Clive James & Jonathan Miller (Both RIP) Talk Together About How the Brain Works

"Were they the last representatives of a special kind of public intellectual?" asks John Mullen in the Guardian. He writes of Clive James and Jonathan Miller, two figures who exemplified "the polymath as entertainer." The Australian-born James became famous on the back of the television criticism that turned him into a television fixture himself. The combined TV critic and TV host also played the same dual role in the realm of poetry, and as his life and career went on — and his bibliography greatly expanded — it came to seem that there were few forms, traditions, time periods, or languages his cultural omnivorousness didn't reach. Trained as a doctor before he redefined British comedy as a member of Beyond the Fringe, Miller retained his scientific interests, using his fame to write books and present a television show on anatomy, psychology, and language, and much more besides.

Since the deaths of both James and Miller were announced last Friday, the outpouring of tributes (most of them lamenting the seeming loss, in our time, of high-profile roles for entertaining polymaths free to move between "high" and "low") has been accompanied by a renewed enthusiasm for both men's considerable bodies of work.




Despite having known each other, James and Miller seem never to have explicitly collaborated on anything — except, that is, an episode of Talking in the Library, an early example of what we would now call an interview web series. Produced from 2006 to 2008, the show has James pioneering a form that has now become standard among podcasters: recording the conversations he wanted to have with his friends anyway.

In James' case, his friends include the likes of not just Miller but Martin Amis, Ruby Wax, Ian McEwan, Stephen Fry, and Terry Gilliam. With Miller, James spends the half-hour talking science, and specifically neuroscience. Miller, who specialized in neurology while studying medicine (and who counted Oliver Sacks as a close friend since age 12), returned to the subject in the early 1980s for his book and BBC series States of Mind. Not long thereafter he returned at the age of 50 to his medical studies, diving into neuropsychology at McMaster University and becoming a research fellow at the University of Sussex.

Though James abandoned his own university studies in psychology by 1960, his curiosity about the workings of the human brain — and how it could produce all the art, literature, film, and indeed television to whose appreciation he dedicated his life — never abandoned him, as evidenced by the eagerness with which he asks questions of his more neuroscientifically savvy friend. "The brain is the most complicated thing in the universe," says Miller, "so complicated, in fact, that by contrast the universe itself it not much more complicated than a cuckoo clock." Fair to say that both Miller and James had the good luck to possess more complicated, or at least more interesting, brains than average — and that it's our good luck to be able to enjoy their work in perpetuity.

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities and culture. He’s at work on a book about Los Angeles, A Los Angeles Primer, the video series The City in Cinemaand the crowdfunded journalism project Where Is the City of the Future? Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

What Is Higher Consciousness?: How We Can Transcend Our Petty, Day-to-Day Desires and Gain a Deeper Wisdom

Each of us has a normal state of mind, as well as our own way of reaching a different state of mind. As the School of Life video above reminds us, such habits go back quite deep into recorded history, to the eras when, then as now, "Hindu sages, Christian monks and Buddhist ascetics" spoke of "reaching moments of ‘higher consciousness’ – through meditation or chanting, fasting or pilgrimages." In recent years, the practice of meditation has spread even, and perhaps especially, among those of us who don't subscribe to Buddhism, or indeed to any religion at all. Periodic fasting has come to be seen as a necessity in certain circles of wealthy first-worlders, as has "dopamine fasting" among those who feel their minds compromised by the distractions of high technology and social media. (And one needs only glance at that social media to see how seriously some of us are taking our pilgrimages.)

Still, on top of our mountain, deep into our sitting-and-breathing sessions, or even after having consumed our mind-altering substance of choice, we do feel, if only for a moment, that something has changed within us. We understand things we don't even consider understanding in our normal state of mind, "where what we are principally concerned with is ourselves, our survival and our own success, narrowly defined."




When we occupy this "lower consciousness," we "strike back when we’re hit, blame others, quell any stray questions that lack immediate relevance, fail to free-associate and stick closely to a flattering image of who we are and where we are heading." But when we enter a state of "higher consciousness," however we define it, "the mind moves beyond its particular self-interests and cravings. We start to think of other people in a more imaginative way."

When we rise from lower to higher consciousness, we find it much harder to think of our fellow human beings as enemies. "Rather than criticize and attack, we are free to imagine that their behavior is driven by pressures derived from their own more primitive minds, which they are generally in no position to tell us about." The more time we spend in our higher consciousness, the more we "develop the ability to explain others’ actions by their distress, rather than simply in terms of how it affects us. We perceive that the appropriate response to humanity is not fear, cynicism or aggression, but always — when we can manage it — love." When our consciousness reaches the proper altitude, "the world reveals itself as quite different: a place of suffering and misguided effort, full of people striving to be heard and lashing out against others, but also a place of tenderness and longing, beauty and touching vulnerability. The fitting response is universal sympathy and kindness."

This may all come across as a bit new-age, sounding "maddeningly vague, wishy washy, touchy-feely – and, for want of a better word, annoying." But the concept of higher consciousness is variously interpreted not just across cultural and religious traditions but in scientific research as well, where we find a sharp distinction drawn between the neocortex, "the seat of imagination, empathy and impartial judgement," and the "reptilian mind" below. This suggests that we'd benefit from understanding states of higher consciousness as fully as we can, as well as trying to "make the most of them when they arise, and harvest their insights for the time when we require them most" — that is to say, the rest of our ordinary lives, especially their most stressful, trying moments. The instinctive, unimaginative defensiveness of the lower consciousness does have strengths of its own, but we can't take advantage of them unless we learn to put it in its place.

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Medieval Monks Complained About Constant Distractions: Learn How They Worked to Overcome Them

Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

Neuroscience & Jazz Improvisation: How Improvisation Shapes Creativity and What Happens Inside Our Brain

Jazz improvisation has become a hot topic in neuroscience lately, and little wonder. “Musical improvisation is one of the most complex forms of creative behavior,” write the authors of a study published in April in Brain Connectivity. Research on the brains of improvisers offers “a realistic task paradigm for the investigation of real-time creativity”—an even hotter topic in neuroscience.

Researchers study jazz players for the same reason they take MRI scans of the brains of freestyle rappers—both involve creating spontaneous works “where revision is not possible,” and where only a few formal rules govern the activity, whether rhyme and meter or chord structure and harmony. Those who master the basics can leap into endlessly complex feats of improvisatory bravado at any moment.




It’s a power most of us only dream of possessing—though it’s also the case that many a researcher of jazz improvisations also happens to be a musician, including study author Martin Norgaard, a trained jazz violinist who “began studying the effects of musical improvisation… while earning his Ph.D. from the University of Texas at Austin,” notes Jennifer Rainey Marquez at Georgia State University Research Magazine.

Norgaard interviewed both students and professional musicians, and he analyzed the solos of Charlie Parker to find patterns related to specific kinds of brain activity. In this recent study, Norgaard, now at Georgia State University, worked with Mukesh Dhamala, associate professor of physics and astronomy, using an fMRI to measure the brain activity of “advanced jazz musicians” who sang both standards and improvisations while being scanned.

The researchers' findings are consistent with similar studies, like those of John Hopkins surgeon Charles Limb, who also considers jazz a key to understanding creativity. While improvising, musicians show decreased activity in the prefrontal cortex, the area of the brain that generates planning and overthinking, and gets in the way of what psychologists call a state of "flow." Improvising might engage "a smaller, more focused brain network,” says Norgaard, “while other parts of the brain go quiet.”

Training and practice in improvisation may also have longer-term results as well. A study contrasting the brain activity of jazz and classical players found that the former were much quicker and more adaptable in their thinking. The researchers attributed these qualities to changes in the brain wrought by years of improvising. Norgaard and his team are much more circumspect in their conclusions, but they do suggest a causal link.

In a study of 155 8th graders enrolled in a jazz for kids program, Norgaard found that the half who were given training in improvisation showed “significant improvement in cognitive flexibility.” Research like this not only validates the intuitions of jazz musicians themselves; it also helps define specific questions about the cognitive benefits of playing music, which are generally evident in study after study.

“For nearly three decades,” Norgaard says, “scientists have explored the idea that learning to play an instrument is linked to academic achievement.” But there are “many types of music learning.” It's certainly not as simple as studying Bach to work on accuracy or Coltrane for flexibility, but different kinds of music creates different structures in the brain. We might next wonder about the mathematical properties of these structures, or how they interact with modern theories of physics. Rest assured, there are jazz-playing scientists out there working on the question.

via Futurity

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness.

Neurosymphony: A High-Resolution Look into the Brain, Set to the Music of Brain Waves

We can't talk about how music moves us without talking about what, exactly, music does to our brains. The musicophile neurologist Oliver Sacks made the relationship between music and the brain one of the themes of his career, and were he alive today, he would surely enjoy Neurosymphony, a new audiovisual experience of the brain now up at Aeon. It takes the highest-resolution MRI scan of the human brain in existence, featured earlier this year here at Open Culture, and mashes it up with music suitable for a journey through the cross-sections of our most impressive organ — suitable not just aesthetically, but also in the sense that it, too, was made from the stuff of the brain.

Originally scanned by the Laboratory for NeuroImaging of Coma and Consciousness (NICC) at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston, this brain imagery is soundtracked in Neurosymphony by "an excerpt from the album Chapel by the US electronic musician and music-cognition researcher Grace Leslie, in which she converts her brainwaves into music." On her web site, Leslie describes herself as "committed to harnessing the expression granted by new music interfaces to better understand the link between music and emotion, with an ultimate goal of employing musical brain-computer interfaces to promote wellness."




A few years ago, Leslie revealed her process of converting brain waves to musical sounds to BBC Future. "Using equipment that monitors the electrical activity of her brain, changes in her heart rate and subtle shifts in the conductance of her skin, she is creating music from the signals produced by her own body while on stage," writes Richard Gray. "Leslie plays these signals through an electronic synthesizer to produce ambient sounds that reflect what is going on in her body. She can also filter the sounds from musical instruments, like a flute, with the signals from her body to mix them together in a computer." You can watch Leslie's 2017 performance of another such piece, Audible, in the video below.

While Leslie's methods produce music quite unlike what most of us are used to, her goals go beyond the performative. "Ultimately, Leslie believes this innovative form of musical expression could be used to help those who have difficulty interacting with the world, such as those with autism," writes Gray. In this way she has something in common, beyond pure interest in the brain, with the team at the NICC, who produced their groundbreaking scans as a part of their mission to further the understanding of recovery from traumatic brain injury. All worthy pursuits, of course, but it certainly doesn't hurt that their by-products include works like Neurosymphony that motivate us all to learn a bit more about the nature of our own brains.

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

The Benefits of Boredom: How to Stop Distracting Yourself and Get Creative Ideas Again

Here in the 21st century, we have conquered boredom. Impressive though that achievement may be, it hasn't come without cost: As with many other conditions we've managed to eliminate from our lives, boredom now looks to have been essential to full human existence. Has our reality of on-demand distractions, tailored ever more closely to our impulses and desires, robbed us of yet another form of everyday adversity that built up the character of previous generations? Perhaps, but more importantly, it may also have dried up our well of creativity. The frustration that descends on us when trying to come up with new ideas; the itch we feel, whenever we start doing something, to do something else; our inability to go more than a few minutes without looking at our phones: we can hardly assume these modern problems are unrelated.

"When you're bored, you tend to daydream, and your mind wanders, and this is a very, very important part of the creative process," says psychologist Sandi Mann in the animated BBC REEL video at the top of the post. "If you find that you're stuck on a problem, or you're really worried about something and can't seem to find a way out, take some time out. Just be bored. Let your mind wander, and you might just find that a creative solution will pop into your head."




But we've fallen into the habit of "swiping and scrolling our boredom away," seeking "a dopamine hit from new and novel experiences" — most often digital ones — to assuage our fears of boredom. And the more such stimulation we get, the more we need, meaning that, "paradoxically, the way to deal with boredom is to allow more of it into our life."

"Once you start daydreaming and allow your mind to really wander," Mann says, "you start thinking a little bit beyond the conscious, a little bit into the subconscious, which allows sort of different connections to take place." She says it in "How Boredom Can Lead to Your Most Brilliant Ideas," a TED Talk by journalist Manoush Zomorodi. Like the public-radio podcaster she is, Zomorodi brings in interview clips from not just Mann but a range of experts on the subject of boredom and distraction, including neuroscientist Daniel Levitin, who warns that "every time you shift your attention from one thing to another, the brain has to engage a neurochemical switch that uses up nutrients in the brain to accomplish that." And so the "multitasking" in which we once prided ourselves amounts to nothing more than "rapidly shifting from one thing to the next, depleting neural resources as you go."

We've become like the experiment subjects, described in the Veritasium video above, who were asked to sit alone in an empty room for a few minutes with nothing in front of them but a button that they knew would shock them. In the end, 25 percent of the women and 60 percent of the men chose, unasked, to shock themselves, presumably out of a preference for painful stimulation over no stimulation at all. How much, we have to wonder, does that ultimately differ from the distractions we compulsively seek at every opportunity in the form of social media, games, and other addictive apps? And what do these increasingly frequent self-administered jolts do to our ability to identify promising avenues of thought and follow them all the way to their most fruitful conclusions? As the old saying goes, only the boring are bored. But if our technological lives keep going the way they've been going, soon only the bored will be interesting.

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall, on Facebook, or on Instagram.

Why Time Seems to Fly By As You Get Older, and How to Slow It Down: A Scientific Explanation by Neuroscientist David Eagleman

The Buddha, it’s said, struggled mightily with three specters of adulthood—aging, sickness, and death—when reflections on mortality harshed his hedonistic life as a prince. His “intoxication with life entirely dropped away,” the stories say, when he reflected on its passing. Nothing cured his fatal unease until a memory from childhood arose unbidden: of stopping time by quietly sitting under a rose-apple tree.

In another version of this story, Marcel Proust discovered timelessness baked in a cookie. His potent memories of madeleines also came from childhood. As he recalled “the taste of tea and cake,” he writes, “at once the vicissitudes of life had become indifferent to me, its disasters innocuous, its brevity illusory …. I had ceased now to feel mediocre, accidental, mortal.”




Neuroscientist David Eagleman also invokes a childhood memory in his discussion of time and aging, in the BBC video above. It is also a memory resonant with a remarkable physical detail: red brick pavement hurtling toward him as he falls from the roof of a house, experiencing what must have been a terrifying descent in slow motion. Quite a different experience from communing with trees and eating tea cakes, but maybe the content of a childhood memory is irrelevant to its temporal dimensions.

What we can all remember is that along with impatience and distractibility, childhood seems rich with carefree, absorptive languor (or moments of slow-motion panic). Psychologists have indeed shown in several studies that adults, especially those over the age of 40, perceive time as moving faster than it did when they were children. Why?

Because time is a “psychological construct,” says Eagleman, and can vary not just between ages and cultures, but also between individual consciousnesses. “It can be different in your head and my head,” he says. “Your brain is locked in silence and darkness inside the vault of your skull.” In order to “figure out what’s going on outside,” it’s got to do “a lot of editing tricks.” One trick is to convince us that we’re living in the moment, when the moment happened half a second in the past.

But we can notice that gap when we’re faced with novelty, because the brain has to work harder to process new information, and it creates thicker descriptions in the memory. All of this additional processing, Eagleman says, seems to take more time, so we perceive new experiences as happening in a kind of slow motion (or remember them that way). That includes so many experiences in our childhood as well as emergency situations in which we have to navigate a challenging new reality very quickly.

As writer Charles Bukowski once said, “as you live many years, things take on a repeat…. You keep seeing the same thing over and over again.” The brain can coast on familiarity and expend little energy generating perception. We retain fewer detailed memories of recent events, and they seem to have flown by us. The remedy, says Eagleman, is to seek novelty. (You thought he was going to say “mindfulness”?) Wear your watch on a different wrist, change the way you brush your teeth….

Mundane examples, but the point remains: we need new and varied experiences to slow our sense of time. Routine lack of novelty in adulthood may be the primary reason that “our early years,” write psychologists James Broadway and Brittaney Sandoval write at Scientific American,“tend to be relatively overrepresented in our autobiographical memory and, on reflection, seem to have lasted longer.”

They can also, for that reason, seem all the sweeter. But nostalgia, however tempting, can’t take the place of going new places, meeting new people, reading new books, hearing new music, seeing new films, and so on and so forth—and thereby effectively slowing down time.

via Aeon

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

Medieval Monks Complained About Constant Distractions: Learn How They Worked to Overcome Them

St. Benedict by Fra Angelico, via Wikimedia Commons

We might imagine that life in a monastery is one of the safest, most predictable ways of life on offer, and therefore one of the least distracted. But “medieval monks had a terrible time concentrating,” writes Sam Haselby at Aeon, “and concentration was their lifelong work!” They complained of information overload, forgetfulness, lack of focus, and overstimulation. Their jumpy brains, fundamentally no different from those we use to navigate our smart phones, were the culprit, though, like us, the monks found other sources to blame.

“Sometimes they accused demons of making their minds wander. Sometimes they blamed the body’s base instincts.” Given the nature of their restrictive vows, it’s no wonder they found themselves thinking “about food or sex when they were supposed to be thinking about God.” But the fact remains, as University of Georgia professor Jamie Kreiner says in an interview with PRI’s The World, monks living 1600 years ago found themselves constantly, painfully distracted.

It wasn’t even necessarily about tech at all. It was about something inherent in the mind. The difference between us and them is not that we are distracted and they aren’t, it’s that they actually had savvier ways of dealing with distraction. Ways of training their minds the way we might train our bodies.

So, what did the wisest monks advise, and what can we learn, hundreds of years later, from their wisdom? Quite a lot, and much of it applicable even to our online lives. Some of what medieval monks like the 5th century John Cassian advised may be too austere for modern tastes, even if we happen to live in a monastery. But many of their practices are the very same we now see prescribed as therapeutic exercises and good personal habits.

Cassian and his colleagues devised solutions that “depended on imaginary pictures” and “bizarre animations” in the mind,” Haselby explains. People were told to let their imaginations run riot with images of sex, violence, and monstrous beings. “Nuns, monks, preachers and the people they educated were always encouraged to visualize the material they were processing,” often in some very graphic ways. The gore may not be fashionable in contemplative settings these days, but ancient methods of guided imagery and creative visualization certainly are.

So too are techniques like active listening and nonviolent communication, which share many similarities with St. Benedict’s first rule for his order: “Listen and incline the ear of your heart.” Benedict spoke to the mind’s tendency to leap from thought to thought, to prejudge and formulate rebuttals while another person speaks, to tune out. “Basically,” writes Fr. Michael Rennier, Benedict's form of listening "is taking time to hear in a certain way, with an attitude of openness, and commitment to devote your whole self to the process,” without doing anything else.

Benedict’s advice, Rennier writes, is “great… because obstacles are all around, so we need to be intentional about overcoming them.” We do not need to share the same intentions as St. Benedict, however, to take his advice to heart and stop treating listening as waiting to speak, rather than as a practice of making space for others and making space for silence. “Benedict knew the benefits of silence,” writes Alain de Botton’s School of Life, “He knew all about distraction,” too, “how easy it is to want to keep checking up on the latest developments, how addictive the gossip of the city can be.”

Silence allows us to not only hear others better, but to hear our deeper or higher selves, or the voice of God, or the universe, or whatever source of creative energy we tune into. Like their counterparts in the East, medieval Catholic monks also practiced daily meditation, including meditations on death, just one of several methods “Cistercian monks used to reshape their own mental states,” as Julia Bourke writes at Lapham’s Quarterly.

“A medieval Cistercian and a modern neuroscientist” would agree on at least one thing, Bourke argues: “the principle that certain feelings and emotions can be changed through meditative exercises.” No one devises numerous formal solutions to problems they do not have; although their physical circumstances could not have been more different from ours, medieval European monks seemed to suffer just as much as most of us do from distraction. In some part, their lives were experiments in learning to overcome it.

via Aeon

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How Information Overload Robs Us of Our Creativity: What the Scientific Research Shows

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

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