By Alan Carl Nicoll
Copyright 2018 by Alan Carl Nicoll
All Rights Reserved
This morning my mind is churning with ideas, mostly regarding reading and writing.
One thought was that “my reading algorithm is defective.”
Another was that I should try a day without reading or writing.
Another was that I should write about this.
Another was about meditation and Natalie Goldberg.
Another was that I really can remember things that I read; or that I can remember some of them.
And I had many ideas about what to do today.
Now, an incomplete or defective analogy. When I’m reading, it’s like I have a mountain of oysters before me (the book), and that I open them as quickly as possible, looking for large pearls. When I find a large pearl, I save (highlight or note) it. The small pearls may be put to one side (retained for later examination? I don’t know, but I think not discarded like empty oysters); the oysters without pearls are discarded. This is the “reading algorithm” mentioned above. Later, I look at the mountain of discarded oysters and the small clutch of saved large pearls, if any, and I think, “I can’t remember what I read.”
But the algorithm: how is it defective? I can’t quite recall what made me say that (I’ve been writing for about 40 minutes and came back to insert this comment). The idea of the analogy not yet expressed is that while I’m reading, it’s as though I’m looking for answers to unconscious questions, probably my perennial “who am I” and “what is the meaning of life” and all that. My reading almost always has something to do with these questions; it’s generally rare that I’ll read something purely for pleasure, like the Winnie the Pooh book that I started (a year ago?) and have never gone back to, or the van Vogt novels that I race through in a day. So my reading seems to be driven, obsessive—except that, “since Twitter,” it seems like I “never have time for reading.” Which is in quotes because it’s inaccurate. I am minded now of Dennett’s term (I think), “epistemic hunger,” which I take to mean a hunger for knowledge. Surely, it’s knowledge of a peculiar sort; in my case, not “gossip,” which seems to be Pablo’s passion, or one of them, but “relevant” or “important” knowledge. Now, alas, “I’m starving” (it’s 8:00 am) and Democracy Now! is about to start, and I haven’t said half of what I wanted to say.
I put “since Twitter” in quotes because it’s looking like a real turning point in my life and habits, in other words, it is now a technical term in my vocabulary—something like that.
How much can I remember? My assessment of this is generally depressing, but not always. I was thinking about Anthony Doerr’s All the Light We Cannot See, perhaps my biggest reading disappointment this year. (? Not mentioned in my diary—how is that possible? Apparently it was before November of last year I tried to read it, because that’s the date of the first entry of this file.) So, let’s say two years ago. I remember the setting (WWII France and Germany) and the three main characters: the girl, the boy, the girl’s father. I won’t bother to write these memories in detail, that’s not the point. The point is that a novel that I didn’t finish reading isn’t completely gone. Perhaps because it aroused emotion.
Now, when I picked up Dehaene’s book about a week ago, I was thinking that I couldn’t remember anything about it, had forgotten even that I’d read it, yet when I did read it—last May—I was excited about it, filled it with many highlightings and a few marginal comments, thought it was a great book. So I reviewed the highlighting… Now, the central concept of the book is “signatures of consciousness.” I know this because I checked the book just now, and saw this expression highlighted in an early chapter and had a mental “Oh. Yeah.” I remembered that key term, what it meant, and some of the practical applications—so I remembered what I had read.
When I reviewed the highlighting a week ago, it had seemed stone cold—not completely forgotten, but not readily called to mind, either. Like German vocabulary that had remained passive, had never become active [able to be used spontaneously in conversation, say]. At least, this is how that reviewing went, as I recall it now.
But this is a book that—well, here’s what I wrote on 11/6/18:
“Speaking of cognitive science, last night I looked through Stanislas Dehaene: Consciousness and the Brain, rereading all the highlighted passages and a bit more. I typed in some quotes back in May. I had totally forgotten the point of this book, and now it doesn’t seem especially important, though a good current book. On the other hand, Barrett offers ‘a radical new view of human nature,’ which naturally interests me greatly. So we’ll see.”
My overall impression of the book had been that it was “especially important.” At this point, I want to move on, even though I have come to no real conclusion about how my memory is working, except that the question is more difficult than it has any right to be. But the thought I’ve had that the key to remembering is that the thing to be remembered must arouse some emotion, seems correct. So, let’s say that I can remember Doerr’s book because it aroused only disappointment, and I can remember Dehaene’s book because it was an exciting read that I thought would become important in my model of the mind. If Dehaene’s seems less vivid than I would like, it may be that Barrett’s later, even more exciting book about consciousness, has displaced it. Here’s what I wrote on 11/11/18, three weeks ago:
“I had been reading Barrett’s How Emotions are Made, but there’s a lot of self-help material ahead that I’m not particularly interested in, so I’m going to skip to the last chapter, ‘From Brain to Mind.’ The first part was exciting, offering essentially an entirely new (as far as I know) conception of how the mind works, and I think a better one. I need to write a concise summary (or more likely, copy the highlights), but it’s 10:30 pm, so, not now.”
“The mind is constructivist, and a prediction machine.” That’s my impression now of the heart of Barrett’s book.
What did I want to say about Natalie Goldberg and meditation? Not much; more along the lines of “I have a great intolerance for boredom.” If I rush from book to book, seeking I know not what, how much more do I rush from entertainment to entertainment. I find it easy to lie in bed and let my mind roam where it will, for up to an hour; when I am up and about (which in my case means sitting in my best chair with my feet up), I must be mentally active, even if that only means watching Democracy Now or some stupid movie, or flipping through the cable TV guide trying to find some diversion. This is time wasting…but now I’m so hungry that I must interrupt this entry.
Back on the job. The point about my constantly seeking entertainment is that I find meditation boring. Of course, I last tried it about 45 years ago, and I think I am very different now; actually, I was thinking “50% different.” But anyway, I tried it, didn’t like it (was bored, felt no beneficial effects, and didn’t understand the point), and don’t see much purpose in trying it again. I’ve read some about meditation since, notably Herbert Benson’s book, The Relaxation Response, which has gone through a number of new editions since I read it many decades ago. I wasn’t impressed. Mindfulness and mindfulness meditation are things I’ve not really looked into.
The talk is always about “stress reduction,” but I can achieve that in any number of ways, none of which I consider the least boring: for starters, obviously, reading; then, bird watching, walking, listening to music, talking with friends…that’s about it. Or taking a nap. I want to see the results of comparisons of meditation and listening to music. A Google search (“meditation versus music”) turned up one “preliminary study” from 2016, with results of only moderate interest: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/27079708. There wasn’t really anything else listed in Google.
However, that article has this alarming statement: “There is growing evidence that subjective cognitive decline (SCD), characterized by the subjective perception that one’s memory is noticeably worse than a few years before, may represent a preclinical stage of AD, particularly when the decline is a cause for concern.” “AD” of course is Alzheimer’s disease.
While in prison I was given Simvastatin to reduce my cholesterol. I think I took the pills for less than a year, and I noticed symptoms of forgetfulness, the details of which I can no longer remember. The bottom line was that, against the advice of my doofus cardiologist, I stopped the Simvastatin. And I saw an immediate reduction of my (admittedly mild) memory loss symptoms.
3.14159265358979323846264338327950288419716939937510582097494459230. This is how I remember the decimal expansion of pi that I memorized while attending high school. I think it’s 66 decimal places. Plugging the string of numbers into Google results in 65 hits. Counting just now, I get 66, which includes the initial “3.” Almost shockingly coincidental is that the exact same string shows up in a response to a question on Wikianswers, “What is pi to 50 decimal places?” So either I posted that answer, or somebody else had available to them (or memorized) only those 65 places. I’m pretty sure that I didn’t post that answer.
Now: is my memory “noticeably worse” than a few years ago? Given my experience with Simvastatin, the question has been on my mind. Does that mean it’s been a “cause for concern”? Frankly, my dear, I am more—much more—concerned about climate breakdown and nuclear war than I am about my seeming, apparent, or imagined decline in memory.
“Climate breakdown” is George Monbiot’s term for “climate change”; he compares the latter term to “unwelcome visitors” as a term for an invading army (more or less—I can’t remember his exact words).
In writing my long emails to “N,” I did not struggle to recall, had no need to look up, book titles, names, and bits of the story I wanted to tell. Of course, I felt mentally sharp, and it was morning writing, which I’ve known for quite a while is my best time to write.
So I conclude this lengthy entry thus: My memory seems good enough, and not in serious decline. I don’t need to meditate, and if I want to reduce stress, I have other ways. Seeing Trump out of a job would be a big help.
What about Natalie Goldberg? She stresses that her meditation was or is important to her writing. I’ll have to read more of the book to really address this.
Now, about those tasks for today: I’d best be up and about.
Copyright 2018 by Alan Carl Nicoll
All right reserved.