Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘science’

29 NOVEMBER, 2012

Emotional Anatomy: Stunning Vintage Illustrations of Somatic Consciousness

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Dissecting the pulsating accordion of existence.

What would happen if you combined phrenology, sentics, and Benjamin Betts’s geometrical psychology? You might get something like Emotional Anatomy: The Structure of Experience (public library) — a curious vintage tome originally published in 1985 by Stanley Keleman, director of Berkeley’s Center for Energetic Studies, who sets out to map “the geometry of somatic consciousness” based on the idea that physical human shape is interrelated with one’s emotional and psychological reality — a questionable pseudoscientific model akin to a kind of psychological phrenology. But what makes the book remarkable is the stunning black-white-and-red artwork by illustrator, fine artist and anatomist Vincent Perez, depicting Keleman’s various conceptions of somatic functions.

Keleman begins with a biological primer on the structure and function of cells, exploring how energy and substance move through the body:

He then examines the shift “from animal motility to human movement, uprightness and walking,” identifying three core patterns: reaching out, pulling in, and pushing away — the basic motions of swimming, which begin in the womb.

He then moves on to the somatic structure of the body, examining its layers:

Keleman attempts to align body postures with our emotional response to insults and stress, outlining the stages of stress response:

As we face the world we are upright. The soft front of the body is exposed. We are prepared to move out of ourselves into the world or from the world into ourselves. Insults temporarily invoke the startle reflex; it may be perpetuated as stress. Uprightness and our move toward the world is interrupted. We attempt to preserve our humanity by defending ourselves.

We are programmed with the startle reflex, a series of alarm responses lying along a continuum. The startle reflex begins with the investigative response, followed by assertion, then an annoyance reaction, then anger or avoidance, and, finally, submission and collapse. If the first response alleviates the insult, the event that interrupts us, the organism returns to homeostasis. If not, the first response can invoke the second, the second lead to the third, and so on. In cases of severe threat, the early stages of startle are by-passed and we jump immediately to a more extreme response. Yet the continuum of startle responses does not necessarily occur in an invariable order; neither are the steps sequential. One or several steps could be by-passed.

The body, Keleman argues, consists of pouches that “pulsate in a concert of expansion and contraction,” moving “back and forth between arousal and containment … swelling and shrinking — an accordion-like function.” When stress patterns become permanent, the “pulsatory accordion” locks into an inflamed or inhibited position — “overbound,” with pulsation sped up, and “underbound,” slowing it down.

He proposes four basic types of somatic shape, driven by different directions of pulsatory force and “express[ing] what we have experienced, our satisfactions as well as our disappointments.” He writes:

The emotional organization of the four structures demonstrates how morphology expresses personal experiences and conflicts, how layers and inner tubes are affected, where conflictual contraction occurs, how motility is distorted, what happens to excitation and its currents, and what is the emotional result.

He argues that “somatic reality” combines layers and segments of the different types, producing a kind of inner-outer remixing:

Keleman concludes by reminding us that “human relationships are a dynamic emotional process sustaining and expressing morphology.”

Whether as a cautionary souvenir of what has passed for science or as an earnest celebration of vintage illustration blending minimalist and pop art aesthetics, Emotional Anatomy is a treasure from a bygone era worth savoring in its entirety.

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28 NOVEMBER, 2012

When Babbage and Dickens Waged a War on Noise

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How the father of the computer enlisted the greatest Victorian novelist in ridding the streets of sound.

“Sound imposes a narrative on you,” wrote George Prochnik about the cultural evolution of silence, “and it’s always someone else’s narrative.” Indeed, the public-private negotiations of sound date much further back than iPod earbuds and boomboxes. From Discord: The Story of Noise (public library) — which gave us the counterintuitive story of the silent Big Bang — comes the fascinating tale of the first organized war on noise, championed by none other than computing pioneer Charles Babbage, who took it upon himself to purge London of its populous street musicians, known to use their noise as an extortion tactic by playing loudly outside fancy establishments until they were paid to leave. In 1864, Babbage published Chapter on Street Nuisances which, together with Street Music in the Metropolis released by Derby MP Michael Bass the same year, became a seminal manifesto for silence as a civic right.

Italian street musicians in London, 1877, by John Thomson and Adolphe Smith

Sound scholar Mike Goldsmith writes:

Babbage in particular did everything he could to oppose the noises of the streets, using his considerable resources of intelligence, political contacts, and obstinacy. History has on the whole not been kind to him. He is remembered with respect as the originator of the computer, but most of his other work has been either neglected or ridiculed. Certainly, Babbage was an eccentric in many ways, an dan obsessive man too.

[…]

Babbage attacked noise on many fronts, making numerous court appearances and, like any good naturalist, collecting data to support his case, including his detailed list of 165 interruptions that he suffered over 80 days and his estimate that noise had reduced his working output by a quarter.

Babbage’s efforts might have been more successful had he not insisted in characterizing the battle against noise as the battle of the ‘intellectual worker’ against ‘those whose minds are entirely unoccupied.’ He included in his pamphlet a list of ‘Encouragers of Street Music’:

tavern-keepers, public houses, gin-shops, beer-shops, coffee-shops, servants, children, visitors from the country, and, finally and occasionally, ladies of doubtful virtue…

And he also lists ‘Instruments of torture permitted by the government to be in daily and nightly use in the streets of London,’ comprising

organs, bass bands, fiddles, harps, harpsichord, hurdy-gurdies, flageolets, drums, bagpipes, accordions, halfpenny whistles, tom-toms trumpets, and, the human voice, shouting out objects for sale.

Charles Babbage

But his efforts fell on deaf ears — or, worse yet, inspired retaliation ranging from the petty to the staunchly spiteful:

Babbage’s confrontational tactics regarding local noise-makers and in particular his numerous letters to The Times met with equally devastating responses from his targets: his neighbors hired musicians to play outside his windows, sometimes using damaged wind instruments to add to the annoyance. Another neighbor blew a tin whistle from the window facing Babbage’s house for half an hour every day for several months. A brass band played outside his house for five hours. And, when Babbage left his house,

the crowd of young children, urged on by their parents, and backed at a judicious distance by a set of vagabonds, forms quite a noisy mob, following me as I pass along, and shouting out rather uncomplimentary epithets. When I turn around and survey my illustrious tail it stops .. the instant I turn, the shouting and the abuse are resumed, and the mob again follow at a respectful distance … In one case there were certainly above a hundred persons, consisting o f men, women, and boys, with multitudes of young children who followed me through the streets before I could find a policeman.

Still, Babbage persevered, enlisting the help of notable writers and artists in testifying to his mission. He even got Charles Dickens to contribute to the book:

Dickens writes that he and his cosignatories ‘are daily interrupted, harassed, worried, wearied, driven nearly mad, by street musicians.’ Writing of ‘brazen performers on brazen instruments,’ he adds: ‘No sooner does it become known to the producers of horrible sounds that any of your correspondents have particular need of quiet in their own houses, than the said houses are beleaguered by discordant hosts seeking to be bought off.’

Ultimately, Babbage had his way — sort of:

The publications of Babbage and Bass won the day. Later in the same year that they appeared, Bass’s Act passed into law. It was the beginning of the end for street musicians, though that end was slow in coming — so slow that, when Babbage was on his deathbed, an organ grinder played outside.

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27 NOVEMBER, 2012

The Science of Your Brain on Alcohol, Animated

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How your GABA receptors keep you gabbing while tipsy.

In a sequel to their animated explanation of what marijuana does to your brain, the creative duo behind AsapSCIENCE — who have previously illuminated such enigmas as the science of lucid dreaming, how music enchants the brain, the neurobiology of orgasms, and the science of procrastination — explain the science behind those familiar “feelings of release and freedom” that alcohol produces and why you tend to “think very little, but with great clarity.”

Because glutamate sites become less effective, information flow become slow, and only the largest signals can make it through. This means you feel less, perceive less, notice less, and remember less.

Complement with this fantastic 1951 black-and-white animation of how different drugs work, then wash down with an animated look at the scientific cure for hangovers.

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