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The Slippery Brain Sodality

anneliese's picture
updated 10/22/2011

...from the Latin sodalitat-, sodalitas comradeship, club, from sodalis comrade

Welcome to the book and (as of March 2011) film club of the Slippery Brain Sodality! Established mid-summer 2009, we are an open group and welcome visitors and new members. Read on for some answers to a few basic questions. The group slipped into subjunctive mode this spring, but we'll see what evolves as we move forward...for now, feel free to poke around and send me an e-mail if you feel so inclined -

What’s a “slippery brain?”

The definition of slippery brain is a work-in-progress (see in sodality, on another occasion, "slippery brain," and more reflections on slippery brain). That said, let me paraphrase Paul Grobstein, who coined the term some 5-6 years ago, and once told me that a slippery brain is a brain that changes states frequently/rapidly, making it disconcerting to others and (sometimes?) to oneself.

Alternately, it may be that slippery-brain is a quality or state of mind that we all have the potential to experience, though some with greater likelihood than others.

Furthermore, although it may be experienced as bewildering/frustrating, we tend to believe that it is ultimately more “a feature” than “a bug.”

Why a book/film club?
Despite the above assertion, learning to live with and enjoy slippery-brainedness can be a challenge, made easier through association with other slippery brains. Thus, one aim of the club is to foster such learning and growth by exploring stories by and/or about other slippery brains and sharing our own personal experiences. At the same time, engaging with these stories holds value for anyone, slippery-brained or not, as it challenges conventional notions of “normal” and offers a more inclusive (and, I would argue, much more interesting) alternative.

What kinds of books and films do you consider?
We do not have any strict rules about this – as long as it’s germane to the overall topic, it’s fair game (incl. shorter material - articles, essays, excerpts...).

Past titles:

A Mind Apart (S. Antonetta)

Animals in Translation (T. Grandin)

Uncle Tungsten: Memories of a Chemical Boyhood (O. Sacks)

Seeing Voices (O. Sacks)

Mad Travelers: Reflections on the Reality of Transient Mental Illnesses (I. Hacking)

Stone Butch Blues (L. Feinberg)

Man on Wire (P. Petit)

Nobody Nowhere (D. Williams)

Stigma: Notes on the Management of Spoiled Identity (E. Goffman)

The Happiness Hypothesis (J. Haidt)

Evil: Inside human violence and cruelty (Baumeister, R. F.)

A Long Way Gone: Memoirs of a Boy Soldier (Ishmael Beah)

The Echo Maker (Richard Powers)

Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (our first film)

Tiger, Tiger (Margaux Fragoso)

 (Taken January 22, 2011 - beautiful memory - thank you, Laura and Jeff)



anneliese's picture

possible future read

Caught my eye, know it's a subject to some of you, as well: Suicide: Foucault, History and Truth, by Ian Marsh - and here's one of several reviews, by a sociologist who read the book while on maternity leave (!) 

anneliese's picture

cinematic slipperiness

Paul suggested many months ago that I post a list of films here that we'd been talking about, all touching in one way or another on slippery-brainedness, to be added to as we (all) discovered more. Was reminded of this by a recent story on NPR's website, about a spate of recent or upcoming releases that "seem to spring from a sense that anxiety is the new normal, that there are reasons for characters — characters who aren't in horror films, mind you — to feel threatened and disoriented: the economy, job loss, political uncertainty and, yes, mental illness." Thought y'all might be interested, as well. Will work on that list.

anneliese's picture

In case anyone visits...

My mother has a wonderful habit of referring to books as friends. Same might be said of favorite authors - here's a sweet glimpse into one such friend's world:

I also recently learned that same friend has "face-blindness," which makes all sorts of sense...

Thorndyke Bear's picture

What an absolutely wonderful

What an absolutely wonderful video. It says so much about Oliver Sacks, the everyday person, as opposed to Oliver Sacks, the famous person. I think I would like to meet this Oliver Sacks.

alesnick's picture

Tiger, Tiger -- further thoughts


 I appreciate the discussion we shared yesterday about this challenging book.   I've been thinking about boundaries recently and noticing how often my habit of mind is to fix and "police" them -- to let boundaries, and a certain anxiety about them (perhaps growing from experiences of beleaguered knowing) -- set the terms of my thinking and interaction.  It's been fun and enlightening to notice this and feel freer to choose a different course. Tiger, Tiger is so much about boundaries, and so is "analyzing" it -- what do we take as the unit of analysis: the individual, the family, the generation, the patriarchy, the era?  Of course, the idea of a "unit of analysis" is also a boundary set-up. This reminds me of Paul's exchange with Warren Hampe and Paul's conclusion, in which he writes of the usefulness of paying "attention to the verbs instead of the nouns."  It also connects, stunningly for me, with an article I just read in Oprah Magazine ("Letting Go," by Harriet Brown, May 2011, voi. 12, no. 5) about Stanford psychologist Fred Luskin's work on forgiveness.  Brown says Luskin identifies two steps in the process of forgiveness: grieving and letting go.  I note that these are both verbs!  In a seminar Brown attends with Luskin, he says bad things happen and there's no such thing as fair -- whether it's someone stealing your parking space or killing your child.  Brown: "A ripple of shock runs through the room.  How can anyone compare losing a parking spot to losing a child? 'It's better not to get caught up in content,' Luskin say" (p. 160).  Later in the piece Brown asks Luskin how she can forgive her mother when her mother keeps hurting her, when it's not something over and done.  He says, "It's not happening now, this second. . . . So try again" (255).  She shifts the question to: "How can you keep yourself safe with a difficult person?"  The answer that they co-construct is to keep needed distance with an open heart.  

So, in connection with Tiger, Tiger, is there a way to think about the people in these relationships as verbs, rather than nouns, and to think of responding to them in the same way?  I think it has to do with not getting "caught up in the content" -- not fixing the boundaries but instead focusing on these individuals as actively part of myriad stories, myriad creative and destructive actions/interplays, in and over time?


anneliese's picture

Local event: Theater of War - April 2, 2011

I saw this group at the VA Medical Center in Coatesville and was deeply impressed, both by the event itself and by the larger project. Well worth seeing if you're available.



ToWTheater of War Productions, a social impact company that presents readings of ancient Greek plays for military members and the community, offers its first Philadelphia performance in the Harrison Auditorium.

Penn Museum's Theater of War performance features a reading of Sophocles' classic play Ajax, an ancient Greek tragedy that chronicles the fate of the warrior Ajax in the time before the end of the Trojan War. The program is approximately two hours long, including the readings from the play, comments from a panel that features a diverse group of military community members, as well as a town-hall style audience discussion.

Emmy Award winner and Academy Award nominee David Strathairn, in the dual roles of Ajax and Agamemnon, heads up a seasoned cast that features four actors who have also performed with the Peoples Light and Theater Company in Malvern: Melanye Finister as Athena/Tecmessa, Graham Smith as Odysseus, Jerome Preston Bates as Teucer, and Michael Stewart Allen as the Chorus. The reading is directed by Abigail Adams, Artistic Director of People's Light & Theater, translated and facilitated by Bryan Doerries, and produced by Phyllis Kaufman.

Theater of War is an innovative public health project that presents readings of ancient Greek plays, Sophocles' Ajax and Philoctetes, as a catalyst for town hall discussions about the challenges faced by service members, veterans, their families and communities. Using Sophocles' plays to forge a common vocabulary for openly discussing the impact of war on individuals, families, and communities, these events will be aimed at generating compassion and understanding between diverse audiences.

alesnick's picture

appreciations and further thoughts (re: "Eternal Sunshine")

Hi All,

I enjoyed the discussion yesterday and the way it opened the film and many interesting ideas for further exploration.

One idea that stays with me is that perhaps some people (perhaps those with less experience of slippery brain) are apt to recruit others to affirm/confirm/ratify their/our subjective states, while others (perhaps with more slippery brain experience) are not apt to do this, either because they don't think of other people playing this role, or because they don't want to think of it (perhaps because they don't want to put other people into this position, to impose on/bully people in this way).  This raises a question about the social "career" if you will of the brain, slippery or no, -- and how the social history of one's brain influences one's tendency to experience slipperiness.  With the understanding of slippery brain as a feature not a bug, I wonder about how people can encourage each other to experience slippery brain as another mode of being, and to experience what I think of as sticky brain as another mode of being.  Could we think of these as places for brains to pass through, especially in concert with other brains, rather than as characteristics of individual brains regardless of context?

A second idea, related, comes out of our discussion of whether Clementine's (the Kate Winslett character in the movie) instability needs an explanation.  Does "need" here pertain to certain modernist conceptions of narrative, or to a certain deterministic conception of personal psychology arising from the sense that her character is often distressed?  That she struggles in a way that could be explained and thus eased?  And, one more, does this way of thinking about source tales/creation myths for personal struggle depend on an outmoded notion of the self as bounded, as isolated from the rest of the universe?

alesnick's picture

inquiry via present/future rather than backwards looking

 I am thinking today that a helpful way to relate to personal struggle (one's own or others') is to inquire into it in ways that focus attention and action (and "help," including self-help) on present and future contexts and choices, rather than on framing "why" questions to explain the current struggle based on the past.  (A parallel might be that in qualitative research, we often focus on the how and the what, and let the why look after itself for a good long time. This way of working highlights people's agency and locates them as individuals working as part of a wildly complex, dynamic, and "thick" universe.)

But this doesn't mean I don't hold with talking about/investigating one's childhood!  I guess the question might be how to integrate a psychoanalytic appreciation for [constructing] stories of the past with an orientation to personal struggle that cares, finally, more for the vibrancy of the present and future.

So maybe a helpful question for Clementine would be What do you want?  Not, Why are you stuck?


BLamparska's picture

inquiry via present/future . . .

Sandy Bloom, a psychiatrist who spends most of her time dealing with trauma and developing therapeutic programs based on instilling peace in the community, has a mantra: she says instead of asking/thinking what's wrong with you, the question/focus that makes a setting therapeutic is what happened to you? The why shouldn't matter. However, that's easier said by the individual not affected, especially in the instance of kids, who so readily take on the responsibility for things that go wrong, particularly if parents or caregivers are involved.

anneliese's picture

Lots of densely packed

Lots of densely packed ideas/questions, still haven't quite processed but find myself responding to your initial premise that folks who are more slippery-brained might be less apt to seek ratification from others. While this is probably true for some (e.g., persons on the autism spectrum?), assuming I'm understanding correctly what you mean by affirmation/confirmation/ratification, I don't think it's true for this particular slippery brain (not sure how you define sticky brain, but getting stuck is also a familiar experience). Part of the challenge, I think, is that slippery-brain is itself a rather slippery concept - a mode of being, a state, a process, a quality of mind, an experience or sense of mercuriality... and, at least from how we've been playing with the term thus far, there are many forms/ways of expressing slipperiness. 

Like/agree it's worth looking for ways to encourage whatever kinds of brains to be more comfortable navigating diversity of states/modes.

Need to chew over rest before responding further...thanks!

alesnick's picture

defining "sticky brain"

 I'm not sure how I'm defining it, either!  But when I speak of it, what I think of is a state of awareness in which intense focus on something and filtering out of a lot of other things is maintained over a long time.  Examples range from tuning out all ambient noise in a cafe while working or literally not hearing someone's direct address while one is deep in email, to listening to the same song over several days' commutes, to recalling certain things -- poems, people, scenes -- intensely and repeatedly and often!  So: sticky as in holding on -- velcro.  Sort of holding on over and against a slipping/changeability. 

Tazmaraz's picture

may i be your comrade?

according to a slippery brained dude-sire of mine,
i belong in the slippery brain sodality.

also, i propose an entire campus game of word association...
we could be an association for word association...worrrrd!

anneliese's picture

ahoy, comrade

Certainly - welcome! Not being a campus denizen any longer myself, I'm not sure I can facilitate your proposed game, but I'd be curious to learn the details.

Anne Dalke's picture

"In Praise of the Crack-Up"

Another lead for the slippery brains from the independent study of "Stigma": Jeanette Winterson's Wall Street Journal essay, "In Praise of the Crack-Up: A novelist peers through darkness to find glittering gems in writing and art."

BLamparska's picture

In Praise of the Crack-Up

Anne: Thanks for posting this link. The chances of my having otherwise come across it are negligible and yet it was an important one for me. So many of the phrases she used just reached out and grabbed me (I won't say resonated with me because for some reason I really dislike that term--too new age). Phrases/words like "falling off the edge of life," "prowls the borders unseen, unfelt" (but oh so there) in reference to existential depression, when life loses all meaning. The desire for a transformation. The "fierce crashes" that happen to many creative people when a piece of work is done. While I don't consider myself a creative person, her description of those crashes coming out of the sense that however good the work, it has not answered the loss at the center of the existential depression, applies directly to my experiences as a performer. I was particularly struck by her comment that the creative output can have enormous value for others "while its maker is left ravaged." Ultimately, I could not live with these two contradictions and gave up solo performing. Again, thanks for the link.

Anne Dalke's picture

Mad @ School

Another of the independent studies I'm supervising this semester is about Seeing Stigma. And as part of that project, we are reading together now a new book by Margaret Price called Mad @ School: Rhetorics of Mental Disabiility and Academic Life. I REALLY think that the slippery brains would enjoy reading and discussing this book (just for a taste: Price suggests that the structure of the academic essay with its demands for “coherence”, logic, and rationale doesn’t allow for more “active minds” who may not be able to articulate their thoughts in the way the academy demands.  She asks, “…does the demonstration of coherence indicate a stronger mind?”  What if students could start submitting pictures instead of essays, bullet points instead of paragraphs, or oral presentations instead of a final paper? Price asks, “What transformation would need to occur before those who pursue academic discourse can be ‘heard’... not in spite of our mental disabilities, but with an through them?” .... what if we thought of students with mental illnesses not as merely triumphing their illness by surviving the academy, but as using their illness to deepen their own work?  In the classroom, we often consider different genders and races to add diversity to the discussion, but what if someone’s experience with bi-polar disorder, depression, or anxiety, could illuminate academic conversations?)


Starlight's picture

My opinion on bipolar

Loving that thought...but even going beyond calling it "bipolar" per se maybe see it as a different type of consciousness-one that operates on a sleep on/off intense cycle , not linear like we have been taught to aspire to. I feel that the term "mental illness" is an oversimplification and punitive expression of contempt and is not a good descriptor of differing states of consciousness. Would love to know what you think of Julian Jaynes theories of the bicameral minds working in the ancient past... perhaps some of us are still bicameral and sensing the messages of the other mind like sensory stimuli coming in. I work with many people who have been labeled "mentally ill" and they are moving beyond the label and the predjudice against different styles of thinking with no apology to those who can't keep up. I feel a consciousness shift coming on where everyone is open to a new acceptance of academic "data" from the actual people being studied. It is more valuable to have real experiences related than to have "analytical" theories proposed.

Well sorry for the rant. Hope you dont mind. :)

anneliese's picture

"we're all mad..."

Thanks, Anne - like this a lot, resonates with own past/ongoing frustrations and fits nicely with idea that slipperiness  is a "feature" (not a "bug" or disability) and potential asset if one can find ways to use it "to deepen work" ... both inside and beyond the academy.

Anne Dalke's picture

Monkey mind and skittish attention

One of the independent studies I'm supervising this semester is Exploring Happiness. In our most recent reading, a workbook by Hanson and Mendius called Buddha’s Brain: The Practical Neuroscience of Happiness, Love and Wisdom, I came across this passage which made me think of "slippery brains." I wonder what it would mean to members of the group to think of their brains in this sort of evolutionary context? And/or in the context of the meditative practices described in the text?

"Concentration is the natural ally of insight…We find ourselves in a forest of ignorance and need a sharp machete to clear a path to liberating understanding: insight makes the blade shape and concentration gives it power….

Meditation is a great way to pressure test your attention in order to strengthen it--precisely because it goes against the grain of the tendencies we evolved to survive. Consider focused attention practices, in which you become absorbed in some object.... Animals that locked their attention on to one thing for many minutes in a row...wouldn't notice omnious slithers or shadows nearby and thus wouldn't pass on their genes. Monkey mind is the traditional, critical term for skittish attention–-this is exactly what helped our ancestors stay alive.

Or consider open awareness meditation, where you practice choiceless awareness of whatever comes to mind without becoming engaged by it; this is equally contrary to our evolutionary nature" (pp. 191-192).

Bozena's picture

A Long Way Gone

I came across this review of a film that seemed to tie in quite nicely (the film, not the review) with A Long Way Gone.

The movie is Johnny Mad Dog: Child Soldiers on an Adult Rampage.

Laura Cyckowski's picture

I am interested in hearing

I am interested in hearing more about what was brought up in relation to suicide and the author. Why hadn't that ever crossed his mind? (Though perhaps it did and he just didn't elaborate on this in the memoir.) Someone (?) suggested it may be because he was not able to imagine alternative scenarios--what things would be like without him, so it just didn't occur as a viable option. Could this be a function of his age? I read something recently about depression and suicidal (or lack thereof) in children; suicide never crosses their mind, instead profound depression often times manifests simply as violent thoughts about the world around them (as opposed to soley around his/herself). So, in children and perhaps in this authors case, the "storyteller" has not developed enough to imagine alternate possibilities, thus he succumbs to the only option available to him, becoming a solider. Although, as we discussed with the monkey & the hunter story, he obviously had a pretty precocious "storyteller" to come up with his response.

anneliese's picture

As I recall the conversation,

As I recall the conversation, there was a suggestion that his developmental age may have kept him from seriously entertaining suicide as a possible solution in two ways: perhaps his capacity for abstract thought was not fully matured, and/or maybe his instinct for survival was strong enough to keep thoughts of suicide at bay (is it generally stronger in younger children? don't know...). But I have certainly known children who did think about/consider suicide, including one as young as 6, and while children may not fully grasp what it means (or grasp it differently than adults), I wouldn't say it never crosses their mind...

Bozena's picture

I recall doing therapy with a

I recall doing therapy with a child who made it clear that she did not want to be alive, but didn't believe she could kill herself because her life was not her own, she belonged to her parents. Rather than viewing suicide as an act against herself, she saw it as stealing from her parents. She was 7.

alesnick's picture


 This is so interesting: the child felt her life was her parents'.  The blur between self and other may have been particularly clear to her.  I wonder whether something about her distress brought about this clarity.  

To me, this connects with our explorations of responsibility for evil.  Where does it lie if people's perspectives given their roles vary so?  Dr. Dan Gottlieb was talking on NPR this morning about how we need to have "compassion for the killer" in the Tucson/Loughner case.  

Maybe we need a word that signifies evil-responsibility-compassion together.



Bozena's picture

Reply to be-longing

Compassion is defined as a sympathetic consciousness of others' distress together with a desire to alleviate it. I suspect there are a fair number of people (although a definite minority)who can acknowledge and understand Loughner's distress, although I'm not so sure he him self does. But I would question how many can honestly say he needs treatment (alleviate it) rather than being punished for his acts. Given the choice between hospital and prison, I'm guessing most would say he belongs in jail. As long as people remain uninformed about mental illness, the likelihood of compassion in situations such as Tucson is quite small.

alesnick's picture

compassion and story

 It's interesting to think about how people relate to one another's distress, what conceptions of responsibility, for example, are in play.  It feels to me as if people unfamiliar with the potency of mental illness and not acquainted with stories that help communicate this potency tend to be guided by a narrow and overly nuclear notion of responsibility.  People remain uninformed about mental illness for fear, yes?, and for lack of imagination?  I'm wondering what our stories for mental illness could become if more people were freer of fear of it, and thus more open to imagining it.  

On the slippery, brierly, stick frequency, I'm wondering if the focal distinction mightn't be so much on the interal qualities of different brains, but rather on their social impact and how that then loops back to the individual.  


Anne Dalke's picture

the photo

So here's what (@ least one) briar-ly brain "looks like," amidst multiple slippery ones!

jrlewis's picture

amphibians and blackberry bushes

Wondering about the introduction of this new term, the briarly brain, into our conversation.  What is a briarly brain?  A non-slippery brain?  A normal brain?  Or does a normal brain sit in the middle of the continuum between briarly and slippery brains?

If a slippery brain is “a brain that changes states frequently/rapidly, making it disconcerting to others and (sometimes?) to oneself.”  Changes in state are caused by the brain’s search to make sense of experience.  When a particular state ceases to be useful, the brain switches to another.  Almost as if it is searching for the prefect state, not just an adequate one?  Essentially, states are equivalent to stories here.  So the slippery brain is non-narrative because its mental states are discontinuous.  Not unlike the three plots within Jeanette Winterson’s text, Stone Gods.  Without a beginning, middle, and end the text doesn’t qualify as a novel, at least that was what Anne and I decided last year. 

Then a briarly brain plumbs the depth of an idea.  It hooks into a concept, strategy or story and proceeds to use it to understand a variety of experiences.  Unlike a slippery brain, a briarly brain does not give up stories easily.  It grows stories the way blackberry fruit grows.  A literary example would be a lengthy novel such as War and Peace.  Briarly brains generate intricate and coherent narratives.  

Knowing something about how the two types of brains operate, I wonder if it is possible to predict the type of books they would enjoy.  Does the briarly-slippery continuum inform our opinions about texts?  Why do we, briarly or slippery brains, choose the books that we do?  Fiction vs. nonfiction?  Narrative vs. less consistent accounts?

Anne Dalke's picture

What's My Brain Like?

And sometimes a single brain can be both amphibious and brambly;
see What's My Brain Like?

anneliese's picture

thank you and note of clarification

Thanks to everyone who came yesterday for what was for me, and others I think, a particularly rich experience of collective meaning-making and community building. Just to clarify, we agreed to use this space/page for ongoing discussion between meetings, rather than to continue building separate mini-fora for successive readings. Looking forward to continued conversation in this and other venues.

alesnick's picture

follow-up thoughts on discussion of Baumeister

Hi All,

I appreciate yesterday's discussion and look forward to the next one.

I suspect that my frog brain has reasons of its own for very strenuously resisting the idea that there is no evil without story, without the storyteller brain, and without, in particular, the victim's story.  What about things that happen to people that they don't have stories, or words, for?  I have long been fascinated by the idea of false consciousness, for example, which is concerned with the same problem.  And one of  my earliest conversations with some of you, at a GIF meeting, had to do with whether oppression exists without stories about it.  Baumeister seeks to tell a story of evil that can emerge only when we set aside, temporarily, the victim's story.  He tries to take analysis out of the realm of right and wrong -- or take right and wrong out of the analysis -- then says we should put them back at the end.  The moral lens demands universality while his treatment of evil is based on the different particularities of the victim and perpetrator outlooks.  My sense is that his analysis would benefit by including Foucault; his treatment of "society" is simplistic.  He doesn't address the ways in which discourses have a kind of life of their own -- act as a third term with the individual and the group.  I agree that both individuals and groups condition as well as are conditioned by discourses, but the process is . . . demanding.

In the place where I sometimes do yoga, there are quotations painted on the wall.  One reads, "No one can diminish you without your consent."  I don't believe that.  That is, I think other people's stories signify in one's own stories of oneself.  I sense that my unconscious is strongly attached to this prospect.  Why?  I am guessing that my unconscious is attached to strong, competing desires: one for power and one for giving in/giving out/just being there.  I was struck by Baumeister's claim that the desire to be powerful, to have an impact on other people, is a driver of evil.  I tend more often to think of it (and I believe, to experience it) as a driver of good.  This puts me in mind of the lilies of the field.

Also of these lines by Laurie Lee: "Does a hill defend itself? / does a river run to earth / to hide its quaint neutrality? / A boy is shot with England in his brain, / but she lies brazen yet beneath the sun, / she has no honour and she has no fear."  (from "The Evening, The Heather").  If I can figure out how to type a poem so that it looks nice here, I'll write out the whole thing -- I think it could be an interesting frame for our next book!


alesnick's picture

link to linking ideas of Stephen Talbott's

In preparing for a new course on technology, education, and society, I learned of Netfuture, Steve Talbott's long-running newsletter/essay-writing enterprise/inquiry/blog on these topics.  For the current exploration of evil, I recommend his treatment of it.  He has a way of talking about good and evil as continuous with everyone that resonates with my reading of A Long Way Gone

Anne Dalke's picture

"there never was a war that was/not inward"

yes, resonant. and resonant, too, w/ Marianne Moore's "In Distrust of Merits":

There never was a war that was
     not inward; I must
fight till I have conquered in myself what
causes war, but I would not believe it.

(from an earlier project about Finding a Language of Peace...)


jrlewis's picture

I suspect that my frog brain

I suspect that my frog brain has reasons of its own for very strenuously resisting the idea that there is no evil without story, without the storyteller brain, and without, in particular, the victim's story.

Perhaps an example of evil in the absence of a story might be the case of childhood sexual abuse and repressed memories.  A child is subject to an experience that is at least painful and upsetting.  Their brain is so traumatized by the incident that buries the memory in the cognitive unconscious.  The memory is not allowed to reach the storyteller and be incorporated into a personal narrative/history.  However, a component of the cognitive unconscious may retain the memory.  This might account for unusual and inexplicable behavior on the part of the child.  She can not explain an extreme sensitivity to people touching her legs.  However, it causes extreme discomfort, evoking significant anxiety.  It is only when someone suggests the theory of repressed memories that the woman can create a story about it.  Her decision to wear pants instead of shorts, avoid dancing, and other situations that require close physical contact suddenly makes sense.  So my point is that evil can occur and have last side effects without the victim being able to articulate a story about it.  Evil can affect the cognitive unconscious and not reach the storyteller through the process of repression. 

Unfortunately, society can not take action against evil acts that the victim can not tell a story about.   There is a great example in John Irving's novel, The World According to Garp.  A series of young girls are raped and their tongues are cut out to prevent identification of the rapist.  Finally the perpetrator screws up by raping a girl who is old enough to write and identify him in print.  He is caught and prosecuted for the rapes if I remember correctly. 

anneliese's picture

heard it differently

I understood the notion of "no evil without story" a bit differently - the story doesn't have to come from the person who experienced the violence, it doesn't even have to come during that person's lifetime - thus, the storyteller (witness?) by virtue of whom a given instance of evil is constructed and brought into existence could be anyone...

alesnick's picture

connecting legal system and story

I appreciate this: Unfortunately, society can not take action against evil acts that the victim can not tell a story about. Thanks! The idea that society can't take action without stories makes me think about how the legal system engages people as storytellers and listeners.  It goes forward from narrative to narrative -- the rules also arise out of narrative conflicts -- right?  Similarly, on the level of individuals, we need stories from one another in order to exchange . . . ideas, .aid, insight, challenge -- I don't mean to say that stories are our only modes of access to one another; I recognize others, and imagine still more that I can't recognize though my unconscious does. 

anneliese's picture

book page created

Thanks, Alice, for initiating the follow-up and (hopefully) coaxing the long-dormant forum back to life. Have, albeit slightly belatedly, created separate page for this book - further comments welcome here and/or there.

alesnick's picture

a bit more on evil, stories, and protecting the most vulnerable

As I seek to uncover the framework of my resistance to the idea that there is no evil without stories, what I find is a conviction that this itself could be a false story (a product of false consciousness).  My sense is that the most vulnerable beings -- babies, for example -- are not in a position to tell their own stories of what happens to them without their causing/contributing to it in any way.  My further sense is that to be able to construct and to tell a story of such things is a crucial source of protection -- so, without stories, no protection -- not, without stories, no evil.


Paul Grobstein's picture

slippery brain in a larger context?

Looking forward to our next meeting.  In meanwhile, many thanks for conversations to date that contributed importantly to Cultures of Ability, my recent effort to pull some threads together.  Let me know what you think, in the forum there or otherwise ...

jrlewis's picture

interesting quote...

"Perhaps a useful analogy would be the properties of a small organic molecule, such as sugar or vitamin C.  The position of each atom is localized with respect to the others.  Each distinct atom has characteristic properties of its own- for example, oxygen is very different from hydrogen.  The overall behavior of the molecule, however, depends on how the constituent atoms interact with each other, even though some atoms are usually more important than others.  Sometimes the electrons that link the atoms together are fairly localized.  In other cases, as in aromatic compounds like benzene, some of them are distributed over a number of atoms."

-Francis Crick in "The Astonishing Hypothesis"

Laura Cyckowski's picture

"from the inside"

This article from the NY Times was forwarded to me: Taking Mental Snapshots to Plumb Our Inner Selves, which discusses the work of psychologist Russell Hurlburt. The article essentially concerns the attempts and feasability of getting a look at what goes on inside our heads and it is implied that there is a reality to the inner self. From how the article portrays Dr. Hurlburt, I think I like him. He says: "Maybe it’s a defensive maneuver on my part, but my rationale is that I don’t want to infect myself with some theory about how the world is. I would like to see the way the world is without having a theory about it." At any rate, his approach is to probing the inner self is introspection. His experiements have had people wear beepers throughout the day which beep at random times and prompt the individuals to record what was going through their head.

Whether or not this is a good experimental methodology, I find it really fun to think about the ways in which people differ from one another in their stream of consciousness. Evidently, people differ quite significantly:

“My research says that there are a lot of people who don’t ever naturally form images, and then there are other people who form very florid, high-fidelity, Technicolor, moving images,” he said. Some people have inner lives dominated by speech, body sensations or emotions, he said, and yet others by “unsymbolized thinking” that can take the form of wordless questions like, “Should I have the ham sandwich or the roast beef?”

... Differences in thinking style may also help explain some aspects of mental illness. In studies conducted with Sharon Jones-Forrester and Stephanie Doucette, Dr. Hurlburt found that bulimic women experienced a clutter of simultaneous thoughts that could often be cleared by purging.

I'm pretty sure I know how to characterize my own stream of consciousness, which I think is dominated by visual images as well as emotion, often simulatenous different "things". But I plan to pay more attention. Maybe this is something we can discuss as it relates to "slippery brains".

On a somewhat related note (I'm not yet sure how though), I have been thinking of the virtue of "reacting" to things rather than "critiquing" them. Maybe being more aware of the nature of one's stream of consciousness would let someone react more to things, though presumably with such variability this would be easier/harder for some people. Reacting to things versus critiquing them would seem to add a much richer, subjective perspective on things, contributing to the diversity of other perspectives...

anneliese's picture

clarifying the distinction

Can you say more about the distinction between reacting vs. critiquing? Did follow link, but am still left wondering what exactly is meant... Imagine "reacting" refers to something along the lines of engaging/interacting with things, discovering more about oneself in the process, flexibility, openness to change, whereas "critiquing" implies a distancing and a defense of already held beliefs...yes?

Laura Cyckowski's picture

Obama as "slippery-brained"

Have been talking with Professor Grobstein about "doing things with no clear or decided overall purpose". To be less abstract, for me personally there's lots of things I like/would like to do (job-wise, hobby-wise, etc.) but they don't seem to "go together", I don't see where they will all lead. I feel like they have to all come together to fulfill a single, ultimate purpose. William James came up in this discussion and he is apparently one who did what interested him without any consideration of the bigger picture.

There was an op-ed piece in the NYT ("More Poetry, Please" - 31 Oct, 2009) about Obama that reminded me of this particular way of doing things. The writer in the column is voicing a concern that Obama's (seemingly-disconnected for the moment) efforts on health care, foreign policies, education, economics, and so on lack a "narrative". To quote,

"He has not tied all his programs into a single narrative that shows the links between his health care, banking, economic, climate, energy, education and foreign policies. Such a narrative would enable each issue and each constituency to reinforce the other and evoke the kind of popular excitement that got him elected."

Maybe Obama is like James, and we should give his policies time to come together, maybe that will lead to something better than it otherwise would. At any rate perhaps those of us who are slippery-brain/James likeminded and lack clear goals or narratives should be patient with ourselves, and others should be patient with such personality characteristics.

Paul Grobstein's picture

slippery brain = tinkerer = fox?

Yep, the James story is indeed one of learning to accept, even appreciate slippery brainedness, at least in Robert D. Richardson's telling of it in William James: In the Maelstrom of American Modernism.  And I think there is indeed a significant connection to the Obama piece.  Another connection is to Claude Levi-Strauss' distinction between "tinkerers" and "engineers."  And another is to Isaiah Berlin's distinction between "foxes" and "hedgehogs."   "Slippery brain" is the "tinkerer" or "fox" in each of us, the grist on which the "engineer" or "hedgehog" can work?  

anneliese's picture

Fall Reading

 Great meeting last night - thanks! Bits I remember:

  • the key distinction between autistic brains and "typical" brains is not the focus on parts versus whole (raw details versus concepts or stories)
  • Grandin demonstrates that she can and does create bigger stories (in words and in images)
  • it's not (per Paul) about language ("narrowly defined"), either, though language plays a part...
  • it may be, rather, the lack of a shared vocabulary or means of communicating the bigger, composite stories/pictures to others whose brains tend to construct more or less similar stories
  • ...this may be yet another definition of "slippery brain"
  • Grandin, in her writing, is as slippery as Antonetta (although I did not experience her this way, thanks to the signposts)

There was more, of course, but those are the points that stuck for me. Others?

I'm also thrilled that everyone liked the idea of reading some Nietzsche, who (based on his fictional depiction in Yalom's When Nietzsche Wept) struck me as a rather slippery-brained individual. Our next book will therefore be Thus Spoke Zarathustra. I'll check in with everyone in a few weeks to see whether it makes sense to cover the book in two sessions rather than one.

Be well,


anneliese's picture

case in point true slippery-brain fashion, we collectively decided to shift gears and jump from Zarathustra to Uncle Tungsten. I'm still interested in Nietzsche (though maybe a different piece of writing?), and perhaps we can revisit him at a later date, if there's general interest. 

Next meeting, as noted above, will be on Saturday, Nov. 21, at 10:00 AM. Hope to see you there!


Paul Grobstein's picture

The balance of parts and wholes in autism and neurotypicals

Anneliese beautifully captured above what may well be the most far reaching implications of our last conversation, the possibility that not only people on the spectrum but many animals as well create and act partially in relation to "stories" or "wholes" that include somewhat arbitrary synthetic elements making the stories more than the sum of their parts.  That makes increasing sense to me and is something I want to think/explore much more in the future.  It is indeed possible that  a tendency of "neurotypicals"  to discount story telling in others is actually because neurotypicals have trouble hearing/responding to stories in a style different from the one they have in common/are used to. 

In the meanwhile, though, I also don't want to neglect Temple Grandin's compelling argument, for me at least, that the particular story telling style of neurotypicals has some significant downsides.  "Attentional blindness" is a striking example of this, increasingly well documented and recognized.  But Grandin also suggests that neurotypicals are more likely to dissociate than other story tellers, that "repression" is a characteristic of neurotypicals lacking in autistic people and other animals.  And there is the very interesting possiblity that less emphasis on neurotypical forms of story may make interpersonal interactions less fraught in both autistic humans and other animals.  

I'm very much intrigued by the notion that a number of context dependent deficits of this sort in neurotypicals may reflect a greater reliance on "top down" processing, and so on descriptors of "wholes" rather than parts.  Perhaps the resolution of Grandin's emphasis on this, and our discussion, is in "greater reliance on" top-down processing in neurotypicals rather than an absence of it in others?

anneliese's picture

explore how?

 "...the possibility that not only people on the spectrum but many animals as well create and act partially in relation to "stories" or "wholes" that include somewhat arbitrary synthetic elements making the stories more than the sum of their parts.  That makes increasing sense to me and is something I want to think/explore much more in the future."

Can you elaborate? i.e., how would you go about exploring this further?


anneliese's picture

checking in

Happy September/almost Fall -

Hope everyone is enjoying these late summer days and looking forward to interesting pursuits this fall. Sorry for the long pause - was away for 10 days and am adjusting to new schedule/routine.

Wanted to sound out everyone's availability/interest for a get-together this month. Speaking for myself, a later time would work better (say, Mondays at 8pm or Tuesdays at 7:30pm). Other thoughts? Feel free to convey these via e-mail (, if you prefer.

In the meantime, happy reading!

anneliese's picture

slippery on the big screen case you haven't already heard about it: