Image Credit: John Constable - Clouds (Detail) 1822 National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne

Poetry in the Cloud

September 16, 02013

The artist Doris Mitsch is best known for her gorgeous, super-high-resolution scanner-based images of natural subjects like flora, birds nests and sea creatures. These are not photographs in the traditional sense, but an alternative way of capturing images, as both the scanner lens and light move over the object to produce a composite with luminous, ‘impossible’ lighting conditions. (Disclosure: I am the happy owner of several of these.)

Now, Mitsch has assembled an equally remarkable work of poetry, entitled I’m Searching For Something So Undefined: Poetry Found in the Cloud, which seems perfectly in tune with the digital zeitgeist. I say ‘assembled,’ rather than ‘written’ because she didn’t actually write a single line of these compelling pieces. Instead she knit them together from found fragments of online content, all derived from Google searches – like the title pieces, I’m Searching / Je Cherche / Ich Suche, and None of My Jelly-Roll, I Ain’t Gonna Give, both of which you can read by clicking below:


I'm Searching

I’m Searching / None of My Jelly Roll, I Ain’t Gonna give (Click to Enlarge)


Each line of the first poem was extracted from the roughly 57,600 results Google returned for the phrase “I’M SEARCHING FOR”. Each line of the second was extracted from 514 search results for “AIN’T GONNA”.

Knowing the manner of composition encourages the reader (this one, anyway) to continuously flicker between three modes of reading: first, considering each line individually – wondering about its original author and context; then, collectively, as some expression of the ephemeral, “Internet moment” from which all the lines derive; and then finally as an entirely new poetic construction, with its own cadence and meaning. In some ways, reading these poems feels a lot like using the Internet itself, as our surfing yields hobbled-together brief constellations of meaning, cobbled together from vast patterns of inchoate data.

Most ‘data art’ takes the form of algorithmic arrangements of pixels on a screen – a medium that is so new the tools to produce it are still being invented. Mitsch’s poems, by contrast, manage to embed the Internet in one of our oldest artforms, yet with results that are no less revelatory.

You can (and should!) buy a copy of I’m Searching for Something So Undefined, along with the several other beautiful books by Doris Mitsch, available on Blurb.

Image Credit: Cy Twombly, Untitled (Roses) Gaeta, 2008

The Qualified Self

August 26, 02013

My colleague Robyn Brentano at the Garrison Institute recently shared a Buddhist parable with me, which is retold in the book Eight Steps to Happiness by the renowned teacher, Geshe Kelsang Gyatso:

In Tibet there was once a famous Dharma practitioner called Geshe Ben Gungyal, who neither recited prayers nor meditated in the traditional posture. His sole practice was to observe his mind very attentively and counter delusions as soon as they arose. Whenever he noticed his mind becoming even slightly agitated, he was especially vigilant and refused to follow any negative thoughts. For instance, if he felt self-cherishing was about to arise, he would immediately recall its disadvantages, and then he would stop this mind from manifesting by applying its opponent, the practice of love. Whenever his mind was naturally peaceful and positive he would relax and allow himself to enjoy his virtuous states of mind.

To gauge his progress he would put a black pebble down in front of him whenever a negative thought arose, and a white pebble whenever a positive thought arose, and at the end of the day he would count the pebbles. If there were more black pebbles he would reprimand himself and try even harder the next day, but if there were more white pebbles he would praise and encourage himself. At the beginning, the black pebbles greatly outnumbered the white ones, but over the years his mind improved until he reached the point when entire days went by without any black pebbles. Before becoming a Dharma practitioner, Geshe Ben Gungyal had a reputation for being wild and unruly, but by watching his mind closely all the time, and judging it with complete honesty in the mirror of Dharma, he gradually became a very pure and and holy being. Why can we not do the same?

I’ve been thinking a lot about this story lately, as I’ve been undertaking a learning journey with an iPhone app called Expereal.

The program is a sort of 21st-century update on Gungyal’s pebbles, intended to promote self-reflection. Once installed, at regular intervals throughout the day, Expereal asks you a simple question:

“How are you feeling right now?”

In response, you turn an onscreen dial, providing a subjective rating from 1 to 10. As you move your finger, a corresponding inkblot grows in size and color on the screen, from a subdued blue dot to a bursting crimson splash. (The precise meaning of these kinesthetic ratings is left for you to decide.)

Your responses can be further annotated with notes and photos detailing where you were when you made them, and with whom. Expereal also allows you to chart your assessments over time, and (of course!) compare yourself to friends and fellow users:

The app owes much to its conceptual forebears, like designer Nicholas Felton’s personal “annual reports”, in which he details various aspects of his experiences and interactions with people over the course of a year, and to various other Quantified Self efforts.

But there is something qualitatively different here, and it starts with nature of the question itself. How often do we actually, genuinely attend to our own feelings? (An A-type New York friend joked, “I can’t do that and keep living here.”) How often do we seriously ask others how they’re feeling, or get asked in return? Once a day? Once a week? And how well do we remember how we were feeling last Tuesday? Last month? Last year? Like the inky stains on the wineglasses after a party, these countless subjective states have somehow left their traces in us, but who can remember the taste?

Unfortunately, being given the opportunity to answer the question doesn’t necessarily mean that one will do a good job actually answering it, especially at the beginning. The first hundred or so times Expereal asked me how I was feeling, my assessments were the kinds of superficial ones you might respond with if a stranger asked you on the street: “I’m fine.”,All good.”, “Frustrated by a supermarket line.” Reviewing my answers after the first few weeks, it dawned on me: I had been politely lying to my smartphone.  There’s a humbling moment.

So I recommitted to answering the question less glibly. How was I feeling right now?

The ‘real’ answers were harder to get to, and often more surprising when they arrived. Much of the time, I didn’t really know what I was feeling – it was hard to pin down what largely felt like an ephemeral mishmash. Expereal rarely found me living in the present moment – usually, my mind was occupied with a chorus of distant concerns or distractions. In the middle of a conversation, Expereal made me realize I wasn’t listening at all to my partner, or to myself, at all – I was just waiting, bored and impatiently, for my turn to speak. Ouch.

Pushing past such uncomfortable observations meant taking a short break, and attending more carefully and more holistically. And with practice I got better. I began to observe that whatever I was feeling, I was rarely feeling it just in my mind, it was in my body, too. – not just my hands, but my posture, the way I held my frame. I was reminded of a wonderful PopTech talk by the Irish designer Orlaugh O’Brien, about her project “Emotionally}Vague”, in which she collected and overlayed hundreds of people’s self-reported drawing of where they felt various emotions in their bodies:

The aggregate picture that emerged in the project is striking. People reported that anger was ‘felt’ in the head and hands, while love, by contrast, was felt all over. “Anger is a force, love is field,” said O’Brien.  I certainly found the same.

More subtly still, I began to see how much of my own cognition was enactive, inextricably bound up in loops of perception and action, intimately connected to the systems that govern every modern life, including ones I had invented and taken on for my own purposes. The taxi, the railway station, the flickering of a neon light, the obligations to family and profession and countless other systems, objects and ideas all cycle through me continuously, leaving their stain, shaping my cognition and sense of self, in ways I had rarely attended to in the moment.

Answering the “How do you feel right now?” question over and over again has had other effects as well. It’s encouraged at least a little more generosity in me, made me modestly more likely to ask others how they are feeling, and ready to attend more carefully to the answers. Attending builds awareness, and awareness in turn is the pretext for empathy, generosity and equanimity.


Expereal is available on iTunes for free. You can read an interview with its creator, Jonathan Cohen, here. Note: a Facebook login is required to use the program. 

Image credit: Liftoff of Vega VV01

The Birth of a Meme

August 9, 02013

Google’s N-gram viewer allows you to watch the prevalence of certain words or phrases among the vast library of books that the company has been digitizing. As such, it’s a powerful tool for seeing patterns in our culture – so much so that it’s become a basic tool in the new field of culturomics, the computational analysis (and prediction) of human culture through the analysis of large-scales bodies of texts.

For example, use of the term resilience has more than doubled since 1990. More interestingly, here the graphs for five terms: ecological resilience, economic resilience, psychological resilience, community resilience, and social resilience:

You can literally watch the meme being born. (And a shoutout to my friend and colleague Charles Rutheiser for this idea.)

Image credit: The Richat Structure

Urgent Biophilia, Kairotic Time, and Sacred Space

July 22, 02013

One of the pleasures of my work is having regular contact with a community of thinkers whose collective interests wend (albeit in a eclectic way) through various tributaries of the contemporary arts and sciences.

When different constituents in this network start pointing to the same thing, it’s a pretty reliable proxy for its significance, or at the very least its interest. So it seemed more than kismet a few months ago when three unrelated colleagues pointed me to recent work by ecologist Keith Tidball at Cornell University, specifically his work on “urgent biophilia”.

Tidball’s contribution is a nuanced expansion of the term first introduced by E.O. Wilson in his 1984 landmark book, to express humanity’s innate preferences for living things, the “connections that human beings subconsciously seek with the rest of life”:

From infancy we concentrate happily on ourselves and other organisms. We learn to distinguish life from the inanimate and move toward it like moths to a porch light. Novelty and diversity are particularly esteemed; the mere mention of the word extraterrestrial evokes reveries about still unexplored life, displacing the old and once potent exotic that drew earlier generations to remote islands and jungled interiors …

To affiliate with life is a deep and complicated process in mental development. To an extent still undervalued in philosophy and religion, our existence depends on this propensity, our spirit is woven from it, hope rises on its currents.

Tidball elaborates on Wilson’s original concept of biophilia, connecting it to our response to disasters. He suggests that catastrophes may stir within us a vital instinct to reengage with nature, in ways that restore not only the environment, but also ourselves:

… when humans, faced with urgent disaster or hazard situations, when individuals and as communities and populations seek out doses of contact and engagement with nature to further their efforts to summon and demonstrate resilience in the face of a crisis, they exemplify an urgent biophilia … [T]he affinity we humans have for the rest of nature, the process of remembering that affinity and the urge to express it through creation of restorative environments, which may also restore or increase ecological function, may confer resilience across multiple scales.

Such an instinctive turn toward nature after disaster might initially strike one as counterintuitive.  After all, there might not be any such thing as a ‘natural’ disaster, but many catastrophes feature significant ecological disruption. It seems just as plausible that, in the wake of such tumult, people might turn away from nature, expressing a kind of ‘urgent antibiophilia’.

Yet, in my own conversations with people in disaster-affected areas around the world, engagement with the natural world often surfaces as an important part of the post-disaster healing process. In New Orleans, after Katrina, a woman described how she and her neighbors planted trees throughout their neighborhood, both as a symbol of their own commitment to place, and (in a spirit of defiance and solidarity) to assert new ecological ‘facts on the ground’. A tornado victim from Joplin, MS told me he replanted tomatoes almost immediately after the tornadoes, “just to have living things around”.

In these, and countless other similar encounters, the conversation is almost never about dominance or reasserting control over nature, but rather about communion, consolation, recovery, and the restoration of coherence. One often hears synonyms for words like awakening, reckoning, correction, redemption, rebalancing, and even liberation through the disaster event.

For understandable reasons, the dialogue around disasters rarely exceeds a tally of what has been lost, harmed and broken. Almost never do we speak about broader cognitive and spiritual shifts that sometime attend such disruptions, out of an understandable fear of diminishing what has been often horrifically rent apart.

Yet for some (certainly not all) of those in a disaster-affected community, the period after a disruption can be one of profound, even peak significance. The loss of the usual signposts of life that attend a catastrophe can also liberate us from social norms and expectations, freeing us to think and act in new ways, surprising even ourselves. Amid the sorrow and confusion that follow any disaster, some people in affected communities experience a deepened sense of meaning and purpose, of increased agency, possibility and commonweal. Connections to place, to community, and to nature intensify, becoming more vivid and more sacred. Individuals can find themselves slipping into an entirely different kind of time, called kairotic time – not the chronological time of days, but closer to the psychological time found in novels – measured by the internal psychological progress of its protagonists, through a series of dilemmas and contradictions, toward a moment of resolution and purpose. In kairotic moments, the subjective experience of time itself is enlarged and its meaning is transformed. A Haitian colleague once told me that the earthquake “crucified her old life and set her free in her new one”. The choice of words hardly seemed accidental.

What is true for individuals seems likely true for communities as well. If the preexisting bonds of trust and solidarity are sufficiently strong, the post-crisis moment can be one of collective imagination and creative possibility, liberated from at least some prior constraints.

It seems likely that these aspects of human nature – our urgent biophilia and the possibility of post-crisis kairosis – are intertwined and mutually reinforcing.  If that’s true, it suggests that ecological engagement and the design of restorative environments have critical roles to play in building community resilience in both the short and long-term.

Indeed, that’s the very premise of the Landscapes of Resilience project, led by Tidball, as well as Erika Svendsen and Lindsay Campbell, social scientists with the U.S. Forest Service, working with TILL, a landscape architecture firm in Newark, NJ, and others, supported by the TKF Foundation. The Landscapes project will collectively envision, design, build and measure two “open and sacred spaces” in Joplin, MS and New York City – places of ecological engagement, remembrance, shared stewardship, and psychosocial restoration. (In undertaking this work, the team would do well to connect with Milenko Matanovic and his colleagues at the Pomegranate Center, who have developed deep expertise in designing exactly these kinds of spaces with communities.)

Regardless of its outcomes, this project touches on important, and often under-appreciated aspects of our response to disruptions. First, the connections between our mental health and the natural environment are integral and profound, and need to be respected as a key enabler of the resilience of any community. Second, the cognitive, spiritual and social dimensions of disruptions take time to unfold, and should not be measured solely by what has been lost, but understood in much broader, longer-term and potentially transformational terms. And finally, the post-crisis moment may offer a unique window for positive intervention in a social-ecological system – one that we should be prepared for with the right tools and processes to help communities ‘bounce forward’ and not merely recover.

Image credit: Resilience, by Celeste Yang

Ordinary Magic,
No Less Magical

April 23, 02013

Here is one of the most powerful graphs I’ve been exposed to in some time:

It’s from a remarkable case study, first published in 1989, by the developmental child psychologist (and one of my intellectual heroes) Ann Masten and her colleague Mary J. O’Connor.

The diagram tells part of the developmental story of Sara (not her real name) a 2 ½-year-old girl in foster care who suffered significant early trauma. Her story powerfully illuminates some important aspects of trauma resilience, particularly early in life.

Little was known of Sara’s mother, except that she was an occasionally homeless sex worker who reported suffering from bouts of schizophrenia. (Nothing was known of her father.) On her first day of life, against her doctor’s advice, Sara’s mother removed her from the hospital, only to abandon her a day later. Sara was then entered into protective custody and placed with her first foster family, with whom she stayed for her first 15 months of life.

By all accounts, she was a healthy baby and toddler, developing normally. Then, sadly, the husband/father in her foster family became ill and suddenly died. Sara was removed, without any preparation, from the only family she had known, and placed with a second foster family.

Almost immediately, everything about Sara’s developmental narrative changed. Upon arrival in her new home, she cried for a month without consolation. Her language skills declined precipitously, and she rarely spoke spontaneously. Distressingly, she would assume ‘statue-like poses’ for up to 20 minutes at a time, leading her new foster mother to speculate that she might have developmental disabilities. Even her physical growth slowed, as noted in the chart above – a phenomenon called ‘psychosocial dwarfism’. A consulting psychologist initially concluded she was functionally retarded, and may have been severely deprived. After much debate, she was admitted to an inpatient child psychiatric unit for evaluation.

In the hospital, Sara continued to express this fear of strangers, ‘freezing’ or walking with difficulty and stiffness, and showing an intense attachment, first to her foster mother, and then to her primary care nurse.

But after a month at the hospital, Sara’s interdisciplinary case team concluded that she was neither developmentally disabled nor schizophrenic. Rather, Sara’s challenges had come from environmental stressors, particularly the interruption of her early attachment relationships. They recommended she be adopted right away, and literally wrote a prescription for a new family designed around her needs: one that would have older children in it, but no infants or toddlers; a mother who would be at home most of the time; and a commitment to stay in the same place for some time.

Encouragingly, just such a family was found, and after several weeks of counseling, this new adoptive family took Sara home for good. Over her three months in the hospital, Sara had gained a year, developmentally; after discharge, she continued to grow, and after a year with her new (and permanent) family, had fully caught up. An assessment conducted several years later found she was a normal and well-adjusted little girl.

Sara’s precipitous decline after the trauma of being removed from her first foster home shows how severe stressors can affect not just our brains, but also our bodies – particularly when they are still developing. Her equally dramatic reversal shows just how resilient we can be, when placed in the right psychosocial context. (And, to me, it also captures something about the essential experience of love.)

Researchers, like Masten and others who study personal resilience, find many adaptive systems at work in our ability to recover from trauma. The strength of our social networks; the quality of our attachment relationships; the health of our brain and body; the interaction of our genes and lived experiences; our level of personal mastery and self-control; our spirituality and systems of belief; our access to resources of all kinds; the quality of the community we inhabit; and (especially) our ‘habits of mind’ – all play a part.

The good news is that these processes are neither mysterious nor rare – indeed they are so common (though by no means universal) that Masten famously labeled them ‘Ordinary Magic’.

The even better news is that we are discovering new ways to help bolster that innate resilience where it might have been diminished by circumstance. Thaddeus Pace, of the Emory University Mind Body Program (and a PopTech Science Fellow) and his colleagues have long-studied the effects of contemplative, compassion-based practices on our psychological and physical health. These practices, which researchers call Cognitively-Based Compassion Training (CBCT) originated in Tibetan Buddhism, and are designed to help practitioners better manage the emotional content of lived experience, and cultivate a sense of compassion toward themselves and others.

Pace and his colleagues recently researched the effectiveness of CBCT with a group of adolescents in the foster care system in Atlanta. Almost by definition, all of these children had experienced severe stressors – ranging from neglect and abuse to drug addiction and violence. CBCT training not only decreased their anxiety and improved other measures of psychological resilience, it also diminished their physiological levels of a biomarker called the C-reactive protein, which signifies a person’s level of cellular inflammation. This inflammation, in turn, is implicated in a wide array of chronic illnesses later in life, from cardiovascular disease and type 2 diabetes to cancer and depression. In other words, CBCT might (and I must stress, might) not only boost the near-term psychosocial resilience of young people who experience trauma, but also long-term, adverse health effects that might not manifest for decades.

These kinds of results are moving, inexorably, from the lab to the field. The coming years will bring exciting new ways of packaging, delivering and reinforcing such training – in person, via mobile devices, and in ways as yet unimagined.