Friday, June 12, 2009

Advent of Gabriel

I have not figured out how and why yet, but I do observe that creative people sometimes have very strong visions, bordering on the hallucinatory, which would, taken literally, raise the eyebrows of a rationalist.

I met with one of Japan's leading photographers, Shimpei Asai, the other day. One of Shimpei's famous works was when he photographed the Beatles Japan Tour in 1966. He captured the Fabulous Four in many interesting poses while they relaxed in Tokyo hotel rooms, etc.

Shimpei is a man of common sense and a sharp sense of aesthetics. I enjoyed the conversation hugely, appreciating his deep understanding of the human condition. Then, in the middle of our conversation, he mentioned matter-of-factly that he had a guardian angel named Gabriel.

"Gabriel would come while, for example, I am having a meeting with a group of editors. When I notice that Gabriel has entered the room, I would smile to Him. I smile very secretly, so that the people around me don't notice it".

The advent of Gabriel was so sudden that it took me by surprise. But then, the conversation was practical and quite logical otherwise. Gabriel was the only hint of "insanity" (in the conventional sense) that came along during our two hours long discourse. Shimpei was very considerate of people's feelings, exhibited a broad knowledge, and above all very intelligent. Gabriel was like a gush of wind that suddenly came and then went away, leaving an enchanting fragrance.

I wonder if there isn't always a Gabriel in creative people's mind life.

Thursday, June 11, 2009

Experimentation

I regard this blog as an experimentation in the expression of things I encounter during the course of my life. I started to learn English at the late age of 12 as I entered the junior high school, and then only very clumsily and slowly. That means that a vast domain of my own experience since childhood is not "tagged" and "structured" within the context of the English language.

I suspect that there is a common problem shared by people who have learned a second language only relatively late in their life. Namely, the accumulation of personal experience since infancy has not been transferred properly into the universe of the second language.

When a speaker utters a word, all the details of the history of his life is behind it, giving the speech force and energy. Only after the translation of at least the salient episodes of one's life can one be expressive in the second language.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Musical instruments

The speeches of some people reach us as heavenly music. With some people under certain situations, every second of listening to becomes a torture.

People don't realize that the art of talking is not simply that of a manipulation in meanings. When speaking, people become musical instruments. The expression "it is music to my ears" is a compliment for those who excel in this art of speech. It is not only a metaphor. It is a very accurate description of what is actually happening.

The art of speech is not unidirectional. While listening to others, people become musical instruments themselves. By immersing ourselves in the flow of words, we can resonate to what is being said, magnifying and sometimes even going beyond the original intent and scope of the speaker.

Thus, without holding a flute or sitting before a piano, we can train ourselves as musical instruments, as we go through the usual rounds of everyday life.

Tuesday, June 09, 2009

The moon girl.

I admit I used to be very clumsy in my youth. During my senior high school days, I found it difficult to talk to girls naturally. I attended a co-ed school, so there were many opportunities, real and imagined, to get friendly with my female counterparts. But these occasions almost never materialized. I was enshrined in an imaginary kingdom of books and music, and just looked straight on to the unforeseen and uncertain future.

It is not that I was not attracted to the feminine. In those days, I used to draw pictures of girls stretching one arm towards the moon in the sky. In my imagination, the moon was silvery, and glistening very brightly in the darkness of night sky. The girl had a long hair, and was always looking towards the moon, with her eyes gazing at the shining satellite of the earth. I felt a great sympathy towards this girl of strange behaviors. There was no real person who served as the model. I do not know what the moon girl symbolized.

A lot of waters have flown under the bridge, and my clumsiness melted away, opening my way for the admittance into the human race. Yet I still remember the moon girl very vividly. There is still some energy surrounding her, so apparently a part of me is still in the moonshine. To commemorate the still unnamed existence of my youth, here I make a rough reproduction of my celestial soul mate of bygone days.


The moon girl. Reproduced by the author.

Monday, June 08, 2009

Milk scare

Laughter is very much related to the emotion of fear and uneasiness. The classic act of a man tripping over a banana skin involves the danger of physical injury. The false-alarm theory postulates that laughter has evolved as a mechanism to reassure one's mates when a possibly menacing situation has dissolved. The banana skin act is comic because it hinges upon physical vulnerability, while not being actually damaging.
One is captured by an urge to burst into laughter when one is inherently fearful or uneasy. I vividly remember an example from my own childhood. When I was in the second grade of elementary school, suddenly a "milk scare" seized us boys. This was nothing serious for the health. It was a comic scare.
I don't exactly recall who started it, but I can testify that before knowing it, I was one of the active protagonists. We were served with school meals during lunch time. The idea was to say funny things or make comic gestures while somebody was drinking milk from the bottle. The victim would burst into laughter, and squirt the milk into the air. I remember a particularly effective operation when one of my best friends literally became a white fountain. After the incident, there were stains of white liquids all over. Some of them were on our faces and hands. We the brats shouted merrily in the aftermath, and bursted into peals of laughter.
Although the whole thing was done in good spirits, we were literally scared all the same. Fearing that somebody would make you laugh, you drank up the milk as soon as it was delivered. The enormous peer pressure in the form of forced milk drinking is still clear in my memory. Looking back, I think the milk scare taught me the essence of the origin of laughter, long before I came across any scientific theories of mirth.
When we became third graders, the manner in which the school meal milk was delivered was changed. The milk now came in a "Tetra Pak", with a straw attached. Drinking milk then changed from a savage gulping to a gracious sipping. The days of our milk scare were over, much to our regret and relief, although we would never admit to the relief part before our fellow brats.

Sunday, June 07, 2009

Queen of Sweetness

When I was a kid, I used to eat a lot of bad things. Outlets of dagashiya, which literally translates as "junk sweets shop", used to be our favorite hanging out places. Incredible things were consumed by today's health conscious standards. For example, there was a "sweet paper", which tasted sweet when you licked it. In addition, your tongue would turn into red due to the color additives. Modern kids will roll their eyes to hear that. Who would want to taste a just plainly sweet paper? Didn't they have more nice things to eat?
Those were the days when sweets were still considered as luxurious (I was born in 1962), and kids got a kick out of tasting sweet things. It was a time when the Queen of Sweetness reigned in the kingdom of children.
I sometimes wonder if the degree of health-consciousness at one era is not reversely correlated with the overall energy as living organisms of the members of the society. When you are full of energy to live, and are very active doing this and that, you eat and drink what you can get, and do not really care about the supposed qualities of these things. I wonder if there aren't similar phenomena in other countries and cultures.

Saturday, June 06, 2009

A double sin

Garigarikun is an ice cream bar brand popular in Japan. A few days ago, after the usual rounds of jogging in the park, I felt like eating one. I usually don't do such a thing, but it was a very warm day. Since I was going to misbehave like a kid anyway, I decided to devour the thing in the bath.
I took a copy of Anne of Windy Willows from the toilet, where I have been keeping the book for some days. I have been reading the childhood favorite little by little in the cozy comfort. Toilets are such private and relaxing spaces, and I really love to read books in them, especially, but not limited to, while I am at home.
I put myself in the bath, turned the pages of Anne of Windy Willows, and nibbled at the ice cream bar. It was a perfect setting for sweet little delinquencies. When I was a child my mother used to tell me that I should not read books in the bath. I was always doing just that, and I somehow managed to avoid learning from her well meaning advice since.
So there I was, with a book and an ice cream bar in my hands, soaked in warm water up to the shoulder. I was happy. It was perfect. All was going well until, as I was finishing the ice cream bar, the last remaining piece dropped to water. For a moment I thought of a rescue, but needless to say it was too late. I witnessed the juicy chunk melt and dissolve into nothingness. A brand new experiment in bath additives.
A few days later, I think that was actually a very delicately delivered punishment for my misbehaviors. You should never read a book in the bath, and eat an ice cream bar. That would be a double sin.

Thursday, June 04, 2009

Pain

In an artistic piece of sublime joy, you can sometimes discern a hint of pain. Take J.S. Bach's Air on the G string for example. The music is sweet, and yet in the midst of its rapturous melody you can certainly sense a taint of pain approaching from the midair.
Sanshiro is one of Soseki Natsume's early masterpieces. Sanshiro, a country boy, goes to Tokyo to enter the University. There he meets Mineko, a girl of beautiful enigma. Sanshiro finds that he can decipher the pain in the heart of Mineko's voluptuous existence. The pain in a sense foretells the eventual catastrophe of the love affair, but also is an essential accompaniment to anything of blissful beauty.

Wednesday, June 03, 2009

Cup noodles in the van seat

Despite the ups and downs, I have kept my habit of going for a run in the park forest near my house. A few months ago, I sprained my right ankle, and could not walk briskly for a while. The ankle has been recovering since, and I have started to exercise in earnest again.
This morning, I was returning from my run. I usually take a banknote with me, tucked away in my pocket, and drop by at a convenience store, to buy some drinks.
As I strolled into the car park beside the convenience store this morning, I noticed a van. In the driver's seat a man sat, sipping from his cup noodle. Evidently, it was his breakfast. Probably he did not have time to take one at home, and just dashed off to work, and had only the time to purchase a cup noodle and ask for hot water from the store clerk.
It is when I take a glimpse of these hard working people that I straighten up in my spirit. The profile of the man remained in my memory for a while. The world as we know it is made of runs in the park and men eating cup noodles in the van seat.
It looks like raining today.

Friday, May 01, 2009

Contingencies of life

The emergence of a new contagious disease makes one ponder on his own mortality.
Humans today tend to think that they are to live "forever", until old age takes its toll in the yet unforeseen future. Life, in reality, could be terminated by an unexpected incident at anytime, by contracting a new type of influenza, for example. We are gracefully oblivious of the brutal contingencies of life, protected by a false belief in the infallibility of the modern civilization.
One can draw the true radiance of vitality from within oneself only by confronting life's contingencies in the face. What the average man needs is a lesson on mortality, rather than on mortgage.
I traveled to Eisenach, Germany in January this year. In a church associated with Johann Sebastian Bach, I noticed on the wall a series of names marked by years and symbols. There were two types of symbols. One was a cross, and the other was a star. I then learned from a local gentleman that the star denotes the birth, and the cross denotes the death, of a person. What a poignant way to express the trace of an individual's life, I thought.
Johann Sebastian Bach composed many wonderful pieces. The cause of his death was the complications after a series of eye operations by an English surgeon. The bright star of music fell. All his wonderful creations could not save him from this untimely death.
Even the stars in the universe have their own life expectancies, the nuclear fuel within their systems drying up after billions of years. It's no wonder that fragile organisms composed of compounds fall. It is only natural that men are mortal.
If our days on this earth are limited, let us at least let them shine. The source of the radiance of our existence can only come from embracing the contingencies of life.


Notice of the birth and death years of church Kantors in Eisenach.

Sunday, April 19, 2009

Siegfried in Salzburg

I have been to Salzburg quite a few times, visiting my very good friend Gustav Bernroider at the University of Salzburg. The stroll in the greens as you approach the University Natural Sciences campus from the old town is very comfortable and reveals something to the soul. This time, my journey had a special purpose. I would have the opportunity to experience the Salzburg Easter Festival. Naturally, I was filled with great expectations, as my previous visits never coincided with the periods of festivities.
The festival theater is famously flanked by the rocky cliff. I had my tuxedo, with a handkerchief in the pocket. As I strolled into the hall, I noticed that the audience had a special air around them. The general manager of Salzburg Easter Festival, Herr Michael Dewitte, told me that it is a family-like group, many people coming continuously over the years and consequently getting to knowing each other.
Sir Simon Rattle conducted Siegfried, the second night of the Ring cycle by Richard Wagner. The orchestra was the Berlin Philharmonic. For the record, Siegfried was Lance Ryan. Brunnhilde was Katarina Dalayman. Mime was Hartmut Welker. Erda was Anna Larsson, The Wanderer was Sir Willard White. Alberich was Dale Duesing. Fafner was Stephen Milling. The performance took place on the 13th of April, 2009.
My seat was in the very front row. As a consequence, Sir Simon Rattle's famous hair was just in front of me, with the impression of an angelic lightness. This was my first experience of his live performance, and I could not but follow his movements with great interest. Rattle was conducting with the baton in his right hand. Occasionally, his left hand would also stick out above the screen, to give direction to the singers, cue to the concert master, etc. His movements were lively, as if he was a five year old playing with his favorite toy. And yet there was a unmistakable mastery and elegance in his bodily expressions. The music was sublime.
My fellow travelers were two magazine editors, a writer, an opera critic, a photographer, and a public relations man. The photographer was based in Paris, while the others were from Tokyo like myself. Before the performance, I confided to my companions my personal view of this particular piece of Richard Wagner. It is all about the third act. The dialogue between Siegfried and Brunnhilde at the final scene is the pinnacle of Wagner's music. Its jubilant and luminous procession really belongs to the 23rd century, when the enlightenment of the human spirit would have progressed to such a degree that men are not afraid of life's uncertainties any more but would laugh heartily at their own mortality. The dialogue actually ends with the enigmatic exclamation of "Leuchtene Liebe, Lachender Tod" ("shining love, laughing death"). These words are in deep resonance with the writings of Friedrich Nietzsche, although the philosopher parted ways with Wagner later in his life.
Next to me, a lady was seated by herself. She appeared to be from the U.S., judging from her accent and manners. She had two paperback books with her, which she put on the rim of the screen flanking the orchestra pit during the performance. Before the 1st act and during the breaks, she would read the paperbacks. Actually, she kept reading just before Rattle came swinging into the view to a loud applause from the fully packed audience.
Soon after the performance began, I regretted my condemnation of first two acts. It is after all a story of soul searching of a young man. There is a particularly poignant passage where Siegfried confesses to Mime that he has seen his own reflection in the water. He noticed the visual dissimilarities from Mime, who was "supposedly" his father as well as something akin to mother. The self doubt and longing for own identity is a common experience of the young. I remembered my own youth, which was like a period of blue moon in its nature of anxiety and yearning.
Wagner was a man of the theatre, and knew how to affect people's emotions. The entire 1st act and the majority of the 2nd act of Siegfried are dominated by the male voice. The first female voice heard in the opera is that of the bird which tells Siegfried of the existence of Brunnhilde, sleeping in a ring of fire, only to be awakened by a man who did not know fear. Then, in the third act, Erda is awakened by Wotan. Erda is a divine and somewhat abstract figure, so that her voice, although certainly soothing, does not invoke a full impression of the feminine in the mind of the listener.
The stoic use (or non-use) of the female voice prepares the mind of the audience in such a way that finally, when Brunnhilde is awakened by Siegfried's kiss, and sings the breathtakingly beautiful phrase of "Heil Dir, Sonne! Heil Dir, Licht!" (Hello, you, the Sun! Hello, you, the Light!), its effect is literally devastating. Just like the dry sand absorbs water avidly, the audience's ears are thrilled by the touch of the first female voice with a personal touch of warmth.
It was precisely at this moment that I found the American lady secretly wiping her eyes. It was certainly a moving scene. The performance of the Berlin Philharmonic was meticulous and energetic, with a platonic beauty of the harmonious. Sir Simon Rattle's conducting was superb. It was all about music. And the music made the lady from the States cry.
Just before the third act, when Sir Simon Rattle was responding to the spontaneous applause from the auditorium by making the orchestra stand up, I jokingly made a gesture of massaging Rattle's angelic hair. Noticing my stupid action, the lady from America laughed, and said "are you going back to 10 year old?!".
That same lady, who just minutes ago was reading a paper back, and jokingly reproached my childish behavior, was weeping like a little girl, moved by the musical manifestations of emotions that should come with the awakenings to your first love.
That is the power of art.
Well, times should proceed. no matter what. All was over. We strolled out into the cool Salzburger night. The music was still resounding in my ears.
"After attending experiencing such a great performance," I confided to one of my fellow travelers, "the question is not to indulge in a pedantic analysis, but try to live up to the experience." That is the most difficult part. To appreciate the art is meritable. To live the art is rare and divine.


In front of the Festival House in Salzburg, before the Siegfried performance. The man (to the left) in the tuxedo is me.

Saturday, January 03, 2009

Philosopher at large.

One of my best friends, Ken Shiotani, went to University of Tokyo for many years. First he finished the master's course at the mathematics department. Then he went on to work at the Ministry of Health, Labour and Welfare. Having met his wife and thus getting a means of living, he happily quitted his job, and went back to the campus, this time as a graduate student at the philosophy of science department. He stayed in the department for 9 years, the maximum time allowed by the regulations. After graduating, he has held no position basically, except for a brief period of time when he had a job at University of Chiba. Shiotani has been a "philosopher at large", known for his sharp intellect and powerful speech deliveries, but without any steady or even temporary jobs.
For some years I hoped that he would one day get some position, but having seen how institutions destroy the free spirit by numerous administrative chores, and a false sense of self-importance, I now feel that his position as a freelance philosopher is probably the best one.
I don't know why, but I thought of him first thing this morning, after having had a very strange dream involving a chair and a cliff.


Ken Shiotani, the philosopher at large.


Ken Shiotani's notebook of philosophical ideas.

Friday, January 02, 2009

Seals and the violin.

I have some practical recollections to catch up after this long pause in writing.
It was back then. I was there. I visited Scotland in June in 2008. My fellow traveler was Mr. Seiichi Koshimizu, the venerable chief blender of Suntory. It was a trip focused on whiskey. From Glasgow I flew to the island of Islay. There, after observing the process of whisky producing in the Bowmore and Laphroaig distilleries, one day I was driven to a beautiful small bay.
There I was to meet with Fiona Middleton. Fiona was quite an interesting person. She plays the violin to the seals in the sea. She played on that day, too, while the seals lay relaxed in the ocean water. The music was beautiful. For seals, humans, or otherwise, it was a very enjoyable experience.

Fiona was a person full of exquisite charms. She also had a vivid sense of humour.

"So this is in a sense a music therapy?" I asked.
"No", Fiona said. "I apply conventional medicine if I wanted to cure the seals".

"What do you do?" Fiona asked.
"I am a brain scientist", I answered.
Fiona then said in a half serious, half laughing voice.
"Do you think I am a bit strange?"
"Oh no! Not at all. Why do you ask?"
"Because sometimes people do think I am a bit weird."

The way Fiona said it, in a calm, soothing voice, still lingers in my memory. It was an unforgettable afternoon, with the seals, the violin, Fiona Middleton, Seiichi Koshimizu, and myself, embraced by the sunshine, the wind, and something quite indescribable.


Fiona playing the violin to the seals.


Seiichi Koshimizu (left), Fiona Middleton, and me (right)

Thursday, January 01, 2009

Constraints and freedom

One of my favorite Picasso pieces is to be found in the Guggenheim museum in New York. My encounter took place almost a decade and half ago. Still the impressions are vividly with me.


Lobster and Cat (Le Homard et le chat), January 11, 1965. Oil on canvas, 28 3/4 x 36 1/4 inches (73 x 92 cm). Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York Thannhauser Collection, Bequest, Hilde Thannhauser, 91.3916. © 2007 Estate of Pablo Picasso/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

Marked by rough touches of the brush, the work leaves parts of the white canvas unpainted. Even so, the lines are simply divine. It is said that Picasso's father, himself an accomplished painter, gave up teaching his son how to paint as there was nothing more left to teach. "Le Homard et le chat" is a testimony of the spiritual "freedom" that the painter attained at the ripe age of 84.
The visit to the Picasso museum in Paris some years after the Guggenheim experience further inspired me with the depth of "freedom" that Pablo Picasso came to enjoy in his career. As is well known, the master left an enormous number of works behind. The more familiar Picassos are "market friendly", filtered by the desires of the public. His paintings would fetch astronomical prices. Specimens of earthenware painted by Picasso are very tradable. The popular Picassos are now everyday icons in the art world and beyond.
However, some of the pieces that I've witnessed in the Picasso Museum were clearly not "marketable". There was a real Small White (Pieris rapae) butterfly sticked on a cardboard. Sculptures were constructed out of iron trash the painter scavenged while walking around his Paris domicile. These works were clearly not done for commercial purposes. The painter was simply pursuing the pleasure of expression. Even with the name of Picasso, it is not apparent if these items would sell well in the market. But apparently, the artist could not care less.
Pieces found in the Paris museum are those with which the great master did not part until his death. Wandering among those precious pieces filled one with foods for thoughts. What is the nature of "freedom" that Picasso tried to embody with his works all his life? One of the founders of cubism, Picasso continued to search for new venues of expression. We are dazzled by the changes in his style. When the mist clears above the great sea of changing tides, what remained invariant all his life must be sought for and grasped.
Contemporary brain sciences tell us that freedom is not chaos. Being free is not equal to "laissez-faire". There is a silver lining of internal discipline in every cloud of freedom. The "Le Homard et le chat" painting that I admired in the Guggenheim museum was constituted of lines that simply had to be. Finding inner constraints to follow could inspire one to be free from the trivialities of conventions.
One can be free while being constrained by invisible rules of aesthetics. The paradoxical co-existence of constraint and freedom is the origin of consciousness, and the raison d'ĂȘtre for all artistic endeavors.
When I saw the Guernica, Picasso's Opus magnum in Madrid, I was reminded of the plume of passion within the artist. On hearing the news of atrocity inflicted on innocent townspeople during the Spanish Civil War, the artist finished the masterpiece in a short time, fuelled by rage. The piece, although political in its conception, is rather tranquil in its impression of beauty. One is rather reminded of the paintings in Lascaux and Altamira, in terms of the great continuity of quality and perception.
Picasso's works seem to be the fruits of an all-out freedom, but actually follow a strict ethos of the senses natural to the artist.
A secret that would ultimately bless every moment of our earthly lives is hidden in the paradox of being sublimely free and hopelessly bound at the same time. In search of the answer, I sometimes find myself in front of a Picasso painting.
Why is it that for the human spirit the arts are indispensable?
Why does man not live by bread alone?
At such occasions, I sometimes feel ever so close to the truth hidden from the very beginning of human history.

("Constraints and Freedom" by Ken Mogi. Translated from Japanese by the author. The original article will appear in the "Masters of Western Paintings" series, a weekly magazine to published by Shogakukan, Tokyo in 2009)

Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Itching

It has been sometime since I made the last entry into this blog. I don't know how this long absence has taken place. I have been busy, giving lectures at places (most of the time within Japan but from time to time outside of it), writing neuroscience papers with my students (one of them, Takayasu Sekine, has had his paper recently accepted by a fine journal. Good for him!). I had to write essays after essays, which appeared in magazines and books et cetera, to keep the deadlines. My initially casual commitment to Japanese televisions has over the time become a more involved one, taking some portion of my time. All these elements, taken together, might have contributed to my not writing a blog in English for more than 6 months. On the other hand, I have kept my Japanese blog almost on a daily basis.

(My Japanese blog in the original langauage)

(( My blog through English translation. Even with the great technologies adapted by google the result of machine translation is devastating.)

The lesson is that one can be distracted from something. Even when that "something" is previous and meaningful in one's life. Some time ago, I made a vow to conduct more activities outside the Japanese domain. Writing scientific papers is not enough. I would like to write books in English, let the little things coming out of my research and life breathe the air of the broader, wonderful new world. I am making efforts, but not enough has come out yet.
Not that my activities in the Japanese domain are meaningless. There are thousands of languages spoken on this globe. Every single one of them is important, has an equal right to flourish and nourished. Japanese is only one of them. So is English. My wish to express in English is historically incidental, privately desired, supported by some demographic evidences. And the love to the mankind.
Now that I have made this entry after this long silence, I feel the tiny "English muscle" in my brain itching, ready to be let free to follow its instincts. Let's see what the year 2009 brings.

Monday, June 23, 2008

The importance of being earnest.

Some years ago, I was just starting my research career in the brain sciences. I was attending a series of international conferences in Iizuka city in the southern island of Kyushu. Iizuka had its days when it prospered from coal mining. The coal mining boom was by then long gone. After years of economic decline, Iizuka still had the remnant glamour which had become all the more poignant by the workings of time. Walking through small passages, you would encounter charming restaurants, shops, infusing one with anticipations of things to come. As night fell the heat would become mild, and I could go on walking for a long time. Finding a comfortable restaurant, I would enter and order a set menu and a glass of beer.

There was one particular restaurant that I found my love in and would frequent within the constraints of time. It was one of these small places with no particular features to mention. There were several chairs and tables, and a tatami seating area. The dishes would be displayed on the counter. If you point to the large dishes with your favorite cuisine, they would put small portions of it on your eating dish. Men would have their meal after working hours, drinking beer and watching the baseball. It was that kind of a relaxed, no nonsense place.

On one evening of the conference, I strolled into a pub on the main street. It was a place with an exquisite charm, with bottles of Corona beer displayed on the window, with a woody interior overall. Once in the pub, I found myself face to face with two other researchers from the meeting. Both of them were much more senior than I was. Consequently, I became the listener. I attended to what they said with great interest, drinking from my bottle of Corona.

I remember to this day what they were discussing on that evening.

"When we study the brain, we should never forget that we are actually dealing with a whole human being."
"It is no joke."
"Joys, sorrows, all emotions arise from the brain."
"Everything in life is in the brain."
"We should never let this slip from our minds."

These words left a strong impression on me, all the more so as the academic conference I was attending was about neuro-fuzzy systems, in a heavily technically oriented approach. I might have been realizing by that time that what I intuitively felt to be important mysteries about the brain was different from what was normally researched in the academic circles in the conventional sense. In any case, the words of my newly found mentors left a heavy mark on my mind. I was getting comfortably intoxicated from bottles of Corona, but my mind remained alert.
 
Everything in life is in the brain.

This doctrine is an important one. The significance of the brain is different from that of other organs that constitute the human body. At the end of the day, what we feel and think are nothing more than the results of the neural firings in the brain.

What are humans beings?

If a brain scientist would like to answer this question, he or she would have to tackle the really hard problem of how on earth mental phenomena arise as a result of the activities in the materialistic brain. Research in the field of the brain sciences needs to go beyond the physical, informational, or biological approach. It should be accompanied by a spirit to close on the essence of the human existence, and a "high mental temperature". Otherwise, scientific investigations in this field would not leave a deep mark on the world view of the general public. The intellectual curiosity of scientists would also be not stimulated in the true sense, it science keeps avoiding tackling the origins of human spirituality.

To be really earnest both in the emotional and intellectual sense is the key. I realized in my youth that in any fields of human activities, a work which inspires people and keep being read for a long time to eventually become a classic is one which the author has worked on in real earnest.

(Translated Excerpt from the original Japanese text of Ken Mogi's "Ikite Shinu Watashi" ("I live, I die") published from Tokuma Shoten, Tokyo, 1998). Translation by the author.)

Sunday, June 22, 2008

Secular memories

Things that ever happened in my life remains as the connection pattern between neurons in my brain.
On the first day of my elementary school, I recall the sunbeam was reflected in a white impression on the long and straight road that lead to the school premises. On the very first class room meeting, I was at my desk with my newly found classmates, with my cheek on my hand, looking at nothing, absent-minded. Ms Arai, teacher of our class, took notice and remarked "are you now bored, my little one?"

Parents were requested to remain at school after the entrance ceremony on that day. My mother was at the back of the classroom, too, and laughed with the other parents. I brushed in shame.

There was a large sweet acorn tree near the front gate of the school. When I was in the second year, there was a "boom" of acorn eating among us. As we left the school in the after hours, we would compete to find good ones, and would eat them on the way, with the school satchels cozily on our backs. At break times, we would play "hand baseball", in which we used our hand as the hitting bat. I remember quite well that the balls were green.

Each remembrance constitutes a "page" in my life, a part of the richness of my humble personal history. All those memories are encoded as patterns of connectivity between neurons. There would be memories long forgotten, but secretly stored in the cortical network pattern. I might happen to remember them sometime, or would never recall them. In any case, when the physical presence of my brain disintegrates, the rich storage of memory of my life would be lost forever. Memories are integral constituents of my existence. The "self" critically depends on these memories. The removal of them would leave a "self" as a transparent "core", vibrating poignantly in the great nothingness of the universe.

In "In my life", the Beatles sing thus.

There are places I'll remember
All my life though some have changed
Some forever not for better
Some have gone and some remain
All these places have their moments
With lovers and friends I still can recall
Some are dead and some are living
In my life I've loved them all

These words are simple. It is as if a middle aged man is reflecting on his own life late at night, with a glass of whisky in his hand. Freed from the admittedly difficult assessment of what life means, he would recall past events in his life ; that was then, then was that.

The lyrics of "In my life" are elementary. It reflects the significant fact that an ordinary human being would reflect on his own mortal existence on this earth in such a manner. In the past, such ideas as god, heaven, hell, afterlife, and reincarnations have been regular features of the genre when one would ponder one's own life. These concepts would not find their places in the mannerisms of modern times. That the sentimental musings of an ordinary human being on his own life have become secular is one of the most important features of human spirituality today. For the modern human, how he actually lives in "this world" is all that there is, with nothing to be added or subtracted.

(Translated Excerpt from the original Japanese text of Ken Mogi's "Ikite Shinu Watashi" ("I live, I die") published from Tokuma Shoten, Tokyo, 1998). Translation by the author.)

Sunday, May 11, 2008

Meeting with Kim Peek

I had only the faintest idea, if any, what Salt Lake City was actually like. Naturally I remembered some fragmentary scenes from the 2002 winter Olympics. Beyond that, except for the faint connotation of the Mormon church and the self-evident indication of the existence of a "salt lake", most probably large, I did not have any premonitions of what to expect.

On 25th May 2008, I traveled from Tokyo to Salt Lake City, Utah, via San Francisco. As the airplane descended to make the final approach to the airport, I witnessed the vast expansion of water underneath. The geological variations manifested by the surrounding areas were fascinating to watch. I could see how the water, which presumably contained a high concentration of salt, merged itself with the land in an interesting gradation of colors. I looked on, and figured out that the tints and shades represented different conditions in the area such as shallow water, mud, or dry and flat earth. And these lands would of course be salty. Just like us organic life-forms, the mother earth itself was rich and heterogeneous, I thought, while my cheek was pushed against the airplane window.

It was already late afternoon when I found myself at the curb of the airport exit. As the car was driven towards the downtown, the most impressive element which entered my experience was the vision of mountains surrounding the plain which embraces the salt lake city area. The air was serene and cool, and I was already in a process of transfiguration from the busy streets of Tokyo, my native town.

The nightfall came soon enough. I went to the steak restaurant (Spencer's for Steaks and Chops) in the Hilton hotel. The waiter was friendly, and explained that they were famous for the quality of beefsteaks, notably the "cowboy cut", which he recommended. Why not, I said. Then he asked what brought me all the way to Salt Lake City. "I came to meet with Kim Peek", I said. "Do you know him, the renowned savant who inspired Barry Morrow to write the script for the movie Rain Man?" "Of course", the waiter answered. "Actually, Kim Peek comes to this restaurant from time to time with his father." "Oh, does he bring the Oscar with him?" "Yes", he said. "I hope you will have a good time with him!".

I really enjoyed the "cowboy cut" that the waiter brought to me. It seemed like a good omen. I was with the film crew of the Fuji television, one of the most popular key stations in Japan based in Tokyo. We were to make a program about Kim Peek and other notable savants of the contemporary time (Stephen Wiltshire of U.K. and David Helfgott of Australia). I was to meet with Kim Peek and Fran Peek, his father, and the crew was to film the event.

As a scientist, I hoped that I would be able to take a glimpse of what lies beyond the mind of this "stellar savant". My expectations were high. I had the intuition that meeting with Kim Peek would enrich me in domains not possible to be verbally expressed or documented easily in a scientific paper, and lead me to newly found venues of investigation, both intellectually and emotionally.

From the materials I studied beforehand I learned that Kim was 16 months old when Fran took him to be examined by a neurologist. The cold-hearted and (with the benefit of hindsight) careless verdict was to put Kim in an institution, and forget about him altogether. Fran did not comply with the advice. Fran took care of Kim, almost single-handedly, loved him, and encouraged him to develop his own unique talents. The result is one of the most remarkable brains known in human history. Uniqueness is probably a given, but it takes (an unconditional) love to nurture it.

The next day was spent preparing for the meeting and shooting some background scenes. We drove to the copper mining site, where they have dug a very large hole in search of valuable metals. We then went down to the shores of the salt lake, which actually looked like an ocean. Legend has it that the Mormon pioneers led by Brigham Young, upon arriving at the lake shore, thought that they have reached the pacific ocean and decided to settle down. (It is one of the blessings of the land of America that you are close to untouched nature no matter where you are.)

In the evening we came back to downtown again. The film crew thought it would be a good idea for me to ride on the horse drawn carriage. I sat next to the lady who held the reins. When the lady asked me what bought me to Salt Lake City, I mentioned the name of Kim Peek. Her face brightened instantly. "Oh, I know him!" she said. "Kim Peek once came to my daughter's school to give a talk. He came with his father. After the talk, we chatted for a while". "Did he bring the Oscar?" "Sure he did. He was a very interesting person."

Thus, people in the City seemed to know Kim Peek well. I could feel that the footprints of Kim Peek was everywhere in Salt Lake City. It was as if the encountering process had already begun even before the great day dawned on me.

Finally, the day came. It was early morning, and we started in the direction of Kim's house. I was told beforehand that he was living in a nice neighborhood. The sky was clear, and refreshing air was blowing against my face through the open window. The car meandered off a busy street and eventually found itself parked amidst the tranquility of suburban greens.

The crew told me which house I should walk to. I took to the path, approached the designated address, and knocked on the door. Almost immediately I heard a faint sound from inside. Some moments later, a gentleman was looking out of the door, which I recognized as Fran Peek. "Hello" I said. "Hello" Fran said. Then Fran called in a gentle voice to somebody inside the house.

A few seconds passed, and I could hear the footsteps of another person from within. There appeared Kim Peek himself. I was not sure what to expect from our very first encounter. There was no hesitation on the part of Kim, however. He walked straight up to me, grabbed my shoulders, and held my body very closely to his. Then he moved his face close to mine, and said in a whispering voice. "You have made yourself a great man. People admire you for what you have done in your own field."




That was the very first sentence that Kim spoke. I was to listen to remarks of essentially the same nature from Kim in the following hours on that day that we spent together, either directed to me or others in the crew. Holding somebody very close to himself and whispering assuring remarks was clearly Kim's favorite way of greeting people. I was to appreciate the profound social significance of Kim's mannerisms.

We took some time to look at the living room, which was under refurbishment at the time of our visit. There were several interesting items. One of them was a large trophy, which, Fran explained to us, was for an award only two persons received thus far, namely and Kim Peek and Christopher Reeves, for overcoming one's difficulties. There was also a drawing of Kim Peek done by one of the famous savant artists living in the United States.

It was time to go outside. I walked slowly admiring the beautiful day alongside Fran and Kim towards an open green field nearby. We found a bench and sat. The sun sprinkled the beam over us. Soon the conversation started. Or rather, time passed by as Kim spontaneously spoke of various themes that came to his mind, with Fran helping us by adding explanatory remarks to what Kim said.

It was fascinating to witness the dynamo behind Kim's mind. Kim seemed to make associations almost at random, or it so seemed to an innocent onlooker. However, it gradually became evident to me that there was a solid structure of association behind what Kim had to say, whether it was about current affairs, some people that Kim and Fran used to know, or detailed facts of history ranging from British monarchy, baseball, and the great wars.

During our conversation, Kim did not sit still. He would stand up out of the blue and would walk around, endlessly muttering to himself. Kim would occasionally come up to me, would push my arms in a guiding manner downwards so that they would hang straight. Then he would hold my upper arms tight with his hands and whisper the ego-reassuring words again.

Fran was Kim's careful and caring partner. Fran would gently say "Kim, why don't you come back to the bench so that they can film while you are talking to Ken." Kim would follow his father's words, but would start walking around again in a few minutes.







It was a revelation to me that Kim's awesome memory power was not limited to the "public domain", in which people can verify the accuracy of Kim's memory by independent means. Kim's intellectual energy did not make a distinction between those knowledge pertaining to personal matters from those belonging to the wider world. Kim would make remarks about people who were living nearby, who have moved, married, died, had memorable incidents, or said something interesting to Kim and Fran.

"Wasn't it so, dad?" "Didn't he, dad?" "Didn't they, dad?" Kim would ask Fran after saying something about the past,
and Fran would say "yes", nodding in a very assuring manner. "You see, Kim would never say anything he doesn't actually know" Fran said, during one of these occasions when Kim stood up and wandered away from the bench, where Fran and I were sitting. "He would never tell a lie. Everything he says is true. There are times when what he says is so complicated and detailed that I do not know what he is talking about. On other times it is difficult to follow the associations that he makes. However, when it is possible to verify what he says, it becomes clear that Kim is 100 percent correct."

The film crew wanted to have a solid evidence of Kim's extraordinary abilities in a manner that viewers in Japan could understand. Accordingly, I mentioned my birth date, 20th October 1962. Literally without a delay, Kim said "Saturday". It was true. Then I read out the birth dates of some of the people who would appear on the program when the shot film is edited and broadcast. Kim correctly answered the days of the week for all of them, each time without any noticeable interval between my questioning and his answer.

It is known that Kim is born with a uniquely configured brain. He lacks the corpus callosum entirely, so that his left and right brains are more or less "independent" from each other, without the usual flow of information which binds the two hemispheres together in normal subjects. Although it is not the case that the agenesis of corpus callosum always results in a prodigious memory, it is certainly the case that Kim's special abilities developed under this special condition. The story of Kim's life is a manifestation of the value of neurodiversity, a philosophy which would endow the individualities of various brain conditions special and unique values free from the monotonous and often discriminatory systems of evaluation such as I.Q.

Even with a prior knowledge of Kim's condition, the demonstration of his unique abilities were so astonishing that it shook the very foundations of my belief system of what constitutes a human being. The sense of awe that we feel in the presence of a person like Kim derives itself from our admiration of a higher intelligence. The universe is constructed in such a wonderful manner that the numerical bookkeeping is conducted at a level of depth and detail unimaginable for a mortal human, no matter how gifted he or she may be within the scale of the human race. No matter whether one believes in God (traditional or unconventional), or is an atheist or an agnostic, if one is blessed with a power of reason to comprehend the makeup of the universe as modern science has revealed and continues to clarify, one cannot avoid being awe-struck at the magnificence of the design of the universe, whoever might have been responsible for its genesis. The manifestation of a super intelligence clearly has a divine connotation for us. When one witnesses a person like Kim Peek, a feeling of reverence surges from within.

After having a quite interesting conversation on the bench for a few hours, we drove to Kim and Fran's favorite restaurant nearby, Anna's Cafe. There we had an intimate time. It was heartwarming to see how Fran helped with cutting the food into small pieces so that Kim could easily eat them. The condition of agenesis of the corpus callosum resulted in Kim being unable to conduct basic motor tasks necessary in everyday life. As a consequence, Fran has to help Kim with most of his daily chores, brushing his teeth, taking the shower, undress and dress, etc. The flowering of Kim's special talent was not possible without Fran's devotion and affection.

Fran brought the Oscar to Anna's cafe. When a waitress or a customer approached, Fran would ask quite friendlily "Have you ever held an Oscar?" People would invariably say "No", and were delighted to hold the evidence of Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay presented to Barry Morrow. Barry kindly gave the Oscar to Kim to take it around and show to people. Consequently, it has since become the Oscar held by the most number of people.

The Oscar is an ice-breaker, as well as an instantly effective explanation of Kim's uniqueness. The film Rain Man made the life easier for Kim and for many people with savant syndrome, as people from the street came to know the existence of such uniquely gifted individuals as depicted so wonderfully by Dustin Hoffman in that film.

It was moving to observe how demonstrating such feats as telling the day of the week of a person's birth date has become a mode of communication for Kim Peek. Many people with savant abilities are also autistic, although savants are not limited to people with autism. Kim Peek does not belong to the autistic spectrum by diagnosis, and is quite sociable and eager to associate with people. However, Kim apparently has a difficulty in understanding other people's mind, making communication in a conventional manner awkward.

It was a great discovery on the part of Kim that he could make people pleasantly surprised and engaged by displaying his memory power. With the unfailing support of Fran, it was now possible for Kim to establish a mutually rewarding relationship with other people, even when they were perfect strangers.

The fact that Kim was able to compensate for his difficulties in reading other people's mind with his tremendous memory power, often associated with the very failure of cognitive abilities related to the so called theory of mind, set me thinking a lot, and for a long time. What an ingenious way to get around one's inabilities! Kim's almost compulsive manner of greeting, namely the tight grasping of both arms and the whispering of assuring words at a very close distance, also seemed to be an effort to overcome communication difficulties. Kim would like to associate with people somehow, although not in a manner conventionally accepted by the society. Savant-like memory is not usually classified as a manifestation of social abilities. It is rather considered to be an antithesis of of what is social. The "double roles" played by Kim's savant abilities in the context of social relationships are both humanely moving and intellectually revealing. And Kim's life story keeps going in interesting directions, a continued journey in a world yet unknown to humans.

Leaving Anna's cafe, we headed for the Salt Lake City public library, where Kim would spend hours reading books. It is said that Kim is able to read two separate pages with his left and right eye at the same time, remembering virtually everything written therein. A Scientific American article ("Inside the mind of a savant") published in 2005 reports Kim's tremendous ability thus: "Kim began memorizing books at the age of 18 months, as they were read to him. He has learned 9,000 books by heart so far. He reads a page in eight to 10 seconds and places the memorized book upside down on the shelf to signify that it is now on his mental hard drive."

As soon as we arrived at the library, Kim disappeared with one of the crews. After a while, Kim came back. We went up to the fourth floor with him. Once out of the lift, Kim started to walk through the shelf, appearing as if he was looking for something interesting.

It became eventually apparent, however, that Kim had a clear mind of what he wanted to show us from the beginning all along. Kim took us to where the phonebooks were. Kim mentioned a relative's name, who married with somebody several years ago. Kim apparently wanted to confirm the address of the aforementioned relative. He went straight to a location in the bookshelf, and, taking a particular phonebook, opened a specific page straight away, without any signs of hesitation, behaving in every respect as if he knew the wanted information was on that particular page.

That was the last manifestation of Kim's incredible ability on that day. By that time, I was accustomed to Kim's idiosyncratic modes of behavior. I was not surprised when Kim continued to come up to me and hold my arms tight, whispering the same sort of magic words of assurance, looking into my eyes from very close, occasionally bursting with breath, always friendly, constantly in motion, driven by an invisible dynamo from within.

I could see that taking care of Kim was a very tough job for Fran. Fran's unfailing support for all those years is a wonderful story of love and understanding. I could appreciate, although only partially, one of the reasons why Fran had been able to go through all these hardships. Kim had such a charming personality. It could be even said that one was addicted to Kim's manners. Kim's countenance would suddenly change without any warning, expressing an apparent agitation within. The volcanic eruptions of awesome memory power, the dynamic movements of body, the willingness to share his talents with the passers by, the gleam in his eyes, the whispered reassurances, empathy, all these things together made "the Kim Peek experience" deeply rewarding and transforming.

It was finally the time to say good bye to Kim and Fran, two extraordinary individuals I learned to like, respect, care for, and even love during such a short time. The crew took the photo of us three standing in front of the library, with Fran holding the famous Oscar.

As the photographer was ready to take a snap, Kim yawned, in a big and slow movement, as if to gulp down everything to be known, to be felt, and to be witnessed in the cosmos.


Ken Mogi, Kim Peek, and Fran Peek




Kim is an honor for all of us. An inspiration, an enigma. I still cherish the image of Kim looking like a lion king. No matter where I am, I will always look for the savannah in which Kim's spirit roams and reigns. We would be able to breath more freely once we find the promised land.

(The meeting took place on the 27th April 2008. The Fuji television program will be broadcast in July 2008. My whole-hearted thanks to Kim and Fran Peek for their kind hospitality.)

Monday, March 17, 2008

The annunciation

I was in Kobe, delivered a lecture at an academic conference. After the sessions, I found myself near the Rokko mountains. The spring was finally in the air. I was admiring the gentle variation of natural tints and shades of the forest that covered the rocky slopes, painted on the phenomenology of my mind by the nature's everlasting process of life.
Subconsciously, I think I was pondering the origin of human creativity, a subject of my recent investigations. Suddenly, I realized a beautiful metaphor for the conception of a new idea.

The annunciation.

When a new idea visits us, the archangel Gabriel kneels before us, telling us that a new idea has been conceived. The idea does not stand still. Once conceived, it keeps growing, matures, until finally a fruit is borne.
Life is a vast ocean of change in which the annunciation might visit us at any moment. The miracle is to be found in the most subtle symptoms. We thus breathe on earth forever enthralled.


The Annunciation by Leonardo da Vinci

Sunday, February 10, 2008

The natural history of contingency

The natural history of contingency
by Ken Mogi

One of the deepest joys in life is to understand more fully the world in which we find ourselves, as the days unfold.
The objective knowledge of how the universe is constructed is very much related to the subjective working wisdom of daily life. The academic and the worldly are interrelated. Without a background of wisdom accumulated over the many years by scholars and thinkers, we cannot hope ever to enrich our individual lives. Without jumping into the ocean of life in which the unknowns await, we cannot aspire to accomplish anything substantial in our academic endeavors. A system of knowledge which would ultimately encompass the whole universe starts from the very private experience of this small "I". The microcosmos resonates with the macrocosmos. In that realm, the traditional wisdom of "tao" itself would be gradually fused into the grand ensemble of wisdom, western, eastern or otherwise. At this meeting point of the knowledge of the world and the knowledge of life lies the human brain.
What is deeply moving in the novel "Flowers for Algernon" by Daniel Keyes is the process in which Charlie Gordon gradually comes to an understanding of what have been happening to him once a successful operation endows him with an improved intelligence. Various scenes from his life would flash back, as Charlie starts to comprehend how other people have been feeling, regaining his own emotions. Through this "rite of passage" does Charlie finally come to a reconciliation with his own past. Charlie, in a sense, lives his life all over again.

(This is the author's own translation of the opening sentences from the essay "The natural history of contingency" ("Guuyu sei no shizenshi") which originally appeared in Japanese in the quarterly magazine "Kangaeru Hito" (The Thinking Man) published by Shinchosha . The "Natural history of contingency" essay series will be carried in Kangaeru Hito over the next two years.