Monday, June 05, 2006

What if learning is like eating?

We've all talked about food for our brains; we all have known times when we were hungry to learn, and times when we were so stuffed full we could not digest a single new piece of information. Food keeps us alive physically. Thought keeps us alive.

In a very real sense, consciousness is life: we cease to be ourselves when we cease to be aware of ourselves. Life means thinking and thinking changes what we have stored in our minds so that all thinking is learning of a sort.

That's a lot in one paragraph. It depends on readers to realize that what I mean is that everytime we "think" we access a particular neural web, and in accessing it, we change it. When what we think changes, we say we have learned something. So everytime we think, we also learn because we also change the neural representation of our thought. Sometimes we change it by realizing that we want to hold on to that particular thought. Neurologically, we change our representation so that the pathways are deeper and its easier for us to find and use them again. To change a thought might be to change its content: often it is to change its context within our mind, within our life.

Thoughts keep our selves alive just as food keeps our bodies alive. Without consciousness, we are just a jumble of sensations and memories competing for energy and attention within a single body. To be ourselves, we need to think: and we need to think in appropriate amounts and ways. We have all had the experience of eating too much; we have also had the experience of losing ourselves in too much thought.

Many people daydream about situations where precisely the best food will be available to us at precisely the right times. These daydreams prompt both the diet regimens of spas and the spectacular smorgasbords of cruise ships. When we have a particularly satisfying meal, we long to repeat the experience. When we let days and weeks go by without paying attention to what we eat, we generally do not eat well. Mindless eating is not good for the tastebuds or the rest of the body. We eat too much or too little or the wrong stuff. It doesn't usually kill us- it just slows us down.

In Italy, I did tastings of olive oil, of balsamic vinegar, of wine. A quarter teaspoon of flavour, savoured and subject to attention. It is astonishing how much one notices when just one flavour is present to the palate, how much one notices when a flavour gains all of our attention, even for just a few moments. It changes the way we think about that flavour, even when we go back to blending it with the hurly burly of our lives.

Take a moment. Notice just one thing you eat today. Notice it with all your attention.

Take a moment. Notice just one thought that moves through your mind today. Notice it with all your attention.

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