© Roland O. Watson 2001-3
Education is the core solution.
It is absolutely essential; we will not be able to resolve our social and environmental
problems without it. Indeed, its importance is supreme, since it is also crucial
to your own process of personal growth, whereby you find a purpose in your life
and develop into a unique individual.
There are many types of learning, and none are easy. Any serious skill or area of knowledge worth mastering requires great discipline and a lot of time: often five or more years of concentrated effort. (James Joyce's Ulysses took seven years to create; Albert Einstein's General Theory of Relativity took ten.)
But education is much broader than any particular skill or area of knowledge; it actually starts with learning about life itself. And, as this suggests, there are two basic sources of education, from experience, and from reading and studying books, which often occurs with the support of a teacher and in the context of a school.
Furthermore, the process of education is not simply exposing yourself to experience, or to books and schools. It is not passive: you have to interact. With books and schools, the key is asking questions. But it is not the answers, the outcome, that are the most important part of this process. You have to challenge yourself, and what you know, by learning how to phrase what you know, and do not yet know, into cogent and meaningful questions. Then, when you get the answers, you have a platform of knowledge constructed on which to add them (or test them).
Similarly, with experience, you have to make mistakes. The main way people learn from life, and perhaps the only way its lessons really take hold, is by making mistakes, and suffering the consequences. It is the proverbial story of the child who touches the hot stove. Hot lacks meaning, until it is experienced.
So, besides understanding how not to get burned, what is it that we want to know?
The lessons of life can be broken down into four, somewhat overlapping, areas:
1. Identity/existential education: learning about the nature of the universe and existence, and of what is involved in the process of living a human life. (This also covers creativity education: learning how to express yourself.)
2. Social and environmental education: learning about having relationships with other people, and about the relationships between individuals and society, and between individuals and society and the natural environment.
3. Practical education: the learning that enables you to survive, to satisfy your basic needs. In modern society this relates largely to economic learning, to developing some skill or trade that you can use to generate an income.
4. Physical education: learning any type of physical skill, for work, enjoyment, etc.
The greatest period of learning for a human is from childhood through to becoming a young adult. During this period the majority of your education is provided by your parents, or other relatives, and by schools. Considering the above categories, we can say that family is largely responsible for existential and social education, and schools, at least in modern societies, for environmental and practical education. Physical education may (and should) come from either source, and you can also learn it, a physical activity, by yourself. However, insofar as parents control decisions about schooling, and access to other so-called educational influences (the TV!), it is the case that, at least for children, they are wholly responsible.
A critical part of this responsibility is as protector of your child's education. You must protect your children from negative influences, such as the TV, including both the programming and the advertising; from inappropriate toys, including such things as toy weapons and computer games (more generally, materialism training starts with toys, and you must counteract this); from inadequate and inappropriate schooling; and from peer pressure.
Indeed, as a parent you cannot overestimate your importance, particularly when your children are very young. For instance, research has shown that the number of words an infant hears - just the actual number - spoken to them by a caring and attentive individual (TV does not count!), is the most important predictor of future intellectual performance and personal contentment. You should talk to your children continuously, especially in their first three years.
Research has also shown that playing classical music in an infant's environment has a similar positive effect on his or her intellectual capability. There are highly complex forms of order embedded in classical music, which the infant brain recognizes and adapts to; it reprograms itself so it is better able to understand them.
The key to brain development is the rate of early learning - not so much what is prewired but how much of the brain gets interconnected in these first few months and years. (Ratey, page 288)
This begs the question, how does one learn? How do we learn anything?
However, before we discuss this in detail there is an important qualification that must be made: what is learning? Is it the grasping of true statements about existence? But this raises the question, is absolute truth even available? The ant-farm analogy demonstrates that it is not. This implies that any education can always be refined or even corrected. Todays education is just our current set of views, one could even call them biases, those that do not have an apparent selfish underpinning. As an example of this, our education has progressed from the idea that the sun revolves around the earth, to the earth revolves around the sun, to the earth follows the path of least resistance through the space which has been curved by the suns massive presence: it follows this curve through space. Indeed, does anything lack a selfish underpinning, if only through affirming the originator of the ideas desire to be right?
(This process is what is known as perturbation, where you give an approximate answer to a question, and then systematically improve it.)
On the other hand, perhaps learning is something else entirely. Education is a guide, leading us in a direction, or directions. There is an ethical direction, away from selfishness, and a knowledge direction, towards a greater estimation or realization of truth, towards comprehension of greater systems of order (or, with chaos theory, of disorder): the order implicit in physical reality (objective reality), and the order implicit in our interactions with it.
Having said all this, though, we can start with the fact that all learning is incremental. This is because all knowledge is composite. To learn something you must learn everything of which it is composed. If you want to learn a particular subject, you begin by learning the first few things about it. Then, after you have absorbed them, after you really understand them, you learn the next few. All you need is time, and a good teacher: someone who, or a book which, understands the subject well. The most difficult subjects, such as advanced mathematics, are simply very long strings of ideas, perhaps thousands of distinct steps of knowledge, but they still have to be taken a few at a time.
Viewed another way, and to continue an earlier discussion, to understand a complex system you must understand all of the separate subsystems of which it is composed. For example, the system of another person includes their subsystems of race, sex, age, etc., as well as the basic human system, and by derivation, the universal system.
Most of the fundamental ideas of science are essentially simple, and may, as a rule, be expressed in a language comprehensible to everyone.
- Albert Einstein, via The Dancing Wu Li Masters, Gary Zukav, Bantam
Einstein was right; most ideas are simple, once you have built the platform of their predecessors. Each subsequent step is only that, the next single step, and given time your mind will take it. (We can also see that Einstein, one of the greatest geniuses of all time, agreed with the premise of human equality, including human intellectual equality.)
Of course, some people do learn quicker. There are differences in teacher ability, but also in raw intelligence: their brains have deeper folds and more neurons and synapses. As a biochemical phenomenon, one can consider intelligence to be the rate at which neural networks are fired (the level of activity of ones mind), together with the complexity of such networks, the number of neurons that are involved in each. (Hence the phrase, to put a lot of thought into it.) Even more, when your brain realizes that something is going to be difficult to learn, it does this by estimating just how much neural processing will be required.
(More precisely, intelligence is the amount of energy that flows through the frontal cortex, which is the part of the brain considered responsible for reason. Also, it is structured energy. Most neurons fire periodically, but in an unorganized fashion. Thought only occurs when such firings are synchronized. Ratey, pages 60-61)
This idea also gives us insight into a couple of other points that have been discussed. The first of these is that the overall effect of brainwashing is to reduce neural circuitry firing, whereas education increases it. Secondly, when someone has a narrow life, this means that they are using only selected parts of their brain, although this usage could be so extensive that such parts become quite active and very well developed. But, the other parts of such an individual's brain may atrophy, and they could even be pruned.
Pruning occurs when the brain eliminates what it considers to be unnecessary neurons and synapses. This can represent a shrinkage of your collection of memories, and even of your intellectual capacity. The goal of learning is to exercise your mind, to increase its level of processing and to ensure that as little as possible is lost. You need to use your will to generate more electrical charge in your brain, to create larger, more complex, and more frequently fired neural circuits. (From this we can see that having control of your will is the same as having conscious control of your unconscious mind.)
To return to the specific differences that exist between people, there is also the issue of aptitude. There are so many things to learn about, and do, and some of them will be easier for you than others. You may find mathematics easy; or language; or you may have a talent for some form of artistic expression; or, you might have great sensitivity to relationships and other people; or you might have great strength, dexterity and coordination.
Following this is the breadth of your education. This is because education is also a method: you learn how to learn. Once you have become well educated in a number of subjects, new ones are easier. This is because you have mastered the educational method; you can apply it to any new subject. (Also, as part of your broad educational background you may well have gained some exposure to the new subject, in other words, you have already learned a bit of it, taken the first few steps.)
From all of this we can see that what you have learned shapes - it enhances or limits - what you subsequently can learn.
Next, there is your desire to learn, which is often the most important factor of all. Many people learn quicker simply because they have a greater desire: they try harder to concentrate, and they study for more hours. (The mind can be thought of as a muscle: through such discipline they improve its fitness.)
Environment plays a large part in building, or killing, your desire. If your family prizes education, if you receive regular and close assistance, if the assistance is supportive - if you receive positive reinforcement - then you will enjoy education. You will enjoy the process of learning. You will not view it with disdain, or as a necessary evil. For instance, it will become a matter of course for you to have a paperback dictionary handy, and if you do not know the meaning of a word you will develop the habit of always looking it up.
Lastly, there is the issue of fear. Learning too is an exploration of the unknown. Indeed, the hardest thing to do is to start: to get over the psychological barrier, which can seem overwhelming, of what it is that you want to do. The solution to this is to use your will to control your anxiety, and then to start - and to keep going: to learn a little each day.
To return to the categories of education, what specifically is it that you should learn, and that you should teach your children? For the first, which consists of what are often referred to as the issues, or questions, of philosophy, you can begin with this book. In this book the starting point is that actions have consequences. Everything you do affects the world and yourself, and you are responsible for this. You are not a victim. You can't say it wasn't your fault. You are self-conscious, you have self-knowledge, and because of this you know what you are doing: you are responsible.
For the second category, you need to learn the basics of human behavior and relationships, which are known as ethics and which have already been introduced. As to your relationship to society, this is of course form, and the social contract, and as to the environment, you must learn to think of it as an ecology, as a living organism with interrelated and interdependent parts.
Regarding both of these categories, they are, of course, the stuff of life. Book knowledge is useful, but it is experience, the accumulation of life experience, including both the good and the bad, that will really drive these lessons home.
As to practical education, this is the function of schools, universities, specialized books, etc. Also, much - probably most - of what you need to know you will learn on the job.
Lastly, here is a tip on physical education. In many cases it can be beneficial to push yourself (or your students) very hard early on, to gain exposure to advanced levels of ability. This will clearly reveal your goal, but more importantly, when you return to the novice and intermediate stages, they will appear less intimidating and hence easier to learn. (This approach is an excellent way to conquer fear, which is a critical factor in learning physical skills that involve risk and danger. But, of course, you don't want to get yourself killed in the process!)
A similar approach, which is applied in learning areas or classes of ideas, is to begin with what is not known. For example, in physics, start with the field's unanswered questions, and then proceed with the history, and the first steps, of what we do know (or believe).
At this point we can return to children, since the new generations of humanity represent the best hope for the future. To break free of historical patterns and problems, we must alter our behavior, and this will be most easily accomplished with our young. At issue is the question of how children learn, and the answer is that children learn by copying their parents. The question then becomes, what do you want your children to copy? (It seems we are not going to get off the hook - of modifying our own behavior - that easily.)
As to the universe and life, you want your children to copy:
- Your awe at and interest in the marvel of existence.
- Your awareness of the unfathomability of the universe, including of its, and our, fundamental purpose.
- Your interpretation of this unfathomability: that you do not react to it negatively; rather, that you consider life to be a wonderful opportunity.
- Your belief, and actions!, that you should therefore strive to make the most of your life.
- Your discipline, and your pursuit of education and experience, to accomplish this.
- Your desire to understand something which no one has ever understood before.
- Your love of reading, about all aspects of life, including such subjects as philosophy, history, science and art. (Buy your children lots of books.)
- Your love of reading to them. (Introduce your kids to Sophie's World, which is a fantastic novel for teenagers, for anyone, about the history of philosophy.)
- Your creativity, as demonstrated through your own efforts at making art and music and crafts, and through singing and dancing. (Buy your children musical instruments, drawing pencils, etc.)
- Your love of travel. (Take your kids traveling with you as much as you can, and encourage them to travel with other groups as well.)
- Your recognition that life regularly involves hard knocks.
- Your courage and resilience, and humor, in the face of these challenges.
This last message is particularly important. Children should be taught that life is often unfair, and that many unfair things will almost certainly happen to them. They need to learn to fight against this unfairness. They need to be taught that if someone tries to harm them, that they should fight back, and, how to do it. They need to develop the courage to defend themselves. They also need to understand that sometimes they will win, but that at other times they will lose. More than anything, they should not go through life afraid to take a punch, or to give one.
Regarding society, social relationships, the natural world, and the practicalities of getting on in life, you want your children to copy:
- Your awareness of the existence of behavioral form.
- The diligence that you bring to fighting it, including the specific ways in which you do. (Children need to be taught that there is such a thing as free will, and that they have it!)
- Your lack of bigotry, and your nonacceptance of discrimination.
- Your sensitivity to, respect for, and interest in, other cultures; your acceptance - your celebration - of cultural differences.
- Your lack of interest in television, particularly in mass entertainment, including the fact that in your house the TV is usually off.
- Your skepticism of social messages and influences, in all advertisements, on the TV and in films, on the internet, in books, newspapers and magazines, in music, from schools, from political, business and religious leaders, etc.
- Your skepticism of society's view of the goals that people should have, and of all other such social truths.
- Your ethics, beginning with your honesty.
- How you regularly use your will to deny your personal selfishness; how you refuse to compete, and instead strive to cooperate.
- How you react to people positively; how you do not respond with immediate negativity to their ideas, plans and aspirations.
- Your patience, and tolerance, and willingness to compromise.
- Your compassion.
- Your love, of them, and of your spouse or partner, and of your parents.
- Your enjoyment of talking to them. (Let them have the last word.)
- Your love of nature.
- Your appreciation of the beauty, and of the value, and of the rights, of all other forms of life.
- Your love of animals. (Let them have pets.)
- Your veganism (or your minimal consumption of animal products).
- Your concern for, and your desire to protect, the environment.
- Your ability to maintain your self-control.
- Your peaceful and rational approach to solving problems.
- Your lack of complacency with regard to social and environmental problems, both at home and in other countries, and your activism in seeking their resolution.
- Lastly, your commitment to achieving your goals in the face of any and all resistance; your unwillingness to give up; and your willingness to renew your efforts following setbacks, personal failure, and defeat.
Regarding physical activities, you want your children to copy:
- Your devotion to exercise.
- Your cultivation of a variety of forms of physical activity, particularly outdoor activities - such as hiking and camping - which immerse you in nature.
- Your avoidance of drugs.
- Your belief that a sound mind and a sound body are the two inseparable components of a sound being.
In summary, you want your children to copy your love of life. (More accurately, you want them to develop their own.) You want them to share, and duplicate, all the fun that you have and all the happiness that you create.
This, then, is a complete education. I hope you are able to provide it. When passed from generation to generation it will form the basis for a just social and natural order and, on the individual level, it will provide the reward of greater understanding, appreciation and enjoyment of life.
Now, to close the chapter, I want to return to the perspective of what happens in our mind, in our brain, when we learn new things.
Our brain is simply incredible; its own complexity, and the complexity of what it is able to accomplish, is astonishing. At birth our brain contains about one hundred billion neurons, and these connect to each other through some fifty trillion synapses. Further, all of these neurons and synapses are created and organized, into the right and left hemispheres, and the various lobes of the brain, through the efforts of approximately half of our genes.
The brain itself generates ideas, or thoughts. This occurs when neural networks or circuits are formed. In such circuits many neurons are connected electrochemically. The neurons at rest have a negative charge, but when chemically activated, or fired, this flips to positive. The firing of one neuron can initiate the activity of thousands of others, each one of which can in turn activate thousands of additional neurons.
When a neural network is active, one can say that all of the neurons of which it is composed are wired together: an electrical charge is flowing through them. Such currents can even be measured, as with an EEG, and are otherwise known as brain waves.
The brain can create a wide variety of neural circuits, which means it can generate a number of different types of thoughts. In general these thoughts can be grouped according to whether they occur in your unconscious or in your self-conscious mind. (The part of your mental processing of which you can say that you are directly aware is your conscious mind. That processing of which you are not directly aware we say occurs in the subconscious. This is your unconscious mind. The subconscious and unconscious are effectively the same thing.)
The most basic function of the brain is to oversee the development of the body, of all the parts of the body, including itself, and to regulate their operation. In this way your brain controls your heart, and lungs, and all of your bodily functions. Your brain also controls your sensory organs, which are your links to the world, and experience. In general these sensory organs function autonomously; they are always at work, always turned on, processing sensory input in your unconscious. In this case, we can say that the mind is functioning reactively; it is simply responding to the environment.
On the other hand, through your consciousness it is possible to take a more proactive approach to reality. You can direct your senses, concentrate them on only a small part of the environment, or concentrate on only part of their input; and, you can reflect on this input.
Earlier we reviewed our stream of consciousness; that we think a series of thoughts. However, this is only partially correct. Our unconscious mind is having its own series of thoughts, building, maintaining and regulating the body, all the time. And, our unconscious mind is reacting to, and interpreting, external environmental conditions as they affect us, both physically and psychologically. Both of these series are in fact active at the same time, although it is difficult to ascertain if they themselves are sequential - meshed together - or simultaneous.
What are these thoughts, either conscious or unconscious, where do they come from, and is it possible to categorize them in some other way to gain a deeper understanding of them?
As a starting point, we can look to the different parts of the brain to see if there is a correlation, if one part is responsible for the conscious mind and another for the unconscious. It turns out that such a correlation does exist. For instance, the thoughts that control your bodily functions, which are part of the unconscious mind, we now know mainly involve neurons located in the cerebellum and the brain stem. On the other hand, when we reason about our experiences this involves the conscious mind and neurons in the cortex of the cerebrum. However, such a correlation is not perfect. As we just saw, sensory perception can be both conscious and unconscious, and both are processed in the cortex. Also, reasoning can occur in the unconscious as well. But, this type of reasoning is non-symbolic; it has no connection to or need for language. (The same can be said for the thoughts that constitute sensory input.)
Our sensory perceptions are actually the first link to higher, or conscious, thought, since they are the first mental processes that can be remembered. A particular memory of a sensory input, such as your first exposure to a new smell, is again simply a firing of neurons, and for the most part neurons in the cerebrum. However, at this stage there is still no need for language. The need for language arises when we begin to reflect on our sensory inputs, in other words, our experiences and our memories of them. This in fact is when we first start to think, since the ordinary usage of the word is of a mental process involving language. This is also when activity in the most advanced area of our brain, its frontal lobe, begins to dominate.
It is also interesting that the same distinctions exist when we dream. Both our conscious and unconscious minds can be active when we are asleep, for the former when we know we are dreaming (this is called lucid dreaming), and also when we hear or use language in a dream. This raises the question: are dreams a category of consciousness separate from the conscious and unconscious minds, or are dreams part of the unconscious, to which the conscious mind can intrude, just as the unconscious mind regularly intrudes into our conscious awareness?
Before reviewing the conscious mind in more detail, it is worth mentioning another aspect of thought, that of its complexity. Thoughts can be simple, calling on only a few areas of the brain, such as through concentrating on a particular sense, or they can be complex. For example, an experiment that you can try, to understand this better, is as follows:
- Close your eyes, and then concentrate, as hard as you can, on your breathing. Listen to it, and feel it: in and out, in and out.
- Now, while maintaining this awareness, think about what you are hearing, the sounds in your environment.
- Next, open your eyes and think about what you are seeing, and also think about what your nose is smelling and what your body is touching, including the temperature in the environment and the tingling of your skin from being caressed by the air.
- Now, while keeping as much of this as active as you can, your awareness of all of your sensory stimulation, think about how you feel. What are your current feelings, emotions and desires?
- Lastly, expand this to include the reasons for them. Open up your mind a little bit more: why do you feel the way you do?
If you are able to do this, to keep all of these disparate thoughts and sensations active at once, you have reached a state of pure self-focus, where much of your brain is active simultaneously and consciously. You have created a truly complex thought, or state of mind.
(This type of exercise takes a lot of practice, and trying it in bed just before you fall asleep will help. The reason for this is that it appears that at such times our conscious mind is somehow in closer contact with the unconscious. Communication between the two is facilitated. Also, it is worth noting that this exercise is akin to - it is in a sense the opposite of - meditation, where your goal is to empty your mind. In meditation, you try to eliminate conscious thought, to enhance your appreciation and acceptance of the natural world.)
To return to the analysis of our conscious mind, we often think that we have many different types of thoughts, but there appears to be another general distinction between two basic groups: those thoughts which involve reason, or a logical process that guides the mind from one idea to the next; and thoughts which do not involve logic, that progress from idea to idea using some other mechanism. Within the grouping of reason I would place the types of thoughts that we term analysis and synthesis, deduction and induction, memories of ideas, memories of events that bear on such a thought process, and also imagination, intuition and inspiration. Within the second group would go feelings, emotions, irrational thoughts, their related memories and, to the extent that they do not follow a logical process, dreams.
Given, for the moment, this breakdown, we might then ask, how do we have new thoughts: what drives a new emotion, or inspiration?
We saw that a thought is an organized firing, or wiring, of neurons. The question then becomes, how does our mind progress from the firing of one pattern of neurons to the next? I believe there are a number of possible mechanisms at work (all of which must have an underlying electrochemical source). The first of these is the unconscious mind's reactive function: the direction of our senses to follow continually changing external stimuli, and also its focus on the bodys internal functioning. (These are actually both reactive and proactive. Our unconscious anticipates the external environment, and plans our response to it, and it manages our bodily systems.) The second mechanism, on the other hand, involves our conscious mind: our reflective abilities. In this case the actual physical mechanism is simply overlap. Many people, when considering their stream of consciousness, are amazed at how their mind jumps about, seemingly at random, from one idea or feeling or memory or sensation to the next. But, perhaps this series is not as random as we think. Most ideas are highly complex; they involve input from many parts of the brain. For instance, a memory may include the sensory inputs relating to an experience, the thoughts that you had during the experience, and your later reflection or reasoning on the experience, including the language that you used to frame the reflection. Now, the instant that you have the memory, all of the neurons for all of the different parts of your brain that are required for it are wired together. But then, the moment passes, and the memory fades away. What I term overlap is that your next thought may well, or very often will, involve some of these same neurons. For some reason they will stay active, and furthermore, their continued activity seems to initiate the activity of other, related, neurons, the neurons that are necessary to create fully this next new thought.
For example, language and other stimuli (e.g., the notes of a song) frequently serve as overlap triggers. The words that you hear regularly cause your mind to link into established neural networks. In addition, overlap triggers can work within or across thought categories: one smell may trigger the memory of another, or it may trigger a vision, something that you have seen, that is associated with the smell, or it can trigger an idea that is associated with that vision, all the while leaving the link, the intermediate vision, hidden in the unconscious, so that your self-conscious mind is baffled by the transition.
(Another way to think of this is to consider what happens when you look for an idea, when you search your memory for something that you previously have thought. When you cast your mind around, when you fire up different neural circuits, what you really are doing is looking for an overlap to the idea, an overlap which is strong enough, that involves enough neurons, that it triggers a faint recollection, which you can then latch onto and hold.)
The question is, in your stream of consciousness, why does a particular subset of neurons stay active? Many, many such overlaps are possible. And how, or why, does it stimulate other neurons to create your next thought?
People have considered the nature of memory for a long time, and it is still being debated as to what it is and how it functions. However, a few observations can be made.
The first of these is that memory is the basis of personal consciousness. As such, it is an essential aspect of life. Without it there would be no context. (Smart Genes?, Time, Michael Lemonick, September 13, 1999) In a way it is the foundation of your identity: you are who you are because you remember who you are.
Memory is the minds way of organizing the realm of experience. It is used to distinguish, or position ourselves relative to:
- Our perception of space, including objects and their physical attributes, and their position relative to each other.
- Our perception of time, including sequence, duration, and the distinction between something which happened recently and something else which occurred far in the past (short-term versus long-term memory).
- Our bodys activity, including its autonomous processes (the mind remembers to keep your heart beating), and also our motor skills, both conscious and unconscious.
- Our experiences, including everything that happens to us, and also what we learn through the repetition of experience, such as the distinction between old, as in previously experienced, and new.
- Our rational ideas.
- Our feelings, emotions and dreams.
- And the symbols that we use, such as numbers and words.
Also, instincts can be considered to be memories as well, such as when newborns know to seek out their mother for food (and imprint with the first animal that feeds them), and to fight or flee if attacked. (Such memory varies by species, e.g., four-legged animals know to stand at birth, salt-water turtles to head for the sea. Indeed, all of the common behavior of species not raised by their parents, including how to feed, and to breed, has an instinctual element.)
Furthermore, while a particular memory may have many of these aspects, one component will typically be its initial or primary focus.
In addition, memory can vary by process, and difficulty. For the former, you can remember something consciously, by concentrating on it, or it can happen automatically, through a prompting from your unconscious. Also, different parts of the brain are required for certain types of memories: activity in the hippocampus for a long-term memory, and in the amygdala to recall the actual feeling of a prior instance of emotion. (Ibid.) What this implies is that memories are always present in your mind, but that their conscious recollection requires some sort of mechanical trigger (in addition to overlap). For instance, if the hippocampus is damaged, the trigger for long-term memory is lost. The memories are still there (in the brain), they just are never recalled.
As to the difficulty of memory, this applies both to having them, such as the challenge of remembering the words of a foreign language, and also to not having them, e.g., not recalling a bad experience. Also, the overlap mechanism explains why singular experiences stand out. Repetitive experiences are blurred together: the precise overlap to a specific memory in such a series is difficult for the mind to grasp. (Singular experiences are typically associated with great pleasure, or pain.)
One other way to generalize memory, underneath all of these different categories, is to recall that it - a memory - is an organized set of neurons (connecting whatever parts of the brain), relating to an experience - including the sensory inputs thereof, or an idea - including its language, that have been fired in the past. Any time that same set is refired, even if only approximately, our mind will recreate the experience or idea, and we will remember it.
Actually, recent research, for which the Nobel Prize in medicine for 2000 was awarded, has demonstrated that memory is located in the synapses. The ability of the neural networks that represent memories to form is dependent on biomechanical activity in the synapses. Further, these researchers distinguish explicit or declarative memory, or memories of people, places and things, which is for the most part conscious, from implicit or procedural memory, or memories of motor skills and perceptions, and which can be conscious or unconscious. In addition, they consider the issue of short-term versus long-term memory to be one of storage, and have even isolated the biomechanical functions in the synapses that underlie this distinction. For a short-term memory, the ion channels in the synapses are increased, temporarily, allowing the flow of more electrical charge. For a long-term memory, the actual shape of the synapse changes, mechanically cementing the enlarged electrochemical channel. (This is known as long-term potentiation - LTP. Also, it is worth noting that there are two rates of synaptic transmission: slow, for thoughts that constitute such things as alertness and mood; and fast, for speech, movement and perception.)
Now, to return to the idea of overlap, and why in a particular instance a certain overlap occurs, it would appear that a number of additional mechanisms are at work, and further that they are purposeful, i.e., the product of will. Our mind is able to hold on to a memory or idea, and also to explore the memory or develop the idea in more detail.
Since all thoughts, including feelings and dreams, are patterned firings of neurons, these mechanisms themselves must involve specific types of patterns. They also seem to be present both in the conscious and the unconscious. For example, you can willfully hold on to a memory or an idea in your conscious mind by concentrating on it. This implies that you can consciously cause the activation of this mechanism, the firing of the type of pattern that serves, somehow, to keep the initial thought active, i.e., continuously charged, or firing periodically but with only brief lapses in between.
But this process can also occur unconsciously. In this type of occurrence you have a memory or an idea, and then a short while later, or the next day, you have it again, without consciously trying to recreate it. (Of course, the mechanism in this case could also be a chance overlap.)
Then there is the question of how we develop new ideas, of how our creative flow occurs, and it is here that we return to the issue of education. Put simply, education is this development, it is the process by which we have, by which our mind creates, new ideas.
In some cases education is equivalent to the formation of memories, such as when you remember, when you learn, that hot burns. But in other cases education is more than this: it is more than the amplification of synapses. Education is also the development of complex new ideas, both the means by which your mind learns new subjects that are presented to you, which you are taught, and also the means by which your mind is able to have its own original ideas.
So, what is this mechanism, the mechanism by which we are able to bring about complex education, and creativity? Again, it appears to occur either consciously or unconsciously, but this time with a difference (from the mechanism of concentration). When you hold on to an idea, you usually do it consciously, but when you develop an idea, when your mind takes the next step, this normally occurs unconsciously. It does seem possible to concentrate on a new challenge, a challenge to which your mind has never before been exposed, such as a math problem more difficult than any you have previously been able to solve, and then grasp, or understand, its solution, but what really happens? I suggest that at some moment your concentration wavers, and in the next the solution is revealed to you. It jumps into your conscious mind as an inspiration.
(This reasoning is why I linked such thoughts as deduction and imagination earlier, although they have traditionally been considered to be different. To me, they are simply new thoughts, perhaps of different varieties, agreed, but what I find most interesting and important about them is the general process by which either occurs, the fact that something new has been created.)
If, as the above suggests, learning occurs in the unconscious, then, again, what really happens? Earlier, we saw that a baby's brain, at birth, has about one hundred billion neurons and fifty trillion synapses. But, within a few months the brain grows dramatically, the number of synapses increases to one quadrillion. The brain, in response to life, to all of the stimulation of existence, grows - it creates new wiring - and it is this new wiring that represents learning. (Learning is not only the strengthening of pre-existing synapses, it is the formation of new synapses, and perhaps even of new neurons as well.) And this process, of the brain rewiring itself, continues throughout your entire life. (This is also a feedback loop: the brain shapes our experience of life, and life in turn shapes the brain.)
Actually, scientists traditionally believed that our number of neurons was constant; we only had the set we were born with to use. It was the number of synapses, the set of connections between these neurons, which changed. Now, though, research has shown that the brain can continue to grow neurons, including perhaps throughout ones entire life. However, it is uncertain just how many new neurons are produced. The question is: how does the normal process of cell regeneration, where the body produces new cells to replace old cells which have matured and died, work with neurons? How are such neurons incorporated into established neural networks?
What I believe happens is that if you concentrate on a problem, and its solution comes to you, the solution represents a new pattern of firing of your neurons and preexisting synapses. However, if it takes some time for the solution to surface, for instance if the answer pops into your head a few days later, what happens is that your brain actually grows: it makes more synapses so as to be able to create a new pattern, which is the pattern that represents the solution. In a few cases, though, particularly with young children, such growth may include the production of new neurons as well.
Dreams, the chaotic ones, at least the ones not caused by spicy food, may be the mental imagery associated with this reprogramming process. Also, such a process, if this is what happens with thought and learning, truly is amazing.
But again, it requires this development mechanism, another type of thought, to stimulate it. When you get a new thought, you are usually aware of it; that you have just thought of something new. The reason for this is that another thought immediately jumps into your consciousness and tells you so. You have a set thought, a set neural circuit, which serves this purpose, which alerts you to new mental development. This thought is actually an example of a frequently activated neural network, as are the parallel thoughts associated with concentration and development.
Further, when you get this recognition signal you think: Aha! My mind has just reprogrammed itself. But, as we saw earlier, the new thought is likely tentative and unformed, without language. The minds task is now to find out what it means, in language that makes sense to it. The mind then proceeds to attach words to the thought, to find the set of symbolic elements that fit it best. It is through this process that one fully develops the new idea. But, to do this you must first have been exposed to the necessary words, as by reading them in a book (even if you did not understand them at the time). If not, you will be unable to develop the idea completely.
This obviously underlies the importance of language, and of having a good vocabulary. By increasing your vocabulary, you have more words at your disposal to frame new ideas. But how does the mind increase its vocabulary, other than for tangible objects to which it can easily add names? New words represent new ideas. Which comes first? I would say that the first step must be exposure to the word, even if in many such cases you do not understand it. The point is that it has been registered by your mind. Then, when you are exposed to the education that comprises the idea, the word leaps out of this registry to describe it.
This also has implications for the form of language, for the specific language that you use. If you use the language of a traditional culture, many of which have limited vocabularies, this by definition will limit your range of possible thought. Expansive thought requires an expansive language.
Through all of this we can see another example of the interplay of the conscious and unconscious minds. You have a conscious perception and this yields a conscious idea. You then forget about it (consciously), but your unconscious does not. Your development mechanism generates new programming, a new hard-wiring of your neurons and synapses. Then the idea reenters your conscious mind in its new form, and you latch onto it again and expand it with words. Then it goes back to the unconscious for further programming, etc. (This means of developing new ideas is the specific perturbative process that underlies education.)
I am not sure if we can ever understand this mechanism fully, or the gene or genes that presumably are responsible for it. Indeed, it may be separate from the concentration mechanism, or an extension of it, but which only occurs in some cases. (And, why only those cases?) But, in any case, I think I can suggest its source. This mechanism is the life force itself; it is whatever we have inside us that makes us alive and enables us to grow. Furthermore, this is its, and our, actual tangible purpose: the creation of new thought.
This is our most fundamental expression of will, conscious control of our unconscious mind to create new thought. And this is also where the screening of form takes place: where our will rejects the ideas that the sources of form seek to impose on us. This is the way that we choose what to think: which ideas to pursue and which to reject.
Another purposeful mechanism for the development of our stream of consciousness occurs when our mental pursuit of an idea ends. (This can also represent the flip side of will, when we decide to stop concentrating on something, or not to do something.) At some point, barring a sensory distraction, we do everything we can with an idea and then the neural circuit associated with it shuts down. The electrical charge for the circuit becomes inhibitory, and ends right there, rather than remain excitatory and proceed to the next neuron. At this point, then, our mind is blank, seemingly inactive, and the question is: what happens next?
At any given time we have a number of things that are of concern to us. It would appear that another mechanism, another thought or neural network, maintains this priority queue, and further that this is on all the time. Therefore, when one line of thought ends, the overlap links into this network and then through it to the line of thought which has the next highest priority, which then immediately jumps into our consciousness. (This generally has an emotional link: ideas that are associated with strong feelings - including pleasure and pain - are given a higher priority.)
Further, there is one other purposeful mechanism associated with neural circuitry overlap, and this is that we make mistakes! Sometimes our brain latches onto the wrong overlap. This occurs most often when we attempt to develop a string of ideas quickly. Our conscious mind does not allow the unconscious enough time to do accurate processing. As a result we may say the wrong thing, even have a Freudian slip.
Unfortunately (or maybe not!), there is one other mechanism. In addition to the mechanisms of recording and planning and the various forms of overlap, there is also chance. We can never forget universal unpredictability: it exists, it is active, at all levels. It is quite possible that some of our thoughts, maybe even all of them, have an unpredictable element. As a new thought, a new network of neurons, fires up, chance intercedes and affects the final pattern. Neurotransmitters jump across one synapse, but not another. The pattern forms, guided by our life force, by our will (or brainwashing), but also as a result of this chance element. Indeed, this mechanism could be the reason why it is so difficult to control our mind. To overcome this physical manifestation of uncertainty requires the greatest exertion of will.
Another cause of this lack of control, though, is the relative strength of the pattern. Strong patterns repeat themselves frequently, even if you do not want to think them. For example, if you hear an advertising jingle, or a song, many times, it will imprint itself onto your brain, get physically encoded into it, and then play itself again and again and again.
The actual process of this encoding is extremely important. As we have seen, strong memories and complex ideas have strengthened neuron/synapse networks. But how are such networks strengthened? Why do repeating patterns continue to repeat? The electrical impulses that constitute thoughts are carried by neurotransmitters across synapses from neuron to neuron. And they, the neurotransmitters, enter each neuron through its receptors. Certain factors, including genetic and environmental, and perhaps even will, promote the production of neurotransmitters and the functioning of these receptors. In other words, they enable the processing of more electrical charge, the transmission of more energy, and this is what increases the frequency of the circuitry firing.
To return to learning, you should strive, as a basic educational goal, to strengthen certain neural networks, to cause them to be frequently activated, and to minimize or eliminate others. By proactively seeking to learn, by regularly exposing yourself to new experiences and by studying new subjects, you will strengthen the neural networks that enable you to concentrate, to develop new ideas, to recognize when you have had a new idea, and you will also increase your vocabulary. And, by rejecting the sources of behavioral form, you will bar from your mind the networks that they seek to create.
Also, this shows why repeating what someone says to you is not the same thing as thinking it. Repeating something only requires that you use the parts of your mind that are necessary to remember words. To think, or really learn, to understand the words, you must activate all of the parts of your mind that are needed to frame fully, to create, the new idea.
This is why making mistakes is one of the most effective ways to learn. By making a mistake, you force your mind to play close attention, you engage all of it and it is compelled to learn. Therefore, learning in such a way that you make a lot of mistakes, such as by pushing yourself very hard, is not necessarily a bad thing.
In summary, the study of our thought, of our consciousness, involves the unraveling of a very complex puzzle. We must make sense of a number of distinctions, including:
- conscious thoughts and unconscious
- rational ideas and emotions
- fast thoughts and slow
- and memories and the creation of something new
And, we must understand the mechanisms that underlie our stream of consciousness, the embedded patterns that guide it along, and all of the biomechanical and electrochemical processes, starting with in the genes, which are responsible for this.
Now, to close, I want to reiterate that a thought represents a patterned firing of neurons across synapses, and that a mind, your mind, has approximately one quadrillion of the latter. This means that the number of thoughts that you can have, depending on the minimum number of neurons and synapses that must be fired at any one time to create a thought (and more complex thoughts require more neurons and synapses), is simply astronomical.
One way to grasp this is through the mathematical concept of factorials, which are used to calculate the possible number of combinations in a system. For instance, three factorial (3!) equals 1 x 2 x 3, or 6. This means that for a system with three factors, where each factor is used only once, and every time (in each combination), there are six possible results: 123; 132; 213; 231; 312; 321. Of course, the factors do not have to be numbers. They can be anything, such as letters: abc; acb; bac; bca; cab; cba. Or, the factors can represent synapses, which means that the theoretical upper limit on our possible number of thoughts is one quadrillion factorial. One quadrillion factorial is the product of 1 x 2 x 3 x ... 999,999,999,999,999 x 1,000,000,000,000,000.
Of course, thoughts, even the most simple, need a lot more than one synapse. Also, a factorial based on our number of synapses assumes that any synapse can connect directly through a neuron to any other, which is not true. A better measure would be neuron factorials, since any neuron can connect to any other, although this would typically occur through many intermediate neurons and synapses. However, this will affect the result: how many total thoughts are possible cannot be calculated with a simple factorial. (Also, factorials themselves are an understatement. Each factor does not have to be used every time. Distinct thoughts use only a portion of the brains neurons and synapses, not all of them.) But this, for my purposes, is not significant. My point is that regardless of the complexity of the statistics, the magnitude of the number of possible thoughts that we can have is truly awesome. For example, twenty factorial (20!), all of the ways in which twenty neurons could be linked, is two quintillion: 2 X 10/18th. One hundred factorial (100!) is 9 X 10/157th.
(This raises the question: if the same set of neurons is linked in different ways, through different synapses, does each such linkage represent a different thought? I believe it does. Also, we should not forget the consequence of the fact that synapses can have varying strengths and structures. This increases the factorial, the total number of combinations or variety of thoughts, even more. Ratey, page 11)
Our mind can think about anything. It can create a thought about anything we can do, or sense, including any possible reflection thereon, i.e.:
- anything required to run our body - any physical, chemical or electrical process - to get it to do anything that it is possible for it to do.
- anything our body can sense and experience, and anywhere - in any possible setting or environment.
- and anything we can think and say about any and all such processes and experiences.
We know there is an unconscious mind, which runs the body, and autonomously processes sensory stimuli, including their effects on us both physical and psychological. And, there is a conscious mind, where we reflect on ourselves and our reactions to such stimuli, both with reason and emotion. But, the unconscious can have a role here as well, by spontaneously initiating emotions, even irrational behavior, and also through providing new, rational ideas. For instance, sometimes you are able to respond to inquiries, complicated questions, without any conscious mental processing at all. The unconscious does all of the thinking itself, and seemingly instantaneously provides the answer.
Also, when the unconscious provides a new mental development to your conscious mind, it may do this using a geometric image: a shape or structure that contains the entire solution to a problem that you have been considering. Indeed, the reason the unconscious is so fast is that it does not need to make a symbolic interpretation, other than shape. Words slow it down.
You then need to find the words to fit the form. The image is instantaneous, including your recognition that it contains the entire solution, but finding the right words takes time.
If you are extremely alert to your stream of consciousness, it is possible to learn to sense this process: the arrival in your consciousness of such a form, and its subsequent interpretation. This type of thinking, with shapes, is geometrical thought, or topological. It is the means to the comprehension of the most complex and abstract aspects of existence. You should strive to develop this ability, and also to have your children do so as well. When they are young, play them classical music, and give them piano lessons and geometrical puzzles and games.
In conclusion, the roles and responsibilities of the conscious and unconscious parts of our mind are not always that clear, and sometimes they even appear to shift back and forth between themselves. Furthermore, the brains capability seems to be so great that it raises the question whether it can have thoughts, or ideas, which transcend conscious/unconscious distinctions; even thoughts which cannot be expressed in - which are beyond the boundaries of - language. It may be the case that we have a higher unconscious, that our mind is somehow able to react to, act as part of and stay in personal communication with, the universe as a whole. Our mind in and of itself may function as a sensory and communications organ. It may maintain a system of organization whereby we form an inseparable part of the universe, in a way or ways of which we are consciously unaware, that are inaccessible to our conscious understanding.
What else does our unconscious mind know? And, is it really the case that there is no way for us to gain access to this knowledge?