On Constantine Cavafy’s ‘Body, Remember,’ and the mutability of memory.

On Constantine Cavafy’s ‘Body, Remember,’ and the mutability of memory.

Because we’d had a difficult class the week before, I arrived at jail with a set of risqué poetry to read.  We discussed poems like Allison Joseph’s “Flirtation,” Galway Kinnel’s “Last Gods,” and Jennifer Minniti-Shippey’s “Planning the Seduction of a Somewhat Famous Poet.”

Our most interesting conversation followed Constantine Cavafy’s “Body, Remember,” translated by Aliki Barnstone.  This is not just a gorgeous, sensual poem (although it is that).  Cavafy also conveys an intriguing idea about memory and recovery.

The poem opens with advice – we should keep in mind pleasures that we were privileged to experience.

“Rumpled Mattress” by Alex D. Stewart on Flickr.

Body, remember not only how much you were loved,

not only the beds on which you lay,

A narrative of past joy can cast a rosy glow onto the present.  Our gratitude should encompass more, though.  We should instruct our body to remember not only the actualized embraces,

but also those desires for you

that glowed plainly in the eyes,

and trembled in the voice – and some

chance obstacle made futile.

In addition to our triumphs, we have almost triumphs.  These could be many things.  On some evenings, perhaps our body entwines with another’s; other nights, a wistful parting smile might suggest how close we came to sharing that dance.  In another lifetime.  Another world, perhaps.

Missed Connection 1 by Cully on Flickr.

But we have the potential for so many glories.  In basketball, a last shot might come so close to winning the game.  If you’re struggling with addiction, there could’ve been a day when you very nearly turned down that shot.

Maybe you’ll succeed, maybe you won’t.  In the present, we try our best.  But our present slides inexorably into the past.  And then, although we can’t change what happened, the mutability of memory allows us to change how we feel.

Now that all of them belong to the past,

it almost seems as if you had yielded

to those desires – how they glowed,

remember, in the eyes gazing at you;

how they trembled in the voice, for you, remember, body.

Consciousness is such a strange contraption.  Our perception of the world exists only moment by moment.  The universe constantly sheds order, evolving into states that are ever more probable than the past, which causes time to seem to flow in only one direction. 

Brain nebula by Ivan on Flickr.

A sense of vertigo washes over me whenever I consider the “Boltzmann brain” hypothesis.  This is the speculation that a cloud of dust in outer space, if the molecules were arranged just right, could perceive itself as being identical to your present mind.  The dust cloud could imagine itself to be seeing the same sights as you see now, smelling the same smells, feeling the same textures of the world.  It could perceive itself to possess the same narrative history, a delusion of childhood in the past and goals for its future.

And then, with a wisp of solar wind, the molecules might be rearranged.  The Boltzmann brain would vanish.  The self-perceiving entity would end.

Within our minds, every moment’s now glides seamlessly into the now of the next moment, but it needn’t.  A self-perceiving entity could exist within a single instant.  And even for us humans – whose hippocampal projections allow us to re-experience the past or imagine the future – we would occasionally benefit by introducing intentional discontinuities to our recollection of the world.

Past success makes future success come easier.  If you remember that people have desired you before – even if this memory is mistaken – you’ll carry yourself in a way that makes you seem more desirable in the future.  If an addict remembers saying “no” to a shot – even if this memory is mistaken – it’ll be easier to say “no” next time. 

Our triumphs belong to the same past as our regrets, and we may choose what to remember.  If our life will be improved by the mistake, why not allow our minds the fantasy?  “It almost seems as if you had yielded to those desires.”  The glow, the gaze: remember, body.

In the short story “The Truth of Fact, The Truth of Feeling,” Ted Chiang contrasts situations in which the mutability of memory improves the world with situations in which this mutability makes the world worse.  Memories that reinforce our empathy are the most important to preserve.

We all need to know that we are fallible.  Our brains are made of squishy goo.  The stuff isn’t special – if it spills from our skulls, it’ll stink of rancid fat.  Only the patterns are important.  Those patterns are made from the flow of salts and the gossamer tendrils of synapses; they’re not going to be perfect.

As long as we know that we’re fallible, though, it doesn’t help much to dwell on the details of each failure.  We need to retain enough to learn from our mistakes, but not so much that we can’t slough off shame and regret once these emotions have served their purpose.  As we live, we grow.  A perfect remembrance of the past would constrict the person we’re meant to be.

I imagine that Brett Kavanaugh ardently believes that he is not, and has never been, the sort of person who would assault a woman.  He surely believes that he would never thrust his bare penis into an unconsenting woman’s hand.  And I imagine that Brett Kavanaguh’s current behavior is improved by this belief.  In his personal life, this is the memory of himself that he should preserve, rather than the narrative that would probably be given by an immutable record of consensus reality.

The main problem, in Kavanagh’s case, is his elevation to a position of power.  In his personal life, he should preserve the mutable memories that help him to be good.  No matter how inaccurate they might be.

In public life, however, consensus reality matters.  Personally, I will have difficulty respecting the court rulings of a person who behaved this way.  Especially since his behavior toward women continued such that law professors would advise their female students to cultivate a particular “look” in order to clerk for Kavanaugh’s office.

The Supreme Court, in its current incarnation, is our nation’s final arbiter on many issues related to women’s rights.  Kavanaugh’s narrative introduces a cloud of suspicion over any ruling he makes on these issues – especially since he has faced no public reckoning for his past actions.

And, for someone with Kavanaugh’s history of substance abuse, it could be worthwhile to preserve a lingering memory of past sins.  I still think that the specific details – pinning a struggling woman to the bed, covering her mouth with his hand – would not be beneficial for him to preserve.  But I would hope that he remembers enough to be cognizant of his own potential to hurt people while intoxicated.

Episodic memories of the specific times when he assaulted people at high school and college parties probably aren’t necessary for him to be good, but he would benefit from general knowledge about his behavior after consuming alcohol.  When I discuss drug use with people in jail, I always let them know that I am in favor of legalization.  I think that people should be allowed to manipulate their own minds.

But certain people should not take certain drugs. 

Like most people in this country, I’ve occasionally been prescribed Vicodin.  And I was handed more at college parties.  But I never enjoyed the sensation of taking painkillers.

Some people really like opiates, though.  Sadly, those are the people who shouldn’t take them.

Brett Kavanaugh likes beer.  Sadly, he’s the sort of person who shouldn’t drink it.

Honestly, though, his life would not be that much worse without it.  Beer changes how your brain works in the now.  For an hour or two, your perception of the world is different.  Then that sensation, like any other, slides into the past.

But, whether you drink or don’t, you can still bask later in the rosy glow of (mis)remembrance.

On mind control versus body control

On mind control versus body control

In jail last week, we found ourselves discussing mind control.  Ants that haul infected comrades away from the colony – otherwise, the zombie will climb above the colony before a Cordyceps fruiting body bursts from its spine, raining spores down onto everyone below, causing them all to die.

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Photo by Bernard Dupont on Flickr.

Several parasites, including Toxoplasma gondii, are known to change behaviors by infecting the brain.  I’ve written about Toxo and the possibility of using cat shit as a nutritional supplement previously – this parasite seems to make its victims happier (it secretes a rate-limiting enzyme for dopamine synthesis), braver, and more attractive.

I told the guys that I used to think mind control was super-terrifying – suddenly your choices are not quite your own! – but I’ve since realized that body control is even more terrifying.

We’d thought that each fungus that makes ants act funny was taking over their brains.  But we were wrong.  The Ophiocordyceps fungus is not controlling the brains of its victims – instead, the fungus spreads through the body and connects directly to muscle fibers.  The fungus leaves an ant’s brain intact but takes away its choices, contracting muscles to make the ant do its bidding while the poor creature can only gaze in horror at what it’s being forced to do.

If a zombie master corrupts your brain and forces you to obey, at least you won’t be there to watch.  Far worse to be trapped behind the window of your eyes, unable to control the actions that your shell is taking in the world.

A sense of free will is so important to our well-being that human brains seem to include modules that graft a perception of volition onto our reflex actions.  Because it takes so long for messages to be relayed to the central processing unit of our brains and back outward to our limbs, our bodies often act before we’ve had a chance to consciously think about what we’re doing.  Our actions typically begin a few hundred milliseconds before we subjectively experience a decision.

Then, the brain’s storytelling function kicks into gear – we explain to ourselves why we chose to do the thing that we’ve already begun doing.

If something goes wrong at that stage, we feel awful.  People report that their bodies have “gone rogue.”  If you use a targeted magnetic pulse to sway a right-handed person to do a simple task left-handed, that person probably won’t notice anything amiss.  The storytelling part of our brain hardly cares what we do – it can come up with a compelling rationalization for almost any action.

“Well, I chose to use my left hand because … “

But if you use a targeted magnetic pulse to incapacitate the brain’s internal storyteller?  The sensation apparently feels like demonic possession.  Our own choices are nightmarish when severed from a story.

On evolution and League of Legends.

teemochineseOkay, here’s something that I feel like the Cosmos show did nicely – when they showed a tree representing evolutionary lineage, humans were on a branch jutting out seemingly at random to the side.  Whereas many popular science presentations of evolution depict humans as the pinnacle – we’re here at the top, and if you go back in time, our ancestors looked like chimpanzees, and if you go back farther in time, our ancestors looked like goldfish, and if you go back farther in time, our ancestors looked like sea sponges… which obviously isn’t true.  A current chimpanzee, and a current fish, and a current sponge, have gone through just as much evolutionary time as we have.

I think many scientists would feel bothered by phrasings such as “humans are more evolved than bacteria.”  Well, a statement that direct might be hard to come up with a reference for, but quite often humans are described as “higher organisms,” in comparison.  And, yeah, we are multicellular, and have nuclei – gee whiz, nuclei!  But you could quite easily argue that bacteria are more evolved.  Their generational time is shorter, so every minute effectively gives them more time to evolve than it gives us.  And they seem quite well suited for their environment – many can now thwart even directed efforts to expunge them.  I’d like to see some of those “highly evolved” humans shrug off murderous intent with such panache.

And, honestly, that was going to be the end of my essay.  I was planning to root around, find an egregious reference for a statement about how great it is that humans are so evolved, and call it finished.  But would that be cool?  I have to imagine that plenty of high school biology teachers out there have already declaimed similar truths to their students.

So, instead, here is a bonus contrasting thought – a framework in which humans are, in fact, more evolved.

Because, sure, bacteria go through many more generations than humans within any given amount of time.  But additional “rounds” of evolution won’t accomplish much if there aren’t significant options for change.  A wide range of bacteria all look pretty much the same… to me, that is, someone who is not a bacteriologist.  The times I’ve looked at them in microscopes, they just looked like bothersome squirming dots – I was doing mammalian tissue culture, so was displeased to see them, and was using relatively low magnification.  And to someone who actually knows about bacteria, the idea that they’re all the same might sound inane – some polymerize mammalian actin behind them to shoot around like rocket ships!  How is that not cool??

Well, yeah, yeah, actin rockets.

A lot of the problem, in terms of my thinking that various evolutionary descendants of bacteria are cool, is that they function much closer to the thermodynamic limit than other organisms do.  Not so much that I think it’s reasonable to generally assume that they function efficiently – yes, a mathematical model under that assumption reproduced rRNA copy number, but how many other salient features of the genome would be predicted?  – but the energetic constraints on bacteria do seem to be tighter than for many multicellular organisms.  If you are competing for resources based on reproduction rate, and a limiting step is duplication on your genome, there’ll be strong pressure to keep your genome small.  But one major driver of evolutionary divergence is gene duplication events – it’s easier to accrue mutations that might lend a new function if those mutations are in a second copy and do not necessitate the loss of a necessary pre-existing function.

So a multicellular organism, with a big sloppy genome, has a lot more tuning knobs that can be adjusted during evolution.  Which I thought was worth writing about because it would allow me to make a cutesy analogy to the current design goals of the team making League of Legends.  It’s a twitchy online variant of capture the flag that I used to play – I can’t anymore, since they made the game fancier and I’m using a computer from 2006 that needs a lot of duct tape to function.  At the four corners of the base, duct-tape holds stacks of 3 pennies each to give my computer stilts so that there’s room for the fan to exhaust and space for the battery to hang out.  Pennies seemed cheaper than buying pegs or anything to keep it raised.  And, right, the battery – it’s gotten bulgier over time, such that now, if it’s put all the way into the computer, it presses against the underside of the keyboard and makes many letters not work.  But as long as it dangles halfway out all the time, kept in place with duct tape, the computer works fine.

I’m sure a bulging battery doesn’t indicate anything potentially disastrous, right?

Anyway, the League of Legends team recently announced their goals for the new changes, and one they stressed was that they wanted to give themselves more potential variables to tweak in case the game needed balancing in the future.  And I thought, okay, that’s a sense in which you could claim that humans are more evolved – we have so many features that can be tweaked over time, compared to the set of variables available to be modified during bacterial evolution.

But a corollary to that thought is that, since there are so many variables that could change with humans, and since we have a relatively long generational time, there’s no reason to expect that we’ve gotten much right yet.  With a bacterium, you might expect that it will be sufficiently evolved that it’s near optimal for its environment.  With a human, you should have no such expectation.

Which I was writing about in my project as regards transcranial electrical stimulation.  This is a technique where you deliver excess current to certain regions of your brain with the goal of improving cognition – it often seems to work, although there have been only vague explanations why.  And the very fact that something like this might work illustrates that human evolution didn’t get incredibly far.  Much of our reproductive success is due to cognitive ability – that’s how we were able to cover the globe, and begin altering environments to suit us better (locally – globally, we may well be doing the opposite), and contemplate shooting ourselves into space.  So you might imagine that there would be evolutionary pressure on humans to make that cognitive ability as good as it can be.  Which obviously isn’t the case if you could look at a cheesy website and build something out of supplies from Radioshack to make yourself think better.