6/16/2018 to 6/22/2018. Quotes and ideas from How We Decide by Jonah Lehrer, The Invention of Air by Steven Johnson, The Diversity of Life by E.O Wilson.
Mirror Neurons. In How We Decide, Jonah Lehrer describes mirror neurons as "allow[ing] us to grasp the minds of others not through conceptual reasoning but through direct simulation; by feeling, not be thinking." Our entire experience with our environment is portrayed by neural activity interpreting for use the inputs of our sensory systems. For example, the image you see is an interpretation of the bouncing electromagnetic waves all around you. While your visual image is constructed from these waves, it is possible for a blind person to also have a "visual" image in their mind, using auditory input instead. In this case, bouncing sound waves (echolocation) allow a person to build an image of their environment without "seeing" at all. So, a visual image could be constructed without the visual sense.
To take this further, a sensory experience could be had without the any direct sense at all. This where mirror neurons enter. Consider this example. You're watching a video of someone riding a bike. They are looking to their side, and they approach a pole head on without knowing it. In the instant before and after the collision, you cringe. You could feel their pain. Mirror neurons light up in reaction to observed events. In other words, your brain can simulate an experience without any direct sensory input.
Lehrer's statement now makes more sense. In compassion, you can actually feel the sadness of someone else. You can feel happy around other happy people. Your brain simulates in you the actual experiences of those around you. Magnify the abilities of these neurons and you get a condition known at mirror-touch synesthesia. People with this condition can simulate experiences so effectively that seeing the bike-pole collision would leave them dizzy and nauseated, feeling what the rider felt themselves.
But, mirror neurons aren't really mirrors. They are only simulations. Suppose you had never felt fear (which is possible). If you saw fearful behavior, your mirror neurons would not be able to simulate the fear of the other person, because they have no experience to draw from. This is important to remember. When you see someone who is sad, you cannot know exactly what they are feeling. You can get pretty close, but your understanding of their sadness will be based on sadness that you have experienced. Different factors will be involved such as your level of hope, fear, anxiety, or your ability to be cheered up. However close we get, we never truly know what someone else is feeling.
Discovery. In his book, The Invention of Air, Steven Johnson discusses the life of Joseph Priestly and his influence on religion, science, and the birth of America. Among other accomplishments, Priestly discovered oxygen in relatively simple home experiments. In reflection on Priestly's life, Johnson states that "amateur chemists are not likely to discover new elements in their home laboratories anymore." He means that as time passes, it becomes harder and harder to discover new things such as elements, species, and new islands. But, these things can and should still be discovered.
For example, most people could walk outside into a forest and with enough time, see a bird or tree or snake that they had never seen before. In that moment, they discovered something new. There was probably already an entire book written about that bird, but to the discoverer, it was something brand new. The experience for him was no different than it was for whoever in history first saw it. Thus, you can discover new things. Here's why you should.
Richard Feynman was a 20th century theoretical physicist who, aside from his work in quantum mechanics, was known for exceptional curiosity. Once, he became curious about what controlled a candle's brightness. Instead of jumping for a book (Google wasn't around) and a quick answer, he began to examine it for himself, trying to discover what was already known. His behavior is a good expression of a view held by Leonardo da Vinci: "Those who study the ancients and not the works of Nature are step-sons and not sons of Nature, the mother of all good authors." Also, "Though I can not like others cite authors, I shall cite much greater and more worthy: experience."
Feynman attempted to discover before being told, to learn through experience and not by a textbook. Right now, I think that this is the best way to learn. Generally, teaching should give name to experiences already had, not replace the experiences themselves. When you discover (for yourself) a new bird, you can later be told its name. It's inefficient to teach answers to questions that haven't been asked, yet this is how many people learn. Students should be allowed to form questions, generate hypotheses, and consider conclusions, all the while being guided by the teacher. Anatole France said it well, "The whole art of teaching is only the art of awakening the natural curiosity of young minds for the purpose of satisfying it afterward."
So, be curious, go discover, and learn effectively. Be like Feynman: "I'm always looking, like a child, for the wonders I know I'm going to find--maybe not every time, but every once in a while."
other quotes from this week
John Lehrer, How We Decide