The Brain & Science – The Problem With Wanting It All

As a psychotherapist, I have taken an interest in the rise of neurobiological research being applied to my field. At first, particularly upon hearing about “interpersonal neurobiology” (or IPNB), I was excited — I was seeing the intrapsychic and biological converge into what appeared to be a fascinating model of understanding human behaviour. But here’s the thing: while I have a deep reverence for the subjective life of the individual, I’m also interested in looking at things empirically, where applicable. Without this latter aspect, I feel we fall prey to magical thinking.

The more I looked into some of the new ideas permeating my field, I became aware of a few things. While certain concepts, such as the idea of neuroplasticity, were taken from science, the more I looked at who was writing about this, the more I noticed that the people applying these complicated concepts to psychotherapy weren’t neurologists or geneticists. One of the oft-referenced authors in the field of IPNB is Allan N. Schore, who is a psychologist and researcher. His books are popular with those looking to harmonize neurology and psychotherapy. And while I respect his multidisciplinary work, I have difficulty with binary conceptions of how the left and right brains work (whereas, supposedly, the right brain is responsible for emotional attunement, the left brain for insight and analysis). Why do I have difficulty with this? Because I asked a neurologist, and they confirmed that this is too simplistic a way to look at the brain.

This is a blog post and not a long-form essay. I could go on. I suppose what irks me is the amount of material being written about a myriad of complex neurobiological research findings that skip over the necessary cautions that are the hallmarks of science. Correlation is not causation. How big was the sample size? Continue reading

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Essay in Humber Literary Review #6

I’m happy to say that the latest issue of Humber Literary Review (#6) is out, and I have an essay included. This is their first themed issue, and it’s about mental health. Because I’m a psychotherapist who is deeply reflective about the way in which we choose to see the world, I saw this as a golden opportunity to submit a pertinent perspective; my essay, On Madness Within Imagination, confronts a cultural blindspot – the depiction of madness in fiction.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

It is available at the following Toronto bookstores:

Another Story (on Roncesvalles)
Book City on the Danforth
Book City on Queen
Book City on St Clair
Book City in the Village
Presse Internationale on Bloor
Presse Internationale in the Beaches
Type Books (on Queen)

It is available elsewhere, of course, but I have no clue where. You can also purchase a subscription from HLR.

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The Trouble With The Trouble With Physics

I’m on my second attempt reading Lee Smolin’s 2006 book The Trouble With Physics. I am reminded of a similar situation with another book, Joyce’s Ulysses. And, similarly, my second attempt with The Trouble With Physics is not a reappraisal but a confirmation: this is hard to read.

Smolin’s book is making a case for the fact that string theory is a failure; a spectacular failure that its adherents defend with a most byzantine theoretical web; that, because string theory is de rigueur in so many of the top schools, with so many reputations at stake, no one wants to recognize the fact that string theory — an attempt to harmonize the ideas of quantum theory and relativity so that we might understand the foundation of the universe more clearly — is a dead end.

The problem I’m (still) having with the book is that Smolin is writing to an audience that is willing to take a steep (try 90 degrees upward) climb in order to understand the various concepts and theories which not only formed the foundation of string theory, but the issues that weren’t resolved through the original work of Newton, Einstein, etc. Smolin lays out in the beginning various fundamental aspects of how things work that we simply don’t know — instilling early that scientific inquiry is, if anything, about the need for curiosity. However, given Smolin’s densely described approach to get us ready to understand his arguments, and while I don’t doubt the necessity, I think he would need to double the length of his book to do so effectively for interested readers who are not physicists.

What is more successful, and the reason I continue to read it, is how Continue reading

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Author Profile in the December Issue of Quill & Quire Magazine

My year-of-years continues with blessings – I was profiled in the December issue of Quill & Quire, the major trade publication for publishers and booksellers in Canada. Although the feature isn’t likely to be posted online, I’m attaching a photo below taken from my smartphone. The December issue is still on newstands if you are interested in picking up a copy.

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SARS Essay in Torontoist

Torontoist just posted an essay I wrote about this being the 10th anniversary of the SARS breakout in Toronto (which went on to kill 44 people and cost the country $2 billion), and the fact that nothing is being done to commemorate it. That is to say that commemorations are not necessarily celebrations, but can be sober remembrances of mistakes made in our past.

Read it here.

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Robertson Davies: Elitist

I was once accused by the chaplain of Massey College of being a gnostic. He was very angry with me indeed. But part of being gnostic was using your head if you wanted to achieve salvation or even a tolerable life. That is something that the Christian church tends rather to discourage. Salvation is free for everyone. The greatest idiot and yahoo can be saved, the doctrine goes, because Christ loves him as much as he loves Albert Einstein. I don’t think that is true. I think that civilization—life—has a different place for the intelligent people who try to pull us a little further out of the primal ooze than it has for the boobs who just trot along behind, dragging on the wheels. This sort of opinion has won me the reputation of being an elitist. Behold an elitist.

This is from a wonderful interview with the multifaceted author, Robertson Davies, for the Paris Review. His responses are well-considered, done as they were before everyone felt pressured to distill themselves into soundbites. He provides a wonderful perspective on fiction writing, the role of the writer, what his own background lends to his writer’s toolkit, as well as an assortment of miscellany (including a very interesting reflection on the differences between Freudian and Jungian psychology, no less). He was a true character.

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Renovations

In the attempt to import 400+ pages from Blogger to here (via WordPress), there were several (try over 75) pages whose subject-tags were not properly imported. They became auto-assigned to “Uncategorized”. So, I’ve spent time each day re-categorizing them. They were mostly older posts – a lot from when I started in 2006. That was <checks watch> over five years ago.

The difference between blogging and writing fiction is that with a blog you’re not supposed to correct or revise things past a certain freshness date. It’s a journal: you don’t screw with it. The past is ultimately the past, and if you look like a moron in the past then, perhaps, that’s you being a moron in the past. Contrarily, with fiction, there is no straight jacket: when you look at past writings your lithe reflexes unravel a cloth roll of surgeon’s tools, all necessary for cutting and cleaning what you’ve written, regardless of how brilliant or not brilliant your ideas.

Thus with fiction, sensitivity to the whole is greater than the brilliance of the individual turn of phrase. With blogging, respect for The Record supersedes the ego: you must be careful not to disturb The Record.

And so I unearth and renovate quietly. I open the “Uncategorized”, scan them to make sense of how I should properly re-categorize them. Some I want to delete. Some I do delete (two posts: trust me, they were stupid). Others I begrudgingly leave. Renovation inevitably exposes weaknesses: of thought, of argument. It also lays bare ideas and passions you’d put aside in favour of other pursuits, but which you read today with fascination as if someone else had written them. This is the good thing about writing – fiction, poetry, magazine articles, blogging – no matter what your focus is, if you do it long enough you inevitably have something with which to reflect upon.

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I Don’t Want To Know

As a writer, even though I am not part of any sort of literati, I am still plugged into the lit scene. You need to be if you want to understand the general to-and-fro of any industry you are interested in becoming a part of (same goes for TV, music, theatre, etc..). That said, I must make an admission. I am making this admission because I think there are a lot of people like me out there who feel the same but are reticent to admit it.

Here goes: I don’t take any particular interest in the life of the artist outside of his or her art.

When I read a book, I don’t care if an author comes from the East Coast and studied journalism, had a drug problem and now lives in a shed with a mastiff. It’s not that I don’t care about this author personally, it’s that these facts shouldn’t have anything to do with the book that I am about to read. I should be able to pick up the book, knowing nothing about said author, and be able to read it, enjoy it, be fully affected by it, without substantially missing something due to a lack of familiarity with the author’s biography.

And yet, when you are culturally plugged-in (and by this I mean, you check out industry blogs, trade mags, etc.) there is so much white noise about the artists themselves that it seems divergent from what it is they are supposed to be doing: their work. We can talk about Picasso’s passions, but 100 years from now there will probably only be discussion of his work – your work is the only thing left after you and everyone who knew you has died. And if people are still talking more about you than your work after this point, then I would think the quality of your work was overstated.

Would knowing that Stephen King battled drug addiction offer an insight into some of his writing? Yes. But, my point is that if that insight is necessary in order to fully appreciate a piece of work then there is a problem. The work doesn’t work if you need a biographical cheat sheet to inject context into the material.

I think Bryan Ferry is an fantastic vocalist – and I don’t want to know anything more than that. Nor the details outside a director’s films, nor what inspired the playwright to write her play. I’ve got my own shit going on, thanks very much.

Ephemera is for journalists, fanzines, and those working on their Ph.D. The general public should not feel inadequate if they pick a DVD or book off a shelf, sit down in a theatre, or load a song without being prepared with supplemental information not contained within the medium which contains the work. The work inevitably has to stand up for itself. I write this for two reasons: first, with the likes of the AV Club and traditional print/TV media clamouring to add as much web-based context as possible to every article, there’s a growing sense that – for the everyman – if you aren’t savvy to the smallest details of each artist’s passings and goings, you are nothing but a tourist. Secondly, embracing social media to a claustrophobic degree, we can now read endless commentating on authors reading their work for a live audience!…something no one really asked for outside the publishing companies themselves and perhaps the authors’ parents. Let’s face it: most authors can’t read aloud to save their lives – it’s not their specialty.

There are reasons for digging deeper, but that’s up to the individual. It was interesting to learn more about HP Lovecraft when I reviewed Michel Houellebecq’s quasi-biography of him and his work. What’s funny, however – using that same example – is that when I proceeded to read the two works by Lovecraft contained in that same book, I don’t recall thinking to myself “Ahh – this is where his uncomfortable relationship with women takes shape!”. That’s because the stories were two of his masterpieces, and when you witness a masterpiece, peripheral biographical information is going to gunk-up your enjoyment.

The medium may be the message, but the work contains the words. Outside of this we are left with cultural “bonus features”. Nice to have, but not necessary.

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The Sky is Falling (Very Slowly), or, Will The Real Science Please Stand Up

The problem with having a belief in something which happens to be provocative (and by provocative, I mean something which is not embraced by the whole and which may be a bit thorny for some) is that, like in most aspects of life, all it takes is a few zealots to make you look like a fool by ideological proximity.

As I pointed out many moons ago (December of 2006!) when it comes to climate change (as opposed to the slightly misleading term global warming), outside of blind ignorance our greatest liability are people who jab an accusatory finger at every natural disaster and scream “You see! It’s global warming! Climate change caused this! If we don’t do something NOW we are doomed as a species!”. For me, it started with Hurricane Katrina, when people (a fantastic percentage of whom had no scientific accreditation) began to suggest that it simply wasn’t an old-school “act of nature”, but rather something to be blamed upon worldwide environmental collapse (as if New Orleans didn’t have enough problems to contend with). It fed into a grand conspiracy theory which gave certain people a quixotic reason to exist: that mankind was the chief culprit all along, and that it was only a question of years to fix it. Cue epilogue of Planet Of The Apes.

On the other (self-evident to the point where I wonder whether it’s worth mentioning) end of the spectrum are the usual assortment of deep-pocketed corporate “carbon monoxide is good for you” state polluters, and knee-jerk libertarian radio hosts who feel that idling their cars is akin to patriotism (and, as an aside, the whole libertarian-patriot thing seems like an oxymoron, doesn’t it?).

The thing is this, panic aside: I do believe in climate change. All that shit turning to water north of us (that would be the Arctic ice) is a sign. Much less lachrymose is all that science, provided by all those scientists, which pretty much confirms that, yes, climate change is real, and that, yes, human industry is a variable in its occurrence. The issue of how the future is looking as a result of climate change is less clear. The problem is this: remember those largely non-scientific people blaming Hurricane Katrina on climate change? The ones telling us that if we don’t do something NOW then the world’s a goner? They got a lot of attention; the cameras kept rolling. This was probably just a knee-jerk reaction of mass media which was (and is) delighted to scare the public any chance they get (it keeps ratings up). Well guess what: some scientists found that if they used the same sort of seismic analogies and kept the ticking clock of doom just a few minutes away, not only would they get attention, but they could get funding.

Inevitably, it had to end – the speculative bubble that is. You can only say that we have five more years to change the world for five years until people start asking why societies haven’t collapsed like the finale of an Irwin Allen movie. And then someone or some group hacked into the records of some climate scientists and found that some of them were acting like jerks, that some of them didn’t want to play nice with their facts (unlike all those journalists and columnists we read). To me, this was heart-breaking, because it allowed both honest sceptics and partisan political hacks alike to pull a j’accuse and call it Climategate (seriously, I look forward to a world without the silly and dated gate suffix) and call the science itself into question, as opposed to the questionable actions of a few. Some have hinted that the bad publicity fall-out could set climate science back by a decade if increased public persecution gets worse. However, I feel this is as likely as, well, the world ending in five years.

The good news is that the world hasn’t ended; neither our world, nor the world of science. If anything, reading today’s op-ed by Margaret Wente in the G&M, even people who previously took every opportunity to deny the existence of climate change are now looking at things plainly: no pro trumped-up worries about imminent global catastrophe, and no con lefty/green/hippy bullshit stereotypes. If anything, perhaps bringing those few scientists into the spotlight has, post whatever-gate, calmed everyone down a notch. Perhaps enough so that we will be able to parse our language into something which does not use fear as a means of persuasion. Perhaps so that we won’t dilute the meaning of words like green and sustainable to homeopathic degrees.

I believe (or at least I hope) we can find an entry-point where we can use science and research rather than propaganda and fear to motivate ourselves to improve our prospects (that is, both human prospects and business prospects, two things which have not always shared mutually fulfilling goals). It is heartening to see that there may be an X-Prize for fuel/energy production, similar to what was done for sub-orbital exploration. I’d also like it if we could reboot the message of environmentalism with a good ‘ol back-to-basics mantra of: use less (as in packaging, unnecessary products, natural resources). I will be happy, even if it is all a hopelessly lost cause, that we go down working on something together as opposed to a Purgatory of scoring political points against ourselves.

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