Art Vent

Letting the Fresh Air In

Brain research

Art Vent Letting the Fresh Air In

September 26, 2009
Jasper Johns, The Critic Sees, 1961

As I’ve boasted elsewhere on this blog, that despite being a certain age, I have nearly perfect vision, distant and near, and don’t require glasses even to read a telephone book (not that anyone uses them anymore). But I noticed changes in my focusing ability in the last couple of years, so took myself to a behavioral optometrist in Northampton who pronounced my eyes healthy and my vision good except for a “convergence problem.” When I told her I didn’t believe in glasses she said was not against them entirely and there were situations where they could be helpful, but mine was not one of them and in fact glasses would make the condition worse.

The upshot was that I had an hour-long test on Thursday and, in addition to doing 15-20 minutes of daily exercises on my own, for the next six months will be driving to Northampton once a week for vision therapy. What’s interesting about the test was that it didn’t seem to have as much to do with the eyes as the brain. It was all about perception (“look at this image and tell me which of the images below matches it”) and visual memory (“look at this image for 5 seconds and after I take it away tell me which one it matches”) and reading comprehension.

The last reading comprehension test I took was in high school, where I excelled at being an “under-achiever” in the parlance of the day. In an effort to get at the root of the problem (nobody figured out that I just wasn’t interested) I was given a reading comprehension test on which I scored 100%, but because they didn’t know what else to do with me I was put in remedial reading class anyway—after which (surprise!) I again scored 100%.

This time my score was 80% and when I was taking this and the other tests (which I would have assumed, being an artist, I’d be better at than most—and might be for all I know; Michelle, the therapist was supremely noncommittal) I could almost feel parts of my brain being grouchily awakened, as if from deep sleep. It was actually uncomfortable, not fun at all, and in order to prepare for the hour-plus drive back I took a therapeutic walk—to the candy store for a dark chocolate pecan turtle.

My chiropractor is enthusiastic, saying that the therapy will forge new brain pathways and even cause me to use my body better—“It’s all related,” he says. Even so, I’m not sure I’d make this commitment were I not an artist, and if I hadn’t recently been reading about the brain and the importance of exposing it to non-habitual activity.

To that end I’ve also resolved to use the hour each way in the car to study French. I originally learned it as an adult (for three years at The New School with Huguette Martel, an inspired teacher of subtle humor who has also done cartoons for The New Yorker) and was appalled to find, on my last trip to Paris, that only the nouns were left.

However for me to stay interested there has to be an aesthetic component—I can’t imagine anything more tedious than driving back and forth to Northampton repeating phrases like "Où se trouvent les toilettes s'il vous plaît ?" –so I’ve decided to memorize French poems from podcasts by a woman named Camille Chevalier, who makes even the depressing and pedantic 19th century poem El Desdichado by Gérard de Nerval sound musical and uplifting. After a few trips I may not be able to locate the bathroom but I’ll be smarter and able to explain to anyone who asks that “Ma seule étoile est morte, et mon luth constellé porte le soleil noir de la Mélancolie” (My only star is dead, and my starry lute bears the black sun of melancholy).
April 14, 2009

‘tis in ourselves that we are thus
or thus. Our bodies are our gardens, to the which
our wills are gardeners: so that if we will plant
nettles, or sow lettuce, set hyssop and weed up
thyme, supply it with one gender of herbs, or
distract it with many, either to have it sterile
with idleness, or manured with industry, why, the
power and corrigible authority of this lies in ourwills.

(Shakespeare, Othello, Act 1, Scene 3)

Mind is the wielder of muscles. The force of a hammer blow depends on the energy applied; the power expressed by a man’s bodily instrument depends on his aggressive will and courage. The body is literally manufactured and sustained by the mind. Through pressure of instincts from past lives, strengths or weaknesses percolate gradually into human consciousness. They express as habits, which in turn manifest as a desirable or an undesirable body. Outward frailty has a mental origin; in a vicious cycle, the habit-bound body thwarts the mind. If the master allows himself to be commanded by a servant, the latter becomes autocratic; the mind is similarly enslaved by submitting to bodily dictation.

Paramahansa Yogananda, Autobiography of a Yogi, 1946.

So reading about the brain and how thoughts and experience can change its physical configuration (neuroplasticity), I wonder why stop with the brain? If the brain can change, why not the rest of the body?

I have not forgotten a long article I read in The New York Times more than ten years ago (now finally available through the miracle of online archiving), which describes how a person diagnosed with multiple personality disorder may have actual physical characteristics that come and go, depending on which personality is dominant:


For more than a century clinicians have occasionally reported isolated cases of dramatic biological changes in people with multiple personalities as they switched from one to another. These include the abrupt appearance and disappearance of rashes, welts, scars and other tissue wounds; switches in handwriting and handedness; epilepsy, allergies and color blindness that strike only when a given personality is in control of the body.


Today, using refined research techniques, scientists are bringing greater rigor to the study of multiple personalities and focusing on a search for the mechanisms that produce the varying physiological differences in each personality.


One of the problems for psychiatrists trying to treat patients with multiple personalities is that, depending which personality is in control, a patient can have drastically different reactions to a given psychiatric medication. For instance, it is almost always the case that one or several of the personalities of a given patient will be that of a child. And the differences in responses to drugs among the sub-personalities often parallel those ordinarily found when the same drug at the same dose is given to a child, rather than an adult.


[Also] …observation of vision differences…made by those treating multiple-personality cases. ''Many patients have told me they have a drawer full of eyeglasses at home, and they never are quite sure which to bring when they go out''….


Now what I need is to develop a personality that doesn't have spring allergies.

March 30, 2009

Along with enjoying the English spring and the company of 21-month-old Nya, formerly known as the Upholstery Eater, who says "Good morning, Carol!" when I come down for breakfast, "Bless you" when anyone sneezes, and occasionally "Blimey!" I'm reading another book about the brain, this time, Change Your Brain, Change Your Life by Daniel G. Amen, M.D. So far I've learned that witzelsucht is "a term in the psychiatric literature that characterizes 'an addiction to making bad jokes'" and that my pathological aversion to paperwork could indicate an imbalance in my prefrontal cortex. Amen's prescription? Hire someone else to do it.
March 24, 2009
Yarek Wazul for The New York Times

I’m off to England again, and may or may not post until I come back the first week in April, so thought I’d leave you with something to read: The Brain That Changes Itself: Stories of Personal Triumph from the Frontiers of Brain Science by Norman Doidge, MD, about how our thoughts and experiences form the actual physical structure of our brains. There are myriad new ideas to ponder in this book, including how to keep our brains functioning into old age. I always thought I was safe because I use my brain so much, but it turns out it isn’t how much you use your brain, but how much you use it in new ways that keeps it young (good news for polymaths, formerly known as dilettantes). The older we get and the better we get at what we do, the narrower we become. Doidge suggests learning a new language to keep the mind alert, but I’ll just relearn the old one—French—which I learned as an adult and found, the last time I tried to use it, that it had dissipated to the point that only the nouns were left. Inspired by the book I’ve also started playing the piano again, learning a new, difficult piece and memorizing it (my piano teacher used to say that a piece wasn’t “mine” until it was memorized, and I feel that way about poetry, too—just ask me, the next time you see me, to recite Lewis Carroll’s Jabberwocky).

Memorization, it turns out, exercises the brain in important ways. Doidge writes:

…for hundreds of years educators did seem to sense that children’s brains had to be built up through exercises of increasing difficulty that strengthened brain functions. Up through the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries a classical education often included rote memorization of long poems in foreign languages, which strengthened the auditory memory (hence thinking in language) and an almost fanatical attention to handwriting, which probably helped strengthen motor capacities and this not only helped handwriting but added speed and fluency to reading and speaking. Often a great deal of attention was paid to elocution and to perfecting the pronunciation of words. Then in the 1960s educators dropped such traditional exercises from the curriculum because they were too rigid, boring, and “not relevant.” But the loss of these drills has been costly; they may have been the only opportunity that many students had to systematically exercise the brain function that gives us fluency and grace with symbols. For the rest of us, their disappearance may have contributed to the general decline of eloquence, which requires memory and a level of auditory brain power unfamiliar to us now.

There’s much more in the book to challenge contemporary assumptions about how we use our brains—but for now I’m just happy to remember where I put my passport.

May 20, 2008
I’m citing this article from today's NY Times, Older Brain Really May Be a Wiser Brain because I like the image, above, by Yarek Waszul, and also it confirms, as I always suspected, that the reason we can’t immediately bring a fact or name to mind as we grow older, is because there’s just so much in there. This is because, the article says, with age we develop a gradual widening of attention, an ability to take in more of the information available to us, and therefore may be distracted by seemingly extraneous points a younger person might overlook.

"Such tendencies can yield big advantages in the real world, where it's not always clear what information is important, or will become important."
“It may be that distractibility is not a bad thing,” said Shelley H. Carson, a psychology researcher at Harvard, whose work was cited in the book (Progress in Brain Research), “It may increase the amount of information available to the conscious mind.”
The article also suggests that creative people exhibit this wide attention span throughout their lives, and that a “reduced ability to filter and set priorities…could contribute to original thinking.”

This explains why, in seventh grade, I was never able to get over Mrs. Kluver’s coiled, movie queen hair and bulbous high-healed shoes to actually concentrate on what she was saying. Obviously I knew what was important even then.