Understanding the Human Brain Does Not Preclude Philosophical Considerations of Its Work

In the past, I was invited to consider the possibility that there are some domains of knowledge in the humanities that the sciences cannot scrutinize, because I admittedly sounded at the time like I had switched back from English and cultural studies to the sciences. It was in part my thinking about this that I wanted to post the link to the Feynman video yesterday about the pleasure of finding things out [here].

I believe that it can go both ways. The humanities, today perhaps more than ever, needs and relies on science and technology as the driving force behind the social and culture. Science, likewise, needs the social and culture to provide some of its research questions, its inspirations, and its debate regarding research and technological applications. I do also believe that science can peer into the workings of the humanities, the social, and the human animal just as the humanities can investigate the sciences, its methods, its meanings, and its implementations of power.

The humanities however is not specifically tasked with testing and modeling all domains of knowledge, but the sciences include everything, including the humanities, as worthy of inquiry. Science is supposed to figure things out, break things down, and provide reproducible findings. Nevertheless, I do not think that the sciences can erase the importance of the humanities and the work that we do. I found this quote today in Michael O’Shea’s The Brain: A Very Short Introduction that I think is extremely appropriate. He writes, “Some future scientist may proclaim that he or she has attained a complete understanding of the brain. But it seems improbably that the rest of the world then would simply stop regarding thinking, dreaming, poetry, and the beauty of a sunset as somewhat puzzling manifestations of the brain in action and the cause of some modest philosophical reflection” (O’Shea 123-124). It is important to know how the brain works for a variety of reasons including its importance to the work in the humanities, but simply knowing every facet of its operation and development will not take away from the questions and speculations that humanities professors, students, and everyone contemplates with their brains. Knowing the brain does not discount the things that we all use our brains for including humanities work. If anything, I believe that knowing the brain and using the humanities to better understand the brain will only expand our understanding and wonder about ourselves.

From Lifehacker: Top 10 Tips and Tricks to Train, Exercise, and Better Your Brain

Lifehacker has a good list of 10 things to do to challenge, workout, and maintain a healthy brain. What is great about the list is the free online resources that they link to that can help each of us develop our brain’s potential. You probably already know that diet and exercise are essential to healthy brain operation, but others that are less obvious include #5-Tell Yourself Stories and #6-Act Like You’re Teaching.

Go here for the full list: Top 10 Tips and Tricks to Train, Exercise, and Better Your Brain.

College Writing I Syllabus, Theme: Mapping the Brain, Writing the Mind

I am afraid that this syllabus for College Writing I, Spring 2011, “Mapping the Brain, Writing the Mind” lacks the special effects of my previous syllabi, because I wrote it on a Windows XP computer while I was in Taiwan after my iPad died (details here). I didn’t want to lose my work again as I had done with the review of Tron: Legacy for the SFRA Review. Nevertheless, I believe that this class will be exciting and fun for my students, and more importantly, it will address the goals and requirements of the first tier writing class at Kent State University. You may download a copy of my syllabus here: ellis-jason-collegewritingi-spring2011.

Test-Taking Cements Knowledge Better Than Studying, Researchers Say – NYTimes.com

According to a report in The New York Times, test taking is the best method for remembering learned information. I had heard anecdotal evidence for this before, which is why my first tier writing students will have a few writing exams during the semester. This will serve two purposes: 1) My students will have additional impromptu writing practice, and 2) It will help them remember the things that we discuss, which I hope will help them write more advanced essays that fully integrate the theme of the course into their writing. Read more about the research here:  Test-Taking Cements Knowledge Better Than Studying, Researchers Say – NYTimes.com.

Slicing Brains to Map Connectome in the New York Times

Ashlee Vance has an interesting piece on brain mapping through the physical thin slicing of brains in the New York Times here. It was in this article that I first read about the “connectome,” or the individual wiring of our brain:

“You are born with your genes, and they don’t change afterward,” said H. Sebastian Seung, a professor of computational neuroscience at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology who is working on the computer side of connectomics. “The connectome is a product of your genes and your experiences. It’s where nature meets nurture.” (par. 5)

The connectome reminds me of Greg Egan’s Diaspora or Greg Bear’s Blood Music as biological humans are converted into citizens in the former or a part of the cooperative noosphere in the latter. The brain has to be taken apart in order to recreate the individual’s memories and ways of thinking as a disembodied intelligence.

What does a life of science fiction thinking, writing, and discourse do to one’s connectome?

The Cognitive Game Panel at SLSA 2008, Notes on Consciousness, Cognition, and Neuronarratives

As you may have read on my CV, I am writing my dissertation on the potentially important work being done in science fiction on minds and brains. Specifically, I will read the works of several authors through the lens of cognitive cultural studies with the goal to establish the significance of science fiction to literary studies as well as cognitive science.

I have been long interested in the human mind. I wrote a 20 page paper in my high school psychology class on consciousness after reading Roger Penrose’s book The Emperor’s New Mind. At the University of Liverpool, I took part in a study on human facial aesthetics only after receiving the researcher’s promise that I could have a copy of my MRI dicom data so that I could look at my brain in the comfort of my own home.

Until recently, I had forgotten about a panel that I attended at the 2008 Society for Literature, Science, and the Arts conference in Charlotte, NC. Titled “The Cognitive Game,” the panelists discussed different aspects of cognition in and through literature. I remembered this panel only after browsing an old notebook about a week ago when I ran across my notes. This bit of happenstance is itself a hallmark of my mind and the way my memory works. So much seems lost to the past, but I can capture glimpses of the past through my notes. However, I honestly have very little memory of the panel even after reading through my notes. In a sense, it seems like I wasn’t really there, but I do know that the notes are mine. You may have noticed that I take copious notes in class or at conferences. Part of this is an attempt to help me remember things in the short term while maintaining my focus on what is being discussed. It is also my effort at recalling things at a later time–if I have a chance to go back and review my notes. Unfortunately, I do not always have the time to really go back through all of my notes–at least not as thoroughly as I would like.

As an exercise to help retrieve weak connections in my mind’s holographic memory, I copy my notes from “The Cognitive Game” panel below.


Saturday 10:30 panel

The Cognitive Game

Sarah Birge – “Paper Memories”

narrative identity theory

trauma disrupts narrative

loss of self without normal brain function


Richard Powers and Umberto Eco novels

how to compensate for these disruptions

Andy Clark

self as tool kit — Dennet

The Echo Maker – Powers

Capgras Syndrome

recreation of self and creation of self by others

liminal state of Mark

enforcement of stable sense of self in the face of trauma

issues of dignity and self-determination

this would be good to add to BSG paper [note: this did not happen]

The Mysterious Flame _________ – Eco

persistence of self through time

cultural memory

Yambo’s “paper memory” vs. personal memory

“notebook of his mind”

dispersion of self into cultural memory

self and certainty-> allow space for others’ narratives


Mark Clark – “Post-traumatic Experiential”

Nabokov – it is the re-reading that matters (?)

villanelle vs. narrative sense of self

Dylan Thomas – “Do not go Gently into That Good Night”

final words are a whisper

son is not finished project of the father

consider context of the words – respoken, altered meanings?

changing memory based on trauma


therapeutic endeavor


audience – reader and participant in narrator’s trauma aftermath


Pawel Frelik – “To Think or Not to Think”

begins with the novel that Sarah talked about

Richard Powers’ The Echo Maker

Antonio Damasio

Edelman and Tononi

Thomas Metzinger

D. M. Wagner


1) performance of subjectivity – PKD, terminal fictions, cyberpunk, surfaces

2) artificial intelligence – Maddox Halo, Galatea 2.2

3) cognitive processes problematized – Egan’s Oceanic, Moon – The Speed of Dark, Matt Ruff

intelligence vs. consciousness

alien narratives is one place this is engaged

morality or transcendence – imply consciousness

1) inescapably coupled – Dix and Williams, Echoes of Earth trilogy

2) possibly conflicting – Peter Watts – Blindsight

Echoes of Earth – ingrams of humanity

E.E. Smith – Lensman series

contrasts with Echoes of Earth


Blindsight – one of the most inventive novels of alien otherness in recent years

construct – “heaven”

third wave to make alien contact

“posthuman sociopaths”

Susan James – “gang of four” – multicore persona/ae

1) blindsight – brain lesions – see things without cognition

2) Chinese room – John Searle – 1980 – thought experiment

3) zombie – blindsighted zombies, consciousness is baggage that they have jettisoned, expand possibilities for the species

what about aesthetics

for humanity consciousness not landing on Earth

cruxifix glitch – vampires

downgrade humanity

reptilian ascendancy – also Power’s language



emotion and affect – importance to consciousness

subjectivity and the fragmented self

what about posthumanism and sentience

Earth: backwater, lucky for us, allowed us to survive

disability – ascendency for posthuman specialization

Suzan Jones – savage that we now don’t tolerate multipersonalities – in Blindsight, humanity accepts that – how to manage, utilize

scramblers – respond to stimuli, volition isn’t really addressed

Neuroscience, the Neuronovel, and Science Fiction

Several conversations with Tammy Clewell on the neuronovel rekindled my interest in the biology of the human brain. As a result, I have decided to do some research on the neuronovel and its relationship to science fiction. The neuronovel, with its emphasis on the hardware of the brain over the software of psychology, is arguably a hard science fiction topic (albeit most lacking an extrapolative element). Additionally, novels traditionally seen in terms of psychological explanation can be re-read with neuroscience in mind (pun intended).

I am building a list of science fiction novels and short stories that specifically addresses the neuronovel’s emphasis of brains over mind. What titles of novels or short stories from approximately 1950 to the present can you recommend that emphasize brains over mind, and the brain’s influence on one’s sense of self and understanding of the world. This would include brain trauma over psychological trauma, neuroscience over psychology, depictions of creating or developing brains and how that shapes one’s engagement with the world, introspection or internal dialog that might have a biological explanation rather than a psychological one, etc. Two sets of works that immediate come to mind are Asimov’s robots (they exhibit psychological problems, but there is an emphasis on those behaviors resulting from the way they are hardwired), and Dick’s VALIS novels (the author’s 2-3-74 events can be more simply diagnosed as the first in a series of unfortunate strokes).

This is a very rough sketch at this point, so please bear with me as a work through it. All suggestions are welcome and much appreciated.