Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Archive for October 25th, 2017

The notebook and the brain

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A little over two decades ago, the philosophers Andy Clark and David Chalmers published a paper titled “The Extended Mind.” Its argument, which no one who encounters it is likely to forget, is that the human mind isn’t confined to the bounds of the skull, but includes many of the tools and external objects that we use to think, from grocery lists to Scrabble tiles. The authors present an extended thought experiment about a man named Otto who suffers from Alzheimer’s disease, which obliges him to rely on his notebook to remember how to get to a museum. They argue that this notebook is effectively occupying the role of Otto’s memory, but only because it meets a particular set of criteria:

First, the notebook is a constant in Otto’s life—in cases where the information in the notebook would be relevant, he will rarely take action without consulting it. Second, the information in the notebook is directly available without difficulty. Third, upon retrieving information from the notebook he automatically endorses it. Fourth, the information in the notebook has been consciously endorsed at some point in the past, and indeed is there as a consequence of this endorsement.

The authors conclude: “The information in Otto’s notebook, for example, is a central part of his identity as a cognitive agent. What this comes to is that Otto himself is best regarded as an extended system, a coupling of biological organism and external resources…Once the hegemony of skin and skull is usurped, we may be able to see ourselves more truly as creatures of the world.”

When we think and act, we become agents that are “spread into the world,” as Clark and Chalmers put it, and this extension is especially striking during the act of writing. In an article that appeared just  last week in The Atlantic, “You Think With the World, Not Just Your Brain,” Sam Kriss neatly sums up the problem: “Language sits hazy in the world, a symbolic and intersubjective ether, but at the same time it forms the substance of our thought and the structure of our understanding. Isn’t language thinking for us?” He continues:

This is not, entirely, a new idea. Plato, in his Phaedrus, is hesitant or even afraid of writing, precisely because it’s a kind of artificial memory, a hypomnesis…Writing, for Plato, is a pharmakon, a “remedy” for forgetfulness, but if taken in too strong a dose it becomes a poison: A person no longer remembers things for themselves; it’s the text that remembers, with an unholy autonomy. The same criticisms are now commonly made of smartphones. Not much changes.

The difference, of course, is that our own writing implies the involvement of the self in the past, which is a dialogue that doesn’t exist when we’re simply checking information online. Clark and Chalmers, who wrote at a relatively early stage in the history of the Internet, are careful to make this distinction: “The Internet is likely to fail [the criteria] on multiple counts, unless I am unusually computer-reliant, facile with the technology, and trusting, but information in certain files on my computer may qualify.” So can the online content that we make ourselves—I’ve occasionally found myself checking this blog to remind myself what I think about something, and I’ve outsourced much of my memory to Google Photos.

I’ve often written here about the dialogue between our past, present, and future selves implicit in the act of writing, whether we’re composing a novel or jotting down a Post-It note. Kriss quotes Jacques Derrida on the humble grocery list: “At the very moment ‘I’ make a shopping list, I know that it will only be a list if it implies my absence, if it already detaches itself from me in order to function beyond my ‘present’ act and if it is utilizable at another time.” And I’m constantly aware of the book that I’m writing as a form of time travel. As I mentioned last week, I’m preparing the notes, which means that I often have to make sense of something that I wrote down over two years ago. There are times when the presence of that other self is so strong that it feels as if he’s seated next to me, even as I remain conscious of the gap between us. (For one thing, my past self didn’t know nearly as much about John W. Campbell.) And the two of us together are wiser, more effective, and more knowledgeable than either one of us alone, as long as we have writing to serve as a bridge between us. If a notebook is a place for organizing information that we can’t easily store in our heads, that’s even more true of a book written for publication, which serves as a repository of ideas to be manipulated, rearranged, and refined over time. This can lead to the odd impression that your book somehow knows more than you do, which it probably does. Knowledge is less about raw data than about the connections between them, and a book is the best way we have for compiling our moments of insight in a form that can be processed more or less all at once. We measure ourselves against the intelligence of authors in books, but we’re also comparing two fundamentally different things. Whatever ideas I have right now on any given subject probably aren’t as good as a compilation of everything that occurred to my comparably intelligent double over the course of two or three years.

This implies that most authors are useful not so much for their deeper insights as for their greater availability, which allows them to externalize their thoughts and manipulate them in the real world for longer and with more intensity than their readers can. (Campbell liked to remind his writers that the magazine’s subscribers were paying them to think on their behalf.) I often remember one of my favorite anecdotes about Isaac Asimov, which he shares in the collection Opus 100. He was asked to speak on the radio on nothing less than the human brain, on which he had just published a book. Asimov responded: “Heavens! I’m not a brain expert.” When the interviewer pointed out that he had just written an entire book on the subject, Asimov explained:

“Yes, but I studied up for the book and put in everything I could learn. I don’t know anything but the exact words in the book, and I don’t think I can remember all those in a pinch. After all,” I went on, a little aggrieved, “I’ve written books on dozens of subjects. You can’t expect me to be expert on all of them just because I’ve written books about them.”

Every author can relate to this, and there are times when “I don’t know anything but the exact words in the book” sums up my feelings about my own work. Asimov’s case is particularly fascinating because of the scale involved. By some measures, he was the most prolific author in American history, with over four hundred books to his credit, and even if we strip away the anthologies and other works that he used to pad the count, it’s still a huge amount of information. To what extent was Asimov coterminous with his books? The answer, I think, lies somewhere between “Entirely” and “Not at all,” and there was presumably more of Asimov in his memoirs than in An Easy Introduction to the Slide Rule. But he’s only an extreme version of a phenomenon that applies to every last one of us. When the radio interviewer asked incredulously if he was an expert on anything, Asimov responded: “I’m an expert on one thing. On sounding like an expert.” And that’s true of everyone. The notes that we take allow us to pose as experts in the area that matters the most—on the world around us, and even our own lives.

Written by nevalalee

October 25, 2017 at 8:40 am

Quote of the Day

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In the structure the artist speaks as an artist purely. There he cannot lie. The artist as a man of action perpetuates his deed and records himself as a reality in the structure of his work—for which the content is merely useful.

William Carlos Williams, Selected Essays

Written by nevalalee

October 25, 2017 at 7:30 am

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