Friday, April 29, 2005

from LiveScience

Empathy allows us to feel the emotions of others, to identify and understand their feelings and motives and see things from their perspective. How we generate empathy remains a subject of intense debate in cognitive science.

Some scientists now believe they may have finally discovered its root. We're all essentially mind readers, they say.

The idea has been slow to gain acceptance, but evidence is mounting.

Mirror neurons

In 1996, three neuroscientists were probing the brain of a macaque monkey when they stumbled across a curious cluster of cells in the premotor cortex, an area of the brain responsible for planning movements. The cluster of cells fired not only when the monkey performed an action, but likewise when the monkey saw the same action performed by someone else. The cells responded the same way whether the monkey reached out to grasp a peanut, or merely watched in envy as another monkey or a human did.

Because the cells reflected the actions that the monkey observed in others, the neuroscientists named them "mirror neurons."

Later experiments confirmed the existence of mirror neurons in humans and revealed another surprise. In addition to mirroring actions, the cells reflected sensations and emotions.

"Mirror neurons suggest that we pretend to be in another person's mental shoes," says Marco Iacoboni, a neuroscientist at the University of California, Los Angeles School of Medicine. "In fact, with mirror neurons we do not have to pretend, we practically are in another person's mind."

Since their discovery, mirror neurons have been implicated in a broad range of phenomena, including certain mental disorders. Mirror neurons may help cognitive scientists explain how children develop a theory of mind (ToM), which is a child's understanding that others have minds similar to their own. Doing so may help shed light on autism, in which this type of understanding is often missing.

Theory theory

Over the years, cognitive scientists have come up with a number of theories to explain how ToM develops. The "theory theory" and "simulation theory" are currently two of the most popular.
Theory theory describes children as budding social scientists. The idea is that children collect evidence -- in the form of gestures and expressions -- and use their everyday understanding of people to develop theories that explain and predict the mental state of people they come in contact with.

Vittorio Gallese, a neuroscientist at the University of Parma in Italy and one of original discovers of mirror neurons, has another name for this theory: he calls it the "Vulcan Approach," in honor of the Star Trek protagonist Spock, who belonged to an alien race called the Vulcans who suppressed their emotions in favor of logic. Spock was often unable to understand the emotions that underlie human behavior.

Gallese himself prefers simulation theory over this Vulcan approach.

Natural mind readers

Simulation theory states that we are natural mind readers. We place ourselves in another person’s "mental shoes," and use our own mind as a model for theirs.

Gallese contends that when we interact with someone, we do more than just observe the other person’s behavior. He believes we create internal representations of their actions, sensations and emotions within ourselves, as if we are the ones that are moving, sensing and feeling.

Many scientists believe that mirror neurons embody the predictions of simulation theory. "We share with others not only the way they normally act or subjectively experience emotions and sensations, but also the neural circuits enabling those same actions, emotions and sensations: the mirror neuron systems," Gallese told LiveScience.

Gallese points out, however, that the two theories are not mutually exclusive. If the mirror neuron system is defective or damaged, and our ability to empathize is lost, the observe-and-guess method of theory theory may be the only option left. Some scientists suspect this is what happens in autistic people, whose mental disorder prevents them from understanding the intentions and motives of others.

Tests underway

The idea is that the mirror neuron systems of autistic individuals are somehow impaired or deficient, and that the resulting "mind-blindness" prevents them from simulating the experiences of others. For autistic individuals, experience is more observed than lived, and the emotional undercurrents that govern so much of our human behavior are inaccessible. They guess the mental states of others through explicit theorizing, but the end result is a list -- mechanical and impersonal -- of actions, gestures and expressions void of motive, intent, or emotion.

Several labs are now testing the hypothesis that autistic individuals have a mirror neuron deficit and cannot simulate the mental states of others.

One recent experiment by Hugo Theoret and colleagues at the University of Montreal showed that mirror neurons normally active during the observation of hand movements in non-autistic individuals are silent in those who have autism.

"You either simulate with mirror neurons, or the mental states of others are completely precluded to you," said Iacoboni.

Friday, April 22, 2005


a song lyric by Stephen Brooke ©2005

verse 1.
When the sun is high
and the water's low,
There's no place better
we can go
than swimmin'.
We'll wade in the shallows,
dive in the pools,
Splash each other,
act like fools;
we're swimmin'

Swimmin' in the Swanee
on a hot summer day,
Washin' all our
cares away.
Work is done,
it's time to play;
We'll go swimmin' in the Swanee
on a sunny summer day.

verse 2
Head for the river,
just you and your buds;
No more frosts,
no more floods,
go swimmin'!
Get you a tube,
float along;
The current's steady
but it's not too strong
for swimmin'.

repeat chorus
verse 3
Water's as brown
as tea in a cup;
We'll find a cool spot
where a spring wells up,
gone swimmin'.
Just you and me,
two fugitives,
But keep your feet off the bottom
where the snappin' turtle lives
while swimmin'!

repeat chorus or something like that...

Wednesday, April 20, 2005

A pair of quinzaines:

I reveal one more facet.
Would my entirety
dazzle you?

It's the end of the world.
Should I put on clean

Stephen Brooke ©2005

Friday, April 15, 2005


a song parody, to the tune of 'Some Enchanted Evening'

Some embarrassed morning you may see a stranger
You may see a stranger across your rumpled sheets
And truly you hope, you hope there and then
That with any luck you'll never see him again

Some embarrassed morning, someone may be singing
You may hear him singing in your shower stall
And with your hangover, you’ll wish you were dead
The sound of his singing will throb in your head

Who can explain it, who can tell you why
Fools will get drunk and bring home a strange guy

Some embarrassed morning, you will break the silence
Break the awkward silence across the breakfast table
Then ask him his name before he must go
Or all through your life you may never know

If you don’t ask him, you will never know
If you don’t ask him, you will never know

Stephen Brooke ©2005

I went up to Thomasville last night to see a performance of South Pacifice that my friend Karen was working on as assistant director. Wasn't too bad...but this was what I came away with.
the first step is to admit you have a problem...


How many of these apply to you?

1. I have read fiction when I was depressed, or to cheer myself up.
2. I have gone on reading binges of an entire book or more in a day.
3. I read rapidly, often 'gulping' chapters.
4. I have sometimes read early in the morning or before work.
5. I have hidden books in different places to sneak a chapter without being seen.
6. Sometimes I avoid friends or family obligations in order to read novels.
7. Sometimes I re-write film or television dialog as the characters speak.
8. I am unable to enjoy myself with others unless there is a book nearby.
9. At a party, I will often slip off unnoticed to read.
10. Reading has made me seek haunts and companions that I might otherwise not visit.
11. I have neglected personal hygiene or household chores until I have finished a novel.
12. I have spent money meant for necessities on books instead.
13. I have attempted to check out more library books than permitted.
14. Most of my friends are heavy fiction readers.
15. I have sometimes passed out from a night of heavy reading.
16. I have suffered 'blackouts' or memory loss from a bout of reading.
17. I have wept, become angry or irrational because of something I read.
18. I have sometimes wished I did not read so much.
19. Sometimes I think my reading is out of control.

If you answered 'yes' to three or more of these questions, you might be a literature abuser. Affirmative responses to five or more indicates a serious problem. Once a relatively rare disorder, Literature Abuse -- or LA -- has risen to new levels due to the accessibility of higher education and increased college enrollment since the end of the Second World War. The number of literature abusers is currently at record levels.


Abusers become withdrawn, uninterested in society or normal relationships. They fantasize, creating alternative worlds to occupy, to the neglect of friends and family. In severe cases they develop bad posture from reading in awkward positions or carrying heavy book bags. In the worst instances, they become cranky reference librarians in small towns. Excessive reading during pregnancy is perhaps the number one cause of moral deformity among the children of English professors, teachers of English and creative writing. Known as Fetal Fiction Syndrome, this disease also leaves its victims prone to a lifetime of nearsightedness, daydreaming and emotional instability.

Recent Harvard studies have established that heredity plays a considerable role in determining whether a person will become an abuser of literature. Most abusers have at least one parent who abused literature, often beginning at an early age and progressing into adulthood. Many spouses of an abuser become abusers themselves.

Fathers or mothers who are English teachers, professors, or heavy fiction readers; parents who do not encourage children to play games, participate in healthy sports, or watch television in the evening.

Pre-marital screening and counseling, referral to adoption agencies in order to break the chain of abuse. English teachers in particular should seek partners active in other fields. Children should be encouraged to seek physical activity and to avoid isolation and morbid introspection.

Within the sordid world of literature abuse, the lowest circle belongs to those sufferers who have thrown their lives and hopes away to study literature in our colleges. Parents should look for signs that their children are taking the wrong path--don't expect your teenager to approach you and say, "I can't stop reading Spenser." By the time you visit her dorm room and find the secret stash of the Paris Review, it might already be too late.

What to do if you suspect your child is becoming an English major:

1.Talk to your child in a loving way. Show your concern. Let her know you won't abandon her--but that you aren't spending a hundred grand to put her through Stanford so she can clerk at Waldenbooks, either. But remember that she might not be able to make a decision without help; perhaps she has just finished Madame Bovary and is dying of arsenic poisoning.

2. Face the issue: Tell her what you know, and how: "I found this book in your purse. How long has this been going on?" Ask the hard question--Who is this Count Vronsky?

3. Show her another way. Move the television set into her room. Introduce her to frat boys.

4. Do what you have to do. Tear up her library card. Make her stop signing her letters as 'Emma.' Force her to take a math class, or minor in Spanish. Transfer her to a Florida college.

You might be dealing with a life-threatening problem if one or more of the following applies:
* She can tell you how and when Thomas Chatterton died.
* She names one or more of her cats after a Romantic poet.
* Next to her bed is a picture of: Lord Byron, Virginia Woolf, Faulkner or any scene from the Lake District.

Most important, remember that you are not alone.

To seek help for yourself or someone you love, contact the nearest chapter of the American Literature Abuse Society, or look under ALAS in your telephone directory.

Tuesday, April 12, 2005


dedicated to my friend Lynda

Her name means beautiful.

There is beauty in the small brown hands
that hold conversations with Beethoven
and with Chopin, breathtaking
reckless dialogs I could never follow.

Her name means beautiful,

and she is even now, though no longer
the prodigy, the crown-wearer,
who dazzled them back then, back there,
who made Ellington take notice.

Her name lives in her,

in face and in faith (more faith than I
will ever have), shining still,
with a little help from a strong
and stubborn spirit that does not forget

her name means beautiful.

Stephen Brooke ©2005

I'll be going up to Tuskegee this weekend to record my friend Lynda's piano recital and got to thinking about the meaning of her name -- hence this poem (which is so-so and will probably see rewrites down the line).

Sunday, April 10, 2005


It requires a fine balance,
this being half-in-love.
We teeter on the uncomfortable
knife edge of maybe
until we must fall one way
or the other, in or out.

Whichever it may be,
it will hurt when we land.

I have built wings of paper,
longer each day. Once, I thought
they would let me fly away,
glide to new skies, set me
on firm ground. Too late.
They have grown unwieldy –

too long, too heavy.
I can only fall the harder.

Stephen Brooke ©2005

Saturday, April 09, 2005

a quinzaine...

Too many write from the heart.
Why don't they learn to
use the brain?

I wish some of the folks posting out there would work at least a little on their craft...just because it's heart-felt doesn't make it good poetry.

Friday, April 08, 2005


Bamboo, like fences, makes good neighbors--
or maybe it just makes good fences.
Good honey, too, if you've a mind
to keep bees. I go to a stand
up the road for mine, of course.

Twelve canes I planted last Fall, along
the line, to hide what they would.
At least one has rooted. Someday,
I may regret the bamboo thicket
that will surely grow, persistent,
impenetrable, gold-green shafts
that hold the shadow and the sun, that whisper
wordless haiku to the wind.

For now, I just want it to screen
my neighbor, to make him a good
neighbor, yes, the kind with a fence,
to give me privacy when I
roam the house unencumbered
of clothes, come sweltering summer nights.

Come on, don't you do that?
Oh well, you do have family there
and your bamboo is neatly potted.
I would live in a grove, a forest,
if I could, shutting out
the world's eyes. I would dwell
there the way you dwell in my heart.

Stephen Brooke ©2005

Tuesday, April 05, 2005

the LG-2

This is the guitar I learned to play on, many years ago -- the Gibson LG-2:

My sister bought it in '62, new, for something like $85 -- a fair amount of money back then. After she lost interest and my brother did the same, it was passed onto me and here it stayed. It's still my fave for fingerpicking. Slim neck, short (24 3/4") scale, good for a guy with smallish hands like me. Great sound, too, very warm -- not at all like the typical dreadnaught clank.

I've noticed that Gibson has done a reissue of the LG-2 as the Arlo Guthrie Model (I caught Arlo in concert last year -- great show) at a list price of $2,700. I think I'd better take good care of mine!

BTW, this is the guitar I call 'Lynda' after my friend of that name.