Ensayos

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The Evolution of the Eye Gaze and its Role in Social Behavior (2006)

As the complexity of social interactions in primates increased, the role of the eye gaze developed from being exclusively for threat signaling to conveying information about the environment such as the social interactions among conspecifics (Tomasello et al, 1998). The duration and direction of the eye gaze provides insight into the mental and emotional states of primate individuals as well as the social contact taking place among them. Thus, to elicit appropriate social responses, it is essential for individuals to accurately recognize gaze stimuli. Researchers agree that the extent to which eye gazing is used as a source of information directly relates to the complexity of the social interactions. However, within primates there are two main hypotheses regarding differences in gaze behaviors, in particular the ability to follow the gaze of conspecifics in search for social information. Some researchers suggest that the main difference in gaze behavior can be observed among great apes, who can follow the gaze, and all other primates, who fail to exhibit this behavior (Povinelli and Eddy,1996 as cited in Emery, 2000, Itakura, 1996). Other researchers hypothesize that there is a gradual transition within primates: while prosimians do not follow gaze, monkeys will follow it but cannot understand its meaning and finally, great apes are capable of following as well understanding gaze and its meaning (Tomasello et al, 1998, Emery 1997). It would follow that this gradual transition continues with humans in a much more complex way that can be studied in detail because of familiarity with human social processes in normal individuals as well as individuals with underdeveloped social skills. In this paper, the methodology and the results testing both of these main hypotheses will be discussed, focusing on the repercussions in social behavior, and the changes in the environment that might have brought about this evolutionary adaptation.

For non-primates, gaze is strictly used in agonistic encounters, where direct eye contact is a threatening signal while an averted gaze indicates submissiveness (Emery, 1997). In primates, gaze is used in a wider contextual range. It provides information about where an animal’s attention is focused at a particular time, which potentially provides insight as to what is affecting its current mental state. Thus, following the direction of the gaze of an individual could provide information about events in the environment that require attention, such as food, predators, and social interactions among group-mates (Tomasello et al, 1998). In terms of social behavior, the gaze indicates dominance and submissive behavior, particularly in the main facial expressions characteristic of primates (Perrett, 1985). Furthermore, the level of attention placed on monitoring an individual’s gaze is indicative of its position in the social hierarchy (Chance, 1967 as cited in Emery et al, 1997), which means that submissive individuals are more likely to monitor the gaze of higher ranking animals in search of social information.

It is natural to ask if there are any relevant differences in the gaze-following behavior of primates, which would suggest dissimilarity in their social organization. To accomplish this, Itakura (1996) studied the gaze behavior of apes, monkeys, and prosimians. The experiment consisted of trials where the primate had to discriminate the direction of the gaze of a human under two conditions: when the gaze consisted of eye movement only, and when the head also moved slightly. After the experimenter approached the cage and tried to make eye contact, the experimenter’s gaze was fixed on a hidden object located behind the animal on one of its sides. It was found that in 70% of the trials, orangutans and chimpanzees correctly followed the gaze of the experimenter, while non-apes did not differ significantly.

At first, it appears that primates that are more closely related to humans place more attention on gaze as a source of social information. The performance of the greater apes confirms the observation that in their natural habitats chimpanzees routinely follow the visual gaze of others to interesting and useful objects and events (Plooij, 1978 as cited in Carpenter et al, 1995). However, when evaluating these findings, it is important to consider that the experimental methodology could have influenced the results. Most importantly, the direct eye contact between the primate and the experimenter could result in the animal feeling threatened. Furthermore, the finding that non-apes do not follow the human gaze does not directly show that they lack the ability, since they might lack motivation to follow social cues by humans, but not from conspecifics (Tomasello et al, 1998) perhaps because of the relevance of the cues. Finally, it is essential to consider that the subjects involved had extensive participation in psychological studies, which can predispose them to pick-up indirect cues from the experimenter, perhaps not related to the direction of gaze.

In an effort to rule out these alternative explanations, an experiment was carried out with rhesus monkeys (Emory, 1997). Instead of direct human interaction, a videotaped image of a monkey was used, and the direction of gaze of the subject was noted under three main conditions. In the first condition, the videotaped monkey was looking towards one of two objects located in opposite spatial directions of the screen. In the second condition, there were no objects, to test for the possibility that the monkeys’ attention to the objects was caused exclusively by their physical characteristics. Finally, in the last condition, objects were presented alone, to test if the videotaped monkey influenced future preference of the object even when the monkey was not present. It was found that rhesus monkeys look in the same direction as the gaze of the videotaped monkey, regardless of the presence of an object. However, this preference did not persist when there is no stimulus monkey. These results suggest that rhesus monkeys have the ability to follow the gaze but they don’t seem to understand the mental significance of it (Emery et al, 1997) as shown by the lack of future preference towards the observed object.

This study strongly suggests that the experimental procedure employed in Itakura’s cross species experiment involving humans affects the performance of non-apes due to motivational deficiencies and the possibility of eye contact being interpreted as a threat. This was further confirmed in a follow-up study involving chimpanzees and monkeys searching for hidden food. Both species used the direction of the gaze of conspecifics comparably to locate the food (Tomaselli et al, 1998). This finding corroborates the observation that there are no noted differences in the social behavior or cognition of these two species (Tomasello & Call, 1997 as cited in Tomasello et al, 1998). The only significant difference between them seems to be a lack of spontaneity in rhesus monkeys in following the gaze when compared with chimpanzees from Itakura’s study (Emery et al, 1997).

The previous studies strongly suggest that the differences between great apes and other primates lies in the attribution of meaning to the gaze, and not in the actual ability to follow gaze, as suggested by Itakura. From this finding, the main hypothesis that develops is that there is a progressive increase in the complexity of eye gaze behavior. The first step in its evolution would be to posses the ability to follow the gaze, which is independent from the ability to understand its meaning (Povinelli and Eddy, 1996b as cited in Emory, 1997). This ability might simply be an extrapolation from the behavior that emerges from direct eye contact, as the submissive individual look at the same location that more dominant individuals are looking. As the need to integrate information about the social world increases, gazing behavior evolved further to include attribution of meaning. This implies that the primate not only follows the gaze to an object, but also tries to understand why it is the source of attention of others. Finally, in the last stage, eye gazing would enable primates to infer information about the motivation behind the actions of others and their current mental state (Emory, 1997, Tomaselli, 1998). This gradual progression directly ties with the proposed evolution for the theory of mind, or the ability to infer information about the mental state of conspecifics.

Given that our knowledge about social interactions in primates is limited, researchers started investigating the human gaze in relation to more familiar social contexts to further understand the evolution of the social gaze. Since human gaze-following behavior develops between the 6th and 18th month of age (Emery, 2000), a procedure paralleling primate studies does not provide a relevant source of comparison. Because of this, experiments have focused on more complex social interactions, such as those involving language.

In humans, gaze is used to gain information about the mental and emotional states of others, such as their level of involvement in communicative behavior (Vertegaal et al, 2001), but it also informs about what situations a human is currently focused on. Gaze also has a very strong influence in the social interactions of humans. For instance, moderate amounts of gazing can influence people’s liking of each other (Vertegaal et al, 2001). In addition, it has an important function in controlling human interaction. It has been found that people gaze more while listening than while speaking, using the gaze to synchronize the conversation and determine when it is appropriate to communicate (Kerdon, 1967 as cited in Kleinke, 1986). On the other hand, gaze is also related to dominance and submissiveness, with dominant individuals establishing longer eye contact and gazing less often for obtaining social information. Similarly, gaze is related to persuasive and deceptive behaviors in humans. Individuals that sustain direct eye contact are more likely to be rated as more credible, while those that are attempting to be persuasive or deceptive increase the frequency of their gaze (Kleinke, 1986). These findings suggest that the ability to control an animal’s own gaze and also be more aware of the gaze of others is a significant advantage in effectively establishing and maintaining social interactions.

All of these correlations corroborate the notion that there is a strong tie between gaze and social interactions in humans. It is relevant to ask how this relationship would be affected if gaze behavior diverts significantly from the accepted social norm. Theoretically, it is expected that the inability to decipher information contained in the gaze would result in marked difficulties in social interactions. To further understand this relationship, autistic individuals were studied for patterns in their gaze behavior. This population is of particular interest since autism is marked by underdeveloped social skills but also by difficulties in understanding the mental states and the intentions of others (Pelphrey et al, 2005). Thus, studying autistic children could corroborate the hypothesis that the relationship between gaze and social interactions encompasses the evolution of the theory of mind.

The study designed to test the gaze behavior in autism consisted of presenting the child with a picture of a cartoon that is looking at one of four different types of candy. Children were then asked which candy the cartoon prefers, with the expectation that they would use gaze cues to base their decision. As expected, there are distinct differences in the gaze-following behavior of autistic individuals. It was found that both normal and mentally retarded children correctly indicate that the preferred candy is the one where the cartoon’s gaze is focused. However, autistic children ignored the direction of gaze of the cartoon when making the decision, and did not significantly point at the candy that the cartoon was looking. This conclusion corroborates that the theory of mind is not as developed when autism is present, since these individuals are unable to gain access to the mental states of others simply by observing their eye gaze.

If the hypothesis that the role of eye gaze progressively evolved in primates, it is relevant to study what physiological changes might have been brought about to support this adaptation. In general, changes in the morphology of the eye among non-human primates has been very subtle, which suggests that even though there are differences in attribution of meaning, in general, the eye gaze behavior did not require physiological changes. The most important change that took place in the transition between non-human primates and humans occurred in the sclera, the outer layer of the eyeball. This adaptation occurred since the color and size of the sclera can conceal information about the gaze to an observer. In primates, it is important to conceal the direction of gaze due to predatory risks, which explains a dark colored sclera. In contrast, the human sclera does not have any pigmentation and it is greatly exposed (Kobayashi, 2001). Changes in the sclera suggest that the role of the eye gaze is increasingly more important in humans, but also support the notion that the social behavior is involved, once predatory risks are greatly diminished by cooperation.

From an evolutionary perspective, gaze-following ability developed as a response to more complex social organizations and the increased need to understand the mental states of others. Based on the gaze behavior of primates, the ability to follow the gaze and understand its meaning appears to have evolved progressively: from prosimians, who do not follow the gaze, to monkeys, which follow it without understanding, then to great apes who can follow it and understand its meaning, and finally to humans, who follow the gaze from an early age, understanding its importance and even studying its relationship with social interactions. The evolution of the role of gaze parallels the evolution of a theory of mind, which suggests that gaze discrimination was an adaptation to gain access to essential information regarding the mental states of primates who are members of social groups. If an animal has the ability to control its own gaze while being perceptive to the gaze of others, it has privileged access to the mental states of others, which provides an advantage in understanding the motives behind their actions. Further understanding of the gaze, also provides valuable skills in establishing and maintaining effectively social interactions. Fully understanding eye gaze behavior promises to be the key to deciphering the evolutionary background to the development of a theory of mind and also to unravel the secret of how social interaction was the key to the evolution of primates.

References
Carpenter, M. et al. 1995. Joint Attention and Imitative Learning in Children, Chimpanzees, and Enculturated Chimpanzees. Social Development, 4, 217-237.
Emery, N.J. 2000. The eyes have it: Neuroethology, function and evolution of social gaze. Neuroscience and Biobehavioral Reviews, 24, 581–604.
Emery, N.J. et al. 1997. Gaze Following and Joint Attention in Rhesus Monkeys (Macaca mulatta). Journal of Comparative Psychology, 111, 286-293.
Kleinke, L. 1986. Gaze and eye contact. Psychological Bulletin, 100, 78-100.
Kobayashi & Kohshima. 2001. Unique morphology of the human eye and its adaptive meaning: comparative studies on external morphology of the primate eye. Journal of Human Evolution, 40, 419–435.
Pelphrey, K. et al. 2005. Neural basis of eye gaze processing deficits in autism. Brain, 128, 1038–1048.
Perrett, D.I. et al. 1985. Visual cells in the temporal cortex sensitive to face view and gaze direction. Proc. Research Society of London, 223, 293–317.
Tomasello, Call & Hare. 1998. Five primate species follow the visual gaze of conspecifics. Animal Behavior, 55, 1063–1069.
Vertegaal, R. et al. 2001. Eye Gaze Patterns in Conversations: There is More to Conversational Agents Than Meets the Eyes. CHI, 3, 301-308.

Evolution of a Lateralized Avian Brain and the Resulting Changes in Visual Cognition (2006)

A lateralized brain, in which processing of cognitive information is evenly distributed between two hemispheres, was thought by researchers to be a unique human characteristic and the cause of superior cognition. However, recent research shows that lateralization of the brain is not only present in humans but it is also widespread in vertebrates. In this paper, I will present how brain lateralization functions in birds, paying close attention to the pigeon and domestic chick to draw inferences about human brain lateralization. Furthermore, I will show the current interpretations how a lateralized brain might have evolved, and how it affects cognitive abilities of birds.

The brain hemispheres are divided in such a way that particular functions are distributed evenly between the hemispheres. It is widely known that the left hemisphere specializes in responding to situations that require consideration of several alternatives, whereas the right hemisphere is used to respond instinctively to unexpected stimuli (Vallortigara, 2000). In addition, the hemispheres of the brain control the opposite sides of the body. For instance, the left eye is controlled mostly by the right hemisphere while the right eye is controlled by the left hemisphere, a pivotal observation to studying avian lateralization. When needed, the two hemispheres communicate with one another through neural pathways. In humans, this communication occurs through a particularly thick set of neural fibers referred to as the corpus callosum.

In order to understand how brain lateralization works in animals, researchers have focused on the avian bird, especially of the domestic chick (Gallus gallus) and the Altricial pigeon (Columba livia). One advantage of studying these species is that brain lateralization can be experimentally manipulated with well known methods, such as altering the pre-hatching environment, or chirurgically altering the brain. Furthermore, based on the bird’s behavior, the effects of lateralization can be easily inferred, without requiring any brain imagining techniques. Finally, the observations can easily be interpolated to the human brain, since brain lateralization in humans has been shown to be very similar to that of chicks.

Until recently, there was no conclusive evidence that the division of functions between the hemispheres actually improved cognition. To examine this, a series of studies were developed to test the cognitive functions of pigeons and chicks. These focused on the animal’s visual ability to distinguish between grain and pebbles in various experimental conditions manipulating the presence of lateralization and the degree of stimulation to a particular hemisphere of the brain. To asses the bird’s cognitive ability, success was measured by counting the number of consumed grains as opposed to the total number of pecks. It is important to note that in all the studies, the probability of picking out food was significantly smaller (around .1) than the probability of picking the pebbles, which means that cognitive abilities must be involved, and the results are not simply the result of randomness.

The first studies about improved cognition as a result of lateralization were carried out in pigeons (Güntürkün, 1985, 1987). For these, brain lateralization was manipulated through a surgical procedure where a metal block was inserted in the brain of ten pigeons, preventing communication between the hemispheres of each animal, a procedure similar to the one used in the past on "split-brain" humans (Vallortigara, 2000). This isolates the processes that are carried out in each hemisphere giving the flexibility of studying the effects of stimulating only one hemisphere. To accomplish this, an eye cap was placed on one eye of the pigeon, so that only one eye receives information about the outer world. For instance, if the left eye is covered, then right eye is active, stimulating only the left hemisphere. The experiment consisted of placing a food-deprived pigeon (having 80% of its original weight) in a container with thirty randomly dispersed grains with thirty grams of pebbles (around 10,000) of similar size, shape and color to the grains. Thirty seconds after the pigeons’ first peck, the animal was removed from the container. This procedure was then repeated for ten sessions with each of the eyes being covered. It was found that when the pigeon uses the left eye, it pecked faster and picked the grain with higher discrimination rates. Interestingly, the greater success is not related with higher pecking activity, since there was no significant difference among the two conditions.

A similar procedure was carried out in an experiment by Rogers (2004) with domestic chicks. The purpose of this study was to measure if a lateralized brain did in fact provide some evolutionary advantage in terms of visual cognition while performing two simultaneous tasks. This time, instead of using medical procedures, brain lateralization was manipulated by changing the pre-hatching environment of the chicks by controlling the amount of light received by the eggs. It has been found that just days before hatching, the avian embryo has a tendency to turn to the one side, exposing the left eye to external light that penetrates the translucent shell of the egg, but keeping the right eye occluded by his body. This stimulus directly stimulates the right hemisphere of the brain, and creates visual lateralization of visual cognition: there is a marked division in how visual stimuli are processed in the brain. By this process, only visual lateralization develops through this procedure and not of other functions such as olfaction and audition (Rogers, 1997). In contrast, those chicks that are raised in the dark do not have visual lateralization. Thus, in order to manipulate this variable, researchers simply control the light stimulation near the final stage of incubation. The physiological explanation for this process seems to be related to sex hormone levels in the embryo: if they are artificially elevated, no visual perception asymmetry develops after light simulation (Vallortigara, 1999).

Two experiments were carried out, one where the chicks attention was strictly directed towards pecking, and another where the chicks had a threat of predation. Discriminating pebbles from grain is known to be associated with the left hemisphere, while monitoring for novel stimuli, like a predator, is related to the right hemisphere (Rogers, 2004). For both experiments, the chicks were food-deprived for a period of four hours. The sample chick population was divided into two: those that were exposed to light and had brain lateralization (lateralized chicks), and those that were incubated in the dark and thus had no lateralization. A similar procedure to the one used with pigeons was used, except that the experiment concluded after the bird had pecked 60 times, instead of based on a time period. This procedure was used to assess the level of learning by contrasting the success rates in three blocks of 20 pecks. It was found that when the chick’s attention was directed only towards the pecking, the lateralized chicks performed better at the task. Furthermore, both conditions showed good memory retention when tested the next day, but the non-lateralized chicks did not show significant learning within the blocks. For the second experiment (n=30), a model predator swung on a cord above the chick every 18 seconds, simulating a flying predator. The rest of the procedure was exactly the same. It was found that the chicks with a lateralized brain performed significantly better than those raised in a dark pre-hatching environment. Lateralized chicks stopped pecking when the predator appeared 79% of the times, while the non-lateralized chick did so 63% of the times, which implies that even though the lateralized chicks were more vigilant and stopped the pecking, the non-lateralized chicks were even more affected in their cognitive performance. It is very important to note that the lateralized chicks usually tilted their heads to view the predator with the left eye, which confirms that monitoring the predator is associated with the right hemisphere. Once again, lateralized chicks showed memory retention, but the non-lateralized chicks did not. As an overview, lateralized chicks performed better in both tasks, which corroborate the findings in pigeons (Güntürkün, 1987, Vallortigara, 1999), but also confirms the initial hypothesis that lateralization does in fact increase cognitive abilities when two simultaneous tasks are being performed. It is worth noting that this significant difference in cognition does not necessarily put the non-lateralized chicks in a clear disadvantage. For instance, another study shows that when competing for access to a food bowl, non-lateralized chicks are actually more successfully than lateralized ones (Rogers & Workman 1989 as cited in Rogers, 2004). Therefore, the increased cognitive abilities in lateralized chicks are very specific to the task being performed, and the difference between lateralized and non-lateralized chicks is seldom apparent in normal behavior.

The previous studies in pigeons and chicks suggest that brain lateralization does in fact provide cognitive advantages in certain specific tasks. However, a pivotal question to consider is, are there situations were brain lateralization is disadvantageous? Research in chicks and other species shows that this is the case. For instance, when chicks faced a physical barrier while approaching a familiar object, they have a tendency to detour to the right, keeping visual contact with the object through the left eye. Contrastingly, when there is novelty involved in the stimulus, such as a change in color, chicks are biased to detour the barrier on the right in order to view the object with the left eye (Vallortigara et al, 1999 as cited in Vallortigara, 2000). This pattern suggests that when facing a predator, the chick will have the tendency to monitor it with left eye in order to stimulate the right hemisphere, a behavior that could be potentially exploited by predators.

A more quantitative experiment about behaviors that result from lateralization was not carried out in birds but in various species of toads. It was found that when prey appeared in the right side of their visual field, the toad’s predatory behavior was evoked. Contrastingly, when the animal appeared on the right side the toad only responded after the prey entered the binocular region in which both eyes receive stimuli. These findings were also in accordance with prey animals, such as fish, who detected the prey on one side better than the other (Vallortigara, 2000).

From an evolutionary perspective, these studies suggest that it is contradictory that visual lateralization developed in the first place. Knowing that a predator can appear on either side of the animal with equal probability, it would be disadvantageous for survival that when an animal is being approached by a predator on the left side it is not as responsive as if it were being approached on the right side (Rogers, 2004). With this in mind, it has been suggested that perceptual asymmetries due to brain lateralization should have developed at the level of the individual, instead of at the population level. In the case that half the population responds better when the predator appears on the right side, while the other half when the predator appears on the left side, perceptual asymmetries could not be readily exploited by predators, since the behavior of a particular animal would not be predictable. It has been found that this is the case with species that are not highly sociable. However, in highly sociable species, including primates, brain lateralization manifests at the population level (Bisazza, 1999 as quoted in Vallortigara, 2000), so that most animals within the specie show a predisposition towards one side being more sensitive to stimuli. This finding suggests that survival of a group of individuals would increase if all the individuals have the same perceptual asymmetries, thus showing a similar behavior when in threat. Considering the case of a school of fish, if one individual detours to the side opposite to their group, it is very likely that it will be predated.

So why did lateralization developed in so many organisms? In general, there seems to be a consensus that the disadvantages of lateralization are undermined by the advantages it provides, including faster response rates and better cognitive performance. However, the reasons behind how the physiological change emerged are not entirely clear. Two main lines of thought are predominant. On one hand, some researchers believe that lateralization developed due to incompatibility between the strategies used in different experiences, mainly with novel and familiar stimulus, as well as limitations in brain size (Andrew, 1982 as cited in Rogers 2000; Vallortigara, 1999). Another approach has focused mostly on efficiency: without lateralization the same task could be performed, but at slower response rates. This approach suggests that having a specialized hemisphere for each of the two problem-solving strategies allows for parallel processing greatly enhances the animal’s ability to perform two tasks simultaneously (Halpern, 2005). It has also been proposed that lateralization would decrease redundancy of computations in both hemispheres, and avoiding the slow communication between the hemispheres (Deacon, 1997, Levy 1969, Ringo 1994 as cited in Rogers 2000). Both of these lines of thought support that in general brain lateralization was a result of pressures to adapt to new conditions in the external environment.

After extensively studying the bird’s brain, a greater understanding about how the human brain works has developed. Even though the domestic chick does not have corpus callosum, but smaller neural pathways, research shows that in terms of motor behavior, cognitive processes, and emotional behavior, lateralization in chicks closely parallels with that of humans (Andrew, 1991 as cited in Vallortigara & Rogers, 2000). In humans, a particular eye projects to both hemispheres of the brain, but still stimulates the contralateral hemisphere more, as in the case of birds (Rogers, 1997).

Drawing inferences from the chick, an interesting hypothesis was developed to explain handedness in humans. Just the differences in pigeon’s cognitive ability do not manifest in competition (Rogers & Workman 1989 as cited in Rogers, 2004), perceptual asymmetries in humans are seldom evident in normal everyday behavior (Vallortigara, 1999). However, one asymmetry that is widely spread in humans is the tendency to be right-handed, which implies that in general he left hemisphere of the human brain is more active. To explain this asymmetry, the hypothesis suggests that the predominant position of the fetus during the last trimester of pregnancy controls the amount of light stimulation of the fetus in the similar way that chick’s lateralization is affected by light during pre-hatching (Previc 1999, as cited in Rogers, 2004).

To understand the processes involved in higher cognitive functions, it is essential to fully understand the evolution of lateralization. Studies of the avian brain suggest that human higher cognitive functions are in fact related to a higher degree of brain lateralization than in other species, which could have developed due to increased social interactions within primate family. As the environment changes, new pressures are exerted to increase their cognitive abilities of all species in order to ensure survival. Human brain lateralization takes advantage of the new possibilities inherent to a larger brain. Through evolutionary selection of brain lateralization, problem-solving has surpassed the basic need of survival to extend to creative and community-oriented exploration of the complexities of our own universe.

References
Güntürkün, O. 1985. Lateralization of visually controlled behavior in pigeons. Physiology and Behavior, 34, 575-577.
Güntürkün & Kesch. 1987. Visual Lateralization during Feeding in Pigeons. Behavioral Neuroscience, 101, 433-455.
Güntürkün, et al. 2000. Asymmetry pays: visual lateralization improves discrimination success in pigeons. Current Biology, 10, 1079–1081.
Halpern, M.A., et al. 2005. Lateralization of the Vertebrate Brain: Taking the Side of Model Systems. Journal of Neuroscience, 25, 10351- 10357.
Regolin, Lucia, et al. 2004. Hemispheric differences in the recognition of partly occluded objects by newly hatched domestic chicks (Gallus gallus). Animal Cognition, 7, 62-170.
Rogers, L.J. 1997. Early experiential effects on laterality: research on chicks has relevance to other species. Laterality, 2, 199–219.
Rogers, L.J. et al. 2004. Advantages of having a lateralized brain. Proceedings: Biological Sciences, 271, S420–S422.
Vallortigara & Rogers. 1999. Possible evolutionary origins of cognitive brain lateralization. Brain Research Reviews, 30, 164–175.
Vallortigara G. 2000. Comparative Neuropsychology of the Dual Brain: A Stroll through Left and Right Animals’ Perceptual Worlds. Brain and Language, 73, 189–219.

The Mind and the Body in Nietzsche (2005)

As a philosopher ahead of his time, Friedrich Nietzsche focused on the strong relationship between the body and the mind. For him, this correlation is the basis to understand the nature of human beings; the cause of their actions, how they respond to stimuli, and their overall patters of behavior (both character and personality). However, Nietzsche’s principal motivation to analyze this relationship was to discover the characteristics that promote the maximum strength in man. Nietzsche concluded that the strongest men are those that respond truly to their bodily instincts, and thus have control over their mental capacity. On the other hand, the weakest men are those that react to conventions created by society, and not to instincts governed by the laws of nature.

For Nietzsche, nature keeps everything secret from a human being, "even about his own body" (On Truth and Lying, 247). To solve the enigma of how the human body works, Nietzsche simplified this system into instincts. According to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary, an instinct is a largely inheritable and unalterable tendency of an organism to make a complex and specific response to environmental stimuli without involving reason. More specifically, for Nietzsche, an instinct is a strong human drive that cannot be ignored because the "laws of nature are infallible" (On Truth and Lying, 253). Among these instincts are self-preservation, and the instinct to partake in a group. As a "disciple of the philosopher Dionysus" (Ecce Homo, 673), Nietzsche believes that there is an instinct to keep doing what gives pleasure, even though this might bring about pain as well. Instincts definitely affect the way a human being responds to a particular stimulus.

But how does the physical body affect the way a person responds everyday? According to Nietzsche, there is an intricate relation among body health and the personality of the individual: if one is healthy physically, one is healthy both emotionally and mentally. Thus, what people eat, when they eat, and where they eat (Ecce Homo, 693), affects this relationship. He goes further by saying that a specific area of the body that is not cared for causes a specific problem in the individual. For instance, "the slightest sluggishness of the intestines is entirely sufficient […] to turn a genius into something mediocre" (Ecce Homo, 696). In addition, he argues that "all prejudices come from the intestines" (Ecce Homo, 696). Nietzsche even somehow exaggerates when he says that as a result of bad blood, the character is dirty (Ecce Homo, 689).

The key to understanding this relationship is that it works both ways; any imbalance in the mind will manifest itself physically. For example, "swallowing things leads of necessity to a bad character – it even upsets the stomach. All who remain silent are dyspeptic" (Ecce Homo, 685). Nietzsche also believes that the environment plays a strong influence on the body, and thus on the way the individual responds. For instance, he believed that metabolism is influenced by the climate. All of Nietzsche’s arguments indirectly show the reader that knowing about their bodies is extremely important. This involves small details such as knowing "the size of one’s stomach" (Ecce Homo, 695). The individual should have as a goal to trust their body and their instincts. This will naturally lead to knowing about the body, and understanding the influence in the mind, and thus in the behavior.

Nevertheless, the behavior of an individual, the way she responds to stimulus, is not totally dependent on the body. According to Nietzsche, truly strong individuals are those that are aware of their bodily instincts, yet they are independent as possible from the surroundings. They "react slowly to all kinds of stimuli" (Ecce Homo, 681), and thus avoid reacting prematurely. Moreover, the strongest only react when it is completely necessary (Ecce Homo, 709), and should even be able to stop reacting completely (Ecce Homo, 686). To achieve this, it is not only essential to separate from the environment to view it objectively, but also to respond truly to instincts. Finally, Nietzsche considers vital that the strongest man should not be passive and only respond to stimuli, but should be active and create in others stimuli. The strongest man are those that are active, and don’t wait for stimuli.

Nietzsche is very concerned with how society has created "metaphorical intuitions" (On Truth and Lying, 256). In other words, humanity has overridden those instincts that are based on nature, and created an artificial set of intuitions, which Nietzsche refers to as morality. Nietzsche proceeds to analyze morality by contrasting it with bodily instincts, or the real instincts. Moreover, this set of artificial instincts affect the perception of society of what is right and wrong. This set of morals has been passed throughout generations, which has made it acceptable as Truth. Consequently, humans forget which are their real instincts, and live according to the artificial instincts: the morality assigned to them by society.

For Nietzsche, a human being has an "unconquerable tendency to let himself be deceived" (On Truth and Lying, 255). Thus, there is a great chance that any individual will accept the deception of society by consenting to this morality. There is an unwillingness to accept the truth, and thus follow instincts. This results in a straight clash between the bodily instincts (which can’t be ignored) and the metaphorical instincts. For Nietzsche, the weak man is the one that is deceived; he is nowhere near the true, does not follow his real instincts and is simply satisfied with receiving (and reacting to) stimuli (On Truth and Lying, 247).

When the bodily instincts are replaced by artificial intuitions, the mind is significantly affected. Hence, control over the bodily functions gives immediate control of the mind. For Nietzsche, this is vital in controlling individuals, and is the pillar of religion and other structures created in society; the control of the population is achieved by establishing a morality that is not consequent with the true bodily instincts. These structures sometimes even exceed in the amount of control the exercise.

For Friedrich Nietzsche, the purpose of life is to achieve power. In The Will to Power, he argues that an individual has an instinct to become "master over all space" and expand his scope of influence, while being careless about resistance, or consequences (636). He calls this specific overwhelming force the will to power, and he adds that it is the central to understanding life (Beyond Good and Evil, 211). Some years later, Freud referred to this concept as the desire to be great. So how does the will to power relate to the strongest individuals?

The strongest human beings have freedom. They can reject the conventions established by society. They have "freedom of the will" (Beyond Good and Evil, 215): autonomy over their desires. But most importantly, they believe with "a fair amount of certainty that will and action are somehow one" (Beyond Good and Evil, 216). Therefore, for the mentally strong humans, the will to power, or the desire to be great, becomes real power, and greatness. Nietzsche asserts that history is based on the will to power of the strong, which affect the outcome of history by what they desire, which later becomes reality. All of this freedom is connected with the equilibrium between the minds and body.

Nietzsche inquired about the powerful connection between the body and the mind to differentiate the weak from the strongest man. The strongest human being in Nietzsche’s philosophy controls his own mind. He "knows how to forget" (Ecce Homo, 681), and therefore he experiences everything optimistically because all situations "must turn out for his best" (Ecce Homo, 681). He resists and manipulates his stimuli as necessary. The strongest human beings choose, admit, and trust. But most importantly, they think for themselves, and they are free. A human "no longer lets himself be carried away by sudden impressions, by intuitions" (On Truth and Lying, 250). Nietzsche is certain that he is this type of man, but he also invites the reader to follow his example.

Sources
Nietzsche, Friedrich. "Beyond Good and Evil." Kaufmann: 199-237.
Nietzsche, Friedrich. "Ecce Homo." Kaufmann: 673-725.
Nietzsche, Friedrich. "On Truth and Lying in an Extra-moral sense." Nietzsche on Rhetoric and Language. Sando Gilman, Sander et   al. New York: Oxford University Press, 1989. 246-257.
Nietzsche, Friedrich. The Will to Power. Walter Kaufmann. New York: Vintage Books, 1968. 636.
Kaufmann, Walter. Basic Writings of Nietzsche. New York: The Modern Library 1992.

El tiempo (2002)

Tiempo (sustantivo masculino): (Del lat. tempus).
o Magnitud física que permite ordenar la secuencia de los sucesos, estableciendo un pasado, un presente y un futuro. Su unidad en el Sistema Internacional es el segundo. (Real Academia Española)
o Duración de las cosas sujetas a cambio o de los seres que tienen una existencia finita. Por último (El Mundo).
o Duración de las cosas sujetas a mudanza (Vox).

¿Qué es el tiempo? Los lingüistas han tratado de resolver este problema de una forma sencilla. Según ellos, deberíamos satisfechos con decir que el tiempo es simplemente duración o una magnitud física. Lo más seguro es que no. Y por eso es necesario consultar a los filósofos y pensadores de los siglos pasados.

Es ésta una pregunta que miles de personas se han hecho, pues los seres humanos quieren entender el concepto del tiempo para entender los cambios que suceden a su alrededor y en su interior. Pero también, el tiempo está ligado a la existencia, y por lo tanto al tema de la muerte, lo cual también aflige todos los individuos de todas las sociedades. Si no existiese el tiempo, nadie moriría, por lo tanto nadie se preocuparía acerca de su propia muerte.

platon
aristoteles
Platón Aristóteles

Uno de los primeros filósofos que escribió acerca del tiempo es el filósofo presocrático

Parménides

. Para él, el tiempo es algo continuo; incluso se piensa que fue uno de los primeros que se formuló la posibilidad de la eternidad: "el ser no fue ni será, sino que es, a la vez, uno, continuo y entero". Por otro lado,

Platón

, otro filósofo griego, entendía que el tiempo era cíclico y repetitivo; consideraba que el tiempo nace con el cielo, y el movimiento de los astros mide el tiempo. Para él, el tiempo es una imagen móvil de la eternidad. El último de los filósofos griegos que contribuyó a la percepción del tiempo fue

Aristóteles

; él enfoca la percepción del tiempo desde una perspectiva física, lo percibe como medida del movimiento. Lo que permite al ser humano entender el tiempo es el movimiento. El tiempo es algo que pertenece al movimiento; no es un movimiento, pero no existiría sin él. Pero Aristóteles también se planteó la idea de que si no hubiera alma, el tiempo no existiría, pues no habría nadie que lo midiera, ni lo verificara. Desde una perspectiva psicológica, no habría tiempo sin un alma que lo midiera o, lo que es lo mismo, no habría tiempo sin conciencia.

 

Luego del nacimiento de Jesús y el establecimiento del

cristianismo

, la interpretación del tiempo cambió dramáticamente, ya que esta religión niega la posibilidad de un tiempo cíclico en donde cada hecho sea irrepetible y único y contribuya al sentido de la existencia humana De esta manera, el tiempo aparece fundamentalmente como lineal y progresivo, un tiempo orientado hacia el futuro; su origen está en la creación y culminará con un juicio final. Para

San Agustín,

un pensador cristiano medieval, un tiempo infinito no puede llegar a captarse utilizando la razón. Para él la noción de un tiempo "antes" de la creación no tiene sentido. Además, él interpreta que la percepción cíclica del tiempo es sinónimo de desesperación, ya que solamente un concepto progresivo puede dar esperanza. Un tiempo cíclico implica que los mismos errores seguirán ocurriendo

eternamente

. Por último, San Agustín pensaba que el tiempo no era el movimiento de ningún cuerpo, sino que al contrario, era psicológico. Además entendía que solamente existe un tiempo presente. El pasado existe ahora como imagen presente de hechos ya acontecidos, y el futuro existe como anticipación de hechos por venir. Así, solamente existe un tiempo presente, que es tiempo presente de cosas pasadas, tiempo presente del presente, y tiempo presente de cosas futuras.

 

Para un gran filósofo del siglo XIX,

Nietzsche

, el tiempo es un eterno retorno. Nietzsche tiene una perspectiva más científica acerca del tiempo cíclico. Él pensaba que el universo no está creciendo continuamente, y que hay un número definido de átomos en éste. Por lo tanto, puede haber un número finito de combinaciones entre átomos, y por lo tanto llegará un momento en que las combinaciones se repitan. Según mi opinión, esta teoría es acertada, ya que luego de que se alcance la combinación original, se repetirá la historia pues existirán exactamente las mismas atracciones entre las partículas. Pero la pregunta principal que surge de este sistema es ¿cuánto tiempo tomará para que sucedan todas las combinaciones de átomos en el

universo

?...

 

En la filosofía del siglo pasado, podemos encontrar a

Henri Bergson,

quien marcaba una clara diferencia entre el tiempo espacial (basado en la ciencia) y el tiempo del "sentido común". Para muchos, Bergson es el creador de la teoría de la existencia del tiempo psicológico y para él, el tiempo físico es falso. El tiempo espacial es el tiempo físico, que está basado en la ciencia, y es homogéneo para todos los seres. Bergson califica de falso este tiempo pues no mide la duración

real

de los eventos. Así, el tiempo de la ciencia es siempre homogéneo para todos los seres humanos. Por otro lado está el tiempo psicológico, el verdadero tiempo, el cual mide el puro movimiento y es captado por la intuición; es heterogéneo e irreversible, es pura novedad.

 

Bergson se enfrentó a las concepciones relativistas de

Albert Einstein

, el cual consideraba el tiempo un orden de sucesos, lo que Bergson consideraba clásico. Einstein afirmó que existía una relatividad en la medida del tiempo utilizada por los seres humanos, por lo que negó la posibilidad de una simultaneidad absoluta. Para él, el tiempo era

tan sólo una ilusión

desde una perspectiva física. Quizás uno de los aportes más importantes de Albert Einstein en este tema, es la posibilidad de viajar en el tiempo. El pensaba que cada uno tenía un tiempo que no era cronológico con los demás, por lo que pensaba que el tiempo, o el reloj, no estaban midiendo nada. Según Einstein, luego que un objeto viaja a la velocidad de la luz, cuando regresa a una velocidad menor que ésta, está unos segundos adelantados comparado con una persona que se mantuvo viajando a una velocidad constante que no era la velocidad del tiempo. Según Einstein, esa persona logró viajar por unos segundos al futuro, pero luego de unos segundos, el tiempo de las dos personas se iguala.

 

Por último, una teoría muy reciente del tiempo, es la de

Julián Babours

, en la cual el tiempo no está atado al movimiento, por lo que no hay tal relación entre el tiempo y las leyes de la física. Según esta teoría, el tiempo funciona como una especie de cámara fotográfica que une diversos universos. Es decir, que no existe el universo como todos pensamos, sino que es la unión de muchas "fotos". En esta teoría, la percepción del movimiento cambia, por lo que ratifica la dependencia y correlación entre tiempo, espacio, y movimiento.

 

Si no existiera el tiempo, no moriríamos (o al menos no nos daríamos cuenta que morimos). Ya que la muerte y el tiempo son dos temas de suma importancia en la vida de un ser humano, las religiones intentan explicarlos por medio de fenómenos sobrenaturales para el ser humano, y casi todas las religiones plantean la existencia de la eternidad. Por ejemplo, el budismo plantea que la existencia humana es cíclica; apoya la teoría de la reencarnación. Sin embargo, el budismo da una alternativa viable y permite que algún día, cuando se alcance la perfección, se pare el ciclo de reencarnación. Si pudiera escoger la definición de qué es el tiempo, mezclaría la percepción de Nietzsche y de Einstein. Nietzsche le intenta dar una perspectiva científica a la teoría de un tiempo cíclico. Quizás es un poco complejo que todo el universo tenga las mismas combinaciones, pero con que sólo haya un espacio reducido con la misma composición, es posible pensar que el tiempo en ese lugar se está repitiendo. A quién no le agradaría

viajar en el tiempo hacia el futuro

… Sin embargo, si todos viajáramos al mismo tiempo al futuro, ¿cuál sería el presente?, ¿qué es el tiempo y porque nos importa? Porque existimos (o al menos creemos que existimos y que nos importa qué es el tiempo).

¿Qué son los fractales? (2003)

¿Por qué a menudo se describe la geometría como algo frío y árido? Sí, es incapaz de describir la forma de una nube, una montaña, una costa o árbol, porque ni las nubes son esféricas ni las montañas cónicas ni un árbol cilíndrico.
"La geometría fractal de la naturaleza",
- Benoit Mandelbrot

Los seres humanos han intentado explicar la naturaleza desde los inicios de su existencia. En la antigüedad, recurríamos a crear mitos para explicar lo que sucedía a nuestro alrededor y poder entender cómo se había creado la naturaleza. Pero ya no es necesario recurrir a las supersticiones porque ahora existe la posibilidad de explicar la naturaleza por medio de la geometría fractal. Si usted es uno de esos estudiantes de escuela superior que odian la geometría y cualquier otra rama de la matemática, quizás cambie su opinión al conocer más acerca de los fractales, los cuales convierten a la geometría en el estudio de una serie de figuras muy interesantes y especiales que han logrado atraer la atención de muchos matemáticos, e incluso estudiantes.

La palabra "fractal" proviene del latín "fractus", que significa "fragmentado". Es posible explicar un fractal como una serie de puntos generados por una fórmula simple y que forman patrones reconocibles con líneas de contorno muy interesantes. Pero hay mucho más allá de esta definición. Para aquellos que quieren una definición más acertada de un fractal encontrarán que es "un cuerpo que tiene su dimensión topológica estrictamente menor que su dimensión de Haussdorf-Besucovic". Para comprender a cabalidad el concepto de fractal es importante tener en mente tres de sus características propias e inherentes, ya que éstas son trascendentales para comprender su estructura y su concepción. Por contradictorio que pueda sonar, a pesar de que el área o superficie de un fractal es finita al tener límites, su perímetro o longitud es infinita. Además, los fractales poseen auto-similitud, es decir que no importa la escala en la cual se vea el fractal, siempre se ve el mismo patrón; una repetitividad infinita. Finalmente, los fractales tienen dimensiones fractales. Nosotros estamos acostumbrados a manejar tres dimensiones (1ra, 2da, 3ra). Pero los fractales tienen dimensiones decimales (por ejemplo 0.5), lo que es un concepto abstracto que resulta muy complejo.

Para comprender los fractales, es necesario comprender primero el concepto de iteración. Una iteración es la repetición de algo una cantidad infinita de veces. Los fractales se generan a través de iteraciones de un patrón geométrico establecido como fijo.

La figura representada anteriormente es conocida como el Copo de Nieve de Koch o la Isla Tríada de Koch. Esta se forma a partir de un triángulo equilátero. En cada repetición, cada lado del triangulo es dividido en tres partes iguales. Esta iteración, en un alto grado de complejidad, se asemejará a una circunferencia, ya que los triángulos se irán colocando infinitamente. Este triángulo reafirma el concepto de área finita y perímetro infinito explicado anteriormente.

Cantor Dust iteration
Polvo de Cantor

Copo de Nieve de Koch

 

Benoit Mandelbrot
Conjunto de Mandelbrot

El primer objeto fractal estudiado en la historia, el polvo de Cantor, fue descrito por el matemático alemán Georg Cantor (inventor de la teoría de los conjuntos) alrededor de 1872. A pesar de ser una figura extremadamente sencilla, recoge casi todos los atributos discutidos sobre los fractales. Este presenta auto-similitud a cualquier escala y posee una dimensión fraccionaria de 0.6309 (log 2/log 3) aproximadamente. El polvo de Cantor es producido por procesos de iteración; éste se inicia con un segmento lineal (conocido como el iniciador). Este se divide en tres segmentos menores de la misma longitud y se elimina el segmento central. Este proceso se repite indefinidamente, hasta que se produce el polvo de Cantor.

Ya en la década de 1980, se descubre uno de los fractales más celebres y estudiados en la historia: el Conjunto de Mandelbrot. Este deriva su nombre de su descubridor, el matemático polaco Benoit Mandelbrot, considerado el padre de la Geometría Fractal. Sin embargo, Mendelbrot no fue el único matemático importante en el descubrimiento de esta clase de geometría, ya que otro matemático, el francés Gaston Maurice Julia, también formó parte del descubrimiento de los fractales. Al estudiar las biografías de estos hombres ilustres, nos podemos dar cuenta que ninguno de ellos quiso descubrir los fractales. Por ello, puede decirse que los fractales son una hermosa casualidad. Los conjuntos de puntos que conocemos como fractales se pueden generar de muchas maneras; sin embargo, éstos se producen por lo general matemáticamente por medio de la repetición constante de un cálculo simple. Por ejemplo, el conjunto de Mandelbrot se forma por medio de una formula muy simple. Z = Z2+C. La suma del cuadrado de un número Z y C se convierte en Z, y el proceso se repite infinitamente.

Los fractales como el Conjunto de Mandelbrot, producen imágenes muy peculiares, interesantes y hermosas. Las imágenes de fractales se generaron gracias a los computadores debido a su habilidad de realizar cálculos miles de veces en un corto tiempo. Sin embargo, debido a la complejidad de los cálculos pseudo-infinitos, el hecho que un fractal es infinito y de que una computadora no tiene el poder de realizar un cálculo infinitamente, lo representado no es completamente un fractal, pero nos da una idea aproximada de lo que es. En el caso del Conjunto de Mandelbrot, éste se realiza en un plano bidimensional de números complejos. Todos los números que al ser iterados se mantienen "relativamente pequeños" se dice que pertenecen al Conjunto de Mandelbrot y son representados por la computadora con color negro. Los demás puntos, que no pertenecen al Conjunto de Mandelbrot y no son pequeños, se representan dependiendo de su rapidez de iteración.

Actualmente los fractales tienen ya una serie de aplicaciones útiles al igual que insólitas, como la producción de "música fractal". Sin embargo, los científicos estiman que hay muchas aplicaciones aún no descubiertas. El uso más conocido es en el área de la computación, en donde éstos se utilizan para crear efectos en programación, compresión de archivos y la creación de imágenes asombrosas. Por medio de la transformación fractal, es posible la reducción del espacio "físico" (o tamaño) de una imagen o archivo. Finalmente, gracias a los fractales es posible añadir resolución a una imagen para que ésta se pueda ver mucho mejor.

Los médicos han logrado aplicar los fractales a su campo al lograr identificar la presencia de enfermedades en los huesos. Un programa de computadora logra analizar la textura de los huesos basándose en técnicas fractales que muestran cómo un hueso sano evolucionaría y finalmente se enfermaría.

Quizá la forma más útil de aplicar los fractales en la geografía es la elaboración de mapas tridimensiones muy detallados que permiten una imagen con un 99.9% de precisión en comparación con la forma real de nuestro planeta. Además, Mandelbrot ha propuesto que las galaxias y otros cuerpos semejantes se rigen por el mismo concepto. Finalmente, en los campos matemáticos de la geología y topología, gracias a los fractales es posible el cálculo más cercano o acertado de distancias, lo que permite por ejemplo determinar las verdaderas distancias que separan las costas de los continentes. Cualquier orilla del mar, con sus estribaciones irregulares, puede interpretarse como un fractal, en virtud de su área infinita y su longitud infinita. Pero los fractales pueden ofrecernos mucha más información acerca de la naturaleza. Examinando la imagen de este helecho, producida completamente por la formula xn+1 = a xn + b yn + c, quizás podamos empezar a comprender que cada vez estamos más cerca de comprender cómo se crean las plantas, los organismos, e incluso las nubes. Todo esto gracias al genial Mandelbrot que logró demostrar que la matemática no es algo sin uso y que ésta forma parte de nuestras vidas más de lo que creemos.Gracias a su descubrimiento, lograremos comprender diversos fenómenos naturales por medio de la geometría fractal en un futuro muy cercano. La capacidad de lograr entender la naturaleza permitirá que se abran nuevas ramas del conocimiento.

Bibliografía
http://www.geocities.com/CapeCanaveral/Cockpit/5889/
http://www.arrakis.es/~sysifus
http://www.fractovia.org/

Cronología
 

Weierstrass K. Weierstrass
(1815-1897)
Curva de Weierstrass Definió, por primera vez, una curva continua no diferenciable.
Cantor G. Cantor
(1845-1918)
Conjunto de Cantor Estableció una sucesión de segmentos conocida como "polvo de Cantor".
Lyapunov A. Lyapunov
(1857-1918)
Curva Lyapunov Abrió el camino para el estudio de sistemas dinámicos.
Peano G. Peano
(1858-1932)
Curva de Peano Diseñó una curva que, al desarrollarse, pasa por todos los puntos del plano.
Koch N. Koch
(1815-1897)
Curva de Koch Su aportación más famosa se conoce como "Copo de nieve".
Sierpinski W. Sierpinski
(1882-1969)
Triangulo Sierpinski Su "triángulo" es, probablemente, el fractal más conocido.
Julia G. Julia
(1893-1978)
Conjunto Julia Estudió por primera vez la iteración de funciones racionales.
Mandelbrot B. Mandelbrot
(1924- )
Fractal de Mandelbrot Un gran impulsor de la matemática fractal, ayudado por las computadoras

Fuentehttp://www.arrakis.es/~sysifus/intro.htm

 

Anarquía ciberespacial (2004)

Al preguntarle al usuario inexperto de internet quién es el dueño de esta red cibernética, podemos obtener tres posibles respuestas. La primera es que la internet es una completa anarquía sin dueños. La segunda, que los dueños son los gobiernos mundiales. Por último, el usuario podría responder que la internet pertenece a compañías capitalistas mundiales con mucho poder económico. Navegando entre ceros y unos, intentemos sintetizar una contestación a nuestra pregunta hipotética inicial: la internet es un espacio quizás bastante anárquico, con poca intervención gubernamental, y movido económicamente de forma parcial por compañías capitalistas.

La opinión generalizada es que la internet no es más que una red mundial de computadores que permite la transferencia de datos entre los usuarios conectados en ella. Sin embargo, para otras personas, es muchísimo más que eso. Quizás es por esto que, para muchos usuarios, es casi un insulto el decir que la internet es anárquica. Echándole un breve vistazo al diccionario de la Real Academia Española, encontramos que la anarquía se define como la "ausencia de poder público" o "un estado de desconcierto, incoherencia y barullo". Algunos simplifican este término, igualándolo con el caos y el desorden, cualidades negativas, pero que no sirven para precisar e identificar exactamente lo que es la internet. Otros entienden que la naturaleza humana hace a la anarquía un estado imposible. Para entender a cabalidad por qué la internet es anárquica, y por qué debe mantenerse así, necesitamos prescindir de las connotaciones negativas de la palabra ‘anarquía’; por esto, para efectos de este texto, nos adheriremos a la definición primaria de la "ausencia del poder público".

A pesar de que la internet fue fundada por la rama militar de los Estados Unidos, pronto se expandió a las universidades y se irradió por todo el mundo, alcanzando a los usuarios personales y convirtiéndose en lo que hoy conocemos como la internet. Sin embargo, desde muy temprano, esta red de computadores se ha caracterizado por una cualidad misteriosa, el no tener un dueño. Se argumenta que la naturaleza anárquica de la internet ha originado la mayoría de los problemas actuales de ésta. Veamos rápidamente algunos de ellos. En primer lugar, se encuentra el problema de la piratería y la violación de los derechos de autor. Debido a que en la internet la información está disponible al público en general y ésta es fácil de distribuir, resulta muy difícil proteger los derechos de autor. El ejemplo más notorio de la violación de los derechos de autor es el fenómeno de bajar música, gracias al caso de Napster.

Sin embargo, éste no es el único, entre otros se incluye un problema creciente y sumamente irritante es el del correo electrónico no solicitado, conocido mejor como "spam". Según el periódico Washington Post del 13 de marzo de 2003, casi el 40 porciento de todo el tráfico de correo electrónico en los Estados Unidos es basura, o no solicitado. En términos de costo annual, este problema representa más de 8.9 billones para las corporaciones de Estados Unidos (AP, enero 2003). El problema del correo no solicitado, sin embargo, no se limita a las corporaciones, sino que invade la vida diaria de cualquier usuario privado de la red. Los usuarios novatos ven inundadas sus cuentas de correo electrónico con propaganda inútil: anuncios falsos de que alegadamente se han ganado viajes en crucero, anuncios descarados de pornografía, o promociones de productos milagrosos de inexistente valor medicinal. En fin, a todos nos indigna no poder recibir ese mensaje tan esperado porque el correo no solicitado nos sobrepasó completamente el límite de mensajes de la cuenta.

En el mundo concreto, el correo de Estados Unidos penaliza como ilegal el envío de ciertos materiales como la pornografía infantil, o correo no solicitado de contenido sexual. Para las autoridades postales, no resulta muy difícil prevenir o sancionar este tipo de envíos. Sin embargo, en el mundo cibernético las cosas cambian, ya que resulta muy complicado rastrear correos electrónicos o cerrar páginas de internet en países que no tienen leyes en contra de prácticas ilegales o inmorales. Los únicos límites que encuentran aquellos que realizan estas actividades inmorales son su propia imaginación y la capacidad que tengan para adaptarse a las nuevas tecnologías.

Por otro lado, con la internet la libre expresión ha llegado a niveles sin precedente, lo que a su vez ha dado pie a cuestiones hasta ahora inusitadas. Por esto, la información que circula en línea puede ser falsa, difamatoria, u ofensiva. En este universo de información sin límites, evaluar la validez y utilidad de la información recae así completamente a discreción del usuario. Por otro lado, esta libertad de expresión a veces causa problemas tales como el acceso a menores de recursos pornográficos y la proliferación de la prostitución infantil, y el aumento de la promoción del odio por parte de grupos que han recurrido al internet como herramienta para llevar a cabo sus comunicaciones.

Otro factor que hace más anárquica esta red, es el hecho que su contenido no está sujeto a las leyes de un país en específico, ni tampoco existen leyes reguladoras. Por ejemplo, en Alemania y Suiza, el libro Mein Kampf de Hitler está censurado, por lo que las librerías de esos países no pueden venderlo. Irónicamente, en septiembre de 1999, este libro llegó a número dos en la lista de libros más vendidos en Alemania por la mayor librería en línea, la popular Amazon.com (http://www.tau.ac.il/Anti-Semitism/updates/i99020.html). Este caso nos muestra cómo la internet ha venido a ser un medio para conseguir lo prohibido.

Sin embargo, la anarquía en la internet sí tiene algunos límites. Actualmente, existen organizaciones dedicadas a organizar esta red. Entre ellas se encuentra la ICANN ("Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers"), la cual se encarga de asignar los dominios, o nombres con que se identifican las compañías, organizaciones y grupos en la internet. Sin embargo, actualmente, cualquier entidad o persona que desee comprar un dominio, lo puede hacer si tiene el dinero y provee una información básica de contacto. Esta libertad ha creado algunos problemas en el área de la propiedad de los dominios. Hoy en día, se ha convertido en una práctica común el comprar dominios con mala fe, con el propósito de que una persona famosa o una compañía pague inmensas cantidades de dinero por el dominio. Por ejemplo, ha habido disputas por los derechos de autor de los dominios sting.com, madonna.com y bussiness.com. En algunos casos, las autoridades les otorgan los nombres cibernéticos a los famosos o a las compañías, aunque a veces, el primer propietario demuestra que usaba el dominio con buena fe. Muchos consideran que esta práctica viola las patentes o derechos reservados. Otro ejemplo de intentos de imponer el orden en la red cibernética es el establecimiento de grupos de "policías cibernéticos", mayormente auspiciados por países como el Reino Unido y los Estados Unidos. Estas unidades policiales principalmente manejan crímenes relacionados con robo de información o penetración sin autorización de sistemas, pornografía infantil, o terrorismo, entre otros. Sin embargo, estas unidades policiales aún no han causado un impacto significativo en la prevención del crimen cibernético.

Una creencia bastante generalizada dice que las compañías capitalistas son los dueños de la internet. Todo lo contrario: a pesar de que la internet es movida económicamente de forma parcial por compañías capitalistas, éstas no son dueñas de la red, ni la controlan. Sin embargo, gracias a las posibilidades comerciales de esta red, entre las cuales se encuentra el hecho que las ventas en línea ya alcanzan los billones anuales, muchos empresarios han decidido mejorar la infraestructura de la red e invertir en ella.

¿Cómo sería la internet si un gobierno la regulara? Primero que nada, todo tipo de regulación sería muy difícil de implementar ya que no se estableció desde el comienzo mismo de la internet. Bajo el control gubernamental, puede que muchos problemas actuales se aminoren, pero por otro lado, sostener esa autoridad generaría nuevos gastos, que a su vez tendrían que ser pagados mediante impuestos. Además, sería probablemente necesario empezar a cobrar por servicios que actualmente son gratis, entre éstos los que necesitarían de mayor supervisión, como las salas de chat y el correo electrónico. Esto, lógicamente, se traduciría automáticamente en precios más altos para acceder a esta red. Uno de los mayores atractivos de la internet, la libre expresión, sería coartada, ya que para establecer un orden y monitorear el uso de la red cibernética, se tendría inevitablemente que monitorear y censurar el contenido. Finalmente, podría generarse una lucha de poder, en la cual los países o compañías con más dinero tendrían más oportunidades de salir beneficiados.

La internet es un mundo aparte en constante movimiento. Poco a poco la integración de esta tecnología a nuestras vidas se acelera más. Algunos países de avanzada, como Estonia, han reconocido como un derecho social el tener acceso igual a la internet (C.S.Monitor, julio 2003). Con la introducción de nuevas tecnologías y el estable aumento del número de usuarios que usan la red cibernética, quizás algunas cosas cambiarán. Sin embargo, una cosa debe permanecer igual: el estado de saludable anarquía que asegura que la internet siga siendo un medio de comunicación abierto que permita la igualdad entre sus usuarios, costos reducidos, servicios gratuitos y la capacidad de expresión.

Awareness of the masses in Indian Meditation Texts (2005)

"At the time when nectar flows, winds enter the mind"
– Tantric Treasures

Indian meditation texts assert that it is possible to break the barriers of physical laws and logical thought once the nature of reality is understood. This transcendental truth gradually manifests through arduous contemplative practice guided by the teachings of a guru, and complemented by the reading of meditative texts. Because a background of the teaching is thus expected, the traditional texts are written mostly for serious religious practitioners who can appreciate the wisdom contained therein. However, this was not the case with the Songs of Wisdom and Circles of Dance and Tantric Treasures, two texts that were propagated among ordinary laypersons belonging to the Sufi and Tantric traditions, respectively. The teachings that had remained secret for so long in the hands of the few who could understand them became available to the carpenter, the seamstress and the poet.

At first glance, the most noticeable difference is the characteristic approach to language. Unlike many meditative traditional texts, they are written in a vernacular language that leaves behind any references to Sanskrit. Furthermore, the practices are described in very simple terms that any literate person can understand, without requiring special knowledge of other languages. In addition, only few of the practices are described, leaving behind any sort of visualizations, or difficult asanas.

In traditional texts, sound is described as being an essential meditative tool in the process of gaining insight. Experiencing sound is a universal phenomenon that is not limited to those that follow a spiritual path. Because of this, it is carefully used in both the Tantric and the Sufi texts to particularly appeal to the ordinary people. In terms of form, they emphasize rhyme and rhythm creating a very musical poetic form. This makes the teachings more available and vivid since the verses can easily be recited, sung along or danced to. Coming from oral tradition, they contain characteristics such as repetition and brevity that make them easy to memorize. Since the times of the Vedas, Indian traditions have emphasized that texts should be learned by heart. No special skills are required to be able to memorize, which means that any layperson can memorize a teaching without necessarily understanding it until one day its meaning becomes apparent through intuition and experience. This is a similar approach to the one used in the Upanishads and the Aphorisms of Siva, whereby "repeatedly hearing and recalling to mind the teachings," the practitioner purifies thought (Aphorisms, 65).

Traditionally, texts had encouraged the use of sound because of its vibratory aspect, such as in the Upanishads, in which the text itself is thought to be a manifestation of a transcendental truth that is communicated through sound, or in Serpent Power, where sound can help develop awareness of etheric energy centers in the body. Moreover, sound has been viewed as a powerful tool to quiet the mind in the form of a mantra, such as in the Buddhist’s Trainings in Compassion where it is considered the "ladder that leads to the higher realms" (Trainings, 73) or in the yogic Nadabindu Upanisad where sound is considered to help the practitioner enter a state of deep concentration that requires a quiet mind (Thirty Minor Upanishads, 194)

In Songs of Wisdom, all of these elements are adapted to effectively reach the ordinary people. Interestingly, in order to reach this audience, cultivating awareness is not stated as being the primary purpose of the collective practice. However, in multiple occasions there are references to the powers of sound to progress spiritually. It is declared that any person that sings "will attain the other shore" (Songs, 369), which implies that in the same way that a mantra quiets the mind, singing can have a profound effect. In terms of its vibratory quality, there is still a transcendental wisdom being communicated through singing that helps develop awareness. In Tantric Treasures, the use of mantra seems to be sporadically integrated between the verses. For instance, it is stated that "the syllable of truth" can make thought motionless (Tantric, 125). In Songs of Wisdom, practitioners are instructed to "repeat the word day and night/ and rejoice in the inner temple" (Songs, 334) just as if it where a mantra.

Coming from a Sufi background, Songs of Wisdom promotes dancing as the ideal complementary activity to singing, two actions that are widely enjoyed by the general population. It is such a venerated activity that the guru is often associated with it and instructs the people to "dance in the company of truth" (Songs, 341). Dancing could be thought of as an asana, while singing as a mantra, creating a powerful combination that becomes the means of loosing one’s self. There seems to be a close resemblance between the state that contemplatives can reach through singing and dancing and the "states of experience that transcend all conceptual systems" (Balancing, 10) attained through an intellectual path.

Following the idea that laypersons should do enjoyable activities, Tantric Treasures states that it is not necessary to withdraw from the senses in order to progress spiritually. Following Tantric legacy, there is a focus in the body as a tool to develop awareness. However, in this context, laypersons are invited to use the body to experience ultimate bliss and "utmost ecstasy" (Tantric, 138) through sensory perception. For instance, it argues that there is "no place of pilgrimage/ more blissful than the body" (Tantric, 81), and that "until the mistress descends" there is no reason to not "entertain the five senses" (Tantric, 127). It is also implied that through sexual practices, awareness of subtle body anatomy can evolve (Tantric, 34). This way, knowledge of "the sun and moon" (Tantric, 118) channels and the central channel, the Sushuma, can intuitively develop.

An interesting element that could make Tantric Treasures attractive to the layperson is the use of a persuasive style which can be considered yogic antirethoric. Instead of challenging the intellect by using intricate paradoxes and examining fundamental concepts through logical proofs like Nagarjuna in The Fundamental Wisdom of the Middle Way, this text challenges the preconceived notions of the reader about spirituality by pointing out incongruence within specific traditions. It concretely breaks the conventions about what a spiritual Indian Meditation text should be like by contradicting the effectiveness of spiritual practices. For instance, while the Yogic Upanishads proclaim certain practices such as focusing on the tip of the nose and holding the breath (kumbaka) develops concentration, Tantric Treasures instructed the "wretched yogin" to not hold the breath and think of themselves and to abstain from focusing on the tip of their nose (Tantric, 79). In addition, the text seemingly contradicts the practice of meditation when it states that meditation actually deceives practitioners (Tantric, 65).

By questioning the purpose of spiritual practices that are perceived by the masses to be essential to the development of awareness and concentration, the text challenges the foundation of the belief systems that are based upon these practices. The ultimate purpose of this approach is not to deride any particular type of practice, but to promote the discovery of the practice by the ordinary people by calling forth their curiosity. They should abstain from simply following these practices because they belong to an organized form of spirituality that is thought to be effective. Thus, the text teaches that one should focus on inward practice rather than outward ritual in order to tune in to the innate knowledge that lies within, instead of simply performing the rituals with an expectation of what should be achieved. The focus on an inward practice is also behind Vedic rituals, but in order for an outside observer to understand this, it must first be experienced.

In terms of concepts, several elements of the texts confirm that they were written having in mind that readers are laypersons. For instance, compared to Indian Buddhist and Hindu texts, there is a very different approach to the use of fear. Instead of individuals being eternally trapped in a cycle of birth and death (samsara) and experiencing mental pain, in Songs of Wisdom there is a concern about physical pain that is thought to be manifested in a "day of judgment". This appeals more to ordinary people, since mental pain caused by samsara does not seem to be an immediate problem. Furthermore, the process of purification of the body, which seems to be essential in the spiritual path, is presented differently. Instead of being instructed to perform certain practices to clean their bodies like in the Yogic Upanishads, practitioners are told that "holy water will purify you" (Songs, 356). Finally, in Songs of Wisdom contains elements of quotidian of everyday life such as needing to earn an "honest living" (Songs, 236) to create an environment for laypersons

Songs of Wisdom and Tantric Treasures offer a different type of contemplative practice that aims towards any man or woman in any corner of the world that intuitively wishes to contemplate on the wisdom that lies within them. As one dances and sings, or even entertains the senses, transcendental insight can be attained and ultimate bliss experienced. What laypersons have to learn is that meditation does not happen exclusively in the Himalayas, or in a monastery in Tibet, but every day while simply watching the lotus flower bloom in the garden or listening to a Mozart’ symphony.

Sources:
Aphorisms of Siva, The: The Siva Sutra With Bhaskara''s Commentary, the Varttika. Trans.Mark S.G. Dyczkowski. New York: State University of New York Press, 1992.
Garfield, Jay L., trans. and commentary. The Fundamental Wisdom of the Middle Way: Nagarjuna''s Mulamadhyamakakarika. New York: Oxford University Press, 1995.
Kassam, Tazim R. Songs of Wisdom and Circles of Dance. New York: State University of New York Press, 1995.
Kongtrul, Jamgon, et al. Trainings in Compassion: Manuals on the Meditation of Avalokiteshvara. Trans. Tyler Dewar. Ithaca, New York: Snow Lion Publications, 2004.
Tantric Treasures. Trans Roger Jackson. New York: Oxford University Press, 2004
Thera, Nyanaponika and Bhikkhu Bodhi, trans. and ed. Numerical Discourses of the Buddha: An Anthology of Suttas from Anguttara Nikaya. Walnut Creek, CA: AltaMira Press, 2000.
Thirty Minor Upanishads. Trans. K. Narayanasvami Aiyar. Delhi: Parimal Publications, 1997. 154-208.
Upanisads. Trans. Patrick Olivelle. Oxford University Press, 1998.
Wallace, B. Alan. Balancing the Mind: A Tibetan Buddhist Approach to Refining Attention. Ithaca, New York: Snow Lion Publications, 2005.
Woodroffe, Sir John. The Serpent Power. New York: Dover Publications Inc., 1974.

Rene Descartes Dream Argument (2005)

"It is not until you awaken that you will realize that you have been asleep, dreaming that you are awake. "- Leonard Jacobson

In his genuine quest for truth, Rene Descartes bravely decides to free his mind from the prejudices that inhibit him from acquiring authentic knowledge by doubting everything about which he can have the slightest uncertainty. In this essay, I will evaluate Descartes’ Dream Argument, which questions the nature of reality by comparing our lives to a dream with the purpose of finding a belief that is not subject to doubt.

Descartes begins by philosophizing about what would happen if his life was only an illusion or a dream created with the aid of sense perception. This comes about after his observation that "I have never believed myself to feel anything in waking moments which I cannot also sometimes believe myself to feel when I sleep" (Descartes, 47). Consequently, this produces in him an anxiety that what he has taken to exist might be as well part of dreams since there are no clear signs that enable him to distinguish between the walking and the dreaming state since his sense perception can be deceiving. The first fact that he discovers that relives his worry is that no matter how abstract his dreams are, they always have elements that have a foundation on reality. This means that he might not be able to prove directly that he exists independently of a dream, but using this logic, he can prove that at some level there exists a physical foundation for his existence as a composite corporeal thing. In his own words "there are some other objects more simple and more universal which are real and true" (Descartes, 15).

Furthermore, having dealt with the physical entity, Descartes proceeds to discuss the universals, which he believes are a source of "obvious truths." He concentrates on mathematical observations that are independent of a physical entity, and thus, apply in both the dream and the walking state. Descartes anxiety as a philosopher resurfaces after he hypothesizes that these truths might be the product of a very successful deceit by an evil genius, or even a God, and therefore, they cannot be trusted blindly.

After this exploration, Descartes concludes that since all of his previous beliefs contain a certain degree of uncertainty, he cannot use them to deduce further knowledge, leaving him temporarily in a state of skepticism. This would have been completely unacceptable if he were to enter in a state of apathy and abandon the attempt to reach an answer to his questionings. Fortunately, this is not the case, and his initial radical approach encourages him to reach a core belief that can serve as a foundation to his philosophy as it is independent of sense perception and carefully planned deceit. After a long meditation, Descartes realizes that the accurateness of his sense perception or the fact that there is an evil genius is not relevant to ultimately prove his existence. Since he can show that he thinks, he concludes that he must exist independently of the degree of which he is being misled into trusting illusions. From this, Descartes is not only able to prove his own existence and thus relief his anxiety, but he also sets the groundwork for proving the existence of a higher being.

I find Descartes argument very appealing, especially since I found myself during my childhood in a very similar process and was able to reach a similar conclusion, and thus relieving the anguish that results from questioning you own existence. However, other philosophers have argued that there might be a flaw in the argumentation since the initial premise that there is no criterion to distinguish between sleep and wakefulness doesn’t necessarily hold true. For instance, Anthony Kenny argues that although there might not be an objective proof that he is awake, that does not imply that there is no solid grounds to say "I am awake" (Kenny, 30). However, this intuitive reasoning is not enough to clear out Descartes dream-related anxiety since in order to produce trustworthy judgments, one must be genuinely awake, and there is no proof that walking reality is not simply another level of dream consciousness.

Descartes solves his skeptic dilemma by discovering the only belief that he cannot doubt and which proves his existence. He can doubt all that comes to his mind through his senses, which clear out completely the tablet that he has keep throughout his life. Moreover, Descartes Dream Argument opens the door to a very interesting paradox. What if there was an endless cyclic chain of dreamers? This line of reasoning questions his assumption that there has to be a physical foundation for the dream, but what if the foundation was unsteady since it was also part of a dream? What if Descartes existed because God was dreaming about him? Yet on the same token, what if this infinite creature only existed because Descartes is dreaming about her in his meditation? Just as in science there is the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle, philosophers will never be completely without a doubt regardless to their existence (and even on other matters). However, this does not limit us to continue with our meditation by contemplating the perfection that lies before our eyes; even if we can only dream that we exist we can still find beauty and flawlessness in the flower that blooms in springtime.

Sources
Descartes, René. Meditations on First Philosophy. Trans. Cress, Donald. Indiana: Hackett Publishing Co., 1999. 1-17.
Kenny, Anthony. "Cartesian Doubt." Descartes: A Study of His Philosophy. New York: Random House, 1968. 14-39.

The agent intellect for Thomas de Aquinas (2005)

In Question 79 of Summa Theologica, Thomas Aquinas revisits Aristotle’s conception of the soul in order to encompass the intellectual capacity. In this paper, I will examine closely the Third Article in order to evaluate Aquinas’ argument supporting the existence of an active intellectual principle, which he denominates as the agent intellect.

Aquinas’ main hypothesis is that the intellect, which is a power of the soul, is divided into a passive and an active component. In the previous article, he skillfully proved that the passive component exists after broadly defining passive as that which passes from potentiality to act (Aquinas, 122). He then concludes that to understand is "in a way passive" (Aquinas, 123) since when we are born we are only in potentiality towards understanding, but later on, the potentiality becomes realized. Finally, active is implicitly defined as that which remains in potentiality.

The first argument against the existence of the agent intellect states that since the intellect is in potentiality to intelligible things, and since that potentiality becomes act through understanding, there is only a passive intellect. The next objection suggests that if the active component of sensory perception aids in making the medium luminous, then analogously, the active component of the intellect should also influence the medium to make understanding possible. However, since there is no apparent medium required for understanding to occur, there is no need for an agent intellect to alter the medium. The final objection states that since forms are allegedly immaterial, once they are received by the intellect, no further effort is needed by an active component to make them intelligible.

Aquinas answers these objections by reviewing the definition of a form. For Plato, forms are immaterial and completely independent of matter. However, Aristotle reviewed this theory by establishing a connection between matter and form which is based on the concepts of actuality and potentiality (Aristotle, 412a). Therefore, some power is required to break this connection and extract the form from individual matter. He calls this power to abstract the agent intellect (Aquinas, 128).

Aquinas methodically replies to the objections by using alluding to the definition of the intellect and its components. He answers the first objection by affirming that since the intellect needs to perform two actions, namely abstraction and understanding, there needs to be an active constituent to the intellect as well as a passive one, unlike the nutritive and sensitive parts of the soul. Aquinas responds to the second objection by clarifying Aristotle’s analogy of the active intellect as light: for the Philosopher, light is needed so that the medium becomes illuminated, but the agent intellect is required for understanding for a different reason since no medium is involved. The final objection is resolved by asserting that in order to comprehend the intelligible, abstraction is required to extract the form from the matter, a function performed by the agent intellect.

Aquinas line of reasoning has a very strong foundation to support it. Not only does it follow Aristotle’s carefully crafter arguments, but it also supports the modern conception of how understanding is achieved. By dividing the intellect, Aquinas defines very precisely the correlation between form and matter, which results in a very powerful tool to prove the existence of the agent intellect, as well as making the Theory of Forms more tangible. Finally, by responding to objections that might be presented to his ideas, Aquinas tackles alternative explanations before the reader even thinks of them, making the argument stronger and reinforcing the groundwork in the philosophy of mind.

Sources
Aquinas, Thomas. On Human Nature. Ed. Hibbs, Thomas. Indianapolis, IN: Hackett Publishing Co., 1999. 120-130.
Aristotle. De anima Trans. R.D. Hicks. Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books, 1999. 9-72

Descartes clever attempt to feed our mental substance (2005)

The philosophy of mind goes beyond the eagerness to solve the puzzle of the mind. However, any endeavor is inevitably linked to the earliest significant attempt, Descartes’s Substance Dualism. Due to the controversy that this theory created, new theories in the philosophy of mind arose. Thus, to truly understand this philosophy it is essential to evaluate the strength of both pro and con arguments.

One of the strongest point of Descartes’s theory is that it follows intuition. We are all aware that the qualities of our mental experiences differ broadly from those of material origin (Heil, 22). This is exactly the pillar of the theory, the insight that the world is divided into the mental substance, which is directly linked to the mind, and the non-mental substance, which relates to the spatial, physical world. These substances are intuitively recognizable as they possess unique and inherent characteristics. Descartes adds that the properties and the substances are inseparable, which could imply that the substances are not made of smaller substances.

Another strong point of this theory is that it can be applied to several scopes of knowledge. It accounts for events such as death (Heil, 21), and the existence of a

soul

, which could help to explain religious inquiries. It also explores the intimate relation between the ego and a specific body (Heil, 20), which explains sensory experiences, but also complex ideas such as the will of each individual, its extent of mental influence, and psychological concepts.

Many believe that the main weakness of this theory lies in its simplicity. Several philosophers are dissatisfied with Descartes shallow exploration of the interaction of mind and body after he described the big metaphysical distance that separates them. Descartes cleverly limited his argument by stating that they casually interact through the senses and the pineal gland, and that the mind is capable of initiating events in the material world (Heil, 23). An aspect that Descartes didn’t emphasize it the bi-directionality of the interaction as the non-mental substance can affect the mental.

Another apparent weakness of Substance Dualism is that it seems to contradict modern thought, which approaches this topic from a scientific viewpoint. In our society, the material world is viewed as a closed system in which each event is caused by some other material event (Heil, 23). However, Descartes states this is might not always be the case, thus raising the possibility of challenging natural laws. As Heil explains, the fact that the mind affects the physical does not necessarily mean that it goes against natural laws, or statistical predispositions (Heil, 24). In fact, I believe that Descartes points at the inability to understand the mind completely using science, which has no principles to interpret empirical finding in this areas (Heil, 16). Even if scientist could understand the patterns of your brain waves and decipher your thoughts, the understanding of the mental substance goes beyond the physical realm.

Descartes argues that the mind is transparent (its current state is evident) and incorrigible (the belief of being in a certain state goes with reality). This may seem counter-intuitive, and even a weakness in the theory, as the observation of the mental substance is private due to the non-spatial characteristic of the mind. How can something that has troubled philosophers for decades end up being so transparent? This argument seems to be strong, but I believe it is based on the understanding of the mind using a scientific approach.

Descartes set up a maze through which philosophers have traveled for decades, even after the evolution of the sciences, as well as human thought. As Heil partially states, the difficulties in the theory were understood keenly by Descartes (Heil, 22). The theory is simply and therefore easy to understand. It is broad, but also left gaps for future philosophers to discuss (which he definitely accomplished). Consequently, the weakest points of Cartesian Dualism, become its strongest points, making both amateur and experienced philosophers ponder about the nature of the substances.

Sources

Heil, John. Philosophy of Mind. New York: Routledge 2004. 15-26.

The science of philosophical inquiries of the mind (2005)

"Reality is merely an illusion, albeit a persistent one" -Albert Einstein

He was walking peacefully by the sidewalk, surrounded by the bushes through which the light slipped. All of the sudden, anguish started to penetrate his veins as he questioned his own existence after death while the birds enjoyed the afternoon nap free of any worry. This may have been Aristotle or Plato, walking through Athens. He may as well be Aquinas, Descartes or an anonymous philosophy student seeking knowledge for the love of inquiry. No matter how long ago this account may be, the philosophical problem still remains: is there an entity separate from the body? Is this entity, referred by many as the mind or soul, immaterial? And if so, can it transcend physical death? In the era of substantial technological advances, the mind-body puzzle just described starts to trespass the frontiers of philosophical inquiry and merges closely with the scientific understanding of our human nature. In this paper, I seek to reconcile some differences of dualism, functionalism, and even the mind-brain identity theory by taking into account the newest discoveries in brain science.

A comprehensive definition of mind and body is needed to comprehend if these entities are different, and if so, if they interact causally. For the contemporary philosopher René Descartes, the body is that which is bound by some shape and uniquely fills up a position in space (Descartes, 19). This definition is in agreement with the description used by ancient and medieval philosophers, which conceptualized the body as the material substance that is publicly available to observation. However, an agreement over the definition of the soul or mind is not as readily available. There seems to be a consensus among the ancient, medieval and contemporary thinkers that the mind is hermetic and its current state is not evident. Furthermore, they all agree that there is an interaction between the mind/soul and the body that is reflected in both entities. But when evaluating the extent of this interaction, the immateriability of the mind, and the possibility of an immortal soul, certain apparently irreconcilable differences emerge.

A recent investigation done by radiologist Andrew Newberg initially put me in a stalemate as I sought my own encompassing understanding of the mind-body enigma. After capturing brain tomography images of Tibetan monks at the moment of enlightenment, Newberg detected a physical foundation of this mystical experience. In the images, the rear area of the brain turned a shade of blue, indicating a decrease in neural activity. This is precisely the area of the brain in charge of orientation in time and space, and what gives the body a sense of physical limits. Interestingly, in this type of transcendent experience the mystics describe a new state of consciousness in a timeless and spaceless dimension. This is accompanied by a surrender of the ego, a unity with an absolute being and ecstatic bliss.

Before providing a unifying theory, it is important to review first how this finding parallel with the three most accepted theories in the philosophy of mind. The mind-brain identity theory will readily argue that, because the mind is identical to the brain, the phenomenon reported by the Tibetan Buddhist monks is simply the result of changes in the brain that inhibit their ability to locate the boundaries of time and space. Since, according to this theory, states of consciousness are genuine internal states of the brain (Heil, 8), the connection between the body and mind is entirely biological. Thus, the existence of an immaterial substance beyond death is not a plausible alternative due to inherent nature of the relationship. In other words, the absolute being described by the monks is a hologram created by the mind, and the assurance gained after enlightenment that there is transcendence after death is merely an illusion.

The mind-brain identity theory directly questions the nature of reality, and thus is parallel to Cartesian skepticism. For instance, let’s pretend that as René Descartes sits next to his fireplace, an anonymous scientist monitors his brain activity using a SPEC machine. As Descartes deciphers the nature of a piece of solid wax, his brain, as seen in the tomography, becomes a multicolored vortex. As he starts meditating, the front of his brain becomes lit by his immense concentration, noting the beginning of his philosophical inquiry. As his nose senses the scent of the flowers from which the wax was collected, and his ears perceive the knocking in the solid wax, his temporal lobe becomes active. As he views how the wax melts while he puts it closer to the fire, his occipital lobe becomes a brilliant sphere as the color, shape, and size of the wax undergo metamorphosis. Meanwhile, the other parts of the brain that are not involved in sensing the wax become small specs of dark.

Do these footprints in the brain mean that the wax does not exist? Can we conclude that simply because there is a physical manifestation of a mental process in the brain, the process itself has to be completely material or biological? Let’s imagine for a second that when the monks reached this state of heightened awareness, the tomography would be identical to that of a sleeping brain in delta state. How could we know that those that reach enlightenment are unlike prisoners who enjoyed imaginary freedom during meditation?

All of this questioning is making me dizzier than Cartesian skepticism, and thus it is now crucial to analyze the other two perspectives in order to gain deeper understanding of Newberg’s experiment. The first one, functionalism, seeks to explain the mind and the body by dividing these entities into several components and then evaluating the whole system in terms of functional parts that perform a role. This implies that states of mind are related to functional roles (Heil, 8) that are nodes in a causal network of cause and effect (Heil, 102). Interestingly, this theory suggests that the functional roles are realized in the physical entity, for instance, in the nervous system, but have a certain degree of independence from the material structure. Applying these concepts to the neuroscience experiments, we can argue that a mystical transformation in an immaterial dimension resulted in changes in the physical body by means of the brain. Moreover, this theory suggests the possibility that the mind is independent of a particular type of body, and thus, the separation of a physical body after death seems to be possible if the appropriate structures that support the mind continue to exist.

The second perspective, Cartesian Dualism, holds that the body and the mind are utterly distinct. Descartes believed that the mental and material substances would causally interact, although he failed to provide a comprehensive view of how this interaction was carried out. The only possible explanation he provided was that the linkage might take place in the pineal gland, a structure in the center of the brain. Newberg’s experiments corroborates that, if this casual interaction does exist, it occurs in the brain as predicted by Descartes.

After carefully analyzing these three significant theories in the philosophy of mind, I still find that there is something lacking as I struggle to find a unifying view. Namely, all of these attempts have rational and intellectual thought as its pillar, and after centuries of seeking answers, the same question still remains. It is now vital to redirect the philosophical inquiry by approaching it from a new perspective: leave rational thought temporarily behind and immerse ourselves in the deepness of the mind through other means.

As Descartes wisely stated: "If I were to cease all thinking I would then utterly cease to exist" (Descartes, 19). At first this appears to be an adverse situation to be avoided by all means. But perhaps, there lies the lost key to resolve the mind-body problem. After all, how can we expect to understand the mind, while we observe our nature through the mind itself? Aquinas argues that the intellect understands by using the power of abstraction and consequently, in order to carry this process it must "lack all those things which of its nature it understands" (Aquinas, 37). So, how is it possible for the intellect to understand itself if that would imply that the intellect has to lack itself based on Aquinas premise? This paradox corroborates the view that it is essential to get a glance at the intellect from another viewpoint, leaving thought to the side.

Socrates wisely affirmed that philosophy is a preparation for death. Socrates believed that once his soul dissociated from the body after death, he would be able to engage in pure thought without any deceit from the senses. But, what if the Greek thinker could achieve this while still inside his body? This is precisely what the Tibetan Buddhist monks and the Franciscan nuns were doing. Instead of waiting for the answer to be suddenly exposed to them after death, they seek to resolve the mysteries while in their flesh.

Meditation is the complementary instrument to gain understanding of the multidimensionality of our minds. As ordinary thought is put aside the mind suddenly becomes exposed to direct observation as thoughts come to the mind, and readily leave. Perhaps this is not precisely "ceasing all thinking." Yet, as the SPEC images showed it is in fact a surrender of the ego that utterly results in "ceasing to exist."

However, a merely meditative approach is not the ultimate solution to the enigma. In order to attain a comprehensive understanding of the mind, it must be investigated through all possible alternatives; rational thought and meditation. Perhaps this has been precisely why the body-mind problem remains to be unsolved: mystical philosophers and reasoning philosophers seeking answers exclusively through one means when the answer to this Koan may be to merge these philosophical inquiries to gain insight about the nature of mind.

Most importantly, I believe that Newberg’s experiment showed that it is time to look for an all encompassing theory of mind that unifies the mind-brain identity theory, dualism, and functionalism. Instead of looking for the differences, it is indispensable to start looking for the truth that lies in each of these theories. I believe the mind-brain identity theory provides the needed biological outlook to the enigma. It can shed a lot of light into the biological mechanics of the relation between mind and body. Furthermore, functionalism offers an explanation of the dynamics of functions performed by the mind and body and the intricate network of cause and effect that seems to govern the interaction of theses substances. Finally, Cartesian Dualism provides the foundation to explain the possibility of transcendence after death. This theory provides the basis to explain the mystical transformation of the monks as they reached their understanding of the soul and its connection to the universe.

As we discover the true nature of reality through mystical contemplation and scientific understanding, the mind-body enigma will be once step closer to being solved. Along the path to answer the paradox of the mind and body, we might discover that we must allow a certain degree of uncertainty, as each individual reaches a unique solution to the maze that fits his understanding. This may lead contemporary authors such as Colin McGinn to believe that the mind-body problem might not have a solution. For now, we must use the resources in our hands and continue to reach for the answer in spite of it seeming to be far away. The joy of understanding our minds does not come from getting the answer, but in the effortful process that exposes our true nature. As authentic seekers of knowledge, we shall see through the veils of reality to decipher the mechanics of the body-mind interaction and discover the immense treasures that lie within ourselves. It is time for us to be walking by the sidewalk, to see the perfection in the clouds that allow light to reach us beyond the bushes in a cold winter day, to feel the adrenalin through our veins, and simply chuckle, knowing that we have figure it out, and authentically realizing for once that the answer was not as important.

Sources:
Aquinas, Thomas. On Human Nature. Ed. Hibbs, Thomas. Indianapolis, IN: Hackett Publishing Co., 1999. 120-130.
Aristotle. De anima. Trans. R.D. Hicks. Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books, 1999. 9-72.
Descartes, René. Meditations on First Philosophy. Trans. Cress, Donald. Indiana: Hackett Publishing Co., 1999. 1-17.
Newberg, Andrew. Why God Won’t Go Away: Brain Science and the Biology of Belief. New York, Ballantine Books. 2001. 11-31
Heil, John. Philosophy of Mind. New York: Routledge 2004. 15-26.
Plato. Phaedo. Five Dialogues. Translated by G.M.A Grube. Indianapolis, IN: Hackett Publishing Co., 1981. 93-155.

Aristotle definition of the soul in De anima (2005)

After gaining insight from the previous definitions of the soul given by his predecessors, Aristotle carefully designed his own comprehensive definition of the soul. According to his first intuition, the soul is "the principle of all animal life" (402a). After further exploration, he concludes that it is "the first actuality of a natural body having in it the capacity of life" (412a). In this paper, I will analyze Aristotle’s definition of the soul given in De anima by exploring his concepts of potentiality and actuality and his skillfully crafted examples of these terms and their differences. In the process, I will also explain Aristotle’s view of the soul as the set of hierarchical capacities and functions that an organism contains, and why it is catalogued as first actuality. Finally, I will elucidate how the interaction between the body and the soul works based on Aristotle’s line of reasoning, and provide my overall evaluation of the argument.

Aristotle approaches the intricate puzzle of the soul by establishing three types of substances, or existent things (412a). On the first level, there is matter, a physical manifestation that serves as the foundation for the other substances. Aristotle calls this mere potentiality, as the matter has the latent capacity of becoming alive. The next level is the form, which Aristotle calls first actuality. The final substance is the second actuality, a level at which form and matter engage in collective action to successfully perform a function. Aristotle used the axe as a metaphor in order to elucidate the differences between these two concepts. Potentiality corresponds to having all the materials needed to build an axe. The axe therefore has the potential to gain an identity, but has not done so yet. Moreover, first actuality is analogous to the axe being properly configured and gaining an identity that possesses latent capacities and functions that are waiting to be discovered. Finally, second actuality relates to the axe actually being used to cut. Interestingly, Aristotle finds these concepts in all things, independent of them being alive or not.

The second example used by Aristotle is the eye, a bodily part that is very familiar to all of us. The matter of the eye as an organ lies in its physiological components, the pupil, retina, cones, and cornea, among others. The form of the eye, according to Aristotle’s conceptual hierarchy, would be when these components gain an identity and have the dispositional capacity of eyesight. The eye is now constituted appropriately in such a way that it has the capacity of perceiving light and interpreting it into electrical signals. Thirdly, the full actuality would come into play when the eye activates its functions and actually sees, complementing the matter and the form. It is important to note that the first actuality can exist without the second actuality, in the same way that matter could exist without being organized. In other words, the fact that the components of the eye are present does not imply that the eye will gain its identity, and furthermore, if the eye exists as an organ, it does not necessarily have to see. However, it is important to note that Aristotle specifies that this example is only valid "if the eye were an animal" (413b). The existence of the eye is intricately connected to other body parts, and without them its survival is questionable. We can learn from this analogy that the eye does not have a soul because its existence is dependent of the organism, and it lacks independent qualities such as desire and direct nutrition.

Aristotle built on all of these concepts to apply them to his definition of the soul. For him, the body is mere potentiality; it contains all of the functional parts and is potentially alive. In order for the body to be actually alive, it needs the soul, which he considers to be first actuality. This reveals Aristotle’s belief that the body is intricately connected with the soul. Moreover, the soul is the body’s capacity to engage in activities that are characteristic of living things of its sort. However, for Aristotle’s not all organisms activate all of these functions, and thus there are different levels of employing the soul. Based on this pivotal idea, the philosopher proceeds to explain each of the latent capacities that lie in the soul by establishing a hierarchy in which each has the previous capacity as a foundation. As he explains, "some living things posses all [the powers of the soul], others some, others again only one" (414a).

The basic quality of the soul for Aristotle is nutrition, the ability to nourish itself. He argues that because of this quality, there is growth, decay, and reproduction. Aristotle argues that plants only posses this type of capacity. To posses this faculty, it is essential to have a soul as "nothing is nourished unless it possesses life" (416b). The next level is sensation, or perception, of which tactile sensation is essential. Due to this quality, the feeling of pain and pleasure arises. Aristotle catalogues animals as having this capacity. In order for a soul to have sensation, nutrition must be present as well. In other words, if sensation is a characteristic of that soul, its nutritive faculty is implied. The next capacity that can be developed is appetency, which is very closely related to sensation. After the soul is able to feel, there is a surge of desires, some which go along with physical needs, such as thirst and hunger, and other that do not, such as emotions like anger. The next step in the hierarchical ladder is locomotion, which involves movement from place to place as well as rest. Once again, in order to have a capacity, it is essential to possess the previous ones, building upon the hierarchical scheme. For locomotion to be possible, appetency, sensation and nutrition must also be present. The final level is understanding, which Aristotle believes to be the most uncommon. This entails reasoning using thought and intellect. In this category, human beings would presumably be found, even though he could argue that some are led only by imagination and not intellect. Once again, to posses this quality, all of the previous ones must be present. As Aristotle previously argued in Book I, having a mind does not mean you are intelligent. However, to be intelligent, you need a mind (404b).

This hierarchical organization set up by Aristotle leads to further interpretation. Does this mean that there are different degrees of souls, or are they equal? We could answer this question based on Aristotle’s concept of actuality and the assumptions upon which his concept of the soul is established. First of all, Aristotle argues that all of which is alive has a soul, and therefore, it possesses at least one of the capacities he describes. Furthermore, if he defines the soul to be of first actuality, which implies that it’s a set of not-yet-activated functions, all souls would be equal if they posses this set of functions, even though they may never get to develop all of them. However, this is not the case. Aristotle enumerates different types of souls depending on the functions which the living entity has developed. The first type of psyche, or soul, is the nutritive soul (424a). This is the type of soul which plants contain. This categorization is based on Aristotle’s idea that plants don’t have perception, because perception involves more than affecting the matter. Even though a heated iron can affect the plant, this does not mean that the plant perceives its touch. As Aristotle points out, "plants have no sensation, although they have one part of soul and are in some degree affected by the things themselves which are tangible" (424a). The next type of soul is the sensitive soul. This is characterized by possessing perception, and belongs to all animals. Finally, Aristotle describes the rational soul, which human beings possess. Unfortunately, he does not expand upon this type of soul in Book II.

Aristotle’s definition attempts to solve the enigma of the interaction between body and soul, which he believes his predecessors were unsuccessful at solving. After understanding Aristotle’s concept of actualities and the different types of souls, we should be prepared to understand the initial claims made in the second chapter. He describes the soul as an entity by which "we live, perceive, and have understanding" (414a), but it does not exist in the material level. He goes further by arguing that "the soul does not exist without a body and yet is not itself a kind of body" (414a). This clearly exposes the inseparable relation between these two units. The soul is not by itself a body but it belongs to one, and because of this it has to exist within a body. In other words, the soul needs the body in order to survive. Because of his remarks on Book II, Aristotle’s understands that the soul is inseparable from the body. This is in direct contradiction to previous Greek thinkers such as Socrates and Plato.

On one hand, Aristotle does not pursue a purely materialist conception of the soul, which some of his predecessors defended, where the soul is exclusively regarded as a physical unit on the same level as the body, and which can thus be explainable using atoms. The materialistic outlook dictates that the functions are dependent on the form. Yet, for Aristotle, the anatomy of the body should not be necessarily a limitation to its functions. For instance, Aristotle does not view emotions or desires as being a direct result of the form, as not all that has nutrition must also have desire. Furthermore, we can interpret that Aristotle believes that as you go further in the hierarchy, the qualities become more and more independent of the form. On the other hand, Aristotle does not follow the dualist conception either, where the soul is conceptualized as temporarily inhabiting the body. Aristotle retains Plato’s Theory of Forms, although he believes that he eliminated its impurities.

I consider Aristotle’s observations to be very valuable as they show his ability to be astonished at the world around him. The point where I initially differ with him is where he ties all his observations. Initially, I believed that without much argumentation he concludes that the soul is inseparable from the body, which I believe not to be true. However, reviewing Book III enriched my understanding of his theory. Interestingly, Aristotle revisits his concept of separability of the soul by contemplating the possibility that the intellect, being a quality that is not as dependent from the body, might be able to separate from the body, perhaps after death. Aristotle fails to explore this in great detail, but he implies that there might be a universal intellect that is undisturbed by material processes and ties all souls. We might come to understand his perception of the intellect as having some foundation on physical observation, which implies that it did not exist before birth, but which can eventually gain independence from the body. This notion opens up a door to a whole new realm of knowledge as Aristotle’s thoughts evolve.

Aristotle carefully evaluated the previously established notions in order to "accept whatever is correct in their views and avoid whatever is mistaken" (403b). Therefore, Aristotle does not aim at proving their theories as erroneous, but at reaching a harmonious and encompassing theory that would explain his clever observations of the world around him. It was also very wise that he chose to first evaluate the theories of his predecessors before rushing and stating his own. In this process, he reached valuable insight, and discovered unexplored paradoxes such as the "Third Man," which he tried to resolve. His theory seems to establish a solid consensus between the previous ones. Aristotle is successful in creating a thought-provoking theory that provides a good contrast to both the dualist and materialism conceptualization, and which served future philosophers to engage in deeper levels of understating of the nature of the soul.

Sources
Aristotle. De anima. Trans. R.D. Hicks. Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books, 1999. 9-72.

The Recollection Argument in Plato’s Phaedo (2005)

Even on his last day of existence, Socrates did not surrender his exploration of the nature of the soul. Using the Socratic Method and the Recollection Argument, he cleverly proved that the soul exists before birth and that it is immortal. In this paper, I will explain Socrates’ line of reasoning by using the words of the philosophers engaged in the discussion recollected in Phaedo and a metaphor of my own. Secondly, I will point out some limitations in the Recollection Argument, such as its exclusive definition of all learning as recollection and the negative perception of the body. Finally, I will assess the strength of Socrates’ premises and the conclusion to reach an overall evaluation of the argument that established a strong foundation for future examination of the nature of the soul.

Our inquiry begins with the analysis of the premises upon which the Recollection Argument is established. Plato’s Theory of Forms is a pivotal aspect of the Recollection Argument. Forms are ideas that are imperceptible through the senses. They are eternal and independent of human existence. Examples of Forms include the Equal, Beautiful, Good, and Size. Our understanding of the Forms provides a standard for measuring how much something possesses or lacks a particular Form. For instance, we can only know how small something is by relating it to a reference, presumably something big. Moreover, we cannot measure darkness directly, but only the amount of light present, thus measuring how it would lack the "Form of Light." Plato adds that Forms are constant and absolute in the invisible world, but in the physical world, they never manifest in the same way, which means that they are hard to distinguish (Plato, 78d-79a). Due to their intangibility, Forms cannot be understood using the senses. This means that empirical understanding, which includes scientific understanding and reasoning, is useless to comprehend the Forms as it is based on the perception of the world with our senses.

The philosophers engaged in the discussion recollected in Phaedo understand the soul as a separate entity of the body. Even though science has not provided concrete evidence of this division, without this premise the discussion of what happens after death would most likely collapse to a conversation about the decomposition of the body. Moreover, they unanimously agree that our senses, which begin to function since birth, do not provide a reliable foundation for true knowledge. They are the source of "impure thought," which does not lead to the truth or the understanding of reality. Because the body constantly deceives the soul, it does not allow the soul to acquire wisdom while they are connected (Plato, 65c). If pure thought could be achieved while they are joined, all knowledge could result from the physical realm, thus making the task of all philosophers world-oriented, and proving that the soul exists before birth would require a different approach. The idea that our senses deceive us has been thoroughly explored in psychology, an area that is mostly concerned in explaining why the mind makes such erroneous attributions. However, Socrates’ goal is to engage in pure thought while the soul is dissociated from a body, a context where no adverse consequences from sense-perception would arise. A question immediately arises from Socrates’ reasoning: what makes Socrates believe that the soul’s perceptions when it separates from the body will not be deceived, even though it would not be by the trickery of the five senses?

Next, we need to consider Socrates’ Recollection Argument. So what exactly is recollection? Recollection involves bringing memories back to conscious awareness. In Socrates’ words, "as soon as the sight of one thing makes you think of another, whether it be similar or dissimilar, this must of necessity be recollection" (Plato, 74d). Moreover, "we must at some previous time have learned what we now recollect" (Plato, 72e). The object currently being observed must be compared to the recollected memory, and then evaluated to assess their similarities and note any deficiencies (Plato, 74a). Based on our definition of recollection, Plato’s statements follow irrefutable logic.

Socrates reaches his first conclusion from this argumentation when he states that the Forms and the objects that posses the Form are not the same. This conclusion joins all the previous premises, and becomes a pivotal premise to prove the Recollection Argument. For Socrates, knowledge about the Forms cannot be gained simply by comparing objects that possess the characteristics of that particular Form. Knowledge about the Forms cannot result from the physical realm: it can only result when the soul is separated from the body, because in the visible existence, Forms do not exist in the pure state. Due to the extreme importance of the previous premise for the whole argument, I believe that the reader deserves more than the concise explanation that Plato decided to give us (Plato, 65c, 74b). Because we have knowledge of the forms in this life, and because it was proven before that this knowledge did not result from the physical realm, Socrates concludes that our understanding of the Forms must exist from before we were born. Therefore, he concludes that the soul came into existence before our birth. As Socrates’ transparently puts it, "our souls also existed apart from the body before they took on human form, and they had intelligence" (Plato, 76c).

The purpose of the Recollection argument was not only to show that the soul existed before birth, but to establish a premise in the dialogue on which Socrates could further demonstrate to Cebes that the soul is immortal (Plato, 87a). This will somehow motivate Socrates’ followers to further explore philosophy once Socrates drinks the hemlock, separating his soul from the body and leaving them behind. On a deeper level, the argument creates peace of mind on those who are left since they are assured that their souls will transcend death, while at the same time knowing that Socrates will live in a constructive setting. This argument that the soul is immortal leads us to believe that Plato would argue that because all that dies has a beginning, and the soul is immortal, the soul therefore has always been in existence. However, this deduction would only be a speculation as the philosopher chose not expand on this matter.

I have been able to grasp the Recollection Argument through a metaphor of my own, similar to those that Plato employed in his texts. Our minds tell us that in dreams we can see, smell, or even levitate. All dreams have some foundation on reality, but they are nothing more than a distortion of the waking reality. Applying this idea to the Recollection Argument, we are currently in a dream-state brought on by the deceit by the senses, and that when our body and soul separate, we will wake up, gaining understanding of reality. Thus, we could argue that we will not understand reality if we try to do so while in that dream-state. Moreover, thoughts that arise during dream-state are "impure" as they do not represent reality accurately because of the clever deceit of which we are victims while in it. The Recollection Argument states that we can’t understand reality until we wake up from our bodily lives.

What gives us the ability to dream? Our dreams are based on our everyday actions, and therefore, without these actions we would not be able to dream. In the same way, Socrates argues that the only reason we can try to understand our dream-state is because we were once awake, awake, and thus knew Reality, the realm of the Forms. How would we comprehend completely a situation that happens in a dream if we couldn’t connect it to our daily lives? Finally, Socrates interprets death as the waking up from the dream state, the final release from the chains of dreaming, that allows direct observation of reality.

I believe one of the main weaknesses of the Recollection Argument is the negative outlook of the dream-state. Plato believes that being in the dream-state only brings unfounded truths as it is based on deceived perceptions, which are completely irrelevant to understand reality. This means that Plato depicts the dream-state as a non-independent entity from which no knowledge can be gained. If this is so, then what is the purpose of experiencing the dream-world? Plato never explains why the soul initially joined with the body. The arguments presented by Socrates seem to support the idea of reincarnation; however, he makes no statements about how and why the soul chooses to reincarnate.

Plato goes further in this line of reasoning and states that all learning is a form of recollection because the dream-state is only a distortion of reality. Life is reduced to recollecting what we already know and nothing else, making our lives simply a nostalgic remembering. Why couldn’t some of our learning be gained with the body instead of through recollection? Why couldn’t we define beauty by simply comparing all the objects we have known in our lives and figure out what overall characteristics are more valuable or trigger our emotions? Socrates could answer this question since he implies that we cannot set our own standards as they would be based on our sense-perception.

There is another possible loophole in Plato’s argument. He argues that we must have acquired the knowledge of the Forms before we were born but lost it at birth and then, the knowledge was gradually recovered with our senses as we start to recollect. However, Socrates does not have any guarantee that when he dies, and thus gains access to the true reality, the realm of Forms, he will remember what happened during his dream-state. If Socrates’ position that no knowledge can be gained in the dream-sate, then this would not make a difference. But if the argument of reincarnation is retaken and we enter the dream-state to learn a lesson, remembering what happened in that life becomes essential. Memories are of no use if they can’t be remembered consciously, the same way dreams are useless if we can’t remember them. If he were to forget his dream-state, he could cyclically spend his lives trying to remember what he dreamt, without realizing he already woke up.

Putting aside the dream metaphor, Socrates’ conception of free will and individuality calls my attention. Socrates takes as a fact that he will still exist as an independent, fully-conscious being with decision-making capacity. He may have proven that what coexists with the body persists even after death, but he does not prove that it continues to exist as a whole. What if the elements that make his soul separate, leaving away his egotistic conception of reality, and recombine with other elements to form new combinations of souls?

The conclusion that Socrates reaches is perfectly valid as it logically follows the premises that were agreed upon by all the philosophers that were present the day of his execution. However, in this case the soundness of the argument is relative, depending on the reader’s perception on how knowledge can be gained. All the premises are true if Socrates’ logic is strictly followed. As an alternative approach to demonstrate that the soul is immortal, Socrates could have decided not to prove that the soul exists before birth. This would mean that no knowledge would be a form of recollection, which would give a broader significance to existence. As a definition, not all that is immortal has to be inherently eternal.

I agree completely with Socrates’ conclusion, since I strongly believe in the immortality of the soul, although I did not arrive at the same conclusions by applying the Socratic Method, but based in meditation and self-awareness. The Recollection Argument is a thought-provoking sequence of ideas, but they are all exclusively based on reason. I believe that our understanding of reality beyond the body can be enhanced with our experiences in this dimension. We will surely not know until our souls separates from our bodies. Until then, we can use logical arguments, or simply follow our intuition to understand the nature of the soul and of reality.

Sources
Plato. . Phaedo.. . Five Dialogues. Translated by G.M.A Grube. Indianapolis, IN: Hackett Publishing Co., 1981. 93-155.

Literary form in the Yogic Upanisads and Siva Sutras (2005)

"The mind exists so long as there is sound" - Yogic proverb (Thirty Minor Upanisads, 197)

When the mind finally enters a state of deep concentration where it is imperturbable by illusionary veils, the self finally attains the ultimate level of understanding of the nature of reality. In the Vedic and the Yogic Upanisads as well as in the Siva Sutras, each Hindu tradition describes the process of reaching an elevated state of consciousness. Interestingly, the literary form of these writings clearly reflects their particular approach towards the development of awareness. Since the literary form draws the reader’s attention towards characteristic questions and requires different skills from their readers, the types of spiritual experiences that manifest might be distinct.

Both the Brhadaranyaka the Prashna Upanisads are discourses in which the nature of reality and the role of the self are elucidated. Written mostly in prose, they are divided into brief anecdotes where the guru answers a question or sheds light into the dilemma of the student. This particular arrangement highlights the importance in the tradition of this type of relationship to develop spiritually.

Three characteristics of the literary form of the Vedic Upanisads are worthy of attention. The first one is the use of well-crafted metaphors to reinforce the pantheistic characteristic of Vedanta traditions. For instance, the body parts of the sacrificial horse metaphorically represent phenomena or parts of the universe (Upanisads, 7) and similarly, elements and cosmological bodies are manifestations of Brahman, or universal consciousness (Upanisads, 52). Interestingly, in the section where rituals are explained, no metaphors are used so that the reader can get a full grasp of what actions to perform and thus reinforce their meaning. Secondly, the passages have internal consistency but in general, they lack a smooth integration in the sequence of discourses. This characteristic calls forth the skills of the reader in finding unity among chaos, and thus applying this skill to his life, find the oneness that resides in the true self. Finally, the Vedic Upanisads use repetition and parallel structure, not only to make the text more conversational and because of their oral background, but to reinforce the meaning. For example, consider the dialogue where Yajñavalkya is inquired about the exact number of gods that exist (Upanisads, 46). In this section, parallelism reinforces the meaning that everything is interconnected, from the breaths to the elements, but not limited to the astrological realms.

The Yogic Upanisads highlight the specific methodology that is required to achieve a higher state of consciousness. Through the practice of breath control (pranayama), postures (asanas) and cleansing exercises among others, the yogi is able to eradicate the distractions of the mind and attain insight. Written mostly in the style of a reference guide, the yogic Upanisads reflect the philosophy that doing such practices inevitably allow Truth to manifest by itself. By explaining the esoteric anatomy, and the power of the syllable OM, the text gives the yogi access to the realms of deep concentration and joyful bliss.

The use of language deserves special attention in this text. Although the practices are described explicitly and concisely, what the reader gets from them varies enormously based on the reader’s context. The diction was carefully chosen in order to describe the practices as comprehensively as possible, and in some instances, a previous yogi background aids in their understanding. In addition some physical practices such as filling the stomach with air (Thirty Minor Upanisads, 155), or kecharimudra (Thirty Minor, 205) which involves having the tongue in the middle of the skull, could be interpreted merely as a metaphor. Yet, in other contexts, the metaphors can in fact become a meditative aid, such as the lotus flower in the heart, and the syllable OM described as a bird.

The literary form of these yogic texts does not necessarily bring the reader’s awareness to a particular point. However, the clear and concise descriptions ensure that the spiritual seeker grasps the practices so that later an awareness of the body and the energy flow can be developed. The sorts of physical experiences that can be brought about by such the practices, including burning sensations, are clearly exposed in the Letters on Yoga in a very straightforward manner as well, without an intricate form or language.

In the last text of our interest, The Aphorism of Śiva, insight is provided in regards to the nature of consciousness and the self, as well as on the role of knowledge and illusions in the path towards a higher state of realization. Through the use of highly compacted sentences containing obscure metaphors, the author stresses on the ultimate goal of the spiritual practice, and wishes to redirect those who get distracted from the path of liberation. However, the specific meaning of each of the aphorisms is not evidently clear. For instance, consider the aphorisms "[t]he Fourth should be sprinkled like oil into the three" (Aphorisms, 130) or "Bhairava is upsurge" (Aphorisms, 22) which clearly brings out the need for an interpretation. This cryptic style brings forward the need of a guru, a spiritual teacher that elucidates the meaning of the aphorisms to the student.

Interestingly, the sutra style, which promotes memorization and oral repetition, can motivate a meditative practice. The student might choose to focus on a particular aphorism and dedicate the practice to listening to the insight that lies within him. The patterns of words may reside in the mind even for years until the intrinsic meaning finally becomes clear in an epiphany fostered by spiritual maturity. As Bhaskara suggests, thought can be purified by repeatedly hearing and recalling to mind the teachings (Aphorisms, 65).

Once again, the use of metaphors is well propagated in the text and correlates with its meaning. Without the use of metaphors, the cryptic style would have been much harder to achieve, and thus would not lead to the same kind of meditation. Since "[e]ffort is that which attains the goal" (Aphorisms, 67), the student is challenged to see beyond the metaphors in order to grasp a transcendental truth. This way, one pointedness concentration can occur as a result of each aphorism, reinforcing the idea that concentration annuls thought, which consequently leads to liberation (Aphorisms, 100).

As the mind starts unfolding from the chain of illusion, the meaning of each of the texts becomes clear, not necessarily on an intellectual level, but as a result of a spiritual epiphany. Till then, literary form shall continue to reinforce the meaning that seems to skew so many seekers of truth. While some readers of these sacred texts might not be ready to understand its full meaning and thus get lost in sentences that mimic the previous ones, there are those that are amazed at the perfection of each of the letters, their resonance, but most importantly, their interconnectedness. These readers become submerged in a deep state of awareness that allows them to grasp the meaning of the text and see the purpose of the literary form as a facilitator. Much as one can immerse oneself deep in meditation with the music produced by a wooden guitar, or the resonance of a Mantra, why not amid the verses that resemble the Vedic vibrations, in the sutras that emanate from Siva in a mystical dream, or in the wings of the bird that echoes the syllable AUM?

Sources:
Aphorisms of Siva, The: The Siva Sutra With Bhaskara''s Commentary, the Varttika. Trans.Mark S.G. Dyczkowski. New York: State University of New York Press, 1992.
Aurobindo, Sri. "The triple transformation." Letters on Yoga. Lotus Press, 1995.
Thirty Minor Upanishads. Trans. K. Narayanasvami Aiyar. Delhi: Parimal Publications, 1997. 154-208.
Upanisads. Trans. Patrick Olivelle. Oxford University Press, 1998.

Awareness through Visualization and Sound in Tantric and Buddhist Traditions (2005)

In the process of reaching an elevated state of consciousness, the practitioner discovers that by correctly stimulating the senses a new level of awareness can be attained. In Sir John Woodroffe Tantric Yoga text The Serpent Power and in the Tibetan Buddhist’ Trainings in Compassion the student is encouraged to simultaneously use imagination and sound to stimulate the senses. This way, visual images, awareness of the physical body, and auditory perception develop into a powerful tool that heightens consciousness.

The use of sound is emphasized heavily in both texts because of its immeasurable benefits in the process of developing awareness. For instance, in the Tibetan Buddhist text, sound is the main focus of practice as the meditator recites a mantra, "OM MANI PADME HUM" (Trainings, 69). It is so important that it is considered the "ladder that leads to the higher realms" (Trainings, 73) implies that without its use, a higher state of consciousness is unattainable. Sound is so fundamental that this mantra even manifests spontaneously in certain children that recite it "without ever learning it from anyone" (Trainings, 63). Viewed from a Buddhist context, it is no surprise that mantra is valued greatly, since in the tradition it is thought that it helps develop quiescence, an important pillar to develop mindfulness.

From the Tantric Yoga perspective, sound manifests uniquely at each of the six chakras, or centers of consciousness, through a monosyllabic sound known as the bija mantra. These centers represent stages of awareness, progressing from the gross physical level to the more subtle and etheric. Conversely, the chakras that are mostly associated with the physical world are connected with earthly sounds, while the higher chakras are linked to the syllable OM.

Even though sound is not considered to be the main focus of the practice, it is used as an aid to keep steady concentration and maintain physical awareness, two important foundations of the practice of Yoga. Traveling through an etheric medium, sound by itself leads to a meditative state where subtle planes of awareness can be reached. The power of sound lies in its ability to even shake a "sleeper to wake him up" (Serpent, 97) from the profound realms of illusions. Interestingly, as awareness develops, sound is thought to inevitably manifest in the practitioner as she starts hearing energy currents in various forms and strengths (Serpent, 219), which may lead to a more profound stage of meditation.

However, in both traditions the power of sound is complemented by the use of visual imagination and awareness of the physical body. For instance, during the meditation for compassion, the practitioner visualizes Avalokiteshvara, a deity that symbolizes wisdom and compassion. Guided by a very detailed description, the meditator reproduces a mental image of the deity in the crown of his head: a sentient being full of happiness, and beauty that is surrounded by rays of colored light. Ultimately, the meditator can choose to slowly bring Avalokiteshvara to his heart in order to nourish it and help him develop compassion (Trainings, 33). Similarly, while reciting each of the elements of the Tibetan Buddhist mantra, the practitioner should focus on a particular color and a distinctive Buddha that represents that syllable (Trainings, 70).

In the Serpent Power, imagination is guided internally towards details of each particular energy center. Thus, each vortex of "etheric matter" (Serpent, 7) is described using the image of a lotus flower with a characteristic number of petals, but also a color, a letter of the Sanskrit alphabet, a deity and a symbol. In addition, the subtle anatomy described by the chakra model corresponds to exact locations in the physical body. Thus, to meditate in a chakra, the individual places their awareness in that location by reproducing a tactile sensation while holding in the mind the image of the chakra and the elements that represent it.

Even though a particular methodology using sound and imagination is being used to polish the awareness, both of these texts are coherent with the doctrines of the broader religious traditions in which they are rooted: namely Tibetan Buddhism and Tantric Yoga. Even though Trainings in Compassion focuses in the development of compassion, for this to be possible several steps must occur first. More precisely, one must first acknowledge one’s own suffering, then recognize the suffering of others, and finally surrender the ego to legitimately help others out of their state of suffering. Also, the text emphasizes the need to be present in the current moment, even if that implies experiencing directly pain and suffering. Moreover, the text also mentions the Buddhist concept of emptiness and impermanence. The author explains that all images are simply one’s mind (Trainings, 88): what is outside of the practitioner is simply a reflection of what lies inside. Knowing this, one can eliminate the duality of subject and object and understand the ultimate truth as explained in Tibetan Buddhism.

Interestingly, the Serpent Power merges concepts from Yoga and Indian tantric traditions. It is based in the same principles as Yoga: the practice of asanas and exercises to aid in the movement of prana and development of concentration (dhyana). Likewise, it emphasizes on the duality that exists in all things, a characteristic of tantra. Thus Shiva (conciousness) and Shakti (power) must coexist in an intricate relation in the same way that heaven and earth interact. Moreover, the text points out the well known yogic fact that engaging in the pleasures derived from the senses is not conducive to development. This can be found when Woodroffe suggests that "concentration on the lower centers associated with the passions may, so far from rousing, quiet them" (Serpent, 13).

Finally, it is interesting to note certain commonalities among the two texts, which in turn shows the universality of the teachings. For instance, both of them place careful attention to the area of the crown of the head. On one hand, Tantric Yoga locates the highest energy center at this point in a one thousand petal lotus (Serpent, 419) where the strong Kundalini energy is intuitively drawn to in order to develop the uppermost state of consciousness. On the other hand, Avalokiteshvara comes to existence in the crown of the practitioner’s head, where a "white eight petal lotus with anthers" (Trainings, 65) is to be found. Moreover, the both use the image of the full moon to describe this center: it is "resplendent as in a clear sky" (Serpent, 428) and as a "stainless full moon disc […] shinning like a pearl" (Trainings, 65). Also, both texts seem to find significance in the number of petals in the lotus flower and their color. As Woodruff explains, the number of straight line radiations from the lotus "determines the number of petals" (Serpent, 7) and thus it is simply an arbitrary convention. All of these apparent coincidences among texts from different traditions point the reader to believe that there is a truth that lies beneath the words, and is invited to explore these realms in the path towards insight.

Whether developing compassion towards sentient beings, or raising Kundalini energy to reach an elevated state of consciousness, controlling the senses is crucial to gain access to the powers of the mind and ultimately gain insight of the nature of reality. By stimulating the senses using visualization, focusing attention in particular regions of the body, and hearing the mantras as well as the sounds that lie within, the practitioner carefully nourishes the seed of awareness that one day may bloom into a beautiful thousand petal lotus flower that can grow among chaos and paves the way to enlightenment.

Sources:
Kongtrul, Jamgon, et al. Trainings in Compassion: Manuals on the Meditation of Avalokiteshvara. Trans. Tyler Dewar. Ithaca, New York: Snow Lion Publications, 2004.
Woodroffe, Sir John. The Serpent Power. New York: Dover Publications Inc., 1974.

Behavioral and adrenocortical responses to mate separation and reunion in the zebra finch

    The article discusses the behavioral and hormonal effects that pair mate separation has on avian species, as well as the impact of possible mitigating factors in reducing the bird’s stress level. Research with mammals has brought about a comprehensive understanding of the role of peptide and steroid hormones in behavior as well as their relationship with varying levels of circulating adrenal and pituitary hormones during pair formation and separation (Remage-Healey et al, 2003). However, research in birds has not been as extensive, and by studying the zebra finches, the experimenters aimed to understand how separation elevates baseline corticosterone on birds.
The Australian zebra finch was chosen as a model of bird mate separation because laboratory conditions do not disrupt significantly their sexual and social behavior and thus, it is a good model of natural interactions. These species are particularly relevant to studying the effects of mate separation since they sustain lifelong monogamous bonds and are highly sociable. Furthermore, previous studies contribute extensive insight about the selective pressures that lead to the zebra finches to have life-long pairs, as well as about the behavioral changes that arise after separation (e.g. increased activity and song rates).

The four experiments carried out as part of this study were designed to understand how acoustic and visual separation and reunion with a mate affects the bird’s behavior and levels of stress hormones, as well as the factors that mitigate this effect. Among the factors studied, social interaction in a group of same-sex individuals as well as a group of potential new mates was studied. Both physiological measures as well as behavioral observations were recorded to asses the effect of a stressful event, namely pair mate separation. In terms of physiology, the main measure taken was concentration of CORT, the primary avian glucocorticoid, since increased levels of stress increase the presence of this hormone. In addition, special attention was taken to rule out factors unrelated to mate separation but that could nevertheless increase levels of CORT. For instance, baseline measures were taken long after birds have been moved between cages, and consecutive blood sampling was limited to 24-hour periods to avoid physiological stressors. Furthermore, in each experiment there was a control group which underwent the same physical manipulations to ensure that these were not the cause of increased CORT. In terms of behavior, birds were observed for increased levels of locomotion (e.g. more perch hops), but also for behaviors associated with courtship (e.g. increased song rates), mating and pair bond maintenance.

    In the first experiment, researchers tested whether separation increased stress hormones, and if this effect could be attenuated by placing the bird in the company of same-sex individuals as opposed to complete isolation. As expected from studies with mammals, finches that were visually separated from their mates and placed in isolation had elevated levels of CORT. However, from the small sample of birds that were placed in the company of same-sex individuals, it preliminarily appears as if there had not been a significant increase of the stress hormone, suggesting that social interaction buffered the stress response.
    The main purpose of the second experiment was to asses how hormonal levels changed after reuniting an isolated bird with either the old partner or with a group of potential new mates. It was found that after the pair was reunited, levels of CORT returned to baseline, indicating an end to the period of physiological stress. In contrast, levels of CORT in birds placed with potential mates did not return to baseline.

During the first experiment, birds had been isolated visually, but they could still hear their mates. This led the experimenters to consider the frustration hypothesis, where stress was induced not because the birds where separated but because they still knew they were alive and yet could not interact with them. To rule this possibility, in experiment 3 birds were completely isolated from their mates. However, the findings did not differ significantly from those in experiment 1, which suggests that the frustration hypothesis was incorrect, and that the stress was entirely produced by mate separation.

Next, experimenters considered that housing a bird alone in a cage could be enough to increase stress levels, which gave rise to the isolation hypothesis to explain the increase in levels of CORT. From experiment 1, it appeared that social interactions attenuated stress levels, since individuals placed in a group upon separation did not show increased stress. However, due to the small sampling size, these results were inconclusive and gave rise to a fourth and final experiment. Contrary to the findings from experiment 1, placing the birds in a social group did not prevent increased stress hormonal levels upon separation, which shows that the isolation hypothesis is not appropriate. From this, researchers suggested that in species with strong pair bonds, such as the zebra finches, and the marmosets, which is one of the two primates species that is genetically monogamous (Banerjee, 2006), social interaction is not enough to mitigate stress.

Marked behavioral changes resulted upon mate separation and reunion. In experiment 4, reunion with the mate increased the frequency of affiliative behaviors, which suggests that the purpose of these behaviors is to reestablish and strengthen the bond that was temporarily lost. Finally, in all experiments it was found that zebra finches increased the frequency of locomotion and song rates when separated from their partner. This means that certain behavioral changes took place which could promote locating the lost partner, or finding a new one.

I believe that the main finding of this study was to note physiological variations between long-term and short term pair bond and to corroborate mammal pair bonding studies. On one hand, the experiment showed that that social interaction does not attenuate the level of stress in long-term bonds, even though it does in short-term bonds. This could explain why which explains how life-long monogamy developed evolutionarily and how it was sustain through physiological changes. On the other hand, the study corroborates findings from mammals which suggested that elevated levels of stress hormones delay re-pairing in monogamous affiliative bonds (Devries, 1995 as cited in Remage-Healey et al, 2003).

This study is highly relevant to the material presented in class and complemented my understanding of the relationship between hormones and behavior, with a particular focus to pair bond maintenance, as well as the physiological effects of stress. In order to fully understand what the researchers concluded regarding behavioral changes to promote finding the mate, it was essential to know about the differences between long and short-term stress. Even though mate separation in the zebra finch is a traumatic event, in order for the stress to have value for locating a partner it must be short-term only, since otherwise, memory impairments and extensive immune suppression might compromise the survival of the stressed individual. Finally, understanding the relationship between pair bond formation and “conditioned reward learning” helped me understand why affiliative behaviors should be reinforced upon being reunited.

Evaluación de la eficacia de las Fuerzas de Paz de la ONU

"Aunque no hayan respondido a cada conflicto durante medio siglo de
historia, las Fuerzas de Paz de la ONU han salvado miles de vidas”

Koffi Annan – Secretario General de la ONU

La Organización de las Naciones Unidas fue creada tan pronto finalizó la Segunda Guerra Mundial, la más destructiva en la historia, para así proteger a generaciones futuras de semejante tragedia. Desde el comienzo, se reconoció la necesidad de un personal imparcial que calmara la situación en conflictos bélicos. Los líderes de la organización desarrollaron la idea de constituir un grupo internacional de soldados y civiles para así mantener y restaurar la paz mundial. En 1948, nacieron las Fuerzas de Paz de la Organización de las Naciones Unidas, también conocidas como los Cascos Azules (“Blue Helmets”), luego de que los primeros mantenedores de paz fueran enviados al Medio Oriente.

En los primeros años de las Naciones Unidas, las Fuerzas de Paz utilizaban su entrenamiento y disciplina para monitorear zonas de conflicto, separar fuerzas hostiles, y patrullar zonas desmilitarizadas. En años recientes, las operaciones de paz se han vuelto más complicadas. La presencia de Fuerzas de Paz aún previene batallas potenciales entre dos bandos en conflicto; pero hoy en día, las actividades políticas, militares y humanitarias reciben la misma importancia en una misión de paz. Esto significa que los oficiales de policía, los observadores de elecciones, los monitores de los derechos humanos y los civiles trabajan en conjunto con el personal militar. Algunos de las funciones de las Fuerzas de Paz incluyen dar ayuda a refugiados para que éstos regresen a sus casas y proveer alimentos, agua y refugio a las víctimas del conflicto. En otras misiones, las fuerzas de la ONU remueven minas terrestres y anti-personales, entrenan policías civiles y en algunos casos, monitorean las elecciones para sentar las bases de una paz duradera.

Las Fuerzas de Paz de las Naciones Unidas no son enviadas a cualquier parte del mundo donde haya un conflicto. Los países miembros de la ONU son estados soberanos, por lo que una fuerza internacional no puede enviarse a cualquier país sin consultar al país involucrado, a los partidos políticos del país y a la comunidad internacional. Por último, es necesario que los 15 miembros del Consejo de Seguridad de la ONU creen una misión y la aprueben. Cualquiera de los 5 miembros permanentes de este consejo (China, Francia, la Federación Rusa, el Reino Unido y los Estados Unidos) puede vetar cualquier decisión referente a una operación de paz. Una misión de las Fuerzas de Paz debe tener el apoyo financiero y político de los países miembros de la ONU; sin esta clase de apoyo, ninguna operación de paz puede cumplir su meta.

Sin embargo, la Fuerza de Paz no constituye un ejército. La mayoría de sus miembros son soldados, pero también hay bomberos, policías, doctores, enfermeras, pilotos, ingenieros y voluntarios de naciones miembros de la ONU. Cuando un país aporta soldados para tareas de mantener la paz, el gobierno retiene la última autoridad sobre sus propias fuerzas militares. Los soldados que mantienen la paz utilizan el uniforme del país de procedencia y no juran lealtad a la ONU. Generalmente, los soldados están armados de forma ligera solamente para su propia defensa.

En casos donde las estructuras cívicas de un país han sido destruidas, las Fuerzas de Paz de la ONU ayudan a reconstruir las instituciones esenciales. Por ejemplo en Haití y Bosnia Herzegovina, los mantenedores de paz entrenaron a oficiales de policía para que éstos fueran justos y respetaran los derechos humanos de las personas. Por otro lado, en Namibia, supervisaron unas elecciones democráticas.
La eficacia de las Fuerzas de Paz

Desde la primera misión de paz en 1948, 110 naciones han contribuido con personal en diferentes momentos. Más de 750,000 militares y civiles han participado en 49 misiones aprobadas por el Consejo de Seguridad. Lamentablemente más de 1,550 de estas personas han muerto cumpliendo sus labores de paz; más de la mitad de estas muertes han sido en los últimos 6 años. Mantener la paz mundial es algo serio y peligroso; en conflictos bélicos los miembros de las Fuerzas de Paz son atacados deliberadamente.

La presencia de mantenedores de paz en situaciones como la de Chipre, el Sahara Occidental, Haití, Namibia y la República Central Africana ha sido limitada por la propagación de la violencia. En otros lugares, las misiones han sido menos exitosas. Las Fuerzas de Paz sólo pueden hacer su trabajo cuando son apoyados por los gobiernos del mundo, y aceptados por los bandos del conflicto.

El costo anual del personal y el equipo de las Fuerzas de Paz de la ONU llegó a $3.6 billones en 1993, reflejando los costos de las operaciones llevadas a cabo en Somalia y la antigua Yugoslavia. Posteriormente, los costos de las operaciones de paz comenzaron a bajar hasta que en 1998 llegaron tan sólo a un billón de dólares. Actualmente, el presupuesto anual para las operaciones de paz es de más de 2.5 billones. Todos los miembros de la ONU deben pagar una cuota anual destinada a las operaciones de la organización. Pero, lamentablemente, los estados miembros deben millones de dólares a la ONU, incluyendo a los Estados Unidos. Como resultado de esta deuda, resulta mucho más difícil para la ONU apoyar misiones de paz y proveer el entrenamiento y los recursos necesarios para prevenir o resolver conflictos bélicos.

El actual Secretario General de la ONU, Koffi Annan, está intentando al máximo prevenir las misiones de paz, siguiendo la línea de pensamiento de que las misiones de paz deberían ser un último recurso. Esto ha llegado a causar inconvenientes, pues en vez de resolver un conflicto antes de que empeore, éste se ignora y por consiguiente se complica.

Otro aspecto importante al evaluar la eficacia de las Fuerzas de Paz es el hecho que los soldados y civiles enviados provienen de diversos países con culturas y costumbres diferentes. Dicha situación crea choques culturales, lo que a su vez empeora la situación y atrasa las misiones.

Por otra parte, se ha enfatizado el poco entrenamiento que reciben los soldados y civiles de la Fuerza de Paz. La falta de experiencia de sus miembros causa que el conflicto bélico empeore ya que en muchos casos los soldados y civiles no cuentan con las herramientas necesarias para prevenir un conflicto o ayudar a terminarlo. El Instituto de las Naciones Unidas para el Entrenamiento y la Investigación (UNITAR), provee más de 16 cursos a distancia en mantener la paz. Pero muchas veces este entrenamiento no es suficiente, y en muchas ocasiones los soldados y civiles reciben sólo el entrenamiento más básico.

Otro aspecto importante que hace que las misiones de paz de la ONU sean infructuosas es el hecho de que no se definen bien las misiones; no se establece el objetivo claramente, y se envía poco personal mal armado a un conflicto que necesita muchos soldados bien armados y civiles bien preparados. Por ejemplo, en enero de 1992, se enviaron a los Balcanes pocos soldados para monitorear un cese al fuego y separar los bandos implicados, pero las Fuerzas de Paz se toparon con una situación mucho más complicada. El Consejo de Seguridad había aprobado una misión con pocos soldados armados livianamente. Por lo tanto, la misión fue un fracaso hasta que las fuerzas de la OTAN intervinieron. Si las Naciones Unidas hubieran movilizado 60,000 soldados bien armados en enero de 1992, se piensa que los abusos a los derechos humanos y el genocidio hubieran sido prevenidos.

En Bosnia, Ruanda y Sierra Leona, las Naciones Unidas enviaron muy pocas personas con un mandato débil, por lo que la vida de miles de civiles no pudieron ser rescatadas. En Ruanda, esto causó que el conflicto étnico entre las tribus no se pudiera resolver. Cuando militares serbios en Bosnia masacraron civiles en un refugio establecido por la ONU, las tropas de la ONU simplemente se limitaron a observar. En varias ocasiones se ha acusado a soldados de las Fuerzas de Paz de violar los derechos humanos. En la Misión de las Naciones Unidas en Sierra Leona (UNAMSIL), se ha discutido la posibilidad de que los soldados estuvieran involucrados en abuso sexual y explotación contra los habitantes. Aunque no hay ninguna prueba contundente, esto es bastante grave, ya que se espera que las Fuerzas de Paz protejan los derechos humanos, sean completamente imparciales, y no causen más conflictos en la zona.

Otro aspecto importante que hace que las misiones de paz de la ONU sean infructuosas es el hecho que no se definen las misiones muy bien; no se establece el objetivo muy claramente, y se envía poco personal y poco armado a un conflicto que necesita muchos soldados bien armados y civiles bien preparados. Por ejemplo, en enero de 1992, se enviaron a los Balcanes pocos soldados para monitorear un cese al fuego y separar los bandos implicados. Pero las Fuerzas de Paz se encontraron con una situación mucho más complicada. El Consejo de Seguridad había aprobado una misión con pocos soldados armados ligeramente. Por lo tanto, la misión fue un fracaso hasta que las fuerzas de la OTAN intervinieron. Si las Naciones Unidas hubieran movilizado 60,000 soldados bien armados en enero de 1992 se piensa que los abusos a los derechos humanos y el genocidio hubieran sido prevenidos.

En Bosnia, Ruanda y Sierra Leona, las Naciones Unidas envió muy pocas personas con un mandato débil, por lo que la vida de miles de civiles hubiera se hubieran rescatado. En Ruanda esto causó que el conflicto étnico entre las tribus no se pudiera resolver. Finalmente, en varias ocasiones se ha acusado a soldados de las Fuerzas de Paz de violar los derechos humanos. Cuando militares serbios en Bosnia masacraron civiles en un refugio establecido por la ONU, las tropas de la ONU simplemente se limitaron a observar.

Finalmente, en el año 2002, el Secretario General de las Naciones Unidas le pidió a un Panel de Operaciones de Paz de las Naciones Unidas, compuesto de individuos con experiencia en varios aspectos, entre los que se encuentran prevención de conflictos, y la habilidad de crear y mantener la paz, para que se evaluaran los cascos azules en una forma franca y específica. Las recomendaciones no sólo enfocaron lo político y lo estratégico, sino más bien áreas operacionales y organizacionales.

La eficacia de los programas de minas terrestres de la ONU

Información General:

Alrededor de una tercera parte de los países del mundo están contaminados con minas terrestres y municiones sin detonar. Por lo general, los países más afectados son los países en vías de desarrollo, en los cuales alrededor de 30,000 personas mueren anualmente en accidentes con minas terrestres. Además, el sector más afectado es la población civil, especialmente la de menos recursos, los niños y las mujeres.

En términos estadísticos, existen 10 millones de minas terrestres en cada continente. Costaría 33 billones de dólares remover solamente esas minas, sin que se colocaran minas nuevas. Sin embargo, la realidad es que, por cada mina que se desactiva, se colocan 25 minas nuevas. Setenta personas fallecen o son heridas diariamente por minas terrestres; es decir, una persona cada 15 minutos.
Las minas terrestres se encuentran por lo general en lugares donde hubo anteriormente guerras o conflictos armados. Incluso décadas después de que el conflicto haya concluido, las minas continúan matando civiles inocentes. Además de las pérdidas civiles, las minas tienen un enorme impacto psicológico y económico. Debido a las minas, es necesario abandonar tierras cultivables o caminos, lo cual afecta a comunidades enteras.
El rol de las Naciones Unidas intenta ser que las personas puedan vivir a salvo de las minas, satisfacer las necesidades de las víctimas y promover un desarrollo social y económico libre de las amenazas de las minas antipersonales. Para esto, las Naciones Unidas remueven minas, capacitan personal, llevan a cabo programas de concientización y aportan fondos para los programas nacionales. Estos programas se han implementado en los países más afectados por el problema como Afganistán, Angola, Bosnia y Herzegovina, Camboya, Rwanda y Yemen. Por ejemplo, Afganistán fue el primer país en recibir este apoyo en 1988, para remover las más de 10 millones de minas que existen en su territorio.
Remoción de Minas
La remoción de minas es esencial para que las comunidades puedan volver a utilizar plenamente sus tierras. En muchas situaciones, este proceso es necesario para que los refugiados y otras personas desplazadas durante una guerra puedan regresar a sus hogares, para que se pueda brindar asistencia humanitaria, y reconstruirse el país. Como parte de este proceso, es necesario evaluar el impacto socioeconómico de la contaminación por minas, además de establecer las zonas con prioridad para ser limpiadas de minas. Por último, es necesario delimitar la zona y preparar mapas detallados para iniciar las operaciones de remoción. Todo este proceso causa que el costo de la remoción de minas sea mucho más alto.
UNICEF
Dentro del sistema de las Naciones Unidas, la UNICEF es la organización que patrocina las actividades de sensibilización y educación para reducir los riesgos en materia de minas, especialmente por la vulnerabilidad de los niños ante la situación de las minas. Actualmente, participa en programas de sensibilización sobre minas en 29 países, a los que presta ayuda a través de la movilización de recursos, asistencia técnica, gestión de la calidad y desarrollo de las capacidades locales.
Asistencia a las víctimas

La asistencia a las víctimas de accidentes de minas tiene como fin ayudarlas con asistencia médica a corto plazo, además de apoyo físico y psicológico para lograr la reintegración social y económica del individuo a la sociedad. La meta principal de esta actividad estriba en asegurar que la víctima de una mina podrá regresar a la sociedad civil como un miembro productivo.
Programa de las Naciones Unidas para el Desarrollo y el Servicio de las Naciones Unidas de Actividades Relativas a las Minas (UNMAS)
Una de las primeras acciones importantes fue la “Convención sobre la prohibición o restricción en el uso de ciertas armas convencionales que pueden ser excesivamente dañinas o que tienen efectos indiscriminados de las Naciones Unidas”, también conocida como Convención sobre ciertas armas convencionales de 1980. Desde 1993, la Asamblea General de la Organización de las Naciones Unidas ha intentado detener la exportación y colocación masiva de minas terrestres. Ya para 1996 se habían logrado ciertos acuerdos como la extensión del Protocolo II de la Convención sobre ciertas armas convencionales de 1980 para que incluya conflictos internos y no solamente conflictos entre estados. Además, se prohíbe el uso de minas antipersonales no detectables y su transferencia, y se prevé una protección más amplia para las misiones de mantenimiento de la paz y otras misiones de las Naciones Unidas.
En el sistema de las Naciones Unidas, el Programa de las Naciones Unidas para el Desarrollo (PNUD) tiene la responsabilidad de abordar los efectos socioeconómicos de las minas terrestres y las municiones sin estallar, y de apoyar las iniciativas a escala nacional y local para eliminar las consecuencias a largo plazo del problema. El PNUD se encarga principalmente de prestar asistencia a los países afectados por las minas ayudando a las autoridades nacionales y locales a adquirir los conocimientos y las habilidades necesarias para planificar y ejecutar programas, así como para movilizar los recursos necesarios.
Como parte de la reforma propuesta por el Secretario General actual fue creado el "Servicio de las Naciones Unidas de Actividades relativas a las Minas" (UNMAS- United Nations Mine Activity Service). Su propósito es coordinar en los departamentos y agencias de la ONU las actividades de remoción de minas. Su mandato es el de asegurar que la ONU esté presente en la creación de programas de capacitación nacional de personal y la implementación de los programas de remoción de minas. Los fondos para este programa no provienen del presupuesto general de la ONU, sino de fondos especiales y contribuciones voluntarias. Para el 18 de octubre del 2000, los principales donantes eran Japón, Dinamarca, Noruega, Canadá y Suiza.
UNMAS se encarga de desarrollar políticas, coordinar la acción anti-minas y crear conciencia acerca del peligro que las minas representan. Además, vigila la amenaza de las minas terrestres y municiones sin detonar en el mundo, coordina la movilización de recursos y maneja el "Fondo Fiduciario de Contribuciones Voluntarias para prestar asistencia a las Actividades Relativas a las Minas". Finalmente, UNMAS también se encarga del desarrollo, mantenimiento y promoción de estándares técnicos y de seguridad.
La Convención de Ottawa
En diciembre de 1997, se llevó a cabo una convención internacional en Ottawa, Canadá, donde se prohibió el uso y la exportación de minas terrestres. La Convención de Ottawa surgió de la preocupación mundial acerca de las minas antipersonales, ya que el tema había sido tratado de forma muy limitada en otras convenciones y el “Protocolo II” no era suficiente para resolver el problema de las minas antipersonales.
El propósito primordial de la Convención era darle un enfoque más directo al problema e intentar promover la prohibición total. El documento producido se conoce como la "Convención sobre la prohibición del empleo, almacenamiento, producción y transferencia de minas antipersonales y sobre su destrucción", y entró en vigor el 1 de enero de 1999. Ya para julio de 2003 había sido firmada por 134 Estados y ratificada por 133.
Entre los acuerdos más importantes de esta convención se encuentran:
• No emplear minas antipersonales
• No desarrollar, producir, adquirir de un modo u otro, almacenar, conservar o transferir minas antipersonales
• No ayudar, estimular o inducir de una manera u otra, a cualquiera a participar en una actividad prohibida en estados miembros
• Destruir o asegurar la destrucción de todas las existencias de minas antipersonales que le pertenezcan o posea, o que estén bajo su jurisdicción o control a más tardar 4 años después de la entrada en vigor de la Convención
• Destruir las minas colocadas en las zonas minadas a más tardar en 10 años a partir de la entrada en vigor de la Convención
• Permitir sólo la retención o transferencia de una cantidad de minas antipersonales para el desarrollo de técnicas de detección, remoción o destrucción de minas y el adiestramiento de dichas técnicas, así como la transferencia de minas para su destrucción
• Participar en el intercambio de equipo, material e información tecnológica y de ser posible, prestar asistencia para la rehabilitación de las víctimas de minas y su integración social y económica
• Realizar consultas entre los estados miembros para poner en práctica la Convención

La tecnologia en el nuevo milenio

Distribución equitativa de recursos tecnológicos entre países en vías de desarrollo

Al igual que crece la brecha que separa a los países a base de sus escasos recursos económicos, crece la dificultad de que aquellos países adquieran las tecnologías más recientes para así complementar otras herramientas de desarrollo. Mientras algunos países, como Estonia, han reconocido como un derecho social el tener acceso igual a la internet (C.S.Monitor, julio 2003), en muchos países en vías de desarrollo, el acceso a la internet es todavía un privilegio de unos pocos.

En muchas ocasiones, la transferencia de tecnologías a países en vías de desarrollo consiste en abrir paso a la innovación al desechar tecnologías ya obsoletas que han sido substituidas por las emergentes. La mayoría de los países en vías de desarrollo no cuenta con el presupuesto para innovar en el área tecnológica e incluso adquirir estas tecnologías. Por esto es necesario un esfuerzo colaborativo para asegurarse que estos países no se queden atrás tecnológicamente, y utilicen la ciencia para mejorar la calidad de vida de sus habitantes.

Seguridad

Con el avance desmesurado de las innovaciones tecnológicas, la constante integración de nuevas tecnologías, y el continuo aumento del tamaño y uso de la internet, la seguridad se convierte en un aspecto de importancia creciente. Por esto ha surgido paralelamente la necesidad de establecer medidas que permitan que las naciones del mundo cuenten con una base para que la tecnología siga expandiéndose de forma más eficiente.

Actualmente se intenta imponer el orden en la red cibernética mediante el establecimiento de grupos de “policías cibernéticos”, mayormente auspiciados por países como el Reino Unido y los Estados Unidos. Estas unidades policiales principalmente manejan crímenes relacionados con robo de información, penetración de sistemas sin autorización, pornografía infantil, o terrorismo, entre otros. Sin embargo, estas unidades policiales aún no han tenido un impacto significativo en la prevención del crimen cibernético.

Necesidad de nueva legislación

Es imperativo el establecimiento de leyes internacionales que rijan las actividades en redes de computadores públicas y que permitan la búsqueda y la sanción de aquellas personas que las infrinjan. Entre las áreas que necesitan la mayor atención, está el control del correo basura (mejor conocido en inglés como spam), la persecución de criminales que cometan ciertos crímenes no penalizados en los países en donde son cometidos, el envío de pornografía infantil y la penetración no autorizada de sistemas.

Un problema creciente es el del correo electrónico no solicitado, conocido mejor como “spam”. Según el periódico Washington Post del 13 de marzo de 2003, casi el 40 porciento de todo el tráfico de correo electrónico en los Estados Unidos es basura, o no solicitado. En términos de costo anual, este problema representa más de 8.9 billones para las corporaciones de Estados Unidos (AP, enero 2003). Este problema no se limita a las corporaciones, sino que invade la vida diaria de cualquier usuario privado de la red. Las cuentas de correo electrónico se llenan con propaganda inútil: anuncios falsos de que alegadamente se han ganado viajes en crucero, anuncios descarados de pornografía, o promociones de productos milagrosos de inexistente valor medicinal. Actualmente no existen leyes que prohíban el envío de este tipo de correo.

Otro tipo de legislación que se necesita establecer es la que rige los derechos intelectuales y de propiedad. El ejemplo clásico de la alegada violación de los derechos de autor es el fenómeno de bajar música, gracias al caso de Napster. Actualmente, organizaciones como la ICANN (“Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers”) están dedicadas a organizar esta red. La ICANN se encarga de asignar los dominios, o nombres con que se identifican las compañías, organizaciones y grupos en la internet. Sin embargo, actualmente, cualquier entidad o persona que desee comprar un dominio, lo puede hacer si tiene el dinero y provee una información básica de contacto. Esta libertad ha creado algunos problemas en el área de la propiedad de los dominios. Hoy en día, se ha convertido en una práctica común el comprar dominios con mala fe, con el propósito de que una persona famosa o una compañía pague inmensas cantidades de dinero por el dominio. Por ejemplo, ha habido disputas por los derechos de autor de los dominios sting.com, madonna.com y bussiness.com. Muchos consideran que esta práctica viola las patentes o derechos reservados. El número de disputas de propiedad de dominios ha ido aumentando constantemente y actualmente no hay ningún estándar para poder resolverlas de forma más eficiente.

Metaphors and the visual system

   The complexity of the visual system allows species across classes to navigate and adapt effectively to challenges in their environment to facilitate their survival. One of the main modeling approaches to understanding the visual system suggests breaking the components of the system into modules whose inner mechanisms are thought to be easier to investigate and understand. This paradigm implicitly views the organization of the visual system like that of a “Swiss Army knife,” a toolkit of special purpose “instruments” or modules (Yufik, 2002). This paper aims to show how a more modern and dynamic “Swiss Army knife” describes as an elegant array of multipurpose tools with optimal functional design may be used as a good metaphor for the organization of complex visual system. I will explore how the principles of evolution highly constrained the design of each of the modules, just like the knife had to minimize the required space while being as useful as possible. Similarly, based on our understanding of the organization of the retina, the primary visual cortex, and the distribution of the optic nerve, this paper aims to show how the integration of each of the “visual modules” can successfully reproduce complex patterns of visual cognition. In other words, several modules can be used in strategic combination to achieve a task effectively.

One of the main innovations in the Swiss Army (SA) knife occurred in 1896, when the inventor Karl Elsener was able to put blades on each side of the handle after five years of work. This great innovation allowed the knife to have twice as many features (see “The SA Knife”). As time passed, the highly constrained handle slowly began to accommodate even more gadgets, making what we know today as the famous SA Knife. Interestingly, the evolution of the visual system follows similar design limitations, starting from the retina and through higher computational modules. As a general principle, evolutionary selection constrained cell volume and maximizes the number or tasks that the brain modules could complete. For instance, consider the retina, which is highly constrained by metabolic rate, and cellular volume (Sterling, 2004). However, regardless of this limitation, it must still be highly efficient in extracting fine detail under low light and poor contrast conditions with high accuracy and speed. Furthermore, the organization of the retina had to account for differences during day and night, which would require more circuitry due to the differences in cognitive processing (Sterling, 2004). One line of evidence of the space constraint comes from organization of the retina in animals living in environments with a broad spectrum of light intensities. Two ypes of photoreceptors with different levels of sensitivity, namely rods and cones, were included in the knife to be able to have both day and night vision. Such modules had to reach a compromise that would maximize survival under both conditions. The evolutionary solution was quite elegant: the cones densely occupy the fovea to enhance spatial resolution during the day, while the rods in the periphery outnumber the cones to maximize photon sensitivity at night. Further evidence that there is a high demand for space comes from the suboptimal small size of the “outer segments” of photoreceptors which may reduce efficiency of photon capture but increases their processing speed, which may would play an important role in survival (Sterling, 2004).

     Another aspect in the organization of the retina that follows the SA knife model is the various “retinal modules” successfully reproduce the relevant information of stimuli once they are integrated. For instance, by having three types of cones, each which maximally responds to one type of wavelength, one can reproduce relevant color by using only three types of receptors. Thus, each blade has a particular function in vision, but once they are used in conjunction, we perceive a much broader spectrum of colors. Similarly, ganglion cells at the next processing level of the retina follow a similar design. Each of their receptive field aggregates input from photoreceptors and reduces irrelevant information using center-surround fields and lateral inhibition. This information can then be interpreted at higher levels of processing to form a cohesive visual cognition without any significant loss. In contrast to Yu’s postulate (2007), the different cone cells do serve a unique purpose, but what makes them so powerful is their dynamism in combining the input and using it as a basis function that matches the relevant information from the environment.  From this, it follows that the design of the retina follows a SA approach that maximized efficiency while minimizing space, while still maintaining a complete toolkit to capture the essential visual information for higher processing levels.

Next, information from the retina is distributed through the optic nerve to several subcortical structures. Most of the terminations of the nerve have been associated with well-defined functions. For instance, three such projections include the suprachiasmatic nucleus (SCN) —the body’s circadian clock —the accessory optic system— involved in control of eye movement— and the pretectum, involved in visual reflexes (Swanson, 2003). One of the projections of the nerve goes to the motor secondary visual cortices through the superior colliculus. Neurons in this structure are activated based on the location corresponding to the stimulus (Stein, 1998). This shows another elegant evolutionary solution to the space constraint: internal representation of sensory space that is based on events rather than modalities, since cues from the same event are likely to originate from the same location (Stein, 1998). The superior colliculus also shows that visual system modules must work cooperatively for vision to occur, just like a SA knife must have a complete set of blades to be fully functional, with the blades intricately connected by springs. This process involves a complex and dynamic balance: even though it is possible that a combination of knifes can seem to substitute a lost gadget, this is not necessarily always the case, which directly contrasts Yu’s point that all processing is interchangeable. For instance, when a module related with the superior colliculus (SC), the Ectosylvian Sulcus (AES), is temporarily deactivated, SC neurons can no longer integrate the individual inputs to produce an enhanced response (Stein, 1998).  A final projection of the optic nerve goes to the LGN in the thalamus, where visual information is layered to represent the left and right visual fields, instead of the source of the information, which shows that the modules in the visual system are not necessarily interested with the source of the information per se, but more in the actual information.  Finally, we can expect the evolution of the optic nerves to have followed a design to save the amount of fibers or “wires”. The benefit of such an approach is evident: starting from the retina, where a larger optic nerve will result in a larger blind spot, and less photons being detected. Following a SA knife approach does not imply that each part of the brain must be connected to the signal as suggested by Yu (2007). Information in the optic nerve has already passed through the “retinal gadget” and one would expect that no computation is repeated in the visual system. For instance, when opening a present, one may open the gift wrap with a scissor, and then use a blade to open the plastic, without the blade having to repeat the process accomplished by the scissors.  In contrast to what was claimed by Yu, the SA does not necessarily mean that the process must be slow, since modules can be used potentially used in parallel. Similarly, Hebbian-like rules (“fire-together , wire-together”) can be derived. If whenever you take out the cork remover, you usually follow by taking out the midsized knife, we could expect some more sophisticated spring mechanism that would allow the midsize knife to come out more easily after using the cork remover. Thus, it follows that the distribution of the optic nerve and related nuclei exhibit SA design in modularity as well as space optimization.

    Information from the LGN is then sent to the primary visual cortex, whose organization continues to show SA knife design.  One of the modules of the visual cortex could be the ocular dominance columns, which Hubel (1981) describes as a “machine for combining input from the two eyes” possibly for stereopsis. Another area that can be potentially referred to as modular involves the receptive fields. These were originally described as responding maximally to stimuli in a certain location and orientation and even length (Hubel, 1981). However, the flexibility of the SA knife allows such modules can be defined also in terms of processing streams or “computational strategies” (DeYoe, 1988) instead of actual structures. Another example of this design model comes from cross-modality plasticity. It has been observed that loss of vision does not lead to inactivation of V1, but rather, a reorganization of cortical functions. For instance, this was the case in blind individuals, who used this region while engaging in a Braille reading task (Burton, 2003). The primary visual cortex was not excluded from the space constraints involved in other regions. As Bhole (1981) states “in one or two square mm there seems to exist all the machinery necessary to look after everything the visual cortex is responsible for.” Yu’s argument (2007) that the variable size receptive fields (RF), and their plasticity by definition imply that the brain cannot follow SA design does not directly follow logically. Each of the blades of the knife can be quite dynamic, for instance, by adapting the deepness of a cut. Thus, we can expect that the modules in V1 would adapt to larger RF whenever needed, or even getting input outside from their traditional RF. Furthermore, even if the highest spatial grain has been reached in V1 (Yu, 2007) this does not mean that computation is completed at that level, since much of vision involves integration of temporal information as well.
Until now, the “SA Knife” model of the visual system may have seemed static, with each module having an independent and well-defined function, with little interaction among modules. However, the visual system is constantly adapting to new challenges in our environment, is highly dynamic: for instance, the visual cortex is still undergoes experience-dependent synaptogenesis throughout adulthood (Gilbert, 1996).  This interaction among modules is so essential, that Yufik (2002) believes that the integration of initially-separate modules was “the turning point of human evolution” due to the much higher adaptative efficiency. For instance, consider that in V1 the strength and density of connections are highly dynamic, as well as the size of receptive fields (Gilbert, 1996). As argued by Yu, it is possible that perception of basic attributes may not be explained using simple one-to-one hierarchical pathways. However, the level of dynamism in the visual system may even require a more dynamic and loose definition of modules. For instance, this it may be the case that the modules are best represented by computational strategies instead of actual physical structures as proposed by DeYoe & Van Essen (1988).  Finally, the modules may even have a very distinct response based on situation. For instance, Vallar (1998) suggested that the relative contribution from each hemisphere may highly depend on the type of representation involved.

Even after extensive scientific investigation, Olshausen & Field (2005) believe that we understand less than 20% of V1 under normal circumstances. However, what we do know is that the visual system is constantly adapting to new challenges in our environment with high adaptability and dynamism. The SA knife is a good metaphor to explain the organization of the entire visual system— from photon reception to complex object recognition— by the guiding principles of constrained design and dynamic interaction of the gadgets. Newer Swiss Army knives are being modernized include gadgets such as a USB memory. Similarly, the visual system continues to adapt to newer and more complex patterns of visual information to facilitate our survival and evolutionary fitness by using complex and well designed modules for visual cognition.
 

Molecular Basis of Biological Clocks

   Recently, scientists have discovered that these ‘clocks’ are controlled by special genes that regulate the various rhythmic changes that occur in an organism during a day (circadian rhythms). This includes physiological changes throughout the body, including temperature, hormonal levels, and blood pressure. Even though it is not entirely clear how the resulting ‘clock’ proteins work, it is known that they are shared by nearly all organisms and that their main activity centers around the hypothalamus and the pineal gland in birds and mammals. Furthermore, light-sensing photoreceptors have been found to play a crucial role in keeping the biological clocks in tune.
The most direct application of research in this area is to alleviate potential health problems resulting from having a biological clock that is not in aligned with the environment. Problems such as jet lag, insomnia, and even depression can be alleviated simply by providing light at the correct times to successfully reset the biological clock.

What are the potential evolutionary advantages of having such a system. This eventually led me to the simplest organisms known to have an internal biological clock: the Blue-green algae (cyanobacteria). Even though many scientists initially believed that a daily biological clock would be irrelevant to organisms that divide in less than a day, cyanobacteria proved to be an exception. These organisms are of particular interest since they need to carry out two biochemically incompatible processes in order to survive: photosynthesis and nitrogen fixation. Cyanobacteria solved this incompatibility by carrying out photosynthesis during the day and nitrogen fixation at night (Shweiki, 2001). Thus, keeping track of temporal information has the potential of greatly optimizing the execution of these processes. This was corroborated by experiments that proved that bacteria whose biological clock is in tune with the naturally occurring light-dark cycle carried out this processes more efficiently, and in fact, where able to grow up to 30% faster than bacteria culture without tuned biological clocks (Salisbury, 2002).  The previous findings suggest that animals with a tuned biological clock do have an evolutionary advantage. Considering that nearly all organisms have this mechanism, it seems to be crucial for survival, regardless of whether it evolved in parallel or as a result of convergent evolution.

But how would humans benefit from having such mechanisms? Extrapolating from the previous findings, one can expect that early human civilizations that were in tune with the environment could have a strong advantage in carrying out more efficient hunting and gathering or even agriculture. Furthermore, Edery (2000) suggests that having a tuned biological clock is advantageous when adverse weather conditions caused humans to take shelter in caves for long periods of time.

The brain briefings article mentions the timing of light as the exclusive source of information to keep the biological clock in tune, which is not surprising considering that light is a reliable measure of daily cycles, in particular of day and night changes. However, I wanted to explore if there were any other sources of information that could be potentially used by this system. Closely related to the timing of light, I found that some species of birds and insects use the azimuth of the sun (the sun’s distance to the horizon) as a source of temporal information especially relevant when traveling long distances. Using the azimuth, which is closely related to the amount of light, seems to be an evolutionary adaptation for species that needed more information about the time of the day. But what other alternate sources of information are there that are not evidently related with the amount of light?

Initially, it seems that in some locations animals could derive temporal information based on temperature changes, since usually the night is colder than the day. This can be advantageous by ensuring that the maximum activity of an organism is carried out when the temperature is most appropriate (such as diurnal animals responding to colder temperatures and limiting their activity to the daytime). However, it was found that the period of the circadian rhythm does not vary with the frequent changes of temperature in the environment (Edery, 2000).

In the search of more complex sources of temporal information, Shweiki has suggested that cyclic patterns of gravity resulting from daily patterns of interactions between the earth and the moon gravitational fields could be used to know the current time. However, after several experiments, it is not clear if the daily variations in gravity can be sensed and processed by organisms (Shweiki, 2001). Hopefully, in the future scientists will be able to understand fully the level of sensitivity of the system to gravitational information, but also to more complex temporal cues such as atmospheric gas content and radiation levels.

In order to elicit the most appropriate behavioral responses whether it is on the shorter winter days or at the seemingly odd day times in a hotel room in Tokyo, biological clocks provide humans and other animals with vital information for survival. As research progresses, health problems associated with out of tuned biological clocks will be alleviated as humans adapt to a faster pace of life.
 

Questioning Common Sense with Cognitive Neuroscience

“Common sense is instinct. Enough of it is genius.”
- George Bernard Shaw

     As modern science advances, we continue to get closer to understanding the world around us, and most importantly, how we represent and behave in our environments. However, this process of understanding may be unpleasant at times as we are force to change conceptions of reality that we held true for decades. Cognitive neuroscience is constantly demonstrating to us that the world is not always as we perceive it, that we don’t always remember events exactly as they occurred, and that the pain we feel is not always objectively there. It is as if we lived in a seemingly eternal illusion which we call ‘common sense’ and that once the illusion begins to break apart, we desperately try to amend those erroneous notions. As we understand the dynamisms of our brain, we naturally wonder why we held on so vehemently this ‘common sense’ of the world, a world we assume to be stable and identical to our world. To our surprise, cognitive neuroscience also has the key to such riddles.

     Using a framework guided by evolutionary principles and constrained brain design, we start to understand our cognitive and perceptual processes, and also, explain how such ‘common sense’ view had a purpose in masking the illusion of consciousness. It is not simply delusion caused by an utter failure of our reasoning, but instead, an evolutionary byproduct as we optimize for enduring the challenges in our environments. First, brain design had to account for limitations of space while still requiring complex cognitive processes to be carried out. Because of this, our complex environments had to be represented sparsely, and optimally stored. Second, limitations in energy and computation constraints lead to a brain designed to maintain coherence and continuity, while minimizing computation and activation of particular brain structures. In other words, ‘common sense’ had a tremendous role in ensuring our survival. It is not until now that we have the luxury to question why such processes emerged.

     It seems reasonable to us that our sensory systems would represent the world reliably (Wall, 1993). However, our first illusion starts in our senses: we don’t see the world the way it is and not all that we see is there.  Our visual system was designed to be highly efficient in extracting fine detail under low light and poor contrast conditions with high accuracy and speed, while at the same time representing the world accurately for our efficient navigation and, ultimately, our survival. As Sterling (2003) argues, the system had to minimize wire volume, while maximizing image capacity. Anyone familiar with image and video compression knows well that representing a sparse and yet accurate representation of the external world is computationally complex and difficult. This problem becomes even more challenging as we consider the need of integrating information across multiple sensory systems (Stein, 1998). And while our vision may be optimal when navigating in the forest under dim light, we might be fooled on occasion to perceive intermediate grey areas that don’t exist in the Hermann Grid, to perceive motion from completely stationary but complex patterns, or to fail to notice artificial changes in our environments (change blindness). Our sensory systems have evolved in concert, and not to handle mismatches the way we would expect them to. That is how cross-modality integration may trick us to mislocate the origin of auditory clues based on mismatched visual information (or vice versa). In more pathological conditions, what one perceives may even be father from what the world resembles, such as in conditions of hemispatial neglect, where there is a neglect of one side of the spatial field, accompanied by a strong belief that the world in fact looks how they perceive it. In contrast with ‘common sense’, our visual system was not designed to respond optimally to contrived laboratory conditions, but instead, to survive the challenges in our external world.
     Our second illusion consists in believing blindly in our pain and our emotions. Our ‘common sense’ dictates that the experience of pain is a simple process of report of current or prospective damage to our bodies and psyche. However, this is far from true: pain is a highly complex mechanism mediated by numerous factors. First, what we believe to be a cohesive experience of pain has been shown to be two different types of experiences, each associated with the intensity and unpleasantness of the pain (Tulving, 2001). It is also known that pain is perceived after a decision has been made regarding the appropriate biological needs (Wall, 1993). For instance, consider the case of soldiers with severe injuries in the battlefield. Under these circumstances, there is no evolutionary gain from pain and it is not surprising that they exhibit a response-appropriate sensation: 70% of them do not complain of pain upon arriving to the hospital (Beeched, 1859 as quoted in Tulving, 2001). Furthermore, research shows that pain can be regulated under placebo conditions. This complements the view that there is a strong social component to pain, that there are motivational factors are involved, and that pain as we know it has a significant learned component (children do not respond to placebos in the way adults do). As suggested by Professor Finlay at Cornell University, there is also the “pain of altruism”. We feel pain because we know that others can help us (and conversely, we help others in pain because we share their pain, possibly linked neuroanatomically to a special type of neurons called “mirror neurons”).

      The findings of cognitive neuroscience extend from feeling pain to broader areas, such as the reports of emotions and internal state. In short, our emotions are highly mediated by our physiological state and our subjective feeling states also have strong social components. Furthermore, interoceptive awareness (which includes the internal representation of the viscera) has been found to be mediated by the insular cortex (Critchley, Wiens, Rotshtein, Oman, & Dolan, 2004), and are thus modulated by all the structures that interact with the insula. Whereas ‘common sense’ may regard reports of internal state (e.g. I feel happy) as subjective and passive reports of the situation, in reality these are known to be mediated by particular structures in a highly active process. These findings strongly suggest that our ‘common sense’ view of pain and emotional state is not necessarily either an accurate nor a passive response to situations in our environment but a multidimensional mechanism.

     The final illusion is based on how we remember the world: not all that we remember actually happens and not all that happens is remembered. Closely related to the constraints of the visual system, memory also faces similar challenges such as compression, but has the unique challenges of storage and recall. In contrast with ‘common sense’, our neuroscientist’s understanding of the limitations in memory in terms of capacity explains why we can’t remember everything and the events that we do remember possibly did not occur exactly as we think they did. In cases of amnesia, it’s a well known phenomenon that individuals often confabulate: they create stories about what may have happened or fill the details of incomplete memories. What is surprising is that often these false memories that reveal the individuals’ honest view of a continuous reality (Schnider, 2003). As objective observers, we can corroborate that their memories are just a creation of their imagination (which may often include elements from real events), but nevertheless, they defend these memories vehemently as true. Furthermore, the common belief is that memories are created immediately as events occur. However, cognitive science shows that not all memories are created, and that not all events are recorded as memories, and that if they were the result would be catastrophic. Our memories were designed to satisfy the need for slow and fast storage and recall, which come together neurologically as distinct computational strategies in the brain that respond to different needs (Atallah, Frank, & O'Reilly, 2004). Memory is also an active process mediated by a number of brain structures, and which can be manipulated by factors such as emotional intensity, social interactions. In conclusion, our memories are fallible and ‘common’ of memory do not capture its complex subtleties.

     After presenting the evidence of how cognitive science slowly tears apart our ‘common sense’ view, it is natural to evaluate why such a view developed initially. Our representation of our environment does not necessarily follow what we artificially think it should be like. From an evolutionary perspective, I believe that such a view emerged in the process of satisfying the strict constraints while ensuring our survival. The first, the constraint for space power, explains why there is a strong pressure to keep an internal representation that is as sparse as possible, while still useful. Note that ‘useful’ was implicitly defined based on evolutionary fitness and not through a conscious process of rationalization. Our cognition evolved to exploit all redundancies employing heuristics that would decrease the required space and computation while preserving the essence of original information. One of the factors that I believe to be pivotal in ‘common sense’ stems from a design attempt to minimize excess activity in certain pathways that may otherwise interfere with mechanisms that are essential for survival.

     Fundamentally, the sentinel that potentially questions our reality —the stability of our external world and the veracity of our internal representation of such world — can easily become the intruder. Monitoring the validity of our interpretations and the correct functioning of our cognitive processes and our bodily processes has potential benefits. However, if such behaviors are carried out regularly, they will hinder our existence. It has been suggested that certain psychological conditions, especially anxiety disorders, may be due to increased attention to autonomic bodily functions (Critchley, Wiens, Rotshtein, Oman, & Dolan, 2004). From a neuroanatomical perspective, our brains optimize for minimal activity and a continuous sentinel would do precisely the opposite. For instance, consider a potential increase in activity in the Anterior Cingulate Cortex and Amygdala arising from responses such as fear from potential mismatch between the world and what we perceive. 

     Ultimately, the goal of our visual processes, our pain and emotions, and memory may be interpreted as allowing us to learn from the past, and  acting appropriately against the challenges in the world. In other words, our brains are likely to have evolved to possess mechanisms that allow the accurate representation of past experiences and perceptions, and the causal attribution of mental states and motivations based on the behavior of others, to consciously (and even unconsciously) guide our future actions and thoughts. ‘Common sense’ might also originate from favoring a more serial nature of the brain, which is far from representing its highly complex and parallel structure. Until now, it may seem that common sense is a collection of static and shared knowledge, but in reality, it is also constantly being redefined and is not as simple as we believe. Decades ago, it was ‘common sense’ that the world was flat and the center of the universe, but with time, that notion started morphing and getting closer to reality. Similarly, ‘common sense’ views of our cognitive processes are slowly being changed. The cognitive neuroscientists’ ‘common sense’ is currently undergoing a process or rewiring, and with time, such amendments will penetrate into general ‘common sense’.

     As Higgins & Kruglanski (2004) argue, we value theories that predict what is not obvious, that illuminate failures in our reasoning and that illustrates both the shortcoming and idiosyncrasy of common sense. That is precisely the approach taken in cognitive neuroscience. In the words of Tulving (2001), by initially tackling the ‘axioms’ established by common sense, the process of science can go far beyond it. Cognitive neuroscience continues to pave the road to understand the evolution and purpose of our consciousness. By exploring the nature of common sense, we can begin to understand our cognitive, perceptive, and behavioral processes with far more depth than we ever believed to be possible.

Science may mask what it tries to explain

Receptive fields (RF) are a research area whose development can be potentially affected by a scientific methodology that is based on making distinctions. In this particular arena, scientists would like to explain how receptive fields respond to visual stimuli, and how the underlying circuity in the visual cortex is able to decode such responses and create an effective internal representation of the environment. After Hubel (1981) demonstrated that the responses of cortical cells are associated with properties of the visual image, a great paradigm shift took place. Scientific research became guided by an assumption stated by Hubel himself: “understanding how [receptive fields] respond to some visual stimuli and ignore others allow us to predict how a cell will react to any given visual scene.” Thus, the resulting methodology was concerned with how a certain RF is different from another, but most importantly, how responses within a single receptive field are distinct depending on the varying stimuli and its context. Interestingly, this process of science may potentially create a discontinuity in trying to explain the role of receptive fields in the processing of visual information.

    In particular, experiments with highly restricted visual stimuli can lead to some insight about the inner workings of RF but there is no guarantee that such studies will generalize to more complex situations (Olshausen & Field, 2005).  First, the visual system was evolutionarily designed to respond to changes in our environment—consisting of natural scenes— and not in artificial conditions like those studied extensively. Second, the visual system is in a “continuing process of normalization and calibration” (Gilbert, 1996).

Thus, without having much insight about how such process occurs, and the amount of temporal information that the visual system needs to code, we cannot predict the effect of previous visual stimulation, or even the effect of experimental methodology. For instance, it has been observed that substantial changes in size and position of the RF can be induced by previous visual stimulation and that “whatever one does to measure the response properties of a cell may change them” (Gilbert, 1996).  Thirdly, there is a high level of non-linearity inherent in neural computations in the visual system (excluding complex processes like lateral inhibition), which strongly suggests that categorizing stimuli as well as cell responses may in fact be counterproductive for furthering our understanding. This nonlinearity is easily observed in artificial neural network, and our inability to understand how this simplified version of the biological neuron is creating sparse and effective internal representation (except under very constricted set of examples).

    Using this methodology, there is also an inherent process of distinguishing which cells to study. As Olshausen & Field (2005) argue, there is a bias to prefer to study neurons that are “visually responsive,” with large cell bodies and extracellular action potentials, and also neurons with high firing rates. A final aspect that can mask the continuity of what we are trying to explain can take place because of pressures from journals to make data look tidy (Olshausen & Field, 2005), which may result in limited theories that oversimplify, and bias towards theories that seem to model observations, and not those that fail to do so.
It is quite possible that a process of making distinction could eventually explain the mysteries of receptive fields. Given the complexity of the system, I believe that we will continue using this process of science until more complex computational models are developed, models whose nonlinearity and adaptability we can understand. In particular, we will be able to fill the gap of how RF respond in varying situations, from simple lines in Hubel’s original experiments to highly complex natural scenes.
Receptive fields (RF) are a research area whose development can be potentially affected by a scientific methodology that is based on making distinctions. In this particular arena, scientists would like to explain how receptive fields respond to visual stimuli, and how the underlying circuity in the visual cortex is able to decode such responses and create an effective internal representation of the environment. After Hubel (1981) demonstrated that the responses of cortical cells are associated with properties of the visual image, a great paradigm shift took place. Scientific research became guided by an assumption stated by Hubel himself: “understanding how [receptive fields] respond to some visual stimuli and ignore others allow us to predict how a cell will react to any given visual scene.” Thus, the resulting methodology was concerned with how a certain RF is different from another, but most importantly, how responses within a single receptive field are distinct depending on the varying stimuli and its context. Interestingly, this process of science may potentially create a discontinuity in trying to explain the role of receptive fields in the processing of visual information.

    In particular, experiments with highly restricted visual stimuli can lead to some insight about the inner workings of RF but there is no guarantee that such studies will generalize to more complex situations (Olshausen & Field, 2005).  First, the visual system was evolutionarily designed to respond to changes in our environment—consisting of natural scenes— and not in artificial conditions like those studied extensively. Second, the visual system is in a “continuing process of normalization and calibration” (Gilbert, 1996).Thus, without having much insight about how such process occurs, and the amount of temporal information that the visual system needs to code, we cannot predict the effect of previous visual stimulation, or even the effect of experimental methodology. For instance, it has been observed that substantial changes in size and position of the RF can be induced by previous visual stimulation and that “whatever one does to measure the response properties of a cell may change them” (Gilbert, 1996).  Thirdly, there is a high level of non-linearity inherent in neural computations in the visual system (excluding complex processes like lateral inhibition), which strongly suggests that categorizing stimuli as well as cell responses may in fact be counterproductive for furthering our understanding. This nonlinearity is easily observed in artificial neural network, and our inability to understand how this simplified version of the biological neuron is creating sparse and effective internal representation (except under very constricted set of examples).

    Using this methodology, there is also an inherent process of distinguishing which cells to study. As Olshausen & Field (2005) argue, there is a bias to prefer to study neurons that are “visually responsive,” with large cell bodies and extracellular action potentials, and also neurons with high firing rates. A final aspect that can mask the continuity of what we are trying to explain can take place because of pressures from journals to make data look tidy (Olshausen & Field, 2005), which may result in limited theories that oversimplify, and bias towards theories that seem to model observations, and not those that fail to do so. It is quite possible that a process of making distinction could eventually explain the mysteries of receptive fields. Given the complexity of the system, I believe that we will continue using this process of science until more complex computational models are developed, models whose nonlinearity and adaptability we can understand. In particular, we will be able to fill the gap of how RF respond in varying situations, from simple lines in Hubel’s original periments to highly complex natural scenes.
 

The Intellect and Meditation as viewed in Buddhist traditions (2005)

"I cannot believe that God would choose to play dice with the universe." – Albert Einstein

As the years of intellectual quest go by, the logical mind may suddenly find itself unsatisfied with the current knowledge about its own nature. Full of genuine yearning for introspection, the persistent intellectual begins a quest for understanding that is supported uniquely by logic and reason. Texts such as the Numerical Discourses of the Buddha, the Fundamental Wisdom of the Middle Way and Balancing the Mind establish a good starting point for these intellectuals to explore the intricacy of their own minds and satisfy their intellectual cravings. Fortunately, along the way, upon reaching the maximum understanding of complexity of the nature of consciousness that is possible by these means, the intellect will succumb and the mind will finally enter a deep meditative state where ultimate insight arises.

The core of the intellectual path is to lead the individual to discover the limitations of the mind and realize that a kind of truth successfully evades scientific methods and logical axioms. As Alan Wallace states in Balancing the Mind, the intellectual path seeks to "guide contemplatives to states of experience that transcend all conceptual systems" (Balancing, 10). In order to do this, thinkers are gradually led to become aware of the unsteadiness of what they believed to be the basis for logical thought, and also, their personal inability to control their own thoughts.

In order to skillfully challenge the foundation of knowledge, Nāgārjuna examines closely the essence of concepts such as time, and motion in the Fundamental Wisdom of the Middle Way. In addition, he explores inconsistencies such as the subject-object paradox to elucidate why one should not identify with "I", the karmic cycle of actions and effects, and the causes of suffering from a logical standpoint. Moreover, he also approaches the nature of interconnectedness and emptiness by proving that nothing has a foundation by itself. The ultimate purpose of this exploration is to twist the intellect until it breaks apart once all possible logical pathways have been explored and the answer is yet to be attained. When posing questions such as "how can something that cannot see itself see another?" (Fundamental, 10) and "on what are fire and fuel established as dependent?" (Fundamental, 29) Nāgārjuna carefully anticipates all possible logical answers and addresses them by following the structure of deductive reasoning.

Similarly, in Balancing the Mind, Tsongkhapa’s addresses those intellectuals that have become aware of their inability to tame their minds by continually emphasizing the importance of achieving quietness of mind. He insists that this is essential before any transcendental insight about the nature of consciousness can be gained. Moreover, in the commentary, Wallace continues to appeal to contemporary intellectuals that seek understanding of consciousness by tying Buddhist concepts with ideas from the philosophy of mind as presented by thinkers such as Aquinas, and also with modern theories in cognitive science (Balancing, 274). For instance, he draws light into the nature of concentration based on experimental results, the intricate relationship between body and mind, the effects of sensory deprivation in the mind (Balancing, 83), and lucid dreaming as it relates to consciousness. Finally, Wallace argues that the Buddhist concept of interconnectedness is precisely the same that scientists are starting to discover among matter.

In Anguttara Nikaya’s suttas presented in Numerical Discourses of the Buddha, intellectuals are encouraged to think about Buddhism from a purely logical perspective. Most importantly, he recognizes the possibility that the teachings fail as a religious doctrine. For instance, he says that perhaps one of the core principles of Buddhism, reincarnation, may simply be a human idealization. However, he points out that even if that were the case, the philosophical teaching would suffice since they still draw benefits that can be enjoyed in this life (Numerical, 67). This means that an intellectual is openly invited to practice meditation simply for materialistic reasons (perhaps to improve concentration, control aggressive thoughts, among others) without any religious ties, hoping that along the way quiescence will manifest and insight is attained.

Another aspect that may appeal to intellectuals is the alleged universality of the teachings. This implies that the philosophy is independent of any human construct: the wisdom will arise without any teacher through self-enlightened individuals (Fundamental, 49). Interestingly, all the Buddhist texts discussed provoke the intellectual to question every single statement pronounced, and even leaves the path open to question directly its foundation: the Dharma as expressed by the Buddha. This is unlike the approach of other religions where an element of faith must be present to begin the spiritual journey. In other words, the intellectual can embark on a Cartesian-like philosophical meditation without any religious attachment, with the hope that it eventually leads the way towards deeper states of consciousness.

A discussion of the intellect would not be complete without paying close attention to the concept of suffering and impermanence in Buddhist traditions. Certainly, the words "there is no self" attack directly the modern emphasis on individualism present in scientific discoveries and intellectual expressions. However, much more was intended that simply creating an initial shock to the intellectuals by attacking the ego. Any intellectual, in any corner of the world, can see in front of his eyes how everything around him changes: how death appears closer as the days go by, how his intellectual pieces will one day be forgotten and how there will be a time where all the laws of nature will be revealed. Similarly, he acknowledges how his senses can trick his mind, how he can easily enter every night into a state of illusion, and finally, how powerful the mind is in determining his current mood. This is precisely when words such as "action and misery come from conceptual thought" (Fundamental, 48) stated by Nāgārjuna find resonance in a logical mind: once the intellectual acknowledges that she is in a state of suffering that cannot be alleviated by pure science.

In terms of the structure of texts, they all show a similar format to western logic proofs with premises and conclusions. However, each of them is unique in that it addresses a particular kind of intellectual. Some texts like Numerical Discourses of the Buddha address those intellectuals with a tendency of labeling and categorizing the universe. Others, such as Balancing the Mind, show a greater concern with tackling those that constantly need scientific evidence to support any claims. Finally, The Fundamental Wisdom of the Middle Way is directed mainly towards mathematical and philosophical oriented minds with statements that question knowledge and tackle all possible logical pathways. Finally, they all include metaphors to some degree or another to address those that enjoy the careful use of words and find meaning in apparently contradictory statements.

Once the individual realizes that the path of scientific exploration does not necessarily remove the hindrances of the mind, and that science itself has limits as to what kind of knowledge can be achieved, the intellectual begins a quest for alternate sources of truths. As opposed to Jnana Yoga, where the practitioner exercises the intellect by studying the sacred scriptures and texts from the traditions, the three Buddhist texts discussed aim at a direct intervention from the individual to engage in intellectual discussion and solve the enigma of the nature of reality. In the same way that a deep state of meditation can be obtained through whirling, the practice of asanas, or the repetition of mantras, it can also be gained through logical reasoning and introspection that aims at gaining ultimate insight. Just like the Koans that attempt to bring the intellectual mind to a meditative state, the three texts skillfully lead the intellectual to the lake of infinite depth where they can actively explore universal consciousness and permeate their existence with quiescence an insight.

Sources:
Garfield, Jay L., trans. and commentary. The Fundamental Wisdom of the Middle Way: Nagarjuna''s Mulamadhyamakakarika. New York: Oxford University Press, 1995.

Thera, Nyanaponika and Bhikkhu Bodhi, trans. and ed. Numerical Discourses of the Buddha: An Anthology of Suttas from Anguttara Nikaya. Walnut Creek, CA: AltaMira Press, 2000.

Wallace, B. Alan. Balancing the Mind: A Tibetan Buddhist Approach to Refining Attention. Ithaca, New York: Snow Lion Publications, 2005.

The Profound Abyss of Consciousness

In “The Abyss”, published in a recent issue of the New Yorker, Oliver Sacks elegantly reports on the clinical case of Clive Wearing, a professional musician who became amnesic after suffering herpes-simplex viral encephalitis. It is natural to ask whether Sacks’ anecdotal account of “the most devastating case of amnesia ever recorded” is scientifically reliable. By reviewing published scientific accounts of Wearing’s condition, and cases of a similar nature, I will evaluate Sacks interpretation of Clive’s case.  As modern science attempts to decipher all the effects of brain damage on memory —and thus explain the complete neuropsychology of memory— Sacks reminds us that there is still much to be understood. Could science have predicted the detailed effects of brain damage and the unaffected cognitive areas? How is it possible that Clive retained his incredible musical memories and is able to perform his favorite pieces of classical music with fervor and continuity? How can Clive retain strong emotional memories about his wife but nothing else?  Oliver Sacks challenges the field of cognitive neuroscience, and particularly, the investigation of memory and consciousness, by asserting that to truly understand memory one must dig deeply into the story behind the amnesia.  Clive’s case opens the possibility that today’s cognitive neuroscience would potentially be complemented by a more person-oriented approach.

As a neurologist, one of Oliver Sacks’ talents is his ability to convert a monotonic medical report —where the main goal is to arrive at a diagnosis— into a rich clinical recounting that retains its scientific validity while showing the “heroes” behind the case (Silberman, 2002). For Sacks, this revival of the background medical story is crucial in an area where each case of amnesia is physiologically unique, with its own history and challenges. A well narrated case of amnesia can reveal the abyss in our current understanding of consciousness and memory. It is the narration that lets us share with the amnesiacs their attempts to maintain the fluidity of their personality and their consciousness by pushing the limits of their human capacities. However, does Sacks’ talent in clinical case narration lead us  melodramatic accounts of brain damage that are far from the true reality of amnesia?

     Sacks depicts Clive as being deprived from accessing any memories: not only does he have severe retrograde amnesia (he is unable to remember events before the infection), but he also is incapable of retaining new memories, both semantic and episodic. However, it is clear from his writing style that Sacks is explicitly departing from a purely diagnostic view of Clive. He hints about his ‘suspicion’ of frontal lobe damage based on Clive’s jokiness and lack of social inhibitions, and briefly discusses the importance of the temporal lobe in memory. Instead of emphasizing the neurological damages suffered by Mr. Wearing, his diagnosis simply speaks of damage to “areas known to affect memory.” As an alternative, Sacks carefully constructed the narration centered on Clive’s state of consciousness: a constant agony of being “completely incapable of thinking” and feeling “deprived of consciousness and life itself” as Clive asserts and denies his existence. His mind seems to be in a state of chaos as he moves rapidly from thought to thought, a speed that is reflected in his verbose speech. And yet, his ability to perform music is untouched, and even shows flexibility as he “improvise[s], joke[s], and play[s] with any piece of music.” Clive becomes our hero, the hero who survived a traumatic amnesia that was unable to take from him what he valued the most: his love for music and his wife Deborah.

Is Sacks’ Clive the same Mr. Wearing (or simply ‘C’) known to cognitive neuroscientists? Despite different audiences and writing styles, the account is in fact mostly reliable. As described in the scientific literature, even though Clive is not the first case of amnesia in a professional musician or the first case of amnesia caused by encephalitis, his case truly stands out. Clive does have a severe case of amnesia in comparison to other patients, with the deficits being evident in both semantic and episodic memories. Furthermore, he is attributed a “delusion” possibly caused by the amnesia: he shows an unusual preoccupation about his state of consciousness (Wilson, Baddeley, & Kapur, 1995). Early CT scans of Clive’s brain immediately after the damage showed low density tissue mainly in the left temporal lobe, but extending into the inferior and posterior frontal lobe, and even into the right temporal lobe (Wilson & Wearing, 1995). The abundant statistics collected from psychological tests from Clive show that his short term memory appears to be normal (with an average score in the digit-span test), but his episodic memory is highly impaired (he score 4/43 on an episodic memory test). He also shows marked impaired recall, and shows no visual-spatial memory (Kaplan & Bain, 1999).

Even thought the scientific literature converted Sacks’ description of the “most devastating case of amnesia” into more formal words and numbers, Sacks’ description does appear to be accurate.  In comparison to Clive, consider the case of “JL”, a professional physiotherapist with bilateral damage to the frontal and temporal lobes caused by the same virus  (Geffen, Rosemary, M, & Geffen, 2007). The damage in Clive seems to encompass all the difficulties encountered by “JL” but with even deeper challenges. “JL” spares are immediate memory, perceptual priming, and cognitive problem-solving abilities. However, she applies her procedural skills with lack of flexibility, in what neuroscientists have described as “lack of coordination” among various types of memory, preventing her from performing the complex professional procedures expected from her.

Coming from a commercial magazine, Sacks’ account does have important gaps that need to be filled to satisfy the inquisitive minds of the neuroscientists. For instance, a discussion of how motor task learning can occur would be highly relevant; particularly since Clive’s musical skills remain intact and he shows motor learning abilities which would otherwise seem ‘miraculous’ from Sacks’s account. In addition, Sacks’ discussion about emotional memory is superficial and highly centered on the anecdotal account of Clive’s love. In particular, Sacks claims emotional memory is “the least understood,” without truly elaborating his argument or why this might be the case. A review of the literature strongly suggests that particular brain structures such as the amygdala, the hippocampus, and the prefrontal cortex play important role in the retrieval of emotional memories (Buchanan, 2007). Furthermore, it is well known that patients with damage to both the amygdala and the hippocampus retrieved fewer unpleasant autobiographical memories, which would suggest that the positive emotions in Clive such as love would be less likely to be lost, especially if reinforced on a regular basis. Recently, researchers have suggested a possible mechanism for how such memories are formed, involving molecular changes. In particular, it has been found that the neurotransmitter norepinephrine helps form new memories through a receptor on the surface of nerve cells (GluR1), with memories being coded based on the strength of the signals (Barry, 2007). Thus, Sacks statement needs to be more elaborate, and critically review recent findings in neuropsychology of memory.

The main weakness of Oliver Sacks’ account arises from a purely Swiss Army view of the brain that is particularly compatible with the type of narration in which he is engaging. For instance, he arguably attributes “consciousness and sensibility” as dependent on the cerebral cortex, whereas procedural memories are depicted as dependent on “subcortical structures such as the basal ganglia.” However, to understand the neuropsychology of learning and memory, a more distributed view of memories (especially memory pathways based on computational tradeoffs rather than by human made categories) should be favored (Atallah, Frank, & O'Reilly, 2004).Terms repeatedly used by Sacks such as declarative and procedural reveal only the surface of memory and fail to address the subtleties of memories. Even though “emotional memory found in structure X” is a more appealing headline, the complexity of memory is likely to be beyond those terms.

Nevertheless, the account in The New Yorker is widely accessible to a variety of audiences and shows the challenges within the “neurologist’s notebook”, challenges which remain to be completely understood: from the mysteries behind a symphony, to the endurance of love in amnesia.  First, Sacks reminds us that we must favor theories that follow Occam’s razor (they are the simples theories that explain all observations) and narrating them to those without a background in neuroscience is the best test for that assertion. Second, Sacks reminds us of details that may be relevant in understanding amnesia but overlooked behind statistics, imaging studies, or psychological tests. Just as Clive believed that the key of a successful performance was beyond the music on page (he believed he needed to know even the details of the last meal taken by the audience) (Wilson & Wearing, 1995), so the key for learning and memory lie on the particularities of each of case.  A more anecdotal approach could prove to be highly complementary in a field where each case of amnesia is completely different and where new perspectives may arise based on subjective understandings of consciousness and the experience of ever-present time in amnesia. Sacks invites us to pay attention to amnesia with a human approach, where scientific findings are based on vivid observations from deep curiosity and shared struggles faced each day by amnesiacs as they merge the abyss of consciousness.

The Visual and Motor System: An unthought parallel

After accounting for differences in the direction of axon information flow, the organization of the motor system parallels that of the visual system. In other words, information flow starting at the level of individual muscles and traveling backwards to the respective command centers in the motor cortex is conceptually comparable to information flow in the visual system traveling from retinal photoreceptors to higher cortical centers that recognize complex stimuli. Such parallels are likely to have arisen because of similarities in computational strategies between both systems as well as shared evolutionary pressures. In this paper, I will evaluate the evidence for such parallelism in each of the three levels of analysis of the motor system (Graziano, 2006): the properties of single neurons, cortical topography and the mapping from cortex to muscles. Furthermore, I will asses several areas where such parallelism does not seem to exist and possible underlying differences that may account for the divergent changes in system organization

  To conclude, I will propose that the organizational similarities may also be artificially produced given the shared scientific methodology used to research both systems.
At first glance, the organization of the motor and visual systems appears to be highly disjoint. On one hand, the motor system, defined as being the output of the central nervous system, comprises of three different types of pathways —somatic, autonomic, and neuroendocrine— each characterized by a unique type of output (control of the voluntary muscle cells, the viscera, or the hormonal output of the pituitary gland, respectively) (Swanson, 2003). On the other hand, the visual system is just a fraction of the sensory input to the central nervous system and consists mainly of one type of input from retinal photoreceptors. Nevertheless, both systems share one main characteristic: they are both involved in the process of creating or using a sparse internal representation of the external environment. This results in functional parallelism at each stage of processing, from muscle cells to command centers. Furthermore, both systems also share similar evolutionary pressures and possibly use similar underlying computational strategies to create optimal and effective representations.

The organization of the somatic motor system begins with individual muscles. These in turn are controlled by motoneurons via muscle fibers within each particular muscle. Furthermore, these neurons are organized into neuron pools in the spinal cord. Movement is produced by a complex and coordinated pattern of stimulation these motoneuron pools.  Finally, these pools are organized efficiently such that stimulation of one pool can laterally inhibit the corresponding antagonistic muscle. Parallel to this organization, the organization of the visual system begins with individual photoreceptors in the retina. At the first level of organization, input from one or more photoreceptors is sent to retinal ganglion cells. At this level, there is a similar process of lateral inhibition that results in an effective representation of the optical images using center-surround receptive fields. Finally, both systems show a high degree of optimization: the visual system optimizes for space (particularly at the retina), whereas the muscle system optimizes for energy expenditure, which includes smoothness of movement and response times.  For instance, it has been noted that the patterns of tension and relaxation among antagonistic muscles maximizes the efficiency of movement (Swanson, 2003) and that there is an optimization for endpoint smoothness (Bizzi, 1995).

The next aspect of parallel organization among both systems regards the mapping of information. The motoneuron pools in the spinal cord follow a well-known topographical distribution, with pools coding for muscles in the trunk being medial, and progressively becoming more lateral as one reaches the limbs (Swanson, 2003). This is similar to the arrangement of layers in the lateral geniculate nucleus (LGN) of the thalamus following a well defined topographical distribution. Furthermore, the topographical maps used in both systems elicit insight about the underlying function: they are concerned about the information, and not necessarily about the source.  In the motor system, the pattern of activation of nearby muscles is highly relevant, whereas in the visual system, the relevant information comes from a particular location in the visual field, and not necessarily from the particular eye that is the source of the information. Thus, the underlying parallelism concerns the use of a well defined topographical map at this level, but the details of the map may vary depending on the actual information being encoded.

    Similar to visual processing of complex stimuli, the generation of motor commands for highly complex behavioral sequences of well-coordinated movements occurs at the cortex. At this level of organization, representation takes the form of a more complex somatotopic map. Initially, it was believed that the primary motor cortex simply contained a map of muscles and joints very similar to the topographical organization in the ventral horn of the spinal column. However, this map can best be described as “overlapping, intermingled, and fractured”, which suggests that it represents the coordination of muscles from complex actions, rather than the individual movement of joints and muscles (Graziano, 2006). This parallel among both systems continues with the cortex at the level of the individual neuron. Namely, neurons in the motor cortex also exhibit the analog of a ‘receptive field’ of neurons in the primary visual cortex. Instead of showing patterns of activation that correspond to properties of the visual image (Hubel, 1981), they correspond to properties of complex behavioral events. For instance, these cells show a high correlation between the direction of limb movement and neuronal activation, and also show preference for end positions (Graziano, 2006).

As Swanson (2003) suggests, there is still much to be understood regarding the motor networks, particularly the underlying hierarchy and control. This problem becomes more evident as one climbs each step higher in the ladder of motor command control. It is here that the parallelism to the visual system becomes looser. Among the issues to be fully understood include how complex sequences of movements emerge and how they are encoded, as well as the complex interactions among the underlying network. To address the first, it has been suggested that sequences of movements that need to be carried out in a particular order are related to the supplementary motor cortex (SMA) (Graybiel, 1995). Unfortunately, no study has addressed this actually takes places or the actual information needed to command such sequences. In terms of the encoding, Graziano (2006) states that both systems continue to be parallel at this level by suggesting that coding for movement may be analogous to how the inferior temporal cortex (IT) codes visual information: each cell corresponds to a complex motor event and can dynamically change its response patterns depending on what is relevant in terms of the animal’s behavior.

At this level of representation, a commonality among both systems becomes even more relevant and may be one reason why such similarities in organization are observed. Both systems undergo a constant process of adaptation to optimally maintain a sparse yet accurate internal representation of the body and the environment. On one hand, the visual system is in a “continuing process of normalization and calibration” (Gilbert, 1996), which allows it to adapt to environmental conditions and extract effectively fine detail under various lighting and contrast conditions. Such adaptations are observed all throughout the visual pathway, starting with receptive fields that dynamically change their size, to neurons at visual cortex that vary the strength and density of their connections (Gilbert, 2006). On the other hand, the motor system is also highly adapted to reflect behavioral needs of the animal (Graziano, 2006). This ranges from neurons in the striatum which exhibiting context dependent firing patterns (Graybiel, 1995) to optimal control strategies that take into account intricate task-specific parameters (Graziano, 2006).

    Given the nature of the problem solved by each system, it is not unexpected that the parallelism does not extend to all arenas. One area where this is evident is in the feedback control mechanisms of the motor system. Motor feedback can have an instantaneous effect, may involves several learning mechanisms (e.g. unsupervised learning in the cortex, reinforcement learning in the basal ganglia, and supervised learning in the cerebellum). Even though visual cognition is not a passive process, feedback mechanisms in the visual are less evident. For instance, a known interaction between cortex and cerebellum, where the cortex outputs a basic motor command and the cerebellum is in charge of the details and fine control of the movement (Swanson, 2003) is not found in the visual system. Namely, the visual system has no opportunity to influence the input: once a photoreceptor misses visual information, the loss cannot be recovered. Another area where the organization of both systems has to be different in order to ensure survival concerns instinctual patterns of behavior, such as defensive, hand-to-mouth movements and mating behaviors (described in detail in Graziano, 2006). It has been observed that such behaviors can be evoked by stimulating the motor cortex in the macaque brain. There is no such parallel (at least known to humans) regarding a repertoire of instinctual visual programs that are inherent in the cortex and are essential for survival.

    Interestingly, several conclusions reached about the organization of the motor and visual systems result from a particular research methodology. For instance, the researcher stimulates the system (either via electrical stimulation in the motor cortex, or via visual stimuli), and observes the underlying changes as time progresses. Nevertheless, there is one main difference regarding the direction of information flow: whereas motor stimulation results in observable sequences of movements, visual stimulation results in an abstract representation that is not readily accessible. In other words, evoked movement provides an immediate hypothesis about the function of the activated tissue, whereas this is not the case with visual cognition. Although certain areas of the visual system are thought to be involved in extracting patterns of stimuli across time, I believe that such understanding has yet to reach the level of understanding in the motor system. For instance, fully understanding the role of timing would lead to much greater understanding of how learning regarding visual stimuli takes place, such as learning to recognize a particular object, such as faces, based on how it moves across time. Based on my understanding, the mechanisms of learning in the motor system are well understood, unlike in the visual system.

Both the visual and motor systems are constantly adapting to our environment, and share several features at all levels of analysis, starting from individual neurons, to more complex computational strategies. This approach of reversing the direction of information flow, similar to reverse engineering of the motor system, furthers our understanding of both systems by gaining insight into how the brain stores internal representations. By understanding the parallels and differences in organization, we get closer to understanding the basic principles of brain architecture in a world with demanding evolutionary pressures that demand complex yet optimal organization.
 

Elements of Fiction and Total Effect in Shooting an Elephant by George Orwell (2004)

In George Orwell’s "Shooting an Elephant", theme, plot, setting, tone, point of view, characterization, irony, symbolism, and language work together to create an impact on the reader. Certainly, all of the key literary elements cause a total effect of repulsion towards imperialism and its atrocities. Orwell wants to create awareness in the reader about the self-destruction caused by this system of government. Indeed, the short story helps the reader understand metaphorically how, even in modern times, imperialism can be a double edged sword that destroys both the conqueror and the conquered.

The theme of "Shooting an Elephant" is Orwell''s explicit attack on imperialism and its evils, based on his personal experience back when he was working at Burma under the command of the British government. Through his anecdote, he expresses clearly a general statement about man and life on earth summarized when he says: "I perceived in this moment that when the white man turns tyrant it is his own freedom that he destroys (887A)." According to George Orwell, imperialism can cause damages to both the empire and its officers who feel forced to "impress the natives (887A)" thereby losing their freedom, and to the conquered people whose freedom is limited. All of the key elements mainly support the primary theme, through the inclusion of significant details.

Plot, atmosphere, tone, and conflict also revolve around Orwell''s theme. Tone, The plot is arranged both chronologically and climactically. This helps build suspense and express the ideas clearly. The story starts when Orwell narrates his background and expresses his understanding of imperialism. George Orwell decided to follow family tradition when he worked in Burma in the Indian Imperial Police. He then narrates an anecdote to support his attack. One day, an elephant entered a state of dangerous frenzy. The person who was in charge of keeping it had searched for it and was very far from the place. The narrator was called by a subinspector to see if he could do anything about it. Then, George Orwell discovered that a coolie had been killed by the elephant and he decided to get his rifle only for defense purposes. However, a big Burmese crowd followed him as they wanted to see the elephant shot. George Orwell finally shot the elephant after a long internal conflict took place. He decided that he preferred to kill the elephant and not look as a fool. This incident taught him more than he expected: "It was a tiny incident in itself, but it gave me a better glimpse than I had had before of the real nature of imperialism--the real motives for which despotic governments act (885B)." The plot contributes to the attack on imperialism because without the anecdote of the shooting the author could not have been very convincing as the plot includes the argument for his repulsion towards imperialism. Orwell’s overall attitude is uncertainty and bitterness. Throughout the story, there is a serious, humorless and critical tone that helps build the total effect of the story and show that his attack on imperialism is legitimate. Externally, the conflict appears to be man versus man or even against nature. The atmosphere is characterized by hatred from both parties. The Burmese hated the imperialist invader, while the usual British officials hated the Burmese. Even though George Orwell did not actually hate the Burmese but felt sympathy towards them, he does hate his job and the British government: "As for the job I was doing, I hated it more bitterly than I can perhaps make clear. In a job like that you see the dirty work of Empire at close quarters (885A)." However, the conflict is more internal and psychological as the protagonist is fighting against himself. He had to choose combat between his ideas and his emotions. Orwell did not want to look like a fool in the eyes of the natives, so he acted the way he did. The internal conflict was not resolved until Orwell had an opportunity to ponder what he had done.

The setting makes it possible for Orwell to describe imperialism completely; how he was changed and how he got to understand this system as a sincere analyzer and observer of his society and his time. In the 1920’s Great Britain was still an imperialist country, however, the empire was declining sharply after World War One. The story takes place in Moulmein, a town in Lower Burma. The setting supports the theme because if the setting had been different, the anecdote would not have had the significance that the author gives it, and even more, it probably would not even have happened.

Point of view is also a very important aspect in the story. The story is told by a consistent and trustworthy first-person narrator who participated in the events, and was able to gain insight and wisdom after the experience. Based on George Orwell’s biography we can infer that he himself was the British officer. When he wrote the story he was a changed person compared to when the action took place. He is therefore able to understand that before he "could not get anything into perspective (885A)." Additionally, the story leads us to deduce that the narrator has become more objective as time passed. George Orwell wrote this story years after it had actually happened in the 1920’s. If the story had not been told from this perspective, the theme would not have been as strong. For example, if the story had been narrated from the point of view of the Burmese subinspector or the Burmese people, an attack on imperialism would be a very superficial argument and therefore less effective. Hence, point of view also contributes to the total effect and support of the attack to imperialism.

There are two dominant characters in the story; an elephant and its executioner. On one hand, the British officer, the executioner narrating the story, acts as a symbol of the imperial country. He is presented in the story as a round and dynamic character with mixed feelings of sympathy and ire towards the Burmese when he said he was "all for the Burmese and all against their oppressors (885A)" and that "the greatest joy in the world would be to drive a bayonet into a Buddhist priest''s guts (885A)". George Orwell continuously repeats his decision not to kill the elephant. In the beginning he had "no intention of shooting the elephant (886B)." When he sees the elephant he says "''I knew with perfect certainty that I ought not to shoot him. I decided that would watch him for a little while to make sure that he did not turn savage again, and then go home (887A)", which shows hesitation. At the end he expresses "Suddenly, I realized that I should have to shoot the elephant after all." The usage of ''after all'' gives a sense of him not having any choice in the matter. The fact that Orwell actually shoots the elephant gives the reader an uncomfortable feeling as up to that moment the reader is led to think that the officer is not going to shoot the elephant.. On the other hand, the elephant symbolizes freedom and the victims of imperialism. The elephant is compared to machinery and later it is said to have a motherly air. George Orwell wrote the story in a way that the reader feels sympathy towards the elephant. In addition, the yellow faces of the Burmese also represent the "victims" of imperialism, even though they ironically controlled Orwell. Finally, the Buddhist priest, presented more as a stereotype, is a flat character. His role in this story is mainly to provide a contrast to the actions and decisions that the protagonist took.

The use of irony in the story helps emphasize the idea presented by George Orwell. Irony becomes a key in presenting the anecdote as it helps the readers understand how being an imperialistic power is actually limiting freedom. Ironically, the natives actually control the executioner instead of being the other way around. The killing event actually makes him feel important. He only cared not to be seen as a fool by the natives whom he sees as judges: "I often wondered whether any of the others grasped that I had done it solely to avoid looking a fool (889A)." He lost his freedom as he did what was expected of him. Finally, he was not interested in his moral righteousness as evidenced when he said: "I was very glad that coolie had been killed; it put me in right and it gave me a sufficient pretext for shooting the elephant (889A)."

Another element that helps highlight the theme is the language used by George Orwell, especially his diction and description of the events. The word choice in the story is mostly formal. However, in some cases the author uses eastern terminology such as bazaar (eastern marketplace) and betel (leaf of a plant chewed in Burma), words from Latin, such as saecula saeculorum and in terrorem, and finally, words related to the Hindu culture such as Raj (government or rule), mahout (elephant keeper and driver) and coolie (a hired laborer). These terms show the reader a better picture of Orwell’s social position and education. Orwell’s style is simple in order to communicate the message effectively but also complex in some sections in order to express enough deepness. In addition, the writer uses imagery to help the readers visualize the situation and contribute to the total effect. This becomes very clear when he narrates the slow death of the elephant after he shot him. He describes the Burmese very vividly, and emphasizes on how the animal reacted to the gunshots: "He [the elephant] looked suddenly stricken, shrunken, immensely old, as though the frightful impact of the bullet had paralysed him without knocking him down (888A)." Finally, the author uses concrete and exact language when describing imperialism as he "believed that a muddled style could lead to vague thinking and that precision in both thought and writing was one of the chief defenses against political tyranny (883A)."

Through the use of symbols, Orwell conveys his theme powerfully. The importance of the shooting of the elephant lies in how the incident depicts the different aspects of imperialism. The elephant and the British officer help prove that imperialism is a double-edge sword. The shooting of the elephant is the incident that reveals that imperialism inflicts damage on both parties in an imperialistic relationship. All of the elements of the short story actually work together in order to create a great impact on the reader. The emotional and rational aspects of the plot help support the attack on Imperialism as presented by Orwell. I strongly support and share the idea that Orwell has about imperialism. It does not take me by surprise that the system is a double edged-sword. This work delighted me as I like this type of topic. Even though this story was written decades ago; its veracity is still in effect in modern times, especially in an era of a hidden imperialistic policy of the United States of America. Based on the pretext of national security against terrorist attacks, the freedom of the United States citizens is being limited. There is a growing hatred especially between the U.S. and the Islamic countries. As done previously in 1984, Orwell was able to envision the future and understand in depth how imperialist policies can be destructive. Through the use of all of the elements of the short story, George Orwell was able to create an impact on the reader and create or support repulsion towards imperialism.

Noticia de un secuestro de Gabriel García Márquez (2004)

"Tal vez lo más colombiano
de la situación era la asombrosa
capacidad de la gente de Medellín
para acostumbrarse a todo..."

Gabriel García Márquez (colombiano)

Noticia de un secuestro, de Gabriel García Márquez, es un relato detallado acerca de diez secuestros organizados por el grupo de los "extraditables" (comandados por Pablo Escobar Gaviria) cuyos desenlaces son mayormente felices. Los secuestros demuestran las diligencias fallidas del gobierno, el terror, la impotencia y la depresión que sufrieron quienes fueron privados de su libertad durante meses. Gabriel García Márquez intenta retratar una realidad vivida en la década de los 80 y parte de los 90 en Colombia en una novela basada en un drama real y conmovedor. Eran los tiempos del gobierno de César Gaviria Trujillo, quien ofrecía a los jefes del narcotráfico el beneficio de la no extradición a los Estados Unidos o cualquier otro país a cambio de su entrega. Se comenzó un largo período de negociación en el que los capos de la droga buscaban un trato más favorable y mayores beneficios luego de entregarse a las autoridades.

El autor intenta darnos diversas perspectivas del secuestro, por lo que usa un gran número de personajes relacionados con el secuestro, y nos narra sus percepciones para que el lector obtenga una apreciación válida de los secuestros. Se podría considerar a García Márquez como un escritor neutral que recopiló por medio de los diarios de los secuestrados y entrevistas, las experiencias de esa sociedad agobiada por la violencia. Esto se puede ver evidenciado en la forma en que humaniza a sus personajes. A los secuestradores los describe, habla de sus gustos, sus personalidades, sus familias y sus corazones. Por otro lado, García Márquez, también humaniza al Presidente de Colombia, César Gaviria cuando a éste le secuestran y asesinan a su primo hermano. Aquel personaje que parecía estar indiferente ante la guerra, estaba ahora afectado directamente por ésta; el era el "único colombiano que no tenía un presidente ante quien quejarse".

En la novela también se nos explica muy bien todas las artimañas utilizadas tanto por los secuestradores y narcotraficantes, como por el gobierno y las fuerzas armadas. Estas narraciones están basadas en hechos reales. El hecho que el autor base la novela en la realidad, la hace más entretenida para mí ya que es posible sentir como aquellos que fueron afectados por ésta problemática se sintieron durante los secuestros.

Otro aspecto que fue de mi agrado es el uso del dialogo, el cual es utilizado en los momentos que realmente es necesario. Siempre que el autor usa el dialogo, es por que es algo muy importante y queda mejor retratado de la forma en que un personaje lo dijo. Este aspecto también le añade un poco de realidad, y va de acuerdo con el estilo de muchos periodistas. Si no tuviese diálogo, la novela sería muy monótona, sin embargo con mucho diálogo, ésta sería menos entretenida y no nos permitiría identificarnos con los personajes.

Algo que me llamó mucho la atención, es la forma en que el autor describe las relaciones entre los periodistas secuestrados y sus secuestradores. Para él, todos eran víctimas del mismo problema y todos estaban sufriendo las mismas consecuencias al estar encerrados en un mismo lugar. Es un poco ambivalente que quizás el mismo secuestrador que les hacía regalos, fuera el mismo que podría matar a aquellas personas inocentes. Al describir esto, García Márquez crea una atmósfera mucho más realista, pero a la misma vez llama la atención al lector las particularidades de cada uno de los secuestradores y la forma en que los secuestrados responden a ellas, y viceversa.

También es necesario recordar que García Márquez está reconstruyendo una serie de secuestros utilizando fuentes diferentes que en muchos casos pudieran ser contradictorias. Es como si estuviese reconstruyendo un espejo roto; nunca podrá semejarse al original, pero por lo menos habrá una idea general de los que sucedió. Consideró que su autor fue muy productivo en ésta labor y logró combatir la indiferencia de los lectores a problemáticas que no lo están afectando.

Una escena que me llamó la atención es cuando uno de los secuestradores, el Doctor, le entrega una cápsula de 9 milímetros a Maruja antes de ser liberada. "Tome - le dijo. La bala que no le metimos." Esta escena muestra un poco de ironía y humor pero muestra al mismo tiempo la posibilidad latente de que la mataran. En general la novela retrata muy bien la realidad y lo que sucedió en esa época. Sin embargo, un aspecto el cual la novela no menciona es la corrupción por parte del gobierno, que en muchos casos tuvo la posibilidad de encarcelar y/o matar a Pablo Escobar al igual que parar el narcotráfico en Colombia, pero no lo hizo por motivos políticos o económicos.

Por último, Gabriel García Márquez utiliza diversas técnicas literarias de una manera eficiente para mostrarle al lector la situación por la cual estaban pasando los personajes involucrados en éste secuestro. Luego de la muerte de Diana Turbay, la narración cambia de estilo para poder brindar una mayor confusión pero también dar la perspectiva de todos los personajes. Cada capítulo de la novela está dividido en secciones, y en cada sección, el autor nos muestra los sucesos según lo percibieron diversas personas.

Gabriel García Márquez, en su novela Noticia de un Secuestro convirtió una historia real en una novela de gran valor literario y artístico, que a la misma vez tiene una gran importancia histórica y periodística. Consideró que su autor logró mantener un buen balance para que la novela fuese detallada pero a la misma vez fluida y entretenida. Luego de leer una novela como ésta, es más fácil comprender como un escritor logró ganarse el Premio Nobel de Literatura.

William Blake’s Songs of Innocence and Songs of Experience (2004)

Many scholars thought the years have tried to understand the meaning of the words "Innocence" and "Experience" based in William Blake’s poems from Songs of Innocence and Songs of Experience. Based on my understanding on his poems, I believe that Blake meant these two words in a different way that some dictionaries define them today.

According to the Merriam Webster’s School Dictionary, innocence is the freedom from guilt or the blame of sin. It is the state of being free from evil influences or effects that come from the lack of sophistication, guile or self-consciousness. On the other hand, this dictionary defines experience as the conscious perception or understanding of reality or of an event. Experience makes someone skillful or wise.

Innocence and Experience can be perceived as contrary states of the human soul. As evidenced in William Blake’s poems, one cannot be at the same time innocent and experienced in the same area. Additionally, all human souls should go naturally through both states in one point or another of their lives. Blake usually associates Innocence with childhood and sinless people. However, he also criticizes church in "The Chimney Sweeper" from Songs of Experience as it should be an institution that does not support cruelty and is made of humans who sin less often. On the other hand, Blake associates Experience with adults and nature. In the poem Tyger, experience is represented in a tiger.

In the poem "The Chimney Sweeper" from Songs of Innocence, Innocence has a positive connotation. Colors are very important in this poem as they also support the ideas presented by Blake. Innocence is associated and compared with "bright light" and with pure objects. Tom’s hair is white while he is completely black due to the chimney sweeping. Experience is associated with black, as in the sentence "coffins of black" were this color suggests death. In the poem, green, gold, and blue are present as symbols of joy. The colors white and black are present alternatively in each stanza, meaning that both states of the states of human soul could be present, but only one is predominant.

Innocence does not complain about reality and finds the positive aspects in all situations. Tom’s whiteness also symbolizes his purity. It is important to notice than even in this poem all positive is not positive: there is still evil, only that with his innocent eyes, the boy is not able to perceive it. The repetition of "weep" four times at the beginning of the poem implies the pain of the sweeper. At the end of the poem, the Angel changes the black for the white. Tom becomes happy and warm.

William Blake interprets Innocence as a condition of a man before he falls. It should involve imagination to overcome bravely a new world. A child is innocent when he has not yet experienced the inner divisions of human life. Innocence could be interpreted as a harmony in life.

On the other hand, in Songs of Experience, experience has a negative connotation since the beginning. Once again, color is a very important device. However, in this poem only "dark black" is predominant. The poem begins with "A little black thing among the snow". The use of the word thing implies the insignificance of an object. The use of the snow represents society’s cold-heartedness. This poem wants to point the indifference from the parents especially, but it also criticizes society as a whole and the church.

Experience is an inner state symbolized externally by such images as chains, thorns, spears, graves, blood, roots which are representing feelings. It could be interpreted that experience is the part of the normal adult life as adults try to analyze their feelings. Experience is not associated with spontaneity as society exerts pressure and influences the lives of the people. Blake saw experience as not just bitter but an opportunity to gain wisdom. The harmony of innocence is lost but insight comes in its place.

Experience always finds the negative aspects of a problem, feels the misery, and blames other people for their pain. For example, in the poem "The Chimney Sweeper" from Songs of Experience, the child in a way blames his parents for all his misfortunes and doesn’t do anything to get out of his misery. Blake expresses that the chimney sweeper is happy as he dances and sings, which is a great irony. Finally, the poem expresses the boy’s loneliness in the world and the lack of support from his family and society in itself.

The English poet William Blake expressed his interpretation of Innocence and Experience throughout his poems. Based on my understanding and Blake’s perception, both phases are necessary to contrast with each other and make a difference in our lives. A human being would not be able to identify an experienced person if all of us had always been experienced. Although the passing of one phase to the next can many times be shocking, these two states enhance our perception of the world and in a way help us achieve our happiness by understanding better the evil and the good in the world.

Democracia: mito y realidad (2004)

Al oír la palabra democracia, lo más seguro muchos asociarán la palabra primero con los Estados Unidos y su sistema político, ya que este país ha practicado ininterrumpidamente dicho sistema de gobierno a lo largo de los últimos doscientos años y aún lo ejerce exitosamente. Sin embargo, hay mucha más riqueza en este concepto que esa visión tan superficial de la democracia. Muchos puertorriqueños e hispanoamericanos comprenden que viven en una democracia, y aprovechan todas las libertades que este sistema les ofrece. Sin embargo, no muchos comprenden el concepto de la democracia y la responsabilidad que tienen como ciudadanos.

Puede decirse que el primer grupo humano en practicar esta ideología política fueron los atenienses en el siglo V A.C. El concepto que ellos tenían de la democracia es muy diferente al que se practica hoy en día. Los atenienses creían en la democracia directa, un sistema político en donde todos los ciudadanos cualificados podían participar en el gobierno y contribuir a la toma de decisiones colectivas. De ahí el significado original de la democracia: demos significa pueblo y kratein gobernar, por lo que democracia significa originalmente "gobierno por el pueblo". Sin embargo, ya desde la democracia ateniense se ve que en la práctica este sistema tenía fallas estructurales. Una gran mayoría de los filósofos griegos de ese siglo se oponían a la democracia debido a que las masas podían tomar decisiones erróneas. Uno de los filósofos que meditaron acerca de los sistemas políticos de su tiempo fue Platón. Este llegó a la conclusión que uno de los castigos de rehusarse a participar en la vida política es que los ciudadanos podían terminar gobernados por sus inferiores. Esta idea fue retomada posteriormente por Aristóteles, quien sostenía que la democracia, el gobierno de las masas, era peligrosa porque en la misma "los hombres indigentes, y no los hombres con propiedad, son los gobernantes".

Ya en el siglo XVIII, la democracia atravesó por un proceso que creó la idea actual de la democracia. Ideas como la de la separación de los tres poderes apoyada por Montesquieu y Jean Jacques Rousseau fueron puestas en práctica y forman actualmente uno de los fundamentos de la democracia. Rousseau anticipó la posibilidad de que las compañías privadas intervinieran en asuntos públicos. Lamentablemente, ésta es una de las situaciones difíciles por las que esta pasando la democracia actualmente, incluso en países desarrollados como los Estados Unidos. Las compañías tienen el poder económico de influenciar a los líderes escogidos democráticamente para que éstos tomen decisiones que les favorezcan a cambio de beneficios.

Actualmente, tendemos a asociar la democracia y el capitalismo, incluso vamos más lejos y llegamos a pensar erróneamente en estos dos términos como inherentes el uno al otro. Hemos concluido que para poder practicar una democracia viable y efectiva como los Estados Unidos, es imprescindible ser un estado capitalista. Esta falacia olvida que el concepto de capitalismo define a un sistema económico mientras que la democracia esta relacionada con el sistema político. En teoría, es posible que un estado comunista, donde los medios productivos no pertenecen a unas personas sino que son propiedad del estado, se practique la democracia.

En la democracia actual, el pueblo aún ejerce un gran poder al elegir a los líderes, por medio de la votación, que tomarán las decisiones por ellos, pero no está directamente tomando las decisiones. Pero la democracia no solamente define a un sistema electoral sino a un sistema social. Un país democrático no es un país que selecciona sus líderes cada cuatro años para que estos se conviertan por este período de tiempo en dictadores. La democracia también implica una condición de vida.

La democracia se basa en la idea que la mayoría de las personas están en lo correcto la mayor parte de las veces. Pero incluso en el caso de que esa mayoría que escogieron a un líder indebido decida que es necesario cambiar el liderazgo de la nación, este sistema político provee las herramientas necesarias para asegurar que el gobierno sea realmente por el pueblo y vaya acorde con el consentimiento general actual.

Es importante también comprender que a pesar de que existe una idea general de lo que es la democracia, este sistema no se practica igual en todos los países. Fácilmente se podrían notar diferencias grandes al evaluar las democracias de países europeos y americanos. La democracia tiene como control la existencia de diferentes partidos políticos que permiten que haya diversidad de candidatos y líderes con la habilidad de dirigir una nación o crear sus leyes. Cada país democrático puede tener métodos diferentes de elegir a los candidatos, al igual que el sistema de partidos políticos.

La efectividad de un gobierno democrático está en la capacidad de los ciudadanos de ejercer un voto responsable y escoger a los mejores líderes de una nación, al igual que la capacidad de los ciudadanos de brindarles a los mandatarios las herramientas necesarias para sacar el país adelante. En muchos sistemas democráticos, el pueblo escoge tanto al jefe del poder ejecutivo como al cuerpo legislativo. Esto significa que los ciudadanos deben ser aún más responsables al escoger los líderes de la nación porque están escogiendo los líderes de dos de los tres cuerpos del gobierno.

En la mayoría de las naciones que practican la democracia, este sistema asegura la igualdad de oportunidades para todos los ciudadanos. Pero esta igualdad va acompañada por un estilo de vida favorable. Por lo general, los países con democracia disfrutan de mayores privilegios y más derechos civiles y humanos, incluso para las minorías. Una democracia sin libertades individuales, los cuales proporciona a los ciudadanos el derecho a decidir y la responsabilidad de dirigir sus propios asuntos, no sería realmente una democracia. Es necesario que haya igualdad de los ciudadanos ante la ley, sufragio universal y educación para que un país pueda ser considerado democrático. Estas características han sido proclamadas en grandes documentos históricos, como la Declaración de Independencia estadounidense, que afirmaba el derecho a la vida, a la libertad y a la búsqueda de la felicidad, la Declaración de los Derechos del hombre y del ciudadano, que defendía los principios de libertad civil e igualdad ante la ley, y la Declaración Universal de Derechos Humanos, aprobada por la Asamblea General de la Organización de las Naciones Unidas (ONU) en diciembre de 1948.

Una de las fallas que tiene el sistema democrático es que los legisladores y mandatarios tienen mucho poder, y el sistema está abierto a la corrupción. Además, los votantes no son concientes al ejercer su derecho y deciden votar por el candidato que ofrece mayores privilegios a su grupo social. Por otro lado, el sistema también deja la posibilidad que la mayoría escoja su candidato y empiece a reprimir los derechos de las minorías.

Recordando la percepción de Winston Churchill de la democracia, podemos deducir que este mandatario británico comprendía que la democracia no es perfecta. A pesar de que muchos digan que es la peor forma de gobierno, opino que el tiempo ha demostrado que es el sistema más eficiente. A lo largo de los años se ha llegado al consenso de que la democracia es el mejor sistema político en nuestros tiempos. No es posible decir que una especie animal es perfecta, sino que hay unas especies mejor adaptadas a ciertos ambientes. Del mismo modo, es imposible atribuirle la perfección a un sistema político. La democracia se convierte así en el sistema más adaptado para una época de globalización, capitalismo, grandes avances en la tecnología y defensa de los derechos humanos y civiles.

Desde las sociedades más primitivas, la humanidad ha establecido diversos sistemas políticos para mantener el control de sus ciudadanos, defenderse y desarrollarse. En la actualidad, muchos opinan que sin importar el sistema político o económico, el poder debería provenir de la conciencia del pueblo. Parece ser que a la democracia todavía le quedan muchos años de existencia.

El tiempo y la muerte (2004)

La muerte y el tiempo son dos realidades inescapables que marcan a los seres humanos como individuos y como miembros de una sociedad. Desde la existencia de hombres conscientes de su existencia, el intento de comprender estos dos misterios nos han llevado a grandes profundidades. La muerte y el tiempo estimulan poderosamente la imaginación artística al intentar comprender y resolver este misterio. La literatura es un método de poder vencer la muerte, creando una realidad propia con las leyes del propio autor propulsadas por su imaginación.

En "Romance sonámbulo", la ambigüedad del significado del poema nutre el misterio de la muerte y del tiempo. El misterio de la muerte en este poema es presentado por Federico García Lorca como violenta, universal e inevitable. La muerte es la causa de muchas angustias a los seres humanos y es punto de partida de la religión y la filosofía. Si el tiempo no pasara, y no hubiese muerte, no habría conflicto en el "Romance Sonámbulo". Basándose en la idea griega del eros y thánathos, Lorca enriquece el significado del poema al presentar la muerte como símbolo del sufrimiento causado por el amor. En el poema, la muchacha espero infructuosamente a que el mocito llegara, lo que le causó sufrimiento. Lorca intenta resolver el misterio de la muerte al entender el proceso de descomposición de los cuerpos, integrando elementos oníricos en el poema y exponiendo la creencia de los gitanos de elementos sobrenaturales, los cuales están presentes a lo largo del poema. Lorca hace un llamado indirecto al lector para que piense acerca de lo qué hay después de la muerte universal. Del mismo modo que la mujer esperó al mocito, todos los seres humanos estamos esperando la muerte. A pesar de que el tiempo aparenta ser cronológico solo tiempo y unidimensional, es presentado como dependiente de la percepción de los personajes. Sin este elemento misterioso, la muerte no tendría fundamento, y por esto cuando Lorca presenta el misterio de la muerte, termina presentando el tema del tiempo. El poema, producto de la imaginación artística de Lorca, se asemeja a la muerte debido a que su significado es ambiguo. La muerte es un misterio que quizás nunca se podrá resolver y por esto que García Lorca intenta canalizar sus ideas por medio de este poema tan ambiguo.

Jorge Luis Borges también utiliza su imaginación artística en "La muerte y la brújula". Su experimentación está más fundamentada en la filosofía, campo al cual el escritor acudió para intentar resolver estos misterios. Por esto, podemos ver elementos de la filosofía de Friedrich Nietzsche y su teoría del "eterno retorno" cuando Borges presenta el tiempo como cíclico. Según Löhnrot, él iba a volver a encontrar a Scharlach en el futuro, aún luego de morir, debido a que se iba a repetir el tiempo. Por su parte, Borges experimentó con todo furor con la creencia del panteísmo en su literatura al presentar en muchas de sus obras, incluyendo "La muerte y la brújula", el desdoblamiento de los personajes. Gryphius-Ginzberg-Ginsburg y Scharlach son el mismo personaje. Sin embargo su experimentación va más allá al experimentar con la subdivisión del espacio, pero no del tiempo. La realidad está compuesta por el espacio y el tiempo y por esto Borges analiza estas dos áreas para que su imaginación artística este fundamentada en la realidad.

Borges nos muestra la muerte desde un punto de vista de un intelectual, marcada por laberintos. Para él, la muerte es universal y violenta. La atmósfera se impregna de visiones judías e hinduistas, de diferentes percepciones de la vida y de la muerte; el acercamiento lógico y del sentido común, y el racional y matemático. Como todo un intelectual, sus textos presentan sus angustias pero al mismo tiempo sus conclusiones. Borges exigía evidencia para resolver estos misterios y al final concluyó que la vida es la búsqueda a veces fallida del conocimiento. Podemos deducir que anhelaba poder entender la muerte al menos un instante antes de morir, a pesar de la insignificancia de esta epifanía. Este elemento está presente en muchos de sus cuentos, y "La muerte y la brújula" no es una excepción. Lönnrot al final sabía que iba a tener otra oportunidad de vivir y escoger cómo iba a morir.

Como dijo sabiamente Albert Einstein, "la experiencia más bonita que podemos tener es el misterio. Es la fuente de todo el arte verdadero y la ciencia real". Y la literatura es el ejemplo perfecto para demostrarlo. Por medio de la experimentación literaria, los escritores comprenden un poco más sus vidas y logran vencer el miedo a la muerte física y al futuro después de ésta. Al canalizar la imaginación artística que resulta al examinar el misterio de la muerte a la literatura, grandes filósofos, experimentadores y escritores, como Jorge Luis Borges y Federico García Lorca, nos prestan sus ideas, para que así nosotros podamos pulirlas y adaptarlas a nuestra realidad, a nuestro tiempo, y a nuestra visión de la muerte.

Crónica de una muerte anunciada de García Márquez (2004)

En la novela Crónica de una muerte anunciada, escrita por el colombiano Gabriel García Márquez, se nos muestra una posición anti-clerical durante el desarrollo de esta excelente novela. El anticlericalismo es una crítica a la iglesia y el clérigo; en este caso, la iglesia católica colombiana. Históricamente, la iglesia ha sido una institución aliada con la clase alta principalmente por motivos económicos.

El obispo que estaba visitando el pueblo el día que mataron a Santiago Nasar, sólo iba al pueblo para cumplir sus funciones como funcionario de la iglesia. Sin embargo, a él no le importaba realmente el pueblo, ni la clase baja ni media. Ni siquiera se bajó del buque a ver la condición actual del pueblo y su indiferencia al no querer escuchar lo que las personas le tenían que decir. Su buque era nuevo, muy lujoso y amplio; lo que también demuestra la asociación a la clase alta y su estatus económico. El obispo era conocido por ser humilde y corrupto, incluso Ángela no quiso que él la casara con Bayardo en su visita al pueblo por su oposición a estas prácticas. Aunque la fiesta no tuvo la bendición del obispo, eso no le quitó fuerzas a la celebración. Cuando García Márquez decide no darle nombre al obispo está creando una generalización, debido a que lo que hacía el obispo pudo haber sido hecho por cualquier otro; él es el representante del liderazgo del clérigo.

El día del asesinato de Santiago, el hermano de Gabriel se cruzó con el Padre Carmen Amador, quien iba en sus ropas oficiales y acompañado por sus ayudantes. El padre representa al clérigo, pero el no es un líder del mismo modo que el obispo lo era. El había recibido el mensaje de advertencia de Clotilde Armenta mientras se preparaba para ir al pueblo y darle la bienvenida al obispo. Sin embargo él no hizo nada para prevenir la muerte de Santiago Nasa; se hizo el loco: "La verdad es que no supe qué hacer. Lo primero que pensé fue que no era un asunto mío sino de la autoridad civil" (pág. 113). Luego se le olvidó por completo con el único pretexto es que ese día llegaba el obispo. Esta escena crítica la indiferencia que tuvo el padre pues no hizo nada para prevenir la muerte de una persona por estar haciendo preparaciones protocolares para recibir al obispo. Lo primero que pensó era que no era su responsabilidad y no debía hacer nada para impedirlo.

Además, el Padre Amador les dice a los asesinos Vicario que al ser un asesinato causado por la defensa de la honra, son inocentes ante Dios, aunque quizás sean culpables ante los hombres (pág. 80). Esto es poco convincente ya que según la iglesia, el único con la autoridad de juzgar es Dios y no los hombres; y en este caso se contradice. El Padre Amador fue también el que le hizo la autopsia a Santiago: "fue como si lo hubiéramos vuelto a matarlo después de muerto" (pág. 116). El no se había graduado de medicina, pero había hecho algunos estudios de medicina, pero le tocó hacer este procedimiento debido a la ausencia del Doctor Dionisio Iguarán. Esta acción nos demuestra que a pesar de la falta de experiencia, el prosiguió. Del mismo modo, pudiese haber sido con algo relacionado con la iglesia que él tuviese que hacer por la ausencia de uno de sus superiores.

Finalmente, según el Padre Amador, "Santiago Nasar tenía una inteligencia superior y un porvenir brillante" (pág 122). Pero en sus apuntes escribió que Santiago tenía mal curada una hepatitis, por lo que le quedaba poco tiempo de vida. Iba a morir de cualquier forma aunque los hermanos Vicario no lo hubiesen asesinado, lo que para él era una justificación de lo que habían hecho los asesinos de puercos. Primero fue indiferente a la muerte de Santiago, y ahora estaba del lado de los Vicario. Sin embargo, algo que le puede llamar la atención al lector es el hecho que económicamente Santiago era más afluente, por lo que se le pudiese haber asociado más con la iglesia que con los Vicario.

El anticlericalismo se puede ver también reflejado en otras novelas de García Márquez como La mala hora y la reconocida novela Cien años de soledad. Pero esta perspectiva de la iglesia también es posible encontrarla en las novelas y textos de otros escritores latinoamericanos como Los de abajo escrito por Mariano Azuela, y Las buenas conciencias de Carlos Fuentes. Esto es debido a que en Hispanoamérica la evolución del clero ha sido diferente comparado con otras regiones y continentes; tales como la asociación con la clase alta por motivos económicos. Aunque podemos encontrar muchos aspectos anticlericales en esta excelente novela de García Márquez, todas las críticas que su autor le hace a este grupo de la sociedad son muy sutiles y formales. La displicencia del autor contra el clero también hace la novela mucho más realista y entretenida al introducir aspectos que le dan un aspecto humorístico e irónico pero también representan una crítica constructiva a una clase manipulada muchas veces por la clase alta y la burguesía.

El Aleph de Borges (2004)

"O God, I could be bounded in a nutshell
and count myself a King of infinite space"

Hamlet, II, 2

"El Aleph", un cuento escrito por el argentino Jorge Luis Borges, muestra la simplicidad de la trama pero al mismo tiempo la complejidad de los temas discutidos en sus cuentos y obras literarias. En este cuento, el tema principal es la percepción del mundo, el tiempo y todos los alrededores. El Aleph es como un puente entre el universo y el narrador; podemos ver cómo el protagonista percibe cada cosa que está sucediendo en el mundo, pero lo interpreta según sus propias experiencias.

El cuento comienza luego de la muerte de Beatriz Elena Viterbo en febrero de 1929. El narrador, quien tiene el mismo nombre que el escritor, comienza una relación amistosa con Carlos Argentino Daneri, el primo hermano de Beatriz. Esta relación comenzó luego de que Borges comenzara a visitarlo cada cumpleaños de Beatriz (30 de abril) a su casa, como muestra de su aprecio hacia Beatriz. Daneri comienza a compartir sus experiencias, ideas y poemas con el narrador. Las visitas comienzan siendo de tan solo 25 minutos, pero terminan en visitas extensas donde disfrutan de una botella de coñac y cenan en la casa. En el cuento se nos mencionan algunos de los poemas escritos por Daneri, tales como poemas acerca de Australia para describir su geografía pero a la misma vez su belleza, o incluso uno en donde intenta narrar treinta siglos de historia en tan sólo cuatro versos. Desde el comienzo del cuento, Borges está manipulando al lector en su percepción de tamaño; el poder encapsular tanta historia o incluso describir la belleza de un país tan grande en un poema tan pequeño, pero lleno de valor.

Aunque según Borges, él y Darneri se detestaban, ellos se comenzaron a reunir en ocasiones que no era el cumpleaños de Beatriz. El narrador recibía confidencias de éste, y ganó su confianza. Incluso un día, luego de llamarlo, reunirse con él y discutir sus poemas, le pidió que escribiera el prólogo de su libro de poesía. Otro día, le comentó a Borges que le iban a demoler su casa. Daneri estaba muy resignado, ya que la casa había sido heredada de sus padres, y el narrador también ya que no quería que la demolieran pues le recordaba a Beatriz. Sin embargo, el motivo por el cual Carlos realmente deseaba continuar con su casa, es porque le resultaba imprescindible contar con ella para terminar su libro de poemas. En el sótano del comedor se encontraba una esfera de donde se podía ver el resto del universo simultáneamente, una esfera que recibe el nombre del Aleph. Carlos había descubierto el Aleph a temprana edad y le había servido como inspiración para sus poemas. Borges pensaba que Carlos estaba loco, sin embargo, luego de beber una copa de coñac, decide verificar si lo que le dijo Carlos era real. Luego de bajar las escaleras, cerró los ojos y cuando los abrió de nuevo, logró ver el Aleph y a la vez el universo, todas sus maravillas y detalles.

El narrador comienza a ver todo el universo desde el Aleph. Se logró ver a sí mismo, su propia sangre circulando, los grandes desiertos, cada letra de cada página, el mar, e incluso todas las hormigas del mundo y una insignificante telaraña. Logró ver la noche y el día al mismo tiempo y lloró de semejante maravilla y de pensar que ningún hombre había mirado al concebible universo de esa manera. De repente entra al sótano Carlos Argentino Daneri, y exalta lo que logró ver Borges; todo en colores, un observatorio formidable. Borges incluso temía perder la capacidad de asombro luego de ver el Aleph, pues pensaba que lo había visto todo. El narrador entonces piensa que lo mejor es que se destruya el Aleph cuando demolieran la casa, como una venganza hacia Carlos. Finalmente, se despide de la esfera tan magnífica, y camina hacia el subterráneo. Seis meses después, Daneri recibe el Segundo Premio Nacional de Literatura por su poemario. La casa ya había sido demolida, y el Aleph no existía. Luego de haber visto el Aleph, el narrador duda acerca de su existencia y su veracidad debido a lo magnífico que es.

Para entender el mensaje de este cuento es primordial entender su título antes de hacer cualquier intento infructuoso de comprenderlo. En el cuento de Borges, el Aleph es "uno de los puntos en el espacio que contiene todos los puntos"; es una pequeña esfera tornasolada de casi insoportable fulgor. El Aleph es como un agujero negro, nada se puede escapar de éste, ni siquiera la luz. Al final, Borges compara el Aleph con un espejo mágico que puede ver todo, como el espejo universal de Merlín. La creencia de que existe un Aleph se puede remontar a la antigüedad; los místicos creían en un pájaro que a la misma vez es todos los pájaros, del mismo modo que ese punto es a la misma vez todos los puntos del universo.

Aleph es la primera letra de un alfabeto hebreo. Es lo primero que se encuentra en este sistema de comunicación; es lo mejor de ese abecedario, la base. Por pura coincidencia con el cuento de Borges, en la actualidad un Aleph también tiene el significado de sistema automatizado de gestión de bibliotecas. A Borges le gustaban mucho las bibliotecas, ya que representan el conocimiento. La temática utilizada por Borges demuestra su alto grado de educación en diversos temas. Borges sabe manipular al lector utilizando alusiones en su cuento a otras culturas.

El Aleph representa la humanidad. El narrador logró ver todo el universo simultáneamente; logró ver la "divinidad ilimitada del mundo". Sin embargo, vale la pena rescatar el hecho de que el narrador en ningún momento ve maldad en el universo; él ve cosas magníficas y bellas, pero también la triste realidad, el aspecto negativo del mundo. Ve personas muriéndose de hambre, y sobrevivientes de una batalla. Es un llamado a la humanidad para sensibilizarse a la belleza del universo y aprovecharla; pero al tiempo, una oportunidad para denunciar el mal. Los sobrevivientes de una batalla, un cancer, la relación amorosa entre Carlos y Beatriz. El Aleph expresa claramente la perspectiva del escritor del mundo exterior. A través de este cuento, Borges está intentando crear conciencia en el lector.

El final del cuento tiene un significado bastante importante. Borges se pone a ponderar acerca del Aleph; su nombre, e incluso llega a dudar acerca de la existencia de esta esfera. Llega a creer que lo que vio fue un Aleph falso y que en otro lugar hay (o había) otro. Cuando el protagonista ve el Aleph, está bajo los efectos del alcohol (al principio pensó que Carlos lo había envenenado). El hecho que él esta bajo esta influencia, nos hace dudar por un momento acerca de la veracidad de lo que vio el narrador. Por último, luego de ver el universo completo, el narrador camina hacia el subterráneo. Creo que Borges se destaca utilizando metáforas y símbolos. El narrador temía perder la capacidad de asombro, por que ya lo vio todo, pero quizás este temor está en el escritor también. La imagen del subterráneo y caminar hacia él, nos muestra la indiferencia del narrador. Vio todo el universo, toda su belleza y esplendor; pero sigue indiferente. En el subterráneo casi no hay luz, lo que puede representar el hecho que el narrador, luego de ver todas las maravillas, siguió su camino por la oscuridad. Borges nos quiere sensibilizar hacia la naturaleza, y nos muestra cómo el protagonista siguió indiferente, cómo muchos de nosotros somos indiferentes a las bellezas del universo.

El uso de los personajes en este cuento es un poco restringido. Borges desea darles énfasis tan sólo a dos personajes, unidos por la muerte de Beatriz. La descripción de los personajes es únicamente la necesaria para caracterizar a éstos y explicar un poco su trasfondo y comportamiento. Beatriz era una mujer alta, pero frágil; cometía muchas negligencias y crueldades. Carlos era canoso, de rasgos finos, autoritario, pero ineficaz, y tenía descendencia italiana.

Borges también usa muy bien el elemento del suspenso, y sabe atrapar la atención del lector rápidamente. Desde el comienzo del cuento, Borges capta nueestra atención y crea una necesidad de continuar leyendo el cuento.

En "El Aleph", Jorge Luis Borges trata el tema de la percepción del mundo. Resulta incluso paradójico imaginarse a una persona que pueda ver todo el universo casi simultáneamente, pero en la literatura todo es posible (y, por qué no, en el mundo real).

Como es de esperar en un cuento de Borges, podemos encontrar otros símbolos además del Aleph. Esta la biblioteca nuevamente. Además el narrador dice que logró ver todas las letras de todos los libros, lo cual es una alusión a otro cuento escrito por Borges en donde un bibliotecario le dice al protagonista que puede encontrar a Dios en una letra de la biblioteca.

En los cuentos de Borges, la temática intenta presentarnos un tema filosófico que está encubierto, y el lector debe decodificar para lograr entender a cabalidad la narración. En el cuento "El Aleph", Borges esta filosofando acerca del tiempo, y el universo; su composición y estructura y la posibilidad de la existencia de un Aleph. También Borges trata un poco el tema de la existencia de Dios, luego de decir alusivamente que el narrador vio en el Aleph a Dios, también nos hace pensar acerca de éste. Si el Aleph es un punto que une todos los puntos, entonces ¿Qué es Dios y de dónde nace su poder? ¿Del mismo lugar de donde sale el poder del Aleph?

Considero que Jorge Luis Borges, escritor de este cuento, merece Primer Premio Nacional de Literatura y muchos más galardones debido a su calidad literaria, y su valor tanto creativo, como filosófico. Debido a su gran valor literario, la idea de "El Aleph", ha sido adaptada en la actualidad en peliculas de Disney y Hollywood; en el final de "Men in Black" y en "Silverstone". "El Aleph" intenta ver de otra perspectiva el universo y nos da la posibilidad de analizar temas filosóficos.

El túnel de Ernesto Sábato (2004)

"Quizás él solamente está un poco loco, como los pintores, o los compositores"...
-Mr. Shellhamm ("Miracle on 34th Street")

"De poetas y locos todos tenemos un poco".
-Refrán popular

Desde el comienzo de la novela El túnel, escrita por el argentino Ernesto Sábato, el protagonista, el pintor profesional Juan Pablo Castel, admite el asesinato de la única persona que posiblemente lo hubiese podido comprender, María Iribarne. De esta forma comenzamos a cuestionarnos cómo el lector podría encontrar placer en una obra narrada por un psicópata con una personalidad reprobable que no actúa según las normas estipuladas por la sociedad contemporánea. Sin embargo, es posible que al lector le guste la obra, porque a pesar de que no se solidariza necesariamente con las acciones y pensamientos de su protagonista, sabe que, de un modo u otro, posee características como la de Juan Pablo, o conoce personas que viven con su misma filosofía de vida. Además, es posible que al lector le guste la forma en que está narrada la novela o la forma en que Sábato trabaja el tema, la cual nos permite ver el mundo desde una perspectiva diferente. Basándose en esto, el autor escribe su novela esperando una ambivalencia en el lector mientras critica el estilo de vida extremadamente racional.

Como parte de la psicología y naturaleza humana, el ser humano busca comprender sus acciones y su personalidad. Muchos sienten la necesidad de encontrar un propósito en sus acciones, y para saciar esta necesidad, buscan a alguien que pueda comprender el motivo de sus acciones. Es por eso que encontramos que muchas personas buscan en un ser supremo la comprensión que no obtienen en la tierra. Consecuentemente, ni Juan Pablo, ni el lector son exentos de esta necesidad humana. Es por esto que luego de haberse entregado a las autoridades, el protagonista decide escribir un texto con la más "débil esperanza que alguna persona llegue a comprender (lo)" (pág.13). Por medio del uso de la hipérbole, Sábato ilustra hasta qué punto puede llegar la mente de un hombre frustrado como Juan Pablo al asesinar a una persona a sangre fría. Sin embargo, el lector siente compasión hacia Juan Pablo en algunas situaciones debido a que entiende que posee o poseyó algunas de sus cualidades, o conoce a alguien que las posea. De alguna forma el lector puede sentirse identificado en alguna dimensión con Juan Pablo, así sea por el simple hecho de que por ser humanos, ambos se equivocan. En el momento que el lector encuentra que no es el único que comete errores, siente un placer que va enlazado con la necesidad sicológica de comprensión. Finalmente, el lector termina estando de acuerdo en que "de poetas y locos todos tenemos un poco". Incluso si el lector no simpatiza con Juan Pablo, es muy seguro que haya experimentado algunas de sus emociones tales como el amor, el sentimiento de alienación, inseguridad o ansiedad. En mi caso, puedo entender la situación en la cual Castel se encontraba debido a que también poseo un razonamiento lógico desarrollado. En algún momento de nuestras vidas, quizás nos hayamos sentido como Juan Pablo, estando solos en un túnel; "…en todo caso, había un solo túnel, oscuro y solitario: el mío" (pág I).

Por otro lado, a otros lectores les puede gustar la novela por las técnicas literarias utilizadas por Sábato. El autor tuvo la habilidad de rescatar el pensamiento de una persona como Juan Pablo Castel. Es así como el lector puede sentir aprecio por el talento del autor, debido a que éste demuestra su educación y comprensión de los seres humanos en su libro. El lector puede adquirir un conocimiento más profundo de sus propias acciones. Por medio de los sueños, Sábato nos permite acceder al subconsciente de Juan Pablo y así demostrar que éste sufre de paranoia. El autor nos permite adquirir una nueva perspectiva de vida al darnos un vistazo en la mente extremadamente lógica del protagonista. Finalmente, la novela está narrada de tal forma que nos permite sentirnos en algunos momentos como el protagonista, compartiendo sus emociones y preocupaciones.

Una última fuente de placer que brinda la novela es el aspecto intelectual. El túnel hace que el lector se haga algunas preguntas esenciales a las cuales quizás no haya dedicado mucho tiempo. Hay muy pocas personas que se ponen a ponderar acerca de lo que piensan y a analizar sus acciones detenidamente. Esta novela les permite hacer una pausa en sus vidas y meditar. Por otro lado, el lector también puede hacerse preguntas existenciales e incluso llegar a cuestionar la psicología humana al preguntarse por qué todos necesitamos comprensión.

Todos los lectores podrán estar de acuerdo con Ernesto Sábato de algún modo u otro en que el razonamiento extremo no lleva a ningún lugar. El lector activo termina por comprender o compadecerse de Juan Pablo Castel, a pesar de que esté consciente que el razonamiento extremo puede resultar en vidas y relaciones disfuncionales. Para Juan Pablo, tan sólo una sonrisa se convierte en un motivo de confusión desmedida producto de su análisis lógico exagerado.

En El túnel, Ernesto Sábato hace una crítica a la lógica extrema, la cual causa la muerte de María y el exterminio de las verdaderas emociones y la espontaneidad en Juan Pablo. Sin embargo, el placer que obtiene el lector va mucho más allá de esta crítica al racionalismo científico como actitud ante la vida. El placer producido en el lector es resultado del conjunto de recursos utilizados por Sábato. La universalidad del tema y el hecho de que ilustra un conflicto interno también le permiten al lector entender al protagonista y encontrarle agrado a la obra literaria. Debido a que está narrada en primera persona, el lector se puede compadecer de Juan Pablo en algunas ocasiones, sin importar su condición mental.

Critique of Metamorphosis by Franz Kafka (2004)

Franz Kafka’s horror novel, The Metamorphosis uses a very imaginative approach to literature to present effectively society’s response to an individual, Gregor Samsa, that does not fit the standards due to a inexplicable transformation.

Gregor Samsa is a responsible travel salesman that one day awakened as an insect after sleeping late. His first response to his change in shape was not to question his present state, but rather to try to fulfill his job responsibilities and obligations for that day as a normal and useful human being. Nowhere in the novel does any character question the transformation but the characters seem to accept it readily.

Society demands a lot from Gregor Samsa. His job seems frustrating, and un-fulfilling. On one side, his boss is an absolute authority figure. On the other hand, the chief clerk accuses him, with no evidence, of an unethical activity simply because he is allegedly hiding in his room. Prior to his metamorphosis, he also played an important financial role in the family as chief provider. He lives a rather comfortable life, but he is forced to work very hard for it.

The physical transformation brings a quick degradation in his relationship with the mother and the father, to the point that his father throws apples at him and wounds him, moved seemingly by instinct like behavior. How can we expect society to accept Gregor if even his own family dislikes his presence?

His wound is not only physical: it can be read as a symbolic reminder of his difference and of society’s response to it. Finally, the lodgers, who exert a great pressure on the family due to economic reasons, represent outer society and the possible reactions that could arise if Gregor is removed from his house.

His inability to communicate symbolizes his alienation from society. The conditions in the room reflect Gregor’s own condition and act as a microcosm. He normally does not leave the room. Because his physical appearance is not fit according to social standards, Gregor attempts to keep peace by avoiding frighting people. At first, the family respects his space for a while, but later they begin to use the room as a repository and as it starts to be covered with dust nobody cleans it. This happens parallel to Gregor’s emotional condition worsening. Finally, the removal of the furniture acts as a detonation of his alienation as Gregor looses his identity. This is parallel to the deterioration of Gregor’s emotional condition. Furthermore, the removal of the furniture acts as a detonation of his alienation as Gregor looses loses his identity.

An insect is driven ultimately by instincts and the all-powerful necessity of survival. However, Gregor is driven by other aspirations even when he is a bug. Even though his preferences such as eating have changed, he still has aspirations that are not characteristics of insects. He wishes for better times and provide for his sister''s career at the conservatory. However, his family, who benefited from his hard work, now sees him just like a useless insect. Gregor’s physical death is analogous to his emotional death. It is seen by his family as a much-awaited liberation and allows them to think about the future with a fresh perspective. They seem to easily ignore his death and end up talking casually about the need to find a husband for Grete.

The style of the novel is very clear, straightforward and impacting, and it allows Kafka to focus on the transformation. The climatic shock provided at the beginning of the novel catches the reader’s attention. Finally, the detailed and realistic descriptions of the transformation allow it to have more verisimilitude.

Kafka’s The Metamorphosis depicts the effects of a mysterious physical transformation that symbolizes the alienation of the character. As the novel progresses, his family’s attitude towards the insect worsens until it results in his physical and emotional death. The transformation goes beyond the physical level. This allows Kafka to elaborate on the response of society to the hard-working Gregor who one day became a giant insect. Kafka’s genius and imagination is evident in his design of the parallelism between the physical and emotional transformation of Gregor Samsa.

Alice in Wonderland (2004)

"Everyone in Wonderland is mad,
otherwise they wouldn''t be down here."

Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland is mainly an oneiric story of the adventures of a maturing Alice. Its dream-like world is the product of a child’s imagination and is therefore susceptible of interpretation along the lines of psychological insights on the world of dreams. According to the psychoanalytical theories of Sigmund Freud, the mind of the dreamer creates an alternate reality in order to fulfill wishes that cannot be achieved in other ways. This invites the reader to a diverse interpretations of Alice’s personality and wishes.

The story, which works as a very complex dream, was extensively designed by the mathematician Lewis Carroll to include significant details. One of the events that immediately call the attention of the psychoanalytic reader is the use of substances to increase or reduce Alice’s size. In some parts "she was the right size for going through the little door into that lovely garden," while in others "she was more than nine feet high." It is not a coincidence that drinking, which does not result in the physical growth is associated with the shrinking whereas eating, which symbolically is the nurture of the body and the search for pleasures, with the increase in size. In addition, Alice’s behavior towards the labels of the bottles she finds in Wonderland with the words ‘eat me’ or ‘drink me'' is significant. With this, she seems to follow adult standards but it could also convey her wish of being consistent with her actions outside of the dream world. However, she believes that the absence of label means that the substance is healthy. The changes in size mirror the physical and emotional modifications that Alice, a very curious, inquisitive young woman and a good observer, passes through as she matures. In several occasions, Alice states that she does not know who she is as a result of her metamorphosis. Finally, she gets used to the new sizes and to her body, representing her adaptation and thus her more mature state. Significantly, Alice doesn''t like the animals in Wonderland who treat her as a child, but simultaneously her new responsibilities as a person approaching adultness frighten her.

The opening scene when Alice falls down the hole after pursuing the peculiar White Rabbit and consequently arrives in Wonderland follows the same oneirical patterns in which rational and scientific principles are suspended. The scientific categories are abolished and time becomes completely relative especially while she falls down: "Either the well was very deep, or she fell very slowly, for she had plenty of time as she went down to look about her and to wonder what was going to happen next." On one hand, gravity does not affect her as it would in reality. Alice’s priorities appear inverted: she is not worried about falling down fatally but about keeping all the books in order and not hurting anyone by any object thrown. This inversion of priorities is not realistic, and the bookshelves on the sides of the hole represent Alice’s wish to escape reality through literature, according to Jerry Maatta’s interpreation (http://www.alice-in-wonderland.net/?explain/alice841.html).

Another Freudian concept that could be present in the story are hallucinations. Alice finds herself in different situations involving various unusual animals that seem to work just as hallucinations do; a white rabbit with a clock, a mad cat, a hookah smoking caterpillar, a mad hatter, a Cheshire cat and a dormouse that drinks tea and is in constant pseudo-hibernation. The oneiric mechanism of condensation, as described by Freud, is present in the dream, as many ideas are symbolically compacted as images and words. Linguistic condensation is present in the creation of the names for these animals. Jerry Maatta argues that the peculiar names of the creatures are made from words from English, French and Latin. The name of the sleep mouse, Dormouse condenses the Latin root dormire which means to sleep, and the English word mouse.

Another Freudian concept that cean be detected in the story idea of daily residue. Freud aruges that this is the response of the body to reduce the thoughs caused by tension that would not let the person sleep. As a result, dreams conceal these thoughts. According to Jerry Maatta, the wonderful garden into which Alice wants to gain access can be a symbol of the Garden of Eden. The inclusion of this thought in the dream might be the consequence of the maturing child having read a religious story. In addition, the scene where the March hare and the Mad Hatter are having a tea party allows the reader to understand more about Alice’s personality. The creatures’ response towards Alice could be a residue of an experience of the young woman in her house. Her subconscious included this detail in her dream to convey her wish to be accepted and to get rid of the worry caused by the daily residue. Finally, the Mad Cat can be read as the product of Alice’s unconscious and a parallel of Dinah, the cat she owns and constantly mentions. Mary Schwingen (http://victorianweb.org/authors/bronte/cbronte/73realcb.html) interprets that through this repetition of the cat along the whole dream, Alice is trying to unconsciously express her need to communicate and gain attention.

When the Cheshire Cat expressed that "everyone in Wonderland is mad, otherwise they wouldn''t be down here" a deep existential meaning is subtly conveyed. According to Jerry Maatta, it could be interpreted that everyone is mad because they are trying to escape from their reality, simply because they are alive or because they dreamt about the cat, implying that it is a hallucination. Finally, based on the dream, I interpret that time is a very important element for Alice. She is becoming aware of time as she matures and is forced to wait with her sister while bored. The escape from reality starts when she sees a rabbit with a watch while waiting in a bank. Later on, the Hatter''s watch shows only days because "it''s always six o'' clock and tea-time".

Interestingly, medicine has labeled a condition based on this book: Alice in Wonderland syndrome (AIWS). This syndrome is characterized by distorted space and body image and is usually associated with visual hallucinations. The patients have a feeling that their entire body, or parts of it, have been altered in shape and size (Medicine.net - http://www.medterms.com/script/main/art.asp?artclekey=24174). This means that the perceptions in Alice’s dream do not necessarily express the need of escaping reality and are not completely irrational or against the laws of reality. In addition, it has been proven that the author suffered from severe migraine and possibly from AIWS. However, by analyzing the dream presented in Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland using Freudian psychoanalysis, the reader gets a deeper understanding of the main character, her physical and emotional journey towards adult life and the anguish produced by the resulting changes.

Conflicting views of Death in Emily Dickinson’s Poems (2004)

Emily Dickinson’s poetic work contains different descriptions of death that encompass emotional responses to the body’s and/or soul’s journey into eternity, madness, or nothingness. Her poems’ greatness comes from the elaborate use of literary techniques to give shape to death, and the ambiguity of meaning that allows different interpretations of these journeys. Even though the ideas presented by Dickinson may seem contradictory at times, they all emphasize her idea that there are many types of deaths.

"I Heard a Fly Buzz – When I Died" presents a vision of death in which there is no afterlife as it focuses on the putrefaction that occurs after the death of the poet herself, a process that, according to the poem, leads to nothingness. Depending on the interpretation, the tone could be of paralytic fear, serenity or apathetic lethargy; Dickinson uses the atmosphere to reflect the decay of the body and the emptiness of death (Jensen, David). Surrounding the dead body there is total silence because people have ceased to cry and the wind has stopped blowing. Death seems to be expected, as the poet had made a testament before ceasing to be: "I willed my Keepsakes – Signed away/ What portion of me be/ Assignable" (Dickinson, 9).The fly that approaches the decaying body represents all the animals that will continue the cycle of life by eating from the body. Finally, at the end of the poem, the windows of the soul, which could be interpreted as the eyes, fail and the soul dies. There seems to be a moment between the instant of the physical death itself and the actual journey to nothingness. In the first verse of the poem, the poetic narrator has already died. However, the windows do not fail until the last line of the poem. This instant seems to be of uncertainty: the narrator has not lost consciousness of her surroundings but her awareness is decreasing. Even though death can be understood as a negative experience, I interpret that in this poem it is presented as a liberating journey and, even though there seems to be no afterlife, the poem paradoxically presents death as a natural process that contributes to the continuation of life in other forms.

The literary techniques help emphasize the idea of death. There is a constant repetition reminding us of the fly. In addition, diction also contributes to the ambiguity of the meaning. For example, critic David Jensen argues that in the lines "For the last Onset – when the King/ Be witnessed – in the Room- ", the word King can be interpreted as Christ, or also as the Lord of the Flies (Jensen, 3). Both interpretations are valid, as Jensen states. Christ, in Christian theology, will take the soul to another life, while the Lord of the Flies, an allusion to Be’elzebub, also very present in Judeo-Christian mythology, is the one expected to remove the soul from the body of the deceased. In addition, the imagery subtly reinforces the meaning. For example, based on the Oxford English Dictionary, the use of the word blue at the end of the poem can be interpreted as sad and depressed, but also as fear and panic. There is also ambiguity in other instances of the poem; the reader can well interpret that when the narrator stops hearing noises and feeling the wind it is not because they have ceased but rather because there has been deterioration in the perception. Finally, the rhyme and rhythm emphasize words at the end of the lines, such as be, fly, me and see which are key words in understanding the poem.

A contrasting vision of death appears in Dickinson’s poem "Because I Could Not Stop for Death --." Here, death is presented as a journey towards eternity. The poem depicts a vision of an afterlife, where the individual transcends and goes to a space where time seems not to exist. This is Dickinson’s romantic view of death. The poet personifies death as someone who is civil, patient, and respectful, and who gives rides to people. After Death stops for a busy poetic narrator who had no time to think about death, they start a journey together towards eternity, passing through places that symbolize different stages of her life; a school, representing youth and education, the fields of grain, which represent maturity, and a setting sun, representing old age. Ambiguity also plays an important role in this poem: the allusion to the school could also be interpreted as if the narrator and Death were passing by the school to pick a child who had died; and when the poet says, "We passed the setting sun," the setting sun could mean that the poetic narrator skipped old age. The last stop in the journey was a cemetery, where the corpse is left. Finally, the poet and Death transcend and go to eternity; a state in which time is imperceptible and we can deduce that there is peace.

Poetic techniques are employed along the poem to create images in the reader’s mind and strengthen this interpretation of death. The description of the grave is very powerful, and it supports the idea that it is only a temporary place. By comparing it to a house it provides a coziness that does not create repulsion to a place that otherwise can have a negative connotation. The description of the coldness felt before leaving the corpse is also very powerful, and emphasizes the coldness of the body after death. Finally, the relativity of time and the description of a peaceful destination provide the reader with a feeling of expectancy to reach that place. The horses in the last stanza can represent several things according to the A Dictionary of Literary Symbols. According to Plato, for instance, horses are a simile of the soul. In addition, horses represent travel, which goes well with the meaning of the poem. In addition, in Greek mythology, the horse Pegasus flew to heaven, which could be interpreted as an allusion made in the poem. Finally, the choice of words is very elaborate, and the rhyme helps emphasize words that have an important meaning in the poem.

Another divergent interpretation of death is presented by Emily Dickinson in "I Felt a Funeral, in My Brain." This poem depicts an internal death rather than a physical one: the descent of a human being into insanity. Once again, the reader can interpret that in the poem, Dickinson is talking about her own death. Even though this process is described as a real funeral, all the events are parallel to what seems her emotional death. Initially, her mind becomes numb, and she hears insignificant sounds until a bell starts to toll. Afterwards, a feeling of solitude and silence floods her. Finally, she feels as if she were in a boat where a plank breaks and she falls down and hits a world. This poem shows Dickinson’s belief that an individual can die many times and that the physical death is not the only type of death, nor the worst.

The constant reference to repetitive sounds that torment the poetic narrator helps emphasize the pain, anguish and the disturbing hyperesthesia that she is going through. Among these are the treading of the mourners with lead boots, and the constant beat of the drum and tolling of the bell. In addition, silence is personified and is accompanying her in her wreck and solitude; an image that stresses her feeling of disconnection with the world. Finally, the image of a shipwreck is used to compare reason to a plank of wood that breaks due to excessive strain. The image concludes when the poet falls repeatedly from space and every time she falls, she hits a world. The psychic outbreak seems to be infinite, but the reader can interpret that she understood what the definition of death through her own experience.

Emily Dickinson’s selected poems offer a varied repertoire of her apparent contradictory views of death. The clashing interpretations of death are accompanied by an elaborate use of literary techniques. Each poem reflects a different type of journey, and there is an implicit invitation to the reader to choose which definition of death goes better with his/her set of beliefs.

Works cited:

"A review of the poem I Felt a Funeral in My Brain by Emily Dickinson." EZ Essays. 2002. 1 April 2004. <http://www.ez-essays.com/free/1665.html>.
Andersen, Charles R. "A Critical Analysis of Because I could not stop for Death". The United States in Literature. Illinois, Scott, Foresman and Company, 1965.

Dickinson, Emily. "Emily Dickinson - Poems and Biography." American Poems.
1 April 2004. <http://www.americanpoems.com/poets/emilydickinson>

Ferber, Michael. A Dictionary of Literary Symbols. Massachussets: Cambridge University Press, 1999.

Jensen, David. An analysis of Dickinson’s I heard a Fly buzz (#465)
29 March 2004. <www.psy-co.net/pdf/eng131-1.pdf>.

Emily Dickinson - Because I could not stop for Death -- (712)
Because I could not stop for Death --
He kindly stopped for me --
The Carriage held but just Ourselves --
And Immortality.

We slowly drove -- He knew no haste
And I had put away
My labor and my leisure too,
For His Civility --

We passed the School, where Children strove
At Recess -- in the Ring --
We passed the Fields of Gazing Grain --
We passed the Setting Sun --

Or rather -- He passed Us --
The Dews drew quivering and chill --
For only Gossamer, my Gown --
My Tippet -- only Tulle --

We paused before a House that seemed
A Swelling of the Ground --
The Roof was scarcely visible --
The Cornice -- in the Ground --

Since then -- ''tis Centuries -- and yet
Feels shorter than the Day
I first surmised the Horss'' Heads
Were toward Eternity --

I felt a Funeral, in my Brain, (280)
I felt a Funeral, in my Brain,
And Mourners to and fro
Kept treading -- treading -- till it seemed
That Sense was breaking through --

And when they all were seated,
Service, like a Drum --
Kept beating -- beating -- till I thought
My Mind was going numb --

And then I heard them lift a Box
And creak across my Soul
With those same Boots of Lead, again,
Then Space -- began to toll,

As all the Heavens were a Bell,
And Being, but an Ear,
And I, and Silence, some strange Race
Wrecked, solitary, here --

And then a Plank in Reason, broke,
And I dropped down, and down --
And hit a World, at every plunge,
And Finished knowing -- then --

I heard a Fly buzz -- when I died (465)
I heard a Fly buzz -- when I died --
The Stillness in the Room
Was like the Stillness in the Air --
Between the Heaves of Storm --

The Eyes around -- had wrung them dry --
And Breaths were gathering firm
For that last Onset -- when the King
Be witnessed -- in the Room --

I willed my Keepsakes -- Signed away
What portion of me be
Assignable -- and then it was
There interposed a Fly --

With Blue -- uncertain stumbling Buzz --
Between the light -- and me --
And then the Windows failed -- and then
I could not see to see --

Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot (2004)

In Samuel Beckett’s

Waiting for Godot

, a play belonging to the Theatre of the Absurd, human behavior and thinking are criticized by examining the lives of two tramps that spend their existence waiting for someone, an individual named Godot, who will never come. By examining their lives, Beckett creates in the reader both pleasure and a sense of loss of both security and peace of mind.

Waiting for Godot

, a tragicomedy in two acts, produces a sense of pleasure in the reader. The absurdities of two tramps, Vladimir and Estragon, make the reader feel superior to them, and therefore feel joy. The tramps waste their time walking to nowhere, gazing, and having pointless conversations that lead to nowhere, just to pass the time faster. For example, in the First Act, Estragon’s boots don’t fit him; however the same boots fit him perfectly in the Second Act. Lucky’s dance and speech are also absurd, and create enjoyment. In addition, it is funny when the characters look at their hats as a source of ideas and inspiration, in the same way a vast majority of humans look for a superior being to feed those necessities. In another level, another source of enjoyment is the theme, setting, and the literary style used by Beckett. The author decided to give symbols to the characters. The two protagonists represent a human being divided in two; Vladimir represents the mind while Estragon represents the body. This can be a source of pleasure as it makes the reader ponder and get insight without creating insecurity or discomfort. Finally, the reader can get pleasure from the characters after they decide that they will not make the same mistake that they did by not

Waiting for Godot

.

 

The disquietude, or loss of peace of mind and security, is created in the reader by analyzing key aspects of human life in an absurd and exaggerated way. As an existentialist, Beckett wants to show that humans spend their lives waiting and trying to find a purpose. In this type of life, represented in the play, time becomes meaningless, and past, present and future become equivalent. The reader only knows that time passed because the tree acquired four or five leaves between the two acts. Subsequently, Vladimir and Estragon remain the same throughout the play. Through exaggeration, Beckett wants to emphasize that in the play there is absolutely no progress as time passes. Moreover, as there are only men in the play, there is no source of new life in nature which adds to the feeling of lack of progression. The author creates disquietude as the reader is obliged to evaluate objectively his own life while losing the sense of security as he begins to ponder about the progress in his life, and how it differs from Vladimir’s and Estragon’s life.

 

Another source of disquietude in the play is the memory in the characters. In the Second Act, Estragon forgets everything that happened the previous day, all of the First Act. Additionally, two additional characters, Pozzo and Lucky, don’t remember that they met the two tramps previously. Interestingly, the only character that retains memory is Vladimir. Beckett wants to create agitation and discomfort in the reader as memory is linked to both hope and progress. If Estragon could remember the previous days in which he has waited unsuccessfully, he will eventually reach the conclusion that he is getting nowhere. Moreover, as they are unable to remember the previous good times, they are incapable of hoping for better times. Finally, lacking memory results in an individual or society that makes the same mistakes repeatedly. This results in a reader that gets frustrated, and that loses his peace of mind as he has to ponder about their memory and examine if they are making the same mistakes, or wasting their time "

Waiting for Godot

" without progressing, or hoping for better times to come. On the other hand, losing the memory causes a loss of security as the person won’t be able to remember "accurately" their past, a key aspect of their identities. As anyone ages, the memory capabilities are incredibly diminished and the disquietude will increase.

 

Religion is also a source of disquietude in this play. Beckett communicates through the play the idea that "God is dead." He even expresses through Vladimir that even the Gospels can be contradictory, referring to the thief that was allegedly saved. As part of human psychology, humans tend to look for a superior force as a source of inspiration, sense of security and peace of mind, and something or someone that will give them a purpose. By questioning these pillars, Beckett creates agitation in the conscious reader.

 

As an anonymous critic once said, a literary work of high quality, such as

Waiting for Godot

, should produce a "healthy confusion" of disquietude and pleasure. Beckett’s play creates effectively a strong disturbance in the reader’s mind as they question their existence and their purpose in earth. A conscious reader will be challenged intellectually by this play, while he is able to get enjoyment and insight from it.

George’s Orwell’s 1984 (2004)

In 1984, George Orwell depicted the way a society should not be, based on the atrocities that had happened during the Second World War and his predictions of the future. This book has influenced my perspective of current events and has helped me understand better the militarism of this century.

One of the slogans of the ruling political party was "War is peace." Even though this statement seems paradoxical at first, it offers insight about how our world is starting to function as predicted by the author. In the novel, the main purpose of being constantly at war was to reduce the surplus of goods and to control the society. In addition, the fighting took place far away from their territory, it was fought by specialists, and no big territorial gains or losses took place. Moreover, the enemy was not defined very well and was constantly changing depending on Oceania’s interests; Eurasia and Eastasia were changing roles continuously as allies and enemies. According to Winston, nothing was efficient in Oceania, except the Thought Police, efficiency that shows the importance that this society accorded to preventing revolutions. Another example of this society''s militarism can be found in the movie houses, with their excess of war films. Finally, the war was an argument used to unify the people against an external force, diverting the attention from internal problems, and preventing a revolution.

In modern times, war has created a constant state of fear, doubt and uncertainty. Many political leaders believing that being in war with an outer force will bring "peace" at home. For example, the current administration of Bush declared war on terrorism, an abstract force that, according to the United States, can be found in more than sixty countries. This war has similar principles to those illustrated in 1984’s society; there are no territorial gains or losses, it is mainly fought by specialists, and very far away from the United States territory. Recently, Iraq was attacked under the pretext that a dictatorship was being removed and peace would be restored. Paradoxically, Iraq was being helped by the United States during the First Persian Gulf War to defeat Iran. By declaring war against an outside force, the government was able to entertain the society temporarily from its own internal problems, such as an economic recession.

Allegedly, the war has united the citizens with one goal in purpose, propelled by patriotism. However, the media is being controlled by a government that controls what can be published. To a lesser extent, the government has the power to control the present as it can control how previous situations are presented, as in the Record’s Department in Oceania, Bush’s administration has also established an "Office of Homeland Security" and has limited civil liberties through the "Patriot Acts." Because of the war, the government has the excuse to go unchecked, the same way that 1984’s government functioned as a dictatorship. As in Oceania, the government has now the power to arrest somebody without having a trial.

1984 helped me realize how current militaristic policies were foreseen, and therefore, could have been prevented. Many times, we have heard how Iraq’s war was only about oil. Unfortunately, not many people have thought that the war could be a tool to divert the current public interest from the economy, and other factors, towards terrorism. In addition, I had not realized the importance of handling the surplus of goods generated by a society, especially to the point where it is necessary to go to war in order to get rid of it. Because of the universality of the novel, we are able to understand it even 19 years after "Big Brother" was supposed to rule Oceania.