Sunday, October 18, 2015

Blueberry Muffins

Good old-fashioned blueberry muffins this week -- nothing too fancy like last week's blueberry cornbread muffins, which were good fresh out of the oven but started tasting like spoiled sour cream as the week progressed. 

But I have nothing more to say about muffins or baking practice today.  However, I've been thinking about an anecdote I once read by the late Oliver Sachs.  He once wrote about a patient, a woman, who had suffered some sort of neurological accident that left her brain incapable of recognizing a part of her own body, her left arm, as a part of "her."  She was otherwise mentally competent and healthy, but when she looked at her own left arm, the wiring in her brain couldn't connect it to her understanding of what constituted her own body, and instead she processed it as being something "other," just like we don't consider, say, a hat on our head or a chair we're sitting on as "us," even if we're in direct contact with that other thing.  Her response to this inability to process her own left arm as "her" led her to the bizarre conclusion that it was not her own left arm she was looking at but someone else's. 

As Sachs tells it, she was otherwise quite reasonable and sane, and when asked who's arm she thought it was that was next to her, she replied "I don't know."

Upon questioning, she agreed that the left arm did look very similar to her right arm - same general size, skin color, and so on - and from this the patient, her brain still not accepting that it was hers, logically concluded that it must be that of a close relative.

"It's my mother's arm," she said.

"Where's your mother now?" she was asked.  "I don't see her around."

The woman agreed that it was strange, and then said that her mother must be playing some sort of trick on her and was hiding somewhere.

Now, this sounds crazy, that an adult woman, instead of recognizing her own left arm as hers, would come to the bizarre conclusion that her mother was hiding somewhere behind her and holding out an arm to make it appear that the mother's arm was her daughter's. However, as pointed out before, the woman was quite sane and not at all crazy, but given that her brain, because of a tragic misfiring of neurons, wasn't capable of connecting the arm with her sense of self or with the rest of her body, when faced with the irrefutable evidence that it sure looked like her arm, found a "logical" explanation that she was somehow being tricked, even if she couldn't figure out how the trick was working.  She didn't first think there was some trick afoot and then conclude that the arm therefore wasn't hers, and she didn't accept that the arm was hers if she couldn't explain how the trick worked, any more than we believe that a magician really did make his lovely assistant disappear into thin air unless we can work out the mechanisms of the illusion.    

The point I take from this story is that our understanding of the universe, even while it sounds logical and reasonable to us, is not really as based on logic and reason as we would like to think, but is actually rooted in our schema, the mental maps we've developed over the course of our lives.  These maps work subconsciously in such a way that we're not even aware of their influence on our thinking -- we don't realize how reliant we are on our frame of reference as we encounter new phenomena around us.  A 21st Century, scientifically literate person believes that a magician's tricks are illusions, feats of misdirection and clever mechanisms, and does not conclude that the tricks are "real" even if the explanation can't be figured out.  On the other hand, persons from an earlier, pre-scientific century might first accept that the tricks are real, feats of demons or angels with the irrefutable evidence right before their eyes, unless the mechanics are explained to them.

I think that a lot of the polarized politics of our time are based, in large part, on a population with different mental maps explaining the world around them.  For example, some people, based on their previous experience (or perhaps lack of experience) look at an immigrant and see a threat - to some a threat to take away their jobs, to others a threat of crime.  Based on this presupposition, they listen to a certain news outlet that sensationalizes crimes and statistics to reinforce that view.  Other people looking at the same immigrant see something different, perhaps because they themselves were once immigrants or their parents or grandparents were, or because, listening to other news outlets and other stories and statistics, don't see the immigrant as a threat but those so opposed to immigration as the actual threat.  So, too, the other polarizing issues of our time - big government, abortion, religious expression, guns, etc.  It's all rooted in our schema.

The hard work here is not simply accepting that others may have different views and opinions not because they're "wrong" or "stupid" but because they have different mental maps and models, and therefore accepting and tolerating their different viewpoints.  The hard work is instead recognizing that each and every one of us, even ourselves, are dependant on our own subconscious mental maps and models to inform our experience.  Even though we do not consciously realize that we're relying on these maps and models and our opinions feel "logical" and "correct" to us, we should not assume that our views are any more "right" or "true" than anyone else's just because they conform better with our own schema. 

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