Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Mirrored Selves

An elegant lady recently raised an oft cited point that there is a mind & a heart & they are neighbours in the colony of the individual's personality. I have viscerally failed to understand what I believe is an imposed dichotomy of convenience & I shall elaborate over this post.

When one instinctively picks winning stocks, we compliment the mind.
When a mother instinctively rushes to the kids' room, we cheer the mother's heart.

When one is tricked by an illusion, we chide the mind's eye.
When one is fooled into believing an illusion of love, we bemoan the heart's naiveté.

When one party tricks, we call his mind cunning.
When a party is tricked we call his a trusting heart.

When an individual admires the night sky & proceeds to understand the stars, we admire his mind.
When an individual admires the night sky & describes it in a poem, we sigh at his heart

When a man devises ways to make money, we call his mind shrewd.
When a man seeks ways to distribute his money, we call his heart generous.

Recalling a face, a memory, that night, the kindness - all of it is in the brain. Yet, we oust it from the podium where gentleness is celebrated. The minute the brain devises clever stratagems we declare it to be a work of the mind. The minute it recalls ardour & sobs we embrace the kind heart & proclaim that all that is good is not yet dead. Well, the heart that built the Taj Mahal also chopped off hands (a tale with no basis).

Kahneman in his seminal work on how the brain seems to work (primarily around decision theory) seems to indicate that what we popularly call of the heart is often in the realm of System 1 thinking of the mind. Nowhere does he call them out as mind & heart. Not that you must agree with him, but do give the poor scholar some credit.

I could well rush to call it all yin & yang & how a little of each stains the other & satisfy all our needs to be vague & placatory, but I am unable to draw a line where the mind ends & the heart begins, or vice versa. Sometimes kindness & sensitivity is a cultured response. An ignorant soul when exposed to the suffering of others, develops the requisite sensitivity & heart-felt, nay, mind-nurtured response. All our heart remains unaware of the predicament of cotton mill workers in Uzbekistan until we are exposed to their plight. Plenty of human sensitivity finds origin in education. Where a man is blamed for his uncouth behaviour, he is slighted for being poorly educated, a matter largely of the mind.

Where the mind is often pinned is in the vicinity of what Mr. Hofstadter calls "certain kinds of gooey lumps encased in hard protective shells mounted atop mobile pedestals that roam the world on pairs of slightly fuzzy, jointed stilts". The heart, safely, is bookmarked near the eponymous sanguine pump. While the mind is rational, cold, blood-thirsty & exacting in its measured persona, the heart is throbbing, warm, gentle, loving & so vaguely absent-minded in any measure & in every measure. One evokes sympathy & a billion dollar romance industry. The other evokes hushed objurgation & a multi-billion dollar industry of commerce & financial transactions. Where one lulls a babe to sleep, the other rings the young to rush to work.

It is difficult to exclude a scientific enquiry into this matter but I shall abstain to the fullest of my ability.

All our perceptions & observations are through our senses, rooted in the brain (I'd say the central nervous system as well, but let's call all that the "brain"). What the brain receives as stimuli the brain processes to distill as insight, learning and/or method. All exposure to this world is through the senses & most of our responses are our interpretive volley to those stimuli. If we leave hormonal responses of hunger, fear & sexual needs aside, we would not have a response had we not had a fermentation of our sensory loot. A babe cannot sigh till she has accumulated sufficient sense of irony or the ability to gather intensity till the point of climax. A babe has no concept of connect as she would connect to anyone who would feed. It is thus that adoption & surrogacy thrive as options.

Try this experiment with the most sensitive person you meet: In a monotone, explain the movie clip they are about to see. Tell them how everything ends well & the father saves his daughter. Make your friend aware that kids when asked how much they miss someone will more often than not throw their little arms wide open & that is cute & expected. They probably learnt it from their parents & recognised that it is considered cute (rewarded gestures). Explain each scene & dialogue & tear & smile throughout. Tell them how it was supposed to end well else there wouldn't be a movie to make of it. Then show them the movie interspersing it with "This is what I was referring to". The chances that this sensitive person will respond with all heart is fairly lower than when s/he was not made aware of the build up of emotions & climax. We are capable of that. We can want to stay under water to see how long we can hold our breath & emerge with a burst for fresh air. We love the rush of a culminating moment of emotion. We also love chocolate cake. And if you noticed, the child was just pleased, not emotional & all heart.

While all perceiving is through the window of the senses, how we assimilate all that flies in & how we synthesise it is individual & often not predictable. But repeatability is not the point here. Our innate sensitivity grooms & smudges what we receive into a notion & understanding of life creating a bouquet of responses which go by the name of "I". If the "I" cannot be located at a precise point two inches north-west of the navel, how did we ever get to decide whether "I" feel it in my heart or mind? You must have noted that I do not use the word brain save in the need to identify the collector of sensations. It is not the heart but a mix of how we hold perceived incidents & memory, allowing the same to curdle in the earthen pot of our soul (something that acts as a substrate as it doesn't govern what we receive as experience/events), that makes us who we are, both in demonstrations of intellectual ability as well as emotional capability.

If it is our brain's (and associated minions') window that gathers, if it is the soul, time & chance that brews what was gathered, if it is purely the assembly of life's events viewed through the entirety of being that creates a unique perspective, then where did we create the dichotomy between mind & heart? If we are comfortable saying that the heart thinks & vivisects, then let us simply address our varyingly dual personas as heart. If we cannot imagine the heart as inventing a new device, then let us say the mind feels & the mind thinks. Or pick another word! Just one!

Sunday, April 14, 2013

An Infinity Unknown

Take a minute & answer these question before proceeding to read: How was your time in school? What are the top 3 things you recall of your time there?

A dear friend asked me how I recall my days in school. I would have imagined a response like "It was fun" or "So much fun & play" or at least "It was so depressing" or "I met my husband/wife there" or something like that escape my lips but none of that sorts did. To my very surprise, I realised & muttered that my days in school were a string of shining & achieving. While I did enjoy myself thoroughly & had my own share of spats & mud-fights & puppy-love & infatuation for some teachers (some I am still in touch with), I don't seem to recall my school days as a span of learning & shock. What I mean by shock is what an old villager feels when he is shown how email works. The excitement with which he claps his hands when he gets a smiley on the chat screen from thousands of miles away is missing from my memory of school. To think that that is where I learnt nearly everything of life's fundamentals. It is poor solace that most people around me too recognise their school as something other than where they were surprised at what life had in store for them. It should not be immediately deemed an issue with the school system. Let us not view it as a problem.

Perhaps what surprises me is my mental romantic want that school would be remembered as an excursion where we discovered so many new things. Math, for instance, opened the doors to the world of numbers. Geometry & mensuration made the world of shapes so amazingly beautiful. Literature & the world of words which I play in was woven tale by tale throughout my schooling days. The human body & photosynthesis is still a magical realm to me. Refraction & how we would all tilt our head to view the pencil under water was brought to my eyes then. While I do not deny that I learnt all of this in school, I do not recall the awe or the surprise in discovering how echoes were produced. It was a fact that we were exposed to & then provided with the formula to compute various aspects of a problem using the time taken to hear an echo.

I remember a simple boyish conversation amongst a few of us who were exposed to the speed of light. We proposed that if I was 20 feet away from a candle (which was covered) and moved at the speed of light, then would I ever see the candlelight if I began moving away from the candle as soon as it was uncovered. The point was, since the light from the candle & I would move at the same speed, there will always be a difference of 20 feet between me and light. To think of light being held back like a stream of molten silver was amazing in conception & even today makes me nearly want to move that fast. That is the awe I refer to. The sheer amazement of using & studying a boomerang (yes, I went to YouTube to see how a boomerang is thrown).

I am not sure if the younger days in school are meant to provide the necessary tools so that those who are sensitive might explore & be amazed & those who aren't will make a living anyway. I would think that the initial years are when the child is likely to be stunned & amazed. To utilise the natural inclination for wonder is what I would think all of education should be about. Even if we eliminated tests & grades, our current approach to introducing a child to the wonders of this world would not focus on stunning the child.

It is not entirely clear to me whether wonder & amazement is best in retrospect. Do children merely see & get used, like a child using a smart-phone and thereafter finding nothing amazing about long distance communication or mobile apps or processor technologies? Adults who see a smart-phone for the first time are indeed amused & amazed at "how much technology has advanced" and hearken back to days when "all we had was a rotary phone & long distance trunk calls". Is amazement always in contrast? I recall the first time I saw a bike in a cage/steel sphere, I was amazed & also thoroughly interested in the notion of centripetal forces. I had nothing to compare it to - sheer adrenaline racing act! But a growing plant is hardly an awe-inspiring thing to a child until she sows the seeds & watches it grow, understanding all that it goes through.

I think schools denature knowing. Whether they do it consciously or not is secondary to this exploration. By capturing the flight of a bird into paragraphs of text about hollow bones & air currents we seem to steal away the opportunity from a child to watch birds & ask questions & seek to understand. By insisting that one be provided all possible knowledge even before curiosity or need arises, we are in essence removing the wonder of first encounter. I might never see a polar bear but I have studied so much about it that perhaps if I saw it in real life, I might be less amazed than if I knew nothing about it.

I think the question that remains is, can we essentially remain ignorant till need arises? What is the price we have to pay for that? Why can we not spend the early years in wonder & then grow organically & apprentice?