Interactive version of "Graceful Thought" by Pietro Millioni
Published on Thursday 23 february 2012 • Post by Mariano Tomatis • Permalink
Pietro Millioni was an Italian composer and author lived in 17th century. In 1649 he published a book of secrets entitled Gratioso pensiero (Graceful Thought) (1).
The book could be used to divine a name thought of through a mathematical principle described by Luca Pacioli (2) in 1478.
I got a copy of the rare book from his owner, the Italian stand-up comedian Raul Cremona. In order to revive it, I have created an interactive version of the book: you can play it clicking here (or the image below)
(1) Pietro Millioni, Gratioso pensiero, per mezzo del quale ciascuno puol saper dire non solo il Nome, Patria, & Arte di qual si voglia persona. Ma anco il mese, il giorno, e l’hora, ch’è nato, & altre curiosità. Inuentato da Pietro Millioni, e di nuouo ristampato dal medesimo, con l’accrescimento di molti giuochi cuoriosi. In Roma, et in Siena, Alla Loggia del Papa, Con licenza de’ Super. 1649.
(2) Luca Pacioli, Codex Vat. lat. 3129, p. 219 verso.
We are our stories - A neural approach
Published on Tuesday 21 february 2012 • Post by Mariano Tomatis • Permalink
During an interview Salman Rushdie introduced the role of storytelling in defining a human being:
We tell ourselves into being, don’t we? I think that is one of the great reasons for stories. I mean, we are the storytelling animal, there is no other creature on earth that tells itself stories in order to understand who it is. (1)
From ancient shamans to modern movie directors, through magicians of all ages, the power of narrative has been extensively analysed and used, both for the purpose of entertainment and emotional/spiritual growth.
In the 1970s the assumption that narratives shape a person’s identity inspired the work of Michael White and David Epston, creators of the Narrative Therapy, a form of psychotherapy where the therapist helps the patient by developing with him richer and more functional narratives. The two therapists considered each story as both describing and shaping people’s perspectives on their lives, histories and futures, and their purpose was to collaborate with patients in stepping away from oppressive stories to discovering the "untold" story involving their secrets commitments, hopes, desires and dreams.
The idea that we are our stories may be a good description of our perceived inner world, but its vagueness has been criticized by skeptics (2); they have pointed at the lack of clinical and empirical studies to validate the claims of narrative therapy, whose focus on qualitative outcomes is difficult to assess with a scientific approach. A recent study (3) by Jason S. Moser, Assistant Professor at the Department of Psychology of the Michigan State University, tried to investigate the correlation between electric neural signals and the different "stories" - to which Moser referred with the term "mind-sets" - told by a number of subjects.
Is your intelligence something fluid?
Do you think that intelligence is something fluid - i.e. that if you apply yourself better, you will become smarter? If so, your narrative will be opposite to the one endorsed by the owners of a (perceived) fixed intelligence. In the context of the first story, the brain is described as an incremental unit: from this point of view, failure is always a learning opportunity. The second narrative describes brain as a static entity, and failure is just a frustrating personal shortcoming, impossible to be remedied.
Moser and his colleagues divided the participants in two groups, according to the self-assessed personal narrative (incremental vs. static), and gave them a task that was easy to make a mistake on: they were shown a string of letters (LLILL) and asked to quickly identify the middle one. Each subject wore a cap recording electrical activity in the brain during the task.
Performance accuracy was high in both groups (more than 90%), and Moser identified two peculiar short signals occuring within a quarter of a second after each mistake. The first one was called "oh crap!"-response: it indicated something had gone wrong. The second signal reflected awareness of mistakes and allocation of attention to them - technically called "post-error positivity" (Pe) component, reflecting the "I-see-that-I’ve-made-a-mistake-so-I-should-pay-more attention" attitude.
Moser discovered that the brains associated with the incremental narrative reacted with a bigger second signal, but also with a greater accuracy after mistakes compared with individuals endorsing the static narrative. It seems that a belief in the incremental theory of intelligence is associated with a better control systems on a neural level. In the words of Jason S. Moser,
People who think they can learn from their mistakes have brains that are tuned to pay more attention to mistakes.
This study touches the question at the core of narrative therapy: has narrative a specific "power" interfering with neural systems? Or does a specific neural system push the individual into selecting a narrative mirroring his inner attitude? Both forces are probably at work. Confirming Alan Moore's quote:
There are people. There are stories. The people think they shape the stories, but the reverse is often closer to the truth. (4)
(1) Matthew D’Ancona, "We have been wimpish about defending our ideas", Spectator.co.uk, 9.4.2008.
(2) For example M. Etchison et al., "Review of Narrative Therapy: Research and Review" in Family Journal 8(1), 2000, pp. 61-67.
(3) Jason S. Moser et al., "Mind Your Errors - Evidence for a Neural Mechanism Linking Growth Mind-Set to Adaptive Posterror Adjustments" in Psychological Science, December 2011 vol. 22 no. 12, pp. 1484-1489.
(4) Alan Moore, Swamp Thing - Love and Death, Vol. 2.
The mysterious amount that goes undetected in our lives
Published on Friday 17 february 2012 • Post by Mariano Tomatis • Permalink
Edge is an online magazine whose purpose is to explore scientific and intellectual ideas, inviting "sophisticated minds" to answer profound questions in a manner readily accessible to non-specialist public.
Its 2011 Annual Question was suggested by Steven Pinker: "What scientific concept would improve everybody's cognitive toolkit?"
My favourite answer has been the one by David M. Eagleman, neuroscientist at the Baylor College of Medicine (Texas). According to him, a powerful (and underused) concept is the Umwelt:
...a word to express a simple (but often overlooked) observation: different animals in the same ecosystem pick up on different environmental signals. In the blind and deaf world of the tick, the important signals are temperature and the odor of butyric acid. For the black ghost knifefish, it's electrical fields. For the echolocating bat, it's air-compression waves. The small subset of the world that an animal is able to detect is its Umwelt. The bigger reality, whatever that might mean, is called the Umgebung.
It is a powerful idea when applied to ourself; in fact, each organism assumes its Umwelt to be the entire objective reality "out there." To enliven in the back of our mind the (mysterious) "amount that goes undetected in our lives" can be an ispiring experience. Because, in the words of Eagleman,
It neatly captures the idea of limited knowledge, of unobtainable information, and of unimagined possibilities. Consider the criticisms of policy, the assertions of dogma, the declarations of fact that you hear every day — and just imagine if all of these could be infused with the proper intellectual humility that comes from appreciating the amount unseen.
Art, Content, and Over-interpretation
Published on Thursday 16 february 2012 • Post by Mariano Tomatis • Permalink
What is the relationship between Art and Content? Banksy wrote that
Artwork that is only about wanting to be famous will never make you famous. Any fame is a by-product of making something that means something. (1)
At the same time, too much "content" produces Didascalism, not Art. During an interview, Willem De Kooning (1904-1997) defined "content" in a subtle way:
Content is a glimpse of something, an encounter like a flash. It’s very tiny - very tiny, content. (2)
This is the core of the minimalistic approach to Art (and - why not? - to nonfiction). I met De Kooning's quotation this morning, when my friend Diego Cuoghi - an Italian expert in the history of Art - turned my attention to the clever analysis of Susan Sontag (1933-2004) "Against Interpretation" (1964), a issue raised in my recent short film "A Neglected Shadow".
De Kooning's concept was chosen by Susan Sontag to open her article, dedicated to the paranoid search of a "content" in the classic art - based on the modern assumption that a work of art by definition says something.
None of us can ever retrieve that innocence before all theory when art knew no need to justify itself, when one did not ask of a work of art what it said because one knew (or thought one knew) what it did. [...] In most modern instances, interpretation amounts to the philistine refusal to leave the work of art alone. Real art has the capacity to make us nervous. By reducing the work of art to its content and then interpreting that, one tames the work of art. Interpretation makes art manageable, comformable.
Her conclusions are worth a reflection:
Transparence is the highest, most liberating value in art - and in criticism - today. Transparence means experiencing the luminousness of the thing in itself, of things being what they are. [...] Once upon a time (say, for Dante), it must have been a revolutionary and creative move to design works of art so that they might be experienced on several levels. Now it is not. It reinforces the principle of redundancy that is the principal affliction of modern life. Once upon a time (a time when high art was scarce), it must have been a revolutionary and creative move to interpret works of art. Now it is not.
The information overload fueled by Internet is a context which Sontag seems to have foreseen:
Think of the sheer multiplication of works of art available to every one of us, superadded to the conflicting tastes and odors and sights of the urban environment that bombard our senses. Ours is a culture based on excess, on overproduction; the result is a steady loss of sharpness in our sensory experience. All the conditions of modern life - its material plenitude, its sheer crowdedness - conjoin to dull our sensory faculties. And it is in the light of the condition of our senses, our capacities (rather than those of another age), that the task of the critic must be assessed. What is important now is to recover our senses. We must learn to see more, to hear more, to feel more.
Her conclusions are challenging:
Our task is not to find the maximum amount of content in a work of art, much less to squeeze more content out of the work than is already there. Our task is to cut back content so that we can see the thing at all.
A concept wonderfully summarized in her last sentence.
In place of a hermeneutics we need an erotics of art. (3)
(1) Banksy, Wall and Piece, Century 2006.
(2) Willem de Kooning: The North Atlantic Light, 1960-1983, Museum of Modern Art, Stockholm, 1983. Interviews with Harold Rosenberg and David Sylvester.
(3) Susan Sontag, "Against Interpretation", 1964 (read it here).
The world is astonishing
Published on Thursday 2 february 2012 • Post by Mariano Tomatis • Permalink
On the occasion of the death of Wislawa Szymborska (1923-2012) here is an excerpt from her Nobel Lecture (1996). The Polish poet addresses the issue of Wonder, challenging the cynical biblical lament, "There is nothing new under the sun."
I sometimes dream of situations that can’t possibly come true. I audaciously imagine, for example, that I get a chance to chat with the Ecclesiastes, the author of that moving lament on the vanity of all human endeavors. I would bow very deeply before him, because he is, after all, one of the greatest poets, for me at least. That done, I would grab his hand. «‘There’s nothing new under the sun’: that’s what you wrote, Ecclesiastes. But you yourself were born new under the sun. And the poem you created is also new under the sun, since no one wrote it down before you. And all your readers are also new under the sun, since those who lived before you couldn’t read your poem. And that cypress that you’re sitting under hasn’t been growing since the dawn of time. It came into being by way of another cypress similar to yours, but not exactly the same. And Ecclesiastes, I’d also like to ask you what new thing under the sun you’re planning to work on now? A further supplement to the thoughts you’ve already expressed? Or maybe you’re tempted to contradict some of them now? In your earlier work you mentioned joy - so what if it’s fleeting? So maybe your new-under-the-sun poem will be about joy? Have you taken notes yet, do you have drafts? I doubt you’ll say, ‘I’ve written everything down, I’ve got nothing left to add.’ There’s no poet in the world who can say this, least of all a great poet like yourself.»
The world - whatever we might think when terrified by its vastness and our own impotence, or embittered by its indifference to individual suffering, [...] whatever we might think of its expanses pierced by the rays of stars surrounded by planets we’ve just begun to discover, [...] whatever we might think of this measureless theater to which we’ve got reserved tickets, but tickets whose lifespan is laughably short, bounded as it is by two arbitrary dates; whatever else we might think of this world - it is astonishing. [...]
We’re astonished, after all, by things that deviate from some well-known and universally acknowledged norm, from an obviousness we’ve grown accustomed to. Now the point is, there is no such obvious world. Our astonishment exists per se and isn’t based on comparison with something else. (1)