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:

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.

Should Life be a walking shadow?

I have to admit that I had not heard of the ‘attention economy’ before -never even thought about it like that, in fact. And yet, when I think about attention, I suppose I’ve always heard it used as a currency, a thing that was paid to a specified ‘other’ -the thing attended to, in other words. Inattention, was no attention at all; it was an aimless, uncontrolled drift that gathered nothing of importance, and hence was to be discouraged; it was the kind of activity that, if noticed, would inevitably evoke a ‘pay attention’ rebuke from the teacher in a classroom, thus reinforcing the idea that there was only one flavour of the concept: the directed attention.

Indeed, capturing attention is the way business works, isn’t it? Getting you to think about a particular product when the need arises, and making you aware of its attributes and benefits, is the only way to interest you in buying it. We tend to segment reality into little fragments that we grasp, one at a time, to sew into the fabric we call our day; from the moment we awaken until we slip, often exhausted, into sleep, we wear a patchwork quilt of attendances as our realities. Only in retrospect, should we ever choose to examine them, are we able to recognize the qualitative dissonances we have accepted as seamless.

Perhaps the perceptually dissolute may decide to comb the day for information, but somehow that act seems as bad as stripping a sentence of all its adjectives to get at the nouns and thereby losing the colour and vibrancy each was intended to wear. Sometimes attention misses the beauty of the forest by examining the trees too closely. At any rate, I’ve often thought there must be more than one variety of ‘attending to’…

I can’t help but notice people on the street walking past me wearing earphones, or staring at their phones, oblivious of my presence unless we bump. Do they see the series of comic faces in the clouds, or the hawk circling high above the little park? Do they notice the missing brick in the wall of the hospital across the street, or the sad old man leaning on the post outside the Emergency department? Would they stop to smell the flowers in the little pot beside the barbershop; do they wonder if the owner takes it in each night so it doesn’t disappear? Do they even care?

Do they feel the wind on their cheeks, and hear the rustle of leaves as it fights its way into the meadow? Do they see the squirrel that stares at them from a branch above their heads and wonder which tree he calls home? Even more important, do they notice that there are less birds singing in the trees above the trail in the nearby woods, and more litter along the way?

I suppose they are entangled in another, more important, world -and yet it’s probably the same one as mine, but without the distracting detours that make the journey as important as the destination. Of course I realize that few of us are monolithic, or so wedded to each moment that we are not tempted by diversions from time to time; we all daydream, I imagine, although some of us are more open to it than others; some of us are not wracked by guilt at the imagined loss of time that should have been better employed.

We have all, no doubt, travelled to someplace new to us, and been completely absorbed in the novelty of discovery: the unusual smells, the strangely loud buzz of traffic, or maybe the unanticipated imaginative architecture, or the flash of unfamiliar clothes hurrying by on unexpectedly familiar bodies. In those moments, we are immersed in the experience and only when the shock wears off do we re-emerge to attend to particulars and grasp at purpose.

Yes, I know I am not alone in seeking different ways of defining what it is to pay attention, but I have to say that I was delighted to find that someone had actually written an essay about it:

Dan Nixon, a freelance writer and senior researcher at the Mindfulness Initiative in England writes that, ‘Talk of the attention economy relies on the notion of attention-as-resource: our attention is to be applied in the service of some goal.’ So ‘Our attention, when we fail to put it to use for our own objectives, becomes a tool to be used and exploited by others… However, conceiving of attention as a resource misses the fact that attention is not just useful. It’s more fundamental than that: attention is what joins us with the outside world. ‘Instrumentally’ attending is important, sure. But we also have the capacity to attend in a more ‘exploratory’ way: to be truly open to whatever we find before us, without any particular agenda.’

‘An instrumental mode of attention… tends to divide up whatever it’s presented with into component parts: to analyse and categorise things so that it can utilise them towards some ends.’ There is also, however, an exploratory way of attending: ‘a more embodied awareness, one that is open to whatever makes itself present before us, in all its fullness. This mode of attending comes into play, for instance, when we pay attention to other people, to the natural world and to works of art.’ And it’s this exploratory mode that likely offers us a broader and more inclusive way to experience reality: an attention-as-experience. In fact, it is probably ‘what the American philosopher William James had in mind in 1890 when he wrote that ‘what we attend to is reality’: the simple but profound idea that what we pay attention to, and how we pay attention, shapes our reality, moment to moment, day to day.’ And ‘It is also the exploratory mode of attention that can connect us to our deepest sense of purpose… the American Zen teacher David Loy characterises an unenlightened existence (samsara) as simply the state in which one’s attention becomes ‘trapped’ as it grasps from one thing to another, always looking for the next thing to latch on to. Nirvana, for Loy, is simply a free and open attention that is completely liberated from such fixations.’

I like the idea of liberation; I cherish the notion that by simply opening myself to what is going on around me, I am, in a sense experiencing what the French mystic Simone Weil called ‘the infinite in an instant’.  It sure beats grasping at Samsara straws.