Friday, October 23, 2015

Neurophysiological aspects of recording Homer

I’ve put on my website the 12th book of the Iliad. I always listen to my recordings when I put them on my computer; listening to the recordings is the most demanding and most beneficial part of the whole process. If I were to listen to the recordings simply to check whether I made any mistakes, the right thing would be to listen to them with the text in my hands. This was indeed what I was doing when I began to record Plato some seven years ago. I don’t remember when I began to experiment with listening to the           recordings with closed eyes, but I remember how surprised I was when I found that it was much more difficult to understand fully what I had recorded without the accompanying text in my hand.

The narrow straights of consciousness can hold only a word or two, may be three, as Homer’s poetry passes through the consciousness into the subconscious; yet each sentence must be understood as a whole, and as a whole it can ‘reside’ only in the subconscious – when I don’t have the text in front of my eyes. So the consciousness must perform a dual action; it lets the single words and phrases pass through it into the subconscious, and in cooperation with the subconscious, ‘looking into’ it, it acquires the understanding of each verse, and ends up by understanding the recorded part of the poem as a whole. The process of listening to recordings without the text in hand is a much more demanding activity for the brain, as it processes the visual and acoustic input for the sub-consciousness to transform into what I see and here; for the sub-consciousness that transforms the neurophysiological activity of the brain into Homers poetry which I am listening to; and for the consciousness, the ‘activity’ of which consists in becoming as purely receptive as possible; the moment a thought enters my consciousness, which transcends Homer’s verses as they enter and pass through my consciousness – ‘have I heard an ‘s’ at the end of the participle?’ – I lose it, the hexameters pass through my consciousness only half-understood, and I must start all over again.

From year to year, from recording to recording I’ve got better at it and reaped the benefit of it: my grasp of the Greek language has become stronger, my exposure to Greek thought more pronounced, and its effect on my wellbeing more profound. As far as my physical constitution is concerned, I cannot but observe a steady decline, although I do my best to slow it down, but as far as my intellectual capacity is concerned, I am still making progress.

I was reflecting on self-knowledge in its relation to neurophysiology when I stumbled this summer on Kant (see the related posts on my blog). I found Kant’s Kritik der reinen Vernunft as demanding and rewarding as Plato and Aristotle, and I got much more out of it this time than when I read it some thirty years ago; I am sure it was thanks to the intervening years devoted to the Greeks.

All this concerns the wellbeing of my spiritual, non-corporeal nature. Let me now turn to recording Homer as it concerns the bodily part of my being.

My hearing is deteriorating. I don’t have a problem most of the time, only with such things as the final sigma or its omission: ‘was I right in not hearing it?’ For when Homer refers to two persons, he sometimes uses the dual, which is without an s, and the plural, which ends in s, even in one and the same sentence. Let me give an example: amphoterȏ Aiante keleutioȏnte … otrunontes (l. 265-6) … hȏs tȏ ge proboȏnte (l. 277). When I am uncertain about it, I must start the recording all over again. (I looked on Google at HEARING DIRECT; the prices of hearing aids vary from £169 to £599. Since my only income is £26.99 a week of state pension [see ‘It is all wrong – a letter to the Pension Service’ and ‘It has nothing to do with Oxford University’ posted on my blog on June 15 and 19 respectively], I cannot afford it. And so I sent an email to Oxfam in the hope they will be able to help me.).

Rightly or wrongly, I am inclined to believe that my listening to the recordings over the past seven years slowed the decline of my hearing; for it is not too bad, considering that I am 76. But even more important than hearing is my eyesight; it was its sharp decline that prompted me to record Plato in the first place. Presuming that the deterioration was caused by the defective supply of blood to my retina, I began to exercise my eyes every evening and every morning, simply rolling the eyes from right to left, from left to right, in the hope that my retina would benefit from the increased blood flow that this exercise stimulated. And indeed, my eyesight appears to have ceased deteriorating, or at least the deterioration has slowed down. In the last few months I decided to do one more thing. The ciliary muscle that contracts and relaxes the lenses needs blood supply, my bifocals make it lazy; and so I decided to go for the daily walks with my dog without glasses, to force the ciliary muscle to require more blood, and thus hopefully further stimulate the blood flow to the retina. I think it helped. Before I started doing this, I could not differentiate between navy blue and black. After a few walks without my glasses I suddenly realized: my jumper is not black but navy blue, as my wife and my children have been saying all along.

Let me end by reflecting on the effects that recording Homer may have on my brain functions. I looked on Google, what the experts have to say on ‘brain fitness’; ‘Exercise !’ has a prominent place in all their recommendations; that my brain – visual cortex, auditory cortex, centre controlling speech perception and production, motor centre controlling the function of vocal cords and of muscles involved in speaking – is exercised by virtue of recording Homer is obvious.

My perception of each letter is mediated by the visual system, beginning with the cones and rods on the retina and ending with the visual cortex. Carpenter and Reddi write in their Neurophysiology: ‘Receptors in the eye convey information about only a miniscule part of the retinal image, in effect a single pixel, but after a few levels have been passed, in the visual cortex, we find units that are able to respond to a specific type of stimulus, such as a moving edge, over wide areas of the visual field (p. 10).’ Registering the shapes of each letter of the Greek Alphabet by means of the action potentials and chemical transmitters and neural circuits is quite a feat. The neural long term memory must be involved; the same patterns of neural circuits must responds – and each time be targeted and found – to each letter as I am reading the text. But when I read the text, I read it in terms of words, phrases, and sentences, not in terms of individual letters. Greek grammar is complicated; the same nouns have different forms as they are declined, verbs have different forms as they are conjugated within the framework of different sentences. There must be involved very sophisticated recognition and recollection processes by virtue of which these linguistic features are registered and remembered as required on the neurophysiological level.

But I don’t just read the text with my eyes, I read it aloud; the motor control and acoustic feedback must be involved. Let me quote again Carpenter and Reddi: ‘Raw sense information enters through the eyes or ears, and is analysed by successive levels to the point at which letters, words, and other syntactic units are recognized. At the highest level, meaning comes about by association of these symbols with other kinds of sensory information to form concepts; these in turn may result in speech or writing by an exactly converse process of elaboration down the motor side, ending up with the firing of motor neurons in appropriate patterns to form phonemes or fragments of writing or typing.’ (p. 263)

Mistakes are prone to occur in any part of this process – my eyes betray me, I mistake the rough breathing for the soft one, reading hoios for oios; my vocal cords betray me, I aspirate kappa, misled by x (read as aspirated kh) especially in such words as xalkoxi/twnej. I must read the text aloud at least once before I start recording; the corresponding neural circuits must be formed, and kept functional for the duration of my recording by virtue of the short term neural memory. It is very rare that I can be satisfied with my first recording. Many times I must redo a single recording eight or ten times, most often aborting just partial recordings, when I hear a mistake as I am recording the text. It is a blessing when it suddenly all works well and I can be happy with the result.

As I have pointed out in the ‘Self-knowledge as an imperative’ on my website and in my discussion with David Parker on self-knowledge and neurophysiology on my blog, all our sensory, emotional, and intellectual experience as such, i.e. as experienced by us (we don’t experience the neural activities proceeding in our brains), is the function of our spiritual, non-corporeal nature. But this activity has its neurophysiological correlatives, and so I have no problem with Carpenter and Reddi’s ‘at the highest level, meaning comes about … to form concepts’, for the meaning of words and phrases, concepts, which as such are formed and apprehended on the spiritual, non-corporeal level, must have their correlatives in the functional formation of corresponding neural circuits and interconnections.

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