Recent Finds

Diseases of the Imagination and Imaginary Disease in the Early Modern Period

Yasmin Annabel Haskell

Brepols Publishers, 2011

“The early modern period was arguably the greatest ‘age of the imagination’ in Europe, and certainly the period in which the powers attributed to that faculty had the greatest consequences – both in theory and in ordinary people’s lives. Theologians and physicians debated the reality of witchcraft (no simple battle between Religion and Science, as believers and doubters could be found on both sides); the existence and pathology of werewolves and vampires; the role of the imagination in influencing the unborn child and in causing disease even in remote others. The imagination was implicated in conditions from plague, lovesickness, and anger through to hysteric and hypochondriac disease – the latter a frightening syndrome of gastric, respiratory, cardiac, and psychiatric problems believed to be epidemic. The essays in this volume, by established and emerging scholars from diverse intellectual and cultural traditions, explore Latin and vernacular, philosophical, medical, poetic, dramatic, epistolary, and juridical sources to expose the tangled conceptual roots of our modern affective, anxiety and somatoform disorders. They confirm that controversies about ‘mad’ versus ‘bad’, ‘real’ versus ‘psychosomatic’ complaints, and the interdependence of perception, emotion, and physical illness are by no means a monopoly of our times. This pioneering, interdisciplinary collection explores the long history of psychosomatic illness from the fifteenth to the eighteenth centuries.”


Recent Finds

Experiencing Art In the Brain of the Beholder

by Arthur P. Shimamura, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 2013.

“How do we appreciate a work of art? Why do we like some artworks but not others? Is there no accounting for taste? Awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship to explore connections between art, mind, and brain, Shimamura considers how we experience art. In a thoughtful and entertaining manner, the book explores how the brain interprets art by engaging our sensations, thoughts, and emotions. It describes interesting findings from psychological and brain sciences as a way to understand our aesthetic response to art. Beauty, disgust, surprise, anger, sadness, horror, and a myriad of other emotions can occur as we experience art. Some artworks may generate such feelings rather quickly, while others depend on thought and knowledge. Our response to art depends largely on what we know—from everyday knowledge about the world, from our cultural backgrounds, and from personal experience. Filled with artworks from many traditions and time points, “Experiencing Art” offers insightful ways of broadening one’s approach and appreciation of art.”

Check out this review in Science for a sharply critical response.


Imaginative Fields in protein folding

Here’s a rough abstract for a talk I’m planning to give next spring, plus a back-and-forth discussion between me and Lily H, a friend and colleague at the University of Chicago.


Scientists use landscape visualizations in their study of protein folding as a cognitive tool to imagine new explanations. The landscape metaphor represents the way that a protein folds into its biologically active state as a traversal across a landscape of possibilities. Each shape corresponds to an energy value, and physical forces drive the protein from higher energies (mountains in the landscape) to lower energies (valleys). The landscape metaphor facilitates scientists’ cognitive work by allowing them to relate the many-dimensional process of protein folding to a physical, three-dimensional shape. For instance, different overall topographies of the landscape stand for different scientific theories of how proteins fold. Scientists have also used landscapes to represent empirical measurements of proteins’ behavior in the lab. I argue that these visual representations of natural phenomena link scientists’ abstract conceptual reasoning to their embodied experience by establishing a spatial field for imagination. I also suggest that this role for images in science — as an “imaginative field” — is quite general, and can be found in many places, such as with phase spaces in physics or evolutionary trees in biology.

Will you talk about particular groups/investigations?

–I have in mind a couple major competing theories for protein folding. The most famous is that proteins don’t follow any distinctive pathway to reach their active state but have to pass over a uniform energetic hump involving internal reconfiguration after an initial collapse. Later modifications to this theory allow for certain biased routes analogous to passes in a mountainside. There’s another case of reasoning with landscapes that turned out to be wrong but is particularly clear in setting out the reasoning process.

Will you talk about the historical use of topographical representation-as-explanation in biology?

–I can, but this links up to the larger topic of fitness landscapes in evolutionary biology, which are conceptually distinct from energy landscapes in protein folding. My feeling is that 25 minutes [for the talk] won’t even be enough to do energy landscapes justice…

Just from the abstract it strikes me that your conclusion could go further—for instance, not just a spatial field for the imagination but what kind of spatial field?

–Maybe, but I’m not sure what kind it would be! Any suggestions? 🙂 This is a place where I could probably learn a lot from existing literature and group feedback. The first idea that occurs to me is to differentiate kinds of fields based on dimensionality and the mode of embodied interaction. Landscapes for example depend on the metaphors of traversal, pathways, and topography. Evolutionary trees, however, involve branching and the idea of distance (which may be temporal or also embedded in a morphological space). How might you distinguish between fields?

–And could this working image have been otherwise?

Depends on what “otherwise” means. 😛 There are considerable variations in the depiction of folding landscapes, much like what David Kaiser describes for Feynmann diagrams in particle physics. There are also other ways of imagining mechanisms for protein folding, such as a divide and conquer process by which parts of the protein fold locally and then combine modularly to form the whole. My impression is that there is no settled, general answer for whether one is “right” overall. A different answer to that question might point to the recent discovery of chaperones that assist protein folding and the historical assumption that landscapes always have a unique lowest point independent of environmental context. (In other words, protein folding involved the motion toward a global minimum specified intrinsically by the amino acid sequence alone.) The idea of a global minimum corresponding to the active state was historically central to the original popularity of the landscape visualization. I’m not sure what would happen if physicists decided the global minimum was no longer explanatorily important.
–What does this particular visualization explain better than others, and what does it not explain?

The main alternative visualization for protein folding is to draw the atoms in three dimensions and watch them move around. This keeps the physical description of the protein’s state concrete, but makes it harder to identify general physical processes. The hydrophobic forces that cause many proteins to collapse, for example, do not have a distinctive signature at the atomic level other than the protein getting more dense, which can also be caused by other forces. The landscape formulation is aimed at describing generic features to all protein folding rather than the particular motions of individual amino acid sequences.


Materialist imagination

I’m going to take a slightly different approach to imagination in this post. What’s on my mind are the pros and cons of targeting your imagination to generating well-defined end products. We can start by thinking through whether it’s always good to have a purpose for using your imagination. In science, a major role for imagination is to assist scientists in coming up with novel answers to research problems. When biologists struggle to figure out how cancer starts, they have to imagine all the possible causes along with ways to test the importance of those causes experimentally. Typically there are some relatively obvious hypotheses — cancer is caused by mutations in gene controlling cell division, for instance — and there are “out there” ideas that sometimes turn out to be true — like the idea that cigarettes cause lung cancer eighty years ago. But in all these cases, the scientific imagination is targeted toward producing answers for an important question, “How does cancer start?”

Alternatively, daydreaming is a sort of imagination that we often think is aimless (if not counterproductive!). Yet it too could be said to serve a role. Daydreaming might help a student escape his or her dreary class and bring some pleasure into life. Some people can take the wanderings of their minds and turn them into art: they use their otherwise idle fantasies as material for new expressions in their paintings or music.

What’s most interesting here I think is not the question whether imagination can ever be truly pointless. Instead, I’m intrigued by how we judge our own imaginings as “productive” or “a waste of time.” I’m thinking here especially of deep-seated overachievers like me who always feel like they need to be productive. This can turn into a sort of commodification of imagination: the idea that my creative energies should only be channeled into concrete products, like research papers, computer programs, blog posts, new skills, and so on. By nature, imagination is focused on things that are not real yet (or ever). We imagine what we don’t know, what we are going to experience, what we would like to be. Yet focusing imagination into tangible products easily slides into materalism. The aims of imagination become pre-packaged in ways that we anticipate will be valuable to other people before we even start imagining.

The aims of imagination are not inherently restricted to the “market value” of their end products, though. Reducing our imaginations to what other people readily find valuable cuts us out of a lot of the benefit of our own minds. Imagination can be a way of escaping groupthink even when it doesn’t lead directly to a tangible proposal. Reading a novel exercises our imaginations through encouraging us to create the fictional scenes in our minds and experience their possible meanings. Reading can “open your mind” without resulting in a particular new skill or idea by the end of the book.

Nonetheless, the pressure to produce (among overachievers) is constant. American society tends to admire people who are successful in multiple ways beyond their career or family life. They are accomplished musicians, bloggers, connaisseurs, inventors, athletes, too. Being impressive in the middle class means simultaneous excellence in several arenas. In this way, creativity is harnessed to social status, and imagination becomes a path to materalism. That is, the aim of imagination becomes the accumulation of more social coolness points rather than something connected to the actual content of what’s imagined.

Still, we all have to eat. Competition for creative, professional jobs is intense. Few of us in this situation have the leisure to embrace creativity without immediate concern for its contribution to our livelihood. What’s the right balance between commodification and open-ended interest?

Books, Recent finds

Recent Find

Art and Truth After Plato

Tom Rockmore

“Despite its foundational role in the history of philosophy, Plato’s famous argument that art does not have access to truth or knowledge is now rarely examined, in part because recent philosophers have assumed that Plato’s challenge was resolved long ago. In Art and Truth after Plato, Tom Rockmore argues that Plato has in fact never been satisfactorily answered—and to demonstrate that, he offers a comprehensive account of Plato’s influence through nearly the whole history of Western aesthetics. Rockmore offers a cogent reading of the post-Platonic aesthetic tradition as a series of responses to Plato’s position, examining a stunning diversity of thinkers and ideas. He visits Aristotle’s Poetics, the medieval Christians, Kant’s Critique of Judgment, Hegel’s phenomenology, Marxism, social realism, Heidegger, and many other works and thinkers, ending with a powerful synthesis that lands on four central aesthetic arguments that philosophers have debated. More than a mere history of aesthetics, Art and Truth after Plato presents a fresh look at an ancient question, bringing it into contemporary relief.”

Books, Recent finds

Recent Find

The Great Image Has No Form, or On the Nonobject through Painting

FranCois Jullien

“In premodern China, elite painters used imagery not to mirror the world around them, but to evoke unfathomable experience. Considering their art alongside the philosophical traditions that inform it, The Great Image Has No Form explores the “nonobject”—a notion exemplified by paintings that do not seek to represent observable surroundings.

François Jullien argues that this nonobjectifying approach stems from the painters’ deeply held belief in a continuum of existence, in which art is not distinct from reality. Contrasting this perspective with the Western notion of art as separate from the world it represents, Jullien investigates the theoretical conditions that allow us to apprehend, isolate, and abstract objects. His comparative method lays bare the assumptions of Chinese and European thought, revitalizing the questions of what painting is, where it comes from, and what it does. Provocative and intellectually vigorous, this sweeping inquiry introduces new ways of thinking about the relationship of art to the ideas in which it is rooted.”


Dead bird, abstract bird: imagining the natural

In the Chicago Field Museum of Natural History, behind the nature walk on the first floor, is a room full of birds. More precisely, a room full of dead birds stuffed with cotton. It’s a funny way to learn about birds in nature, right? First you kill them, then you preserve them and maybe put them in cute poses for display. What we lose in this process is the sound, the movement, the location of the birds. What we gain, though, shouldn’t be overlooked. In fact, we can look at preserved specimens of birds in ways that are usually impossible in nature. Want to get an accurate drawing of the bird’s coloration down to the feather? You can get as close as you want to the specimen. You can also put a whole sequence of birds next to each other, such as a sample of specimens from the same species over a whole continent. That’s a tactile comparison that can’t be found in nature.

In order to learn more about something, we often have to change it first: maybe we take it out of its normal environment, or we freeze an ongoing process. Sometimes we kill and break things, too. Once we’ve changed it, though, we have a new problem. Yes, we can measure things in the altered case that are impossible otherwise, but how do we know these measurements reflect the natural situation? Maybe the data we get by killing the bird and preserving it in the museum are distorted by that very act. The specimen in the museum display is really a complex object, both natural and artificial in subtle ways.

Walking through the hall of birds inextricably demands our imagination. Here is a prop — the preserved specimen — that enables and also threatens your imagination of the living thing. In the wild, you might be lucky to glimpse a bird for a few seconds from the bottom through binoculars. A flash of yellow on its stomach against black wings. What species is it? After careful study of pictures and specimens, you might call to mind several possibilities and fit what you saw to their distinctive patternings. Imagine the bird you saw as similar to the other birds you’ve already got to know — which seems most likely?

On the other hand, there are some things you’ll never learn from a specimen in the museum. What does the bird do when a predator approaches its nest? There was a mother bird nesting outside the north end of the museum this summer that would sit screeching on trees and street lamps and dive-bomb anyone walking past. The mother never actually touched anyone, though, so it was more of a bluff than a real threat. (Which made it pretty funny to watch as unsuspecting people became targets — many never even noticed!) If you spent too much time with the dead specimens, their static character might grow to dominate your thinking about the birds. One can’t see the birds’ behavior in their bodies, only the anatomy that supports it!

What I like best about the hall of birds exhibit is the way the exhibit designers have recognized this gap for our imagination: they have projected black and white profiles of living birds onto the walls and included a soundtrack of birds chirping and singing. The video isn’t a realistic portrait of the birds in the wild — it’s not like watching a nature video on TV. Instead, it’s the living bird as abstract moving art. For me, this fits perfectly in the experience: the bird itself is something we never see in full, and going to the museum is most truly an act of imagination. Here we are reminded about the other aspects of the specimens we see in the cases but the sound and video heightens our imagination instead of replacing it.