Observations about my brain

For a variety of converging reasons, I have been reflecting lately about how my brain works.  And to some degree, I have been coming to terms with long-resisted realities.  For example:

1. I just don’t “do” small print–not even slightly small.  There are countless books on my shelves that I have intended to read and finally realized that I never will, simply because the print is slightly small.  Recently I carried a book around for three days, fooling myself that I would read it, but the print was just slightly small.  The funny thing is that it is not a problem with my vision, because even with a perfectly fresh prescription for my glasses I have trouble with small print; the problem is not that I can’t see the letters.  I can, quite clearly.  Conclusion:  The problem is in the way that my brain processes visual information.  Practical conclusion:  I have given myself permission to buy Kindle books.

2. I can’t remember dates.  I have made a number of attempts in recent years to learn history, but I find that important dates just keep slipping.  In Biblical history, which should be my specialization, I eventually just required two dates of my students, namely the dates of the exiles of the kingdoms of Israel:  587 for the south and, um, 722 or something like that for the north–I can’t even retain both of these important dates, it seems.  I don’t know the birthdays of my siblings; I have to think hard to pull up birthdays of my own kids, and I’m rarely confident about it; just tonight I was wrong about my wife’s birthday.  (She, on the other hand, instantly knew the saint whose feast is celebrated on the day that I wrongly stated as her birthday–and she reminds me about my siblings’ birthdays.)  Conclusion:  The problem is not that I never studied the dates, but that my brain does not handle dates well.  Practical conclusion:  I need to “encode” dates in some other form that I tend to remember better.  (For example, I can remember what people wear, how they sit, their facial expressions, and so on, but my wife can’t remember any of those things.)

3. I don’t handle little details well.  After joining the Board of Directors for my place of employ, I have many times studied a financial spreadsheet, but I can never make sense of it.  In fact, my brain “crashes” and I need to look out a window and breath deeply after even looking at all those numbers in rows and columns.  (That’s not because of how our finances are doing–in case you wondered!)  The multitude of e-mails I receive frequently overwhelms me, because it requires handling lots of small details–including details about dates (see the above).  If I could have a secretary to do one thing, it would be this:  he would look through my e-mails to pull out the agenda items and important dates and put them in lists for me.  I have a wonderful routine that helps me get through it, but even so I can sometimes put it off for days because it is so stressful.  I can never remember what month something happened, even if it was important–when we moved, when a family member died, etc.–I can’t even remember what year things happened.  (I ask my wife.)  I worry about offending people, so I try to hide it.  Conclusion:  My brain works very well in big-picture mode and in seeing causal connections, and even when it comes to details of an argument, but my brain does not handle temporal-spatial detail well.  Practical conclusion:  I rely without guilt on others who do these things well, and I wish I could have more help.

Hypothesis:  Could the above be connected?  Could the central thread be a problem with processing physical detail?

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CTT #3

David the ten-year-old is on track for confirmation this coming April.  As part of the process, he had to choose a confirmation name.  His choice, entirely on his own and without even a hint of a suggestion from anyone else?

Francis.

Given recent events, I call that cool.

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The accidental snipe hunt

Although I wrote into my schedule for Saturdays “blog”, in hopes that I will do so at least once a week, most of the weekend has been lost to migraines.  Nonetheless, God was so kind as to drop a blog post into my lap–or rather, into my front yard, which, inasmuch as my house is like a large version of me, is more or less my lap.

For a couple of hours yesterday, this little guy ran around the yard hunting grasshoppers:

Here’s a view of his distinctive breast:

Although I can’t be sure, it seems to me to be some kind of snipe.  At least, that’s what I arrived at by looking through Sibley’s Guide to get the general kind of bird and then watching the video “Better Bird Watching in Wyoming and Colorado” until something came up like our front yard guest.  Anyone else have an opinion?

Our bird feeder out back has finally attracted a good crowd, but they are all little seed-eaters.  This fellow stood out right away as a runner rather than a flitter and as a hunter rather than a gatherer.

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The Filter

Last time, I wrote about Reality Enhancement, that impulse by which we endow whatever we see with more being and intelligibility than it has on its own.  And I argued that this is on the whole a good impulse:  imagine standing in a dark room with only three glints of light as guide, with no ability to “reconstitute” the scene.

Now I want to describe RE’s first offspring, the Filter.  The same impulse that leads us to seek clarity and intelligibility in the world leads us, when we have formed a theory of any kind, to look for whatever might fit with that theory.  One form of this is the infamous “Confirmation Bias,” namely the tendency to notice things that fit with our theories and overlook things that don’t, to ask “What fits with my theory?” instead of asking “What doesn’t fit with my theory?”  But the Filter has an even more subtle form:  for each datum that goes by, we ask, “Does this fit my theory or not?”—and therein lies the trap.  We notice when evidence fits or doesn’t fit the theory, but we don’t notice when the evidence would fit another theory just as well.

As a result, when a person holds a theory for a long time then he may see thousands and thousands of pieces of evidence that fit with his theory, and his confidence in his theory grows beyond all bounds, but he does not realize that all but a few of those evidences would fit another theory just as well.  He says things like, “It’s hard to put into words, but after years of studying this subject I am just completely confident that this is true.”

Both the Filter and its more dangerous cousin, Confirmation Bias, can be in part overcome if we consciously promote the habit of asking whether the evidence in front of us could support a different idea.  One can reach a point where the moment one thinks, “Here’s a theory,” the next moment one asks, “What other theory would the evidence support?”  This is crucial for the intellectual life.

But in the end the Filter cannot be entirely overcome, because much of the time we are not aware that we have formed a theory or that we are testing it.  The “theory” itself is often an intuitive reconstruction springing from Reality Enhancement, and the same impulse that caused us to clarify reality by connecting a few dots now causes us to be on the lookout for whatever fits with the resulting picture.  The whole thing happens without our being aware of us, and we can no more get rid of it than we can train ourselves out of Reality Enhancement itself.

Which means that the Filter itself is not all bad.  It is a natural extension of Reality Enhancement, which is on the whole a good thing.  While RE actually changes our incoming perceptions, the Filter selects which perceptions or which aspects of those perceptions we will attend to, but both are born of the basic human impulse towards being and light.  And who wants to destroy that?

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As easy as falling off a blog

Only a couple of years ago, we kept up with friends by reading their blogs.  By now, gone are most of the family blogs, because they have migrated to Facebook; we are the only people we know without active Facebook pages.

And here we are, not only failing to catch up with the times but willfully falling further behind by actually starting a new blog instead.  Why would that be?  Why not take the easier path?  Several reasons:

  • Facebook as a medium encourages short statements of fact or opinion, but militates against sustained narrative prose or reasoning.  It is Twitter’s more respectable cousin.
  • Facebook as a networking system puts pressure on users to accept unlimited contacts by couching itself in terms of friendship:  unless you accept someone’s request for admission to the show, you are not his or her “friend”.  Just this week, Facebook said to me concerning my live-in brother-in-law, “You are not Robert’s friend.”
  • Facebook in fact uses the metaphor of face-to-face contact systematically to suggest that being “connected” is equivalent to being “in community with”, that “connectivity” is the same as “communion”.  By taking this line, it actually tries to demote true personal communion to its own level.  It is the enemy of actual face-to-face exchange; it is Facelessbook.
  • If we all give in to Facelessbook, it will become socially and professionally required, like the cell phone my employer imposed on me.  It already is in some fields.  Resistance is futile in the end, but in the meantime one can make a symbolic gesture, like hoisting one’s native flag over invader’s camp.

More positively, this was an opportunity to build my own website, use a web hosting service, and do all the FTP and Admin and other cool stuff, and it’s geeky fun to learn.

A blog actually encourages me to write, and writing is food for my soul.  My wife wants to write more, too.  While some argue that lengthy prose is inappropriate for the Internet, lots of blogs out there prove them wrong every day; while the blog lends itself well to short stuff, it is not opposed to long stuff like PublicSpace, Facelessbook, or Twitter (no need to parody that last one!).  For more, see Fr. Hardon’s “Writing and the Spiritual Life”.

So you still won’t see us on Facelessbook, even though it is an easy way to stay in touch with lots of people–as easy as falling off a blog.

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