty is a big deal to her. So which does she pay attention to, the potential gains of highlighting her good points, or the potential losses of highlighting her bad points? Research suggests that she will focus on losses. It’s called loss aversion.

 Amy carefully checks on all her flaws each time she looks in the mirror. The balanced beauty assessment that Amy graciously grants others is lost when she views herself. She sees herself as less beautiful than everyone else sees her.

Plus, whatever has your attention seems more important than what you’re not paying attention to. It’s called attentional bias. It’s a natural fact that if you spend most of the time carefully examining your flaws, and only very little time appreciating your good points, the flaws will tend to weigh heaviest in your mind.

Indeed, it takes years, a lifetime, even, to build up the blind spots to beauty, and the checklist of flaws Amy knows by heart. She can jump from one flaw to the next and to the next with an impressive speed and efficiency that would be fantastic if it wasn’t all aimed at tearing down the beauty before her.

Your intimate knowledge of your beauty could just as easily let you appreciate your subtle beauties as your subtle flaws, but thanks to loss aversion, your attention is dialed up to to ten and stuck on ruthless judgment.

 And so it is. Amy’s loss aversion focuses her attention on flaws. This attentional bias makes her misjudge her beauty for the worse, the handiwork of her emotional self. Then her unique intimacy with her appearance lets her unforgiving judgments strike more overwhelmingly and more piercingly than could her worst enemy. Indeed, in this, she is her own worst enemy.

Since others don’t have the ability to criticize us like we can, and they don’t have any reason to pay special attention to our faults, their attention towards us is more balanced. They see the clearest good and bad things.” ~

Oriana: We usually blame mass media for promoting unrealistic beauty standards. But that doesn’t explain why we see many other people as more attractive than ourselves. It makes sense that it’s the negative daily scrutiny — the negative “attentional bias.” Women in particular will understand what it means.


~ “The first thing I’ve noticed with Trump is that he tends to slightly misuse words. In speech/language pathology, this is a word finding issue. In the current speech, Trump began by calling the Convention as a beautiful event. He complimented the speakers, saying:

“So many of the speakers were so amazing and really ground setting. Just ground setting.”

Clearly he meant “ground breaking,” but he didn’t notice.

Later he said that former Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton’s (D-N.Y.) people “swamped” Senator Bernie Sanders (D-Vt.). He seemed to mean that they mistreated him, which isn’t what “swamped” means.

People with word finding deficits rely on words with little meaning. They use phrases like “by the way,” or “believe me.” They depend heavily on empty words like “really” and “very,” and use a restricted list of adjectives.  Trump uses the words “tremendous,””amazing,” and “nice,” none of which tells us anything.

Many people with this issue often have attentional issues. If you know anyone with ADHD you’ve experienced this problem.

Every phrase Trump utters reminds him of something else. He jumps off his current track and follows another.

Here just one example:

“If I don’t win, meaning that final stage,  we beat 17 people, it was actually 17 because there’s one that we don’t even talk about, who joined who left very quickly. One statement, he was gone, OK? And then don’t forget, Hillary had a couple of guys that dropped out and then Bernie ran a good campaign…”

No matter what he starts with, Trump manages to turn the topic in two ways. He always brings it back to self-praise. Equally worrisome is that he also consistently turns it back to his rivals or perceived enemies.

For example:

“First of all the Secret Service is unbelievable. Let me tell you, these guys are fantastic. I’m the best thing that ever happened to the Secret Service.”

Speaking of Trump’s short attention span, here is Tony Schwartz, the ghost-wrote he wrote “The Art of the Deal”:

“He has such a short attention span that he was, in my experience, unable to retain much information about any subject because he couldn’t pay attention for long enough to do that. It’s reflected in the severe limits of his vocabulary, the elementary nature of the sentences that he speaks, the lack of specificity he gives about anything he would do as President.”


This is a whole lot more instructive than the previous reports that merely told us that Trump speaks at the fifth-grade level. Here at last we have a more specific analysis. Yes, it’s very striking that Trump constantly uses empty words like “amazing,” “fantastic,” and “incredible” — and filler verbiage like “Let me tell you.” A problem with finding specific words would account for that. It has been suggested that Trump shows signs of mental decline that may indicate the onset of Alzheimer’s.

Frankly, I can hardly keep up with all the personality and brain-function disorders that Trump appears to display. But it’s not just “textbook narcissism.” His brain isn’t working right. 

This really makes me realize how important it is to "think outside of the cortex." Antonio Damasio makes a compelling case for the brain stem as the structure responsible for our sense of self, which in turn relies on the sameness of the internal body. And we share this with most animals. The richness of our consciousness is due to the complexities of the cortex, but not our elementary sense of having a self, or being a self (vocabulary tends to get slippery here, but hello there, good morning to me, it’s me again, my “daily body” — how amazing!)

This makes more sense about the sense of self than anything else I've come across. The brain stem! Yes, it would be an ancient, primary structure . . .

 His sense of self was probably very strong while it lasted.


Kevin Nelson, who wrote the most comprehensive neurological account of near-death experiences, explains: ~ “The brain stem orchestrates consciousness. When regions within the brain stem only millimeters in size are destroyed, a deep, permanent coma ensues.

The brain stem not only arouses us, it also regulates breathing, heartbeat, “fight or flight,” and vegetative functions. The arousal system contains the switches that shift our consciousness between its three states. The body’s nervous system connects with the arousal system through the spinal cord that extends upward as a great stalk, entering the skull to merge with the brain stem. The same system automatically controls our heart and lungs.

The brain stem began developing early on in evolution, 300 million years ago, and it has changed very little from species to species since that time. From rat to human, the brain stems of all mammals are curiously similar. The reason for this is that the brain stem’s function is so critical — to get it wrong in even the slightest way is usually incompatible with life itself.

The brain stem awakens the thalamus and cortex above, which in turn brings us the human experience, the mundane and the transcendent. Our brain stem is easily overshadowed by the grander thalamus and cortex; and everyone who has tried to understand the brain in spiritual experience has ignored the brain stem’s vital role in regulating consciousness. No more.

During REM sleep, the body is actually paralyzed. If a person wakes up and their brain doesn’t move out of REM, they might be still paralyzed. This is called sleep paralysis. Hallucinations, activation of the visual system, out-of-body experiences and dreamlike images while a person is awake are probably all related to activation of the REM system when someone’s awake.

Now why does this happen when a person has very low blood pressure — which occurs near-death — or when someone is fainting? As it turns out, the body systems that regulate the transition between REM and wakefulness are also responsible for the body’s reaction to low blood pressure. Why this happens is not clear, but it’s deeply wired in the oldest part of our brains, so the connection must be doing something good for survival, and it must be important.” ~


It’s somewhat startling to realize that both the sense of self and mystical experiences involve the most ancient parts of our brain. The more we discover, the more surprises lie ahead.

And thus it turns out that Descartes was wrong in more than positing the mind and body dualism. Cogito ergo sum? Only an intellectual could come up with this delusion. Besides, my guess is that, given the involuntary nature of thinking (to use a common idiom, thoughts “arise”), it would be more correct to say that thoughts think us.

I love Damasio’s conclusion that the sense of self derives from the continuity of our body, the stability of the inner physiological state. “I have a body, therefore I am.” We share that body-derived I AM not only with dogs and cats, complex animals who obviously each have a unique personality, but with rats and wombats, and probably most “sentient creatures.”

Anna Rosina Marquart, 1600s. It was the age of Descartes. I wear a ruff, therefore I am? 
It seems that for many centuries, being rich meant you wore uncomfortable clothes -- this was worse for women, of course, but men too wore ruffs and other crazy stuff. When did we start dressing for comfort? Was it the Sixties revolution or later? It seems a pretty recent notion.)


Conservative mentality is born of the “strict-father morality” (Lakoff). This is essentially the religious mentality, even if not all conservatives are religious. It could also be called the authoritarian mentality, since the role of authority is so critical. Was your father (or dominant parent) nurturing, or a bully? So much seems to depend on that. We tend to internalize the abuse and come to identify with the abuser.

After WWII, we saw a significant emergence of the psychological approach to human problems — seeing people as damaged rather than innately evil, to be healed rather than punished. Dr. Benjamin Spock has been blamed for the emergence of liberalism — he with his “permissive” idea that babies were to be picked up when they cried and fed when they were hungry.

It is now a platitude to say that what children need most is love. But looked at from the perspective of the past, this is a supreme heresy. Before WW2, most parents would say that what children need most is discipline — strict, harsh upbringing. They need to learn obedience.

Then came the psychological revolution, with its compassionate approach — trying to understand, rather than condemn.

But just to make the conservative-liberal distinction more complicated, there was Margaret Atwood’s insightful (though not original to her) statement that Trump is closer to an Enlightenment figure. The American culture reflects a constant tension between Puritanism and the Enlightenment, and it has to be conceded that Trump is hardly a Puritan. For all his hypocritical assertions about loving the bible, he probably doesn’t even believe in god. Yet he falls into the conservative camp of admiring and emulating “strong men” (note that he’s been praised by Putin and Kim Jong Un, and has expressed admiration for Saddam Hussain, who knew “how to kill his enemies” — and trying to win through bullying and insults.

(But Trump won’t win. One reason is that he doesn’t have a competent, totally supportive wife who’d calm him down and stop him from being such a jerk. He’s been trying to use his daughter Ivanka as a wife substitute (cf Harry Truman and Ross Perot, who also tried to display a competent daughter to cover up for having dysfunctional marriages) — but it just doesn't work; the American public wants to see a strong marriage; the spouse is a critically important part of the team.

On the other hand, all bets are off when it comes to this campaign, which has been called a long bad joke that just keeps going on. Trump is a caricature of machismo, which (in spite of the ridiculous extremes) endears him to those who worship machismo; Hillary does not conform to the nurturing mother archetype, so basically her appeal is not positive, but cast in negative terms: she is the lesser evil, the anti-Trump.)

Yet another important bit of knowledge came from the video on the brain stem. The most ancient brain structure is the one that endows us both the sense of sense and the capacity for mystical experiences — how sweet it is . . .  Also in the realm of health: the great good news that major diseases are declining.

The image of the month was of course the view of Jupiter from the Juno spacecraft. 

(A question on Facebook, I'm not sure if in jest: Is this pottery?)

Biology fact of the month — I’ve known this for a while, but the numbers have finally registered on me: the average human body has 30 trillion cells, but we also have 40 trillion bacteria that live in our bodies, mostly in the digestive system. Hello, Lactobacter; hello
there, dear Bifidum!



~ “Our visual brains have several distinct systems. One of them is more specialized for the graspable interaction space of the lower visual field and another is specialized for the visual field above the horizon. In his fascinating book, The Dopaminergic Mind in Human Evolution and History, along with many more technical articles, the neuroscientist Fred Previc argues that this second visual system, specializing as it does in surveying “extrapersonal space,” the distant vistas above the horizon, is especially well-developed in human beings. 

Previc goes on to argue that this area of the brain is strongly activated during religious experiences, meditative activity, dreaming, and probably any kind of artistic or creative activity that encourages us to reach beyond the bounds of nearby time and space into the infinite and eternal. It’s no accident, according to Previc, that meditative states, trances, mystical or religious experiences are often accompanied by upward turn of the eyes.

It’s not just when we are gazing into a canopy of trees or a sky full of clouds that we raise our gaze. When we enter large and impressive buildings it’s also reflexive for our eyes to flick upwards. Think of a visit to a massive cathedral, a large courthouse, or even a corporate headquarters. That great expanse of space, so costly to build and to maintain, is there for a reason. It influences how you feel and what you think. Builders of impressive religious architecture have always known this. Large built spaces not only convey power and strength but they also cause us crane our heads in awe and to engage with the infinite. 

A recent initiative from the American Institute of Architects also urged us to look up. The motivation of that campaign was to encourage people to pay attention to the great architecture that’s around them—to look up from their phones and their immediate surroundings and take in the awe-inspiring vistas of the human creations that surround them. I could well imagine that when we do so, we’re also putting ourselves into contact with the lofty infinite, thinking big thoughts, and contemplating our place in the Universe. It’s also not at all unreasonable to suppose that the verbal associations that we make between the overhead and spiritual, religious, and moral dimensions of our lives may be related to this division of labor among the visual streams of information in our brains. Supreme beings are most often imagined as being far above us and not below us. We stake out the moral “high ground.”

Next time you’re out and about in the world (which I hope will be very soon), look up.  You might be surprised by how a simple act of looking will affect your mood and your patterns of thought.” ~

Road to the Clouds, Alberta, Canada
Oriana: I suspect that the reason some people don’t enjoy hiking is that they tend to look downward — which makes them scared — sometimes even dizzy and nauseous. The quick remedy is to look mostly slightly upward.

ending on beauty:


In order to separate ourselves from our griefs, our last resort is delirium; subject to its distractions, we no longer meet our afflictions: parallel to our pains and adjacent to our melancholies, we divagate in a salutary darkness.

~ Emile Cioran, “Abdications”

I was immediate drawn to “divagate.” It means to stray or wander about, also digress — from Latin “to wander or drift about” (e.g. the vagus nerve, or Hadrian’s Animula vagula, blandula). But the whole phrase is wonderful: “parallel to our pains and adjacent to our melancholies, we divagate in a salutary darkness.” And the Latin makes me think of “lost soul.”

By the way, we don’t have to reach for the extreme of delirium; depression in the sense of obsessive self-loathing is an example of divagation, the whole world devolving to the distorted, deluded inner world. I heard this once during a scientific conference and never forgot it: All “mental disorders” consist in paying attention to the wrong things.

The social media flatten our style; the use the same plain words over and over. The more it happens, the more I love an unusual and beautiful way of using words, a soulful probing.

Image: The Plaza Building, William R. Derrick, 1911

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