October 2011 Archives

Sharing Subjectivity

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As I'm sure this entire blog evidences, I've never been shy with words. I joke with friends that I can and will talk about any subject for as long as permitted, and probably a little longer, because I really love thinking about things and finding out what other people think about them. It's not usually the ideas themselves (although I do love a good idea), so much as the exchange of them, the stuff that happens in the brain during conversation and interpersonal engagement, and that spinning reverberation of reflection that happens for hours/days/months/years afterwards. I think that energy of new perspectives is our most potent fuel, in the libidinal sense, and I am delighted to get utterly lost and charged up in revitalizing thought.

I've been an oversharer since well before the internet or social media. I think of my body as the semi-permeable membrane by which my subjective experience is barely contained from spilling out all over the world. It's extraordinarily hard for me to resist sharing my thoughts or opinions, or to refrain from expressing myself, and it's only through a terrific act of decorum and self-control that I can manage any semblance of politeness or quiet (though I am a compulsive interrupter, and I do feel bad about that). It's never that I'm not listening to other people (I do, very carefully), but that everything they're saying is triggering new whirlwinds and thought trajectories, and if I don't sputter out a few words here and there, I'll lose them entirely (maybe that's not a bad thing).

I've always thought it was an artist's prerogative to be a more open version of humanity, to live in a transparent enough way that others can recognize the familiarity and sensitivity of experience. I tend to be terrible at hiding my thoughts or emotions (one of my exes said I wear my heart on my face), but I think it's to do with not seeing the point in repressing all the things that make me human. I also may be unusually attuned to people's body language and small facial movements, so I frequently can tell most of what people are thinking and feeling, even when they're making a strong effort to "not say anything" and cage their reactions.

With that openness comes a sort of unraveling undulation, a turning inside-out of the core self so that the experiences at the surface become among the deepest. I think this feeling used to make me incredibly self-conscious - people weren't just reacting to my shoes or to my gait, but to my very essential self, which they could obviously sense and dislike just by the way I walked (I've lived enough to know how absurd this thinking is; most people don't care at all about anyone they see, and it's just idle gazing and rote response). I pay a lot more attention to other people than anyone has ever paid to me (thank God), but I do so with empathy and concern. Even when I'm being bitchy and judgmental, I try to think of what a person's life is like, how a woman used to look when she was younger, or how a grumpy old man felt when his daughter was curt with him and didn't care that he was lonely.

I used to write stories (I guess I still do, just not so much on paper) about other people's lives, imagining what their apartments looked like or the faces they made when they were in love. I was like a fiend for other subjectivities and sensibilities, wanting so badly to understand all these different versions of the Human Experience that I encounter on a daily basis. It gets utterly overwhelming, quickly, when you make yourself too open to everyone else, being possessed by all their ghosts and worrying that one or two will linger after the seance. But it's rewarding, to really think, well past the cursory examination, into what someone's entire life is like, to try to see the world the way others do, to understand why we were both born with similar bodies and sensory capabilities yet focus our attention in such dramatically different ways.

Something I have always known, which is becoming more prevalent, is that the more specialized one's knowledge in a given subject, the more difficult it is to have conversations with laypersons on the topic. Parenthetically, I have always gauged a person's intelligence not by how jargon-filled and technical the description of a subject is, but rather how capably it is simplified and brought to the level of the audience without losing the significant complexities. I know for a fact that physicists and mathematicians can lose me in several seconds flat, but frankly so can teenage girls talking too much about makeup or boy bands, if they use enough unfamiliar terms and don't bother making sure I'm following.

The problem I am having lately, the more I study chemistry, is that I am finding fewer and fewer people who are willing to talk with me about all the magical little things I learn everyday, without saying "all that stuff is beyond me," or tapping out before I've gotten into anything even remotely complicated. I think people have a slightly higher tolerance for discussions about art or literature, even if I know that I'm speaking on a very different level of theory than they ordinarily encounter, because paintings and books seem tangible, accessible, and even friendly. But our society seems to have such a strong aversion to math and science, and people seem so quick to believe they are stupid or incapable of understanding it, that no one wants to talk about it, and they roll their eyes and wait for me to finish speaking if I do bring it up. I honestly can't count the times I've watched someone drift off in the span of ten or fifteen seconds, then wait until I finish talking and say, "Wow that's... interesting." Often they add, "I don't understand any of that stuff."

I have to believe it's also a fault of my own, that I'm not able to articulate the things I find so beautiful and luminous about science, yet. I recently had occasion to attend a lecture by one of my personal heroes, Oliver Sacks, and in introducing him, the moderator emphasized that he is above all a storyteller. I saw through the course of his talk that the most consistent driving forces for his work were curiosity and the impulse to share everything he learned about humanity with others. He is a conduit, I think, giving access to the far-stretching iterations of experience we could not previously imagine, and bringing back profound insight into ordinary existence. I have always been impressed with his ability to break down incredibly complex, interwoven concepts from neurology and psychology, and make them not only accessible, but palpable and engaging to others. Along with a handful of others who are equally brilliant in their writing as their science (Rachel Carson, Richard Feynman, Stephen Hawking, Albert Einstein, and Carl Sagan among them), Dr Sacks let me find the essential relevance and captivating beauty science can hold in my daily life. He gave me new things to dream about, new terrains to explore in my imagination, and from the time I was eight or nine to present day, his writing literally fills me with wonder.

So I keep struggling to find a way to integrate all the things that I am so passionate about, in art and writing, in science and music and history and philosophy and biology and on and on, in a language that is not just palatable, but exciting to others, without my tendency to just breathlessly gush in a staccato symphony of all my most recent thoughts.

I had thought the key was compartmentalization, which is why I have been trying to frame posts here around some specific theme or loosely-organized topic, but they are all of a part, talking about experience and existence. I think it may be more useful to free associate if necessary, to risk saying the extraordinarily dumb things I know I say all the time, and more than anything, to write more frequently, so I can keep a map of that wandering that keeps me alive. Please do let me know if I'm losing you.

The scale of experience

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In one of the first lectures for my Analytical Chemistry class, my professor showed the classic Ray and Charles Eames short film "Powers of Ten," which is always a nice mind-blowing experience, even if you've watched it dozens of times, say, on Wednesday nights in college. Though my professor's intent was to introduce orders of magnitude, in the beginning of a discussion about uncertainty in measurement, error propagation, etc., one line from the film stuck out for me this time (at 5:16ish):

Notice the alternation between great activity and relative inactivity, a rhythm that will continue all the way into our next goal: a proton in the nucleus of a carbon atom beneath the skin on the hand of the sleeping man at the picnic.

The idea of this rhythm, a sort of tide of matter and being, has stuck with me since that class, and I keep thinking about the scale of people, events, and time, and the relativity of all these experiences.

Considering meaning and what meaningful feels like, the question of significance may come down to a high/low center of "activity" versus the emptiness of "inactivity" or a sea of apparent inactivity that is still teeming with indistinguishable energies at this scale. One of my favorite concepts from psychology has always been cathexis, the handiest illustrations of which were metaphors from photography. Cathexis is the fixation or significance a person experiences toward something or someone that causes everything else to go blurry and fade into the background, the cinematic equivalent of spotting one's object of desire in the middle of a crowded room. That intensity of energy and focus, I think, relates to a period of high activity on the radar of consciousness, but what gives that activity any more or less significance than anything else?

Facial recognition is another insanely fascinating area of science for me, particularly considering the energy the brain expends in forgetting so many of the faces and objects we encounter in a day. The best example I was given for why forgetting was so important was actually the function of the brain deleting all the faces on a subway car or a crowded sidewalk that proved to be unnecessary background information; if instead the brain tried to maintain and recall all these faces, we would become unable to recognize our loved ones or even distinguish between faces and objects with similar spatial arrangements. To be able to attach significance to targeted objects, it's critical for the brain to forget and disregard the rest.

Recent devastating losses (which honestly are still too painful to talk about) have made me think a lot about family and the significance we attach to this collection of people who share our genes. Obviously there is a biological imperative toward preservation of lineage and the paradoxical altruism of kinship, but this significance does not transfer automatically to people we choose for ourselves, to love. Yet once the bond is formed, the brain regards significant others, adopted children, and so on, as family, and by extension, an integral part of self. Similarly for friends, neighbors, other people's spouses, the mind makes room for fondness to develop into importance, for affection to translate into protective instincts and attachments. The people that populate our lives regularly, or to whom we've ascribed meaning, elicit intense activity in the mind and heart, whereas perfectly nice strangers, with all kinds of wonderful characteristics that would make them effortless to love, remain insignificant, inactivity, simply for want of introductions or common acquaintances.

This rhythm of experience repeats at internal levels, with feelings that become overwhelming, when the scale of experience becomes too great in proportion to their tenability. Some projects - even terrific accomplishments - become just too important, so big that they are bigger than ourselves and we can no longer wrap our minds around them. I think this point is where my personal commitment peters out regarding politics and global, economic, and social issues. I have a lot of beliefs about how I think things should work, but I don't know how those beliefs can be adapted and implemented at the scale appropriate to every single person's specific situation and needs. And I shouldn't have to worry about that, I guess, because that's the scale where they operate, and questions of policy are at a different, fuzzier magnitude.

The subjectivities and sensibilities of others remains an enormous, mind-boggling mystery for me, probably because I am so frequently wrapped up in my own head. I think of all the observations, analyses, judgments, memories, associations, predictions, and interpretations that go through my mind during even the simplest conversation with a friend, and I realize that everyone around me is (presumably) spinning around in the same way in their minds. Even when I see someone slack-jawed, appearing to stare without a thought in their minds, I have to assume there is much more going on under the surface, that even the seemingly dullest people are whirring with thoughts they aren't expressing (maybe? Maybe I'm wrong about that though?).

I think one of my overarching themes in art is pattern recognition, achieved by examining organic shapes and systems at a variety of scales, from the intimacy of macro vision to the abstract impossibility of microscopy and telescopic views. Taking on life, from the comfortably proportionate dimensions of familiarity, through vast and anxious infinities, the patterns and rhythms coalesce into beautiful sameness and elegance, those fundamental characteristics of being.

All this, though, does not fully account for meaning, only a recognition of scale and pattern. I realize that to seek explanation for meaning is akin to asking why we love who we love, but I have to believe it is something bigger than activity and inactivity of attention in the brain. What forces are responsible for the attenuation of attention in the presence of something we just sense will become important to us? Do we only perform that task in retrospect, once the brain catches up on processing and creates memories that present us knowing in the moment that an experience is a big one? Or are we capable of grasping, despite the limits of our scale, when something big is happening to us or around us, that electricity in the air that reminds us that life is happening right here and now?

I guess all I can do is pay attention, as much as I can.

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This page is an archive of entries from October 2011 listed from newest to oldest.

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