Tuesday, June 28, 2011


So exactly who is the 'I' who is typing these words, and, while we're at it, who is the 'you' that is scanning them now?

These are the questions that Douglas Hofstadter, a professor of Cognitive Science, delves into in his fascinating, kind of comprehensible book 'I Am A Strange Looop'.

To give you a taste of what he dishes up, a slight diversion:

Recently, while browsing through the new arrivals rack at my local video shop in the not-so-bustling suburb of Ookurayama, I came across a new documentary about The Doors, narrated by Johnny Depp, entitled WHEN YOU'RE STRANGE. I reminded myself to pick it up, either this week or next, and give it a go. As soon as I saw the DVD box, an enormous amount of memories and associations spiralled throughout my small brain. Not all of it conscious. None of them momentous. But mention 'The Doors', and what happens next?

A poster of Jim Morrison hanging in one of the Craddock twins bedrooms in Ridgeway, Ontario. (I can't remember which twin.) I must have been nine, ten. The music a backdrop. The Doors slightly different than my usual musical fare of The Monkees. Darker. Hinting at aspects of life that would remain somewhat suspect. Finding a copy of his biography, NO ONE GETS OUT OF HERE ALIVE, in a friend's basement in junior high. Reading about his life. Reading another book about him by the drummer, John Densmore. RIDERS ON THE STORM, that one was. Years later, the film. Oliver Stone's flick. Me, a film nut. A Stone nut. Anxious to see it. Shattered when THE ST.CATHARINES STANDARD, in its Thursday night edition, reveals that it will, in fact, be rated R. Me, fifteen, too young to look old enough to attempt a sneak-in. Vacationing in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, a few weeks later, and disappointed once again to see that it's rated 'R' down there too. Catching up with it on video. Watching it a dozen times, probably. The music, the energy. The pulse. Eventually putting it aside. Life. Not thinking much about The Doors over the years. Hearing about this documentary on some film site a few years back. Seeing it at the video store. Noticing that it's narrated by Johnny Depp. As much as I loved THE LEGEND OF THE LONE RANGER film as a kid, I wonder: Why is Depp appearing in a Lone Ranger flick next year? Good grief. Reminding myself: Rent this documentary.

All of this, from a one second glimpse at a DVD's cover.

Now, again, this wasn't all happening at a conscious, shall we say 'readable' level, but think of the neurons that fire when a name hits your brain. I say 'The Doors', and you probably have SOME kind of connection to the band, however slight. You may have heard of them, vaguely; you may know of them, dimly. You may be obsessed with them, or you may not give a shit. But that information is nevertheless stored...somewhere. You never think of it, is all. (Or so you think.)

Hofstader's book gets into the strange paradox of life -- that all of our actions are determined at a microscopic level too small to examine, with neurons and cells that make up who we are, and yet, ironically enough, we live life on the macro scale, not the micro. We eat, work, fight, fart, smile, love and groove on the surface. Because we have to. Because we don't know what's going on down there. Because we can't live life as a reaction to bio-chemical processes. We're not built that way. (Even though, come to think of it, we are, actually, built that way. It gets confusing.)

One of his most intriguing arguments has to do with the notion of a lifeform's ability to, in essence, identify aspects of life, and itself, and those relations between life and itself, and how that has a bearing on the size of its, for lack of a more concrete word, soul. A mosquito, say, doesn't have much memory, or reference -- it ain't thinking about Jim Morrison's arrest for indecency in Florida as it's buzzing around, looking for blood. A cow just chews, mostly. It probably doesn't remember yesterday's cud, or tomorrow's chance of rain. A dog or a cat has a slightly higher level of memory and association and capacity to love. Who we are depends on our ability to associate, reference, compare and reflect.

(He's hinted at this notion in regards to life, in fact, NOT beginning at the moment of conception, as there's no self-referential self existing at that particular point in time. There's no THERE there, essentially. I don't agree with him on that one, but that's another argument, for another post.)

It's one of those books, 'I Am A Strange Loop', that gives you a little bit of a jolt. A literary tilt-a-whirl. (That should have been the tagline on the back, no?) It's also one of those those mathematics or science books that I'm always suckered into buying, with the assurance by the author in the introduction that this isn't one of those HEAVY, specialized books, no; that it is, in fact, one for the masses. And the prose style is so fluid and enjoyable that I'm three pages into a chapter when I suddenly realize that I have no idea what the fuck he's talking about. Luckily, that's a small portion of the book. The greater portion does a remarkable job of illustrating the billions and billions of unconscious, sub-atomic connections that are forged by the cells underneath the sense of self that we wield.

(Did I say 'self'! Ha! Hofstader hints that the self is nothing more, in a sense, than the accumulation of cells, likening it a massive stack of envelopes he once yanked out of a box, convinced that the hard blob he felt in its centre was a marble stuck somewhere down, only to realize that the accumulation of all those paper envelopes created the illusion of hardness. All of our cells, all our synaptic firings, all of our collected connections, make us think there's a 'there' at the core of our core. He also articulates what I've always wondered for years: Why do we love our favourite things? No, really. Why is chocolate my favourite flavour of ice cream? Well, I like sweet things. Why do I like sweet things? Well, I just do. Eventually, there's no answer. It's a mystery. And if the things we hold most near and dear to us, our loves and our lusts, remain a strange septic brew, then what hope can we have to know anything well at all?)

It's interesting, is all I'm saying. This notion of connections, and links. Think of you, sitting in your chair. This may be the first time you're reading this blog. You may know me quite well. You might be bored to your gourd and wondering why you're still reading. You may have no interesting in brain surgery, or The Doors. You may be stifling a yawn, listening to Ben Folds Five in the background, thinking of a test you must take in tomorrow's wee early hours. Your crack is itchy. A billion neurons at play, right here in this moment.

I don't know what it all means, and the older I get the more I crave and draw an odd satisfaction from the questions, not the answers, but books like this one at least give me the go to give life a small poke. This morning, as I walked to the train station, the sky in its dawn was a little bit gray, mixed with a nice medley of pink. Not sure what that was all about, but it looked mighty fine.