Switching to Intrinsic Motivation

Psychological research shows that giving external rewards can decrease the likelihood that someone will continue an activity longterm. This is an important principle for how to school effectively (or rather, how not to): conventional wisdom, which says that rewarding behavior that contributes to desired habit formation is good, is sometimes wrong.

It has been painful to realize how much of my motivation for learning, which I take to be an unqualified good thing, is external. It would still be painful, were it not for my newfound focus on not making my time-allocation decisions moralistic. Some examples: I signed up for MITx’s 6.002x course and stopped it about 6 weeks in, just before the midterm. A large part of the reason I stopped was simply time: I was working 50-60 hour weeks, and with that and family commitments, I felt the work just couldn’t get done (unless I cut out all my relaxing time, which is an ideal recipe for burnout). But my behavior after stopping is illuminating: I didn’t continue as I could, just learning a few topics or following along at my own pace, but abandoned the project entirely. The most painful reason for this I have to acknowledge is that I enjoyed being graded on the assignments and having the prospect of a certificate of completion on the horizon – that was definitely part of it, and I’m not proud of that. There were other reasons, though: (1) I was less enthralled by the specific material in 6.002 as I was intently curious about the MITx project, and the same impulse that meant I couldn’t pass up being part of the pilot meant that I didn’t need to see it all the way through as a subject learning experience to get what I wanted out of it. And (2) It is a big commitment to follow through on 10 hours or more a week of assignments for a course you’re taking alone over several weeks, and I chose to distribute those hours over several more relevant projects.

Which brings me to the second major pitfall in my self-educating methods, the tendency to plan extensively rather than dive into learning something. There’s a certain, odd, amount of fear here–it’s not like I’m going to set off a landmine by trying to learn about the role of tRNA before I’m ready. The worst that can happen with lack of planning in a learning context is that you have to go back to some more primitive concept or learn a concept more slowly, deviating from a plan. I’m still learning that, though, and finding that to really move forward I have to make it a habit to ignore my anxieties about starting a learning project. (This is a maximally general life principle for me: making it a habit to push aside limiting anxieties.)

In the past, I have often relied on standardized tests, syllabi, quals reading lists, and other conventional school benchmarks for measuring “progress” in my learning. For that matter, I’ve always had a lot of anxiety and a strong need to measure this progress–something I’d like to get out of the habit of doing. I have to keep reminding myself that I’m not in a degree program at the moment–there’s no benchmark I have to reach that’ll have consequences if I don’t reach it, learning-wise. The only way I can fail is by not learning what I want, in terms of the large-scale bucket-list style learning objectives I have for myself. The other major way I can fail, most dangerously, is failing and not realizing that I’m doing so, by speeding through drills and concepts and not understanding them as deeply as I’d like. While making lists encourages speedy and superficial learning, contributing primarily to the goal of appearing smart by serving as a proxy for having a credential in the subject (“it’s on my list of things I’ve learned”), I know in my heart of hearts that “wanting to look smart” is a false goal I’ve accidentally acquired out of anxiety. The real goal is to learn more in certain areas I’m fascinated by, and not even the ones I just tell people I’m fascinated by and havent’ followed up on.

So, back to studying MIT’s 7.014 intro biology course, with a TV break in between, because we all need them. For another post – how being in a teaching role can exacerbate anxieties about learning, but also how it can help achieve the deeper understanding that is the ultimate goal.

Unlearning School and Learning to Learn

June 25, 2012 1 comment

I’ve spent less time reading and learning recently, and more time thinking and struggling about how I want to live my life. Not being in school and still wanting to learn things, I have had to face how much of my motivation to follow through on something is external–how much I embark on projects I think I “should” do to be a more learned person, rather than following my nose with things I enjoy.

There’s some value to setting out pathways and structures for getting where you want to be. But I’m starting to understand that each brick of those paths has to be one you lay yourself, after some consideration. I know now that pushing through syllabi quickly isn’t the route to true understanding, and to learn a subject well you have to dwell on the things that confuse you, not skip over them (something that the pace of formal schooling and the fact that exams don’t necessarily focus on the things that are hard for *you* personally tends to encourage). I don’t have grades to worry about or perishable resources (university resources) that I’m wasting this year – but I’ve mostly still been acting like I do in how I learn. I have to face the fact that it’s much more important to just learn something than to procrastinate doing the hard thinking by making lists and roadmaps and bucket lists for things to learn. I truly am curious about the things I’m trying to learn about, but I still seem to treat the learning process as an inherently painful and goal-directed one, rather than something that I can go through playing to my strengths and interests.

I also have to face up to what my motivations for trying to learn things are. To a certain extent, if I’m honest, they’ve been “to know everything.” Of course I don’t actually have that goal–but, for example, I tend to insist to myself that I have to learn a particular subject as outlined in a university syllabus, and to diligently scramble to find a way to process and remember everything a course throws at me, rather than picking the things I’m most interested in to focus on. I’m well aware of the importance of one’s audience to the content and style of what one writes, but I haven’t successfully extended these basic principles to the learning process and what its aims are: I say, “I want to learn basic molecular biology” and force my sleepy eyes over pages of biochemistry that I know I won’t remember the details of, even though nobody else but me is insisting that I follow standard learning maps, and it’s well known that we don’t retain what doesn’t interest us.

I know in principle that I (myself as an instance of “anyone”) learn best when I need the knowledge or tool to answer a question I care about. It’s obvious in the writing case, where good writing is shaped around an argument and an angle, not a braindump of everything related to the subject at hand (even a structured one). I know how articulating that “objective” line at the top of a resume can suddenly make my motivations and story about myself cohere when I feel at my most scattered. So I’m going to try to spend less time making lists of subjects I want to learn and collecting syllabi as crutches, and more mining my memory for questions that I’d like to know the answer to, enough to learn the foundations of a subject area. (Of course, happily, this is a synergistic process: having a genuine question leads to systematic study of things you care about, or need to care about to satisfy other cares, which leads to more questions you genuinely want to know the answer to.)

Doing things for external reasons has its egotistical aspects, but for me, it’s also been part and parcel of depression and self-worth struggles. I spent a lot of time thinking I’m only worth as much as I give to other people, and in that framework, self-improvement that doesn’t have clear and direct external impact is not valued. When depressed, I can convince myself that having wants is selfish, that wanting alone time for self-care is selfish. But that belief gets you nowhere, including in your ability to help others. We are all alone with ourselves for most of our lives, and it is in that time alone that we form and re-form the habits and values that will dictate how we interact with others and treat ourselves: social interactions can reinforce a habit or spark interest in a change, but it is always you alone who will have to see the change-project through and have a vision for why it’s important. And it is you alone who will have the complete and unvarnished account of your progress to measure yourself with, you alone who can serve as judge when nobody else is looking to keep you honest to your best self.

So: I want to find ways to make the values I have articulated to myself as important into habits that are borne out in my life. I  want to learn to be a better and more honest judge of my own character, still able to hold court in matters not of public record. Most importantly, I need to find ways to undercut the moralistic overtones of my “self-improvement” project and understand to my core that being my best self is something that will bring me better quality of life, not just something to shoot for to get gold stars or self-congratulation or the moral high ground. I want to feel good because I’m living the way I want to, as I mosey in that direction–not because I’ve attained the “improved self” goals I obsessively set out for myself evenings. If I set goals, I almost don’t want to tell anyone about them specifically unless there’s real support I need that I’ll only get that way, because not keeping them private makes me vulnerable to external motivators like “showing I’m a reliable/dedicated/moral person” and “being known as having admirable goals.” I also need to get past the point where I have certain goals seemingly only to show those things to myself, but for now I think I’d settle for only wanting to impress myself–that’s going to be hard enough.

So if I detail any goals here, it’ll be to catalogue a journey that’s important to me, and only for that reason. To the extent that I’m open about changes I want, I pledge to talk about my failures as much as my successes. I want to talk about the things in my life that have led me to want changes badly, and the ways I’ve prevented myself from taking action towards those changes, because focusing on how great the changes would be if implemented hasn’t done much for me so far but make me feel bad.

On a related note, I’ll be talking soon about the strong impulses towards military service and religious devotion that I’ve had throughout my life, and how the hell a liberal atheist came to have them. I’ll also get specific about what I’m having to unlearn and how I plan to live with myself while doing that.

Categories: Personal - Essays

Dostoyevsky, The Brothers Karamazov

March 13, 2012 Leave a comment

So much to love here. Not Dostoyevsky’s prose style–which is: loquacious; firmly prosaic. Not his characters–who are maybe not types, but certainly universals. Hard to have real dramatic action, perhaps, in a novel that above all makes philosophical ideas incarnate in the flesh.

And there’s the speciality of the novel: putting full-blooded ideas, theories, discussions of God and the fate of Russia in the mouths of the drunks, the peasants, the idlers outside the courtroom before the verdict is decided. There’s no narrator including allusions and references to make his characters look dumb by comparison: the narrator takes on the person of a humble witness to his characters, and it’s the characters themselves who wrestle with their heady ideas, not in writing or half-jesting while drunk, but whenever they meet. Even the children think. There is talk of the Russian soul and the national character: and this is maybe the one moment where I’ll grant weight to that talk, because the transformations in Russia at the time are immense and easily felt at every level–there’s no Zeitgeist being invoked, but rather the rapid transformations that are so evident that they are plain for all to see. The characters are trying to create, not invoke, the Russian spirit, imagine what it will be like with the pulls of atheism and the end of feudalism and people like Ivan coming back from the universities while people like Fyodor Pavlovitch are still the dominant model for the family.

The defense counsel’s query as to what makes a father fits naturally in this setting, where it’d be so hard to pull off almost anywhere else. The wrenching, rending scene at the end with Ilusha’s funeral and Alyosha gathering together the children to remember this time when they were good forevermore is a perfect cap for a novel about where beauty and salvation can be found amidst the vagaries of human actions and the chaos of the social fabric. And it is fitting that children are wise men in this new time, that Alyosha left the monastery and went out into the world and the message he learns to bring is the practical solution to Ivan’s question about a world where children suffer–his practical solution is spiritual. And Alyosha laughs gaily with the children, he learns how to do that while out in the world, where in the beginning he felt all lost when Father Zossima’s body decayed. The children are the answer: Ilusha’s body doesn’t decay, and a kind of new covenant is made with the children at the stone where Ilusha wanted to be buried, even as the holy rites continue to be said over Ilusha’s orthodox grave.

I suppose I’ll have to talk about “The Grand Inquisitor” at some point–but honestly, it didn’t strike me too much, except as beautiful prose and something I can relate to. Dostoyevsky is on so many existentialism syllabi, and I have to admit I don’t really understand why. Yes, Ivan is asking what we can do good in a world without God–but he certainly isn’t nihilistic about the solution! It’s Pushkin’s “sticky little leaves” that he clings to, not barren philosophy, and he’s keenly interested in the answer for how to find meaning. He’s basically a romantic atheist. He sounds most like Alyosha when the two brothers are talking, and he speaks of loving humanity so much–not so different from his novice brother. Alyosha has to learn to find the practical solution to how to treat the children: Ivan, though he’s seen the world, retains his novice-like love for it, and though maybe he struggles with the philosophical questions, he doesn’t get too occupied with them–it comes back to people and love. Alyosha kisses the ground for faith; Ivan for love.

Easily the funniest section of the novel: Ivan, in his delirium, talking to the devil-that-may-or-mayn’t-be-him. So great! One of the funniest things I’ve ever read. Even better because he’s up to the task, and he’s playing even as he’s tormented–something that can’t be said for the second funniest scene, Fyodor Pavlovitch in Zossima’s chambers at the initial family meeting, where we just see a fawning idiot.

I can’t believe how little really happens in this 800-odd page book. There’s no doubt as to who committed the murder on the reader’s part (maybe there should be, but anyway, we’re led from the beginning to think it’s by far not the point). Sure, there is a large cast of characters and triangles between them, and the many variants of Dmitri’s story are all rich in detail. But it’s hardly a real murder mystery. Maybe it’s a history of the brothers, as Dostoyevsky mentions–but it’s a very thin history, really. Mostly people just talk a lot about ideas, and get caught up in conversations and confabulations with each other. Even as Dmitri’s statement is being taken, we are privy to how the prosecutor writes it down, and know what acrobatics he’ll do at trial. We have several versions of the facts, none related as that actual night is related–who knows about the pouch with 1500 rubles being sown into Dmitri’s cap? We know he’s innocent of the crime, though we’re not sure how, and we know he might as well be guilty.

So where’s the interest? In the endless varieties of talk, the justifications and defenses by the characters of their own behavior, and the best courtroom speeches I’ve read in a while. In the sense of aliveness and action we get at only one place in the book, as the audience are talking outside before the jury reaches its decision–the only clipped conversation in the book. In each character anticipating the tricks the other is going to pull and falling for them anyway, but only half-way (when the prosecutor warns the jury that the defense will try to call for mercy, and he doesn’t use an emotional style at all, but gets the same effect; when Dmitri interprets what he’s saying in terms of what the prosecutor will undoubtedly think, coherent or not). A grand psychological novel with no fleshed out characters, a mystery where facts don’t matter much and nothing much happens–what a book.

I have to agree with the people who uphold this as a document of faith: why say Dostoyevsky must really have had strong faith if he can write Ivan’s critique of God and still believe. The ideas in this book go beyond political and philosphical–even mathematics comes in, and I was surprised that Lobachevsky had reached popular culture (or learned culture only?) by then:

” If God really exists and if he really has created the world, then, as we all know, he created it in accordance with the Euclidean geometry, and he created the human mind with the conception of only the three dimensions of space. And yet there have been and there still are mathematicians and philosophers, some of them indeed men of extraordinary genius, who doubt whether the whole universe, or, to put it more wildly, all existence was created only according to Euclidean geometry and they even dare to dream that two parallel lines which, according to Euclid can never meet on earth, may meet somewhere in infinity. I, my dear chap, have come to the conclusion that if I can’t understand even that, then how can I be expected to understand about God?” – Ivan, p. 274 in Penguin edition

Categories: Books

Oliver Sacks – The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat

[Public Service Warning: These posts on books are generally too long to be good reviews or blog posts, and too scattered. I put them here mostly as reading notes for myself, in the absence of a good system of keeping track of things read and thoughts had. But I figure they might as well be public–no harm in it, anyhow.]

I’m very sympathetic to Oliver Sacks: as a writer, I have a soft spot for narratives in science. And I’d always like to think that science can help us speculate on the Big Questions, so I’m intrigued when Sacks muses on issues of identity and the soul in the midst of these case studies. And even though his philosophy is lacking much of the time, I tend to enjoy that he tried, and take his speculations for what they are: wishful, though earnest, musings; philosophy lite meant to point out a direction more than travel a rabbit hole.

So, I deeply enjoyed these vivid case studies, and I found them instructive too–even when I groaned a little at the misinterpretation of Hume, the use of Wittgenstein as a glossy epigraph only, or the grandiosity of adding a page-long postscript on the nature of the soul to a simple neurological case study. And even though Sacks’ love of smart people grated (If I hear “there didn’t seem to be anything wrong: he was a man of great cultivation and charm” or any variant, ever again…), I suspect that there would be no Sacks as we know him without it–that same love drives him to explore the subtleties and varieties of how intelligence and the creative, remembering mind present.

Some studies that stood out:

*The recurring musings on time and memory occasioned by patients with various kind of aphasia. From Luis Bunuel:

“You have to begin to lose your memory, if only in bits and pieces, to realize that memory is what makes our lives…Our memory is our coherence, our reason, our feeling, even our action. Without it, we are nothing…(I can only wait for the final amnesia, the one that can erase an entire life, as it did my mother’s…)”

—Jimmy, who remembers his early life vividly, and speaks of it like the present: uses “not just the formal or fictitious present tense of recall, but the actual present tense of immediate experience.” (24) Sacks’ examination of him is illuminating: he tests what memory loss there is by asking him to write down the names of three objects Sacks has just hidden, and thereby pinpoints exactly how many seconds the memory loss entails. He asks about how many elements there are and how many planets to locate Jimmy in memory-time. He can tell that there are faint echoes of recent memories in Jimmy from how Jimmy remembers “some doc” tested him, though not what he was just asked to do in the test. Chess is too slow of a game for him to play it; checkers is fine.

“My note was a strange mixture of facts and observations, carefully noted and itemissed, wit irrepressible meditations on what such problems might ‘mean,’…I kept wondering, in these and later notes–unscientifically–about a ‘lost soul,’ and how one might establish some continuity, some roots.” (29) He brings in Luria’s account of Korsakov’s and Studs Turkel’s account of The Good War to make sense–unscientifically–of Jimmy’s experience. He reconstructs Jimmy’s life from hospital admission records and his brother’s reports. He makes the crushing bedside mistake of asking Jimmy how it can be himself, who looks so old, in the mirror.

Luria and Sacks write–they always write each other–and Luria advises, “There are no prsecriptions in a case like this. Do whatever your ingenuity and your heart suggest…But a man does not consist of memory alone. He has feeling, will, sensibilities, moral being–matters of which neuropsychology cannot speak And it is here, beyond the realm of an impersonal psychology, that you may find ways to touch him, and change him. And the circumstances of your work especially allow this, for you work in a Home, which is like a little world, quite different from the clinics and institutions where I work.”

What to do for Jimmy? Sacks asked the Sisters if he had a soul still–they said, “watch him in chapel and see.” He saw intensity, steadiness of attention.  “Seeing Jim in the chapel [he calls him Jim now, more dignified, not kiddie] opened my eyes to other realms where the soul is called on, and held, and stilled, in attention and communion.” “He was perfectly organized in Bergsonian ‘intentional’ time; what was fugitive, unsustainable, as a formal structure, was perfectly stable, perfectly held, as art or will.” (38)

**The eponymous man, who sees features of an image but not the whole, the abstract–and seemingly makes up features that aren’t there, when questioned, without knowing he’s doing so. He can also process schematic, abstract things (playing cards, Platonic solids, cartoons once he’s picked an identifying feature–but not the faces of people he knows, unless they have a memorable outstanding feature. He calls a rose: About six inches in length; a convoluted red form with a linear green attachment.” (12) He has no trouble with auditory or olfactory stimulus identification, and he can recognize objects that he’s using.

**Christina, who has a dream about losing proprioception and then does, after the surgery. She compensates with learning physiology and LOOKING at every body part as she moves it: so she slowly learns to move again, but only when she can give it her undivided attention. She feels “her body is blind and deaf to itself”–she still feels disembodied, not-her. Sacks found hundreds like her later: all taking an overdose of vitamin B6.

**A woman with CP who hasn’t used her hands in 60 years: the sensations are all there, but no perception–she feels pain, heat, movement, but can’t recognize any object put in her hands. She’s highly verbal and literate – people have been talking to her for 60 years. The “dead” feeling is paralleled by electrical silence in the relevant nerves. When she’s pushed a little, though, by impulse she was induced to use her hands–food kept just a little bit out of reach. She starts out recognizing forks as a flat thing with tines–then suddenly intuits its organic objecthood and use. Then she became highly animated with her hands, and known locally as “The Blind Sculptress of St. Benedict’s.” The idea of “developmental agnosia,” and the ability to learn at 60 what most learn at 2.

**Mr. MacGregor, who diagnoses himself after seeing a video of him walking “on the tilt”: “is there a kind of spirit level in the brian, Doc? Can it be knocked out by Parkinson’s” – Sacks: “the picture I love to see: a patient in the actual moment of discovery–half-appalld, half-amused–seeing for the first time exactly what is wrong, and, in the same moment, exactly what there is to be done.” (72) The work of Purdon Martin on Parkinson’s patients in The Basal Ganglia and Posture, Martin “endlessly thoughtful and ingenious in designing a variety of mechanisms and methods…to achieve an artificial normality of gait and posture: lines painted on the floor, counterweights in the belt, loudly ticking pacemakers–to set the cadence for walking. In this he always learned from his patients…” They together design a literal level protruding from the bridge of his glasses, and he learns to use it.

**Patients who just seem to stop knowing the left side of the world exists: the image of a patient spinning around in her chair, always to the right, bisecting her portion each time so she can get most of it even though she can see but half at a time. Zeno’s patient.

**Agnosias and people who can detect what Head calls “feeling tone,” and thus, one feels, can’t be lied to. (Note: I first heard this term from Studs Terkel’s Division Street…)

“Excesses”:

**”Witty Ticcy Ray,” about Tourette’s. Sacks locates the disappearance of talk about Tourette’s in “the turn of the century, a split had occurred, into a soulless neurology and a bodiless psychology”–some doctors thought of Tourette’s as mythical. The integral role of the Tourette’s Syndrome Association, formed by patients, in driving research into Tourette’s: genetic and developmental factors, the associations and reactions that characterize it, evolutionary basis, the body-language, grammar and linguistic structure of tics, the role of cursing and joking in various neuropathologies. The disturbance is in the highest parts of the “old brain,” whereas in Parkinson’s–which leads to excesses of motion but not action–it’s in the midbrain. Many Tourette’s sufferers are also great improv musicians. Luria saw Tourette’s as the most interesting disease for a window into human nature. Being free from tics when engaged in some other “kinetic melody.” He could only take Haldol well after being “prepared” for life without Tourette’s in therapy–after coming to believe there was a self to him beyond the disease. And now he only takes it on weekdays: he needs the Tourette’s self for his music on weekends, needs to “let fly.”

—Doing “street neurology” to see the severest forms of Tourette’s, the imitator’s. Naturalistic studies: Meige and Feindel’s Tics, Rilke’s portrait in the Notebook of Malte Laurids Brigge. A woman who mimics and caricatures all passers-by, each for a few milliseconds, doing a kind of frenzied dance that draws crowds around her (which only makes the ticcing worse, giving her more to imitate).

**The Korsakov’s patient, with amnesia, who is always chattering and “making up” stories–his brother walks by, and he says “and there’s my brother” in the same easy tone–it takes the docs a while to realize that this part is true. Only finds peace in the garden, away from people with whom he feels pressure to be the comedian and tell stories. Doesn’t exhibit a sense of being “lost” or realization of the lack of inner feeling.

**Mrs. O’C, who heard Irish songs in her head constantly, clearly, when none were playing. She was having temporal lobe seizures–that got less intense after a few days: in the beginning, she couldn’t “hear” over the music. Another, Mrs. O’M, who had 3 songs she didn’t like on repeat in her brain, and who was developing amusia too–all the hymns in church started to sound the same. Hughlings Jackson on the strange phenomenon of a musical epilepsy: “It is not very uncommon for epileptics to have vague and yet exceedingly elaborate mental states at the onset of epileptic seizures…The elaborate mental state, or so-called intellectual aura, is always the same, or essentially the same, in each case.” Experiential hallucinations. A duality of perception–“I know you’re there, Dr. Sacks. I know I’m an old woman with a stroke in an old people’s home, but I feel I’m a child in Ireland again.” Always memories, these, never fantasies, according to Wilder Penfield’s studies. Why the preponderance of MUSICAL memories? Penfield calls them random–but “we know from the stud of ‘free associations’ tha the most seemingly trivial or random thoughts may turn out to have an unexpected depth and resonance, but that this only becomes evident given an analysis in depth.” Mrs. O’C’s seizures gave her back memories of a lost childhood: though she doesn’t remember the details now, she feels a sense of completeness and groundedness now that she didn’t before. [See Esther Salaman, A Collection of Moments, and Dostoyevsky on his seizures. Also see Penfield and Perot, “The Brain’s Record of Visual and Auditory Experience.” See also reviews of vision studies, older–David Marr 1982–and recent–Ramachandran.]

Take-homes:

“Let us note…that the removal of the minute, convulsing point of cortex…can remove in toto the iterating scene, and replace an absolutely specific reminiscence..by an equally specific oblivion or amnesia. There is something extremely important, and frightening here: the possibility of a real psycho-surgery, a neurosurgery of identity (infinitely finer and more specific than our gross amputations and lobotomies, which may damp or deform the whole character, but cannot touch individual experiences.” (148)

Central question for Sacks here: “Thus a gulf appears, indeed a chasm, between what we learn from our patients and what physiologists tell us. Is there any way of bridging this chasm? Or, if that is (as it may be) categorically impossible, are there any concepts beyond those of cybernetics by which we may better understand the essentially personal, Proustian nature of reminiscence of the mind, of life? Can we, in short, have a personal or Proustian physiology, over and above the mechanical, Sherringtonian one?” Sherrington calls the mind “an enchanted loom,” weaving patterns of meaning.

In high school, I was fascinated by the brain and neuroscience. But I realized at some point that I had lots of questions and no idea of how I wanted them answered–I didn’t think “memories originate in the hippocampus” would be sufficient, nor is the more refined geography of the brain we now have a map to. Sacks points towards the types of answers I realized I’m interested in–must follow up on more recent science and see what’s going on in this vein of Hughlings Jackson, Luria and Sacks, and how much of this is real speculation.

 

Emotional Investment in Science and Literature

February 12, 2012 Leave a comment

I’ve been exchanging emails with a friend who, to make a very long and complex story short, switched from French Literature to Statistics, and doesn’t trust herself to study the humanities right now because they’re too much about emotions, human problems, and the works stay with you and get into you.

I remember starting to feel that way about halfway through my sophomore year, when I was taking quantum mechanics and topology alongside 3 English classes and having a lot of anxiety about my future as a writer xor (I thought it was xor then) scientist. Many of my friends were going through major league mental health struggles, and I just wanted an escape. Science was my escape then, because it wasn’t about “petty” human problems; it’d be there no matter what. It was impersonal, yet had personal value for me–the best solution in that situation. At the same time, I started to view writing as an illness. My American Drama class focused on the lives of the playwrights, and I began to wonder (though I’d never do so now) if all artists weren’t plagued with self-destructive habits and impulses towards insanity. I had enough drama in my life, and I didn’t trust the writer’s truths. Moreover, I thought that being a humanities scholar meant that you had to be good at life–you had to be a wise and generous-spirited human being, and I didn’t trust myself to ever be that.

Remembering that, trying to answer my friend, I have to wonder what changed. I wrote earlier that I’m driven more towards humanities as a profession now because I want to teach about human solutions to the problem of life and being human. I want to clarify that I don’t see science as impersonal, and that’s why I’m not driven away from it: I just want to claim science for my personal life, and I don’t see a tremendous amount of room to do that in the formal discourse of the profession, so I feel no great need to enter into that discourse.

The thing that’s changed, and that really in the past year I think, is my attitude towards my writing work. I can still be ravished by a poem; some of them still sit with me for months, and that’s as I want it to be. But in studying this literature, I find that I move from personal response to analytical response in the course of my writing, and I derive great value from that movement. My papers are begun in a moment of personal discovery or revelation, and I get a lot of comments on them to the effect of “it’s interesting to see an active intelligence working its way through the piece”–I don’t try to hide the process of discovery of an interpretation and repackage the interpretation as an explication. Literary study still has that childlike impulse to wonder for me, and the calmer joy of figuring out how something works from the inside. It’s often a process of taking an undifferentiated intense reaction and making it intelligible to myself, which in some ways makes it manageable. Making the reaction manageable allows me to incorporate it into my everyday life without being overwhelmed by its powerful, visceral effect on me. Criticism, as I want to practice it, is about, as Forster put it in Howard’s End, “building rainbow bridges between prose and passion”–taking  the insight of a late night, the murky feelings of the soul, the things we don’t speak of, and gesturing towards them out in the open. Or as Roseanne Cash told it in a stunning Kirkland Conversation lecture I was at, it’s about being an artist and going to an emotionally utterly vulnerable place, and being able to come back from it every day to pick up your kid from kindergarten–but not lose the basic insights from that lonelier, scarier, less prosaic place.

The other thing that’s changed is my understanding of myself as a writer–not just someone who writes, but someone who is interested in the writing profession. When I had that rough sophomore fall, I wasn’t seriously considering what it’d be like to be a paid writer–I was wondering if I had it in my soul to be a writer, if I felt deeply enough, if I trusted myself and had the potential for emotional virtuosity that I thought the great literary writers had. (I was also bent on a ridiculous standard of comparison.) Now I’ve had several paid writing and editing gigs, and I see my writing as something I approach as a professional oftentimes. The writing process is one of deep thought, fiddling and rewriting, organizing and arranging and making countless decisions about word choice and structure. It’s about being a technician with words–and even when the topic is deeply personal or emotional, the writing process itself gives me space and distance to process those feelings without being overwhelmed. The conversations I have with others trying to be writers are about craft, where to submit to, good topics to pick up, blogs to follow–making writing an everyday part of life, managing its emotional side. As I’ve grown into myself as a writer, and started identifying as a writer and not “an aspiring writer” or somesuch, I’ve absolved myself from the requirement that writers be wise or struggling or specially tuned to humanity. In an important sense, writing is just another thing I do–and with that perspective has come a returned sense of play, of the kind of wonder and discovery I’m accustomed to from science. And so much less angst!

Alongside that–I work with artists at my job now. It’s easy to see that a lot of young artists just don’t take themselves seriously as artists and professionals: they won’t show up, or they won’t be professional in their communication or how they manage things. But I’m also close with a lot of artists who are consummate professionals now, and I’ve heard how the “what you been up to?” conversation goes–the most common answer? “You know, just working.” Most of us who want to be artists (including writers) are doing just that–working a lot, producing a lot, trying to find ways to make it work. No great wisdom about anything. Just muddling through.

Speaking of getting involved in writing communities, I’m going to start putting up more related blog links and things I’m reading–I do see this blog shifting more towards a discussion of the ground between arts/writing and sciences, and I’m happy with that shift, so I’m going to run with it.

Here’s a fascinating blog I’ve spent the morning reading the backlog from: http://celebrating-science.blogspot.com/. It’s from a writer with a residency at Durham among scientists. Lots interesting there about how writing and science are both driven by the process of asking questions, for a future discussion.

Mind and Brain

February 10, 2012 Leave a comment

This has nothing to do with scholarship, but I’m learning that it can be a prerequisite for me–so this time, some more personal musings.

I’m settling into a pattern (not a routine!) that I think will do me a lot of good over these next few months before (I hope) I go back to school. My job isn’t too far away and it leaves me time to write in the mornings and time to rehearse and read in the evenings. (Still working on that “social life” thing.) This morning I got up not-too-early and still had time to read some, “check the incoming” without being overwhelmed, do laundry, bake cookies, and start to write this at the sun-drenched kitchen table in a home that breathes the fresh air with me in the mornings. I have time to myself, gloriously alone in the mornings–time that I’m slowly, but surely, learning to manage and not fritter away with the temptations of the Internet. And I have time with my family and to catch up with friends in long phone conversations at night. This is a good thing I have going.

Amidst all that, of course, there’s the constant struggle between mind and brain–that’s how my doctor has started framing it, and it’s a distinction I find useful. This week, as I changed my medication regime, I started feeling like I could track hourly the dosage of the stuff that was in my system by a physical sensation of my brain being “pumped up” or drained. This was a rough week in the mind-over-brain struggle. But I also got through a depressive episode by realizing that it was the medication change that was bringing these depressed thoughts I haven’t seriously dwelt on in months, that I could continue to feel secure in the progress I’ve made recently despite the apparent relapse, because it was my brain’s altered chemistry asserting itself. For a while finding that there was something going on in my brain that was out of my control–something that is a sort of baseline that can’t just be fixed by will or character or moral fortitude–was a deep blow to my sense of self. Here I was thinking that I’d figured out a lot about myself these past few years, and I was convinced I saw it all come tumbling down into a muck of chemical vicissitudes and moods that seemed to intrude themselves from outside me. Self-insight is really important to my self-concept and sense of control, and I thought I must’ve been deluding myself to miss something so basic to my psyche. 

More recently, I’ve made a lot of peace with my brain. She and I are learning to work together, and she lets me subdue her least welcome side with pills most of the time. I still look at my little white pills and have a moment of bizarreness sometimes, wondering how the hell these things can do so much to me–but I’m not resistant, and so far it’s always a passing thought that goes with a shrug. And I’ve gotten back a certain trust in myself: trust that I know what’s going on in my inner life, or that I can look inward and discover some things at work when I don’t understand. I’m getting more practice with that under my new framework for understanding my inner life and how my brain mediates it, and I can look back at past events with a sense of understanding again.

I even found a dosage that makes me feel calm and centered even as it increases focus! Thank goodness–not sure I could’ve handled the highs and crashes new meds had me going through for any length of time.

The Beak of the Finch and Experimental Evolution

February 9, 2012 Leave a comment

“You can’t ‘preserve’ a species.” – Grant and Grant

Passing through an experimental evolution lab this summer, I got used to the idea that we can experimentally test evolutionary theory and the operation of selection (only?) in small, simple systems, like the yeast the lab used, bacteria, or viruses. “Experimental evolution” to me meant evolution studied at the level of genes and especially single mutations, fitness determined by who remains standing in the petri dish. So the single most striking experiment described in Jonathan Weiner’s Beak of the Finch was the observed drastic decrease in elephant tusk length among populations subject to poachers looking for ivory. I don’t know how elephant tusks work–if growth is based on Bmp4 expression, it’s not too surprising to me that a “macro” trait like tusk length could quickly evolve in response to selection pressure at the genetic level–but with all the debate and discussion about the unit of selection and macroevolution, the tusk example was enlightening.

This book is the story of Peter and Rosemary Grant’s 20-year vigil on the Galapagos Islands, particularly Daphne Major. For being that, it’s amazing how much the book focuses on the research: there is a human drama that unfolds in these pages, but it’s almost entirely told through the long progression of experiments and scientific life in the field, with some recourse to Darwin’s history. I want to learn that narrative trick!

The acceptance of quantification as rigorization makes me a little uncomfortable in all these “experimental evolution” and especially ecological studies. Mostly I think it’s good–taking detailed measurements has surely led to striking demonstrations of the power and quick-acting scale of natural selection, and how big a difference a tiny variation in beak trait matters. That’s an important lesson for all of us who would constantly wonder how selection on variation, which many think of as a piecemeal, slow process of accumulating very slight benefits, could result in qualitative differences in who survives, the generation of a major phenotypical innovation, or the origin of species. And I can see how this minute empirical measurement is partly an antidote to Darwin’s florid Victorian prose and the geometric landscape theories of the great mathematical population geneticists of the early century. But it also seems that desire for illuminating numbers can blind researchers studying evolution like this to the need for sophisticated interpretation and to hold down the fort against the allure of trumpeting a murkily visible trend. For example, there’s a recurring theme of one researcher declaring that there’s been no natural selection in Darwin’s finches, and  the Grants coming back with minute year-by-year measurements and saying that, while there’s little net change in characteristics, there’s actually strong selection oscillating rapidly. Certainly, that’s a vital distinction, especially as a corrective to the idea that nobody could ever observe natural selection in action in the timespan of a human lifetime. But I think there’s a danger of swinging too far in this shiny new direction: the fact that there’s little net variation is also very important.

Some highlights of the drama of observing Daphne: The description of the difficulty of landing on Daphne, everyone’s least favorite part of the trip–there’s only really one ledge to land on, and that after repeated partial offloadings as the swells move the boat above and below the ledge. The story-cum-legend about the scientist who was walking clad only in shoes on the island and got attacked by a barnacle that clamped onto his balls. The description of the Grants back in Princeton analyzing the data with such detailed, knowing affection, as they swap labelled stories: “‘He’s been a good producer of fledglings, 2666,’ Peter says, this time without even looking at the screen.” (118) The sense of a wunderkammer somewhere in two Princeton offices, full of vegetation and food and families and songs, all in tables of data. The times when the data really does seem to make a clear point: for example, how Darwin’s finches really are much more variable than most, a natural laboratory for natural selection–sparrows, closely related to finches, rarely deviate in beak length more than 10% from the mean on the remote island of Mandarte, B.C. (ostensibly similarly isolated conditions for accelerated evolution to take place), whereas in the Galapagos 4% of the cactus finches differ from the average beak by more than 10%. (p. 47) The sheer carefulness of the data collection and care taken in what to measure is stunning: there’s an index for difficulty-of-eating among the seeds (and every seed on the island is accounted for), and the Grants know just how much  force it takes to crack the toughest seeds. The careful correlation of measurements and behavior: telling what kind of finch discovered the mericarp by whether the cover is peeled back or bitten through, and how many seeds are left. Careful experimental design: Peter Boag tested for heritability of beak dimensions, ruling out that big-beaked parents get more food for their babies (not with Darwin’s finches, but on Mandarte–the egg-swapping would be quite catastrophic in such a small, fragile ecosystem!)

I got to revisiting some of my half-remembered thoughts about the difficulties in Darwin’s theory while reading this book. Prime among them–and I look forward to going back to this when I read Grant & Grant’s book about their research, How and Why Species Multiply–is observing “the ever-turning sword,” the actual origin of new species. It was never quite observed on Daphne–but there were big steps. The image of the evolutionary tree as having loose, tangled webs, and not clean breaks, at the branching points, is a powerful one–and this summer, I learned how important the visualizations we rely on are in evolutionary thinking (witness the insidious, helpful idea of a fitness landscape). Dolph, one of the researchers, even made an actual empirical fitness landscape out of all the measurements for Darwin’s finches!!!!

Two particular points of interest: the light shed on Darwin’s gradations between kind, variety and species, and how they’re borne out on Daphne–many of these finches “are so intermediate in appearance that they cannot safely be identified…In no other birds are the differences between species so ill-defined.” There’s a saying at the Charles Darwin Research Station: “Only God and Peter Grant can recognize Darwin’s finches.” One of the impetuses of Grants’ research was a monograph published by David Lack, Darwin’s Finches, which put to rest the idea that prevailed for a while that they  aren’t new species at all, but “a hybrid swarm” of varieties on the Galapagos, “offering  no scope for natural selection.” Lack saw that the birds weren’t breeding together, but the ground finches were eating the same seeds–he saw that in a wet season, when seeds are plentiful. Then looking over the data at home, he saw that the closest together species in their beaks never live together on one island, and inferred competition. The Grants were the first to really see competition and the principle of divergence in play on the island, and not just infer it happened in the past.

On the problem of adaptation, a neat experiment with crossbills showed proof-of-concept that little fitness advantages can accumulate to make big adaptations: the beaks of the crossbills were filed down, and each generation grew a little more of a crossbill back; each generation was more fit than the last in terms of its ability to crack the pinecones it’s adapted  to. The other one, more shocking, is the key role for hybrids that the Grants posit as a result of their observations: they found, contrary to all received wisdom, that sometimes the hybrids were successful far beyond what any of the “pure-breds” could do, and it wasn’t uncommon for two different species to attempt mating. Number 006, the tiniest fulginosa on the island, always pairs with a fortis, and is the most successful of her species on the island breeding-wise. (123) The numbers for bird hybridization are striking: there are 10,000 bird species known, and 1,000 are known to have mated with other species.  In some cases the rates are even higher: 67 of 161 species of ducks and geese have interbred that we know–and probably more, given the patchy state of our knowledge (we didn’t even notice that the best-studied birds ever, on the Galapagos, were interbreeding until after a 20 year vigil). This extends the role of hybridization and its power, known to produce ne wplant species “literally overnight,” to the animal kingdom. At least half of the world’s flowering plant species came from interbreeding. Does a number on the biological species concept! Hybridization is also common among Bufo toads, many insects, and many fish. Evidence also points to the role of human motions and ecology in increasing the rate of hybridization: we disturb habitats and introduce invasive species that mix with the local gene pool, and hybrids can back-cross (“introgressive hypbridization,” Edgar Anderson called it) to mix the gene pool even more. Hybrids can fill special niches their parents can’t, and humans are creating such mixed up niches all over the planet: we see this in wildflowers in the Delta, where different species inhabit different fields, which the farmers have treated with different chemicals. Anderson also argues that “ecologically dominant” species, like humans currently are, could have driven the evolution of new niches in the past too: e.g. at the colonization of new islands or continents, the first land vertebrates invading terrestrial vegetation, the first large herbivorous reptiles or the first large land animals. (Stebbins and Anderson, “Hybridization as an Evolutionary Stimulus”)

On the modern speed of evolution, Weiner goes beyond the pat “we have lots of drug-resistant strains” line. He writes of two people who took antibiotics for a few days, and then sampled the bacteria in their body: almost all were drug resistant. As they note, it’s different seeing fast evolution in a lab and in our own bodies. There are examples of all the different ways a pest can avoid the effects of a pesticide: dodging it, not letting it get inside, developing an antidote, or inactivating it once it’s inside.

And there are interesting stories to liven things up (it’s really a page turner!) Not of Darwin’s personal life or the Grants’ per se, but personal anecdotes in the course of doing research. Darwin could’ve seen natural selection in action if he’d been of a mind to, as he kicked stones in his garden to count laps and noticed the death of 4/5ths of the bird species on his grounds one winter, something like the effect of an El Nino or a drought on the Galapagos. Darwin discovered 537 species of plant in 3 tablespoons of mud in his tabletop experiment.  Two engineers created “two new letters to the alphabet of life,” adding synthetic X and K to A, C, T, and G. The book doesn’t get personal, but there’s a great sense of personal investment and the importance of these scientific stories in it. I’ll be trying to get my hands on Weiner’s other books.

To Read:

“Direct Demonstrations of Natural Selection” in Natural Selection in the Wild, for more examples of experimental evolution studies

*Grant and Grant, How Species Multiply

*Anderson’s work

*Darwin’s journals

Categories: Books, Evolution