Tag Archives: brain

You can only go there in your head

“Inner space and outer space are similar, aren’t they really?  You’re never going to get to the edge of the universe in a spaceship.  You might as well try going on a bus.  You can only go there in your head.”  This is a quote from David Hockney in ‘Spring Cannot Be Cancelled‘  by David Hockney and Martin Gayford.  It’s a beautiful book.  Full of thought-provoking insights and recent artwork by Hockney painted in Normandy mainly during the pandemic.  I read it last month while in the Yorkshire Dales [see ‘Walking the hills‘ on April 13th 2022].  Hockney writes about his need to paint.  He finds it utterly absorbing and endlessly sustaining.  Gayford compares this need and experience to the work of American psychologist, Mihaly Csiksczentmihalyi [see ‘Slow-motion multi-tasking leads to productive research‘ on September 19, 2018] who wrote about concentration so intense that there is no spare capacity to think about anything else, your self-consciousness disappears and you lose your sense of time leading to a deep sense of happiness and well-being.  I cannot paint but I can achieve something approaching a similiar state when I am writing.

Source:

Martin Gayford and David Hockney, Spring cannot be cancelled – David Hockney in Normandy, London: Thames & Hudson, 2021.

Dwelling in the present

Photograph of St Michael's Church, Stoke Gifford

St Michael’s Church, Stoke Gifford

I have been visiting the Airbus site at Filton near Bristol since the mid-1990s. It is where the wings for new designs of aircraft are developed and tested. My involvement has been in the developing of techniques for measuring strain in aircraft structures during static and fatigue tests. At the moment, we are working on methods to integrate fields of measurements with computational predictions of stress and strain [see ‘Jigsaw puzzling without a picture‘ on October 27th, 2021]. I frequently travel by train to Bristol Parkway Station and walk past the church in the photograph without even noticing it despite it being next to the station. To be fair, the view of it from the station entrance is obscured by a billboard. However, last week as I walked back to the station with a half-hour to spare, I noticed a gate leading into a churchyard. I slipped through the gate thinking that perhaps there might be an interesting old church to explore but it was locked and I had to be satisfied with a stroll around the churchyard. I was slightly shocked to realise the church, and the village green beyond it, had been hidden in full view for more than thirty years of walking within a few tens of metres of it perhaps once a month. I had always been too focussed on the research that I was heading to Airbus to discuss, or too tired at the end of a day, to notice the things around me. Our senses flood our brains with information most of which is ignored by our conscious minds that are busy time traveling through past memories or looking into the future [see ‘Time travel and writing history‘ on March 23rd, 2022].  However, there is pleasure to be gained by dwelling in the present and exploring the sensory experience flooding into our brains.  As Amy Liptrot commented in her book ‘The Outrun‘, “the more I take the time to look at things, the more rewards and complexity I find”.

Sources:

Enuma Okoro, The Pleasure Principle, FT Weekend, 19 February/20 February 2022.

Mia Levitan, Descent into digital distraction, FT Weekend, 5 March/6 March 2022.

 

Boltzmann’s brain

Ludwig Boltzmann developed a statistical explanation of the second law of thermodynamics by defining entropy as being proportional to the logarithm of the number ways in which we can arrange a system [see ‘Entropy on the brain‘ on November 29th 2017].  The mathematical expression of this definition is engraved on his head-stone.  The second law states that the entropy of the universe is always increasing and Boltzmann argued it implies that the universe must have been created in a very low entropy state.  Four decades earlier, in 1854, William Thomson concluded the dissipation of heat arising from the second law would lead to the ‘death’ of the universe [see ‘Cosmic heat death‘ on February 18th, 2015] while the big bang theory for the creation of the universe evolved about twenty years after Boltzmann’s death.  The probability of a very low entropy state required to bring the universe into existance is very small because it implies random fluctuations in energy and matter leading to a highly ordered state.  One analogy would be the probability of dead leaves floating on the surface of a pond arranging themselves to spell your name.  It is easy to think of fluctuations that are more likely to occur, involving smaller systems, such as one that would bring only our solar system into existence, or progressively more likely, only our planet, only the room in which you are sitting reading this blog, or only your brain.  The last would imply that everything is in your imagination and ultimately that is why Boltzmann’s argument is not widely accepted although we do not have a good explanation for the apparent low entropy state at the start of the universe.  Jean-Paul Sartre wrote in his book Nausea ‘I exist because I think…and I cannot stop myself from thinking.  At this very moment – it’s frightful – if I exist, it is because I am horrified at existing.’  Perhaps most people would find horrifying the logical extension of Boltzmann’s arguments about the start of the universe to everything only existing in our mind.  Boltzmann’s work on statistical mechanics and the second law of thermodynamics is widely accepted and support the case for him being genius; however, his work raised more questions than answers and was widely criticised during his lifetime which led to him taking his own life in 1906.

Sources:

Paul Sen, Einstein’s fridge: the science of fire, ice and the universe.  London: Harper Collins, 2021.

Jean-Paul Sartre, Nausea.  London: Penguin Modern Classics, 2000.

Negative capability and optimal ambiguity

Decorative photograph of sculpture on Liverpool waterfront at nightHow is your negative capability?  The very term ‘negative capability’ conveys confusion and ambiguity.  It means our ability to accept uncertainty, a lack of knowledge or control.  It was coined by John Keats to describe the skill of appreciating something without fully understanding it.  It implies suspending judgment about something in order to learn more about it.  This is difficult because we have to move out of a low entropy mindset and consider how it fits in a range of possible mindsets or neuronal assemblies, which raises our psychological entropy and with it our anxiety and mental stress [see ’Psychological entropy increased by effectual leaders‘ on February 10th, 2021].  If we are able to tolerate an optimal level of ambiguity and uncertainty then we might be able to develop an appreciation of a complex system and even an ability to anticipate its behaviour without a full knowledge or understanding of it.  Our sub-conscious brain has excellent negative capabilities; for example, most of us can catch a ball without understanding, or even knowing, anything about the mechanics of its flight towards us, or we accept a ride home from a friend with no knowledge of their driving skills and no control over the vehicle.  Although, if our conscious brain knows that they crashed their car last week then it might override the sub-conscious and cause us to think again before declining the offer of a ride home.  Perhaps this is because our conscious brain tends to have less negative capability and likes to be in control.  Engineers like to talk about their intuition which is probably synonymous with their negative capability because it is their ability to appreciate and anticipate the behaviour of an engineering system without a full knowledge and understanding of it.  This intuition is usually based on experience and perhaps resides in the subconscious mind because if you ask an engineer to explain a decision or prediction based on their intuition then they will probably struggle to provide a complete and rational explanation.  They are comfortable with an optimal level of ambiguity although of course you might not be so comfortable.

Sources:

Richard Gunderman, ‘John Keats’ concept of ‘negative capability’ – or sitting in uncertainty –  is needed now more than ever’.  The Conversation, February 21st, 2021.

David Jeffery, Letter: Keats was uneasy about the pursuit of perfection.  FT Weekend, April 2nd, 2021.

Caputo JD. Truth: philosophy in transit. London: Penguin, 2013.