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domingo, 2 de agosto de 2009

Crónicas de un cerebro enfermo XXII.

If reality exists, we can only access it through language. We cannot think without images. The first is the idea of an ancient sophist. The later was said by a philosopher, Aristotle. The problem is that whether one believes that it is only humanly possible to find the best means of persuasion about a subject matter, or actually finding what is the truth, whenever we step into “reality,” our brain retrieves the images and stories that have been engraved in it through both previous personal experiences and shared culture.

I don’t believe this is just another mumbo-jumbo we humanists talk about. I think my neurosurgeons will agree with me in this one. I have told you in a previous “Chronicle” how three days before heading to my awaked craniotomy, a doctor mapped my brain. He created a tridimentional image so that the neurosurgeon could use it to know which zone of the brain I use to understand and produce math and language. This map helped them to determine the portion of the tumor that could be problematic to remove during surgery. Following this map, the neurosurgeon touched the “problematic zone” with a small electrode while I was trying to relate images and math exercises to words and numbers.

The funny thing was that while they mapped my brain trying to determine which part I use to process language, I was ordered not to talk but to think of images while listening to seven different stories. Because these seven stories where supposed to stimulate my brain, they were all scary situations. However, I did not know they were scary at the beginning. So, while listening and figuring out how the story line progressed, I kept changing my production of images. Let’s give you an example: one of the stories began with a description of a pleasant lake where a group just arrived for a trip in a boat. I began imagining “Bank of the Oise at Auvers” by Van Gogh, but while listening the tone and description of the atmosphere in that lake, I moved to “Celine et Julie vont en bateau,” then to the ending part of “Aguire, the Wrath of God,” followed by remembering a day when I tried to row in a boat at the “Bear Mountain” (New York) and ended up paddling very badly in full circles. Right at the end of the story, I saw myself drowning in a small river in “El Verde” when I was eight years old. There I was, fighting to survive as the characters of the story I was listening about. I was trapped at the bottom of that river. I was able to see everybody in the surface: my little brother moving his arms profusely and my aunt’s boyfriend jumping to rescue me.

Although every one of the seven stories was very short, every time I felt as if I were zapping from channel to channel in a huge brain screen, trying to connect the changing story line I was listening with my embedded archive of images.

A lot has been said already about the arrest of Harvard Professor Henry Louis Gates by Sgt. James Crowley. Almost everybody agrees that two different stories were told. Perhaps different images were retrieved by both characters involved in this story at different points in time. I am not hesitant to say that it was easier for me to understand Professor Gates’ story precisely because I saw myself there, drowning, with not many other images to think of at the moment. Perhaps the personal stories and images of a Latina professor might be closer to his.

However, ever since my brain was “mapped” and the tumor removed, my mind is constantly shifting. My brain needs to make new connections whenever I try to “rescue” lost memories. It has, thus, come to my mind the crazy idea that we, creators and students of language and culture, could do something about the way we live, perceive, and evaluate experiences. Herzog, Van Gogh, Jacques Rivette, my failed boat trip at the Bear Mountain, and my near death experience helped to determine exactly were my dangerous brain zone was located and which part of the tumor could be removed without disabling my ability to speak, imagine and understand language. How can we produce striking words and powerful images that could stimulate our minds to create new connections that work?

People might laugh about the photo of Biden, Gates, Crowley and Obama drinking different types of beer around a round table in the backyard of the White House. However, by regrouping differences around a common round table, this photo is suggesting a new story,an alternative image that might come to our minds if we ever need our brain to be “mapped,” and our memory reconnected as our history changes. That's why some people are so afraid of it.

5 comentarios:

  1. How can we help the narrator of this video clip to actually grow a brain? Why is he so mad?

  2. Yes, and it is a shame that our disciplines do not collaborate more. I do not know how much humanities background a neuroscientist may have, but I do know we in the humanities are very ignorant about this field. Our collaborations would go beyond our disciplines, and they could inform other disciplines, from Education, to Public Policy, etc. The knowledge we could derive from how we structure our brain according to how we make connections and form a narrative of our memory can be overwhelmingly powerful.
    Yes, images can be as strong as words; that is why at a primal level they provoke such visceral reactions. They can threaten the basis of one's cognitive system, and some people literally cannot compute, when faced with this threat.

  3. I totally agree. My neurosurgeon and the anesthesiologist told me that they both put their kids in a school in which they could learn many languages (even Latin). They have learned through experience that having a broad approach to knowledge helps the brain form new connections. If you are suddenly challenged, as I was, your brain knows already how to create a shortcut. If you know only one thing, those connections are not there to help.

    My recovery was easier because of the crazy connections my brain had available when needed. A narrow approach to life and culture is a medical risk. Do you know how much money I saved my health insurance in language therapy by substituting it with cinema, music and literature? Could someone without a previous exposition to art be able to do the same? I don’t know. Some research needs to be done about the topic.

  4. This guy obviously has issues with the fact that an African American —elected by the American people— is the actual president of USA. He is just a jerk. We shouldn’t even bother to take him seriously nor reply to his nonsense. I am afraid that to help him “grow a brain” is mission impossible. He just lacks the moral and intellectual background to make the cultural synapses that would enable him to become, simply, a better person.

  5. You are probably right Alexis! It is our job to educate the future generation to become more open minded, to move from being just a stone, a plant or a beast, and embrace not only humanity but nature in general.