Wednesday, 25 April 2012

Evening thoughts on blindness

This is essentially an anecdote, so I'm afraid I will have to spoil you with more green text printed in italics.

On the way back from town I was combining several thoughts that have been occupying my mind for a while. Two days ago I picked up Derren Brown's "Tricks of the Mind" in which I started learning about the "Linkage system", "Loci system", "Memory palace" as well as some other fascinating strategies for memorising networks of information. Without boring you with the details (though I can assure you they are all worth studying) what links all of the strategies is visualising words. It made me really think about whether the mind actually does work mostly in terms of the visual perception we have of events; how else could these memory systems work so incredibly well? I was thinking of evolution, and how most information we actually take in does come from the sensory stimuli picked up by the eyes; only on occasion did a car drive by. In fact there really was very little that went on in the realm of sound.
     And so I decided to force myself to adapt myself to the world of the blind. I am fairly certain some Asian people are able to sense their surroundings using secret meditative processes involving the ears, while keeping their eyes closed, and whether or not this outrageous stereotype holds any truth, I wanted to attempt it myself. First I needed to calibrate my sense of distance with the length of my steps. For every distinct feature along my path, such as a shadow, or a bush, or a crack in the tarmac, I would guess how many steps it would take to reach it, close my eyes, walk the prescribed number of steps, then judge the result. Obviously my judgement was fairly erroneous at first, but I am getting used to the sensation and in a few years time I can cut my eyes out for good and move to a mountain top in Asia and dye my hair white.
     In any case, this very eccentric practice should definitely alarm people passing me in the streets, but more importantly it takes my mind away from the dreary task of mentally assessing how long time it will take to get home. Frankly, though, I usually tend to counter that boredom by pretending to be fascinated by mundane things such as passing cars and bright office windows, imagining all the silly people who haven't yet asked themselves whether they are justified in being annoyed by the rain, and who haven't yet tried to walk blindly at the risk of being ridiculed by passers by.

Tuesday, 24 April 2012


On my Facebook profile, this is one of the quotations which quietly sits in my personal information, overlooked by most and understood by few:
- the single, most important question with respect to human knowledge.

This is not a complicated quotation, and in its obvious simplicity I can imagine it is hard to grab someone's attention with it. Usually quotations are the perfect verbal manifestations of what we know as the appeal to authority. In terms of pure logic, it does not matter who said what you quoted; the truth and validity of a statement must be assessed independent of its author. The reason why one always gives the source of the quotation is understandable, though: it is a sign of respect towards the author, a referential aid for those who wish to verify the quotation's source, and a necessity if one is to avoid being accused of plagiarism, should it be in an academic or social context. Beyond those formalities, however, a source is a surreptitious invitation to commit the logical fallacy I mentioned, either in a negative or positive light.

This is the very reason I did not attach a source to the quotation. Doing so would be to imply that its meaning should be dependent on who said it, but also that it in fact had a specific author. By avoiding the source I want the reader to somehow end up thinking "Wait a second, it doesn't matter who said it. In fact not only could anyone have asked that question, but most people do every day!". The meaning of a statement is a product of the reader, not the writer whose intended meaning will hopefully be accurately identified by the reader.

As you will no doubt (or as my friend likes to say "indubitably") have started to ask yourself, where am I taking this train of thought? And isn't this in any case a very complicated way to arrive at the conclusion, while the sand of your life's hourglass is slowly trickling?

At the risk of seeming inarticulate and unstructured - a risk I have faced many times throughout the writing of this text alone - I am going to conclude with a very vulgar and desperate opener. Wait for it...

The point is that by asking the question "Why?" with respect to everything you can imagine, you will either become completely obsessed, if insane, or come closer to a true understanding or at least appreciation (or deprecation) of the world around you. Because I feel I am beginning to bore you, I am going to present you with an example. But why do I feel that I am beginning to bore you? Because I myself am trying to envisage a writer, entirely by prejudice, who can identify the same sensation of structural chaos that I am identifying when writing this text. Technically that was an example, but here is another one (in the form of an anecdote).

One day I was walking home from university, as I often - or should I say always - do after having been at university for a given amount of time. It was raining, and being a very sensible person I forgot to bring an umbrella. The first sensation I felt as the water established contact with my hair and skin was one of annoyance. My entire life, I had developed an association between water and annoyance - unless of course I was swimming. Did wearing clothes justify my annoyance? Well I guess they would have to dry once I reached my flat, but when qualifying that consequence as annoying, I needed to justify the qualification. Was drying clothes annoying? Well the action itself involved exactly the same movement as that required to hang up dry clothes, so it shouldn't be. Maybe it was the knowledge that water might be dripping or evaporating away from the clothes, and raise the humidity in my room? I don't see how that in itself is excessively annoying, and even if it were, why should that distant action need to alter my mental state in the present? What an unnecessary way of becoming in a bad mood. I concluded that there must be something else: some other justifiable, rational reason for me being annoyed, seeing as there doesn't seem to be any real practical issue with being slightly wet.
     Perhaps it is an accumulation of impressions from my entire life, where I have heard people complaining about being wet, and myself beginning to form a mental network combining the events, the emotions, the sensations, to end up to this day becoming genuinely annoyed at water touching my skin. I can't help but feeling gullible, because that is what human beings are. Not in terms of being easily persuaded, but because the entire human mind is based on our inherent openness to external stimuli. Without such a quality, there can't be mental development. The only reason why I employ "gullible" in this context, is because it expresses my feeling of helplessness and stupidity, having just realised that everything I am is a completely irrational heap of mental networks synthesised in an attempt to make sense of the world around me.
     And so I decided to rebel against my values. At no point in my life had I consciously decided that I wanted to be annoyed by water touching my skin, so why should it put me in a bad mood at the present moment? I pulled up my sleeves, and smiled as I pointed face towards sky and embraced the previously annoying sensation of water touching my skin, landing on my eye. At this point the annoyance was just a result of evolution, and the body's natural response to pain related to self-preservation, but I knew that this is all it was. I had simplified the situation by repeating the simple question "Why?", and it had brought me a feeling of independence, of superiority, at least giving me the power to acknowledge that I am indeed a product of stimuli.

Now ask yourself how much of your identity does not have any rational foundation? Ask yourself how much is personal choice, and how much is an unconscious result of the surroundings? I challenge you to take any aspect of your life, and travel through the infinite regress of causality, and if necessary restructure your perspective.

For instance, when the professor holding a lecture does not meet my standards, I ask myself why my education should be in any way affected by the skills of the professor. Why should I silently complain about it, when I know that I will have to sit through this lecture anyway, and that whether the information I was learning should be used for the exam, or even later in life, the only significant goal is to indeed obtain this information. It is at this point that I decide to attempt to separate myself from my preconceptions and preferences, and embrace the fact that he is a lousy professor, and use it to reinforce my memory of the information he is presenting. I attempt to use the lousy nature of the professor as a facilitation of my learning, instead of putting myself in a state of disappointment and lesser receptivity of information.

In fact I intend to write another post about this fascinating aspect of memory, so I should probably end this post now before I sabotage my own work. But remember to always ask yourself "WHY?".