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.

*   *   *

[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.

*   *   *

[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.

*   *   *

[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.

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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.

 

Trolley Problem, Variant 218

[Another Difalco fanfic, this one a riff on his story “Relapse”]

A drunk driver careens through a busy intersection. You, a fiction writer, are standing some distance off, next to a lever. You have two options: (1) Pull the lever to the left, and the runaway car crashes into a second car, killing both drivers. (2) Pull the lever to the right, and the runaway car crashes into a pedestrian: the pedestrian dies, but the driver of the runaway car survives.

The driver of the second car is:
(a) a middle-aged man;
(b) a recovering opioid addict, on the wagon for six months;
(c) a heavy drinker when under stress, though sober as he drives through the intersection;
(d) a drug mule, transporting a sizeable quantity of hashish in his car for delivery to his connection.

The pedestrian is:
(a) a young woman;
(b) a recent immigrant from Guatemala;
(c) the mother of three small children;
(d) accompanied by one of her children as she walks through the intersection — the child will witness her death if she is struck by the careening car.

Which lever will you pull?

Relapsing into DifalcoWorld

In my cahier entry for this morning I was revisiting ways of engaging short fictional texts and their authors:

Evaluating their ficticities seems reasonable, but is it? Highlight textual features that disrupt reality-as-actualized, then email authors.

Can I do it? Would I want to do it? Let’s give it a try. I click onto the Poets and Writers online listing of literary journals, randomly select a letter of the alphabet, pick off the first litmag listed under that letter, click the most recent issue, look at the Fictions listed for that issue, and — what are the odds? — it’s another story by Salvatore Difalco!

Of the 57 stories I excerpted on this site during my Flâneries phase, Salvatore Difalco is the only author to have commented here. Two posts ago I wrote a kind of fan fiction mediated by that Difalco story. The synchronicity of stumbling on another of his stories proved inescapable.

*  *  *

“Relapse,” by Salvatore Difalco

I was already running late, the first sentence reads. Already means you’re ahead of time, and besides that you’re running, putting even more distance between yourself and the now. But then late. Time out of joint. Early on the story is punctuated with time stamps: at noon, ten minutes, just as in just a few minutes ago. There are verbs of movement — running, sped — juxtaposed with verbs of stasis — stood, waiting. And also wanted, twice: the engine of desire stroking between speed and stasis, between running and late.

The narrator is a drug courier, a recovering addict — oxycontin: an opiate, a slow-down substance. Now when he’s stressed, instead of popping pills he guzzles the booze.

…And so on. But it’s not a deep reading or thematic interpretation I’m after here. I’m looking for ways in which this fiction throws a wrench into the actually existing world in which the story unfolds, revealing in the process how the fictional overlays the material in constructing generally accepted realities.

The event: a red-faced driver caroms his BMW off a truck; our narrator accelerates through the intersection quickly enough to avoid getting hit; the BMW, its path unimpeded, slams into a young mother of three, killing her. So, survivor guilt: it could just as easily have been him instead of the woman but for his right foot twitch reflex. At the same time, he could just as easily have been the red-faced drunk behind the wheel of the deathmobile. He revisits the scene of the accident, notices a stain on the pavement. Motor oil? Blood?

A few uneasy days passed. Your problems really begin only when you start thinking about them.

Relapsed, the narrator can’t make himself go through with his next courier assignment. He drives back to the fatal intersection again, gets out of the car for a closer look. That night he can’t sleep, the red-faced drunk driver staring at him. He gets back in his car, goes back to the intersection, parks.

When I saw the coast was clear I kneeled down, lowered my face to the stain and sniffed it. I shut my eyes and sniffed it, hoping to discern or dispel I don’t know what.

The accident happened: it’s in the past, no longer part of the world. The accident may for our narrator portend two alternative futures: stay off the drugs, keep drinking, wind up shit-faced behind the wheel of a death car; pop the pills, quit the drug-running business, enrage the mob boss, wind up as road kill. Neither of those futures is here yet; they may never arrive. But the accident isn’t just past, isn’t just future: it’s here and now, keeps coming back, keeps drawing the witness back to itself, the eternal return of a bivalent portal — you are the Killer, you are the Killed. An irruption into the actual of the timeless Real.

*  *  *

then email author, says my cahier entry. Maybe tomorrow.

Splitting Actuals from Counteractuals

Yesterday’s post identified the counteractuals in each fictional excerpt from the Flâneurie 8 post. Today, a little experiment: what if the counteractuals are left out, leaving only the observable events transpiring in the narrative’s here and now? Inversely, what if the actuals are removed, leaving only observations that invoke alternate realities — past, future, inferred, desired, feared, unexpected, imagined?

First, in italics, the original excerpt;  second, indented, that same excerpt stripped of everything but the actuals, third, also indented, the excerpt with only the counteractuals remaining

*   *   *

He passes the carousel, the inflatables, the Fun House. When the base of the Ferris wheel comes into view, he’s surprised at the sight of unfamiliar men by one of the tower supports, starting to break it down with their own equipment. He jolts into an unsteady run. Ferris wheel thieves are something he’s never considered. (from Tom Gresham, “The Heir”)

He passes the carousel, the inflatables, the Fun House. When the base of the Ferris wheel comes into view, he sees men by one of the tower supports, starting to break it down with their own equipment. He jolts into an unsteady run.

He’s surprised at the sight of unfamiliar men. Ferris wheel thieves are something he’s never considered.

*   *   *

They summit the clear plastic cup that holds the remnants of my milk tea, steadily growing in numbers and alarm. More and more keep coming — I cannot possibly guess from where — they seem to be produced by the very grass. Several willful ants stray from the cup and try to obtain me for the colony. They are crawling on my bare feet, up my pant legs, through the wild reeds of my hair, some even cross the path of my pen on these pages — they are trying to keep me from writing this. (from Megan Jacobs, “The Ants”)

They summit the clear plastic cup that holds the remnants of my milk tea, steadily growing in numbers. More and more keep coming. Several ants stray from the cup. They are crawling on my bare feet, up my pant legs, through my hair, some even cross the path of my pen on these pages.

They are steadily growing in alarm. I cannot possibly guess from where — they seem to be produced by the very grass. Several willful ants try to obtain me for the colony. They are trying to keep me from writing this.

*   *   *

Close-ups were replaced by Closer-ups: single feature shots. Photographers trained cameras on feet, knees, noses, shoulders, and hands. They dismantled babies frame by frame and then gave the pieces back to mothers who studied the remarkable detail. “Look! Her third toe is the longest of the bunch!” a mother pointed out. Upon hearing such exclamations, photographers wondered if mothers looked at their children at all except in photographs.
Then came the Even Closer-ups: eyelashes, a dimple, a mole, nostril shadows. Again, mothers and photographers lost babies in the pictures. This time they were right in front of the lens but completely absent in the final JPEG files of veins and hair follicles. (from Lindsey Harding, “A Brief History of Baby Pictures)

Close-ups were replaced by Closer-ups: single feature shots. Photographers trained cameras on feet, knees, noses, shoulders, and hands. Mothers who studied the remarkable detail. “Look! Her third toe is the longest of the bunch!” a mother pointed out.
Then came the Even Closer-ups: eyelashes, a dimple, a mole, nostril shadows. This time the babies were right in front of the lens but completely absent in the final JPEG files of veins and hair follicles.

Photographers dismantled babies frame by frame and then gave the pieces back to mothers. Upon hearing their exclamations, photographers wondered if mothers looked at their children at all except in photographs.
Again, mothers and photographers lost babies in the pictures.

*   *   *

The priest lifted the silver cross from my forehead and touched it to his lips. He said the demon was gone but a monster remained. I spat blood in his face, accusing him of fake news, of failure to move on. He said if I loved my family, I’d get as far away from them as possible.
Afterwards, I tried to act normal but my wife refused to leave me alone with our daughters. A fortnight passed before I was allowed back in our bedroom and even then she wouldn’t let me see her naked, saying the way I looked at her made her uncomfortable. While she slept, I kissed the back of her neck where it curves into her shoulder and remembered the promises we made to each other on our wedding day. Then I licked my lips to savour the salty-sweet taste of her skin.
The night I bit her she said I had to go. (from Christopher Stanley, “Oymyakon”)

The priest lifted the silver cross from my forehead and touched it to his lips. He said the demon was gone but a monster remained. I spat blood in his face.
Afterwards, my wife refused to leave me alone with our daughters. A fortnight passed before I was allowed back in our bedroom and even then she wouldn’t let me see her naked. While she slept, I kissed the back of her neck where it curves into her shoulder. Then I licked my lips to savour the salty-sweet taste of her skin.
The night I bit her she said I had to go.

I accused the priest of fake news, of failure to move on. He said if I loved my family, I’d get as far away from them as possible.
Afterwards, I tried to act normal. My wife said the way I looked at her made her uncomfortable. I remembered the promises we made to each other on our wedding day.

*   *   *

But the stage down in theatre’s heart was a sea-pool and the failing light made distances fluid so that Zoe thought she only had to reach out a hand, for her fingers to dip beneath mysteries, to decant shadows and show her … what? Faces? The curve of a cheek or an unbending arm? Stones and bones and sorrow, or perhaps an imprint left by old joy?
Her fingers wrapped themselves into mazes in her lap and Zoe breathed in time with the wind. It was not so much fear holding her in its grip, as a sense of falling.
‘You came back.’ (from Lorraine Wilson, “We Have Always Been Here”)

But the stage down in theatre’s heart was a sea-pool and the failing light made distances fluid. Zoe breathed in time with the wind.
‘You came back.’

Zoe thought she only had to reach out a hand, for her fingers to dip beneath mysteries, to decant shadows and show her … what? Faces? The curve of a cheek or an unbending arm? Stones and bones and sorrow, or perhaps an imprint left by old joy?
Her fingers wrapped themselves into mazes in her lap. It was not so much fear holding her in its grip, as a sense of falling.

*   *   *

Townie boys with bamboo rakes scraped Hawthorne’s grassy common clean. Working for someone’s Uncle Ricco, saving up for a used Mustang to drag race till Uncle Sam dragged them off to fight in bamboo jungles. They’d whistle as you crossed their path, precisely because you were unattainable in the way that girls at a private boarding school were unattainable, like fur coats, soft and desirable but costing too much. (Judith Kessler, “Falling Season”)

Townie boys with bamboo rakes scraped Hawthorne’s grassy common clean. Working for someone’s Uncle Ricco. They’d whistle as you crossed their path.

Townie boys saving up for a used Mustang to drag race till Uncle Sam dragged them off to fight in bamboo jungles. You were unattainable in the way that girls at a private boarding school were unattainable, like fur coats, soft and desirable but costing too much.

*   *   *

Though I’d never been more than passable as a clarinetist, I did have one skill: I can take in an entire score at once, visually, and hear the piece in my head. During undergrad, my friends would come to me the night before projects were due because I could tell with one glance whether a note was off in their counterpoint or whether there was too much going on in the brass. (Kelly Luce, “Two of Swords Counterpoint”)

I’d never been more than passable as a clarinetist.

I did have one skill: I can take in an entire score at once, visually, and hear the piece in my head. During undergrad, my friends would come to me the night before projects were due because I could tell with one glance whether a note was off in their counterpoint or whether there was too much going on in the brass.