Scientists Take a Leap
I've just finished reading this article which lists the
answers scientists gave to the question "What do you believe
is true even though you cannot prove it?".
It's at http://www.edge.org/
Three I liked (and I agree with them) are these. I've
edited a couple to shorten them.
It's all about time. I think modern life has fundamentally
and paradoxically changed our sense of time. Even as we live
longer, we seem to think shorter. Is it because we cram more
into each hour? Or because the next person over seems to
cram more into each hour?
For a variety of reasons, everything is happening much
faster and more things are happening. Change is a constant.
The physical friction of everyday life—the time it took
Isaac Newton to travel by coach from London to Cambridge,
the dead spots of walking to work (no iPod), the darkness
that kept us from reading—has disappeared, making every
minute not used productively into an opportunity cost.
And finally, we can measure more, over smaller chunks of
time. From airline miles to calories (and carbs and fat
grams), from friends on Friendster to steps on a pedometer,
from realtime stock prices to millions of burgers consumed,
we count things by the minute and the second.
Unfortunately, this carries over into how we think and plan:
Businesses focus on short-term results; politicians focus on
elections; school systems focus on test results; most of us
focus on the weather rather than the climate. Everyone knows
about the big problems, but their behavior focuses on the
here and now.
How can we reverse this? It's a social problem, but I think
it may also herald a mental one—which I describe as mental
Whatever's happening to adults, most of us grew up reading
books (at least occasionally) and playing with
"uninteractive" toys that required us to make up our own
stories, dialogue and behavior for them. Today's children
are living in an information-rich, time-compressed
environment that often seems to replace a child's
imagination rather than stimulate it. I posit that being fed
so much processed information—video, audio, images, flashing
screens, talking toys, simulated action games—is akin to
being fed too much processed, sugar-rich food. It may
seriously mess up children's information metabolism and
their ability to process information for themselves. In
other words, will they be able to discern cause and effect,
to put together a coherent story line, to think scientifically?
While love is common, true love is rare, and I believe that
few people are fortunate enough to experience it. The roads
of regular love are well traveled and their markers are well
understood by many—the mesmerizing attraction, the
ideational obsession, the sexual afterglow, profound
self-sacrifice, and the desire to combine DNA. But true love
takes its own course through uncharted territory. It knows
no fences, has no barriers or boundaries. It's difficult to
define, eludes modern measurement, and seems scientifically
wooly. But I know true love exists. I just can't prove it.
I believe, but cannot prove, that babies and young children
are actually more conscious, more vividly aware of their
external world and internal life, than adults are. I believe
this because there is strong evidence for a functional
trade-off with development. Young children are much better
than adults at learning new things and flexibly changing
what they think about the world. On the other hand, they are
much worse at using their knowledge to act in a swift,
efficient and automatic way. They can learn three languages
at once but they can't tie their shoelaces.
This trade-off makes sense from an evolutionary perspective.
Our species relies more on learning than any other, and has
a longer childhood than any other. Human childhood is a
protected period in which we are free to learn without being
forced to act. There is even some neurological evidence for
this. Young children actually have substantially more neural
connections than adults—more potential to put different
kinds of information together. With experience, some
connections are strengthened and many others disappear
entirely. As the neuroscientists say, we gain conductive
efficiency but lose plasticity.
What does this have to do with consciousness? Consider the
experiences we adults associate with these two kinds of
functions. When we know how to do something really well and
efficiently, we typically lose, or at least, reduce, our
conscious awareness of that action. We literally don't see
the familiar houses and streets on the well-worn route home,
although, of course, in some functional sense we must be
visually taking them in. In contrast, as adults when we are
faced with the unfamiliar, when we fall in love with someone
new, or when we travel to a new place, our consciousness of
what is around us and inside us suddenly becomes far more
vivid and intense. In fact, we are willing to expend lots of
money, and lots of emotional energy, for those few intensely
alive days in Paris or Beijing that we will remember long
after months of everyday life have vanished.
Similarly, as adults when we need to learn something new,
say when we learn to skydive, or work out a new scientific
idea, or even deal with a new computer, we become vividly,
even painfully, conscious of what we are doing—we need, as
we say, to pay attention. As we become expert we need less
and less attention, and we experience the actual movements
and thoughts and keystrokes less and less. We sometimes say
that adults are better at paying attention than children,
but really we mean just the opposite. Adults are better at
not paying attention. They're better at screening out
everything else and restricting their consciousness to a
single focus. Again there is a certain amount of brain
evidence for this. Some brain areas, like the dorsolateral
prefrontal cortex, consistently light up for adults when
they are deeply engaged in learning something new. But for
more everyday tasks, these areas light up much less. For
children, though the pattern is different—these areas light
up even for mundane tasks.
I think that, for babies, every day is first love in Paris.
Every wobbly step is skydiving, every game of hide and seek
is Einstein in 1905.