In praise of an empty brain

How do I love thee, Age? Let me count the ways… Well, actually I’m not actually going to, because of late, I’ve fallen out with it. Perhaps it’s just my memory that’s falling, though: I was about to parody Shakespeare -it’s what I knew I knew, and yet I didn’t (it was Elizabeth Barrett Browning. I checked). A simple mistake, perhaps, and yet, once again, the hubris of my years led me along the wrong neurons. I feel embarrassed about it now, but suppose I had offered it to someone as a valid Shakespearean quotation and, out of respect for my age, I had not been contradicted? For that matter, what if I’d felt there was no need even to look it up?

Although I am now retired after a long career in medicine, people still ask for my opinion. I answer them, of course, but I do wonder if what I say is still up to date and correct. And often as not, I will look up the answer when I get home. Whether it be age or temperament, the assumption of knowledge I do not possess sits poorly with me. Nowadays, I am far more likely to shrug and admit that I do not know the answer to the question asked -or at least admit that I am uncertain.

However for an expert, I suppose it’s a matter of pride to speak with certainty, even if that confidence is apt to block, or even deride other viewpoints. It seems to me that knowledge is never a locked door -we can always learn by opening it from time to time.

Of course I have never been able to keep track of my keys, so I suppose I am particularly vulnerable. The other day while I was meandering through my apps, for example, I stumbled upon an intriguing essay in Psyche: https://psyche.co/guides/how-to-cultivate-shoshin-or-a-beginners-mind

The author, Christian Jarrett, a cognitive neuroscientist, writes that ‘The Japanese Zen term shoshin translates as ‘beginner’s mind’ and refers to a paradox: the more you know about a subject, the more likely you are to close your mind to further learning.’ He cites several historical examples of the inability to accept new findings, including one that promises my increasing years the hope of new clothes: ‘belief in the legendary Spanish neuroscientist Santiago Ramón y Cajal’s ‘harsh decree’ that adult humans are unable to grow new neurons persisted for decades in the face of mounting contradictory evidence.’

But, of course this is hardly confined to academia. Expertise in any field breeds hubris. ‘Merely having a university degree in a subject can lead people to grossly overestimate their knowledge… participants frequently overestimated their level of understanding, apparently mistaking the ‘peak knowledge’ they had at the time they studied at university for their considerably more modest current knowledge.’ In fact, ‘there is research evidence that even feeling like an expert also breeds closed-mindedness.’

Jarrett then suggests something obvious: ‘Approaching issues with a beginner’s mind or a healthy dose of intellectual humility can help to counter the disadvantages of intellectual hubris… being intellectually humble is associated with open-mindedness and a greater willingness to be receptive to other people’s perspectives.’

Good idea for sure, but how can a dyed-in-the-wool expert stoop to conquer their own hard-earned arrogance? One way that I thought was clever was ‘to make the effort to explain a relevant issue or topic to yourself or someone else in detail, either out loud or in writing. This exercise makes the gaps in our knowledge more apparent and bursts the illusion of expertise.’ It also makes me think of that famous quote from St. Augustine: What then is time? If no one asks me, I know what it is. If I wish to explain it to him who asks, I do not know.

But, I have to say there is another method that Jarrett suggests, almost as an addendum, that has to be my favourite: ‘deliberately invoking in oneself the emotion of awe. Several studies have shown that awe quietens the ego and prompts epistemological openness’. In other words, ‘Gaze at the night sky, take a walk in nature, or listen to a stirring symphony. Any activities that invoke in you the emotion of awe (wonder at the enormity and beauty of the world) will increase your feelings of humility, and inspire a more open-minded perspective.’

The essay reminded me of something that happened to me many years ago while I was in the thrall of my freshly earned medical degree. Nancy, my date and I had been invited to her uncle Arvid’s house for dinner, and I suppose I felt a little intimidated sitting across the table from a recently retired professor of history. I don’t know why I was uncomfortable. He was an absolutely delightful man who was so energetic when he spoke that his arms seemed to explode upward as if they were spring-loaded. He wore his snow-white hair long and each time his hands unfurled to make a point, a curly lock would roll onto his forehead and his eyes would twinkle in response as if he found the whole thing hilarious. Sophie, his wife, was all smiles, as well, although she wore her hair short and could only resort to smoothing it out each time she laughed.

It was clear from the start that they wanted to put me at ease, and Arvid was careful that he didn’t seed his usually witty remarks with historical references; he didn’t even mention the university position he had held. But I wanted to let Arvid know that I, too, was interested in history and knew something about his area of specialization: the French Enlightenment. Well, actually I only started reading about it when Nancy told me about the dinner.

During a lull in the conversation when we were helping ourselves to dessert, I decided to make my move. “Is it true that the Little Ice Age may have played a part in the French Revolution, Arvid?” I asked, as casually as I could manage.

Arvid smiled at me as he scooped some strawberries from a bowl onto his plate. “Climate was probably a factor, G,” he replied pleasantly. “But all of Europe was affected by that as well.”

“I suppose I was drawing a bit of a parallel with current climate change issues -although certainly not an Ice Age…”

“You mean the effects that major climate shifts may have on political stability?” He seemed genuinely interested.

I nodded and took my turn with the strawberries. “I suspect that our crop yields may suffer as they did in France with the climatic upheavals of the time…” I left the sentence open so he would know I was only offering it as a possible result.

Arvid seemed to think about it as he scooped some ice cream on top of his plate of strawberries. “That’s an interesting comparison, G.” He took a tentative sample of the dessert and studied the spoon for a moment. “I must say we historians sometimes content ourselves with the proximate causes of events: endemic corruption, increased taxes, and the unaffordable price of bread in the case of the French Revolution…”. He tasted the heaping spoonful and then attacked the dessert more seriously. “I think you have a point, G. I must look into that a bit more…” he added between bites, then glanced at his wife who had been largely silent so far.

Their eyes touched briefly and she smiled indulgently as she no doubt always did when hosting dinners for his many students over the years.

Fire burn, and cauldron bubble

I love it when I hear a new word, wrestle with a new concept. Pyrocene -don’t you adore it? Even just sounding it out quietly in your head, it’s  hard to miss the excitement, or the imagery.

It takes its shape, as with all great epochs, by combining two Greek words, pur (or pyro), meaning ‘fire’, and the suffix kainos (or cene) -added to whatever noun, and meaning ‘new’. In other words, the Pyrocene is the fire epoch.

When you think about it, Pyrocene is an evocative and descriptive name for what has been going on for some time now. Fire has been tremendously important for our species. First came lightening and its effect of setting nature alight, and then, once we discovered we could tame fire, it kept us warm, it cooked, and it protected us from whatever predators remained afraid of it.

But that was just the beginning of our love affair: we began to invent new things it could do -like smelting metals, and boiling water to produce steam. All you needed was enough wood for fuel. And then, serendipitously no doubt, came the discovery of other less obvious sources that burned even hotter such as coal and, eventually, oil. It seems that hominids have embraced fire almost from the beginning; we are the fire-animal.

Unfortunately, fire seems to be in the news a lot lately -too much, in fact: bush fires, forest fires, the Amazon, Fort McMurray here in Canada, California, Europe, Australia… I can’t help but think of the poem by Goethe: the Sorcerer’s Apprentice -or at least its depiction in the animated Disney film Fantasia, in which Mickey Mouse, to the music of the unforgettable symphonic poem by Paul Ducas, tires of his job of cleaning the room of his mentor (the sorcerer) and tries to use magic to make the broom do it for him. He quickly loses control, however.

I have to admit that my thoughts about the history of fire were otherwise quite embryonic and unfocussed until I came across an epiphanic essay about Fire in Aeon, written by Stephen J Pyne, an emeritus professor of Life sciences at Arizona State University: https://aeon.co/essays/the-planet-is-burning-around-us-is-it-time-to-declare-the-pyrocene

He identifies different sources of fire -different ways of producing the energy: ‘Three fires now exist, and they interact in a kind of three-body dynamic. The first fire is nature’s. It has existed since plants first colonised continents… The second fire is humanity’s. It’s what humans have done as they moved from cooking food to cooking landscapes, and because it feeds on the same grasses, shrubs and woods as first-fire, the two fires compete for fuels: what one burns the other can’t, and neither can break beyond the ecological boundaries set by their biotic matrix… Third-fire transcends the others. It burns fossil biomass, a fuel which is outside the biotic box of the living world. Where third-fire flourishes, the others don’t, or can burn only in special preserves or as genuinely wild breakouts. After a period of transition, third-fire erases the others, leaving ecological messes behind. Because it doesn’t burn living landscapes, those combustibles grow and pile up and create conditions for more damaging burns; because it isn’t in a biotic box, its smoke can overwhelm local airsheds and its emissions can clog the global atmosphere.’

So, why does he feel the need for a new name for the epoch in which we live? I mean, we seem deluged by names -some admittedly hubristic and anthroponomic: centered mainly around us, as if everything revolved around our presence; Anthropocene comes to mind.

‘The Pleistocene began 2.58 million years ago. Unusually among geologic periods, it is characterised by climate. The Earth cooled and, atop that trend, it repeatedly toggled between frost and thaw, as 40-50 cycles switched between glacial ice and interglacial warmth. Some 90 per cent of the past 900,000 years have been icy. Our current epoch, the Holocene, is one of the interglacial warm spells, and most calculations reckon that the Earth is due – maybe overdue – to swing back to ice.’

But Pyne argues that we’re really still in the Pleistocene: ‘Other than the fact that it’s our time, and we are sufficiently special in our own eyes to merit our own era, there is little cause to have split it off from the Pleistocene… By the metrics that established the Pleistocene, the Pleistocene persists. Only humanity’s vanity insists on a secessional epoch. The ice will return… Or not. Something seems to have broken the rhythms. That something is us…

‘Or more usefully, among all the assorted ecological wobbles and biotic swerves that humans affect, the sapients negotiated a pact with fire. We created conditions that favoured more fire, and together we have so reworked the planet that we now have remade biotas, begun melting most of the relic ice, turned the atmosphere into a crock pot and the oceans into acid vats, and are sparking a sixth great extinction…  fire has become as much a cause and consequence as ice was before. We’re entering a Fire Age.’ And yet, in the old days, ‘there were limits to human-enabled burning. Burn too much, too quickly, and living landscape cannot recover, and the fires ebb. Once humans started burning fire’s lithic landscapes – fossil fuels – there seemed to be no such limits.’

Apart from nuclear energy -be it fission, or the long-promised fusion technology- the options currently available to power industry and society’s ever-increasing needs, seem in great need of innovative thinking. In a time of changing climatic conditions, reliable sources that are independent of the vagaries of weather events such as droughts or unexpected flooding, unpredictable or destructive winds, not to mention massive uncontrollable fires, are urgently required. Renewable technology is only as good as the foreseeable conditions upon which it depends.

Our addiction to fire has really left us with a Sophie’s choice: either accept the consequences of the damage it is doing to everything that allowed us to flourish in this geologically opportune -albeit temporary- interregnum between Ice-Ages, or… What? Abandon our overweening hubris and slip back into what forests still remain on the horizon’s edge -but this time aware that we are no more important, no more entitled than anything else that shares our world?

And yet, even then, would we make the same mistakes again…? Would our too-active brains mislead us once more? I don’t mean to end with an existential crisis, but I’m reminded of the observations of Shakespeare’s Macbeth -a creature of that old, untethered world: I have no spur to prick the sides of my intent, but only vaulting ambition, which o’erleaps itself, and falls on th’other. . . .