Posts Tagged ‘ literature ’

Why I Love and Hate “Game”

Yes, it’s that special time of year again – time for flamboyant bouquets and chalky candy to appear at office desks – time for Facebook pages to drown in cloying iconography – time for self-labeled “forever aloners” to dredge the back alleys of OKCupid in last-ditch desperation – and time for me to load up my trusty gatling crossbow with oxytocin-tipped darts and hit the streets.

Valentine's Day also means it's time to enjoy the traditional dish of Earlobe.

Oh, and it’s time for everyone to complain about how misogynistic all this “Game” stuff is.

So, while I guess I could write about, say, a new study that says cutting your romantic partner some slack can make him or her more capable of actual change, or this one that says love and chocolate are good for cardiovascular health, I think it’ll be much more interesting to talk about what’s really on most of our minds today:

What does science have to say about “getting the girl” (or guy) of your dreams? And what do actual girls (and guys) think about it?

Let’s start with some full disclosure: about this time last year, I decided to see what all the fuss was about, and I read The Game for myself – and then I read some of the other works it cites, too. And I started talking to my friends (both male and female) about what they thought of the ideas in those books – and I tested a lot of the ideas I read, the same way I’d test any hypothesis: I wrote down the predictions various authors made, and checked how well those predictions lined up with my own real-world experiences.

In short, I went Full Geek on the topic.

What I learned is that, on the spectrum of scientific rigorousness – a scale from, say, astrology (0) to molecular chemistry (10) – most of this stuff falls somewhere in the 4-to-6 range: It tends to be more evidence-based than, say, ghost-hunting; but it still falls firmly into the realm of the “softer” sciences, like psychotherapy and so on.

The reason for this is that – as many pick-up artists freely admit – their craft is at least as much an artistic pursuit as a scientific one. Much like, say, Aristotle and Hobbes and Descartes, PUAs do their best to ground their conclusions logically in real-world data that anyone is free to test and refute – but at the same time, like those great philosophers of old, PUAs tend to be more intent on constructing elaborate thought systems than on presenting their “ugly” raw data for independent labs to crunch through.

This means pick-up manuals tend to read more like philosophical treatises than scientific papers.

And I think it’s this very feature of pick-up art that explains why it’s such a polarizing topic – why many women (and plenty of men) find the very concept insulting and distasteful, while other men swear that it’s transformed them from self-loathing losers into sexually fulfilled alpha males.

See, many women will tell you in no uncertain terms that pickup “tricks” don’t work on someone as intelligent and experienced as them; and that even if such tricks did work, they don’t want to be “picked up” –  instead, they want to fall in love (or at least in lust) with a man who’s honest about his real self and his real feelings. Many men, too, would agree that crafty seduction techniques somehow cheapen the process – that it’s better to be “forever alone” than to be surrounded by adoring women who were manipulated into their romantic feelings.

Meanwhile, men who’ve had “success” (however they choose to define it) as a result of a pick-up system’s techniques will often defend that system to the death – much like how a person who’s found inner peace thanks to, say, Buddhism will often defend it passionately against anti-Buddhist viewpoints.

What I’m arguing here, though, is that none of these reactions pertain directly to the underlying process of seduction at all – rather, they’re reactions to the (often sleazy-sounding) thought-systems that various writers have constructed around their experiences with that process.

Because – let’s get right down to it – in all our interactions with other humans, we’re hoping to manipulate the outcome somehow. Double entendres, pop-cultural references, stylish clothes and makeup, kind gestures, subtle dishonesty – even honesty itself – all these are tools and techniques that we hope will garner us a certain response.

For example, if you choose to callously manipulate the people around you, you may get a lot more sex than you would otherwise – but you’ll also end up with a lot of shallow relationships, which you’ll probably come to regret eventually. If you choose to be completely honest all the time, you may repel some people – but you’ll probably also find that those who stick around end up respecting you for who you really are.

It’s Game Theory 101: Players who “win” are those who understand the rules, risks and rewards of the game – and play accordingly. All the sleazy lingo and tricks – all the elaborate systems – are just various people’s attempts to explain these dynamics as they play out in gender relations, and to sell their vision of the process to a demographic of sex-starved men, whose desires they understand quite well.

But still – the underlying process itself is no more and no less sleazy than the mind of the person using it.

In other words, when you read between the lines of these PUA systems, most of them turn out to be geared toward the same premises: That to grow as a person, you need to 1) be fully honest with yourself about what you want from the people around you, 2) acknowledge the personal changes that need to be made in order to achieve those results, and 3) steadily work to make those changes in yourself.

From an evolutionary psychology perspective, it’s hard for me to see how that’s inherently more “cheap” than, say, a woman learning how to dress and speak seductively in order to get what she wants.

Yes, there are a lot of sleazy men out there who objectify women and sweet-talk them into one-night stands. There are also plenty of sweet-talking women out there who milk men for the contents of their wallets, then move on. And so we label each other “douchebags” and “bitches,” and keep engaging in the same defensive behaviors, and no one’s really happy.

And I hate that Game. I despise it.

At the same time, though, it’s clear that we humans, like many other animals, have evolved to play competitive social games – there’s no getting around that fact. But unlike many animals, we don’t have to play the game exactly as our instincts tell us to – we’re metacognitive, so we can learn to play using strategies that don’t result in zero-sum outcomes: We can develop tactics that help both sides get more of what they want. We can harness our evolutionary drives to mutually-beneficial behavior patterns.

Doesn’t that make you want to learn to play more creatively, instead of trying not to play at all?

I mean, at the end of the day, it kinda fills me with love for the Game.

What do you think?

Harry Potter and the Nature of the Self

Hooray for Google Image Search!

Yup, this is what we’re doing today. I finally got to see Deathly Hallows Part 2, and it got me thinking about neuroscience like frickin’ everything always does, and I came home and wrote an essay about the nature of consciousness in the Harry Potter universe.

And we’re going to talk about it, because it’s the holidays and can we please just pull it together and act like a normal family for the length of one blog post? Thank you. I really mean it. Besides, I guarantee you that this stuff is gonna bug you too once I’ve brought it up.

So in the movie, there’s this concept of Harry and Voldemort sharing minds; mental resources – each of them can occasionally see what the other one sees; sometimes even remember what the other one remembers.

That idea is not explored to anywhere near a respectable modicum of its full extent.

First of all, are these guys the only two wizards in history who this has happened to? Yeah, I’m sure the mythology already has an answer for this – one that I will devote hours to researching just as soon as that grant money comes through. Ahem. Anyway, the odds are overwhelming that at least some other wizards have been joined in mental pairs previously – I mean, these are guys who can store their subjective memories in pools of water to be re-experienced at will; you can’t tell me nobody’s ever experimented; bathed in another person’s memories; tried to become someone else, or be two people at once. Someone, at some point, must’ve pulled it off. Probably more than one someone.

OK, so there’ve been a few pairs of wizards who shared each others’ minds. Cool. Well, if two works fine, why not three? Hell, why not twelve, or a thousand? With enough know-how and the right set of minds to work with, the wizarding world could whip us up a Magic Consciousness Singularity by next Tuesday.

But there’s the rub: Who all should be included in this great meeting of the minds? Can centaurs and house-elves join? What about, say, dragons, or deer, or birds? Where exactly is the cutoff, where the contents of one mind are no longer useful or comprehensible to another? As a matter of fact, given the – ah – not-infrequent occurrence of miscommunication in our own societies, I’d say it’s pretty remarkable that this kind of mental communion is even possible between two individuals of the same species.

Which brings us to an intriguing wrinkle in the endless debate about qualia – those mental qualities like the “redness” of red, or the “painfulness” of pain, which are only describable in terms of other subjective experiences. Up until now, of course, it’s been impossible to prove whether Harry’s qualia for, say, redness are exactly the same as Voldemort’s – or to explain just how the concept of “exactly the same” would even apply in this particular scenario. But now Harry can magically see through Voldemort’s eyes; feel Voldemort’s feelings – he can experience Voldemort’s qualia for himself.

Ah, but can he, really? I mean, wouldn’t Harry still be experiencing Voldemort’s qualia through his own qualia? Like I said, this is a pretty intriguing wrinkle.

The more fundamental question, though, is this: What  does this all tell us about the concept of the Self in Wizard Metaphysics? (It’s capitalized because it’s magical.) Do Harry and Voldemort together constitute a single person? A single self? Is there a difference between those two concepts? Should there be?

I don’t ask these questions idly – in fact, here’s a much more pointed query: What do we rely on when we ask ourselves who we are? A: Memories, of course; and our thoughts and feelings about those memories. Now, if some of Harry’s thoughts and feelings and memories are of things he experienced while “in” Voldemort’s mind (whatever that means) then don’t some of Voldemort’s thoughts and feelings and memories comprise a portion of Harry’s? You can see where we run into problems.

Just one last question, and then I promise I’ll let this drop. When you read about Harry’s and Voldemort’s thoughts and feelings and memories, and you experience them for yourself, what does that say about what your Self is made of?

I’ll be back next week to talk about neurons and stuff.

Ruining the Ending

Plot spoilers don’t seem to hurt our enjoyment of movies or books at all, a new study shows – in fact, they actually increase our pleasure. What a twist!

Just your typical college girl, enjoying the hell out of her Ambrose Bierce anthology.

In a series of experiments, volunteers consistently rated short stories as significantly more enjoyable when they got to read a spoiler-y intro, or when spoilers were inserted into early parts of the story. This even held true for stories whose climax depends on a revelation or a twist.

If you’re anything like me, you might go to great lengths to avoid spoilers for upcoming books and movies – even leaping out of open windows or sprinting across busy freeways as soon as someone threatens to reveal a juicy tidbit (hey, priorities matter). I myself tend to be less worried about “ironic” twists, and more about knowing which characters will survive to the end – kinda ruins the suspense, doesn’t it?

Not at all, akshully, as long as the story’s well-told, says a report that’s slated to appear in an upcoming issue of the journal Psychological Science. Lead researcher Nicholas Christenfeld, a UC San Diego psychologist, lays out a few reasons why the team may have gotten these results:

“Plots are just excuses for great writing. What the plot is is (almost) irrelevant. The pleasure is in the writing,” said Christenfeld, a UC San Diego professor of social psychology. “Monet’s paintings aren’t really about water lilies.”

In other words, if the writing itself is gripping, the plot isn’t as important. This might be true in some cases, such as creatively written stories that reward repeated readings – but I certainly wouldn’t go so far as to say a plot is “just an excuse” for beautiful prose; it seems to me that plot, characters, and prose are all important. Anyway, a plot without good prose is still a story – but good prose without a plot is just…imagery.

Here’s another explanation the researchers suggest:

It’s also possible that it’s “easier” to read a spoiled story. Other psychological studies have shown that people have an aesthetic preference for objects that are perceptually easy to process.

“So it could be,” said Jonathan Leavitt, a psychology doctoral student at UC San Diego [who worked on the study], “that once you know how it turns out … you’re more comfortable processing the information, and can focus on a deeper understanding of the story.”

Could be – but who says the volunteers gained a “deeper understanding” of the spoiler-ed stories? As far as I can tell, they just reported enjoying those stories more. Understanding is cognitive; enjoyment is emotional – and the two aren’t necessarily related. Besides, there are obvious differences between liking a story (or your girlfriend’s face) because it’s familiar to you, and liking a story because you know what’s going to happen in it.

So I want to float two other possible explanations for this phenomenon. Both of them seem to make intuitive sense, and neither of them was mentioned by the psychologists.

First, spoilers give readers some idea of what to expect at the story’s climax and resolution – thus, they don’t get their hopes up excessively; nor are they as likely to get bored halfway through, wondering if the payoff will be worth their time. See, the more a story builds up the promise of mysterious revelations, the more satisfying those revelations will have to be for the reader. It’s a lot easier to satisfy a reader who knows (to some degree) what he or she’s holding out for.

Second – and perhaps more importantly – spoilers can actually strengthen suspense. For example, before I sat down to watch the movie Irreversible, I’d already heard about the infamous rape scene, so I spent the first twenty minutes of the movie in a state of anticipatory dread. Similarly, I’d heard a major character would die at the end of the first season of Game of Thrones, so I watched the season finale with nervous attention, waiting for the ax to drop.

In short, just because you know a twist, or the ending, doesn’t mean you know how the story will get you there – or even just what that scene will be like. It’s not necessarily about great prose (though that helps, of course), but about the excitement of taking the journey.

Maybe this is why asking someone out, or proposing marriage, can be so nerve-wracking, even when you’re nearly positive the person will say “yes.” Because in life, as in literature and film, there’s always the off chance that something may still surprise you.

The Fascination of the Abomination

a.k.a. “From Blackwood to Coppola: Apocalypse Now as Weird Tale”

Have you ever watched a movie that was so scary you couldn’t look away?

I once tried to talk my roommate into hanging a print of this painting above our fireplace.

For as long as I can remember – and probably longer – I’ve been intrigued by monsters. At preschool age, I possessed what my parents called an “overactive imagination,” and a few nightmares from which I woke screaming convinced them to prohibit me from watching TV shows – even cartoons – involving monsters or horror of any kind.

As might be expected, this ban only served to intensify my fascination. By junior high, my parents seemed to have accepted that this love of the unnatural wasn’t going away, and they let me devour everything I could find by Poe, Bierce, and Lovecraft (probably relieved that I was reading actual books).

As I eventually discovered, my dad shared my love for old monster movies; and by high school, I’d amassed a respectable VHS collection of classics (and not-so-classics) plundered from the “horror” and “sci-fi” sections of every video shop in town. By then, the only thing still off-limits in my parents’ house was “R”-rated horror, which might explain my college-age plunge through the nightmarish works of Miike and Fulci.

What was I looking for in all this?

Sometime in my early twenties, this question abruptly reared its head, and it nagged at me so insistently that I developed a sort of obsession with answering it in a way that satisfied me. It was here, I think, that my two great lifelong loves – mysteries and neuroscience – met for the first time. In a lifetime of exploring the mysterious, this was the deepest and most primal mystery I’d ever encountered: why is the human mind so eager to confront the dark?

The first serious meditation I found on the subject was Noel Carroll’s The Philosophy of Horror. The book’s thesis centers on the idea of “paradoxes of the heart” – i.e., that the unknown holds a powerful fascination for many people precisely because it’s so potentially dangerous. The more we fear something, it seems, the more we’re driven to learn about it – perhaps to test our mettle and prove our strength; perhaps because we sense that knowledge of a thing’s true nature is a form of power over it.

Or perhaps fear and horror are routes to other ecstasies. In his book The Idea of the Holy, Rudolf Otto argues that the root of all religious experience is something he calls “the numinous” – a sense of vast, powerful, and ineffable mystery that can’t be described in terms of other experiences. Otto explains this feeling as a sort of transformation – or sublimation – of the indefinable dread one might feel when walking through a forest at night, or the chill that runs up one’s spine when wind whistles through an empty canyon. It’s a feeling one encounters much more in wild places, when traveling alone – a sense of a place’s vastness, power, and Otherness.

Just as ancient rituals to appease spirits gradually evolved into acts of worship toward gods, a proper respect and appreciation for the numinous transforms dread into awe – terror into ecstasy – the mysterious into the holy.

One of my all-time favorite fiction authors, Algernon Blackwood, dealt with exactly this theme in much of his work. In his short story The Willows (which I can’t recommend highly enough), the narrator and his guide sail down the Danube river into an unusually wild swamp. As night descends, both are overcome by feelings of dread and awe for the swamp’s alien vastness:

Small things testified to the amazing influence of the place, and now in the silence round the fire they allowed themselves to be noted by the mind. The very atmosphere had proved itself a magnifying medium to distort every indication: the otter rolling in the current, the hurrying boatman making signs, the shifting willows, one and all had been robbed of its natural character, and revealed in something of its other aspect — as it existed across the border to that other region. And this changed aspect I felt was now not merely to me, but to the race. The whole experience whose verge we touched was unknown to humanity at all. It was a new order of experience, and in the true sense of the word unearthly.

Blackwood – along with other writers such as Arthur Machen and H.P. Lovecraft – helped develop the literary form known today as the weird tale. Though these stories often contain elements in common with mystery, fantasy, and horror, they differ from these primarily in terms of the feelings they aim to evoke in the reader. Lovecraft described his own style of weird tale in this way:

[It] has something more than secret murder, bloody bones, or a sheeted form clanking chains according to rule. A certain atmosphere of breathless and unexplainable dread of outer, unknown forces must be present; and there must be a hint, expressed with a seriousness and portentousness becoming its subject, of that most terrible conception of the human brain–a malign and particular suspension or defeat of those fixed laws of Nature which are our only safeguard against the assaults of chaos and the daemons of unplumbed space.

And indeed, in plenty of Lovecraft’s fiction we find a near-worshipful reverence for enormous spans of time and space, and for the inconceivable vastness revealed when the delusions of human civilization give way before the ultimate incomprehensibility of the cosmos.

In other words, while Blackwood tends to focus on the supernatural, Lovecraft typically makes a point of keeping his horrors and “gods” in the physical realm… even if that realm is a bizarre multiverse in which humans are mere prey – or worse, are of no significance at all.

Lovecraft’s narrators open their eyes not to unveiled supernatural horrors, but to the unfiltered facts of cold physical reality. In a way, Lovecraft was homing in on the true emotional crux of the weird tale: not the monsters themselves, but the concepts implied by their existence.

That’s one of the central ideas explored in a superb essay by my friend (and fellow weird-tale aficionado) Orrin Grey:

H.P. Lovecraft once said that “suggestion [is] the highest form of horror-presentation.” I think of this as less an affirmation of the old saw that things are scarier in direct proportion to how well (or how much) you see them, and more an exhortation that it’s not the monster itself that’s so scary at all but rather what that monster, by its very existence, suggests. To put it another way, the thing that makes a vampire interesting … is not that it will suck your blood, but that it is a vampire at all. That it is a teratism, a thing outside of commonly accepted possibility. The better such a creature is understood, the more bound in rules it is, the more pedestrian and commonplace it becomes…

But less explicit monsters lurk between the lines here: both Lovecraft and many of his narrators cling desperately to “fixed laws of Nature” as a bulwark against “assaults of chaos” – clinging, in other words, to logical, representational, Apollonian, “left-brained” perceptions of the Umwelt; blockading their minds against the arbitrary, raw, Dionysian, “right-brained” holistic reality they dread facing.1

In short, despite the very different approaches of Lovecraft and Blackwood, both of their horrors spring from somewhat of a common cause: the confrontation of the rational mind with an experience that is simultaneously undeniable and unclassifiable – an experience so original and immediate, so impossible for the rational mind to “re-present,” that it forces words to “turn back,” and compels the narrator’s ego to prostrate itself in heartfelt astonishment – to become temporarily like that of a child, awash in the pure “is“-ness of the moment.

This, for me, is what’s so fascinating not only about monsters, but about any story or film that evokes quasi-religious feelings of terror and awe: that it leaves me with a breathless sense of revelation about a certain idea, combined with an overpowering sense of that idea’s mysteriousness; incomprehensibility; ineffability.

Even stories without a hint of the supernatural or the “weird” can summon these feelings. In fact, The Willows tends to remind me of another – much more famous – story that also uses a river journey into the wilderness to evoke dread and awe: Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. Unlike Blackwood and Lovecraft, Conrad makes no mention of the supernatural or even the unearthly, instead focusing on the numinous power of something much closer to home: the human psyche, and its place in relation to untamed nature.

What's that in the shadows - see it?

Throughout Heart of Darkness, Conrad interweaves thoughts about the dark and ruthless jungle with meditations on the savagery of ancient and “primitive” mankind. As the character Marlow explains, modern, “civilized” man walks the thinnest of tightropes above the abyss of his own primal nature – and every man’s mind has a breaking point, beyond which it will slip back into raw atavism. Early in the story, Marlow reminds the rest of the boat’s crew that even familiar England was a savage forest not too long ago:

“And this also,” said Marlow suddenly, “has been one of the dark places of the earth.”

“I was thinking of very old times, when the Romans first came here, nineteen hundred years ago … We live in the flicker — may it last as long as the old earth keeps rolling! But darkness was here yesterday. Imagine the feelings of a commander of a fine — what d’ye call ’em? — trireme in the Mediterranean, ordered suddenly to the north; run overland across the Gauls in a hurry; put in charge of one of these craft … Imagine him here — the very end of the world, a sea the colour of lead, a sky the colour of smoke, a kind of ship about as rigid as a concertina — and going up this river with stores, or orders, or what you like. Sand-banks, marshes, forests, savages, — precious little to eat fit for a civilized man, nothing but Thames water to drink. No Falernian wine here, no going ashore. Here and there a military camp lost in a wilderness, like a needle in a bundle of hay — cold, fog, tempests, disease, exile, and death — death skulking in the air, in the water, in the bush.”

“All that mysterious life of the wilderness that stirs in the forest, in the jungles, in the hearts of wild men. There’s no initiation either into such mysteries. He has to live in the midst of the incomprehensible, which is also detestable. And it has a fascination, too, that goes to work upon him. The fascination of the abomination…”

Thus, whereas in The Willows and other Blackwood stories, nature and its rational laws (or – to put a finer point on it – our belief that we can use logic to classify and predict nature’s behavior) are delicately suspended above the vast unclassifiable weirdness of the supernatural, in Heart of Darkness, rational human consciousness itself is suspended above the vast darkness of man’s primeval natural state. In short, the ultimate horror is to stare straight into the unthinking, irrational chaos of nature itself.

But again, horror is only a stop along the route to other states of mind. As the story progresses, Marlow’s feelings toward the jungle – and toward Kurtz, the rogue wild-man he’s tracking – undergo a transformation from dread to awe. Immersed in “nature, red in tooth and claw,” he becomes – much like the narrator of The Willows – overwhelmed with the sense that human civilization is no more than an insignificant island drifting in a vast and uncaring universe. Here, the numinous is expressed not through supernatural monsters or interplanetary “gods,” but by abstract (yet naturalistic) concepts. As the jungle’s shadows swallow the boat, Marlow muses, “The earth seemed unearthly.”

In other words, Marlow has begun to experience his Umwelt in a heightened, almost childlike way: as an environment that’s alien, raw and terrifying and immediate in every moment – and therefore, worthy of worship.

Probably too masculine to be a Blackwood hero, though.

Francis Ford Coppola’s film Apocalypse Now – based loosely on Conrad’s story – evokes many of the same feelings through visual means: the enormity of the civilization-devouring jungle; the terror of unlit nights where predators lurk just out of sight. Parts of Coppola’s film feel – to me, anyway – like modern-day adaptations of portions of The Willows; it’s not hard to imagine a latter-day Blackwood setting his story in the mysterious jungle of Vietnam.

In fact, in his “Great Movies” write-up of Apocalypse Now, Roger Ebert references some themes that could have come straight out of the classic weird tale playbook:

What is found at the end of the journey is not Kurtz so much as what Kurtz found: that all of our days and ways are a fragile structure perched uneasily atop the hungry jaws of nature that will thoughtlessly devour us. A happy life is a daily reprieve from this knowledge.

If we are lucky, we spend our lives in a fool’s paradise, never knowing how close we skirt the abyss. What drives Kurtz mad is his discovery of this.

Compare those lines with the opening of Lovecraft’s classic story The Call of Cthulhu:

The most merciful thing in the world, I think, is the inability of the human mind to correlate all its contents. We live on a placid island of ignorance in the midst of black seas of infinity, and it was not meant that we should voyage far.

A bit more melodramatic, perhaps, but the gist is essentially the same: the only thing that keeps us humans sane is the delusion that we’re somehow separate from the rest of nature; not subject to the same chaos as all other animals. When this delusion is shattered, we will – like Kurtz in Conrad’s story and Coppola’s film, and like Blackwood’s and Lovecraft’s narrators – plunge back into atavism; as Lovecraft puts it, we can “either go mad from the revelation or flee from the deadly light into the peace and safety of a new dark age.”

As the philosopher Albert Camus wrote, “A world that can be explained even with bad reasons is a familiar world. But, on the other hand, in a universe suddenly divested of illusions and lights, man feels an alien, a stranger.”

And yet, like Marlow in Heart of Darkness, like Willard in Apocalypse Now, and like the protagonists of hundreds of weird tales, I nevertheless feel myself drawn inexorably toward the alien and the strange – not in spite of the revelations they harbor, but because of them. For me, this fascination runs far deeper than a desire to confront what scares me, or to test my own mettle. I’m intrigued by vast unknowns, by primal forces whose very natures lie below or beyond the reach of conscious thought. These might take the form of physical or supernatural monsters, amorphous “powers,” or depths of the human mind.

In a way, I'm essentially this guy.

Maybe there’s a bit of the mad scientist in me – I sometimes feel I’d gladly sacrifice my own sanity for one glorious tidal wave of the numinous; for one breathless instant of revelation; to see…!

By the year I was born, every landmass on Earth had largely been mapped – “dark continents” are long extinct. But three great unmapped places still exist: the deep sea, outer space, and the interior of the mind. These dark and airless realms still teem with possibilities we can hardly imagine. But only one of them can be explored for free, whenever we have the time and inclination.

As Marlow puts it in Heart of Darkness:

Now when I was a little chap I had a passion for maps. I would look for hours at South America, or Africa, or Australia, and lose myself in all the glories of exploration. At that time there were many blank spaces on the earth, and when I saw one that looked particularly inviting on a map (but they all look that) I would put my finger on it and say, “When I grow up I will go there.”

The North Pole was one of these places, I remember. Well, I haven’t been there yet, and shall not try now. The glamour’s off. Other places were scattered about the hemispheres. I have been in some of them, and . . . well, we won’t talk about that. But there was one yet — the biggest, the most blank, so to speak — that I had a hankering after.

Though the days of trailblazing jungle exploration are long-gone, “biggest and most blank” realms continue to intrigue me, precisely because they contain such potential – such suggestive hints of the numinous. I love them because I fear them – because they force me to confront them in all their naked immediacy.

The safety of civilization holds little appeal for me in comparison to the visceral power of the unknown. The promise of revelation and the threat of madness – are they really so different, after all? Both sing like Sirens to places deep within me. If Blackwood, Conrad and the rest are any indication, they sing to many of us.

Shadows of the primordial savanna, held at bay by dying firelight, are far more than ancient history – we carry them, each one of us, somewhere at the edge of consciousness; in a place we find when we’re alone in an unlit house – when we avoid looking out the window because we half-expect to see something staring back at us – when we lie just at the edge of sleep, unsure if that scratching at the door is imaginary or real.

In those moments, our fool’s paradise falls away, and we remember what we’ve always been: naked apes huddled in dread against the night. And even still, the night – in all its forms – beckons us to stare into its shadows; to whisper, with awe, hints of its secrets.


1. It’s interesting to note that in ancient Greek thought, Dionysos was the god of madness – the devouring of the ego by the ceaseless flow of raw experience – while Apollo, by contrast, was the god of insanity – the mangling of “true” reality-perceptions by the ego’s constructed reality.

Digitoneurolinguistic Hacking

In view of all the seriousness I’ve been writing about lately, I decided it was time to post an XKCD comic that made me laugh so hard I snorted hot chocolate through my nose.

Click the image below to embiggen!

Here’s a short blog post that explains a little more about digitoneurolinguistic hacking. It seems to be a reference to a concept introduced by Neal Stephenson, one of my very favorite authors, in his novel Snow Crash, which is a phenomenally fun and thought-provoking read. As the Wikipedia entry says:

The book explores the controversial concept of neuro-linguistic programming and presents the Sumerian language as the firmware programming language for the brainstem, which is supposedly functioning as the BIOS for the human brain.

If that’s not enough to convince you to read the book, I should point out that it also involves post-apocalyptic skateboard kids firing grappling hooks at moving traffic.

Anyway, as the blogger above points out, neurolinguistic programming (NLP) is a pretty controversial idea. Stephenson’s concept of hacking the brain through language might have been inspired by NLP, but it was intended as a fictional thought experiment, not a therapeutic technique.

Any therapy that claims to be able to “program” the brain is suspicious to me. A connectome is not a computer – it’s a constantly changing living thing – and as such, it’s got to be consistently trained and cared for, like a muscle group or a dog.

But it’s still fun to hack.

Oh, and in case you were wondering, the word “trochee” is a poetic term derived from the ancient Greek τροχαιος (trochaios, “running”), which carries an implication of rolling downhill. I think it’s a pretty helpful metaphor for the way trochees seem to roll off the tongue.


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