Still Baffled by the Brain, and Other News


On the Shelf

A reproduction of a portrait of Charcot holding a brain, 1898.


  • It’s time for our annual check-in on the mystery of human consciousness—have the scientists figured it out yet? Reader: No. No, they have not. The upper echelons of neuroscience remain baffled; the philosophers, also baffled; the unkempt man at the train station holding a cardboard sign that says MICROWAVES ARE BRAINWAVES, perhaps less baffled but still not terribly convincing. As the neuroscientist Robert A. Burton writes, every era gets the theory of consciousness it deserves—by using science to explain what philosophy and religion could not, we’re essentially just passing the buck, and soon it will pass again: “As an intellectual challenge, there is no equal to wondering how subatomic particles, mindless cells, synapses, and neurotransmitters create the experience of red, the beauty of a sunset, the euphoria of lust, the transcendence of music, or in this case, intractable paranoia … It’s dawned on me that the pursuit of the nature of consciousness, no matter how cleverly couched in scientific language, is more like metaphysics and theology. It is driven by the same urges that made us dream up gods and demons, souls and afterlife. The human urge to understand ourselves is eternal, and how we frame our musings always depends upon prevailing cultural mythology. In a scientific era, we should expect philosophical and theological ruminations to be couched in the language of physical processes. We argue by inference and analogy, dragging explanations from other areas of science such as quantum physics, complexity, information theory, and math into a subjective domain. Theories of consciousness are how we wish to see ourselves in the world, and how we wish the world might be.”
  • Danuta Kean explores one of the lesser-discussed joys of reading: discovering typos. In a survey of literature’s biggest typographical blunders, she writes, “One of the best literary malapropisms in print appears in Theodore Dreiser’s 1925 classic, An American Tragedy … Two characters dance ‘harmoniously abandoning themselves to the rhythm of the music—like two small chips being tossed about on a rough but friendly sea’ … But the king of all typo-riddled books is Jonathan Franzen’s 2010 novel, Freedom. HarperCollins wound up pulping the entire first print run of 80,000 copies after it emerged that an early version of the book was sent to the printers by mistake. As a result, the book teemed with hundreds of mistakes in grammar, spelling and even characterization … The Corrections author discovered the catastrophe surrounding his eagerly anticipated book in a brutally public way. Recording a reading for the BBC current affairs show Newsnight, Franzen came to an abrupt halt and said: ‘Sorry, I’m realizing to my horror that there’s a mistake here that was corrected early in the galleys and it’s still in the fucking hardcover of the book.’ ”

  • A. E. Housman was just so British. Seldom has a poet been Britisher. His collection A Shropshire Lad has remained in print since it first appeared, in 1896—but though it’s a hallmark of English poetry, its author remains an aloof presence, seldom brought into the light by scholars or biographers. Charles McGrath writes of the gulf between A Shropshire Lad and its author: “Somehow, these sixty-three short lyrics, celebrating youth, loss, and early death, became for generations of readers the perfect evocation not merely of what it feels like to be adolescent and a little emotional but of what it means to be English. We don’t have anything remotely like it in American lit. Some of Emily Dickinson’s brief lyrics come closest—tonally, and in their mastery of the short, compressed line—but she has never quite attained Housman’s popularity, and the landscape she wrote about, the one inside her own head, could hardly be said to have created a sense of national identity … There were a number of different Housmans, and how you felt about him depended on which one you happened to meet. He was an adventurous eater and a lover of good wine. He liked dirty stories and flying in airplanes. At high table at his Cambridge college, he could be clubbable and amusing, and might even bend your ear about how much he liked the jazz-age novels of Anita Loos. But he could also be rude, aloof, brooding, and difficult. He suffered fools not at all, and was unable to tolerate a compliment.”
  • Emma Grey Ellis has the story of Ben Garrison, a libertarian political cartoonist whose cartoons are asinine reductions of the headlines designed to appeal to the alt-right—an audience Garrison has courted despite its savage trolling of him. Ellis writes, “Garrison’s cartoons started out as conventionally libertarian, if a bit conspiracy-minded: anti–big bank, anti–Federal Reserve, pro–Ron Paul. But internet anti-Semites (or at least people fishing for a reaction) started splicing Garrison’s work together with the work of Nick Bougas, aka A. Wyatt Mann, a director and illustrator responsible for one of the web’s most enduring anti-Semitic images … The more Garrison fought the defamation, the more the trolls—spearheaded by 4chan, 8chan, and an army of extremists commanded by neo-Nazi Andrew Anglin, founder of hate site The Daily Stormer—smeared his reputation. In their capable hands, the then-unknown Garrison transformed into the most vicious man on the internet, with a long list of nicknames. The most popular of these was Zyklon Ben (after zyklon b, the gas used in Nazi concentration camps), but the web is still littered with threads calling him Ben ‘One Man Klan’ Garrison or Ben ‘Not White? Shoot On Sight’ Garrison and other bits of jingly hate speech. The trolls even got a Fox News affiliate to talk about the fictional Nazi version of Garrison by flooding the comments section during the Baltimore riots.”
  • It used to be easy to spot rich people. They wore fancy shit, drove fancy shit, ate fancy shit. Now their fanciness has gone underground, Elizabeth Currid-Halkett argues, as conspicuous consumption yields to something more nefarious—involving the kind of cachet that oh, say, a subscription to The Paris Review might bring: “While much inconspicuous consumption is extremely expensive, it shows itself through less expensive but equally pronounced signaling—from reading The Economist to buying pasture-raised eggs. Inconspicuous consumption in other words, has become a shorthand through which the new elite signal their cultural capital to one another. In lockstep with the invoice for private preschool comes the knowledge that one should pack the lunchbox with quinoa crackers and organic fruit … Knowing these seemingly inexpensive social norms is itself a rite of passage into today’s aspirational class. And that rite is far from costless: The Economist subscription might set one back only $100, but the awareness to subscribe and be seen with it tucked in one’s bag is likely the iterative result of spending time in elite social milieus … Knowing which New Yorker articles to reference or what small talk to engage in at the local farmers’ market enables and displays the acquisition of cultural capital, thereby providing entry into social networks that, in turn, help to pave the way to elite jobs, key social and professional contacts, and private schools. In short, inconspicuous consumption confers social mobility.”