A Train Without Rails

One way to really waste your time is reading on and on about mindfulness. And there is surely no end of long long long books books books offering a thousand lifetimes’ worth of answers about mindfulness. Complex, marketable, secular answers. Let’s set those answers and those long books on the shelf for now. When I was 18 years old, a scientist in Madison posed a question in the first half of a brief article. That question was Are questionnaire-based self-reports of mindfulness valid?

Now I’m 25 years old. Unresolved is ‘the questionnaire question’, but absolutely certain to me this morning was my own mindlessness. Here’s a small sample of the day’s distractions, brought to you from first-semester chemistry (via self report…validity to be determined):

 

11:15am Distracted by goal-flavored thoughts about writing a memoir of high quality, visualizing the steps associated with such a venture
11:15:30am Writing-thoughts bubbling up to account for the possibility or inevitability of memoir-thoughts
11:19am Anger-thoughts about institutional life, hot heated word-thoughts offering critiques of abusive power structures and their creations, which stemmed from thoughts about writing
11:24am What’s the best way to steal a lot of stuff from Whole Foods?
11:26am Anger-Argue thoughts about my old job, and the gross inability of my former boss to do her job (or live her live generally)

 

My intent for that 15-minute period was to simply write those thoughts that were most distracting for me. So when I noticed that my attention was unstable even for a moment, or that my mind’s eye had been occluded by some material other than coursework, I wrote down that material non-judgmentally and as it presented itself. It can be hugely valuable to understand and observe our consciousness without responding to or agreeing/disagreeing with it.

Do you have a wobbly attention span? Are you seeking more FOCUS? Go back to the shelf, pick up those conversations about secular mindfulness, and have some Mental Training™ today!

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pictures, shapes and patterns <3

 

“Synesthesia” was a word that had never entered my vocabulary (or perhaps even my eyes or ears) before age 16. But the first time that the concept encroached on my consciousness it felt immediately familiar, to the point of utter, unquestioned normalcy. My sister was sitting next to me on the couch explaining that her friend at school had a bizarre tendency – an automatic habit of associating letters or numbers with colors, and quickly rattling off the sequence of colors associated with names or other words. I was struck (But Casey, you’re just blue-blue-red-green-yellow!) and a quick Wikipedia search showed both of us that I definitely had synesthesia.

2 or 3 years later during my freshman year in college I stumbled upon this documentary. If you’ve never seen it you really should- Daniel Tammet is a remarkable human being and a living window into the world of the brain. And he seems really nice too! I’d actually seen this film once in my early high school years and nearly forgotten about it. I watched this scene with Tammet’s magical description of his synesthesia on the very same day that I declared my neuroscience studies major at Macalester. It’s been 7 years and watching this still sends shivers up and down and back up my spine.

(and 7 years later, the example photo on the Wikipedia page – to roughly demonstrate the experience to non-synesthetes – is still the same! check it out below)

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field notes (9/24/17)

It’s worth questioning the distinction between the eater and the eaten. My sense of self is always adjusting in my head, and there are pretty much 2 assumptions that always underlie these feelings-of-me. The tight link between these two assumptions could most definitely be compared to an ongoing relationship. There is first the breadwinner: the thought of myself as a bag of skin. A self-contained, 3 dimensional bag of blood and bones, with a set mass and defined perimeter. This conception floats around in my head with a deep emotional attachment to another thought, which is a loving housekeeper and servant to the first. This is the thought of myself as something that eats. My separate-self must ingest or imbibe other objects in order to maintain the organization and mass of my bag of blood and bones, and this bag is comprised completely of these other objects. These beliefs – I exist in a bag of skin, and I consume various items to persist in this bag of skin – are wed in certainty, and forever monogamous. Right?

But every now and then these two concepts get separated during my thinking process, which opens the door to all sorts of extramarital troubles. This occurred just moments ago. At this morning hour my priorities are simple: coffee and cats. Getting some cuddle time with the boy cat, who is a quite the handsome fuzzy fellow, is always a plus. So here I sit with him. Moments ago I observed him become briefly entranced by the sound of a bird outside. Cuddle time interrupted. His head twisted towards the window, with an undeniable erectness and stiffness emerging in his spine, and his paws suddenly tightening. No doubt an image of killing projected brightly into his brain. This distraction-via-outside-stimulus got me thinking. Why was he looking out the window? Or, What compelled him to respond to the bird, but not to me? 

This brought into my caffeine-soaked brain tissues a series of thoughts. A hungry cat is nothing special, but to wonder about it started to produce some strange thoughts.The formation of these thoughts was rapid, fleeting, and took on (as they normally do) a sort of dialectical and verbal nature. A common sense nature. Well, he’s a cat, so of course he looks towards the sound of a bird. Cats like bird. He’s hungry. If only he could stuff that bird into his mouth he could persist in his current form.

So immediately there was the image of my cat as an individual object, worthy of categorization and distinction – and also the image of it as an eating thing. Our long-term couple described above. These star-crossed assumptions comprised a sort of single, coherent reality. And yet there was a whispering and wondering – a suitor sitting at the end of the bar, asking – about why this cat turned his head. At first the circumlocution seemed without cause, and without direction: A cat looking towards a bird-sound is a natural thing. It is programmed into the cat via its experience and is therefore expected. Cats grow up experiencing birds, learn to associate them with pleasurable things, and then adjust automatically to the stimulus.

Then my thoughts stopped for a moment. They resumed.

But he has never clutched a bird – held a bird – caught a bird. He has also likely never seen this type of bird in the flesh: after all, he has been an indoor cat all his life.

Suddenly the two assumptions referenced above came to mind [Cat-as-separate entity, cat-as-an-eating-thing], and their union was threatened. The realization that my cat had never previously observed or experienced the consumption of one of these birds outside wedged itself uncomfortably in my mind, at first trying to be distilled and clarified in the presence of my presumptive framework. But soon it all fell apart – if my cat had never had this experience, one might think that cat-as-separate entity (and that eats) would not be motivated to respond to this stimulus. Surely if I feed and cuddle this cat morning after morning he would be more naturally inclined – based on his experience – to direct his attention towards me, bird-sounds notwithstanding. But he looked at the bird. The bird’s call, upon accessing the inside of cat’s brain, elicited a very specific response. Just for 1/2 a second. The bird was in him, despite never having been in him.

This is true of most stimuli. But.

There are roughly 13,109,553,920,105,377 stimuli that could have gotten this cat’s attention, and it was this single one that did it. So the existence of this cat in front of me must be presupposed by another thought, or assumption – that perhaps this cat can respond to birds without having experienced them. And these animals, remember, are assumed to be two separate objects. That means that this cat, in its essence – in its skull (which, remember, is contained in its bag of blood and bones) – comes pre-programmed with bird-ness inside of it. In the absence of any contact this one object still has a sharp and distinguishable resonance with the other. The cat’s behavior is non-distinct from the bird’s behavior.

Suddenly my two primary assumptions went from holy matrimony to a state of conflict and near-divorce. So if part of this stimulus, or some type of framework to respond to this stimulus, comes pre-programmed in the cat……then some inside-bit of the cat’s head is specifically and uniquely tailored to the bird-sound. And that bird-sound is only one of 13,109,553,920,105,377 stimuli surrounding the cat. So perhaps cat and bird are non-distinct, and the act of eating ought to be considered not a linkage of two separate objects, but a continual adjustment of one single object. The cat and the bird are a single object, and the void space between them is the hand that will soon serve a growling stomach.

The loose definition of a living being as being bound by a bag of skin had, as an assumption, offered no prescriptive value to my experience of watching my cat listen to the bird. But soon the loose definition of a living being as bound as a bag of skin had lost its value as a representative tale, and was replaced by ambiguity. Now I cannot tell if the bananas and Cheerios in the kitchen (yet uneaten) are truly separate from myself – after all, they will both be inside of my bag-of-skin in a matter of minutes. The breakdown of the separation between self-and-other offers no clear route ahead, and is more of a fancy folly than a scientific analysis. The circumlocution around these concepts has become tiring. Just ask yourself if it’s possible that the surrounding room-house-street-block-city might not be a part of your extended anatomy, and one that is as alive as you, rather than that you are a single bag of skin operating independently within that non-living framework. #EndRant

≈[almost equal to]

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From September 15th – October 22nd of 2017 a fantastic play is show, show, show, show, show, show, show, show, show, show, show, show, show, show, show, show, show, show, show, show, show, show, show, show, show, showing at the Pillsbury Theatre in Minneapolis. You should go. [what would it be like to do the same show 26 times in 5 weeks? whoa!]

Self-indulgence seemed to be the theme here.

It was written by Janas Hassen Khemiri and was perhaps the most creepy/dark/effective/funny/great/hedonistic/individual portrayal of money, greed, and desire I have ever witnessed. The space at the theatre was simple, and the actors – often embodying various attitudes or inner urges experienced by the actual “scripted”/”real” characters – flowed through and beyond the set with humor and ease. One single actor might represent three neighborhood goofballs over the span of 2 minutes – at another moment, 2 actors might represent 1 single goofball’s inner dialogue. Very cool work & had me scribbling on my mini-paper-pad thing excessively throughout the show.

DESIRE. This goal-oriented intoxicating desire reminded me for the entire 1 hour and 45 minutes of the nucleus accumbens and VTA. The performance felt like a clear demonstration of our inner desires for wealth and class and fancy items – walk in closets, perfume, champagne – and thus connoted the reward systems we all have in common. Of course those reward systems are best characterized as biological, as they operate on entirely passive, predictable, and commonly inherited forces. Much of the melancholy came from divisive attitudes and circumstances, and the passing of judgment. Greedy folks blaming other greedy folks for being greedy.

Are we all screwed? Maybe not. The consistency of this self-indulgence and other-blaming is what offered at least some comedic redemption for each character. If we’re all united in our humanity by greed it perhaps opens up the conversation about what to do about it. [The program offers several discussion questions, one of which is Do you identify with any of the characters? I identified with all of them, down to the yucky details.]

So what’s with greed? What’s with money? Thanks to the theatre & the playwright for getting at least my brain and a few others to keep wondering. Capitalism is our mutual problem as a society (especially in America), and maybe to be unified and identified as automata who are equally enticed by pleasure is the first step towards rewiring our nature.

 

getting the ball rolling

or, How to Turn Gloomy Nothingness into Motivation**

  1. Focus
  2. Set a sleep schedule. Stick to the sleep schedule.
  3. If all seems lost, do 100 jumping jacks and 10 push-ups
  4. Eat. Eat well.
  5. Write, but don’t write aimlessly. Don’t. Write. Aimlessly. This is not time to let loose with the pen & paper (or keyboard), or to journal about your fucking feelings, or to think up how you haven’t thought up anything yet. This is time to get regular. Write at scheduled times each day: within a few minutes after waking up, after meals, before bed.There are two genres of writing you must commit to in order to go from a state of gloomy nothingness to one of healthy motivation.5a) Write down the time you wake up (to the minute: e.g. what time exactly you stand up), what you eat/drink/ingest/intoxicate yourself with, what medications you take, and the forms of exercise you get. Writing these down each day will give you the first clear and undeniable suggestion of any bullshit you’ve been allowing yourself to get up to: sleeping in, enjoying 4 boxes of Milk Duds for breakfast several days a week, etc.
    5b) Write about your most extreme moods and prevalent thoughts. Don’t write whatever the fuck you want about them, though: don’t write aimlessly. When you write about your most extreme moods and prevalent thoughts do so in a detached way, with your intent being only to offer a memorable record to a future version of you who will be reading your day’s notes. Write about how the mood or thought came on, the content of your conscious awareness during that time, and any other relevant information. Then stop writing. Though unrewarding in the moment and tedious (combined with the genre you’ve already mastered in part 5a it will seem like you are just churning out streams of data) this style of bookkeeping will eventually form a long list of your experiences during your shittiest moments.You now have 2 small books about yourself. The first small book (writing style described in 5a), for those of us who frequently stray from our regular schedule and needs, can offer a simple and brutally honest assessment of one’s daily habits, and therefore the first steps on a route to a more motivated state of being. But when all systems are go and the vehicle is still stuck, meaning that one’s lifestyle is relatively clean but one’s outlook is still relatively filthy, the second small book (writing style described in 5b) becomes more valuable. This description of extreme experiences will offer the second, third, fourth, and fifth steps on a route towards a more specific understanding of the barriers to a more motivated state of being.

    It is extremely important for depressed people to become Writers of these two documents and to also review their writings daily.  These ever-growing documents will give you your one and only chance to more simply articulate your patterns of being and find the weak points at which to strike remaining controllable causes of your depressed mood. Should you choose to sit there and word-vomit with your writing during a depressive phase that is up to you. As for me, the mere sight and smell of my acidic unfiltered feelings spilling onto the floor, only to dry out and be-revisited over and over, doesn’t do much good. You can make your writing fun and creative in other ways: keep a journal for writing type 5a, and a separate journal for writing type 5b. Type them up into cute .pdfs and see if the extreme moods correlate with any lifestyle habits. Go buy yourself a trophy when you discover the basics. Use a special pen to write about your gloomy thoughts. Throw some stickers on that shit. Whatever floats your boat.

  6. Laugh ten times a day. No subject is off limits, just get yourself an ab workout via the giggles.
  7. Chill
  8. Meditate with supervision. Real-life human supervision.
  9. You’ve gotten this far and still feel shitty, so let me ask you this: have you told anyone that your ball has stopped rolling? Find someone to give you a push.

 

**the suggested application of these tactics comes with the assumption that you are under regular supervision and treatment by a competent psychiatric care professional who can write prescriptions. if you aren’t doing that there’s a good reason you still feel shitty.

what are the essential properties of consciousness?

 

Phenomenology, thought experiments and contemplation have in some instances provided valuable insights to physicalist forms of knowledge, i.e. physics or neuroscience. Not unlike Einstein’s successful attempt to access concepts in relativity through thought experiments, Giulio Tononi wants to create step-by-step definitions and images that allow theorization about the subject at hand: in this case, consciousness, subjectivity, selfhood, the feeling of what it’s like to be something.

Plot twist: he completely dodges a great question about unification of conscious experiences in the case of stroke patients. I’m not sure why he neglected to answer or even address that question directly.

 

 

 

field notes (06/19/2017) [*50th entry*]

Had the crow experience of a lifetime this morning. Will try to recount it in the fullest detail possible.

Last night I didn’t sleep well. For a week or two I’ve been without much coffee but during the day yesterday had a few cups – normally these many cells process that caffeine quickly but it seems likely that was why I tossed and turned. At 4:41 a.m. I gingerly crawled out of bed to meditate – felt pretty distracted, with lots of intrusive thoughts – and then at 5:00 kept hearing crows. Sounding close but not necessarily outside of the house – at least 2 or 3 of them.

After a while they broke my attempt at a meditative trance and I had to go see them. Grabbed my bag of snacks (corn) and went out onto Selby. Thought I was hearing them a block west and ventured out – expecting to see them in the tall roost-spot past Pierce on the north side of the street. No luck. Turned left down Pierce and quickly realized there were about 3 or 4 crows a block in past Augustine’s. Walked up the street- their cacophony was remarkable and chattery almost to the point of annoyance. The thick, lush green trees – and dark-ish sky, perhaps on a 2.9/10 brightness setting – made it hard to see the little avian monkeys. Their caws were in bursts of three or four and extremely consistent. As I approached I made a few ‘kawwwhhh, kawwhhh’ noises and shook my keys. Then I walked directly beneath the trees, over a manhole cover next to a basketball hoop (east side of the street). I grabbed handfuls of corn and poured them onto the manhole cover. They clicked and clacked and rained their clattery sound onto the ground and to my surprise the crows were rather responsive. It seemed clear as I did this handful after handful – at least 5 or 6 of them – that the birds were watching, and one rearranged itself (seemingly to get a better view).

I continued to alert them with noise and the 4-or-so crows quickly became 10. The most I could count (as they were moving) was 10, but I believe a few were in my periphery. Continued south to the middle-end of the block and laid down a few noticeable ‘lines’ of corn – perhaps 12-18 inches long, 3 or 4 inches thick, and just about 1 layer of corn tall or heightwise. Yellow enough to be bright and visible but not voluminous enough to deplete my entire supply. I laid out one or two of these on the ground and another on a blue recycling can – the crows were extremely loud at this point, and many more were flying in (primarily from the west end of Pierce, above the trees).

Wow – it was exciting. Always I am hoping that they are comfortable or at least unalarmed by my presence, which is to some obvious extent intrusive and loud, and if they are not unalarmed or comfortable my second hope is that they will comfortably leave. Or fly away. What sucks is the possibility that crows needing rest, or really just trying to roost in one spot, or that are otherwise unwilling to take off and fly away from me, are irritated by my presence. So this morning as they screamed and gathered I kept wondering if I was bothering them – scaring them – enraging them – etc. But as they were summoning one another (within a matter of 5 minutes there were 2 dozen large birds) and screaming together over my head, which has certainly never happened in the absence of food before, I must think there was some positive reward response associated with their screams. (Later tomorrow I’ll get back over there to see if they snacked on any of it – do crows even eat corn? Don’t ask me!)

Waving my keys on my carabiner (this is a sort of Pavlovian stimulus that I introduce when I feed the crows anywhere) I walked south into the intersection of Pierce and Hague. Wave wave wave keys, drop drop drop some food, caw caw caw, sing sing sing. A common and monotonous attempt at engagement – and, for my neighbors, probably a sickening morning regularity. There were so many crows (or corvids? Ravens? Hm.) above me that I didn’t know what to do or think. Just black mass after black mass, dipping and swooping like planes, but never getting close or suggesting outward aggression. Unless I am completely ignorant to their own aggressive strategies. Together they could have shredded my scalp (or worse) and instead they simply screamed like an avian chorus and made me super duper happy. I kept laying out seeds and lovingly cooing “hello, babies!!!”

Walked back northward after a while. Those few moments with a zillion birds around me felt like a zillion years. Really admired the big fat one that was atop the roof on the NE intersection of Pierce & Hague. It was short, squat, and had the same inward neck-thrust (head upwards, body fat) as a few ravens on youtube – at least, that was what my memory suggested. For some reason this one bird (on a roof instead of trees or in the air) caught my attention as I was walking through the crowstorm back towards Selby. I walked past Selby and onto Dayton a bit, seeing yet another fatty (maybe the same one from the roof) doing the inward-neck-thrust-guttural-call from atop a tree. NE end of Dayton & Pierce. Hm.

Went home. Scattered corn around the house as I arrived – also put a few round masses of the yellow stuff onto the roof. Then crawled back into bed with a cute girl as the crows kept hollering outside.