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.