“You are you. Now, isn’t that pleasant?” (Dr. Seuss)
Archive for the ‘Turn of Phrase’ Category
“…be yourself – not your idea of what you think somebody else’s idea of yourself should be.” (Henry David Thoreau)
“Be yourself; everyone else is already taken.” (Oscar Wilde)
Wow. Six words that have haunted me since I read them a year ago. This was the extent of Hemingway’s short story, but there isn’t much more you can say. I’ve spent hours trying to think of if there could possibly be a happy story behind this (baby has so many shoes and these ones got accidentally jammed behind the sofa after a particularly bountiful Christmas – only to be found when the child was too big for them?!) but it’s pretty much indisputable that this is a story jam-packed with pain. I have tried numerous times to come up with a story this short and this powerful, but fail every time. I’ve never read any of Hemingway’s other works, but in this I have seen his true genius. And he agreed with me!
The English steel we could disdain,
Secure in valour’s station;
But English gold has been our bane —
Such a parcel of rogues in a nation!
For anyone who knows me, my choosing to write of this text will seem unsurprising – repetitive even. But even before I turned my attention towards the facts and legends of the Jacobite rebellions these four lines held me entranced by the poetic bluntness. “Poetic” and “blunt” are two words that cannot often be put together, although perhaps Scottish literature is an exception to the rule! The choice of the words is unfalteringly powerful, such as the idea of not only fighting, but also disdaining the English military power: we do not only dislike you, we laugh at you. Words – so good at detailing events, people and places – have rarely captured feelings as well as they do in these four lines from an old folk song. It could make even the hardiest of pro-unionists dream of an independent Scotland.
It’s rare that a book makes you change the way you see the world. In the case of ‘Sight Unseen’, this book literally changes the way you see the world. While many people are acquainted with the beautifully observed case studies of Oliver Sacks, for example, it is very rare that the work of researchers studying brain functioning and informing the diagnoses of neurologists like Dr. Sacks is met with similar affection. ‘Sight Unseen’ is a noteworthy exception. Based on two researchers’ (David Milner and Melvyn Goodale) 15-year relationship with a patient with visual agnosia (more on this later), ‘Sight Unseen’ demonstrates how numerous small experiments can slowly unravel the mysteries of how the brain processes visual information and can lead to a conclusion so counter-intuitive that we once again experience that unsettling humility as we are forced to acknowledge the discrepancies between our conscious experience of the world and what is actually going on in our brains.
We generally believe that we have a single, unified conscious visual stream that we use to aid us in our interactions with the world around us. The phenomenon of blindsight has shown us that even patients with complete cortical blindness still have the capacity to discriminate objects presented in their blind field (although they would always claim to be guessing!) but the findings of Milner and Goodale are perhaps more unsettling as they suggest that in our day-to-day interactions with the visual world, we have two separate visual pathways – one (conscious) pathway dealing with perception and one (unconscious) pathway dealing with action. To quote them:
‘You might perceive the tennis ball that has just been lobbed over the net by your opponent, but you can never be conscious of the particular information that your visuomotor system uses to guide your successful return. This visuomotor computation happens entirely unconsciously.’
The patient they studied over many years, D.F., has a condition called visual agnosia in which despite being unable to make out shapes, when asked to interact with objects that she could not consciously see, she does so to a degree that was as good as people who could see the objects – effectively doing without seeing. Another neurological condition called optic ataxia shows basically the reverse (what neuropsychologists call a double dissociation) – so people with optic ataxia can see a cup perfectly well but when they are asked to grasp it, they tend to reach inaccurately or use an inappropriate grip or angle of hand. This double dissociation suggests that visual perception and the visual control of action depend on quite different brain systems.
Aside from describing their own work, Milner and Goodale also take the reader on a fascinating journey into the visual world touching on visual illusions, change blindness and consciousness.
It is very likely that in the frenetic world of brain research this theory will gradually be undermined as findings about interactions between the two fields become apparent but it is unlikely that any future theory will be as elegant and satisfying as this one.