Wandering and Tripping

[From the Wikipedia entry on the default mode network]

In neuroscience, the default mode network (DMN), also default network, or default state network, is a large scale brain network of interacting brain regions known to have activity highly correlated with each other and distinct from other networks in the brain.

The default mode network is most commonly shown to be active when a person is not focused on the outside world and the brain is at wakeful rest, such as during daydreaming and mind-wandering. But it is also active when the individual is thinking about others, thinking about themselves, remembering the past, and planning for the future. The network activates “by default” when a person is not involved in a task. Though the DMN was originally noticed to be deactivated in certain goal-oriented tasks and is sometimes referred to as the task-negative network, it can be active in other goal-oriented tasks such as social working memory or autobiographical tasks. The DMN has been shown to be negatively correlated with other networks in the brain such as attention networks.

Evidence has pointed to disruptions in the DMN of people with Alzheimer’s and autism spectrum disorder.

The default mode network is known to be involved in many seemingly different functions:

It is the neurological basis for the self:

  • Autobiographical information: Memories of collection of events and facts about one’s self
  • Self-reference: Referring to traits and descriptions of one’s self
  • Emotion of one’s self: Reflecting about one’s own emotional state

Thinking about others:

  • Theory of Mind: Thinking about the thoughts of others and what they might or might not know
  • Emotions of other: Understanding the emotions of other people and empathizing with their feelings
  • Moral reasoning: Determining just and unjust result of an action
  • Social evaluations: Good-bad attitude judgments about social concepts
  • Social categories: Reflecting on important social characteristics and status of a group

Remembering the past and thinking about the future:

  • Remembering the past: Recalling events that happened in the past
  • Imagining the future: Envisioning events that might happen in the future
  • Episodic memory: Detailed memory related to specific events in time
  • Story comprehension: Understanding and remembering a narrative

The default mode network is active during passive rest and mind-wandering. Mind-wandering usually involves thinking about others, thinking about one’s self, remembering the past, and envisioning the future. Electrocorticography studies (which involve placing electrodes on the surface of a subject’s scalp) have shown the default mode network becomes activated within a fraction of a second after participants finish a task.

Studies have shown that when people watch a movie, listen to a story, or read a story, their DMNs are highly correlated with each other. DMNs are not correlated if the stories are scrambled or are in a language the person does not understand, suggesting that the network is highly involved in the comprehension and the subsequent memory formation of that story. The DMN is shown to even be correlated if the same story is presented to different people in different languages, further suggesting the DMN is truly involved in the comprehension aspect of the story and not the auditory or language aspect.

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[From “A Wandering Mind is an Unhappy Mind,” a 2010 Science research article by Killingsworth and Gilbert:]

We developed a smartphone technology to sample people’s ongoing thoughts, feelings, and actions and found (i) that people are thinking about what is not happening almost as often as they are thinking about what is and (ii) found that doing so typically makes them unhappy…

Although negative moods are known to cause mind wandering, time-lag analyses strongly suggested that mind wandering in our sample was generally the cause, and not merely the consequence, of unhappiness.

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[From How to Change Your Mind: What the New Science of Psychedelics Teaches Us About Consciousness, Dying, Addiction, Depression, and Transcendence, a 2018 book by Michael Pollan:]

Perhaps the most striking discovery of Carhart-Harris’s first experiment [to study the effect of psilocybin on the brain] was that the steepest drops in default mode network activity occurred with the volunteers’ subjective experience of “ego dissolution.” (“I existed only as an idea or concept,” one volunteer reported. Recalled another, “I didn’t know where I ended and my surroundings began.” The more precipitous the drop-off in blood flow and oxygen consumption in the default network, the more likely a volunteer was to report the loss of a sense of self…

The transcendence of self reported by expert mediators showed up on fMRIs as a quieting of the default mode network. It appears that when activity in the default mode network falls off precipitously, the ego temporarily vanishes, and the usual boundaries we experience between self and world, subject and object, all melt away…

In its normal state, the brain’s various networks talk mostly to themselves, with a relatively few heavily trafficked pathways among them. But when the brain operates under the influence of psilocybin, thousands of new connections form, linking far-flung brain regions that during normal waking consciousness don’t exchange much information. In effect, traffic is rerouted from a relatively small number of interstate highways onto myriad smaller roads linking a great many more destinations. The brain appears to become less specialized and more globally interconnected, with considerably more intercourse, or “cross talk,” among its various neighborhoods.

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[From “The Yard Boy,” a 1977 short story by Joy Williams:]

The yard boy was a spiritual materialist. He lived in the Now. He was free from the karmic chain. Being enlightened wasn’t easy. It was very hard work. It was manual labor, actually.

The enlightened being is free. He feels the sorrow and sadness of those around him but does not necessarily feel his own. The yard boy felt that he had been enlightened for about two months, at the most.

The yard boy had two possessions. One was a pickup truck. The other was a stuffed and mounted plover he had found in the take-it-or-leave-it shed at the dump. The bird was now in the room he rented…

The yard boy is disgusted with himself. The spider’s web is woven into wanting, he thinks. He has desire for his girlfriend. His mind is shuttling between thoughts of the future and thoughts of the past. He is out of touch with the sharp simplicity and wonderfulness of the moment. He looks around him. He opens his eyes wide. The yard boy’s jeans are filthy. A green insect crawls in and out of the scapular feathers of the plover.

The yard boy goes downstairs. He gives the plover to his landlady. She seems delighted. She puts it on a shelf in the pantry with her milk-glass collection. The landlady has white hair, a wen and old legs that end in sneakers. She wants the yard boy to look at a plant she has just bought. It is in a big green plastic pot in the sunshine of her kitchen. Nothing is more obvious than the hidden, the yard boy thinks.

“This plant is insane,” the yard boy says.


Here It Is! Flânerie 1 Revisited

I suppose I could have gone this route, linking the short story excerpts together into a loose narrative…

After sanding every appositive and polishing each comma, you will send it to the finest English-language literary publisher in the world, a man of profound understanding and exquisite tastes who funds the press out of his rear pocket, stuffed with a staggering fortune in steel. He will be the only man capable of seeing your work for what it is on the first pass. While reading your manuscript one long summer afternoon, “Here it is! Here it is!” will be heard coming, at approximately half-hour intervals, from his second story office, the “At last” unnecessary, implied in his exclamations’ very torque.  1

Exalted, the publisher will sprint to his office window. “Here it is!” he will shout to the cars and walkers passing anonymously below. The window won’t open, cannot open, was designed not to, installed per specs drawn up by the REIT’s design people two years after the real estate bubble made high-rises like this one a real steal investment-wise. He scans the urban landscape: not an open window to be seen. Directly across from him, three buildings to the right, a pair of window-washers suspended midair dangle their legs from their slowly descending platform. “Here it is!” they shout. Only the bearded man looks up. He nods gravely, holding the white-on-white taqiyah in place, and walks on.

He enters the mosque compound before going to the rectangular bathroom to perform wudu — ablution, where he robotically drenches and systemically cleanses the face, beard, ears, fingers and palms, wrists and elbows, and toes and ankles. Sandals, initially left outside, are then reworn — and immediately taken off — to enter the main wide mosque doors, where carpet arabesques paint the floor and equal amounts of Arabic calligraphy surreally encapsulate the walls, spiritually caving out a tightly woven meditation.  He goes to the microphone — attached by the loose wires through the outside to the megaphone at the top of the minaret — and starts summoning by call of prayer, in a broken Arabic, monotone of an accent. 2

“Here it is,” he intones in the language of his people. “Here it is, here it is, here it is…”

A woman, graceful of motion as she gathered the empty glasses on a tray, barely noticed the disembodied voice issuing its incomprehensible summons. She glanced toward the man seated in the rattan chair drinking coffee.

The biggest cat she ever saw, white and black, made its way across the deep red tiles of the patio flexing its shoulder muscles and looking up. Esteban pointed to the birdcages it fixed on, out of reach.
“Here’s the question,” he said.
“I’m ready.”
“All those exquisite feathered creatures, an orgy of killing and eating just waiting to happen, and the cat will never catch a single one of them. I make sure of that.”
“So what’s the question?”
“The cat’s existence.”
“Is it Heaven, or Hell, or someplace in between.”
“Purgatory, you mean.”
He shrugged. 3

“The cat is indifferent,” she replied “‘Here it is,’ you might inform the cat: here is hell; there, heaven; between them, purgatory. Or perhaps now is heaven; then, hell; between now and then… The cat will at times make its smooth passage between them, forward and backward in space and in time. Then it will stop, lie down, undertake its ritual ablutions, sleep. ‘Here it is,’ the cat will say without speaking; it goes where I go; it is where I am.”

The man sipped his coffee, no longer concerning himself with the cat, with the eternity, with her. There would have been a time when he would have been studying a musical score, jotting marginalia as the coffee cooled, stepping distractedly through the sliding door to the piano to experiment with harmonics and dynamics. Leaping from the bench, flailing both hands wildly, asking why, dear god, can’t the coffee be hot for once. Now he was working a crossword puzzle.

Once he seized in the middle of a performance and no one knew. Sometimes his seizures were like that, so far deep in the head that it barely located itself in the body. No one knew, of course, except for her, watching from the front row, like she always did. Before, she used to watch for pleasure. Now she anticipated pain. She recognized it in the back of his neck—his head inched down slowly, like he was trying to withdraw into his chest, and his shoulders narrowed. In his hands, the batons continued their movement, but the world between them was smaller now, and the orchestra hastened to keep abreast of this new changing world. The back of his head, so bare and pale, folded over so that all she saw was neck, a headless man swinging his hands whichever way they’d go. 4

“Here it is!” he would shout at the double-reeds, jabbing a baton at the sheaf of papers on the music stand. “Here, goddamn it!” Now he traced his finger along a row of letters. “Here,” he muttered, tapping the eraser lightly on the empty squares. “Or…”

She glanced through the iron patio gate at two young men walking past. They looked in; she smiled. “Hello again Eric, Gabriel.”

Gabriel and Eric walked halfway down the block in silence. Though it was hardly observable, Gabriel noticed that Eric walked a step further from him than he had all day, or the day before.

“Why do you think she asked us?” Eric said, a jagged edge in his voice. “Do you think we look gay to her?” 6

“Here it is,” Gabriel says. He pushes through the revolving door into the menswear boutique, Eric following reluctantly behind. They seem surprised to see me there, my reflection appraising them critically from the three-way mirror. The sales clerk approaches me perkily.

“Are you ready for a new version of you?”
“Yes, honey,” I say. “I’m ready for it. Who is the new me going to be?”
“Oh, it all depends! You have to give me some input! Do you want to be cool, but accessible? Or do you want to be greedy, right under the surface, mixed with an insouciance that’s irresistible?”
“I just want to be normal. Just kidding. I don’t know, I want it all, darling, give me the full package!”
The plastic woman, who has not been deterred in the slightest by my removal of her right arm, is a little overwhelming, to be honest. I think about removing her head but I know this would be rude, and that it wouldn’t shut her up, either. Across the sales floor in other artfully lit alcoves, other customers gab away with their plastic attendants. 7

“Here it is!” my personal fashion advisor announces, a tinge of excitement playing skillfully on her practiced modulation. With a tilt of the head she beckons toward a closed curtain in the changing area.

“Your arm?”

“Excuse me? Oh that.” She waves her left hand dismissively. “No, here it is! The new you!”

References and LInks:

Skip Fox, “Sortilege”

Haitham Alsarraf, “Friday Prayers”

Mark Jacobs, “Old School”

Naira Kuzmich, “Cadenza”

Juan Alvarado Valdivia, “A Pedestrian Question”

Robin Wyatt Dunn, “The Plastic Woman”



Bartleby the Litmag Publisher

Now I’m going to check back in on “Between Sleeps,” that Salvatore Difalco story I referenced in my last post, the one where I wrote a comment late last week that has been awaiting moderation. Between my own sleeps has the comment finally been ushered from the waiting room onto the comment thread, or maybe even rejected by the moderator as spam? Let’s see… and nope: still waiting.

In late March I reported that fewer than 10 percent of the short story authors I excerpted in my “Flânerie” posts actually clicked through to the Ficticities website. What about the literary magazines in which those stories appeared: did any of the publishers show up here? Each story highlighted in a Flânerie post was written by a different author and was published in a different litmag. As best as I could discern from limited data, maybe 1 or 2 of those 57 publishers followed the google keyword trail from title-author of stories they’d published back to their citations in Ficticities. None left a comment or sent an email.

If I published an online literary magazine I’d google every story I published for a few months. No doubt there’s a way of placing a standing order with Google to track particular strings of keywords on an ongoing basis, so my online monitoring protocol wouldn’t even require me to do it by hand one at a time on a daily or weekly basis. I’d keep the authors apprised of my findings, passing on the links to websites mentioning their published pieces. And if the linking websites had a comment feature I’d probably also drop comments, at least thanking them for reading and referencing the texts, perhaps also engaging in online discussion.

Why would I do it, at least hypothetically? To satisfy my curiosity about how many readers refer to the texts online and how they interact with those texts — do they cite, critique, analyze, interpret, make intertextual references, etc. To promote the magazine I suppose. Certainly to promote the authors. Mostly to encourage and to participate in the culture of fiction, the virtual ecosystem that links writers, readers, and publishers through texts.

What about the actually-existing online litmag publishers: why don’t they do it? Evidently they prefer not to.

Awaiting Moderation

“Between Sleeps,” another of the recently published spate of stories by Salvatore Difalco, can be found here. I was pleased to see that the online litmag in which the story is published includes a comment box at the bottom of each story. No comments had been posted yet on “Between Sleeps” when I read it last Friday. “Be the first to start a conversation,” the site invited me, so I did. I wrote:

As above, so below: one guy’s rooftop is Another Guy’s subterrain, landfill, toilet, sewer, perforated intestine.

“Your comment is awaiting moderation,” the site informed me after I hit the Post button. I checked back later in the day: still awaiting. Next day, still nothing. My comment began to wonder: when does moderation slip into immoderate sloth? Maybe when a new story goes up the publisher/editor will notice the new comment in the queue and put it up? Well, a new story was published this morning, and still my comment hasn’t been approved, still the conversation remains unstarted. I clicked onto each story published over the past month and a half: not a single comment on any of them. Maybe there are dozens of comments, hundreds of them, sitting silently in the waiting room. Maybe there’s a hole in the ceiling and they all got sucked up into the vortex…

Already Not Yet

Blessed are you who hunger now, for you shall be satisfied. Blessed are you who weep now, for you shall laugh. (Luke 6:21)

There are two words in New Testament Greek commonly translated “blessed”: the first, eulogeo, refers to having received another’s blessing; the other, makarios, means to be happy or to consider oneself fortunate. Of course the two ideas can be interrelated: someone who has received another’s blessing might well be made happy thereby. In this passage from Jesus’s Sermon on the Plain the word for blessed is makarios: happy are you hungry ones, you weepers; consider yourselves fortunate. Even though you hunger now, you weep now, you are also to regard yourselves as fortunate, as happy. Why? Not because of your current situation, as if hunger and weeping are masochistic sources of joy in and of themselves. You can be happy now because you will be satisfied, will laugh. It might not happen until the end of the world but, inevitably and assuredly, it will happen.

Jesus enjoins his listeners to occupy their present miserable state as if they’re already living in a future state of plenty and jubilation. And why? Presumably because that future blessed state of affairs is so certain it’s as if it’s already present. And why is future blessedness so fully assured? Because it’s been promised by God. Those hungry weepers can consider themselves blessed, makarios, now because they have been blessed — have received God’s blessing, his eulogeo— in the past. God blessed man and woman at the creation in Genesis 1; he blessed Abraham the patriarch of Israel in Genesis 12; he blessed the nation of Israel in Deuteronomy 28; he blessed David the king of Israel in 2 Samuel 7; now in Jesus’s prophetic words he has blessed the remnant of Israel.

Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God. (Luke 6:20b)

Jesus’s issues a counteractual injunction to his listeners: Be happy now, in your present miserable state, because you presently occupy a kingdom of God that’s superimposed over all temporary regimes and circumstances. As residents of this kingdom you can count yourselves as blessed because you will be satisfied and elated in the future, because that glorious future was promised to you in the past. This is the “already not yet” ecology of the kingdom of God as taught by Jesus and his disciples. In that kingdom the present isn’t an instantaneous and transient now, a being in the moment; it’s a continuous interval that reaches back to the beginning of time and forward to the end of time.


Actualizing the Counteractuals: A Bad Mix?

From the first section of “Too Loud for Fear to Leave Us” by oddmadland:

A fear of missing out.
a negative anticipation of a negative future.

The pangs of what you are and what you are doing.
a negative present actuality.

he was going to do everything.
a positive anticipation of a positive future.

with every choice made to do something, there was an equal and opposite choice not to do something else.
alternative presents, both positive, leading to alternative futures, one positive, the other negative, as a repetitive abstraction.

Participating, participating, participating. Homelessly riding the scene.
positive present actuality, continuously.

Making exciting plans, only to break them for the last minute thrill of being in more than one place at once:.. of having done it, and having not done it.
positive anticipation of a positive future; negative actuality of a positive future; positive actuality of alternative futures, one positive, the other negative, made simultaneously present.

What he was missing became a presence, always there outside of what was happening.
positive actuality of negative present = negative actuality of positive present, as a constant abstraction.

Only when you’re truly nowhere can you be assumed to be everywhere. This was his last epiphany.
negative actuality = positive actuality, as a probabilistic abstraction.

Intersecting the Real

Last night I was hanging around at school with a couple of friends waiting for them to finish up what they were working on. “You want to come see where we live?” one of them asked me; I said “sure.” We went downstairs and caught the bus, which took us on a zigzag route through parts of town unfamiliar to me. “Just where is it that you live?” I asked the friend sitting next to me; he verbally traced out an intricate route. I told him that this is just the sort of thing that happens to me in dreams: having reached some destination of no real importance, I try my best to find my way back only to get hopelessly lost. “I must be asleep,” I told him. And I was. I woke up.

In a recent comment to myself about the possibility of collaborating on a collection of short fictions set in intersections, I wrote this:

I write episodically, but the episodes get linked together into larger contexts, into novels, the novels into a suite of novels. So that’s what happens when I start thinking about intersection stories: I wind up extending the roads beyond the crossroads, mapping the whole territory.

And yet my cartographic skills are woeful. Setting out on plausible routes, soon I find myself veering into dreamscapes. I can document the voyage, but the route indicators can’t be mapped as X-Y geographic coordinates.

Fifteen years ago when we put our house in Boulder on the market I wrote a series of sales brochures, a new one every week, putting copies of them in a brochure box mounted next to the For Sale Sign in the front yard. The brochures didn’t focus on square footage and the age of the roof; instead they described the house’s “real properties.” The first one, called “The Veil,” begins:

Imagine a part of the world where houses are indistinguishable one from another. I have been to such places. Every house the same architectural style, the same color. All the houses on a block run together, so it’s not clear where one house ends and the next begins. No street addresses. Encountering the indistinguishable exteriors, an onlooker is tempted to infer that the occupants of these houses likewise are indistinguishable one from another.

This would be a mistake.

Inside, each house explodes in a riot of diversity. Strange food preparation rituals bring forth delicacies unknown in the bazaars. Harem girls sigh behind perfumed silken curtains, while eunuchs play games of chance for stakes meted out in drams, essences, human souls. Someone writes a history of times that never were in a language that has never been spoken. To one entering such a home no personal favor can be denied, for this visitor has been inside and can never forget…

And so when I imagine traversing intersections fictionally, I have to acknowledge that I’m liable to find myself wandering streets that appear on no maps, chronicling not the actual material crossroads but their real properties.

For me that’s what sets fiction apart: its realism.