All posts filed under “Death

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“Ha! Hold My Brain; Be Still My Beating Heart.”

The post title is a quote from William Mountfort’s play, “Zelmane”, 1705

Critical cartographers, like Amy D. Propen suggests that we engage with a map “as something that  both socially constructed and as purporting to represent a “correct” model of the physical world” by understanding cartographic practice as embodied knowledge. This seems especially relevant  when engaging in neuro cartography, or mapping the brain, as this practice – the production of neuroimages – depends on living, embodied, brains.

To get the clearest neuroimages my body and brain need to remain very still for the 5-10 minutes that a functional MRI scan takes to complete. This need for stillness makes me self-conscious and that accentuates my sense of being embodied. As I try to control my body and stay still, I  become hyper aware of what are usually unconscious and small bodily movements associated with breathing or swallowing. To move while being scanned adds noise to the data, blurring the image, and therefore the most scientifically useful MRI image emerges through intra-actions that partially erase the trace of my body. ‘Playing dead’ is an essential part of imaging my living brain.

For more see Amy Propen, “Cartographic Representation and the Construction of Lived Worlds: Understanding Cartographic Practice as Embodied Knowledge.” Rethinking Maps. Ed. Martin Dodge, Rob Kitchin, and Chris Perkins. New York: Routledge, 2009. 113-130.

See also, Joseph P. Hornak’s online book, “The Basics of MRI” online.

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Confessions of a fidget

Since I was a small child I’ve been known as a fidget. So when I was told I had to be very still for a series of seven minute MRI scans I was worried. I was a kid who, when bad dreams sent me running to my parents’ bedroom, kept my mum awake all night as I kicked and wriggled while ‘peacefully’ asleep. That’s the kid that grew into a woman who nightly and tosses and turns. How could I possibly stay still in the scanner? Let along REALLY still. Not even swallowing… Ironically, given the experiments we performed, I needed to still my body, to ‘play dead’ in order to prevent micro movements.

We are usually unaware of how many small movements that we make when we think we are being ‘still’. But in the MRI scanner these micro movements “due to swallowing, fidgeting, overt speech, or transmitted motion as a result of finger pressing on a keypad are a major cause of inconclusive or uninterpretable fMRI results in the clinical setting”. (Desmond et al. 2002). So, my body and brain need to be very still for the 5-10 minutes that a functional MRI scan takes to complete. This stillness created a self-consciousness that accentuated my sense of being embodied. I’d first noticed this during mindfulness meditation, the more mindful I became, the more ‘bodiful’ I realized I was. As I quieten my mind, my awareness is more open to, and often overwhelmed by the sensations in my body. Little aches and pains, the feels of the surface I am lying on, the temperature of the air as it fills my lungs, all these sensations flood in. As I practiced, knowing I would have to lie very still and not even swallow in the scanner, I found myself trying to control what are usually unconscious and small bodily movements, like those associated with breathing or swallowing. As a newbie mindfulness practitioner and a wannabe MRI subject I became hyper aware of my tiny movements and that awareness became tension which resulted in ticks and twitches. My ongoing lesson is to have the awareness but not to focus on it, not to turn it into tension. I noticed in the moment of imagining resisting movement, I would make a small movement. It was a sort of mental ‘tensing’ as I thought of wanting to move, and then tried to stop that thought, right then my muscles would alter as I imagined ‘not moving’.

This project is full of surprises, it’s made me know more about myself and taught me new things. But one of the biggest surprises was when I came out of the MRI scanner and the neuroscientist, Torben, commented on how still I’d been. I was stunned (and proud of myself). After 50 years of fidgeting and being told off for it, I am learning to stay still!

Desmond, John E, and Annabel S. H. Chen. “Ethical issues in the clinical application of fMRI: factors affecting the validity and interpretation of activations.” Brain and cognition  50, no. 3 (2002): 482-497.

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Newbie notes on death meditations: art and ego

The death meditation has revealed more fully to me many things, drawn my attention to:

– how much I do in my life from a sense of ‘duty’. I have let go of some events and quietly stepped back from some people already, gently, as a result of this growing understanding.

– how the ego of being a contemporary artist, yearning for recognition, is a veneer on top of a joyful practice of being a creative person. At the moment of impending death the veneer is stripped away. This is a wonderful reality check and is balancing for me. Like balancing on top of a ball, this is a precarious, ever-shifting state. I often slip into insecurity or yearning and have to do some fancy foot work to regain my balance.

– how the more I feel I will die, now, the less I fear it. There is still fear and struggle but I am very surprised that the sense of sheer terror diminishes relatively quickly.

The image above is of an artwork I made in the 1990s called Sarcophagus, a horrible piece of work in many ways, a failure, useful to contemplate when the old ego gets boisterous.

Neuro memento mori: a portrait of the artist contemplating death

Welcome to  Jane Prophet’s project that explores brain activity during the contemplation of artworks and death. 

The questions that underpin this project are:
Can contemporary neuroscience and new imaging technologies increase our understanding of consciousness? 
When we look at memento mori artworks are we prompted to contemplate our own mortality?
What parts of the brain are active when we look at these artworks?
What parts of the brain are active when we meditate on death?
Is there any similarity in brain function in these two instances?

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Sweating the small stuff is good!

Death meditation.

Today,  when contemplating ‘what I will miss’ when I die I struggled to come up with anything! This made me realise what a stressful day or two I had experienced with work demands and family commitments. I had a clear sense of ‘what I will not miss’ –  fulfilling obligations.

It was a matter of moments before, not surprisingly, I became  aware of being overblown, of thinking of ‘big stuff’. Then, immediately, I found much to miss: the flowers I pass on my way to work, the plants outside, the feel of kneading bread dough, the fun of cooking.

Time to bring it all down to everyday moment by moment detail. That’s what I lose when I succumb to stress and push ahead to complete what feels like too many tasks – I stop being in the moment.

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Rat runs

Death meditation. I will miss the physical thrill of sprinting, of laughter. I won’t miss striving, grant-writing and form-filling. I won’t miss the rat race.

Death comes and my body rots. l feel rats tugging at my body, eating it from the inside too. I don’t need this body any more. It’s ok.

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Anger, pain and expectations

Death Meditation.

It took longer (15 minutes) for me to quieten as I was so wound up. When thinking what I would not miss it was clear as a bell: anger, pain. People that are difficult and who let me down. Not surprisingly that when I thought about what I would miss it was people!! Their love, support, warmth.

This sort of mirroring or one thought being the flip-side of the previous one seems to be common in my meditations now. No idea if that’s typical or whether I may be like a record stuck in a groove.

Quickly following on from these two thoughts came the inevitable recognition that my anger came from feeling hurt- and that means I must have had expectations. As I imagined dying all anger left, a huge sadness followed, then that too passed. Then a sense of love. I kept my focus on myself reduced to a pin point of white light.

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Being rather than seeing

Death meditation (notes from December 2015).

It still sometimes takes me a while to quieten down at the start… Today the sections when I let go and ‘died’ from my feet up and my scalp down went smoothly until I got to the ‘bag of sugar’ sized zone in my heart area… It was hard at first to ‘be’ a small white dot of light as opposed to ‘see’ a small white dot in my mind’s eye. This is one of the challenges for me in general, to feel the meditation experience rather than only see it in my head. I am more aware now of how visually-dominant my sense of the world is. My breathing is another distraction, particularly following the instruction to pause after exhaling before each new inhale. Every time l paused I felt that I then took a deeper inhalation. Other than that my breaths were shallower and shallower.  The first meditation was 10 minutes, the second 15 – I need to complete them in seven minutes in the scanner.

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They shoot horses don’t they?

#7 Death meditation: notes
My death is imminent, no time for resolutions of any unfinished business with anyone, no time for goodbyes. I instantly recalled being with my father’s bold horse, a steeplechaser called Bridgedown, when he was put down. I felt as though I was right there, my face against the horse’s soft muzzle, the prick of his whiskers on my cheek. A huge feeling of sadness, quickly followed by shame. Shame not only that I stood with him, delivering him to his death, but that I was allowing my sadness to come out, that he would pick up on it and get distressed. I was back there, aged 15, stroking his neck.

I let everything but him go from my mind. Somehow, back then, I just leant into him, smiling, at his strength as a young horse, his jittery thoroughbred dance moves, his courage and almost crazy strength when galloping. I was able to step back when the vet told me, but I kept hold of the blue rope that linked me to Bridgedown and I looked him in the eye with love as they shot him. All this flashed through my mind, with images of his chestnut tail after he startled, hooves slamming once, and then fell and was dragged away as I cried. One minute he was there, the next his essence was gone, his body a lump. Like me. Like my death. There, then gone, and my body a lump. In death horse and rider are but dust, which reminded me of what it was like to look at Gunther von Hagens “Rearing Horse with Rider (2000). The horse and rider were almost as one, dead and flayed their similarities are clearer than their species’ differences.

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Maggots on the brain…

After a few weeks of daily meditations on death, I started to imagine/feel post-death decay during the meditation. This was disgusting at first, but surprisingly that feeling passed quickly and I imagined maggots munching their way through me and all the while a little pin point of light in my heart area, regardless of what decay was also going on right there. Other times I have rats chewing on me, bloating and putrefication… Notably, during the meditation the feeling of disgust passes quickly into acceptance. But that does not mean disgust is ‘gone’ afterwards. To make this blog I looked for maggot images and felt quite sick while doing so. Seems like I can cope with the decay during the meditation but not hold that ‘acceptance’ longer term.

Talking to other people who meditate on death, it seems that these images are to be expected. It makes extra sense to me in that that symbols and representations of decay are found in memento mori artworks (dying flowers are especially common). Shakespeare’s Hamlet has a motif of the physicality and decay associated with death, and maggots are key characters in the scenes where his writing paints pictures of his belief in the equalising effect of death and decomposition: great people and beggars both end as dust. In the 1839 painting shown above by Eugène Ferdinand Victor Delacroix, the gravedigger scene from Hamlet is shown with Hamlet and Horatio and the unearthed skull of the jester, Yorick.

The meditations have extra pertinence this month for me, I’ve just had my 50th birthday and being more accepting of the physical changes of ageing, the decay-while-living would be a good thing.