Brain Pickings

Page 3

A Process for the Transfer of Energy and Feeling: George Saunders on the Key to Great Storytelling

“What a story is ‘about’ is to be found in the curiosity it creates in us, which is a form of caring.”

A Process for the Transfer of Energy and Feeling: George Saunders on the Key to Great Storytelling

We move through a storied world as living stories. Every human life is an autogenerated tale of meaning — we string the chance-events of our lives into a sensical and coherent narrative of who and what we are, then make that narrative the psychological pillar of our identity. Every civilization is a macrocosm of the narrative — we string together our collective selective memory into what we call history, using storytelling as a survival mechanism for its injustices. Along the way, we hum a handful of impressions — a tiny fraction of all knowable truth, sieved by the merciless discriminator of our attention and warped by our personal and cultural histories — into a melody of comprehension that we mistake for the symphony of reality.

Great storytelling plays with this elemental human tendency without preying on it. Paradoxically, great storytelling makes us better able not to mistake our compositions for reality, better able to inhabit the silent uncertain spaces between the low notes of knowledge and the shrill tones of opinion, better able to feel, which is always infinitely more difficult and infinitely more rewarding than to know.

Art by Ping Zhu for A Velocity of Being: Letters to a Young Reader. (Available as a print.)

That is what George Saunders explores throughout A Swim in a Pond in the Rain: In Which Four Russians Give a Master Class on Writing, Reading, and Life (public library) — his wondrous investigation of what makes a good story (which is, by virtue of Saunders being helplessly himself, a wondrous investigation of what makes a good life) through a close and contemplative reading of seven classic Russian short stories, examined as “seven fastidiously constructed scale models of the world, made for a specific purpose that our time maybe doesn’t fully endorse but that these writers accepted implicitly as the aim of art — namely, to ask the big questions.” Questions like what truth is and why we love. Questions like how to live and how to make meaning inside the solitary confinement of our mortality. Questions like:

How are we supposed to live with joy in a world that seems to want us to love other people but then roughly separates us from them in the end, no matter what?

Noting that “all coherent intellectual work begins with a genuine reaction,” Saunders frames the central question of his investigation: what we feel and when we feel it, in a story or in the macrocosm of a story that is a life — a framing that calls to mind philosopher Susanne Langer’s notion of music as “a laboratory for feeling in time,” for all great storytelling, as Maurice Sendak observed, is a work of musicality, and all that fills the brief interlude between birth and death is, in anthropologist Mary Catherine Bateson’s lovely phrasing, the work of “composing a life.” In this sense, a story is instrument for feeling — something Saunders places at the heart of his creative theorem:

What a story is “about” is to be found in the curiosity it creates in us, which is a form of caring.

Considering this consonance between storytelling and life, these parallels between how we move through the fictional world of a story and how we move through the real world, Saunders writes:

To study the way we read is to study the way the mind works: the way it evaluates a statement for truth, the way it behaves in relation to another mind (i.e., the writer’s) across space and time… The part of the mind that reads a story is also the part that reads the world; it can deceive us, but it can also be trained to accuracy; it can fall into disuse and make us more susceptible to lazy, violent, materialistic forces, but it can also be urged back to life, transforming us into more active, curious, alert readers of reality.

Art by Ofra Amit from A Velocity of Being: Letters to a Young Reader. (Available as a print.)

With an eye to how a story makes its meaning — small structural pulses appearing in sequence, at speed, to give rise to a set of expectations and resolutions — he writes:

A story is a linear-temporal phenomenon. It proceeds, and charms us (or doesn’t), a line at a time.

[…]

We might think of a story as a system for the transfer of energy. Energy, hopefully, gets made in the early pages and the trick, in the later pages, is to use that energy.

[…]

The true beauty of a story is not in its apparent conclusion but in the alteration in the mind of the reader that has occurred along the way.

This transfer of energy, this transmutation of understanding, is, of course, the mystique and mechanism by which all art moves us — a story, a song, a poem, a painting. Learning to be present with it, to notice the pulses that move the mind into thought and feeling, refines our ability to attend not only to art but to the world — for, as neuroscientist Christof Koch readily reminds us, “consciousness is the central fact of your life.” Saunders writes:

A story is a series of incremental pulses, each of which does something to us. Each puts us in a new place, relative to where we just were… We watch the way the deep, honest part of our mind reacts to it. And that part of the mind is the one that reading and writing refine into sharpness.

Art by Lia Halloran from A Velocity of Being: Letters to a Young Reader. (Available as a print.)

A story is able to reach that honest part of the mind and move it only by dignifying the reading mind as such. A generation before Saunders, E.B. White — one of the most singular and splendid storytellers of all time, and one of the most beloved children’s book authors — insisted that in order to write well for any reader, but especially for that most alert and honest-minded of readers, the child, “you have to write up, not down.” (This I consider also the key to great science-storytelling, and especially to the rare intersection of the two.) Defining a story as “an ongoing communication between two minds,” Saunders observes:

A story is a frank, intimate conversation between equals. We keep reading because we continue to feel respected by the writer.

Performing an artistic anatomy of Chekhov’s spare and stunning story “The Darling,” Saunders examines how a writer makes this conversation compelling and offers his most direct instruction for storytelling:

Always be escalating. That’s all a story is, really: a continual system of escalation. A swath of prose earns its place in the story to the extent that it contributes to our sense that the story is (still) escalating.

[…]

What is escalation, anyway? How does a story produce the illusion of escalation? … One answer: refuse to repeat beats. Once a story has moved forward, through some fundamental change in the character’s condition, we don’t get to enact that change again. And we don’t get to stay there elaborating on that state.

Escalation is also what gives a story the undertone of causality — that satisfying feeling of things making sense, because a thing has been caused by some prior thing. All causality provides an answer, pacifying and stimulating, to the most primal question of every child, the child still living in each of us: But why?

Examining the art of escalation through the lens of his definition of a story as “a process for the transfer of energy,” Saunders returns to the rhythmic dynamism driving all great storytelling:

In a good story, the writer makes energy in a beat, then transfers this energy cleanly to the next one (the energy is “conserved”). She does this by being aware of the nature of the energy she’s made. In a bad story (or an early draft), the writer doesn’t fully understand the nature of the energy she’s made, and ignores or misuses it, and it dissipates.

The preferred, most efficient, highest-order form of energy transfer (the premier way for a scene to advance the story in a non-trivial way) is for a beat to cause the next beat, especially if that next beat is felt as essential, i.e., as an escalation: a meaningful alteration in the terms of the story.

Art by Violeta Lópiz from A Velocity of Being: Letters to a Young Reader. (Available as a print.)

Coupling the importance of causality with his credo that the storytelling process is a matter of “intuition plus iteration,” Saunders echoes James Baldwin’s bellowing admonition to writers that “beyond talent lie all the usual words: discipline, love, luck, but most of all, endurance,” and reflects:

I’ve worked with so many wildly talented young writers over the years that I feel qualified to say that there are two things that separate writers who go on to publish from those who don’t.

First, a willingness to revise.

Second, the extent to which the writer has learned to make causality.

Making causality doesn’t seem sexy or particularly literary. It’s a workmanlike thing, to make A cause B, the stuff of vaudeville, of Hollywood. But it’s the hardest thing to learn. It doesn’t come naturally, not to most of us. But that’s really all a story is: a series of things that happen in sequence, in which we can discern a pattern of causality. For most of us, the problem is not in making things happen (“A dog barked,” “The house exploded,” “Darren kicked the tire of his car” are all easy enough to type) but in making one thing seem to cause the next.

This is important, because causation is what creates the appearance of meaning.

[…]

Causality is to the writer what melody is to the songwriter: a superpower that the audience feels as the crux of the matter; the thing the audience actually shows up for; the hardest thing to do; that which distinguishes the competent practitioner from the extraordinary one.

Read A Swim in a Pond in the Rain, read the seven Russian treasures of storytelling in it and Saunders’s sensitive disassembly of their machinery of magic, then revisit Chekhov’s six rules for a compelling story, Susan Sontag on storytelling and how to be a good human being, and the pioneering cognitive scientist Jerome Bruner on the psychology of what makes a great story.

BP

September 28, 1951: Alan Turing, the World’s First Digital Music, and the Poetry of Possibility

A hoot, a hummingbird, and an electronic hymn for the modern world.

“All truth is comprised in music and mathematics,” Margaret Fuller wrote in the middle of the nineteenth century as she was changing the fabric of the time. Exactly one hundred years after her untimely death, another tragic hero of another century, whose mind would shape the epochs to come, united these twin truths in a single, rapturous force-field of possibility on the pages of a programming manual containing the first instructions for how to compose music on a computer — a foundational marriage of technos and tenderness.

While the world saw early computers as oversized calculators, Alan Turing (June 23, 1912–June 7, 1954) was asking whether a computer could make you fall in love with it. Only those rare artists of the possible can look at something on the cusp of becoming and see what it can be, not as an incremental evolution of the extant and the familiar but as a leap toward the unexampled and the unimagined.

Out of Turing’s uncommon orientation to possibility arose one his most profound and undersung contributions to the modern world: the birth of digital music. Envisioning the computer’s potential as a musical instrument, Turing became the first to compose a computer program for playing notes — the greatest contribution to the universal language since Pythagoras first radicalized music with mathematics.

Alan Turing

After the end of the war — the war he helped end by cracking the Nazis’ Enigma machine and saving inestimable lives by terminating what might have been an interminable war — Turing had moved to Manchester to begin programming his colossal computer, affectionately known as Baby. From the start, he conceived of it not as a calculating device but as a universal machine capable, with sufficient imagination encoded in its native language, of approximating the capabilities of the human mind.

In 1951, if you were to walk into Turing’s Manchester Mark I computer — for it was a room-sized poem of metal and mind, stacked on post office racks — you would find a loudspeaker hooked to the colossus, emitting a shrill electronic beep whenever the machine ran aground and needed attention. Turing realized that with some imaginative code, this “hooter” could be programmed to sound notes on the musical scale, then become music.

In Turing: Pioneer of the Information Age (public library), philosopher and Turing Archive for the History of Computing director B. Jack Copeland writes:

The computer’s ‘hoot instruction’ (which he named/V, pronounced ‘slash vee’) worked like this. There was an electronic clock in the computer that synchronized all the operations. This clock beat steadily, like a silent metronome, at a rate of over 4,000 noiseless ticks per second. Executing the hoot instruction a single time made one of these ticks come alive with sound (emitted at the loudspeaker), but the sound lasted only for as long as the tick, a tiny fraction of a second. Turing described the sound as ‘something between a tap, a click, and a thump’. Executing the hoot instruction over and over again resulted in this brief sound being produced repeatedly, on every fourth tick: tick tick tick click, tick tick tick click, and so on.

The Manchester Mark 1. (Manchester University.)

The magic by which these ticks became music was a function not of the capabilities of Turing’s machine but of the incapacities of the human mind — the mind that is both instrument and computer; the mind that, for all of its astonishing complexity, still has processing limits.

The perceptual limitation of the eye-brain processor makes us perceive a hummingbird’s wings as an infinity-shaped blur of motion — a misperception that rendered the hummingbird’s flight a thing of magic for millennia, until the invention of the camera and the stroboscope in the 1830s revealed tiny wings moving at sixty distinct beats per second. So too the perceptual limitation of the ear-brain processor blurs the clicks of the hoot command, when repeated rapidly thousands of times per second, into the illusion of a continuous note.

There is poetry in Turing’s insight, poetry and cultural defiance, evocative of the protestation Ada Lovelace had issued a century earlier as she composed the world’s first computer program: “Invert the order!” she had demanded of the cultural hierarchy that ranked, and still ranks, science below poetry and philosophy in poetic and philosophic potential. But it was another young man of countercultural vision who took Turing’s insight and turned it into actual music.

Christopher Strachey. (Early computer printout, Bodleian Library, Oxford.)

Christopher Strachey (November 16, 1916–May 18, 1975) was thirty-five when he walked into Turing’s Manchester lab. A passionate pianist trained as a mathematician and physicist, he had grown up in Bloomsbury, surrounded by visionaries like Virginia Woolf and John Maynard Keynes, and had gone to King’s College, where he met Turing before the war. Like Turing, Strachey was a young gay man living in a culture of condoned bigotry and criminalized love — a culture still haunted by the ghost of Oscar Wilde, who a mere generation earlier had died for loving whom he loved. In this atmosphere of persecution, Strachey had suffered a severe mental breakdown during his third year at King’s College and had barely graduated. He must have found consolation in code, with its dual gift of programmable predictability and absolute freedom of imagination, for he devoured Turing’s programming manual as soon as it was published, then showed up at his lab, invigorated by the potential of turning binary code into the fluid splendor of music.

Turing, in turn, was intrigued by Strachey’s passionate enthusiasm and by the twenty pages of code he had brought with him — fortyfold the longest program to have run on a computer by that point. Turing sat the code-composer down at the colossal machine one evening and left. When he returned in the morning, Strachey’s program was already running and blasted, out of the bewildered blue, a tinny rendition of “God Save the King” — Britain’s national anthem.

Turing, ecstatic and laconic, pronounced: “Good show.”

When the BBC heard of the pioneering creation, they dispatched a broadcast unit equipped with a portable acetate disc cutter to record the music and stream it into the world’s ear. Turing and Strachey played three pieces for them — “God Save the King,” “Baa Baa Black Sheep,” and Glenn Miller’s “In the Mood.”

The original acetate disc containing the BBC recording. (British Library.)

Sixty-five years later, audio archivists performed a feat of digital detective virtuosity to restore this landmark recording of the world’s first computer music, pitch-warped beyond recognition by time and acetate erosion:

It is a travesty of history that while “God Save the King” was unspooling from the national airwaves in 1951, the King was authorizing orders to criminally prosecute Alan Turing for the natural octave of his love — that elemental symphony of aliveness. A year after the recording was made, after being subjected to chemical castration by the government, this hero of state died vilified by church and country.

Sixty years later, on the other side of the digital epoch Turing had sparked, he would receive posthumous pardon from that King’s daughter, coronated in the final year of Turing’s life; the British government would issue a formal apology for the unpardonable murder of one of humanity’s most visionary and sensitive-souled minds, upon whose ashes the modern world is built.

There is no god to save the Queen, to save the kweens, to save any of us and all of us from ourselves — only love and truth, be they manifested in music or in mathematics. Auden, who had escaped the same persecution by little more than luck, knew this when he wrote that “we must love one another or die,” before making making his disillusion postwar revision to “we must love one another and die”; Virginia Woolf knew this when she wrote, while Turing was saving humanity from itself at Bletchley Park, that “there is no Shakespeare… no Beethoven… no God; we are the words; we are the music; we are the thing itself.”

BP

Love, Death, and Whitman: Poet Mark Doty on the Paradox of Desire and the Courage to Love Against the Certitude of Loss

“Isn’t the flesh a way to drink of the fountain of otherhood, a way to taste the not-I, a way to blur the edges and thus feel the fact of them?… You need to both remember where love leads and love anyway; you can both see the end of desire and be consumed by it all at once.”

Love, Death, and Whitman: Poet Mark Doty on the Paradox of Desire and the Courage to Love Against the Certitude of Loss

Love and death come to us on common terms — unbidden and total, impervious to protest, naked of pretension. They also come to us entwined: Every love is a franchise of grief, for to love anything is to accept its loss — by a dissipation of ardor or of atoms, the atoms constellating the beloved or the atoms constellating us and the consciousness that does the loving, certain to one day go the way of every other consciousness and every other love that ever was and ever will be.

In some deep sense, this inevitability of loss is precisely what makes love so ecstatic — a concentrated experience of aliveness consecrated by its own perishability.

Walt Whitman touched on this with his tender, unflinching hand when he asked, “What indeed is beautiful, except Death and Love?”; when he observed that “to die is different from what any one supposed, and luckier.” He meant, I think, the luckiness of having lived at all, for death is only possible where life, improbable against the austere odds of the universe, once existed.

That inescapable interplay is what poet Mark Doty explores throughout his incandescent book What Is the Grass: Walt Whitman in My Life (public library) — part biography, part memoir, part lyric meditation on life, love, and their consanguinity with death.

Illustration by Margaret C. Cook for a rare 1913 edition of Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass. (Available as a print.)

Noting how deeply Whitman — the self-anointed poet of the body and poet of the soul — “understood that the particular is always perishing, and therefore all the more to be cherished,” Doty considers the body as an instrument of temporality and cherishment, through which the song of life sings itself and binds us to the chorus of all other bodies:

Begin with the body: water, vapor, air. You’re the shore on which an ocean of air is constantly breaking, in waves of breath. “Inside” and “outside” of lungs, permeable boundary of skin, eyes, ears, nose, holes in the body for substance passing in and out, no stable and fixed entity that is you, but a moving set of points through which pass water, air, light, food, parts of the bodies of others: their breath, tongues, genitals, hands.

[…]

The world enters us and departs, just as language and image and idea are imprinted upon our consciousness, considered, forgotten, passed on, released.

This perishable, permeable body, with its ceaseless entropic flow, lies at the heart of the paradox of desire — that electric impulse felt in the Body and felt in the Soul, furnishing our most palpable evidence that the two are one. “Behold,” Whitman wrote, “the body includes and is the meaning, the main concern and includes and is the soul.” And so desire becomes a sacrament to the interleaving of love and death, temporal by definition and necessity, its temporality the wellspring of its delirium.

Awake to this fundament of feeling, Doty challenges the damaging Romantic ideal of interminable desire within any given love — a concept by nature self-negating, dishonoring the very thing that gives desire its electric charge:

Even in the imagined paradise of limitless eros, there must be room for death; otherwise the endlessness, the lack of limit or of boundary, finally drains things of their tension, removes all edges… The same body that strains toward freedom and escape also has outer edges, also exists in time, and it’s that doubling that makes the body the sexy and troubling thing it is. O taste and see. Isn’t the flesh a way to drink of the fountain of otherhood, a way to taste the not-I, a way to blur the edges and thus feel the fact of them?

Art by Margaret C. Cook from the 1913 English edition of Leaves of Grass. (Available as a print.)

The longing of the ephemeral body is the Borgesian mirror in which the eternal longing of the soul is endlessly reflected and reflected back, flickering with the bittersweet beauty of our mortal destiny, with the transcendent urgency of life and love. Doty writes:

You need to both remember where love leads and love anyway; you can both see the end of desire and be consumed by it all at once. The ecstatic body’s a place to feel timelessness and to hear, ear held close to the chest of another, the wind that blows in there, hurrying us ahead and away, and to understand that this awareness does not put an end to longing but lends to it a shadow that is, in the late hour, beautiful.

With an eye to Whitman’s central credo, staked on the poet’s ethos that “every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you” and that we are therefore not separate selves but contiguous territories of aliveness made all the more alive and more contiguous by love, Doty writes:

When the Self dissolves into a world of separate selves and death becomes real, love becomes a pact with grief; what is gained then is the inescapably poignant fact of individuality. There will never be another you, and I love the stubborn particularity of you because you will disappear.

Art by Lia Halloran for The Universe in Verse. Available as a print.

Complement these fragments of Doty’s irreducibly splendid What Is the Grass with Hannah Arendt on how to live with the fundamental fear of love’s loss and Elizabeth Gilbert on love, loss, and the consecrating power of grief, then revisit Whitman himself on what makes life worth living.

BP

Place, Personhood, and the Hippocampus: The Fascinating Science of Magnetism, Autonoeic Consciousness, and What Makes Us Who We Are

“Often the places we grow up in… influence how we perceive and conceptualize the world, give us metaphors to live by, and shape the purpose that drives us.”

Place, Personhood, and the Hippocampus: The Fascinating Science of Magnetism, Autonoeic Consciousness, and What Makes Us Who We Are

“Place and a mind may interpenetrate till the nature of both is altered,” the Scottish mountaineer and poet Nan Shepherd wrote in her lyrical love letter to her native Highlands, echoing an ancient intuition about how our formative physical landscapes shape our landscapes of thought and feeling. The word “genius” in the modern sense, after all, originates in the Latin phrase genius loci — “the spirit of a place.”

I find myself thinking about Shepherd as I return to the Bulgarian mountains of my own childhood, trekking the same paths with my mother that I once trudged with tiny feet beside her, astonished at the flood of long-ago feelings rushing in with each step, astonished too at how effortlessly I navigate these routes I have not walked in decades.

The psychological, neurocognitive, and geophysical underpinnings of these astonishments are what M.R. O’Connor explores in Wayfinding: The Science and Mystery of How Humans Navigate the World (public library) — a layered inquiry into the science and cultural poetics of how we orient in space and selfhood, illuminating the stunning interpenetration of the two.

“View of Nature in Ascending Regions” by Levi Walter Yaggy from Geographical Portfolio — Comprising Physical, Political, Geological, and Astronomical Geography, 1893. (Available as a print, as a face mask, and as stationery cards.)

In a passage evocative of Rebecca Solnit’s memorable observation that “never to get lost is not to live,” O’Connor takes the telescopic perspective of evolutionary time to consider the cognitive handicap beneath this existential gift:

Life on earth has created millions of Ulyssean species undertaking epic journeys at scales both large and small. Getting lost is a uniquely human problem. Many animals are incredible navigators, capable of undertaking journeys that far eclipse our individual abilities. The greatest migration on earth belongs to the Arctic tern, a four-ounce argonaut that travels each year from Greenland to Antarctica and back again, a distance of some forty-four thousand miles. Flying with the wind, the tern’s return itinerary is a globe-trotter’s fantasy, circumnavigating Africa and South America.

[…]

One of the devices that an animal needs to navigate is a “clock” — an internal mechanism for measuring or keeping time. The daily mass migration of zooplankton in the world’s oceans requires them to know when dawn and dusk are approaching. It would seem this is a simple response to light stimuli, but deep-sea zooplankton, which live at depths below where light penetrates, also migrate in accordance with the length of day at different latitudes. Even slightly more complex migrations can demand multiple clocks.

Perhaps the most astonishing internal clock belongs to the bioluminescent Bermuda fireworm, which swarms the tropical waters precisely fifty-seven minutes after sunset on each third evening after the full Moon in the summer. Such a feat suggests that this tiny marine organism, with a fraction of a fraction of the cognitive capacity of a human, is internally equipped with three different timekeeping devises: a regular twenty-four-hour diurnal clock, a lunar clock with a 27.3-day cycle, and an interval timer to tick out the exact minutes past sunset.

Discus chronologicus — a German depiction of time from the early 1720s, included in Cartographies of Time. (Available as a print and as a wall clock.)

O’Connor marvels at the staggering evolutionary array of timekeeping devices that allows migratory species to keep partaking of the dance of life:

Animals that complete annual migrations or multiyear migrations have to possess a yearly clock, one that is finely attuned to the lengths of days and nights and their changes across each season. In all, evolution seems to have produced annual clocks, lunar clocks, tidal clocks, circadian clocks, and, perhaps for those that migrate under cover of darkness, a sidereal clock — which measures the time it takes a star to appear to travel around the earth.

Besides their intricate internal timekeeping mechanisms, many nonhuman animals are endowed with equally intricate space-mapping mechanisms. Each migration season, humpback whales travel more than ten thousand miles far from land to return to the precise place where they were born. There are bird species — European pied flycatchers, blackcaps, and indigo buntings among them — that appear to orient by the pole star in their nocturnal flight; there are insect species — ants and bees among them — that perform triumphs of trigonometry with their light-sensitive photoreceptors, calculating spatial distances by polarized light to find the most direct route home after a winding pathway of foraging. With their mere milligram-brains of one million neurons — a grain of sand to the Mont Blanc of our eighty-six billion — and 20/2000 vision that renders them blind by human standards, honeybees make hundreds of foraging trips per day, meandering many miles from home, then compute the “beeline” back. African ball-rolling dung beetles, Namibian desert spiders, and southern cricket frogs use the stars of the Milky Way as their compass, just like some of the most courageous members of our own species once used the constellations to find their way to freedom from the moral cowardice of tyranny: To ensure they were moving northward, migrants on the Underground Railroad were instructed to keep the river on one side and “follow The Drinking Gourd” — an African name for Ursa Major, or The Big Dipper.

“Planetary System, Eclipse of the Sun, the Moon, the Zodiacal Light, Meteoric Shower” by Levi Walter Yaggy from Geographical Portfolio — Comprising Physical, Political, Geological, and Astronomical Geography, 1887. (Available as a print, as a face mask, and as stationery cards.)

Like all reality-radicalizing discoveries that defy the limiting creaturely intuitions we call common sense, the notion that animals might use magnetism for navigation was long derided as something more akin to spiritualism than to science. Humphry Davy — the greatest chemist of the Golden Age of chemistry, charismatic pioneer of the scientific lecture as popular entertainment — was keenly interested in the mystery of animal magnetism. A century after him, Nikola Tesla — a dazzling mind epochs ahead of his time in myriad ways, whose legacy shapes so much of our daily lives and whose name is now the measuring unit of magnetic fields — stood a chance of cracking the mystery, given with his twin passions for pigeons and magnetism, but the opprobrium of the scientific establishment was too impenetrable and the technology was not yet there. It wasn’t until 1958 that a young German graduate student — Wolfgang Wiltschko — was tasked with disproving animal magnetic navigation once and for all. Instead, he ended up proving it: In the then-dubious experiment he was asked to replicate, the birds he let loose in a space with no light source could, just like in the original experiment performed by a fellow student, still orient effortlessly.

O’Connor writes:

The notion that animals have a bio-compass that can “read” the earth’s geomagnetic field has now emerged as the most promising explanation of animal navigation. In addition to those marathon migratory species, nearly every animal that has been tested thus far demonstrates a capacity to orient to the geomagnetic field. Carp floating in tubs at fish markets in Prague spontaneously align themselves in a north-south axis. So do newts at rest, and dogs when they crouch to relieve themselves. Horses, cattle, and deer orient their bodies north-south while grazing, but not if they are under power lines, which disrupt the magnetic field. Red foxes almost always pounce on mice from the northeast. These organisms must all have some kind of organelle that functions as a magneto-receptor, the same way an ear receives sound and an eye receives space.

Magnetism with Key by Berenice Abbott, 1958, from her series Documenting Science.

We human animals navigate the world not only by orienting in space, but by orienting in time. Mental time travel — the ability to rememeber and reflect, to imagine and plan for the future — is what made us human. It is also the pillar of our personal identity — the narrative string that links our childhood selves to our present selves to make us, across a lifetime of physical and psychological changes, one person.

That string is known as autonoeic consciousness, from the Greek noéō: “I perceive,” “I fathom” — our capacity for mental self-representation as entities in time that can reflect on our own lives as continuous and coherent phenomena of being. In the blink of evolutionary time since the dawn of neuroscience in the 1930s, one area of the brain has emerged as the crucible of both our autoneoic consciousness and our spatial navigation: the hippocampus. O’Connor writes:

The hippocampus has sometimes been described as the human GPS, but this metaphor is reductive compared to what this remarkable, plastic part of our minds accomplishes. While a GPS identifies fixed positions or coordinates in space that never change, neuroscientists think what the hippocampus does is unique to us as individuals — it builds representations of places based on our point of view, experiences, memories, goals, and desires. It provides the infrastructure for our selfhood.

An astrocyte in the human hippocampus. One of neuroscience founding father Santiago Ramón y Cajal’s little-known ink drawings.

Because a self is a pattern of experiences, memories, and impressions, constellated according to an organizing principle, and because sleep is when the hippocampus consolidates memories to draw from them those organizing patterns, sleep is essential to our sense of self. O’Connor quotes MIT neuroscientist Matt Wilson:

During sleep you try to make sense of things you already learned… You go into a vast database of experience and try to figure out new connections and then build a model to explain new experiences. Wisdom is the rules, based on experience, that allows us to make good decisions in novel situations in the future.

The hippocampus is a hard-won glory of evolution, but it is not singular to us — rudiments of it and variations on it are found in some of our fellow animals across the rungs of neural complexity:

Even birds, which last shared an ancestor with humans 250 million years ago, as well as amphibians, lungfish, and reptiles, have what is called a medial pallium. Similar to the mammalian hippocampal formation in vertebrates, the medial pallium is also involved in spatial tasks in these species, raising the possibility that certain properties of spatial cognition were conserved as organisms diversified and split, while other properties adapted to particular ecologies or selective forces. But despite the profound evolutionary commonalities between humans and other vertebrates and the way the hippocampus relates to cognitive functions of memory and navigation, the question remains: why did we make such a leap in terms of hippocampi’s size and role in our lives? Or as psychologist Daniel Casasanto puts it, “How did foragers become physicists in the eye blink of evolutionary time?”

Part of the answer might lie in the remarkable plasticity of the hippocampus. After the now-iconic 2000 study of the brains of London taxi drivers — which found that their elaborate qualification exam, requiring the memorization of thousands of city landmarks and 25,000 streets, resulted in significant increase in synapses and gray matter in the hippocampus — scientists have been studying what we can do to protect and even bolster our primary instrument for navigating space and selfhood.

O’Connor points to the work of McGill University neuroscientist Véronique Bohbot, who has devised a hippocampal health regimen of recollection and navigation exercises of incrementally increasing difficulty that deliver marked structural growth of gray matter. VeboLife — the neurocognitive fitness training program she has devised — teaches people to navigate the familiar environment in deliberately novel ways, challenging trainees to reconfigure their default routes by taking new paths that require them to attend to new details and make new mental maps in the process.

Optimal hippocampal health appears to be — like the optimal experience of life itself — a matter of paying active and mindful attention, interrupting the “intentional, unapologetic discriminator” our brain has evolved to be, savoring the specifics of each unrepeatable moment.

With an eye to how our hippocampal acuity determines the quality of our lives, O’Connor wonders:

Maybe wayfinding is an activity that confronts us with the marvelous fact of being in the world, requiring us to look up and take notice, to cognitively and emotionally interact with our surroundings whether we are in the wilderness or a city, even calling us to renew our species’ love affair with freedom, exploration, and place.

And yet as much as we throb with wanderlust, we are animated by an intense connection to the landscapes and topographies of our formative years. An emotion known as topophilia, which I experienced while revisiting those mountain trails of my childhood, furnishes this affective-spatial memory that renders childhood as much a time as a place.

Major rivers and mountains of the world compared by length and height, from Atlas de Choix, ou Recueil des Meilleures Cartes de Geographie Ancienne et Moderne Dressees par Divers Auteurs by J. Goujon and J. Andriveau, 1829. (Available as a print, as a face mask, and as stationery cards.)

O’Connor writes:

Often the places we grow up in have outsized influence on us. They influence how we perceive and conceptualize the world, give us metaphors to live by, and shape the purpose that drives us — they are our source of subjectivity as well as a commonality by which we can relate to and identify with others. Maybe it’s because of the vividness of their sensory impressions, their genius for establishing deep relationships to their early environments, that children have a strong capacity for the human emotion called topophilia.

[…]

Across cultures, navigation is influenced by particular environmental conditions — snow, sand, water, wind — and topographies — mountain, valley, river, ocean, and desert. But in all of them, it is also a means by which individuals develop a sense of attachment and feeling for places. Navigating becomes a way of knowing, familiarity, and fondness. It is how you can fall in love with a mountain or a forest. Wayfinding is how we accumulate treasure maps of exquisite memories.

In the remainder of the thoroughly fascinating Wayfinding, O’Connor maps the most thrilling shorelines of our evolving territories of understanding: astounding findings indicating that people from migratory populations have measurably longer alleles of the dopamine receptor gene associated with exploratory behavior than people from sedentary communities; ancient feats of navigation passed down the generations in native cultures to challenge the Western social theory of culture; music as a metaphor for the relationship between organisms and their environment. For a lyrical counterpart, complement it with Rebecca Solnit’s Field Guide to Getting Lost.

BP

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