discuss poetry with people in jail, we often get sidetracked into conversations
about outer space, pharmacology, neuroscience … as it happens, the latter is
particularly relevant to any discussion of storytelling. Because your consciousness has evolved to
choose to do something, like picking up a pen, the first thing that happens is
that, unconsciously, your brain will send signals toward your muscles. You will begin to act. Then, once you are already in motion, your
consciousness will be informed of your decision. Thats when your brain generates a story to
explain why you chose to pick up the pen.
A human consciousness will typically create a story explaining why we chose to do something even if it wasn’t really our choice. If a researcher sways someone’s action through the use of transcranial magnetic or direct current stimulation, most people will still offer up a coherent explanation explaining why they chose to act that way.
Personally, I think this sort of research into free will and mind control is fascinating. I could continue rattling off more facts. By reading this essay, you might learn something. But it probably wouldn’t change how you act. Knowledge doesn’t spur behavior, emotions do.
Portuguese-American neuroscientist Antonio Damasio reported on a patient,
Elliot, with ventromedial frontal lobe damage.
While Elliott was articulate and intellectually sound, witty even, he
had become emotionally flat, showing no hint of affect in many hours of
was never sad, impatient, angry, or frustrated.
This lack of emotion seemed to paralyze his decision making. It might take him all afternoon to make up
his mind about where and what to eat, or half an hour to decide on an
appointment or the color of his pen.
and his team tested Elliott in all sorts of ways. Even though his reasoning capacities seemed
perfectly fine, he had trouble sticking with a task and especially reaching a
conclusion. As Damasio summarized: “The
defect appeared to set in at the late stages of reasoning, close to or at the
point at which choice making or response selection must occur.”
himself, after a session in which he had carefully reviewed all options, said
“And after all this, I still wouldn’t know what to do!”
all, there is no way to prove, mathematically, how to be good. Your intellect will invariably fall
short. Only by trusting your emotions
can you decide that one course of action is better than another.
is the value of stories.
who devotes much of his time to teaching young people, says that you could
provide them with huge quantities of information – about mass incarceration in
the U.S., or how we mistreat undocumented workers, or Muslim Americans after 9
/ 11 – and it wouldn’t change anything.
“But,” Eggers said, “if you give them even a 15-page
first-person narrative, they become activists.”
By way of example, my co-panelists discussed several local stories that could be presented in a variety of ways. For instance, the kid who recently died in our local jail because the jailors stopped providing his medication after his eighteenth birthday. I’ve written about his ordeal previously; Max Smith had become close friends with him while they were confined in a small cell together; Lindsey Badger met with his mother after he died to preserve stories about his life that depict him more accurately than the terse denunciation he received from our local newspaper.
Brekke added that, although she hadn’t read the article about this young man,
she knows that when she was sentenced, “If you were to look me up online, on
a database or whatever, you would see that I’m a drug addict, you would see
that I’m an intravenous drug user, you would see that I’m a drug dealer, but
today, and even then, that’s not who I
am. I’m actually a very kind, loving,
caring person, who has had a really crappy way of life shoved onto me, so
that’s the way of life I chose to take. I’m
an overcomer, and I’ve been able to overcome that.”
I was on the inside when I got arrested because I’m sure that the things that
were said on social media, there couldn’t have been anything good.”
her time in prison, Brekke began to write, which allowed her to tell the whole
truth. She refused to let other people
dictate the narrative of her life. “To
be able to tell your story, or to hear somebody else’s story, you get the
beginning, the middle, and the now.”
The last prompt from the audience was, “I’m curious about each of the panelists’ perspectives on how writers can hurt readers in a way that’s inspiring for people to act.”
Smith and Brekke answered for the panel (perhaps you could argue that Eggers has already provided an answer in his books – by intermixing levity with pain you can create stories that are sufficiently fun that they’ll reach an audience, but still convey a spark of indignation that compels people to work to change the world. After two hundred pages of comic antics in The Parade, Eggers concludes with an incandescent flash of horror).
said, “Unfortunately for many of the people who are incarcerated, just being
true to their experience hurts readers.
It’s a horrible, horrible experience that is hard to imagine if you
haven’t been exposed to it.”
Brekke added, “I would want a reader to feel my own hurt, through the
writing. To not feel sorry for me, but
to be able to feel the truth and the pain that I once felt.”
The written word does not accomplish much if a tale is too unpalatable to reach its audience, but when the sorrows come from a place a deep integrity, or when the hurt is leavened with a touch of humor, readers might trust an author enough to continue.
And I am grateful that so many deeply committed people are willing to share hard stories in a way we can appreciate. Because we’ll need the emotional wallop of powerful stories to compel us to change the world.
Featured image: Max ribbing me. From a recording of the panel created by Jeremy Hogan.
When we were in college,
my roommate and I spent a train ride debating the merits of Andy Warhol’s art
(she was a fan, I was not). In the end,
we not only failed to change each other’s opinions, but realized that we didn’t
even agree what art was. She
double majored in Biomedical Engineering and Art Theory & Practice, and her
view was much more expansive than my own.
In retrospect, I can admit
that she was right. My view of art was
narrow-minded. If I had to proffer a
definition of “art” today, I might go with something like:
Art is an
intentionally-created module that is designed to reshape the audience’s neural
By this standard, the big
images of soup qualify. So do the
I recently read a book that analyzed board games using the tools of art criticism and narratology. Obviously, I now think that board games can be art. They’re carefully designed; their creators often seem to have a goal for how each game should make players feel; the combined effects of text, visual components, and even rules can all work toward conveying those feelings.
One drawback to my
newfound open-mindedness, though, is that I could probably be convinced that
almost any designed object qualifies as art.
For a piece of art to
“fail” to change your neural architecture, it would have to be mnemonically
invisible – immediately after seeing it, you could look at it again and it
would be as though it were the first time.
You’d never be able to recall its content or meaning.
Actually, I have
read some esoteric, convoluted poetry like that. Words that skimmed over my mind as though
each synapse were coated with teflon.
I wasn’t keen on the
experience. Minutes had passed, but,
because I couldn’t remember anything that I’d read, I’d accomplished
nothing. I don’t need to actually understand
a poem, I just want for it to make me feel somehow different after I’ve read
it. Like Will Alexander’s “The Optic
Wraith,” which triggers a mysterious sense of unease even though its meaning
squirms away from me:
The Optic Wraith
like a swarm of dense
woven from cold inferno
clinging to my palette
like the code from a bleak
my understanding of her
is condoned as general
as a cataleptic prairie
frayed at the core
by brushstrokes of vertigo
As Alexander’s words lure
me along, I lose my grasp. But although
I might not recall any specific lines, if you asked me at the end of its six
pages, “So, what did you feel?”, I’d certain know that something inside my
brain was different from who I’d been five minutes before.
When I was in college, I
felt strongly that art needed to be beautiful.
I was wrong. But I still believe
that art works better when it’s aesthetically pleasing, because this allows it
to more readily infiltrate someone’s mind.
If two paintings are both intended to convey the same ideas, but one is
more pleasurable to look at, then we can assume that it will be looked at more,
and thereby convey the idea more.
A charming form helps the piece achieve its function of spreading the
creator’s intended message.
And, in terms of judging
the quality of art, I obviously still think that the quality of message is
For instance, a
chair. Every chair you’ve ever sat in
was designed by somebody. If you
wanted to argue that the chair is a piece of art, I suppose I’d agree with
you. And maybe it’s a very good chair:
comfortable to sit in, perfectly balanced, pleasing to see when the rising sun
illuminates it in the morning. But that
doesn’t mean it’s good art.
Indeed, a chair that is bad at being a chair is more likely to be a good artwork. A chair that’s too small or too large, conveying the discomfort of trying to make your way in a world that is primarily concerned with the comfort of bodies unlike your own. Or a gigantic bronze throne that affords you the chance to perch in Baphomet’s lap; it would be an unpleasant place to sit, but perhaps you’d reflect more on Lucifer’s ethic of “speaking truth to power, even at great personal cost.”
When we humans make art,
we try to engage the emotions of our audience.
Emotionally-charged situations are more memorable; while feeling awe, or
anger, or joy, human minds are most likely to change.
And human art is almost always made for a human audience. Our brains evolved both from and for gossip; our prodigious intellect began as a tool to track convoluted social relationships. We’re driven to seek narrative explanations, both because a coherent story makes gossip easier to understand, and because our consciousness spins stories to rationalize our actions after we perform them.
If we considered the world’s most intelligent animal species – like humans, dolphins, crows, elephants, chimpanzees – most have evolved to gossip. Large brains gave our ancestors a selective advantage because they were able to track and manipulate their societies complex social relationships in a way that bolstered survival and breeding opportunities. Indeed, the average elephant probably has more emotional intelligence than the average human, judging from neuron counts in the relevant areas of each species’ brains.
And so, if an elephant were given the freedom to paint (without a trainer tugging on her ears!), I imagine that she’d create art with the intention that another elephant would be the audience. When a chimpanzee starts drumming, any aesthetic message is probably intended for other chimpanzees.
But what about octopus
Octopuses and humans haven’t had any ancestors in common for half a billion years. Octopuses are extremely intelligent, but their intelligence arose through a very different pathway from most other animals. Unlike the world’s brilliant birds and mammals, octopuses do not gossip.
Octopuses tend to be antisocial unless it’s mating season (or they’ve been dosed with ecstasy / MDMA). Most of the time, they just use their prodigious intellect to solve puzzles, like how best to escape cages, or find food, or keep from being killed.
Humans have something termed “theory of mind”: we think a lot about what others are thinking. Many types of animals do this. For instance, if a crow knows that another crow watched it hide food, it will then come back and move the food to a new hiding spot as soon as the second crow isn’t looking.
When we make art, we’re
indirectly demonstrating a theory of mind – if we want an audience to
appreciate the things we make, we have to anticipate what they’ll think.
Octopuses also seem to have a “theory of mind,” but they’re not deeply invested in the thoughts of other octopuses. They care more about the thoughts of animals that might eat them. And they know how to be deceptive; that’s why an octopus might collect coconut shells and use one to cover itself as it slinks across the ocean floor.
Human art is for humans, and bird art for birds, but octopus art is probably intended for a non-octopus audience. Which might require even more intelligence to create; it’s easy for me to write something that a reader like me would enjoy. Whereas an octopus artist would be empathizing with creatures radically different from itself.
If octopuses weren’t stuck
with such short lifespans, living in the nightmarishly dangerous ocean depths,
I bet their outward focus would lead them to become better people than we
are. The more we struggle to empathize
with others different from ourselves, the better our world will be.
In the United States, people are having sex less often. And between alcohol, marijuana, recreational painkillers – not to mention anti-depressants and anti-anxiety medication – we take a lot of drugs.
Many of us work long hours at jobs we dislike so that we can afford to buy things that promise to fill some of the emptiness inside. The most lucrative businesses are advertising companies … one of which, Facebook, is designed to make you feel worse so that you’ll be more susceptible to its ads.
The suicide rate has been rising.
It might seem as though we
don’t know how to make people happier.
But, actually, we do.
There are drawbacks to Toxoplasma infection, of course. Infected rodents are more likely to be killed by cats. Infected humans may become slower as well, both physically and intellectually. Toxoplasma forms cysts in your brain. It might increase the chance of developing schizophrenia. It can kill you if you’re immunocompromised. And the surest way to contract toxoplasmosis, if incidental exposure hasn’t already done it for you, is by eating cat excrement.
My advice today is
different. No feces required!
And I’m not suggesting
anything illegal. I mentioned, above,
that people in the United States take a lot of drugs. Several of these boost dopamine levels in
your brain. Cocaine, for instance, is a
“dopamine re-uptake inhibitor,” ensuring that any momentary sensation of pleasure
will linger, allowing you to feel happy longer.
But cocaine has a nasty
side effect of leading to incarceration, especially if the local law
enforcement officers decide that your epidermal melanin concentration is too
high. And jail is not a happy
Instead, you could make yourself happier with a bit of at-home trepanation, followed by the insertion of an electrode into the nucleus accumbens of your brain. Now, I know that sounds risky, what with the nucleus accumbens being way down near the base of your brain. But your brain is rather squishy – although you’ll sheer some cells as you cram a length of conductive wire into your cranium, the hope is that many neurons will be pushed out of the way.
The nucleus accumbens tends to show high activity during pleasure. For instance, cocaine stimulates activity in this part of your brain. So does money — tell research subjects that they’ve won a prize and you’ll see this region light up. If rats are implanted with an electrode that lets them jolt their own nucleus accumbens by pushing a lever, they’ll do it over and over. Pressing that lever makes them happier than eating, or drinking water, or having sex. They’ll blissfully self-stimulate until they collapse. From James Olds’s Science paper, “Self-Stimulation of the Brain”:
If animals with electrodes
in the hypothalamuswere run for 24 hours or 48 hours
consecutively, they continued to respond as long as physiological endurance
Perhaps I should have
warned you – amateur brain modification would carry some risks. Even if you have the tools needed to drill
into your own skull without contracting a horrible infection, you don’t want to
boost your mood just to die of dehydration.
After all, happiness might have some purpose. There might be reasons why certain activities – like eating, drinking water, having sex … to say nothing of strolling outdoors, or volunteering to help others – make us feel happy. After discussing several case studies in their research article “How Happy Is Too Happy,” Matthis Synofzik, Thomas Schlaepfer, and Joseph Fins write that using deep brain stimulation for the “induction of chronic euphoria could also impair the person’s cognitive capacity to respond to reasons about which volitions and preferences are in his or her best interests.”
When an activity makes us
feel happy, we’re likely to do it again.
That’s how people manage to dedicate their lives to service. Or get addicted to drugs.
And it’s how brain
stimulation could be used for mind control.
If you show me a syringe,
I’ll feel nervous. I don’t particularly
like needles. But if you display that
same syringe to an intravenous drug user, you’ll trigger some of the rush of
actually shooting up. The men in my
poetry classes have said that they feel all tingly if they even see the word
“needle” written in a poem.
For months or years, needles
presaged a sudden flush of pleasure.
That linkage was enough for their brains to develop a fondness for the
If you wanted to develop a taste for an unpalatable food, you could do the same thing. Like bittermelon – I enjoy bittermelons, which have a flavor that’s totally different from anything else I’ve ever eaten, but lots of people loathe them.
Still, if you used deep
brain stimulation to trigger pleasure every time a person ate bittermelon, that
person would soon enjoy it.
Or you could make someone
fall in love.
Far more effective than
any witch’s potion, that. Each time your
quarry encounters the future beloved, crank up the voltage. The beloved’s presence will soon be
associated with a sense of comfort and pleasure. And that sensation – stretched out for long
enough that the pair can build a set of shared memories – is much of what love
Of course, it probably
sounds like I’m joking. You wouldn’t really
send jolts of electricity into the core of somebody’s brain so that he’d fall
in love with somebody new … right?
Fifty years passed between
the discovery of pleasure-inducing deep brain stimulation and its current use
as a treatment for depression … precisely because one of the pioneering
researchers decided that it was reasonable to use the electrodes as a
In 1972, Charles Moan and Robert Heath published a scientific paper titled “Septal stimulation for the initiation of heterosexual behavior in a homosexual male.” Their study subject was a 24-year-old man who had been discharged from the military for homosexuality. Moan and Heath postulated that the right regimen of electrode stimulation – jolted while watching pornography, or while straddled by a female prostitute whom Moan and Heath hired to visit their lab – might lead this young man to desire physical intimacy with women.
Moan and Heath’s paper is
After about 20 min of such
interaction she begun [sic] to mount him, and though he
was somewhat reticent he did achieve penetration. Active intercourse followed during which she
had an orgasm that he was apparently able to sense. He became very excited at this and suggested
that they turn over in order that he might assume the initiative. In this position he often paused to delay
orgasm and to increase the duration of the pleasurable experience. Then, despite the milieu [inside a lab,
romping under the appraising eyes of multiple fully-clothed scientists] and
the encumbrance of the electrode wires, he successfully ejaculated. Subsequently, he expressed how much he had
enjoyed her and how he hoped that he would have sex with her again in the near
The science writer Lone Frank recently published The Pleasure Shock, a meticulously researched book in which she concludes that Heath was unfairly maligned because most people in the 1970s were reticent to believe that consciousness arose from the interaction of perfectly ordinary matter inside our skulls. Changing a person’s mood with electricity sounds creepy, especially if you think that a mind is an ethereal, inviolable thing.
But it isn’t.
The mind, that is. The mind isn’t an ethereal, inviolable thing.
Zapping new thoughts into somebody’s brain, though, is definitely still understood (by me, at least) to be creepy.
Discussing the contemporary resurgence of electrical brain modification, Frank writes that:
In 2013, economist Ernst Fehr
of Zurich University experimented with transcranial direct current stimulation,
which sends a weak current through the cranium and is able to influence
activity in areas of the brain that lie closest to the skull.
Fehr had sixty-three
research subjects available. They played
a money game in which they each were given a sum and had to take a position on
how much they wanted to give an anonymous partner. In the first round, there were no sanctions
from the partner, but in the second series of experiments, the person in
question could protest and punish the subject.
There were two opposing
forces at play. A cultural norm for
sharing fairly – that is, equally – and a selfish interest in getting as much
as possible for oneself. Fehr and his people
found that the tug of war could be influenced by the right lateral prefrontal
cortex. When the stimulation increased
the brain activity, the subjects followed the fairness norm to a higher degree,
while they were more inclined to act selfishly when the activity was
Perhaps the most
thought-provoking thing was that the research subjects did not themselves feel
any difference. When they were asked
about it, they said their idea of fairness had not changed, while the
selfishness of their behavior had changed.
Apparently, you can fiddle
with subtle moral parameters in a person without the person who is manipulated
being any the wiser.
The problem isn’t just that Heath pulsed electricity into the brain of a homosexual man so that he could ejaculate while fooling around with a woman. Many of Heath’s patients – who, it’s worth acknowledging, had previously been confined to nightmarish asylums – developed infections from their electrode implantations and died. Also, Heath knowingly promoted fraudulent research findings because he’d staked his reputation on a particular theory and was loathe to admit that he’d been wrong (not that Heath has been the only professor to perpetuate falsehoods this way).
Elliott concludes that:
Heath was a physician in
love with his ideas.
Psychiatry has seen many
men like this. Heath’s contemporaries
include Ewen Cameron, the CIA-funded psychiatrist behind the infamous “psychic
driving” studies at McGill University, in which patients were drugged into
comas and subjected to repetitive messages or sounds for long periods, and
Walter Freeman, the inventor of the icepick lobotomy and its most fervent
These men may well have
started with the best of intentions. But
in medical research, good intentions can lead to the embalming table. All it takes is a powerful researcher with a
surplus of self-confidence, a supportive institution, and a ready supply of
Heath had them all.
It’s true that using an
electrode to stimulate the nucleus accumbens inside your brain can probably
make you feel happier. By way of
contrast, reading essays like this one make most people feel less happy.
Sometimes it’s good to
feel bad, though.
As Elliott reminds us, a
lot of vulnerable people were abused in this research. A lot of vulnerable people are still
treated with cavalier disregard, especially when folks with psychiatric issues
are snared by our country’s criminal justice system. And the torments that we dole upon non-human
animals are even worse.
[University of Chicago
researcher Inbal Ben-Ami Bartal] placed one rat in an enclosure, where it
encountered a small transparent container, a bit like a jelly jar. Squeezed inside it was another rat, locked
up, wriggling in distress.
Not only did the free rat learn how to open a little door to liberate the other, but she was remarkably eager to do so. Never trained on it, she did so spontaneously.
Then Bartal challenged her
motivation by giving her a choice between two containers, one with chocolate
chips – a favorite food that they could easily smell – and another with a
trapped companion. The free rat often
rescued her companion first, suggesting that reducing her distress counted more
than delicious food.
Is it possible that these
rats liberated their companions for companionship? While one rat is locked up, the other has no
chance to play, mate, or groom. Do they
just want to make contact? While the
original study failed to address this question, a different study created a
situation where rats could rescue each other without any chance of further
interaction. That they still did so
confirmed that the driving force is not a desire to be social.
Bartal believes it is
emotional contagion: rats become distressed when noticing the other’s distress,
which spurs them into action.
Conversely, when Bartal gave
her rats an anxiety-reducing drug, turning them into happy hippies, they still
knew how to open the little door to reach the chocolate chips, but in their
tranquil state, they had no interest in the trapped rat. They couldn’t care less, showing the sort of
emotional blunting of people on Prozac or pain-killers.
The rats became
insensitive to the other’s agony and ceased helping.
You could feel
happier. We know enough to be able to
reach into your mind and change it.
A miniscule flow of electrons is enough to trigger bliss.
But should we do it? Or use our unhappiness as fuel to change the
After discussing several forms of parasitic mind control during our poetry class in the local jail, somebody asked – somebody always asks – whether there’s some sort of parasite that makes people want to use drugs.
A few guys looked down at the table and nodded. People are in there for a variety of reasons – domestic violence, burglary, DWIs, dealing or possession – but no matter the charge, many of the guys in jail were dealing with substance use that got out of hand.
I gave the same answer as always.
“Drugs do it on their own. Chemicals can remodel your brain to make you want them again. Like cocaine, it’s a dopamine re-uptake inhibitor, so if something makes you happy after coke, it’ll make you more happy than it would’ve … but your body responds by down-regulating the receptors, and then you’re stuck feeling less happy all the time unless you take it again.”
But it’s not all bleak. Drug addiction takes hold because the brain is plastic – our minds change and we want that rush again, potentially to the exclusion of all else – but neural plasticity allows people to recover, too. Dopamine receptor levels fall during periods of excessive drug use, but they’ll rebound during sobriety … and this rebound should attenuate the desire to use again.
(Unfortunately, the lecturers in our area’s court-mandated rehab courses have been telling people that, “After you take methamphetamines, it takes eight years of sobriety before your dopamine receptor levels come back.” This sounds wrong to me – I don’t know the half-life of dopamine receptors, but the timing of sensitization and de-sensitization in conditions like bipolar disorder and antidepressant-induced mania suggests that it’s on the order of a month or so, not years – and it’s definitely unhelpful to say. If you’re trying to help someone quit taking drugs, you want their goals to be feasible.
A former co-teacher tattooed “Day By Day” on his arm because quitting forever seemed impossible, but getting through one more day without drugs sounded like something he could do. He’s now weathered five years of single days. But if I felt like garbage and an instructor told me, “You’ll only feel like this for eight more years!”, I’d give up immediately.)
I don’t really understand Scientology – all my current knowledge comes from a single episode of South Park and a few minutes spent skimming through the Wikipedia article – but I was intrigued by the practice of using “E-meters” to measure a person’s cognitive development in the faith. It made me wonder whether the sort of person who was interested in biofeedback and numerical metrics – somebody who tracks steps with a Fitbit or the gasoline saved on a Prius console – could use self-administered polygraphs for cognitive behavioral therapy.
It’s well-known that polygraphs are fallible – you can fail them when you’re telling the truth, and you can learn to pass them while lying – but I imagine that the easiest ways to pass a polygraph is to convince yourself that whatever you’re saying is true. There many physiological correlates to dishonesty – skin voltage, electroencephalogram patterns, eye movement, vocal tones – and by convincing yourself to earnestly believe whatever you happen to be saying, you could pass any of them.
Because you can cheat, U.S. courts generally don’t trust the results of lie detector tests. In the pursuit of justice, cheating would be bad. But as self-administered therapy, cheating is the whole point. You cheat at lying until the lie becomes the truth.
“I like myself and I am worthy of love and self-respect.”
Rig up your polygraph and say something like that until the machine stops dinging you. Do it daily. Your brain is plastic, designed to learn and change. Your words will become true.
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.
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.
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.
I recently attended a singer-songwriter’s performance with my buddy Max. I have difficulty sitting still, so I’d brought paper and some markers to draw horrible cartoons while we listened.
After the show, Max and I caught up. We briefly mentioned our work (he is building things; I am alternating between typing, reading children’s books, and spraying down my popsicle-sticky kids with a hose) and started hashing philosophy. Max digs the old stuff – he’s currently reading Lucretius’s On the Nature of Things, which speculates on both the existence of atoms and reasons why we are conscious.
I told him once that K won’t let me talk about free will at parties, so Max often goads me into it. He’s always loved the image of K hovering with a flyswatter, waiting for me to broach her ire by describing the experiment that would disprove the existence of free will. “We can’t do it yet, but if a non-destructive brain scan at sufficient molecular accuracy … “ SWAT!
I described Hugh Everett’s many-worlds interpretation of quantum wave-function collapse – the idea that with every coin-flip, the universe splits into two and time keeps marching on with the coin having landed both heads and tails. A lot of physicists like dispensing with probability and randomness. Not me – I think the world needs a little chaos. Even if our choices were totally unpredictable, we might not have free will, but if the universe was predictable, sensible and orderly, then we definitely wouldn’t be free.
If you feel like you have free will, that’s almost the same as having it – but how free would you feel if researchers could strap you into a scanner and predict your fate more impeccably than any fortuneteller?
If every coin flip created a new world, and inside one your consciousness would be extinguished before you learned the result of the flip, then you could only consciously perceive yourself as experiencing the other outcome. Someone could flip a coin hundreds of times and you’d always see it landing heads, if the you inside every tails world was instantly ablated.
I was scribbling out diagrams, jotting numbers, and drawing an experimental apparatus with a research subject exploding into flames. Max leaned back, folded his arms over his chest, and mused, “But what I want to know is where love comes into it.”
I added a few more jagged flames, then set down my pen.
Look, I’m a clever dude. I’ve always been good at math, despite having taken very few math classes. I’m well read, hard working, and adept at solving puzzles. But I was never the best with emotions. Before I had kids, nobody would’ve mistaken me for any sort of love expert.
Max shook his head. We both knew that wasn’t really love.
But I’m a cold, rational scientist. Max trusts his intuition that something mystical is happening in the world. What kind of explanation might satisfy us both?
So we tried again. The world is real. There is, as best we can tell, a single, objective reality surrounding us. But our consciousness has no access to that world.
In reality, the computer I’m typing this essay on is composed of mostly empty space. Electrons flit blurrily around atomic nuclei – when I reach toward the keys, electrons in my fingertips are repelled, giving me the illusion that the computer is solid. One by one receptors in the cone cells of my eyes interact with incident photons, letting me believe that I am constantly seeing a room full of smooth, hard surfaces. My consciousness gobbles sensory data and creates a representation of the world.
And it’s within those representations that we live. Some philosophers question why humans are conscious. Others speculate that iPhones have consciousness as well. Just like us, a modern telephone integrates a wide variety of external perceptions into its conception of the world.
In any case, because we live within our perception of the world, as opposed to the world per se, love really does change the universe. By opening ourselves up to the world, we suddenly find ourselves to be inside a different world. A physicist might not notice the difference after you let yourself love – but that physicist isn’t inside your head. A physicist’s truth is not always the truth that matters.
Thor finds himself grappling with the Midgard Serpent, a giant snake that had encircled the entire planet. Thor bops the snake on the head with his magic hammer; the snake retaliates with poison.
[Thor] steps nine steps but is finished
by that serpent who has no fear of malice.
Both Thor and Serpent die.
Thor’s father Odin spent much of his life obsessed with prophecy. Convinced that great sacrifice would lead to wisdom, Odin stabbed himself with a spear and hung himself from a tree till nearly dead, nine days and nights. Later, he traded an eye for a vision of the future – who needs depth perception, anyway?
But Odin still brought destruction upon himself.
According to the prophecies, Odin would be killed by a giant beast, the Fenris Wolf. Like the Midgard Serpent, this wolf was a child of Loki. By rights, the wolf should have joined the pantheon. It would have been Odin’s ally.
Instead, Odin deceived the wolf – you shuck shackles as easily as Houdini will! But let’s try one more time. If you can’t escape this set, we promise we’ll untie you. We just want to see, so that we can all marvel at your strength – provoking his anger.
If Odin hadn’t been such a jerk, Loki’s children wouldn’t have hated him. Ragnarok would not have come. Thor might have lived forever.
Or perhaps not. Because Thor surely died again when he was forgotten. What good is a god without worshipers? Pious humans keep their deities alive.
It’s not clear whether Thor was ever really worshiped, but libations were probably poured for him. I’ve never studied spiritual husbandry, but I bet the occasional splash of beer onto the ground was enough to keep Thor ticking.
Then his people converted to Christianity. They’d celebrate Jesus instead. Thor might have been forgotten entirely except that a few Christian scholars, years later, decided that the old stories should be preserved. Which means, of course, that our knowledge of Thor’s escapades is laced with Christian stereotypes.
In Christianity, women have a clearly subservient role – Job’s wife was a replaceable possession; Jesus’s teachings were conveyed to us solely by men. It’s not clear whether the Norse shared these prejudices.
For instance, contemporary genetic analysis revealed that one Viking warrior – long assumed to be male because he was buried with weapons and the regalia of high rank – was actually female. (As soon as this discovery was made, members of our modern Christian-ish society decided that she probably wasn’t that great a warrior after all, even though her prowess had gone unquestioned until she was revealed to have two X chromosomes.)
In Thor’s greatest recorded battle, he wears a dress. Within the world of Norse myth, the burly bearded man smites giants, but so might the presumed willowy beauty. Thor was Thor, but someone you’d thought was Freya might be Thor as well. In duress, man and woman alike could conjure the passions of battle.
Thor limped along for centuries, partially resurrected, his stories preserved so that Christian readers would better understand the poetic devices used in Icelandic literature. Wasn’t until the 1970s that anyone strove to worship Thor back to life.
In the beginning, the white supremacist movement in the United States was closely linked with Christianity. Southern plantationers thumped their Bibles. Specious theories about Noah’s grandchildren were used to justify slavery.
(Noah drank too much. On a night while he was passed out drunk, one of his sons castrated him so that there wouldn’t be any more siblings to share the inheritance with. Noah was understandably upset, and declared that this particular son’s lineage would become slaves. A few thousand years later, a nation of ignoramuses convinced themselves that people with higher epidermal melanin concentrations must be descended from this son.)
(The version of this story that was eventually settled upon for the Hebrew cannon – i.e. the version in the Old Testament – is circumspect to the point of absurdity.)
The KKK hated black people, but they hated Jewish people, too.
In the 1970s, a subset of white supremacists decided that Christianity itself was a tool for Jewish mind control. Jesus was just another cog in the great ZOG plot! They reasoned that the whole love thy neighbor business was intended to make them weak, and that they’d been tricked into worshiping Yahweh, who was and always would be a Jewish god. They conveniently overlooked the fact that Christians had been murdering Jewish people for millennia.
They spoke out against cultural appropriation. White people shouldn’t latch onto other peoples’ cultures or beliefs, they said. Instead, white people should worship their own gods.
They decided that Odin and Thor were white gods. As though a person’s religion could be coded into DNA. As though your genes determined which stories you should believe.
Thor really was racist, it’s true – but he was prejudiced against the race of giants, not any particular population of humans. And even though Thor was murderously prejudiced against the giants, it was still considered acceptable for him or other gods to drink and cavort with them, or intermarry.
The modern supremacists who’ve claimed Thor as their own think differently. For instance Else Christensen, who distributed Odinist materials to prisons with missionary zeal, who wrote that “We, as Odinists, shall continue our struggle for Aryan religion, Aryan freedom, Aryan culture, Aryan consciousness, and Aryan self-determination.”
Thor first died battling a snake. (This sort of bloody end would grant entrance to Valhalla – as opposed to Nilfheim, Hel’s dark cold misty kingdom, final destination for all who died of illness or old age.)
Then Thor died ignominious, his followers having dwindled, his worship having ceased. For centuries, the mud drank no more mead for Thor.