Monthly Archives: April 2012

The Imaginative Neuroscientist

How could reading a book from the Romantic period give headway for a cognitive neuroscientist? How could the an analysis of the line “It was impossible to melt her dream so he melted into hers” be infused into an article published by a neuroscientist? Where does one etch the hard lines in the brain to define imagination?

Alan Richardson, a professor at BC and a Harvard PhD, loves romanticism.

The concepts of perception –> memory –> imagination is so dear to him, so beloved. But then, during a seminar I attended today, a literary modernist cited Henry James and how the facilities of imagination is a feedback system: it isn’t just perception –> memory –> imagination. Our imagination also shapes our perception. And neither person cited scientific papers…yet.

I found this idea interesting because we already know biases shapes our perceptions (regular peeps vs. monks and doing tasks where rationality would be the most effective, but most people’s biases interfere). But the idea that imagination could shape our perception and experience of the world shook me slightly. I reflected on the ideas in Qi Gong and in bioenergetic healings and visual metaphors in meditation and how imagination can alter reality (like actually though. Qi Gong breaks all the rules of regular physics, bioenergetics make you feel completely different in your body [two wins for Mind-Body therapy], and meditation literally changes your brain.)

Anyways, back to Alan. So the main emphasis of his short seminar (unfortunately, I came a bit late and also was on sleep deprivation mode) was that there is a subtle tug that can be felt within the science world that different disciplines are slowly coming to a peak in the brain. Philosophy, quantum physics, religion, and now literature. The idea that a literary historian could give input to a scientific research project seems ludicrous. But I know in my gut that it’s the way to go. But how can we evolve the research lab to involve multiple disciplines? How can we justify it to the science authorities? How will it be applicable and useful? Who’s going to have the balls (to put it frankly) to pursue this?

On my to do list (so guilty, I know) is reading John Lehrer’s book “Proust Was a Neuroscientist”. To quote from a book review written by Dennis Patrick Slattery called “Pathway to a New Mythology” (sorry for the aggressive quoting!):

“What continues to intrigue me about the entire field of neuroscience is how the act of learning continues to transform the brain, creating new neural pathways into memory, perception, understanding, emotional maturation, and speech centers, such that one senses no split between mind and body, but rather that the brain is an embodied entity and that the entirety of a human being is one unified phenomenon.[oh hey Dao of Neuroscience]


Neuroscience and the artists who exposed its secrets earlier are reinventing memory and imagining along new lines of exploration. Studies in psychology, mythology, and the humanities generally cannot afford to ignore the work in this field.

Lehrer draws the analogy of Proust’s discovery that “our memories are not like fiction. They are fiction” (88). What Proust grasped was that memories do not create fabrications of earlier realities; rather, they embody the fictions of earlier events, making of them part historical fact and part fictional cloth. 

One of the most provocative chapters in Lehrer’s study considers the imaginal writing of Virginia Woolf. Her own belief that, as Lehrer paraphrases it, “certain elements of consciousness were constant and universal” suggests her recognition of the archetypal realm and of the patterned propensity of psyche (2008, 193). Coherence and wholeness were what consciousness sought as it gathered the fragments of experience and placed them in an order of formed coherence.  

My favorite part of the article:

Neurons are distributed all across the brain, and their firing unfolds over time. [Fourth dimension ahhhh] This means “the mind is not a place: it is a process” (Lehrer 2008, 177). After a certain point of exploring the organ of the brain and its firings, it becomes impossible to identify and hold the brain’s processing as mind. [This is how I feel about my creativity research – so jaded. More on this later.] As such, the brain is able to be both matter and energy at the same time. The excitement of neuroscientific discoveries is that what the brain is and how it functions is continually being reframed along different story lines; its plot continues to unfold with further episodes that change its narrative structure as it exposes patterned grooves that were invisible earlier: “Modern neuroscience is now confirming the self Woolf believed in. We invent ourselves out of our own sensations” (Lehrer 2008, 182). “

In other news: had a work interview yesterday @ Clover Food Labs. I love the place and their food and had a blast during the one hour I was there making chickpea sandwiches. I got accepted to work there so I’m super pumped. This is me pre-work when we held a Clover Workshop at a Mindfulness/Wellbeing Conference I put on last weekend (“Brain Break 2.0”). As you can see, my eagerness to chop beets confirms the foodie addict still lies within me. She was just dormant for a while:

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