Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘science’

04 FEBRUARY, 2013

Neurologist Oliver Sacks on Memory, Plagiarism, and the Necessary Forgettings of Creativity

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“Memory is dialogic and arises not only from direct experience but from the intercourse of many minds.”

“Memory is never a precise duplicate of the original… it is a continuing act of creation,” researcher Rosalind Cartwright reminded us in her fascinating treatise on the science of dreams. “The biggest lie of human memory is that it feels true,” Jonah Lehrer wrote shortly before being engulfed a maelstrom of escalating accusations of autoplagiarism and outright fabulation. Yet while we already know that memory is not a recording device, the exact extent of its fallibility eludes — often, quite conveniently — most of us.

In his recent New York Review of Books essay, legendary neurologist Oliver Sacks tackles precisely that, exposing the remarkable mechanisms by which we fabricate our memories, involuntarily blurring the line between the experienced and the assimilated:

It is startling to realize that some of our most cherished memories may never have happened — or may have happened to someone else. I suspect that many of my enthusiasms and impulses, which seem entirely my own, have arisen from others’ suggestions, which have powerfully influenced me, consciously or unconsciously, and then been forgotten.

One phenomenon Sacks argues is particularly common — if not adaptive — in the creative mind is that of autoplagiarism:

Sometimes these forgettings extend to autoplagiarism, where I find myself reproducing entire phrases or sentences as if new, and this may be compounded, sometimes, by a genuine forgetfulness. Looking back through my old notebooks, I find that many of the thoughts sketched in them are forgotten for years, and then revived and reworked as new. I suspect that such forgettings occur for everyone, and they may be especially common in those who write or paint or compose, for creativity may require such forgettings, in order that one’s memories and ideas can be born again and seen in new contexts and perspectives.

Citing a number of case studies where false memories of fictitious events were “implanted” in people’s minds, Sacks explores unconscious plagiarism, something Henry Miller poetically probed and Mark Twain eloquently, if unscientifically, addressed in his famous letter to Helen Keller. Sacks writes:

What is clear in all these cases — whether of imagined or real abuse in childhood, of genuine or experimentally implanted memories, of misled witnesses and brainwashed prisoners, of unconscious plagiarism, and of the false memories we probably all have based on misattribution or source confusion — is that, in the absence of outside confirmation, there is no easy way of distinguishing a genuine memory or inspiration, felt as such, from those that have been borrowed or suggested, between what the psychoanalyst Donald Spence calls ‘historical truth’ and ‘narrative truth.’

[…]

There is, it seems, no mechanism in the mind or the brain for ensuring the truth, or at least the veridical character, of our recollections. We have no direct access to historical truth, and what we feel or assert to be true (as Helen Keller was in a very good position to note) depends as much on our imagination as our senses. There is no way by which the events of the world can be directly transmitted or recorded in our brains; they are experienced and constructed in a highly subjective way, which is different in every individual to begin with, and differently reinterpreted or reexperienced whenever they are recollected. . . . Frequently, our only truth is narrative truth, the stories we tell each other, and ourselves—the stories we continually recategorize and refine. Such subjectivity is built into the very nature of memory, and follows from its basis and mechanisms in the human brain. The wonder is that aberrations of a gross sort are relatively rare, and that, for the most part, our memories are relatively solid and reliable.

Sacks concludes:

We, as human beings, are landed with memory systems that have fallibilities, frailties, and imperfections — but also great flexibility and creativity. Confusion over sources or indifference to them can be a paradoxical strength: if we could tag the sources of all our knowledge, we would be overwhelmed with often irrelevant information.

Indifference to source allows us to assimilate what we read, what we are told, what others say and think and write and paint, as intensely and richly as if they were primary experiences. It allows us to see and hear with other eyes and ears, to enter into other minds, to assimilate the art and science and religion of the whole culture, to enter into and contribute to the common mind, the general commonwealth of knowledge. This sort of sharing and participation, this communion, would not be possible if all our knowledge, our memories, were tagged and identified, seen as private, exclusively ours. Memory is dialogic and arises not only from direct experience but from the intercourse of many minds.

In a rare act of defiant reliability, my own memory brought to mind a footnoted passage in Sacks’s mind-bendingly excellent recent book, Hallucinations, where he explores memory further:

We now know that memories are not fixed or frozen, like Proust’s jars of preserves in a larder, but are transformed, disassembled, reassembled, and recategorized with every act of recollection.

In a footnote, he adds:

For [researchers] in the early twentieth century, memories were imprints in the brain (as for Socrates they were analogous to impressions made in soft wax) — imprints that could be activated by the act of recollection. It was not until the crucial studies of Frederic Bartlett at Cambridge in the 1920s and 1930s that the classical view could be disputed. Whereas Ebbinghaus and other early investigators had studied rote memory — how many digits could be remembered, for instance — Bartlett presented his subjects with pictures or stories and accounts of what they had seen or heard were somewhat different (and sometimes quite transformed) on each re-remembering. These experiments convinced Bartlett to think in terms not of a static thing called ‘memory,’ but rather a dynamic process of ‘remembering.’ He wrote:

Remembering is not the re-excitation of innumerable fixed, lifeless and fragmentary traces. It is an imaginative reconstruction, or construction, built out of the relation of our attitude towards a whole active mass of organized past reactions or experience. . . . It is thus hardly ever really exact.

Could it be, then, that the very fallibility of memory is essential to our combinatorial creativity and to the mechanics of the slot machine of ideation? To steal like an artist might be, after all, the default setting of the brain.

Oliver Sacks portrait by John Midgley via Wired

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04 FEBRUARY, 2013

The Unfeathered Bird: An Illustrated History of Avian Anatomy

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Evolutionary eccentricities, ornithological oddities, and the engineering mysteries of flight.

Birds are an incessant source of scientific fascination, from why they sing to how their wings work. The Unfeathered Bird (public library; UK) by Katrina van Grouw isn’t about the anatomy of birds — it’s about “how their appearance, posture, and behavior influence, and are influenced by, their internal structure.” Though originally intended as a tool for artists, the book is also rigorously scientific but without the burdensome language and clunky terminology of anatomical writing. What emerges is an illuminating and meticulously illustrated look at the brilliance of birds at the intersection of art, science and history, covering such intricate mysteries as how the ostrich lost two of its four toes and why the vulture diverged into radically different Old World and New World varieties. The 385 or so intricate drawings include a number of species never illustrated before and explore everything from the mechanics of flight to the aerodynamics of avian skulls.

Van Grouw — who is herself a remarkable cross-pollinator of disciplines and perspectives as a taxidermist, RCA-trained fine artist, and former curator of the ornithological collections at London’s Natural History Museum — writes of the mechanical miracle of flight:

Flight makes rather specific demands on the physical engineering of an animal. The skeleton needs to be of a lightweight structure, with large flattened surfaces for the attachment of muscles, and to have tremendous rigidity and the strength to support the entire weight of the animal while airborne. The components are highly specialized and once a satisfactory blueprint has been achieved there is very little room for modification. The paradox, then, is that although the birds represent the largest class of all the vertebrates — approaching ten thousand species — they are fundamentally rather uniform; though with some very surprising variations!

The adaptation for flight is the most important factor behind the structure of birds and can provide an explanation for virtually all of their anatomical characteristics — even those that seem to have nothing to do with flying. For example, with wings instead of front legs, birds need two strong hind limbs and a modified posture to balance on them. And with a body rigid enough to cope with the demands of flapping flight, it’s vital to have a long and flexible neck to compensate for the loss of movement. But it’s important to remember that birds didn’t learn to fly first and develop these perfections afterward. Many of these qualities had long been present in the birds’ theropod ancestors — the upright dinosaurs that walked on two legs — and only through a constant process of adaptation and counteradaptation spanning millions of years did it become possible for the feathered dinosaurs to survive and take wing.

One of the most intriguing chapters deals with the divergence of vulture species between the New and Old World:

The universal truths about vultures are, as every schoolchild knows, as follows: they have a bare head, a hooked beak, and long, broad wings, and they eat things they find dead. Few definitions could be more cut and dried. All over the Americas, Europe, and Asia this very uniform group of birds can be instantly recognized and, on a group level at least, poses no problems of identification.

So when, in the 1980s, the newly developed techniques for hybridizing strands of DNA revealed that the New World vultures may not be vultures at all but close relatives of the storks, it created something of a sensation. Indeed, to the average birdwatcher the concept seemed to symbolize the chaos that test-tube technology would drag their world into without the steadying hand of empirical common sense. What many birdwatchers didn’t realize was that this concept wasn’t new. In fact, by the time the DNA experiments were taking place, it had already been around for over a hundred years, based on a range of complex anatomical features: the musculature of the wings, formation of the intestines, and so forth. More recent DNA research has once again made the position of the New World vultures uncertain. They are probably not, after all, stork relatives, and for the time being some authorities have tentatively returned them to the company of other hook-billed birds.

What is perhaps most remarkable, however, is not that New and Old World vultures may not be related but that two possibly unrelated groups of birds have come to look so alike. They differ externally only in the longer and functional hind toe of the Old World vultures and the open nostrils (you can see right through from one side to the other) of the New World vultures.

This similarity is the result of a process called convergent evolution. It’s the selective pressures of the lifestyle that shape an animal, not the shape of an animal that dictates the lifestyle — given sufficient time, that is. So when different animal groups share the same ecological niche independently of one another there is a tendency for them to reinvent the wheel, finding the same solutions to the same challenges and ultimately coming to look very much alike.

Meticulously researched, gloriously illustrated, and absorbingly narrated, The Unfeathered Bird lives at the heart of that timeless temple where art and science meet to enrich one another with “systematic wonder.”

Images courtesy Princeton University Press

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01 FEBRUARY, 2013

The Science of Which Came First, the Chicken or the Egg, Animated

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What the ancient proto-chicken has to do with how wolves became dogs.

Since the dawn of recorded history, philosophers have pondered which came first, the chicken or the egg, as a causality dilemma exploring grander existential inquiries into the origin of life and the universe. But, it turns out, science has an answer that bypasses the metaphysical and dives right into the nitty-gritty of the tangible and concrete. In yet another illuminating animation, AsapSCIENCE enlist evolutionary biology in answering the age-old question, comparing the process to how dogs became dogs and ultimately demonstrating that — like much of science — the solution may have more to do with semantics and nomenclature than with actual scientific evidence.

No one mutation can ever really constitute a new species.

AsapSCIENCE have previously covered the science of why money can’t buy happiness, the science of productivity, what alcohol does to your brain, why we blush, the science of lucid dreaming, how music enchants the brain, the neurobiology of orgasms, and why we are all female.

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