Change Your Brain – Pt. 1

One of the most exciting areas of modern science is the study of neuroplasticity. Neurologists and behaviorists have known for decades that most behaviors are learned through repetition. Synapses fire between neurons when the brain is working, and after enough repetition these neurons form relatively permanent bonds.

In recent years scientists have been showing us that brain training is not just reserved for psychologists, behaviorists, or neurologists. Meaningful change is available for everyone. Neuroplasticity is for the end-user, meaning those of us who have brains.

When we think of changes we would like to make in our lives, few of us choose things that are impossible. I doubt serious people get depressed because they cannot levitate themselves or read minds clearly. Most often the changes we would like to see are practical – we want more money, a change in career, or to be happier.

Real changes like this are achievable, and the answers to our problems are often obvious. Work hard and ask for a raise, find a better job, stop sweating the small stuff. But we are all creatures of habit and often lasting changes like these can seem unattainable. The reason these changes seem unattainable is because our neurons are simply not used to firing in the particular way we want. This means that even conceiving of life as we would like it to be is a challenge to our existing thought patterns.

If we agree that behaviors are learned through training, reiteration, and neurological fortification, why should any realistic change be out of reach? Being unfamiliar with something is a lame excuse not to try it and we all know it. If we want change we should be willing to challenge the things we value, to reassess things we find distasteful, and to search out ideas we haven’t even heard of.

These three books challenged my beliefs and enriched my mind.

"The Sacred and the Profane"1. The Sacred and the Profane by Mircea Eliade

Mircea Eliade is a Romanian scholar who takes an academic approach to spiritual problems. He has written profoundly on yoga, shamanism, mythology and philosophy. The Sacred and the Profane is a study of holiness, giving new language to concepts I previously only intuited. With incredible scholarship Eliade relates the idea of the “sacred” with time, space, and psychology in a way that simply makes sense. The approach to the sacerdotal is likened to erecting a pillar in space. This pillar is obviously not literal, but extends away from the world toward our conception of the “holy”. This justifies the idea of holy places and non-temporal states of being while placing them firmly in our secular world. I would recommend this book to atheists and materialists.

 

"The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind"2. The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind by Julian Jaynes

This groundbreaking work posits that early man actually spoke with the gods, as most ancient literature asserts. It asks why early literature is replete with references to the gods, why most theurgic speech comes in metered form, and why this is much less common now. The thesis is that the human brain was different back then – that the right and left hemispheres of the brain were more distantly connected because the corpus callosum had not yet solidified as a bridging structure between the lobes – and that the so-called dialogue with gods was actually the two hemispheres of the brain communicating with each other. This sounds far out, but this long essay puts forward a fascinating argument that sheds new light on ancient history. What this means if true is that our conception of human consciousness as something that has gradually evolved since the time of the neanderthal is wrong, and that human consciousness as we know it is a relatively new phenomenon on earth. This is the kind of book that, while you read it, your eyebrows raise higher and higher. Since I have heard nothing like this theory anywhere else, I recommend this book to anyone.

 

"Programming and Metaprogramming in the Human Biocomputer"3. Programming and Metaprogramming in the Human Biocomputer by Dr. John Lilly

Using computer language, this beautiful, bizarre little manual describes the behavioral patterns of our body-brain complex (the biocomputer), and implies how we might reprogram our software (ideas and behavioral patterns) to achieve personal change. The language can seem tough to wrap one’s head around at first, but there’s nothing quite like learning a new jargon to get those synapses firing in new ways. The book also talks about metaprograms, which are the subconscious routines that set the table for behavioral programs. For example, I will be less likely to appreciate hip-hop (program) if I am subconsciously racist against black people (metaprogram). Once the learning curve of language is mounted this book reads like a slender, elegant volume of instructions on creating new behaviors. Recommended for wordy sad-sacks.

South Beach Baptism

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Lying in the sun this morning in South Beach, Miami, I realized there are some things in life you actually cannot get from Grand Theft Auto: Vice City.

Radiation burns from your television don’t count as a tan.

Instead of kicking her to death for fun, try talking to your neighbourhood hooker. She might have hilarious, horrifying stories.

In real life it takes much more nerve to drag a cop out of his car and steal his shotgun. But it’s worth it.

The best thing I found in Miami that I never found in video games is religion. You can make a lot of money starting a religion. L. Ron Hubbard seems to have invented Scientology without much spiritual wisdom or intelligence, so I always assumed I would gather a decent cult following eventually.

But the wisdom of a child has shown me the light. Check out this yarmulke:

Power Ranger Yarmulke

Power Ranger Judaism.

In the beginning was the Zord.

Based on the successful television show, this franchise appears to have expanded into the newest form of get-‘em-while-they’re-young religions. Each of us has a pantheon of colourful power rangers within us. By communicating in mime-gestures and flying fists, we make our Power Rangers work together to defeat the awakened Godzillas and Mothras of our lesser nature.

Why don’t we see more designer or pop culture religions in society? During the acid craze of the sixties Timothy Leary talked about inventing personal religions. But you never hear about them.

For a while now I have been High Priest of my own religion based on the cult television series Twin Peaks. Initiation is rigorous and time consuming, but gives participants the ability to peek behind a certain red curtain.

It seems today’s religious institutions aren’t raking it in like they once were. Re-branding might be in order. If religion was as appealing to kids as Grand Theft Auto the churches would be making it rain.

 

 

 

Guns vs. Cigarettes

With the Newton massacre fresh on everyone’s mind, people are watching Obama’s White House to see if any meaningful gun control measures can be put into place. But gun enthusiasm is still far too entrenched within the American Dream to make things easy. I wonder how change will get made. A hundred and twenty years ago heroin was prescribed by doctors regularly. Now it is illegal and there is a war on drugs. At some point something has to give.

The government takes very seriously it’s role of protecting people from themselves. From unemployment insurance to strict prohibition on many types of drugs, our governments try to make us feel like they politicize our best interests. But even with all the knowledge we have about the harmful effects of cigarettes, they are still available in every corner store. Yet again, ideology and entrenched business trumps public safety.

I don’t believe guns or cigarettes should be strictly illegal. I don’t even think heroin should be illegal. The fact that heroin is illegal doesn’t prevent heroin usage, it only makes that usage more dangerous. This could be an argument against outlawing guns and cigarettes. If something is dangerous but useful there are ways of ensuring the users are qualified. Enhanced background checks would be a step in the right direction for gun use, but it definitely would not end gun violence. Most of us climb into a car, fully licensed, and blast down a highway at 120 km/h without batting an eye, even though it is a terribly dangerous activity. And people die in car crashes every day.

We can’t say in a scientifically definitive way how many lives are lost from cigarettes. And you can’t weigh how many lives are taken by guns against how many lives are saved. Statistics do not tell the full story; the figures are fuzzy approximations at best. Nor can we get the full story from news programs who love the sensational boost in ratings when horrible tragedy strikes.

The NRA’s first statement after the Newtown shooting said nothing about guns, but condemned television, film, and video games for perpetuating virtual violence. It said exactly nothing, but implied the Second Amendment is more important than the First. Their goal is to maintain and increase their membership (less than 2% of America’s population) and to sell more guns. They do this under the guise of protecting American rights.

The issue is personal freedom, and it is the government who decides how much freedom its people have in society. We can drive a car, fire a gun, smoke a million cigarettes, but we cannot do cocaine or pay for sex. Judge these rules how you will but consider if we have reason enough to trust the government’s judgement on socially acceptable behavior.

Lawyers and financial experts bilked the world out of billions in a technically legal way. Legal drugs kill more people than illegal drugs. The USA, under the latest Bush administration, started two illegal wars in the Middle East and gave the rebuilding contracts to associates of Bush and Cheney.

“Government, even in its best state, is but a necessary evil; in its worst state, an intolerable one.” – Thomas Paine

A clear-cut solution would be great, but it is impossible. We live in a world of stifled political action, bombarded by arguments on all sides and in all forms of media. It seems to be an unfortunate fact that any large group will have an asshole in it, and we can’t protect ourselves from the inevitability of chaos.

Of course the world could do just fine without guns and cigarettes. But because I know many resilient smokers, and I know that non-lethal weapons could be used by law enforcement, I choose cigarettes over guns. A cigarette, for the most part, is something we choose to use on ourselves, and I believe we should all have the right to physiological self-sovereignty. But a gun is something to be used on others, generally without their consent. A lot more people are losing their personal freedom to guns than to cigarettes.

Reasoning Skills

I frequently see signs for something called the School of Philosophy. Usually the ads ask vague questions like, “Can philosophy make me happy?” or, “What is the meaning of life?”, and they’ll show a little person staring off into a bright white expanse. Though I never seriously studied philosophy in school I did take a class about reasoning skills. But philosophy has always interested me, so the advertisements usually catch my eye, though I always felt there might be something fishy going on here.

Then I saw this one:School of Philosophy ad“The Best Things In Life Are Not Things.” – School of Philosophy.

“Yes they are.” – Eric R. Schiller.

If I said, “The best doctors aren’t doctors,” someone should quickly respond, “then don’t call them doctors, idiot.” Using a word twice in the same sentence with two different meanings is very confusing. Maybe this doesn’t bother people, but it does bother people.

Language is our most fundamental tool for externalizing ideas. When language is used improperly it creates misunderstanding. This might be because language, improperly used, is a symptom of muddled thinking. Don’t get me wrong, I understand that there is value in a snappy slogan. Corporations like McDonald’s use them all the time. But McDonald’s wants you to give them money and eat cow. I expect more from a “school of philosophy”.

If you read any of the big philosophers, the first part of their major works generally define the terms they will be working with. The language must be unequivocal. Even where there might be confusion, differences in meaning must be strictly delineated. Otherwise ambiguities build up as you read, compounding the confusion until you’re left with a bunch of ineffective ideas and a headache (but a really toned brow).

This seemed like the worst kind of ad for any School of Philosophy, assuming the school aims to promote clear thinking. So I looked at the website, which is very vague. There is no hint of any real lesson plan. I did see pithy quotes from philosophers on the site, then read that “Writings and sayings of great philosophers such as Plato, Ficino, Shakespeare and others, set the stage for enlivened discussions based on personal experience.”

I then read that the school was founded in 1976 and later, in the 60s, was influenced by Eastern philosophy. This is not the only mistake on the site. They inspire no confidence in their ability to teach me clarity and wisdom. Besides, in my opinion, real knowledge comes from self analysis, not slogans.

But lo and behold, they do teach meditation. I soon discovered a strong undercurrent of Hinduism on the site.  It seems like a secularized, modernized, and disguised school of Hindu philosophy and I doubt it takes any serious look at philosophy at large, but grabs pieces that fit and ignores piece that don’t. I’m not terribly surprised.

This isn’t all bad necessarily. There’s value in learning the language of philosophy so we can think about these things fluently. But I wonder if $185 per course is worthwhile. Anyone interested in philosophy can go to the library and discover at their own pace for free. So what does that $185 tuition buy me?

The School of Philosophy is not for profit. And according to their website, all their instructors volunteer their time. So where does the money go? With no diploma and no course text, it seems that the money goes into the pocket of the person hired to collect it. After paying, the registrant is allowed to sit in on discussions between other students and instructors. So what are the qualifications of the instructors? It appears they are all former students.

Curious, I clicked “Registration” button. The message I received was “Fatal Error”.

Touché. The site seemed to have collapsed under my piercing scrutiny.

I definitely agree with meditation and yoga as a road to knowledge and wisdom. You might point out that yoga came from the ancient Hindus. But that doesn’t make Hindu philosophy right. To believe that would be to make the philosophical error known as a syllogistic fallacy. “I believe yoga works (A). Yoga comes from the Hindu tradition (B). Therefore I believe the Hindu tradition (C).” This is false logic. Reasoning skills!

So if you’re interested in learning about philosophy, go to the library before you shell out $185. The internet is such a repository of knowledge we can learn almost anything on our own, even meditation techniques. Or better yet, just send me $100 and we’ll talk over coffee.

 

P.S.

If you’re interested in “living in the now” so the universe can rain gifts of bliss down on you, sit still and take notice. Last night was possibly the best meditation of my life. Today gifts of free music rained down all day. So full-screen these beauties, sit back, and open up to the mystical transmissions of Yo La Tengo, David Bowie and Roy Montgomery.

YO LA TENGO

 

DAVID BOWIE

 

ROY MONTGOMERY

 

Blog Critics

The holidays, despite being holidays, have been very busy. When I realized Christmas and New Years both landed on Tuesdays, the thought occurred to give myself a week off. Well, this is that week. Clearly I’m only posting something now because I value consistency. As I’ve done in the past, I’m copping out this week and instead posting a couple of my recent reviews.

MUSIC REVIEW: SIX ORGANS OF ADMITTANCE – ASCENT

Article first published as Music Review: Six Organs of Admittance – Ascent on Blogcritics.

"Ascent" by Six OrgansDrag City released a new installment from psychedelic folk pioneer Ben Chasney on August 21, 2012, entitled Ascent. He has been recording under the moniker Six Organs of Admittance for over a decade now, and this time out, offers up typical mysticism wrapped in a package of space travel and cosmic resonance.

More band-oriented than any of his previous works, the influence of working with groups like Comets on Fire and Rangda is felt substantially here. While I appreciate the evolution of Chasney’s style over the last decade and a half, I find myself missing the quiet, droning, meditative acoustic work that was the hallmark of the outfit for the first half of its existence. Ascent is more like a rock album than the previous dozen albums. But fans are mightily used to experimentation when it comes to Six Organs, and should be pleased with this record.

The band, a slightly reorganized Comets on Fire, does play well together, and the opener, “Waswasa”, is a dynamic, riff-based jam that evokes the familiar noise and chaos of Chasney’s electrified solos. Recorded live from the floor in Louder Studios by Tim Green, the LP sounds fantastic and the players mesh beautifully. Simultaneously clean and dirty, loud and subtle, Six Organs and Green have stepped their game up from The Sun Awakens (Drag City). And “Waswasa” has the perfect psychedelic drive to set the stage for a real Ascent.

Second track “Close to the Sky” has a nice mellow feel reminiscent of “Blue Sunday” from The Doors, but after five minutes the cyclical bass groove begins to wear. Chasney seems to be comfortable in a band setting these days; the drums, bass, and rhythm guitars fill the frequencies while his solos arc overhead. Earlier recordings highlighted Chasney’s acoustic folk-raga style, and fans of old-school Six Organs might find some of these tracks a bit diluted. Chasney relies on his bandmates a bit too heavily and some tracks lack the direction of earlier Six Organs.

The best example of this is “One Thousand Birds”, a re-imagined oldie from the Six Organs classic Dark Noontide (on Holy Mountain Records). The original has nothing but clattering percussion and one gloriously stringy acoustic guitar until an electric squall discharges and takes it to the next level. Ascent‘s version spreads the parts between more people without adding to the complexity and impulse of the song. And Chasney’s iconic voice, usually used like such an integral instrument, falsettos on top of the music and doesn’t sell the message like the original.

Fans of the droning profundity Six Organs uses to warp us through the interior maze will be happy with “They Called You Near”. It’s a deep, murmuring, dark space that drips down the brain stem with layers of guitar and noise supporting Chasney’s chant-like vocals. The acoustic coda is beautifully clean (both recording and performance) and melds with the slow Side A closer, “Solar Ascent”.

Side B is a four-song mix of familiar styles starting with the aforementioned “One Thousand Birds”. The dreamy, lilting “Your Ghost” gives way to a rocking entreaty to burn memories (“Even If You Knew”) that makes it past the seven-minute mark without getting old. And the finale, “Visions (From Io)” is a gorgeous slow jam that blends science fiction and magic to send us out into the world in a cloud of oneiric bliss.

The packaging of the LP is one of the slickest in the Six Organs collection. The cover hints at the sci-fi narrative Chasney has in mind for this record, while the back cover is a forthright magical symbol. This dichotomy works for the record and the themes can be seen across Chasney’s career.

Six Organs has always been about Ascent, both inner and outer. The simple liner notes (including lyrics) are printed on a lovely dot matrix one sheet. Though I haven’t heard the digital version, I’m betting fans will be happy purchasing the vinyl version, which is a great value for less than $20. Not the best Six Organs record, it’s still light years beyond most contemporary music.

 

BLU-RAY REVIEW: BLUE VELVET

Article first published as Blu-ray Review: Blue Velvet on Blogcritics.

Blue VelvetIn 1986 David Lynch created his most concise and iconic film, Blue Velvet. A modern noir and a pervert’s detective story, it offers the most succinct iterations of the themes that have spanned his career. His first film with the coveted “final cut” clause (under De Laurentiis Entertainment Group), Blue Velvet is distilled Lynch – a textural ride into our subconscious where dark desires hide from the light of day. “It’s a strange world,” is the perfect mantra for this psychosexual masterpiece.

Blue Velvet is one of David Lynch’s most accessible films for those new to his work. Perhaps more balanced and commercial than any of his other movies, the film offers a striking blend of high school innocence and psychotic despair (embodied by the two female leads). The seeds planted by Blue Velvet blossomed into the cult television hit Twin Peaks by Lynch and Mark Frost, and both projects continue to influence popular culture from American Beauty to AMC’s The Killing. Other projects from Lynch feel much darker and esoteric. While I can watch Lynch’s films just about any time, I can confidently say that Lost Highway is not the best movie for a first date.

It’s obvious that mystery is what turns Lynch’s crank, and protagonist Jeffery Beaumont (Kyle MacLachlan) is the perfect surrogate for the auteur. Jeffery is an amazing blend of gee-whiz Hardy Boy and torrid voyeur. Mild-mannered, geeky, and friendless in his hometown, he is drawn irresistibly into the deep river of mystery just below the surface of his familiar world. It’s his compulsion toward the unknown that drives Jeffery. Lynch uses him as a key to our restrained impulses; we find ourselves drawn into the act of observation, afraid of how deep and dark our own desires go.

Dennis Hopper creates one of the most terrible villains in film history whose erratic and drug-induced violence shows us just how dark things can get. Frank’s twisted sexual behavior leaves us feeling gutted, but his emotional vulnerability to Roy Orbison’s “In Dreams” adds such a specific and bizarre dimension to his evil that we’re drawn into his mania even as we fear it. When Frank commandeers Jeffery for a wicked joyride, he leers at Jeffery in the back seat, and at us through Jeffery’s POV, and says, “You’re like me.” It’s chilling because we recognize Jeffery’s perversion as a faint reflection of Frank’s, as well as our own desire to look into the darkness of Blue Velvet.

Familiar themes of light and dark, love and fear, order and chaos, are set in motion in the first scene of the picture. Fifties-era white-picket fences and manicured lawns give way to a dizzying horror of bugs crawling and scratching the dirt. The iconic severed ear is a perfect symbol for Lynch’s work, acknowledging the senses before diving through perception to Something Else. And it’s his unique ability to show us that Something Else that distinguishes Lynch as one of the most important artists in the medium.

The 1080p video looks amazing. The digital transfer was supervised by David Lynch, as was the previous Special Edition DVD, which looked pretty good. But the Blu-ray edition blows the doors off the DVD. It’s unclear whether the bump in quality is from the resolution alone, or if they’ve carefully recolored and timed the whole movie, but the HD version captures much more of the original film look with beautiful fidelity. The dark scenes have depth and the colours are resplendent. I detected only a slight trace of noise in a few shots.

What impressed me even more than the picture was the sound. From the start of his career, Lynch has understood that video and sound are two equally important halves of filmmaking. One reason his films are so absorbing is because of his emphatic attention to sound design. From Eraserhead to Inland Empire, Lynch’s meticulous sound work builds the environment around the characters, forming a fuller sensory world than traditional filmmakers. Layering room tones, distant machinery, wind, humming lights, and musical score, he fleshes out the mood of each moment, bringing us more in touch with the psychology of the character.

One of the disappointing things about the old DVD version was the sound. Obviously a lot of time had been spent trying to manicure the soundtrack, but I believe the digital technology just wasn’t capable of delivering a satisfying product at the time. Background noise in the dialogue wasn’t blended properly with the ambience of the scenes, and so the dialogue seemed haloed with a subtle hiss. This may simply have been the result of bad compression. But the Blu-ray edition has fixed this impressively.

I marveled throughout the movie at how clearly I could make out subtleties in the quiet moments. Particularly with the sultry voice of Dorothy Vallens (Isabella Rossellini), the dynamic range of the soundtrack really shows off the depth of the original recordings. As both a cinephile and an audiophile, I can’t stress enough how important the sound is to the movie-watching experience, and I think this fact alone is reason enough to buy the Blu-ray edition. Even if you’ve only recently bought the DVD version, as I have, it’s well worth it (until the next jump in technology takes place later this afternoon).

The Blu-ray edition offers great special features as well. Over fifty minutes of deleted scenes have been found and beautifully restored in HD for fans who can’t get enough. Previously seen as only a “Deleted Scene Montage” of stills on the DVD, fans will enjoy Frances Bay’s comic timing, a hilarious jazz stand-up routine, and a gorgeous, electric scene with Jeffery and Dorothy on the roof of her apartment. A smattering of outtakes and vignettes only leaves us wanting more, but the “Mysteries of Love” documentary (previously on the DVD) bulks up the package.

Twenty-six years after its original release, Blue Velvet is still as fresh, shocking, and cool as ever. This Blu-ray release is as satisfying as I could have hoped. Not only are the video and sound leagues better than any previous version since the actual celluloid, but the restored deleted scenes make this the definitive version to own.

P.S. For a more plot-oriented review of this product, El Bicho has written a good one.