Final Span: Attempts To Discover Mysteries Surrounding The Human Mind
If you have ever expressed curiosity in biology, cybernetics, polity, linguistics, thermodynamics, cosmology, ontology, cosmogony, philosophy, organometallics, gravity, design, art, music, instrumentation or sports, and if you have promised yourself that you will pursue that interest for as long as you have a useful resource available, then your journey is a really, really long one because your final chapter in that quest will always be the human mind. It has been more than two and a half centuries since the relevant questions were first asked, and it has been more than one and half centuries since millions of people from around the world have been trying to get to the answer – some in an effort more united than the rest.
In 1455, Johann Gutenberg invented the movable type, set up the first printing press, and made available to all philosophers who lived in countries that traded with Germany many works of Socrates, Aristotle and Plato by the end of the century. As a result, a great mass of thinkers could be relied upon to think of the same topic at the same time. In 1762, Jean-Jacque Rousseau’s treatise on education, Emile, first appeared and was publicly burned – but not before it set the basis for educational progressivism, a movement that would continue to maintain the heat, as it were, on the important role that governments played in educational reform. In 1888, industrialization sped up the process of inquisition and enabled chemists and biologists to work faster, thereby ensuring that the amount of data they contributed per year kept increasing for as long as they were alive. There are many such revolutions in our past that have strived to maintain the communication of information between history and the future.
Every step forward that we take – whether compressed into a byte of information swimming in a sea of data or malproportioned into a leap through an ideological magnifying glass – is so, or so I believe, because we are curious. We want to know. Ever since I was 12 years old, I have wanted to write, and in order to realize my career as a writer of renown, I am doing whatever I can to build up my credentials in that direction while also not crossing over into the world of unethical practices. There is a purpose defined by our wants and desires that drives us on a macroscopic timescale while our needs keep us mindful of our responsibilities and duties on a daily basis. When a peasant in Siberia rises up in rebellion because his Governor is not doing anything to quell a local drought or when a lone young woman holds a placard in front of the White House in support of the Pro-Choice movement, it is all because the consequences of others’ actions have conflicted with the kind of life we have promised ourselves.
How is all of this connected to understanding the working of the human mind? On a very fundamental basis, we are all the product of our minds – and that is a very obvious conclusion. However, on a basis more global and diverse, the quality and quantity of all of our inquisitorial abilities and performances are directly proportional to a combination of how curious we are and how much more there is to know in a field of interest. Our understanding of ourselves, though mostly biochemical, has been and even is being understood solely by studying the way we respond to external stimuli. No neurologist has ever autopsied the human brain to find a section as yet undocumented in medical journals and then offered a purpose for it – the miasma of mystery surrounding the first phenomenological entity outside the human mind is so dense that our steps in that direction can only be expected to be one miniscule quantum of progress at a time.
While we leave the neurological state of affairs there, philosophers and linguists are fast closing in from another direction: semantics, which, simply put, is the study of the way we infer meanings. When we learn a language, we find it easier to use our innate ability to understand the associative and distributive properties as they are in mathematics: seeing the image of a vehicle, I immediately think of the Tamil word for it (‘vandi’), and when I see the Hindi counterpart for the same image beneath it, I can now associate my usage of ‘vandi’ with ‘gaadi’ – a method of learning that, with sustained practice, can lead to unconscious substitution. (With government-initiated educational reforms, it is now possible that) If we were encouraged to question the questions, we would arrive at the meaning of “meaning”. For example, why is it that we feel “charged up” when we listen to the song ‘Fuel’ by Metallica? Why do we feel “inspired” when we read Harper Lee’s ‘To Kill A Mockingbird’? More importantly, and thanks to the work of Noam Chomsky, the question to be asked is this: “Is meaning derived from what we perceive, or are meanings native to the human mind and are, instead, associated with what we’re seeing?”
If we move on to literature, we avail the privilege of studying imagination: we have at our disposal thousands of novels, novellas, comic strips, stories, short stories, fables, blog entries and diaries. By drawing from experiences in their own lives, authors and poets across four dimensions have set in stone facts, possibilities and probabilities that we, in our turn, draw inspiration and caution from. At the top of my list of all-time favorite fictitious heroes is Rorschach (a.k.a. Walter Kovacs) from ‘The Watchmen’. Alan Moore (writer) and Dave Gibbons (artist) came together to invent his mysterious persona that is, ironically, derived from his sense of extreme rationalism and notoriously right-wing propensities. That Moore was able to create such a character and validate him repeatedly through an unending sequence of experiences while constantly being aware of the threat of itself-contradiction is an achievement in itself, and that is the aspect of Moore that I want to focus on. The first inference is that the mind is capable of creating other minds – a fascinating revelation given that the instruments used (our body, our experiences, etc.) and the mind itself are not always fully aware of each other at all times! Another great example is Mary Shelley‘s ‘Frankenstein’. On a more contemporary note, the recent blockbuster, ‘Inception’, has a line from Cobb (DiCaprio), which I quote.
Dreams feel real while we’re in them. It’s only when we wake up that we realize something was actually strange.
The offered explanation – and the creative credit for which goes to Christopher Nolan – was that the mind works so much more efficaciously than our perceptibility that, as the mind creates object after object rapidly, we perceive them as we would in reality.
I once asked my friends to perform this experiment, and now I would ask you to do the same: close your eyes and, in front of your mind’s eye, imagine a plain white sheet of paper and nothing else. At the center, there is a black circle with its center marked – both in black. Now, draw a line from the center to the periphery of the circle – essentially inscribing the radius. Slowly move the line in a clockwise direction until you have traversed 360 degrees. As a next step, move the line in the anti-clockwise direction across 360 degrees. Which direction was more easily traversed? If both were equally easy to perform, move on to the next step: leave the circle and the center intact, but have two lines – each spanning the radial distance as earlier – now separated by 60 degrees. Now, move one line clockwise in a full circle and the other anti-clockwise in a full circle. Are you able to visualize their respective journeys culminating simultaneously while always being able to see the whole circle, the center and the two lines without slowing down or accelerating their velocities? I, my friends and my friends of friends were unable to do so. If you honestly believe that you can go beyond this stage, then perform this last step: give the two lines different colors and then perform the same experiment again. Beyond that, I have nothing to venture.
It has been argued in the literature that it is hard to believe that concepts like carburetor or democracy are innate and foreseen by our primate brain. Analogies have been suggested with the immune system, which selects appropriate antibodies even for antigens to which it has never been exposed before.
– Jan Koster
Engineers, scientists (including astronomers), doctors, chemists, linguists and philosophers are all converging on a single conundrum wittingly or unwittingly, and its solution will, once and for all, quell every debate that is more than a century old. It is not the solution of a single problem – it is unfair to think that because we are unsure of what the problem is – but the anticipation of the solution that will change the way we think forever. I stated that I have been writing since 12, but ever since I turned 15 and studied optics, I have been immensely interested in the analogies that mankind has been able to draw between the interaction of the mind with the body and the interaction of the body with its environment – an idea that demands serious focus and has even given birth to the field of cybernetics. To most of my friends, I am known as the guy wants to become a writer; however, I want to become a linguist, and I would say this more often if I didn’t have to explain what a linguist does: a linguist studies languages and attempts to understand the way we understand them.