May 17, 2011

"Face-Blind" by Oliver Sacks

In general, I would say I have a pretty good memory. I can remember names and faces well and have stored up a trove of irrelevant trivia in my brain - which I’m sure occupies a space that could be better used for something else. My memory has served me well academically and socially, but it has also failed me in other respects. I do not remember driving directions well, even if I’ve driven somewhere multiple times. Perhaps this is absentmindedness, but I often forget where I have placed things, and I don’t have a good memory for anything technical or scientific. My procedural memory is great in the kitchen, but I cannot for the life of me remember how to tie all those boy scout box knots that are necessary for putting up tents and bear traps and such.

The more I think about it, the more apparent it becomes that memory is not just a one-dimensional spectrum that ranges from good to bad. We each remember some things better than others, whether that’s because of genetics or environmental factors.

Oliver Sacks has a form of prosopagnosia, which is an impairment in the ability to recognize or perceive faces. He writes that what seemed like a mere social blunder in his youth became increasingly problematic when he realized that not recognizing his doorman, psychiatrist, and even his personal secretary - all of whom he saw on a regular basis - could not merely be attributed to a momentary lapse in memory but rather something more deeply ingrained in his genetic make-up or brain structure. And because we assume that forgetting a face is quite trivial and natural, both the general population as well as most neurologists don’t recognize prosopagnosia as a problem - and certainly not a congenital one (Sacks quotes Harvard neurologist Ken Nakayama as saying that prosopagnosia is relatively common but underreported - and it can be ‘cripplingly severe’). 

For someone who takes pride in her ability to recognize and remember faces, prosopagnosia is at once terrifying and bewildering. I take it for granted that some part of my brain - Oliver Sacks says that it could be the occipital lobe (which distinguishes between types) or the visual cortex -  can process and store the faces I see. Sacks himself says that in order to remember people, he must pay attention to their individual features, like thick eyebrows or glasses, or even the type of dog they are walking; in this way, caricatures are often more easily recognizable to him than photographs. To remember only the sum of parts but not the whole is saddening to me, yet I know that many of my memories have been reduced down to just that: components and not the thing in its entirety.

The most interesting part of this article for me was the distinction between recognition and familiarity, the former of which stems from knowledge, and the latter of which is based on feeling. Recognition and familiarity are rooted in different parts of the brain, according to Sacks. “Purely visual recognition of faces is mediated by the fusiform face area and its connections” while “emotional familiarity is probably mediated at a higher, multimodal level, where there are intimate connections with the hippocampus and the amygdala, areas that are involved in memory and emotion.” This makes sense - there are dozens of politicians and celebrities whom I recognize but have no attachment to. I can give you a name alongside a picture - which I am really good at doing - but the picture itself stirs no emotion inside me.

Knowing a person then, falls in two camps. We can know a person based on recognition or we can know a person based on familiarity. For me this is an important distinction because I’m pretty sure being surrounded by one hundred people I recognize but am not familiarized with would breed a most intense, bitter loneliness, while I would be content with the presence of one person with whom I have some kind of emotional attachment - someone whom I know in the truest sense. That being said, Capgras syndrome - which Sacks only briefly mentions, secondary to his discussion of prosopagnosia - seems far worse than any kind of impairment in memory. In people who suffer from Capgras syndrome, faces are recognized but no longer generate a sense of emotional familiarity: “Since a husband or wife or child does not convey that special warm feeling of familiarity, the Capgras patient will argue, they cannot be the real thing - they must be clever impostors, counterfeits.” Because their knowledge remains intact, unlike those with prosopagnosia, who at some point may recognize their failed memory, Capgras patients believe they are perfectly normal: it is as if they have lost something so vital, so dear to them, without realizing it is gone and with no wistfulness or nostalgia either. If anything, the problems of a Capgras patient affirm that knowledge does not preclude ignorance. The fear of Capgras is only before the fact, and perhaps that is the most frightening part of all - that there is no knowing when you have lost your emotional attachments and the things that you once cherished most - because your memory will fail to tell you that you had ever loved those things, those people at all.

May 16, 2011

"The Other Place" by Mary Gaitskill

The grotesquerie of this story is not built up but unearthed, in a Stepford Wives or Desperate Housewives kind of way, where placid suburban living is merely a facade for the dark twisted narratives that lie beneath.

There’s a hint of darkness from the beginning: Douglas, the narrator’s son loves toy guns, violence on TV, and people dying in video games - though that’s not too out of the ordinary for a boy growing up. But the narrator relates his son’s fascinations with these things to his own, which are revealed throughout the story - namely, his violent teenage desire to kill a girl, an act which seems to be rooted partly in sadism but largely in some kind of sublimated sexual frustration.

The crazy thing about reading a first-person narrative like this in which you enter into a psycho mind is that even though you are conscious of the fact that the thoughts and desires of the narrator are obviously sick and twisted, you still have sympathy - maybe even empathy for him. That these thoughts fall somewhere between the quotidian - nostalgia for childhood memories, teaching one’s son how to fish, rearranging lawn gnomes as a harmless prank - and the absurd - a mother revealing that she dabbled in prostitution, a murder attempt gone awry - complicates both the character and persona of the narrator. Our minds desire easy categorization of people as “good” or “bad,” and like Nabokov’s narrator in Lolita, the most complete formulations of characters in fiction resist this kind of categorization.

People aren’t black or white. Our minds swirl between the two. Recalling memories of hanging out with his high school friends, the narrator of “The Other Place” writes, “So I would sit with them and yet be completely part from them, talking and laughing about normal things in a dark mash of music and snakes and children running from psychos and girls being eaten - images that took me someplace my friends couldn’t see, although it was right there in the room with us.” The human mind is held together by an interweaving of purity and darkness, and we suck ourselves into it - for solace, for pleasure, for pain, for fantasy. I remember being young and obsessed with Law and Order S.V.U. - the sick crimes of rape and murder always fascinated me, and there was some subconscious thrill in the self-induced fear that came from watching that show, alongside my strange interest in reading about America’s Most Wanted Criminals and all the horrible things they had ever done. I never questioned whether this obsession was sick or made me a sick person, but now I can’t help but wonder if my watching and reading became some sort of vicarious experience rather than just third-person observation.

Jun 12, 2010

A Frivolous Benthamite Musing on Food

Satisfaction from eating exponentially increases when one discovers that a food object possesses utilitarian qualities unrelated to nourishment and/or health.

Examples of food objects (that possess utilitarian qualities) and their utilitarian qualities:

-Bread bowls, for holding chili or clam chowder

-Pumpkin/Kabocha/Squash bowls, for holding curries, rice and stews (I have only had this once - at Souen last November - and it was the best thing I ever ordered there. Alice originally told me about it last July, and I thought about this dish several times for the months in between)

-Mashed potatoes (sculpted with a spoon), as troughs for gravy

-Red vines (with tops and bottoms bitten off), as straws for soda (do NOT use as a straw for water… so nasty)

-Thickly sliced cucumbers (with the center scooped out), as bowls for various fillings such as crabmeat, pickled veggies, grains (fancy hors d’oeuvres)

-Gingerbread, to build houses (or boats or cathedrals)

-White sugar sticks, for eating candy powder(????)

This increased satisfaction accounts for why grotesqueries like this bacon mug containing melted cheese are such novelties.

Not included in this category are foods that have been created for the purpose of containing other foods, such as burrito wraps or lavash, or have been used in particular ways to such an extent that their utility becomes conventional and without novelty (i.e. sandwich bread, hot dog buns). Lettuce wraps toe the line between conventionality and novelty (depends what kind of lettuce/veggies you use).

I thought about this today while I was eating yogurt-almond butter-muesli out of a canteloupe bowl as an afternoon snack.

The problem here, of course, was that as the eating of and out of this canteloupe bowl progressed, I compulsively filled and refilled the bowl with yogurt, almond butter, and muesli to quell the uneasiness that was rising out of knowing that a hole in my food was growing bigger while the food in it was growing smaller!

The funny thing about a canteloupe bowl is that the usage of the bowl is directly correlated with the size of the bowl: the more you eat, the bigger the bowl gets - which I guess is the case for a bread bowl too, except that in such cases as the bread bowl and perhaps the bacon mug, the change in size is much less drastic, and, if your hunger allows, you can consume the entire bowl. This is different with a canteloupe bowl, which, unless you are an adventurous eater or terribly ravenous, imposes limits upon the eater with its rind and forces a byproduct of a bigger bowl than you ever began with. This bowl may last you for another half a day - a temporary bowl that can be filled with snack foods, knick knacks, or marbles - and can then be thrown away or composted without the hassle of having to wash dishes or the guilt of having eaten out of an unrecyclable styrofoam bowl.

(On a sidenote, much can be said about other categories of “food and its utility” - that of food as beauty products and food as cleaning products (i.e. vinegar for stains). Then again, in both cases, the purpose of food as nourishment is completely usurped. Food as beauty and/or household products trades rather than expands the utility food.)

Jun 9, 2010


It is fun to harvest snap peas because you get to eat them off the vine (and boy are they sweet!).

It is not fun to harvest onions becuase your hands smell like onions for five days.

Feb 5, 2010

Funfetti, please

This marketing ploy has been going on for awhile now.

Perhaps the masses haven’t bought into it - but the bourgeoisie certainly have.

I’m talking about gourmet cupcakes here, guys. You know what I’m talking about.

Magnolia’s Bakery, which started up in 1996 (and began selling cupcakes as an economical way of using leftover cake batter), is usually referenced as the iconic shop that parted the red seas for the millions of red velvet, cream cheese carrot cake, and german chocolate cupcakes that would follow (come the millenial era), so perhaps I should blame them for ruining the joy of Funfetti - not that Funfetti is extinct, but rather obsolete. To the gourmet cupcake connoisseur, Funfetti is a downgrade from Sprinkles.

The advent of the cupcake boutique has damaged more than Funfetti: if it hasn’t done away with, it certainly has dampened the possibility of baking cupcakes with friends and family, which I think is a valuable social activity - now less likely to occur than ever before. It is almost too convenient to want a cupcake and be able to buy one instead of having to suit up with Betty Crocker in the kitchen. Besides, when you bake cupcakes, you’re making at least two dozen at a time, which means you’re most likely going to distribute and share them - another friendship ritual down the drain.

It seems to me that this general affinity for beautified cupcakes is reflective of our generation’s attitude: we champion convenience, socialize through consumerism, cosmeticize everything, and prefer personal ownership over sharing. A dinner where dessert is individualized cupcakes from Sprinkles carries a drastically different tone than a dinner where dessert is a homemade pecan pie. Even if the pie is from Safeway (which I have to say is very probable because the art of pie-making is definitely dying), pies, besides being inherently more “rustic,” suggests familiarity because they must be served and shared.

Call me nostalgic and old-fashioned, but I think there is something sweet (no pun intended) about pies and Funfetti cupcakes that is missing from these silly things we call gourmet cupcakes (and the ridiculousness of spending $4 on a cupcake is a whole other issue, but I will not speak to that because I’m sure there are foods I buy that others would consider a wasteful expense). Maybe it’s the soul - maybe I see cupcakes as one of the soulfoods of my childhood, and my indignance is directed at the commodification of that soul.

Sep 12, 2009

Reactions to Brakhage

After the lights flickered on, the girl in the corner with a chubby face and long brown hair looked limp.  Her face was no longer in view, shielded by her straight, chesnut locks, and her head was tilted to the side - more like her head was hanging off her neck, like how wire with heavy bait hangs off a fishing pole. It was as if her head wasn’t sure how it exactly attached to the neck, and it didn’t know where to rest, or where to spin, or how to hang.

The strangeness of this incidence was most accentuated by everyone else’s reaction. In a small little classroom on the fourth floor of Sever Hall, everyone looked sideways and stared at her. Every few seconds, the girl’s head and body would convulse a litte, yet no one seemed particularly shocked or dismayed. The incident was too quiet, too sudden, too strange. No one touched her, no one rushed to her side. We, in complicit confusion, merely stared. We were not apathetic nor disinterested; rather, all we knew in that one moment was quiet shock and bewilderment. No one had taught us otherwise.

One girl raised one arm to hail the attention of the professor and with the other gestured towards the girl.

When the brown-haired, limp-headed girl came to, it was her first facial expression that was the most horrific. Her eyes were large, round circles of complete displacement. The shape of her mouth echoed the shape of her eyes. “What just happened?” was her first line. She tried to say something else, but the words would not materialize. We all watched with an interested curiosity when she tried to breathe, when she tried to make sense of what happened.

She went on okay. She drank some water and ate an apple.

In my mind, the kind of reaction that 13 minutes of film elicited was eerily reminiscent A Clockwork Orange - like maybe that is possible? 13 minutes of brutally graphic vaginal and placental and bloody strobic images from Stan Brakhage’s “Window Water Moving Baby.”

Perhaps in light of this reaction, it was disturbing that in watching the film I didn’t even bat an eye.

Mar 31, 2009

When you hear…

When you hear a kid cackling like a maniac, do you ever wonder if his parents are meth addicts/dealers?

I do.

Mar 29, 2009

Home Improvement

One category of individuals with whom psychoanalysis is particularly exhilarating: People Who Read Self-Help Books in Public.

First, are there particular types of people who reads self-help books? Are they searching, are they lost? Are they determined, constantly striving for self-betterment? Are they curious or insecure?

Then, we must analyze the fact that they are reading this particular kind of book in public. Is this a subtle plea for help? Or does there exist a lack of shame in the proclamation of weakness? Is this way to connect to people?

Today I saw a woman engrossed in a book called More Effective Coaching.

Mar 29, 2009

Social Taboos on the Subway Include:

(1) Looking awake, too perky

(2) Staring intently at someone or into someone’s eyes (see 3)

(3) Making visible eye contact

(4) Smiling or see 5

(5) Exhibiting friendliness; being overtly gregarious

(6) Talking too loudly (though you can get away with this if you’re a rapscallion or wearing overly baggy pants; then people expect it of you)

The funny thing about social taboos on the subway is that they are the social norms (and I would even go as far to say social expectations) of life above ground.

Mar 29, 2009

Sitting Stones

An elderly couple sat near me at the airport. Both were individually stout and spoke with heavy Southern drawls. They were relatively quiet, but whispered occasionally in low voices - the kinds of voices that indulge in gossip and scorn. Both stared out into nothing; the woman’s hands were clasped peacefully in her lap. All of a sudden, I heard a loud, alarming sound. I began to laugh. She nudged him hard with her elbow. “Wake up!” she whispered fiercely in his ear. “You’re snoring and everyone can hear you!” The man, his head tilted back, his mouth open wide, popped up from his somnolent stupor. “Oh” and a  grunt were his only two noises.

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