Inform the metronome: A prisoner has flown

On December 1st, 2013, some concoction of nature, humanity, or both, was seen galavanting across the northern sky and spiralled out of control, careening down onto our heads. Reports of ear-witness accounts implicated some manifestation of a blue police box, a hollywood celebrity or religious saint, a tiny dragon, a tick-ticking clock, an unrequited love, and an enourmous pair of rainboots falling through an aurora borealis. As the panoply of conflicting testimony was unsatisfactory, we were compelled to investigated further.

This reporter was on the scene, burrowing deep into the inner voices and neurons of the newly silent, humbled audience. With unyielding journalistic prowess I was able to divulge what mouths wouldn’t speak, what voices could not inflect. I heard whispers on the surface of the mind, utterances of soul and wisdom. Some said –

I know I am too weak for my ambitions
I know I’ve faced these demons down before
But some amnesia keeps me on a mission
Some inner lunatic I still have not learned to ignore

The words took the path of least resistance and sprang between those around me as well as those farther away. Together, we laughed and we cried and we laughed again, clockwise and counter. We turned and turned, our glowing boxes illuminating soft light and darkening the sky. I lifted the glow in the direction which was at that moment still up and tried to capture the moment. But I couldn’t see, and I worried I was not up to the task. It wasn’t about the task, only the risk. I listened to the lightning overhead.

O turn me southbound to the sea, the paper and the pen and me
O cut the electricity, oh wheel Orion over me
Oh spin the stars and spun I’ll be
The paper and the pen and me

The sky and the earth wheeled over and under, trying to trade places or create new ones. The ground and the air shook, carbon and sulphur dioxide reverberating on all sides. As I felt myself fracturing into the crevasses, and the mood seemed altogether hopeless, just at that moment, further whispers rippled the surface –

But my hope is not light, it is not frail, it is the anchor anchor
My hope is not slight, it’s not the sail, it is the anchor, oh…  

I felt my sense of self flittering away as I joined the congealing mass of fellow and friend. Our individuality but a faint fuzzy memory, I allowed our heart into our eyes. I had wanted to resist, break away, and be re-formed molecule by molecule, valence by valence. I could hear the song.

And it’s the rocks that grind us down into the sea the sea the sea
It’s the rocks that grind us down into the sea

I didn’t resist any more. So together, we took our quarrel to ground, to pulpy white, ruled, sheets of paper. Our hands rode on a curved lexical road, swerving between jagged dialectical peaks. The keyboard artillery division was shell-less and out of ammo. Together we picked up a leather-bound door, held our nose high and jumped. That clock looked on, speaking nothing but tick tock tick, and gave no indication of stopping, but we paid it no mind. We set our eye on the task at hand. We opened that door and spread through all those other worlds, seeds to the wind, recalling and remembering what we will always know.

It’s easy to slip time into your pocket.


Sketchbook is a new album by Marian Call. You can listen to the entire album for free using the embedded player along the right column of this post, or you can follow the link at the bottom right of the player to bandcamp.
You can read Marian’s celebratory blog post about Sketchbook, which was released December 1st, 2013, and discover other amazing things on her website.

Disclaimer: This is not a review.


On My Mind – An Interview

I recently presented a poster at the annual Neuroscience conference in San Diego, California. Over 30,000 fabulous people were in attendance. While I was there I was interviewed by On Your Mind, an engaging weekly neuroscience podcast. The interview was afflicted by some slight sound troubles (and I’m distracted easily), but I think it turned out well. If you’re interested have a listen —

On Your Mind: SFN – U.S.A.

For the lazy: My interview is between 24:33 and 35:35, but I highly suggest you listen to the whole episode.


I spoke in my last post about one of the most curious and remarkable associative memories of human history. S.’s vivid synesthesia bombarded him with unavoidable images and overwhelming sensations when confronted with words. Even for us, it’s not difficult to see what profound connections exist between our language and our mental imagery. What connections do we subconsciously make when we see images, and how much control over them do we really have?

The Art of Forgetting

I’d like you to humour me for a moment. I’d like you to read through the short series of numbers on the next line. Take a few seconds with each number, and try to memorize the series. When you are finished, continue reading.

7 2 4 2 9 8 4 6 2 3


Somewhere in or around ancient Greece or Egypt, depending on whom you ask, the upstanding intellectuals of the day gathered in their hovels and their hideaways to formulate and practice the ars memoriae – the art of memory. The ancient form of the art of memory was deeply steeped in art. It infused techniques of recall and thought organization with the study of architecture, books, sculpture, and painting. Pupils learned techniques for combining ideas with vivid images and organizing their thought in meaningful ways. Sculptures were seen as external forms of internal images, emotions, and organization. Their goals extended beyond simple increases in recall of facts, but were meant to enhance capabilities of insight and inventiveness. Since 1991, we’ve taken part in other forms of memory arts. The World Memory Championships tests the limits of human competitive memory by demanding herculean feats of recall from its participants. The art of memory is still alive and well, yet our relationship with it has changed drastically in the last hundred years.

Alexander Romanovich Luria was a pivotal Soviet neuropsychologist whose writings, particularly his case study, “The Mind of a Mnemonist,” birthed and formed a new kind of genre in writing. Luria himself liked to call it “romantic science.” Luria perceived his patients differently than many of his colleagues. He resisted quantification and simplification of individuals. In the light of his thinking, patients were transformed from abnormalities of medical science to heroes of the human condition. To him they were people, and their struggle with living embodied our plight as a society to tackle with illness and questions of humanity. He inspired a new kind of thinking in future writers to come, in no small part Oliver Sacks, someone who represents a pervasive genius of our time.

One concept that Luria struggled with in psychology was the shift he was observing from detailed observational accounts to abstract analysis of data. With the advent of computers dawning upon humanity he found that “… the reality of human conscious activity was being replaced by mechanical models.” The foreshadowing here is not lost on me, as most of my own work involves number crunching and a hefty reliance on mathematical models. The danger of abstraction without context is the potential meandering away from the reality we are trying to study. We become prone to a sweeping confirmation bias, and we become blind to the details of our present reality in favour of some alternate one. There existed one man for which any traditional concept of simplification, abstraction, or mechanical modeling utterly broke down. His experience of reality and his memory was so peculiar that he completely changed the way we think and deliberate about memory and subjective reality. Luria refers to him simply as S., but there is nothing simple about him.


Luria’s first encounter with S. took place in the 1920’s in Russia. At the time, S. was just under thirty and working as a reporter. He was raised in a conventional Jewish household and had come to Luria at the behest of his editor, but was completely clueless as to why he was being sent to a psychologist. The editor began each morning at the newspaper office with a long list of specific tasks he wanted completed that day. The editor was taken aback when S. never wrote any of it down, despite the fact that S. was a competent, although not gifted reporter. Upon confronting S., the editor realized that indeed S. was able to perfectly reproduce the instructions from memory.

As was naturally his job in this situation, Luria began to test S.’s memory. The result of the initial meeting was enough to completely and utterly embarrass and perplex Luria, without raising an eyebrow from his subject. Luria began by asking S. to memorize series of words or numbers: Ten numbers, 30 numbers, 50 numbers, 100 numbers. It didn’t seem to matter. Whether it was words, numbers, nonsense syllables, sounds, spoken or written, if S. was given a few seconds with each element, he could immediately reproduce the entire series, forward or backwards or in pieces, without a single error. In Luria’s own words regarding his job as a psychologist, “… [I] had been unable to perform what one would think was the simplest task a psychologist can do: measure the capacity of an individual’s memory.” He had to admit that S.’s memory appeared to have no distinct limits. It was simply something unquantifiable. Even more surprising, when prompted without prior notification, S. was later able to reproduce any of the series’ he had learned 15 years prior at a moment’s notice. It appeared that the durability of his memory was also limitless. Luria had to simply relinquish any attempt to quantify this man’s memory, and instead focus on the “psychological aspects of its structure,” a line of research that lasted for decades.


One of the most important aspects of S.’s memory to keep in mind is that, at least when he started meeting with Luria, he did not actively memorize anything he was given. He merely contemplated the elements of a list, image, or series, and then was able to read them off as if he was staring at a piece of paper. He could reproduce a series in any order by simply attending to another point on the page. How was he able to do this, and without error? By asking S. himself, it was found that he was not simply registering visual imprints of the information he was being fed, he had synesthesia.

Presented with a tone pitched at 2,000 cycles per second and having an amplitude of 113 decibels, S. said: ‘It looks something like fireworks tinged with a pink-red hue. The strip of color feels rough and unpleasant, and it has an ugly taste – rather like that of a briny pickle … You could hurt your hand on this.’

If you’re anything like me you can see from this short passage that S.’s experience of the world differed drastically from what anyone would consider normal. The borders between his senses seemed to be very undefined. For him, every letter, every word, every sound, had an entire experience associated with it. When listening to someone speak, he could not help but experience the lines, blurs, splashes, colours, tastes, or other sensations that would arise.

One of the techniques S. is most famous for is the “mental walk.” In remembering a long series he would often take a walk in his mind through a familiar setting such as the streets of Moscow, or rooms in his childhood house. Along this walk he would place the things he needed to remember. Since he could transform virtually any information into an image, this method worked for words as well as numbers or nonsense sounds.

Even numbers remind me of images. Take the number 1. This is a proud, well-built man; 2 is a high-spirited woman; 3 a gloomy person (why, I don’t know); 6 a man with a swollen foot; 7 a man with a mustache; 8 a very stout woman – a sack within a sack. As for number 87, what I see is a fat woman and a man twirling his mustache.
(September 1936)

We’ve already established that these images, which were conjured in S.’s mind, persisted for decades after they had been formed. After asking again and again, ‘what can he remember?,’ and realizing that it is not a lucrative line of inquiry, we should instead ask, ‘what can he forget?’ S. would occasionally omit elements of a series, as you would expect of someone who was losing some details. However, S. almost never reproduced material inaccurately. That is, he rarely produced an answer that was not part of the original series, such as a synonym of an included word injected in order to maintain the meaning of the series. He describes his experience of accidental omission:

I put the image of the pencil near a fence … the one down the street, you know. But what happened was that the image fused with that of the fence and I walked right on past without noticing it. The same thing happened with the word egg. I had put it up against a white wall and it blended in with the background. How could I possibly spot a white egg up against a white wall?”
(December 1932)

If he had placed an object in a dark alley, or against a background of similar colour, he may pass them by on his mental walk without noticing them. These were not errors of memory at all, but errors that can only be explained in the framework of perception using factors such as clarity, contrast, the isolation of figure from background, and available lighting. Furthermore, why was his memory never distorted, even over many years? The explanation for this lies in his synesthesia. Anything S. would have to remember came with a vivid experience of images, tastes, or sensations. This allowed him to have redundant information available. In the case that one part of his memory had been recorded incorrectly, the other senses would not match-up, and he would be aware of an inconsistency.

After floundering for many years through various jobs, S. became a professional mnemonist, giving many shows each day where he would perform fantastic feats of memory. This occupation forced him to develop more concrete strategies to simplify and improve his memory. Some of them involved developing abbreviated or condensed images so that he could put himself in a situation without having to go through the trouble of conjuring every detail at once. Some were, from his perspective, painfully simple.

… I see to it that the place is lit up by having a street lamp nearby … I don’t put things in dark passageways any more … Much better if there’s some light around, it’s easier to spot then.
(June 1935)


Did S.’s endless memory cause him to get confused? During his time as a professional mnemonist, giving many performances every day, he was tormented by his memory. He simply could not wipe out the memories of a previous performance even though he knew they were no longer necessary. The images of old performances would arise, especially if something he was being asked to memorize was similar to something he had memorized before, and the two series would get blurred together. He tried all kinds of techniques to solve this problem. At first he would just mentally cover up a no longer needed blackboard of information with a thick canvas, so that he could not see through the fabric. Later he attempted to write things down on paper, signally to his mind that he no longer needed them. However, even if he ensured that the paper and pencil he was using was as identical as possible each time, he would still remember the details as he had written them down. He even went so far as to burn these pieces of paper, a physical manifestation of his willingness to be rid of the information, but he found that he could still see the letters and numbers in the burned ashes of the papers. He was eventually able to develop techniques to combat this, but unlike you or I, the effort we dedicate to remembering he was forced to dedicate to forgetting.


We could speak endlessly about S.’s amazing memory, but the more I hear about his abilities, the more I have to wonder, is his subjective experience of the world anything like mine? In the Nagel-esque sense of ‘what is it like to be a bat?’ What is it like to be S.? To put it another way, here’s what went through S.’s own mind when he was trying to imagine what someone else might be feeling.

… I was ten or eleven years old and was rocking my sister to sleep. Since there were a lot of children in our family, I, being second from the oldest, often had to rock the younger ones to sleep … I had already sung all the songs I knew. (I had to sing in a loud voice, since it has to be foggy if one’s going to fall asleep.) But why was she taking so long to fall asleep? I closed my eyes and tried to sense why it was she couldn’t fall asleep. Finally I guessed the reason … Perhaps it was also because of a zhuk?” (a word he used to mean many things) “So I got a towel, put it over her eyes … and she fell asleep.
(September 1934)

It’s obvious from this passage that S. could not readily understand why his sister could not fall asleep. The way we perceive the experiences of others is an extension of how we experience the world ourselves. For S., this means that taking on the perspectives of other people could be extremely difficult. Even knowing that his own reality was different than that of other people’s, he could not help but extend his reality to encompass the world around him.

… I’m sitting in a restaurant – there’s music. You know why they have music in restaurants? Because it changes the taste of everything. If you select the right kind of music, everything tastes good. Surely people who work in restaurants know this…
(May 1939)

What difficulty his experiences must have caused him. Take the case of words or names. If I remind you that the words ‘pine,’ ‘fir,’ and ‘birch’ all refer to kinds of trees, this seems completely trivial. Yet, S. had difficulty with such categorizations when the images and sensations evoked by the word did not match what the word was supposed to mean. We generally take for granted that words with completely different appearances and sounds can represent the same thing, or that the same word in a different context can assume a different meaning. These kinds of abstractions were extremely difficult for S., and it made reading passages quite time consuming, since he had to suppress his own mental images and allow the text to lead his thoughts. For example, the names Masha, Marusya, and Mary are all variants on the name Mariya, and could of course be different names for the same person. To S. this was almost impossible. The images conjured by each name were so different, he could not conceive that they could be referring to one person. For him, the expressive power of the individual letters and syllables of words were too intense.

Figurative thinking is completely natural for an adult. It might be said that all poetry relies on a kind of figurative thinking. One might intuitively think that well written poetry attempts to create a vivid graphic image in the mind of the reader, but this is not so. Essential to poetry are the ideas evoked by the description. The images themselves serve as a means to dig up ideas and to reveal the intent of the poem. Of all kinds of writing, S. found poetry and non-literal figurative expressions the most difficult.

… And take the expression to weigh one’s words. Now how can you weigh words? When I hear the word weigh, I see a large scale – like the one we had in Rezhitsa in our shop, where they put bread on one side and a weight on the other. The arrow shifts to one side, then stops in the middle … But what do you have here – to weigh one’s words!
(May 1934)

With reference to the lines of a poem by N. Tikhonov:

Sunset rumbled – that’s impossible. A sunset is something idyllic … As for grass rocking, that’s not right. Little blades of grass don’t rock; a tree does. And so I saw sedge grass. But if the sunset is idyllic, what’s making the grass stir so that it rocks?
(March 1938)

Abstract concepts are not easy to understand by any means, since one cannot rely too heavily on visual imagery to understand them. Children often have difficulty with them. To S., if he could not see something, he simply could not understand it.

Infinity – that means what has always been. But what came before this? What is to follow? No, it’s impossible to see this … In order for me to grasp the meaning of a thing, I have to see it … Take the word nothing. I read it and thought it must be very profound. I thought it would be better to call nothing something … for I see this nothing and it is something … If I’m to understand any meaning that is fairly deep, I have to get an image of it right away.
(December 1935)

It is the way with abstract concepts that sometimes our intuition, the images which we summon in our minds, are the direct obstacles to our understanding of an idea. For S., these obstacles blurred the path to abstract understanding his entire life.


We are coming close to the end of our journey with S. and Luria. I could easily ramble on and on for many more pages without hesitation, but I will try to wrap up this adventure with what I find to be the most interesting and simultaneously disturbing of S.’s abilities.

This is the point where S.’s thoughts percolate into the realm of the magical. The imagination of S. was so vivid and rich that it had a kind of power over reality. Not the kind of power where he can control our thoughts or manipulate your actions, but the kind where he could trick his own body. At S.’s own request, one day the scientists sat him down, and checked his pulse. At rest it was around 70 beats per minute. They would then ask him, please speed up your pulse, and sure enough after only a slight pause, his pulse read 100 beats per minute. They said slow it down, and it was 65 beats per minute. How could this be? S. responds:

What do you find so strange about it? I simply see myself running after a train that has just begun to pull out. I have to catch up with the last car if I’m to make it. Is it any wonder then my heartbeat increases?
(June 1938)

His control over his own body did not end there. He could simultaneously lower the temperature of one hand while increasing the temperature of his other hand. He could adapt his eyes to different light levels under normal circumstances, he could simulate a cochlear-pupil reflex, and he could even suppress pain. S. said with regards to visiting the dentist:

… I’d sit in the chair but imagine it wasn’t really me but someone else. I, S., would merely stand by and observe “him” getting his teeth drilled. Let him feel the pain … It doesn’t hurt me, you understand, but “him.” I just don’t feel any pain.
(January 1935)

It is this point which is simultaneously awe inspiring and disturbing. To quote S., “To me there’s no great difference between the things I imagine and what exists in reality.” At times, he would believe that his own imagination could alter the world around him. If he imagined someone doing something, they often did it. In this world, he could imagine away illness and predict the future. On one level, he didn’t really believe that he had this power over reality, but on the other hand, there was always a grain of doubt in his mind, wondering what parts of his imagination could actually bleed over into reality.

This vague divide between imagination and reality caused S. great turmoil throughout his life, and he was never able to really feel connected with his existence. He felt as though he was waiting for something great to happen to him. He gave his thoughts to dreams and visions while he waited for his true life to emerge. He could shift aside his daily duties onto someone else in his mind, much as he could do to avoid pain, and allow this other person, this “him,” to enter our reality and go to school, to work, or to get married. As Luria pointed out, “Indeed, one would be hard put to say which was more real for him: the world of imagination in which he lived, or the world of reality in which he was but a temporary guest.”


There is something amazing that each and every one of us does every second of our lives, and it’s something that was very difficult for S. to do. When one thinks about the amount of sensory information flooding our nervous system, it is simply inconceivable for us to process it all. Yet, a second is a second and it is gone before you can tell the moment has passed. This is why the single most fantastical, incredible, and astonishing thing that healthy humans do every second is forgetting.

More than forgetting, we are attending, we are filtering. Our brain is a filter and these are some of its inputs:

The bits and bytes of reality trickle into the sensory cells in the layers of our skin, the corpuscles (Ruffini, Pacinian, Meissner, or otherwise), every flavour of nociceptive fiber and thermo-receptor. In our muscles the golgi tendon organs and muscle spindles. In our organs, vessels, veins, and capillaries our autonomic senses. In our eyes every cone and every rod and ganglion cell. In our ears every hair cell of our cochlea, vestibular apparatus, and saccule and utricle. In our mouths the buds of taste on our tongue and the smells in our noses synapsing on thousands of glomeruli. In our minds every experience we have ever had encoded in the connections and synapses of our brain.

Our brain is a filter and this is the output:

Actions. The realization of all our subterranean substrates, our thoughts, emotions, and memories.

We own the most complex filter in this world. It allows us to whittle down the world around us to the little island we call our own. It makes our world a manageable and tangible place, something that feels whole. And when it does not behave the way we are used to, our little island is engulfed in the overwhelming maelstrom of reality.


You may have guessed that there would be a test coming at the end. So, can you still remember the series of numbers you read at the beginning? Write them down, then go back up and check yourself. What do you feel or see when you try to remember?

Maybe you can you see the numbers in your mind. Maybe shapes or colours appear to you. Maybe you hear a sound in the distance.

Maybe you taste borscht.


As you may feel when confronted with your own mind’s limitations, we are quick to curse our memory when it fails. When we fail a test, when we’re learning a new language, when we forget to buy the milk, when we forget a face, or when we miss an appointment, we wish memories would come more easily. But we can remember something very valuable. We can remember that evolution has shaped us and molded our brains over generation after generation. We should remember that the impressionability we lose as we age is protecting us. It is cocooning us from the world of overwhelming sensation, the faulty synapse, the short-circuited wire. By filtering our world, we may come to action.

We should be conscious of the most basic and fantastical art we’ve been eagerly studying for millions of years,
the art of forgetting.


So, I woke up yesterday to the uncomfortable realization that there was no way I was going to finish any of my articles in time to post on Monday. Naturally, I resolved myself to rectify the situation in an unorthodox manner, so today we’re going to be doing something a little different. Hold on to your hats.

As I was drifting off to sleep the night before, I was listening to an episode of one of my favourite podcasts, Radiolab. One of the hosts (I’m not so sure about the other) was extremely enthusiastic about a band he had recently discovered, Dawn of Midi, a trio based in Brooklyn, and he proceeded to win over our allegiance and get us into the groove.

I was also ominously inspired by their music’s peculiar combination of tedium and trance. The speakers seeped technological blood with a human plasma. So, when I opened my eyes early Sunday morning and saw all around me the echoes of human civilization without any humans, who were all asleep or otherwise indisposed, I decided I was going to make a film. What you will find at the bottom of this page is a ‘music video’ of sorts I set to one of Dawn of Midi’s songs from their new album, Dysnomia. Here we go.

I awoke early Sunday morning to a world of suggestions

Suggestions of humanity lay on the ground
Ran through the pipes
Scraped the door handles
Were embedded in the walls
Lingered in the air

Yet I pushed forward
Extruding minutes and seconds into membranes of automotive propulsion
Stretching as in yawning
its atonal tentacles

I heard the narrative of life on the boombox
waxing and waning
Swerving and bending
Soliloquizing and proselytizing
to everyone and no one
It is mostly silent

In the beginning and in the end
A primordial soup of nitrogen and paint
These morph into our tones and our rhythm
The ghosts of our machine
Evident in our technological brethren and kin
Precipitating our drive and our fuel
A coffee
A light switch
A button
Turning us on to our day
Proposals of life

All I could see were suggestions

Inheriting the rhythm of life

In the dawn of midi

The song is “Moon” from the album Dysnomia by Dawn of Midi (Dysnomia is also the name of a real life moon). All rights, copyrights, and privileges remain with the original creators.
The above video was conceptualized, filmed, and edited on the day of October 20, 2013. All video was captured with an iPhone 4S using the built-in camera app. The film was cut in Adobe Premiere. No video effects were used.

Here’s the episode of Radiolab concerning Dawn of Midi.
Here’s their homepage where you can listen to and buy their fantastic music.

UPDATE: The video I created to go along this post was taken down from YouTube due to a copyright violation notice from a music conglomerate. I doubt the original creators of the music instigated the takedown, however, I will respect the copyright and not repost the video.

Coffee 2.0

If you’ve ever hearkened to the dulcet tones of percolating coffee, you’ve not only ingested caffeine, which pharmacologically increases attentiveness, you’ve unwittingly become part of the debate on cognitive enhancement (aka neuroenhancement, aka neurodoping). For clarity, I would like nothing more than to provide you with a definition of cognitive enhancement. Unfortunately, such a definition has remained as elusive as Bigfoot or the Loch Ness Monster (and no less controversial or mystical). To illustrate the convoluted nature of the issue, allow me to present one possible definition from someone I wouldn’t normally quote, Nick Bostrom:

Cognitive enhancement is the amplification or extension of core capacities of the mind through improvement or augmentation of internal or external information processing systems

He goes on to clarify what is meant by core capacities and processing systems. Even with that aside, we’ve raised a number of new questions with this statement. What ‘baseline’ level are we comparing to when we talk about enhancement? Do we need to define what it means to be normal or healthy first? And what in the world is the practical difference between amplification, extension, improvement, and augmentation?

There are also many potential avenues for cognitive enhancement to take place, all depending on one’s definition. Leaving aside the question of whether cellphones, personal computers, cars, household appliances, or other things of that ilk constitute a form of enhancement, let’s consider drugs as a gateway to enhancement for a healthy individual.

The World Health Organization defines health as,

… A state of complete physical, mental and social well-being and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity

Or maybe you prefer the classics? Nietzsche might say,

Health is that particular amount of illness in which I can continue to pursue my major interests.

(That is my bad translation. Apparently I opened a can of worms trying to find proof that this quote actually comes from Nietzsche, but I’d like to believe that it does). There’s quite a bit of wiggle room in both definitions, and I do not think either allows us to unambiguously develop social or medical policy (although Nietzsche’s does a pretty good job). This overwhelming issue induces in me a Gordian Knot of mental contusions. I do not possess Alexander the Great’s level of problem solving, so I will treat this thicket of questions as any responsible person would, by pushing it to the back of my mind for a while, and talking about something else.


I was shuttled off, in a chartered bus, with about 30 complete strangers. We barreled over the hills of southern Germany. We weaved through ten house villages, and around cliff-perched castles. Personally having no map on hand, and no strong mental representation of middle southern Germany, we might as well have been going to Narnia (side note: I thoroughly checked any wardrobes I came upon, but found no interdimensional portals of any kind). After some time, we arrived in an isolated, now defunct monastery. The grounds serve mostly as a quaint escape for group meetings. We were treated to the idyllic frills of an autumn weekend getaway, crisp and cool air, smooth stone floors, and the sounds of clacking plates throughout the halls. We were gathered together for four days, philosophers and neuroscientists alike, to discuss ‘neuroenhancement, what could we do and what ought we to do?’

We gathered in the early mornings, deep into our cups (coffee cups of course), to read, discuss, and debate. What are the conceptual and ethical differences between neurodoping and doping in sports, if any? What enhancement drugs are currently available and effective (apparently not many)? How does the concept of human nature fit into the enhancement debate? How do smart drugs affect the patient-doctor relationship? What is the government’s role in enhancement policy making?

Somewhere in between the question marks, I had a fantastic time.

We gathered in the evenings to drink the night away, being sure to sample every flavour of alcohol on hand. These are the people I got to know: They are kind and soft-spoken, quirky and loud-spoken, and wonderfully strange. Some read Hegel, and some like Nagel. They’re very punny, but not necessarily puny. They take the train four hours just to have a coffee with their favourite academics. They fail to turn down a great discussion, no matter how drunk or tired. They are interested and interesting. They are fiercely argumentative yet remarkably relaxed. They possess a form of authenticity that is grounding. I am referring, of course, to authenticity as a perceived quality of one’s character, not the term used in the discussion of neuroenhancement (the specific nature or usefulness of terms such as authenticity was a hotly discussed topic).

I’ll admit I came into this meeting having read only about half of the requisite reading, which I did frantically the day before in the train. I thought I would sit silently, skimming my papers and sipping my coffee, listening to professors and organizers direct the discussion on its pre-ordained path. That is not what happened. Instead, I was immensely impressed with the preparedness and passion of these people I had just met. They would not stop opening their mouths. They seeped endless propositions, formulations, and questions. The discussions veered and branched endlessly into subsets and subjugates of enormous questions (sometimes to a frustrating degree), but the passion was never left behind. Most importantly, I could not close my mouth either.

In these discussions, which stretched and grasped far beyond the boundaries of the conference room, I felt energetic and alive. In the moment, completely satisfied and contented. So, in the spirit of diverting enhancement back to the front of my mind, I ask a question.

Could some super drug replicate this feeling of vibrancy and effervescence that comes with genuinely being engaged and intellectually stimulated?


In a very amateur, self-centered sense, I am an expert philosopher. I am a champion of my first-person perspective, a literary hero of my own psyche. This may be a naïve simplification of academic philosophy, but at the very least it represents an authentic form of personal philosophy. In an idealized form, philosophy aspires to transcend any intrinsic forms of language or personification, yet language is inextricably essential to humanity. I do not believe philosophy, as a concept, can exist outside of human existence and perspective.

I’m rambling. All of this is to say that my particular brand of philosophy is not necessarily what a trained and brilliant philosopher enacts. Proceed with caution.

I enjoy being speculative, so I will make the statement that:

One could pharmacologically induce the feeling of fulfillment, liveliness, and purpose that comes with finding and participating in the activities that make us feel alive.

Using this drug I could lounge in my living room, atrophying my mind in solitude while all relevant neural circuits provide me with pharmacological bliss. Instilling the mental state, with all of its suspense and entrained memories, of the moment after the end of a symphony, last notes lingering in the air. Feel the accomplishment of rooting out an almost untraceable programming error, code compiling instantly. Or getting the spices in my pumpkin pie just right, the gratifying combination of sweetness and kick.


I think using it would be wholly psychologically damaging. It would be unapologetic and vile thievery. It would be downright neuronally, and practically, confusing. It would induce a sort of disease.

As I believe many a psychologist would agree, emotions are manifested as learned reactions to personal experiences. Sometimes evolution and genetics play a large role in this, but often they do not. If psychologists did not believe this they would not endeavour so voraciously to treat patients by building new, healthier emotional associations with our experiences. As Robert Nozick would argue, when we hook ourselves up to the Experience Machine, a simulator capable of providing us with any experience we desire, we deprive ourselves of grounded contact with the real world. One could attack the validity of the notion of a strictly ‘real world.’ Perhaps a better phrasing would be that of Schermer, that happiness is only true or meaningful if it is a meaningful reaction to one’s circumstances in the real world. This argument holds even if the real world is somehow replaced by a matrix-like reality.

To come back to my point, our evolution does tell us something; it tells us to use our experiences and our coding, our instinct and gut, to select our future actions. In a world where mental state and emotion does not coincide with experience, how can we ever select the appropriate actions? What fires together wires together. If drugs provide me with all the emotional diversity I need, how can I learn that any action other than popping pills is appropriate? This becomes even more poignant when considering the chemical dependence one can develop to certain pharmacological interventions. In many ways we struggle with this notion already in the treatment of depression, when learned, beneficial behaviour does not match up with our subjective experience. We try to correct this disconnect, but it is not an exact science.


All this discussion and debate and debunking which we took part in at this conference led to something else. It imbued within me the feeling of acceptance and understanding. One might jokingly point out that as adolescents we don’t want to be understood. In our teens, understanding is our greatest fear! Lest the world (or even worse, our parents) uncover our strange perversions and simple minded opinions. As Stephen Fry quips in his autobiography, “… no adolescent ever wants to be understood, which is why they complain about being misunderstood all the time…” This changes as we age. Now I want to be accepted, my perversions and fetishes and quirks inclusive. I open parts of myself to others, hoping they will take me in and reciprocate. I want to be questioned, but respected. To be among peers, colleagues, friends, and equals.

Most of us are not blessed with an over-abundance of trust in strangers, but in this safe environment of like-minded strangers that we experienced at this meeting, we opened up. I tested boundaries. I shared opinions on suicide, drug use, sexual preference, relationships, food, movies, books. No topic was too extreme or too mundane and banal. Whether it be discussion on quantum physics infused philosophy over breakfast, or flirting with the thought of a polyamorous relationship (I’ll leave the deconstruction of that statement as an exercise to the reader), we were constantly digging these canals to each other. Self-made routes of human connection.

Someone asked me if I thought this kind of no-holds-barred approach to openness and human intimacy we showed at the conference is a propensity held chiefly by academics. I do not think it is, but I think this analysis represents a subset of the truth. This curious blend of intimacy and friendly bonding is an established trait of actors and musicians. It extends naturally to academics. I’m not attempting to romanticize or aggrandize ‘academics,’ I think this is true of any activity that makes one feel alive. In those moments when one feels most one’s self, we reach out to the people around us to share in our good fortune. We bond with them. We hope they will be there in the future, in the hope that their presence may restore our – oh so sorely – sought after sense of self-fulfillment, which is often times tenuous.

Accepting all the risks of sounding pontifical and preachy, I say that even the act of this writing is a way of reaching out to those in my life who make me feel most myself, to connect with them momentarily. To them I am saying: you enrich my life. Stick around.

As to whether these super drugs or smart drugs will ever exist, look no further than your morning cup. We will always be looking for pharmacological solutions to societal problems. When these drugs do become available, I don’t know if I’ll be the first or the last to embrace my inevitable identity as Jonathan On Drugs. But, as this pharmaceutical rapture slouches towards us, waiting to be born, I accept the rabid excitements and crushing disappointments of life hand in hand. I carry on, content in the knowledge that because of the wonderful people and experiences I’m so fortunate to have, for today it’s enough just to be Jonathan.


It’s so sad, she thought. Soon he will die, and I will always be here.

As she was kneeling over it, she heard him shuffle loudly into the room. He thought he was being subtle and unobtrusive, but she could hear him long before he entered. He was a small man, although not without strength. He was wide where he should be thin, and thin where he should be wide. Scampering far ahead of his thoughts, she spoke first.

“It is an ocean. An ocean unlike any now in this world,” she said quietly so that he would shamble closer. He came to a stop, frozen by her right shoulder.

“It’s beautiful,” she heard him say as he scanned the multitude of thin, eerily blue swirling lines with his eyes. He would follow the flow of each line, entranced, trying to find its end. Failing to find one he would flick his eyes to another point and start all over again. He seemed to get stuck somewhere and his mouth hung ever so slightly open. He took a long breath in, focusing on the whole painting he parted his lips and spoke. “Does it have a name?”

“The ocean has a name, yes, but this name was never known to the ocean.” She looked sad to him.

“Of course. Well I mean… the painting. Does it have a name?” When he could see that she was not going to answer he stammered on. “What can you tell me about it?”

“It is a collection, a collection of lines on canvas.” She paused to lower her eyelids, an act taking much longer than one would expect. It was more than that. Although he was standing behind her, he had the distinct impression that her eyes had rolled and become fixated back into her head, into her mind. He could feel her gaze going onward through him and he wasn’t sure how to feel about it.

He could hear her begin to speak, but his ears seemed to sleep. “It is also a collection of memories. Between these lines lies our history, drowned in deep crevices of salt and rock. Antiquity engraved along the curves. A relic of fire and ice. I have seen it all. I have seen the mineral for the rock, the dirt for the soil, the water for the sea, the blade for the grass, the tree for the forest, and the man for the tribe.”

He could feel an unsettling knot of doubt bulge inside his chest, but he could not move or speak. He was frozen, but the room felt warm. She continued. “It is also a memory of the future, my prospective recollection. These arcs form our loop, our coil, our noose, our dreams and our salvation. I do not yet know where they go.”

For a time there was silence. His muscles relaxed and she woke all at once, taking in the exhaustion as she always did, waves pattering on her shore. “I’m tired. Take me back now,” she said. Her voice sounded much thinner to him, yet it filled the room.

He bent down to gently lifted her off the floor. As he did every joint creaked and every muscle groaned. He could have been standing for hours. She rose in complete silence, and he shuttled her out of the room by the shoulders.
Her arms were shaking.

Of course these were merely the tremors of an old, sick woman. Or perhaps, he had to wonder, were there vast tectonic plates moving in her mind. As if while recalling the vivid memory of some ancient earthquake, its dampened clashes of stone reverberated through time.

Meanwhile, the floor bled Silurian blue.

You can go see the Collection de l’art brut (outsider or raw art) in Lausanne, Switzerland.
It is home to as much as 60,000 works of art, created by 400 different artists.

The woman in the above text is Chiyuki Sakagami. She is billions of years old. Her painstakingly created art is displayed in the Collection de l’art brut. All dialogue is made up.

Conscious Mistakes

Not all mistakes are created equal.

As far as we are capable of making them, mistakes live in a kind of complex, multi-dimensional space. As much as I’d like to go on a nostalgic journey through my own mistake world, that would take far too long and probably wouldn’t mean so much to you. So, since the nature and perceived consequences of our mistakes varies so much from person to person, instead of describing to you the vast syntax and structure of my own personal mistake space, I’m just going to go ahead and give some illustrative examples (only some of which I have personally experienced).

Whacking a bee’s nest with a stick – mistake. Eating way too much pizza – delicious mistake. Putting your finger in a monkey’s mouth – stupid mistake. Asking a large woman when her baby is due – embarrassing mistake. Assuming you’re smarter than someone else – smug mistake. Forgetting a friend’s birthday – absentminded mistake. Invading Russia during the winter – deadly mistake. Pursuing a PhD in Neuroscience – we’ll talk about that another time. Forgetting your food in the oven – crispy mistake. Starting your own public blog on which you write about nothing in particular in the hope of improving your writing and communication skills and all around quality of life – …

Mistakes come in many flavours. Some of them are messy, some are dangerous, and many are even fun, but all of them teach us something important. I’d like to emphasize the last example I gave. I find it particularly intriguing because that is the main reason for this article today. We’re here to make conscious mistakes. Something which I think is very important.

From September 2005 to September 2006, Jonathan Coulton executed an ambitious project entitled “Thing a Week.” His goal was to release one song as part of a podcast every week for a year. These were his objectives:
(a) To push the artist’s creative envelope by adopting what Coulton describes as a “forced-march approach to writing and recording.”
(b) To prove to himself that he was capable of producing creative output to a deadline.
(c) To test the viability of the internet and Creative Commons as a platform capable of supporting a professional artist financially.

I won’t get into the details, but on all fronts he was wildly successful.

He was, however, very careful with his language. He didn’t call it ‘Brand-Spanking-New Song a Week,’ or ‘Power Ballad a Week.’ He stuck to the ambiguous ‘Thing a Week,’ allowing him enough wiggle room to also do covers, mash-ups, or re-write old songs.

That’s why this new home will simply be, conscious mistakes. It’s place to do things that push me outside of my comfort zone, and are a little bit scary.

Conscious mistakes are those active decisions you’re not really sure how you should feel about. You’re cautiously optimistic that it was a good decision, that it will only bring you forward, but something in the back of your mind thinks otherwise. Somewhere between your brainstem and your thalamus someone with a lot more experience than you is telling you to stay in your cave by the fire where it’s warm. Like a teenager rebelling against his or her parents, you feel the empowering sense of freedom that can only come from defying authority, but you’re also a little insecure in your new skin.

The process of writing itself is something a mathematician would call, ‘non-trivial’. While the language (often) obeys a syntax and semantics, the process of writing is a phenomenally complex process. The journey embarked upon by refining that process is very long, theoretically endless. Yet, the only way to improve is to work through the shit. Most notably, in the course of improving that process, you’re going to disappoint yourself, and that’s OK. Ira Glass, an American public radio persona, put it better:

“…the most important thing you can do is do a lot of work. Put yourself on a deadline so that every week you will finish one story. It is only by going through a volume of work that you will close that gap, and your work will be as good as your ambitions.” – Ira Glass

So, in the spirit of Jonathan Coulton and Ira Glass, my singular objective is:

(1) To push my creative boundaries by producing content on a deadline through a forced-march approach to writing.

From September 2013 to September 2014, I will post on this blog every other Monday (at a minimum).


Now, I’ve made a good deal of noise in this post, but the reality of why I’m doing this is only thinly veiled behind the prose. The last two years of my life have been fantastic, but they’ve also been extremely difficult, in some ways much more than others. At times I’ve felt myself in a state of temporary insanity and loneliness, just as desperate to communicate those thoughts and feelings with myself as much as others. I’ve been clinging to the temporary nature of certain difficult emotions, yet not knowing exactly how to move forward.

So. I ask myself what any sane person in a state of temporary insanity would. WWNGD?
(What Would Neil Gaiman Do)

Lucky for me, I’m pretty sure I know the answer.

“… and now go, and make interesting mistakes. Make amazing mistakes. Make glorious and fantastic mistakes. Break rules. Leave the world more interesting for your being here…

Make. Good. Art.

See Neil Gaiman making a speech:
Long version (video)
Short version (comic)

Other Links:
Thing a Week wiki
Full Ira Glass quote

UPDATE: If you are reading this in the future, it will be clear that I did not stick to my one year goal of publishing every other week. The forced approach to writing did not work terribly well for me.