This past week I came up with a writing prompt for Ben. The idea this time is not to replicate the way zebra finches learn to sing, but to pay homage to it. I asked Ben to think of a skill that could be taught to another person, and write instructions for that skill transfer in the second-person imperative voice (you must cut the tomatoes, turn on the fan, filter the coffee through the copper sieve). Once the base text is complete, we’d pick an arbitrary number, n, and change every nth word in the text to something new and random, much like I’ve been doing in my poem prompt. Then Ben will need to course-correct the text, but can only do so by modulating the three words that immediately precede and follow the nth words. The next iteration would be to pick a new number, x, change every xth word, and repeat the course correction. In this way, speech/words become sound analogs, and instead of error-correcting the pitch of a song the way a juvenile bird does, we’re error-correcting meaning.
My poem iterations now seem like a machine had a hand at writing them, which is interesting since we’ve also talked about machine learning and algorithmically generated texts for this project. But to break free from rule-based writing, I started jotting down notes on memory and consciousness for another project. It’s relevant at this point to mention that I have a three-month old baby, and that I’ve been doing a lot of associative thinking about how her brain is developing. I think that every time she wakes from sleep, she’s coming to terms with her existence, which can be overwhelming to handle (if not terrifying) for a creature with poor muscle control and few life experiences. So she wakes up, begins to cry, and calms when I approach because she remembers me. I want to know what memory means for a baby, and how the adults we become are overlaid upon those early memories. I asked Ben if early memories are erased and overwritten like in computer systems, or if the physical structures of those early nerve networks “lignify” the way trees preserve the branching patterns of their past, sapling selves. It turns out neither of these metaphors works well enough to explain what might actually be going on, and so I’ve got some course-corrective notes to work with now.
The other thing we discussed was the nature of consciousness. I’ve still not wrapped my head around all this, since Ben’s given me a lot to think about regarding the lack of vocabulary or conceptual definitions that people can agree on before we decide what is or isn’t conscious. But for me this line of thought begins with open speculation on how much (or little) it takes to create a complete neural network (with input and output structures) in a petri dish. I fell into a research wormhole on brain organoids (pea-sized, self-organized, differentiated neuron bundles made from scratch out of human stem cells) and the ethics of creating and using them. More on that at a later date.
The back-and-forth chatter this week has included thoughts on 1) how minds are depicted in fiction and whether those depictions are accurate; 2) how can linguistics inform how we conduct our poem iteration process; and 3) whether there is a locus for creativity when considering the way bird brains operate when producing song.
Ben’s already written in his post about Strange Bodies by Marcel Theroux (which I’ve not read yet), and “Shakespeare’s Memory” by Jorge Luis Borges (which I luckily have a copy of, and promptly read). Shakespeare’s memory, which is bequeathed to the narrator in a strange verbal agreement, emerges in the narrator’s mind in disconnected fragments and sensations triggered by random associations with things in the narrator’s world. Many of the memories are aural in nature, which I find pleasing because it relates directly to our experimental birdsong poem project while also ringing true to Shakespeare’s own marvelous ear, and his ability to transcribe everything from romance to politicking in metrical verse.
Ben’s also had a conversation with a linguist this past week to get a sense of how the rules we’ve set for our birdsong poem project could be improved. One of the points the linguist raised was if we’re manipulating our poem pattern with random mutations, we need to consider what the minimum unit of mutation is. Consider these lines from Shakespeare’s Sonnet 73*:
That time of year thou mayst in me behold,
When yellow leaves, or none, or few, do hang
Upon those boughs which shake against the cold,
Bare ruined choirs, where late the sweet birds sang;
Is the unit a word (“against”), or a syllable (“be” or “hold”), or a subclause “where late the sweet birds sang”?
For now, we’ve been mutating our poem at the word level, but for each iteration, the mutation is either completely random (“birds” replaced by “swam”) or grammatically consistent (“birds,” a plural noun, replaced by “socks”).
While we continue following these rules, one of my tasks this week is to set up rules to have Ben manipulate a new poem or piece of text on a syllabic level. This could either mean random syllable replacement (“behold” becomes “nahold”—something nonsensical) or associative syllable replacement (“behold” becomes “rehold”—which means something else).
Why are we doing this, you ask? Because we’re both curious what randomness leads to in terms of meaning-making. Ben put it best: If we try to faithfully copy the zebrafinch juvenile’s learning process, we’ll end up reproducing the poem I first wrote—instead, we’re using the model of the finch’s learning system to lead us to someplace unexpected and potentially exciting. I find this to be a satisfyingly artful ambition in our very scientifically structured process of poem writing.
Meanwhile, learning about zebrafinch mimicry has got me thinking about birds that create original songs or improvise wildly. I’m curious about the models we have for understanding how improvisation or “creativity” occurs in other bird species. We talked a little about this and I have some new reading material on the evolution of vocal learning in birds, but I’ll leave that train of thought for later blog post.
*No, I do not know the Sonnets by heart, I just Googled, “Shakespeare sonnet bird.”
Geetha and I continue to work on our poem algorithm. I am excited to see how it is going, but at the moment she is writing and I am merely supplying random words without any knowledge of the content that she is creating. As this poem continues, we have developed a few new ideas for modifying the algorithm. Geetha will design the next set of rules and I will be the writing agent. In the meantime, I have been looking into alternative mechanisms for generating noise in the writing process. I met with Charles Chang, a linguistics professor, to explain the project and get some inspiration from models of human speech.
To capture the bird’s process of injecting acoustic noise into the song, I’ve been sampling words at random (using a uniform distribution) from the dictionary. However, computer algorithms that generate poems that humans can read and enjoy select words based on the transition probabilities between words that are observed in the English text. It would be interesting to incorporate this type of approach into our algorithm. Incorporating transition probabilities to bias the randomness should allow the noise to produce something more coherent. Another cool feature of this approach is that it could be extended from words to syllables. This would allow the generation of new words similar to English words, but that do not currently exist. Hmm…
This week’s blog post is pretty short, since the “experimental songbird poem” project is ongoing. Ben’s rules for the poem structure have been fun to work with, but have also resulted in a rather strange-sounding text that feels to me a little like nonsense rhyme and a little like a robotic parrot. I’m nearly at a point with my end of the writing process to have Ben interject, and I think it might be interesting to eventually provide an annotated document of how the text (and its meaning) changed over each iteration.
One of the features of Ben’s rules is that I can switch out words or break them up or fuse them together. I’ve found that in all of these instances, I’ve resorted so far to words that echo the sound of the word that was replaced (think “home” to “stone” or “tread” to “thread”). I’ve also noticed that up to now I’ve been trying to maintain some kind of meaning as I’ve tinkered with the lines I first wrote. It will be interesting to see how much more nonsense the text becomes once Ben starts throwing no-context words into the mix.
In the meantime, I asked Ben to clarify some aspects of how juvenile songbirds learn from their fathers, and whether they are influenced by the singing of their clutch-mates. Ben’s explanation of the process intrigues me because it suggests that while mimicry is the end goal, other factors can influence the final song: clutch-mates, for example, or being raised by a father of a different species (and thus different type of song). Something I might want to try out next is to work with a pre-existing text that one of us will “sing” and the other will have to “copy”—if the end goal is for the copier to recreate the original text, how much information can the “singer” give for the copier to be able to recreate it (with iterative trial and error)? I’m imagining a game of 20 questions, but for whole sentences rather than words.
Geetha asked me recently about my experience as a consumer of science communication, be it art or journalism or fiction. She asked if I ever get “peeved” when the author writes something inaccurate or misleading about a research topic I am familiar with. It’s a great question. If I must be completely honest, the answer is, well, yes, a little bit, sometimes. However, on the whole I have great respect and enthusiasm for science communication, and I don’t think that minor annoyances reflect a systemic problem. If anything, I think there should be more science communication! A main reason I was motivated to participate in this exciting collaboration through the SciArt initiative was to join in the conversation between artists, writers, poets and scientists.
What’s more, I don’t think that getting peeved by art or literature is a bad thing. Disagreement over the interpretation of a study or piece of data is at the heart of the scientific process, and many people do their best work in response to a claim that struck them as odd or inaccurate. If we were to rewrite mythology, we could add a new muse, Annoyance, to be the patron of creativity. I have sometimes felt her inspiration. I remember reading a book a few years ago called Strange Bodies by Marcel Theroux. This book is in the literary science fiction genre, not my typical interest, but it was recommended by my partner who worked at the book’s publisher. The plot centers around a mysterious and experimental soviet-era neurotechnology. I enjoyed the writing and read it straight through, until, upon learning about the details of the technology, I threw the book across the room in disgust. There were some serious problems with the authors’ representation of memory. However, the scientific problem poised in the novel was an interesting one – I can’t say more without spoiling the plot – and it inspired me to think about my own research from a new perspective.
Of course, I appreciate authors who write with great insight about neuroscience themes. Jorge Luis Borges is an example of someone who writes very well about memory, and the short story Shakespeare’s Memory is particularly good. In a style that is more magical realism than sci-fi, it tells the story of an academic scholar who comes into possession of a strange gift. The result is a deeply satisfying exploration at the interface of philosophy, psychology and neuroscience.
Setting rules and imposing rigor is antithetical to the way I normally work. I think that’s why I write fiction, where I can send a character careening off a cliff for the sake of a plot point and then turn them into a cloud of dragonflies - because fiction lets you break rules that way.
So this week’s challenge has been particularly interesting. Ben and I had discussed ways in which to have language mirror thought processes and settled upon an experiment to illustrate how young male zebra finches learn songs from their fathers. To that end, we decided to work on some experimental poetry based on the sound pattern of the finches’ song—the idea being that setting a meter and rhythm to the words would evoke what happens as the juvenile finches experiment and elaborate and settle upon a song structure of their own.
I’ve been tasked with writing a poem based on this initial birdsong structure: Tan-Tan Tan-Tan Tan. There are a whole bunch of other rules (perhaps Ben will share them in his blog post), but my challenge right now is to follow the pattern pre-set for me. I’m instinctively resistant to that. What’s funny is that I imagine this is kind of how the juvenile finch’s brain might work subconsciously. Everything goes according to routine, which is a kind of comfort, and then a random instruction pops into the head to try something new and wild. The brain needs to resettle, to decide whether or not to accept the random insertion*.
I got started on writing a poem based on these rules but can’t share it yet because Ben’s playing the random input generator to my stereotypic poem-writing. I could be composing an ode to crocodiles right now, and he could ask me to use the word “xylophonic” in the midst of that. By this time next week you might see the fruits of this experimental process and some reflection on whether it works or not!
*It just occurs to me to ask Ben whether selecting the insertion is based on the finches’ version of aesthetic choices. If it sounds good, keep it, if not, go back to the base pattern? Obviously, aesthetics matter when writing a poem, but birdsong that’s used for courtship must indicate fitness in the form of creativity or originality or something else analogous to aesthetics, yes? Does a juvenile finch think about the prettiness of its song?
Geetha and I are running a test of a new procedure for writing a poem. The procedure is modeled after aspects of how songbirds learn to sing (Tchernichovski et al. 2001). We made a list of rules that govern how the words and rhythm of the poem can be changed. The interesting wrinkle we added is that each change the author makes to a word has a chance of making an additional random change to the poem. This was an attempt to capture the random noise fluctuations that occur in young birds’ songs (Ölveczky, et al. 2005).
Geetha is currently writing the first poem based on this procedure and I am eager to read the results. I expect that we may have to tweak the procedure based on her experience. The amount of random noise and content of the noise are key variables that we need to explore. Two inspirations I am currently researching are the disorganized speech characteristic of some mental illnesses (Kuperberg 2010), and text produced by statistical models of communication (Shannon 1948). To be continued….
Kuperberg, G.R., 2010. Language in schizophrenia part 1: an introduction. Language and linguistics compass, 4(8), pp.576-589.
Ölveczky, B.P., Andalman, A.S. and Fee, M.S., 2005. Vocal experimentation in the juvenile songbird requires a basal ganglia circuit. PLoS biology, 3(5), p.e153.
Shannon, C.E., 1948. A mathematical theory of communication. Bell system technical journal, 27(3), pp.379-423.
Tchernichovski, O., Mitra, P.P., Lints, T. and Nottebohm, F., 2001. Dynamics of the vocal imitation process: how a zebra finch learns its song. Science, 291(5513), pp.2564-2569.
I’ve continued to mull over the different ways that rats’ and zebra finches’ brains work when asleep. The idea of a rat’s brain firing off at a speed much faster than real-time versus a finch dreaming at a slower pace got me wondering, “What is the speed of thought for a given species?” If that question is pared down to the speed at which a neuron works, what controls that speed? Neuron length, diameter, number of branches in a given neuron, number of ion channels that have to reset after the neuron fires? I asked Ben about this in a long-winded attempt at figuring out writing prompts that we could tackle together. The basic idea was to set rules that govern how we write so that we could use that to “mirror” or embody how an animal might think. So, if you’re writing from the perspective of a fast animal, what happens if you limited your sentence length to only five words? For a slow animal, what if each sentence had to be twenty-three words long? Here’s a text-based doodle of what that might look like:
“This is a fast animal. It thinks rapidly to survive. It needs food, water, shelter. Something's always hunting it down.”
“And this slow animal meanders through a grassland sniffing at interesting mosses and accidentally comes upon a fallen apple, whose rotting juices it enjoys. When it looks up to consider the sun’s tilt it feels a ripple of chill upon its pelt and knows to turn home.”
Setting rules before writing has multiple purposes - not the least of which is to provide structure when you’re not sure where to go with a theme as grand as “the brainscape.” But what’s more interesting to me is this idea of “embodiment”—that the way you write can force a reader to think or feel in a certain way. Ben’s excited about this idea too, so one of our next steps is to perhaps consider which animals’ mindscapes we’re most interested in exploring. He suggested writing from the perspectives of single cell organisms up to multicellular organisms, and transitioning from solitary organisms to groups. I think that could be super cool. Does a single-celled creature’s “thought” reflect in language pared down only to single syllable words? Does a group of animals have a hive mind, and thus allow us to play with the second person plural perspective: “We think, therefore we conquer”? One of the goals this week is to hash that out and write something that we can swap with each other.
This past week Geetha and I have been exploring content. One thorny problem that interests us both is how to represent the mind of others, in particular the internal mental states of animals. I am often impressed with the ability of some fiction writers, Kazuo Ishiguro for example, who are able to write first person narratives in the voices of different people. I image that it requires a special combination of empathy, imagination and experience to pull off. Embodying the minds of an animal presents an even more difficult problem. From the little that we know, the sensory world they live in can be quite different from ours, as many species have sensory systems that we do not have or utilize in the same way. Their brain structure can also be quite different. Some animal brains lack an obvious analogue to the structures we believe to be important to components of our behavior. So what is the solution? Communication would be a useful place to start depending on the species as it seems to be the key to understanding the minds of other humans. However, this has been challenging to establish, even in animals like dogs who are relatively adept at communicating with humans or like primates that are so similar to us in appearance, behavior and genetics. Another difficulty is feedback. How do we know we have written an accurate rendition of a dog’s interior world? These problems are not only faced by writers but by neuroscientists as well. “What is it like to be a bat”, published by Thomas Nagel in 1974, is still a relevant critique of an objectivist approach to understanding subjective experience. Geetha and I have discussed ways to leverage what is known about neural processing in animals to inspire our collaboration. One idea is to try to mimic the activity of neural circuits in our writing and editing process. We’ll see how it goes!
Last week Ben and I talked about the nature of cognitive processing in the rats and songbirds he studies. One of the many things he mentioned that I hadn’t previously known about was the importance of random processing and its effect on learning. Here’s a greatly paraphrased summary of his explanation: One part of the brain operates based on pre-learned or pre-programmed patterns, so that it knows how to effectively do a thing when presented with a problem. Another part of the brain fires at random, essentially jigging the animal off-course when doing something pre-patterned. At first, I thought this must be maladaptive, because surely it creates an error in something honed through evolution or learned from prior experience. But Ben went on to explain that random error introduction creates a new problem for the animal to solve—essentially, it’s a way for animal to learn new things, or behave more flexibly than before.
We went on to talk about sleep and dream states in songbirds in rats (more on that later), but what I started to think about how to introduce randomness or unpredictability in writing. Examples include “choose your adventure”-style interactive storytelling, video-game based storytelling, hypertext narratives, mad-libs, found poems, and AI-generated poems and novels. And there’s the simple poem—fixed text on a page. The line-break, the point in a poem where you break a sentence and continue on the next line, is a visual destabilizer—it leaves you hanging until you scan to the next line, and have to recalibrate the meaning of what you previously read. In a nod to randomness, I’ll share an example that popped up by chance on my Twitter feed last week (read it, then read it again, slowly, each line independent of what comes before and after, then again as a whole). Now, if we call randomness “creativity,” it suggests something powerful about how unpredictable language can lead to unforeseen associations and insights.
Back to sleep and dreaming in animals. Ben was explaining how studies done on songbirds have shown how different parts of their brains associated with vocal production fire off during REM- or non-REM sleep (so, songbirds dream in electric tweets). He mentioned that the pattern of activity in their brains is similar to the speed at which they sing when they are awake. Rats exhibit another kind of dream state wherein the part of their brain that processes movement through space fires off—but at a greatly accelerated speed. Ben used the term “fictive navigation,” to describe this activity in rats, and here’s where randomness and my writing connect this week. I find that phrase incredibly evocative, and am now thinking about what it means to capture the mental state of a rodent imagining a world it runs through at many times the speed of life. Have you ever had those dreams where you’re effortlessly marathoning through the neighborhoods of your childhood and haven’t broken a sweat and are exhilarated to discover you’re across the ocean now? Where on earth does a rat go in such a dream state?—a writing prompt I have to figure out.
Geetha and I have discussed approaches for this collaboration including creative direction, communication style and process. Along the lines of format, several possibilities were proposed. Mixed media was an interesting idea and Geetha shared an awesome video she had worked on, highlighting the work of Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute scientist Julia Schuckel on insect night vision. Another suggestion was writing poetry and I think writing fiction or non-fiction could be on the table as well. Intellectually there seems to be a large space of possible directions and we have discussed ways to narrow these down.
Through our conversations I came to understand my approach to and expectations of collaboration a bit more. In my past experience as a researcher, all collaborations have fit a fairly similar pattern. I work closely with the other person, meeting regularly, often face-to-face daily. The goal is clear from the outset, yet there is an understanding that the goal may change as when in the course of research something more interesting is uncovered. We work together on all aspects of the project and when it comes time, the writing is done together, sometimes with several people. Come to think of it, all the paper I have written were the result of this process, this has never been a solo endeavor.
I can’t tell which part of this process is the most difficult to abandon, but having a clear goal might be it. Having a goal from the outset is comforting and clarifying. It provides a direction for the first few steps and the confidence to know that you aren’t about to wander off a creative cliff. It gives me the motivation to work, keeps the wheels from spinning and helps to prioritize and make time for the project.
This week I’ve been thinking a lot about the words we use to describe how brains work. What is a “thought,” or a “dream,” in the mind of a human, and to what extent can those terms be applied to other animals. As a science writer, I’m cautious about attributing human-like characteristics to other animals. Humans generally have the capacity to verbalize or otherwise describe their motivations. Since we can’t communicate with other animals in the same way, we can’t really know how they think and feel the way we intuit what humans think or feel based on what they say or do. As a science writer, I worry about anthropomorphizing.
But when I write fiction and poetry, I anthropomorphize all the time, because this is a tool that can be used to inhabit other points of view. And this is not just about seeing the world from the eyes of a cat or a shrimp. If I say, “The wind plays piano upon the palm leaves,” I’m taking the liberty of anthropomorphizing wind so that a reader might understand the view out of my window—it’s not just leaf blades moving up and down in a breeze, there’s a light rhythm to it, an undulation that feels musical.
Something I’m hoping to get out of this collaborative experience is to see where my language needs to be more careful in describing how other animals’ brains process the world, and where I can take liberty with language to imagine something unknowable. Ben mentioned in his previous blog post that art might “provide an alternative means to investigate the unknown and overlooked […] to explore new territories which are currently inaccessible to existing scientific methods.” I find that exciting because it gives us a means to bridge* what is currently known about how animal brains operate with what we’d like to know as we continue to study them.
*Yep, I see what I did there.
Hello, fellow sci-art enthusiasts! I’m Geetha. I once wanted to be a biologist but then meandered from genetics to ecology to environmental education to creative writing, which is why you find me here at The Bridge. I write fiction, poetry, and nonfiction, much of which incorporates scientific research in some capacity. Sometimes the research turns into speculative fiction - such as an NYTimes article about tardigrades living in Arctic moss balls that inspired a short fabulist story about preserving mementos of species on the brink of extinction.
Other times, it can fuel poetry. For instance, a conversation with a Panamanian scientist at another sci-art residency I was part of became a poem that meditates on the economic versus inherent value of such things as golden frogs, the yellow silk of orb weaver spiders, the metal gold, and the brief yellow blooms of a tree species native to Panama.
Nonfiction is perhaps the most obvious way to bridge science and writing. As is probably evident by now, I live in Panama, which means I take much of my day-to-day inspiration from this country’s incredible natural diversity. That resulted, for instance, in an essay on how caring for tadpoles of a poison frog native to this region turned into a research-based obsession with everything that poison frogs are and do. They produce skin toxins (ask me how and I’ll tell you a story). They go to great lengths to care for their young (I could talk about this for hours). They have brains capable of complex decision-making (I follow the scientists who study their brains the way other people follow rock stars or Instagram influencers).
Science is fun, and awe-inspiring, and changes what we know about the world we live in. It also, I hope, changes our sense of responsibility to the world. I write about ecosystems and conservation and animal behavior and plant beauty for a reason. We’re exploiting the natural world and will be poorer for it when we find we’ve driven most organisms to the brink of extinction and despoiled most of the terrain we share with them. Writing preserves a record. It celebrates. It eulogizes. It warns. It inspires. I would argue that science does all this as well. To me, it seems the most natural thing to be adjacent to science as a writer, which is why I’m so excited to be a part of The Bridge this year.
I’m also thrilled to work with Ben, who studies neurobiology and animal cognition. I won’t attempt to describe what he does without getting to know more firsthand, but animal cognition has been an ongoing obsession of mine. I’ve been thinking about how poison frogs think, of course, but also how cephalopods do so with a decentralized nervous system that runs through their limbs, and how social insects operate by aggregating the sensory knowledge of many tiny brains. This branch of science is such good fodder for poetry, for speculative fiction, for essays on what is alien versus familiar in non-human minds. Here’s to a productive collaboration!
My collaborator Geetha asked what drew me to apply for this residency and what my connection (or desire for connection) to the arts might be.
The first question is easier to address. Two of my favorite components of working in science are collaborating with people and explaining new research discoveries and concepts in a way that can be easily understood by a general audience. I hoped that this residency would offer an opportunity and a challenge in both domains.
My connection to the arts is more difficult to summarize. Like (most?) people I am a consumer of art. I was a projectionist (16mm and 35mm) at my college film group and a radio DJ in both college and graduate school. I try to find time to read fiction and feel lucky to live in a city with a number of excellent museums. I would also like to find new ways to interact with the art and the artistic process. In my field we explore new ideas through experimentation, data collection, and analysis. This process is immensely powerful and beautiful, but it proceeds much more slowly than the speed at which we think and communicate. What excites me about art is that it seems to provide an alternative means to investigate the unknown and overlooked. I would like to use art to explore new territories which are currently inaccessible to existing scientific methods. My hope is that Geetha and I may be able to do this together.