Fri, 13 May 2005

It seems like I can’t concentrate on anything for longer than a couple minutes. That’s a suitable attention span for completing most government business, but writing a decent email requires a slightly longer outlook.

I think my problems are related to aging. I was discussing this with Warren a few weeks ago. I was saying, there are a limited number of connections in the brain. At the age of twenty-eight or twenty-nine or so, you’ve already explored all the connections that are worth exploring. Ideas that seemed profound to you at the age of eighteen or nineteen seem mundane now. And the flow of new ideas stops.

Warren argued that the number of connections in the brain was immense, like the grains of sand on a beach, and that you could go on counting the grains of sand forever. That’s true, I said, but the correct analogy is looking for seashells on the beach. After all, our brains are mostly filled with useless crap – the plots of cartoons we watched when we were kids, for instance, or boring information about our aunts and uncles. These are the grains of sand – numberless, but also valueless. The seashells are the few interesting ideas that occasionally wash up on the beach. Sometimes they’re in plain view, other times you have to dig for them a little, but at any rate by the time you’ve reached your twenties you’ve scooped most of them into your little plastic pail, and all you can do is dig random holes in the sand, or else sit on the beach and wait for new seashells to wash in.

There’s another analogy that comes to mind: the “Hubbert peak”, which refers to the point where half of all available petroleum reserves have been depleted. Since companies tend to suck out all the easy oil first, after the first 50% has been exhausted, the remaining 50% is increasingly difficult and costly to extract. Maybe the same thing goes with the human brain: I passed my Hubbert peak a few years back, and now I’m on the declining side of the bell curve of mental productivity.

A reply:

I think the whole analogy only works if we think of neuronal connections as static and finite . . . . I think a more likely scenario would involve multiplying seashells . . . . Every time you find an interesting seashell and stop to examine it, you find that underneath there are two more seashells . . . . Good ideas spawn more good ideas.

Warren Brooke

Well, sure, sometimes ideas multiply. But people don’t go on having good ideas forever. The number of potential ideas may be infinite, but the number of ideas a single person can crank out is limited by the speed and efficiency of the idea-cranking machine, the brain, which tends to get gummed up and sclerotic as it ages. One day you turn over the last seashell and there’s nothing underneath but a rotting jellyfish, and then you might as well just put on your shoes and socks and go home. I’m not saying any of us has reached that point yet – if we’re lucky, our jellyfish moment won’t come until we’re old enough not to care. In the meantime, we can only hope that increasing wisdom will compensate for diminishing imagination. I don’t feel particularly wise, but then, it’s Monday morning.


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