Sunday, April 22, 2012

Learning, pleasure, identity, mortality

Inspired by evidence that learning new tasks builds new neural connections in mice's brains, Andrew Sullivan free associates:
I find this fascinating because it reflects what one might call a conservative truth: we become what we do. We are not Etch-A-Sketches, blank slates on whom a new abstract idea can simply and easily be applied to turn our lives around. We are constantly evolving organisms, each choice leading to another fate and another choice and all of these creating us, slowly, by will and habit. One is reminded of Orwell's assertion that "at age 50, every man has the face he deserves" (something he conveniently avoided by dying in his forties). I'm also reminded of Pascal's rather controversial dictum that merely practicing faith will instill it. Acts become thoughts which become acts, and habits become personality which becomes character. There can be no total rupture - which is why I am not a fan of "born-again" Christianity. It only takes if it reorients practice.

It's interesting to me that Andrew turned this information into an affirmation of faith, because for me it had the opposite effect -- not logically, but triggering a throwaway line from Steven Pinker's The Better Angels of Our Nature that's troubled me enough to keep bubbling to the surface:
Today we know that consciousness depends, down to the last glimmer and itch, on the physiological activity of the brain (Kindle location 10106).
While I accept this "knowledge,"  I cling to the hope that there exists some kind of consciousness disconnected from matter, or not connected as we understand it to be to be. In a sense (in our senses, anyway, and in our brains), the apparently unquestionable origin of our own consciousness in matter still begs the ultimate question of origins -- where matter came from, whether creation has a creator. In a universe in which dark matter apparently accounts for 95% of physical effects in the universe, it seems fair to consider ourselves still in the dark about where consciousness comes from, if not where it resides in us.

Sullivan's conservative comfort in the imprint of learning on mice's brains also extends to a notion of stable individual identity, which postmodern thought seeks to undermine. We are what we learn, he infers. Here I am with Sullivan, on an intuitive level: I feel quite connected to the 3-year-old me through an unbroken string of feelings and habits of thought. If I contain multitudes, they resolve into familiar patterns. Wearisomely familiar, in fact: perhaps the strongest counterpoint to the notion of an irreducibly fragmented self is Milan Kundera's litost, a Czech word he claims is untranslatable but then defines, after an example or two, as "a state of torment caused by sudden insight into one's own miserable self" (The Book of Laughter and Forgetting, Knopf, 1980, p. 122). That is, as I've come to think of it over the years, the limitations that one crashes up against again and again -- say a tendency to procrastinate, or an inability to learn dance steps or mingle at parties or reverse a driving route.  The notion that our learning experiences shape our brain passageways is much more positive, of course, and most of us do feel at least in part  that we are what we know how to do well.

The notion that every mental effort leaves a physical trace also sparked a different association. In La Seduction: How the French Play the Game of Life Elaine Sciolino expounds on the sensuous mental life of the French,  who have a
deep national attachment to a particular form of seductive dalliance that I call intellectual foreplay. For the French, life is rarely about simply reaching the goal. It is also about the leisurely art of pursuing it and persuading others to join in. How much fun would the sex act be without the flirtation, or the dinner without the bouquet of the wine? What joy is there in words without wordplay, or in ideas without fencing and parrying? And in the mundane arena of daily work, why rush to construct an action plan while skipping the nonlinear, often slower, more laborious, less efficient but perhaps pleasant step of theorizing about it? In other words, why focus only on the goal when there are so many other luscious things to distract? If something is too straightforward, direct, or easy, it feels incomplete.

Training begins early. In school, answering a math question is useless without without an account of how the student arrived there, because the process, the demonstration, is more important than accuracy. The method for solving a problem might be worth nine out of ten points, the correct answer only one. The process requires such intellectual rigor that when it works, the pleasure that results is enormous (p. 81).
Given that mental activity leaves physical traces, perhaps terms like "intellectual foreplay" or "mental masturbation" are not mere metaphor. Thought is as physical as touch. If sex, as we've been told, is occurs mainly in the brain, it's equally true that brainwork is a physical act.  But sex is too narrow a concept here: the common denominator is pleasure.  Such is the case for that ultimate avatar of sensualist French intellectualism, Roland Barthes, whom Sciolino cites in an epigraph to her "intellectual foreplay" chapter:
Language is a skin: I rub my language against the other…. I enwrap the other with my words, I caress, brush against, talk up this contact. —... A Lover’s Discourse: Fragments
Perhaps the colder cerebrality of the Anglosphere has something to do with the peculiar relationship of the English language to French: the integration of thousands of French words into English in the centuries following the Norman Conquest.  While words of French origin account for about half of the words in an English dictionary, about 80% of the words we use in our everyday speech are of Germanic/Old English origin. All the big words, all the abstractions, are Latinate, imported mostly by way of French. This means that as children, we are cut off from intuitive understanding of the abstract concepts we learn in grade school: we just accept them as long strings of syllables signifying new ideas. To an English speaking child, transportation does not mean "carrying across"; habitat does not mean "it lives there"; multiplication doesn't mean "many folds." We are raised at a remove from the physical basis of our broader concepts.

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