Creeping Along

In this week’s Lens Artists photo challenge, we’re asked to post our creepy images. At first I thought I wouldn’t have anything, but a browse through my files turned up a few examples.

First, an old photo (so lower resolution) of the dense crop of icicles dangling over a friend’s front porch

A night shot of an inverted forest of iciclesNext, a stark tree on the beach at Pultneyville. Why someone cut the top off but left those two desperate branches, I don’t know. (This is another older photo.)

A dead tree on the beach, with the trunk chopped off 20 feet up and two twisted branches reaching into the airThis shot is from Rush Rhees Library on the campus of the University of Rochester. It’s not in the Ivy League, but you wouldn’t know it from these thick vines, looking stark in winter dormancy.

Thick vines, decorated with a few dried leaves, twist around the corner of this brick buildingFinally, a visitor I found creeping up the molding in my kitchen. Personally, I think it’s gorgeous, but it does, literally, creep!

A bug with an intricately patterned brown shell creeps upward on the door moldingPosted in response to Lens-Artists #71: Creepy, with thanks to Ann-Christine for posting this week’s challenge.


ON ANOTHER NOTE: I’ve made a rather momentous decision. I will officially be switching my blog from this free WordPress location to my actual author website. For the rest of the year I will post all my blog entries (including this one) on both locations, and as of today I will disable subscriptions to Word Wacker. Starting in January 2020 I’ll be posting only on the website. If you enjoy my content, please start following me at my site: www.celiareaves.com. I value every one of my followers, and I hope to see you over there!

Brain Stories: Storytelling and Human Consciousness

An image of a reconstructed human skull. Text: Something for Sunday; November 10, 2019; Brain StoriesAs I work on editing one novel and beginning the planning of another, I’ve been reading books about craft. I recently started Story Genius by Lisa Cron, and so far it’s fabulous. I will definitely be working through her process for both stories, and have no doubt that they will be better for it. I’m not surprised: I mentioned her before, with respect to her first book, Wired for Story and how much I loved it. She has a TEDx talk about the importance of story that writers may find valuable:

One of her major points is that our brains are wired to be caught up in stories. When a story is working right, it delivers to the reader a hit of dopamine, a neurochemical related pleasure and addiction. She points out that every human society ever has used story for teaching and building community. Writers can apply this understanding to construct stories that will draw readers in and keep them engaged until the last page. I completely agree with her on this.

Another part of her argument is that the reason stories work this way is that we use stories to develop our understanding of the world, allowing us to develop the responses that will allow us to survive and thrive. Early humans who didn’t pay attention to story, she says, didn’t learn how to be effective in the world and died out. That little pulse of dopamine is there specifically to push us into paying attention to stories so we can learn the lessons they teach us. She may be right about this, but there’s another way of thinking about stories and the human mind that might also be involved. To get there, we have to take a side trip into cognitive psychology (my favorite thing, along with writing).

Cognitive Psychology Digression

We humans possess a conscious awareness of ourselves that not many animals have. That is, we not only know what’s happening around us, but we can reflect on ourselves as something that knows it. We can think back to our own past experiences, instead of simply reacting to what’s here. We have a sense of ourselves as entities with a past history, and can project ourselves into the future, imagining who we might be and how that might come about. Where this conscious awareness comes from and how it emerges from the physical activity of the brain is something cognitive psychologists think about a lot. It’s what philosopher David Chalmers called the “hard problem” of cognitive science. There has been much too much work on this hard problem for me to summarize it in any meaningful way, but here are a couple of accessible resources: a story in Psychology Today addressing the reason why the question is hard and why people are trying to solve it, and an article in Scientific American focusing on some brain regions that may be crucial to consciousness.

The theory I find most fascinating claims that consciousness evolved as a direct result of two related properties of human beings: our social nature, and our behavioral flexibility. (This is related to, though not exactly the same as, a theory of the social nature of consciousness developed by Michael Graziano: see this scholarly article and this more recent popular description.) Here’s how it works.
• Humans live in complex, interconnected social networks, even more than our primate relatives. It is essential to our survival that we are able to interact smoothly with lots of other humans. In order to do that, we need to understand the goals and motives of other people and predict how they will react to any number of situations, including unexpected or unusual ones. From their very first days, babies are focused on understanding and connecting with the people around them, as shown by their strong tendency to look at human faces and, as soon as they have any physical control at all, to respond appropriately to them.
• Humans have very few hard-wired reflexes. Babies are born with a handful fixed behaviors that are necessary for survival, such as suckling, but within weeks their behaviors start to show more flexibility. This is essential, because the way they will be expected to act will vary widely depending on the specific social group they are part of. A baby goose will have no choice but to follow the first moving object they see after hatching; there is almost no behavior humans engage in that they can’t consciously choose.

This is a cognitively demanding situation. People can act in ways that are not determined by their biology, but understanding and predicting how they will act is critical. How do we pull it off? We have to build within our minds little models of all the important people in our lives, keeping track of how they behave and making inferences about their thoughts and beliefs. We have powerful neural structures that evolved for that purpose, and this may be one major reason why we developed such big brains.

If you’ve got a complex brain structure just for the purpose of building little mental models of people, it makes sense for that model to be applied to the most important person in your world: You. In my brain, alongside all the ways I understand my family, friends, and co-workers, there’s something dedicated to understanding me. Keeping track of my past behavior, deducing my motives and goals, and predicting how I will react in future situations. In this theory, that model of me is the source of my conscious awareness.

Meanwhile, Back in the Story

Cron makes the argument that we enjoy stories because they serve real, tangible benefits that help us survive; in an evolutionary sense, they are adaptive. Let me emphasize that this may be completely true. However, there’s something else that may be true as well. Something that was adaptive at some point early in human evolution doesn’t necessarily benefit us today. Think about the drive to consume sweets and fats, which was a definite plus when eating wild plants and animals on the African savannah, but not so much in today’s fast-food world. Or, something that has a real, adaptive purpose may also have another effect that is purely accidental.

When we read a compelling story, we are pulled into someone else’s head. The author leads us to build mental models of the various characters, and their behavior plays out in a series of situations. When the story is well constructed the characters are interesting, their behavior complex but well motivated, and their responses satisfying. In other words, it triggers our ability to model people in a big way.

There is very good reason to believe that our ability to effectively model the people around us is a critical survival skill. As with many critical survival skills, our system has evolved to encourage us to engage in it. Giving us a hit of dopamine when we indulge in that skill is one way to do this. It means that when we get pulled into a story, it feels good.

I’m not suggesting that stories, like chocolate ice cream, are bad for us! But it might be that getting drawn into a story is not really related to survival at all. It could be just a side effect of our social modeling ability, which is definitely related to survival. Even so, it’s a fascinating and very enjoyable side effect. Stories are pleasurable, and indulging in them has essentially no down sides. I still intend to read as much as I can, and to create engaging stories others sink into. Cron’s book looks like a good way to learn how to do that.


ON ANOTHER NOTE: I’ve made a rather momentous decision. I will officially be switching my blog from this free WordPress location to my actual author website. For the rest of the year I will post all my blog entries (including this one) on both locations. Starting in January 2020, though, I’ll be posting only on the website. If you enjoy my content, please start following me at my site: www.celiareaves.com. I value every one of my followers, and I hope to see you over there!

All the Colors

This week the Lens Artists are looking for monochrome images. This most often means photos shot in black and white, but it can also mean any picture where just one color dominates. I don’t have much in my archives in black and white, but did find some monochrome images in various colors, and decided to post one in each of the four primary colors in human vision. Yes, I know, most color systems focus on three primary colors (red, green, blue), and the color receptors in the human eye also respond predominantly to one of these three hues. However, the visual system then turns this input into three opponent systems: red vs. green, blue vs. yellow, and black vs. white. This means that, at one level in human vision, there are four colors, just like in the song I used to sing with my children:

Red and yellow, green and blue,
All the colors over you.
Red as an apple, green as a tree,
Yellow as the sunshine, blue as the sea.

So here are four images, one representing each of the four colors.

Red: Amazing fall colors from 2018

Closeup of dense, bright red leaves on an autumn treeYellow: Part of a dazzling display of twinkle lights I spotted in a hotel this past spring

Shimmering yellow twinkling lights in a hotel lobbyGreen: A single white blossom stands out against its dark green leaves

A white morning glory flower in a bed of green leavesBlue: A vivid sky, painted with swirling clouds

White clouds swirled against a vivid blue skyPosted in response to Lens-Artists #70: Monochrome, with thanks to Patti for posting this week’s challenge.


ON ANOTHER NOTE: I’ve made a rather momentous decision. I will officially be switching my blog from this free WordPress location to my actual author website. From now until the end of this year I will post all my blog entries (including this one) on both locations. Starting in January 2020, though, I’ll be posting only on the website. If you enjoy my content, please start following me at my site: www.celiareaves.com. I value every one of my followers, and I hope to see you over there!

Hello, NaNo: My First NaNoWriMo!

Closeup of a computer keyboard. Text: Something for Sunday; November 3, 2019; Hello, NaNoSince 1999, thousands of writers have signed up to focus on writing by committing to producing 50,000 words during the month of November. The event is called National Novel Writing Month, or NaNoWriMo, and is hosted by a fabulous nonprofit organization, sponsored by a number of wonderful businesses. I’ve never been able to participate in this event because, as a college professor, my November was already completely packed (though I have done a spin-off event called Camp NaNoWriMo). This year I’m retired, so I planned to do the real NaNo for the first time.

Things got complicated, though, because I’m in the middle of editing my book. Yes, I’ve been editing it for a LONG time, but I’m committed to getting it finished by the end of this year. So I’m not ready to start a new novel now. I worried that this would mean I couldn’t do NaNoWriMo after all.

Guess what – I decided I’m doing it. I will log and track all the work I do while editing, by which I mean I’ll count the final, edited version of each chapter I work on during November. I will also count the notes I write for myself as I work through the revision. If I finish all that and still haven’t hit 50,000, I’ll log the planning on my next project.

This means my first actual NaNoWriMo is kind of a Franken-project, combining editing one book with the planning of another. I figure if it gets me moving more efficiently with my writing, then I’ve met my goal!

Wish all of us diving into the NaNo waters this year good luck!


ON ANOTHER NOTE: I’ve made a rather momentous decision. I will officially be switching my blog from this free WordPress location to my actual author website. From now until the end of this year I will post all my blog entries (including this one) on both locations. Starting in January 2020, though, I’ll be posting only on the website. If you enjoy my content, please start following me at my site: www.celiareaves.com. I value every one of my followers, and I hope to see you over there!

Doubles

The photo challenge this week is for photos of doubles; two similar things in one image. Here are a few examples from my archives.

The flags of two countries fly from this staff at the Navy Point Marina. It’s in the US, but near that border with Canada and frequently visited by Canadian guests. (The small pennant at the top identifies the marina.)

A staff bearing the flags of two countries: Canada and the USA patch of day lilies caught my eye with these two brilliant blooms.

Two brilliant orange daylilies against a field of green leavesThese two charming baby dragon sculptures were the cake toppers at my daughter’s dragon-themed wedding. The groom designed them and had them 3D printed, and the bride painted them.

Two dragon sculptures: one has a wreath of flowers on her head, the other is taking a bite out of his top hat. Their tails curl together to suggest a heart.Posted in response to Lens Artist #69: Seeing Double, with thanks to Tina for this week’s challenge

Lines and Squares 4: Perspective

Pattern of pale gray square tiles. Text: Something for Sunday; October 27, 2019; Lines and Squares, Part 4: PerspectiveBecky B runs a photo challenge four times a year for a whole month. In the Squares Challenge, people post an image for each day that meet two criteria; they are based on the month’s prompt, and their format is square. This October, the prompt is Lines. I’ve chosen to bundle my images into four batches and post one batch each Sunday in October.

This batch of images features perspective lines (lines that pull your eye into the distance). This brings me to a total of 32 square photos (eight in each of the four Sundays I’ve posted on this challenge). You can see the other three sets here, here, and here.This has been a wonderful experience, and I’m looking forward to participating in future Squares Challenges. Thank you, Becky!

Click an image to navigate through the gallery. Enjoy!

Sky Layers

This week’s photo challenge is to illustrate layers: images of things that are stacked in front of and behind each other to create depth. I’ve always been fascinated by the sky and clouds, which is a rich source of such images. Here are three from my archives. I hope you enjoy them!

A flock of puffy clouds in the blue sky over Black River Bay, piled up all the way to the horizonFluffy white clouds against a dark blue sky, receding toward the horizonSame spot, different day, this time with darker clouds and rain falling on the far side of the bay

Clouds piled up over Black River Bay, with rain falling in the distanceA gentle sunset over water, with a tree-covered bluff in middle distance and a bit of beach in the foreground

A bluff by a lake silhouetted against a pastel sunset, with a beach and small waves in the foregroundPosted in response to Lens-Artists #67: Layered, with thanks to Amy for this week’s challenge.