Marginal Thoughts

Now that my salad days are merely photos staring forlornly at me from a tattered album, I sometimes wonder what they would think of the one squinting back. Would it be as difficult looking forward in time, as it is in looking back? Not only do features change, but so do goals. Thoughts. I am no more the bright-eyed child petting the dog in the picture than he is the wizened old man desperately trying to remember him. So what, except for the chromosomes that are slowly losing their telomeres, is permanent enough to link us together?

I think about that a lot, nowadays; perhaps I am drafting my own eulogy, although I’d prefer not to put it in those terms. There are always clues we leave for those who follow, but can we leave a trail for those who are in front? A diary might help, I suppose, but in my case I was sure my mother would find it along with the magazines I had to hide; it simply wasn’t worth the risk.

So my childhood followed obediently behind me like a silent shadow, detected only if I turned around. I regret that now, of course, but not when I was young.  I would never have thought that my past would seem as loosely attached as the buttons on my shirt are nowadays; sometimes I think there are more memories sewn to the books I’ve read than to the experiences I’ve no doubt had but haven’t specially saved and organized on shelves…

I was thinking of that recently, as I cast my eyes over some familiar book-covers. If only life was as revisitable as the covered books seem to be… I doubt if I’m still as easily recognizable as the stories. The titles I read were varied -perhaps even precocious- and I suppose they should have cast some light on the younger me, but they could as easily have been the futile attempts of a short, bespectacled boy’s attempts at braggadocio.

I have vague and ill-defined memories of reading the Compact Edition of the Oxford English Dictionary on weekends hunting for obscure words I could use in class: words such as ‘tarn’, ‘lugubrious’, ‘threnody’ and even ‘sesquipedalian’ briefly materialized in the linguistic mist when I thought more about those days. Still, maybe that was just a phase; surely I wasn’t that embarrassingly desperate the whole time. But who was I then?

Without ancient bones, or cave art to map the changes though, how can I now chart the evolution of my thought through what seems, from this end, to have been a rewarding, if idiosyncratic, life? Only the occasional photograph remains of those days. I’ve moved a lot, I suppose, and books seem to maintain their integrity in the dust of relocation that the loose scraps of unorganized photos do not. Well, at least that’s how I’ve rationalized it over the years.

So, here I am, approaching the terminus wondering about who it was who travelled along the largely solo route. I have to hope it’s not dementia kicking in, nor the result of expunging undesirable aspects of my personality. No,  it’s more of a philosophical conundrum: how do I know if I am the same person over the years? There is a chromosomal continuity perhaps, no doubt traceable despite the random copying errors, but how about the I? What knits all the I’s together -or must I just accept that they are the same ?

I was reminded of the almost apocryphal destruction of ancient knowledge that was stored in the great library in Alexandria when it was destroyed by fire around 48 BCE by Caesar. How could I ever really know who I was if there are no records of it? My books -or at least the ones I have managed to keep- are all I have of those days.

And then it occurred to me that I might have written comments in them: marginalia. Not in my medical textbooks, of course. Those I underlined, I remember -underlined and then wrote précis on foolscap pads to prepare for exams. Nothing personal in those – at least nothing sentimental; nothing of lasting value.

I decided to search for some of my favourite authors from high school and university. I started with Alan Watts -a writer I devoured in my late high school days, but the only book I could still find on my shelves of his was The Wisdom of Insecurity, and it was bare of comments. Then I turned to Hermann Hesse –Steppenwolf– but apart from a ‘Thank you for supporting the Girl Guides’ card hidden as a bookmark on page 134, it too, was bereft of clues about who I used to be -except that I have maintained my love of Girl Guide cookies through the years.

I moved on to my years in Medical School with my collection of the books of the famous Dr. Lewis Thomas (who I initially learned about through his column in the New England Journal of Medicine), but although I loved his style and ideas, there were, alas, no personal marks -indeed, nothing but the crinkled and sometimes smudged pages that bore witness to my passage.

I almost gave up at that point -there were just too many books- but in a final grab, I liberated Loren Eiseley’s The Unexpected Universe from a collection I found on an Ikea bookcase along with some old LPs. Unfortunately, there were no comments in the margins, no little snippets of my thoughts about the prose or images of the author -nothing quaint and revealing- but there were a few tick marks in the margins beside sentences or metaphors I’d evidently found appealing. Then, in a chapter titled The Hidden Teacher, looking more closely at the little marks I’d made to draw my attention should I ever pass that way again, I was suddenly captured as of old. It was Eiseley describing how he’d been taught a profound lesson by a spider and its web. He suddenly understood, after touching its web, that ‘spider was circumscribed by spider ideas; its universe was spider universe. All outside was irrational, extraneous, at best, raw material for spider.’ And as he proceeded on his way along the gully he had been exploring, he realized that in the world of the spider, he did not exist. And similarly, for the white blood cells of his blood, the conscious ‘I’ of which he was aware, had no significance to them either. He was, instead, ‘a kind of chemical web that brought meaningful messages to them…that among the many universes in which the world of living creatures existed… we were creatures of many different dimensions passing through each other’s lives like ghosts through doors.’ Something surfaced in my mind -something that had once stirred me to reverence was performing its magic once more.

I started to read the book again and began to remember what I was -what I am: I am the ghost passing through the dimensions of a different time, following the same thread, and caught in the identical web I wove so many years ago.

There is far more to me -or any of us- than the changing face in the mirror…

Learned without Opinion…

Sometimes we are almost too confident, aren’t we? Encouraged by something we’ve just read, and recognizing it as being already on file in our internal library, we congratulate ourselves on the depth and breadth of our scope. Perhaps it’s the title of an abstruse article, and even the picture at the top of the page that helped identify it. Or… was it something online, whose excellent graphics made it memorable? And, of course, what does it matter where you saw it? You’ve remembered it; it’s yours. Anyway, you know where to find it if the details are a bit fuzzy.

So, does that mean you know it -have thought it through? Analyzed it? Understood it…? Unfortunately, the answer is too often no. It’s merely filed somewhere, should the need arise. But knowledge, and especially the wisdom that might be expected to accompany it, is often lacking.

This was brought -worrisomely- to my attention in an article in Aeon.

Drawing, in part, on an essay by the psychologist Tania Lombrozo of the University of California –– Jacob Burak, the founder of Alaxon, a digital magazine about culture, art and popular science, writes ‘The internet and digital media have created the impression of limitless knowledge at our fingertips. But, by making us lazy, they have opened up a space that ignorance can fill.’ They both argue that ‘technology enhances our illusions of wisdom. She [Lombrozo] argues that the way we access information about an issue is critical to our understanding – and the more easily we can recall an image, word or statement, the more likely we’ll think we’ve successfully learned it, and so refrain from effortful cognitive processing.’

As Lombrozo writes, ‘people rely on a variety of cues in assessing their own understanding. Many of these cues involve the way in which information is accessed. For example, if you can easily (“fluently”) call an image, word, or statement to mind, you’re more likely to think that you’ve successfully learned it and to refrain from effortful cognitive processing. Fluency is sometimes a reliable guide to understanding, but it’s also easy to fool. Just presenting a problem in a font that’s harder to read can decrease fluency and trigger more effortful processing… It seems to follow that smarter and more efficient information retrieval on the part of machines could foster dumber and less effective information processing on the part of human minds.’ And furthermore, ‘educational psychologist Marcia Linn and her collaborators have studied the “deceptive clarity” that can result from complex scientific visualizations of the kind that technology in the classroom and on-line education are making ever more readily available. Such clarity can be deceptive because the transparency and memorability of the visualization is mistaken for genuine understanding.’

I don’t know about you, but I find all of this disturbing. Humbling, even. Not that I have ever been intellectually arrogant -that requires far more than I have ever had to offer- but it does make me pause to reflect on my own knowledge base, and the reliability of the conclusions derived from it.

So, ‘Are technological advances and illusions of understanding inevitably intertwined? Fortunately not. If a change in font or a delay in access can attenuate fluency, then a host of other minor tweaks to the way information is accessed and presented can surely do the same. In educational contexts, deceptive clarity can partially be overcome by introducing what psychologist Robert Bjork calls “desirable difficulties,” such as varying the conditions under which information is presented, delaying feedback, or engaging learners in generation and critique, which help disrupt a false sense of comprehension.’

To be honest, I’m not sure I know what to think of this. Presentation seems a key factor in memory for me -I remember books by the colours or patterns of their covers, for example. Seeing a book on a shelf often helps me remember, if not its exact contents, then at least how I felt about reading it. But I suppose the point of the article is that remembering is not necessarily understanding.

And yet, the book I see on the shelf may, in some fashion, have been incorporated into my thinking -changed something inside me. I’ve read quite a few books over the years, and been surprised, on re-reading them -or later, reading about them- that what I had learned from them was something totally different from what I suppose the author had likely intended.

A good example is Nobel Prize laureate Hermann Hesse’s Magister Ludi (the Glass Bead Game), which I read in the early 1960ies. I completely misremembered the plot (and no doubt the intention of the narrative) and for some reason was convinced that the whole purpose of this story was to suggest that a young student, Knecht, who had devoted his entire life to mastering the Game, comes to realize that his ambition was meaningless in the grand scheme of things -and near the end of the rather long novel, drowns himself as a result. Anybody who has actually read Magister Ludi, blinks in disbelief if I tell them what I remember of the story: I hadn’t really understood what Hesse had been trying to say, they tell me…

But, nonetheless, the novel had quite an effect on me. Because I remembered it the way I did, I began to realize how we come to rank our beliefs -prioritize our choices compared to those around us. So, was it worthwhile to train for years, dedicate his life, and eventually succeed in becoming the Master of a Glass Bead Game, for goodness sakes? And if he did, so what? Would that really make a difference anywhere, and to anybody?

For that matter, are there other choices that might have mattered more? How would you know? Maybe any choice is essentially the same: of equal value. I thought Hesse’s point terribly profound at the time -and still do, for that matter, despite the fact he probably didn’t intend my interpretation…

Perhaps you see what I am getting at: ‘understanding’ is multifaceted. I learned something important, despite my memory distorting the actual contents of what I read. I incorporated what I remembered as deeply meaningful, somehow. Was what I learned, however unintended, useful? Was it not a type of understanding of what might have been written between the lines? And even if not, the message I obtained was an epiphany. Can that be bad?

I’m certainly not arguing with Lombrozo, or Burak -their points are definitely intriguing and thought-provoking; I just worry that they are not all-encompassing -perhaps they overlook the side-effects. The unintended consequences. Maybe knowledge -and understanding- is less about what facts we retain, and more about what we glean from the exposure.

So, did I understand the novel? Perhaps not, but what I learned from it is now a part of me -and that’s just as valuable… What author, what teacher, could hope for more?