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The human brain is on the edge of chaos

A human brain.

“Cambridge-based researchers provide new evidence that the human brain lives “on the edge of chaos”, at a critical transition point between randomness and order. The study, published March 20 in the open-access journal PLoS Computational Biology, provides experimental data on an idea previously fraught with theoretical speculation.

Self-organized criticality (where systems spontaneously organize themselves to operate at a critical point between order and randomness), can emerge from complex interactions in many different physical systems, including avalanches, forest fires, earthquakes, and heartbeat rhythms.

According to this study, conducted by a team from the University of Cambridge, the Medical Research Council Cognition & Brain Sciences Unit, and the GlaxoSmithKline Clinical Unit Cambridge, the dynamics of human brain networks have something important in common with some superficially very different systems in nature. Computational networks showing these characteristics have also been shown to have optimal memory (data storage) and information-processing capacity. In particular, critical systems are able to respond very rapidly and extensively to minor changes in their inputs.” via PhysOrg.

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In One Ear and Out the Other

Cover of "Laughter: A Scientific Investig...

Thank heavens someone is thinking about one of the most troublesome experiences I have — my inability to remember a joke I have heard, no matter how funny and no matter how determined I am to retain it to share with others later.

“Really great jokes… work not by conforming to pattern recognition routines but by subverting them. “Jokes work because they deal with the unexpected, starting in one direction and then veering off into another,” said Robert Provine, a professor of psychology at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, and the author of Laughter: A Scientific Investigation. “What makes a joke successful are the same properties that can make it difficult to remember.”

This may also explain why the jokes we tend to remember are often the most clichéd ones. A mother-in-law joke? Yes, I have the slot ready and labeled.

Memory researchers suggest additional reasons that great jokes may elude common capture. Daniel L. Schacter, a professor of psychology at Harvard and the author of The Seven Sins of Memory, says there is a big difference between verbatim recall of all the details of an event and gist recall of its general meaning.

“We humans are pretty good at gist recall but have difficulty with being exact,” he said. Though anecdotes can be told in broad outline, jokes live or die by nuance, precision and timing. And while emotional arousal normally enhances memory, it ends up further eroding your attention to that one killer frill. “Emotionally arousing material calls your attention to a central object,” Dr. Schacter said, “but it can make it difficult to remember peripheral details.” via NYTimes.

This may be a special case of something over which I have more generally puzzled — what is the difference between those raconteurs, who always seem to have a moving story or stories (funny or dreadful) to tell on any occasion, and others who are at a loss for words in social settings. I’m not talking about people who are shy or painfully inhibited so much as those who seem to have the material and those who don’t.

Is there that much of a difference in the content of people’s lives? Is it something about how observant they are? Or, again, something about memory function? I am fascinated by storytelling (for instance, I love the Moth podcast) and have always been intrigued by advertisements about storytelling workshops promising to develop attendees’ skills.

To some extent, there is a cultural influence as well. I suspect storytelling is a dying art, along with letter-writing and reading fiction, a way we used to interact and divert ourselves which is progressively and inexorably being supplanted in modernity. But there are still enough good conversationalists around to astound me.

Of course, other people may find it far easier than I do to talk about what happened to them during their workday, one of the important sources of our stories. As a therapist, I am privileged to hear in detail about a broad range of the lives of others, but all of what I am told, I am told in confidence. Perhaps I gravitated toward psychotherapy because I sensed myself to be a far better listener to the stories of others than I am a storyteller myself. In fact, some construe the work of psychotherapy as training our clients to become better storytellers about their own lives, as largely a matter of imposing coherence and pattern on their recollections and observations about themselves, making better sense of their lives, consequently appreciating and tolerating the humor and the pathos in their lives better, and developing an empathic connection to the life stories of those around them.

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The Loon — James Tate


A loon woke me this morning. It was like waking up

in another world. I had no idea what was expected of me.

I waited for instructions. Someone called and asked me

if I wanted a free trip to Florida. I said, “Sure. Can

I go today?” A man in a uniform picked me up in a limousine,

and the next thing I know I’m being chased by an alligator

across a parking lot. A crowd gathers and cheers me on.

Of course, none of this really happened. I’m still sleeping.

I don’t want to go to work. I want to know what the loon is

saying. It sounds like ecstasy tinged with unfathomable

terror. One thing is certain: at least they are not speaking

of tax shelters. The phone rings. It’s my boss. She says,

“Where are you?” I say, “I don’t know. I don’t recognize

my surroundings. I think I’ve been kidnapped. If they make

demands of you, don’t give in. That’s my professional advice.”

Just then, the loon let out a tremendous looping, soaring,

swirling, quadruple whoop. “My god, are you alright?” my

boss said. “In case we do not meet again, I want you to know

that I’ve always loved you, Agnes,” I said. “What?” she said.

“What are you saying?” “Good-bye, my darling. Try to remember me

as your ever loyal servant,” I said. “Did you say you loved

me?” she said. I said, “Yes,” and hung up. I tried

to go back to sleep, but the idea of being kidnapped had me

quite worked up. I looked in the mirror for signs of torture.

Every time the loon cried, I screamed and contorted my face

in agony. They were going to cut off my head and place it on

a stake. I overheard them talking. They seemed like very

reasonable men, even, one might say, likeable.

“The Loon” by James Tate from Return to the City of White Donkeys. © Ecco Press, 2004. via a blind flaneur.

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R.I.P. Sal Salasin

And am pleased to inhabit the earth with this species. Goodbye and God bless you all. More of the evil work of Denise and her evil twin Denise, bleeding through my dreams. Man is the only animal that builds jails. He can also eat peanuts and chew tobacco. Let's go back to the phones where we'll discuss idempotent transactions in just a moment. Well, yes, I'm sorry I did the best I could which was obviously inadequate.

Fate and too many painkillers.

Recently I had the pleasure of driving alone in an American car on American roads listening to American radio from Perth Amboy to Seattle. And this had its rewards although it didn't do the planet any good.

And if it makes you feel any better, I didn't use my tongue. I'm also extremely good at removing the lint after each use and believe I should get some credit for that. “By the light of a thousand suns, I am become death.” I'd sympathize but all in all, I'd rather talk about me. Just get my butt back safe from the K-Mart and I'm yours forever.

via RealPolitik.