Saturday, September 10, 2005

A Mind is a Terrible Thing to Overcrowd

I consider that a man's brain originally is like a little empty attic, and you have to stock it with such furniture as you choose. A fool takes in all the lumber of every sort that he comes across, so that the knowledge which might be useful to him gets crowded out, or at best is jumbled up with a lot of other things, so that he has a difficulty in laying his hands upon it. Now the skilful workman is very careful indeed as to what he takes into his brain-attic. He will have nothing but the tools which may help him in doing his work, but of these he has a large assortment, and all in the most perfect order. It is a mistake to think that that little room has elastic walls and can distend to any extent. Depend upon it - there comes a time when for every addition of knowledge you forget something that you knew before. It is of the highest importance, therefore, not to have useless facts elbowing out the useful ones.
Sir Arthur Conan Doyle "A Study in Scarlet" in the character of Sherlock Holmes.

The March 2005 National Geographic issue focused on recent research into how the mind works. Seemed like many scientists would agree with Sherlock on many important points. Apparantly the more we use our brains in any particular way, the more our brain optimizes to those functions. Sounds reasonable, right? But the studies also found that those who spent many hours on any form of minutia had the relevant lobes expand to the detriment of adjoining areas.
"An MRI study published in 2000 by scientists at University College, London, showed that in London taxi drivers the rear portion of the hippocampus was enlarged compared with those of control subjects, confounding the long-held notion that the adult human brain cannot grow. But the bonus in brain tissue may not have come free of charge. On average, the front portion of the hippocampus was smaller than normal in the taxi drivers, suggesting that the effort to build an increasingly detailed mental map of the city had recruited neighboring regions to the cause."

I found that a bit worrisome, but referenced in the same article ["bigger brain"] a similar study from Germany on people learning to juggle indicated the brain can change conformation back if you change your habits. (In this case, the studied folks stopped juggling.)

Wired's May 2005 article "Dome Improvement" has got me thinking again because of the counterclaim by that surveyor/professor that intelligence in the general population is rising. Practical experience suggests otherwise, as do other standardized tests. Careful analysis make it clear that its largely visual intelligence he's referencing. That would seem to go with the National Geographic study. People's visual abilities may be increasing at the expense of other forms of knowledge processing.

Another article discussed a widespread perception that there are fewer and fewer new gamers who enjoy puzzle/reflective paths.

And my point is?

Everything we do has a cost. Our brains may not be efficiently used, but our time & capacity for any particular activity is not infinite. We micro-focus at the expense of other studies, and even capacity for study. I have found, in practice, that trying to learn D'ni (Myst's make believe language) cut into my ability to keep French, Spanish, & other real languages relatively usable. (Calling myself fluent would be seriously pushing it.) I felt bad at one point for letting so much of popular culture slide beyond me. Well ~ better those ephemerals than anything else I could name! Knowing every major movie plot takes up memory. Learning Klingon takes up language capacity. At some point wisdom suggests dropping most non-essential extras into our mind's recycle bin & defragging the little grey cells!

So. I'm definitely going to be stressing logic studies for the children, though they have already had more than most. Logical systems allow you to retain information far more efficiently ~ another point an old Sherlock story pointed out. It was established in an earlier tale that Sherlock knew from the sort of mud a person had on their clothes which part of the city they had been in. How did he do it? Had he memorized every street in London? Sherlock replied that he had studied the geography of the land, and the knew the major areas of commerce...and deduced their effects. Elementary.

Wonder if that would help those taxicab drivers?

(written last May. Finally finished!)


Anonymous said...


Interesting. I don't know that I'm entirely convinced that the brain will indeed suffer in some areas for greater mastery in others... but at the same time, I have noticed that intense studying for, say, a advanced mathematics will not only cut into my time for a language course, but also seems to elbow-out the more recent paradigms. However, that's the thing: in my experience it has usually been the more recent things that have gone, and not long-term ones (as if there is a separate attic for newly-acquired artefacts and another for older ones). Then again, I could just be saying that because I *want* to be able to do it all, and not based on any sort of evidence.

Interesting food for thought, my friend. I'll see if some extra time ruminating on it will bring any new ideas about it or (more hopefully) lead to a direct personal application of it.

As always, I hope and pray that all is well with you and your family. It has been a while since I've talked to you in real-time, but I understand y'all are busy.

--David (Martsen)

Shushan said...

Thank you for your kind wishes. I've not been around chatting hardly at all for quite awhile, I know, but I do not forget friends or forget to keep them in prayer. I am very thankful that you also remember us in yours.