Independent Brains

Picture me watching my younger brother play Hill Climb Racing on our Amazon TV while he eats what he calls a “peanut butter surprise.” Somehow, an almost twenty-year-old muscle memory remains, and even now, as adults, the big-brother/little-brother dynamic kicks right back in during visits like these. So after doing a variety of grown-up things — we just returned from walking the farmer’s market and admiring produce — here we are, 7 and 16 again. (Oh, and by the way, a “peanut butter surprise” was invented by my brother circa 1995. It is a pint glass crammed full of graham cracker and peanut butter sandwiches, its remaining space filled with milk. This is eaten with a spoon once the sandwiches have reached an optimum sogginess.)

Independence is an illusion. Being a good day’s drive from just about all my family, visits like these are almost always an occasion for me to newly reflect — at least, differently than I might alone — upon how important those relationships are to me. I’m reminded of something I heard on the radio one recent morning. I had just started up my car, which kicked on the radio in the midst of an interview with a well-known author. She was describing her career in broad strokes, and seemed to have surprised the interviewer by revealing that she never really intended to be a writer; she is actually a licensed architect. This caught my attention right away, and I kept the car in park for a moment while I listened. How her career had gotten from there to here, she described, was a path paved entirely of practical decision-making. “I didn’t want to depend on anyone,” she said. I put my car in “drive,” and thought, “I think I get this person.” Many times over the last decade, my decisions have been driven by a basic desire — perhaps need, even — to be independent. Or, so I thought. What I would have meant by that, I think, was to be free from the need to rely upon anyone else. To be self-sufficient, especially financially. And I’ve done that. But that desire has made me careful and conservative. Risk averse. I can probably trace most of my decisions — far earlier, even, than those that have steered my career — to this sort of thinking. I thought I’d heard a weariness in the author’s voice (this was probably my own projection), which made me wonder, what peace might there be in accepting dependence — even just once in a while? I turned onto the main road and began the twenty-minute drive to the office. The author’s words replayed in my mind while other unrelated segments aired. Then I began to notice the people around me. A backpacked and ear-budded man nodding his head and leaning against a bus stop sign. A woman and child, strolling hand-in-hand, pass him. Two cars pass me on either side; both, like me, with solitary drivers; one in that texting-just-below-the-window-line posture, the other fussing with her radio. We three slow and line up at the next light while two men in work gear and hard hats carry an armload of two-by-fours cross the street. I glance at my rearview mirror and look through the layers of windshields at the crowd gathering behind me. All of us together and alone, heading to who-knows-where, the glass and the metal of our cars propping up the illusion of separation, containment, and independence. Who are these people around me? Does it matter? It’s too easy to say no, isn’t it? What are their stories? I imagine them all, like the spines of books in a library. So many different kinds of stories. Amidst all of them — the romances, true crimes, adventures, paranoid thrillers, and other tales — I’m left with a central question: what do we owe one another? What is the measure — in love, compassion, or even just simple attention — of my responsibility to those around me? I don’t know that there’s a definitive measure other than More. More than I give; more, even, than I can imagine giving. Boy is that easy to say from the solitary comfort of my little car, I thought.

The Varieties of Cognitive Experience might make a good (hypothetical) contemporary pairing with James’ 19th century treatise on religion. There’s no shortage of material on how the brain works and how that shapes the human experience, and it’s certainly contributed to an overall increase in consciousness-literacy. A good thing, right? But I wonder if a slightly different angle, focused less on The Brain in a universal sense and, instead, on brains and their wide variety of workings, might make for a comparable increase in empathy and understanding. Here’s an example, by way of synesthesia. Synesthesia is a neurological phenomenon for which awareness of it greatly outscales experience of it. It’s rare. Basically, synesthesia involves involuntary connections between cognitive pathways. The go-to manifestation of this, of course, is the specific association between letters and numbers and colors. However, synesthesia is a much greater phenomenon than just that one facet — check it out. Now, because synesthesia is a perceptual phenomenon, it can’t really be verified in the way that, say, other physiological conditions can (like chemical imbalances, strength, etc.). Which also means that study of it depends upon voluntary claims and their consistency. So, to the point: I know more than just a few people who audibly sigh and roll their eyes every time they hear someone talk about having synesthesia. I’m not one of them, not really anyway. But I’ll admit to being a little bit that way internally. You know, like you see your own face in your head sighing and rolling your eyes but thank god you’ve learned to control your face. Because of society. It’s not that something like synesthesia is, itself, something to be annoyed about. Of course not! Or even that the synesthete is annoying. It’s the “look at me” that people find annoying. And the fact that the “look” is kind of really directed at something the looker can’t really understand. And maybe a little bit of doubt. As in, come on, is synesthesia even a real thing? And, perhaps, a bit of pattern weariness. As in, who doesn’t have synesthesia these days? So, when a person says “I have synesthesia” the less-than-empathetic chain of reaction is pretty much the same as when a person announces their gluten allergy or their lifelong incapacitating fear of clowns. We think, really? Well, what if really? Why is it so hard for us to imagine and/or accept different ways of perceiving the world? Well, for lack of a studied answer, I’d guess it has something to do with the safety that the belief in a single true, quintessentially human experience provides. It’s hard to move from that to an irreducible variety in human perception. Though perhaps we might start trying harder. In any case, it may be that talking about it is — albeit messy — our best first step. I like what Alexis Madrigal said about this (in his 9/18 “5 Intriguing Things” message) when he referred to an article about synesthesia and its many types. He said, “it allows people to be precise about how the ways their brains work.” Precision first, understanding after.

Heavy Rotation: Really, it’s been the audio loop that makes for the soundtrack to Hill Climb Racing. It sounds like this. Also, our little film group voted in Back to the Future as this month’s screening, so I’ve also got Huey Lewis stuck in my head, which is not ideal. So why not spread that virus? :)

Recent Tabs: Masdar City is a ghost town. How to Tell When a Robot Has Written You a Letter. Clay Shirky says no laptops in his classroom thankyouverymuch.

Written by Christopher Butler on September 27, 2014,   In Essays

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