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April 16, 2003

Figuratively Speaking

Here’s a hypothetical: If a child accidentally puts it's hand on a hot stove, and - unaware of any potential danger - leaves it there just a second too long, the child receives a nasty burn, maybe also a scar. From then on, however, that individual would never intentionally place their hand on a hot stove, right? The reason for this is simple enough, primarily instinctive even. It's just the brain protecting the body by learning from a past experience and incorporating what it has learned into visceral knowledge. Without this adapting feature, our simple human race would be disadvantaged. We would constantly be burning our hands day after day, and not even connecting one scalding with the next. It’s only our ability to learn what is dangerous and adapt that keeps us from this dismal fate. Learning from experiences that can - or almost do - get you killed, and parlaying that knowledge into *not* getting killed at some later time, helps us humans survive as a species.

What, then, can be said for those who don't? There must be someone who is constantly making mistakes of varying severity, suffering consequences, and then - gaining no appreciable knowledge from those experiences - going and repeating old mistakes. It has to be stupidity, right? Or nature, weeding out those who can't learn enough to save themselves, sparing the gene pool. Hmmmm…

I've always liked to believe I am smarter than that. I'm sure we all do, for good reason. Oddly enough though, I've been noticing all these scars on my hands that might suggest otherwise.

Posted by kati at April 16, 2003 09:35 AM


my suggestion to you is to join the Church of George, and start doing the opposite of whatever your instinct tells you to do. like, now, for example, your instincts are probably telling you to disregard my advice, me being a lunatic and all. but resist! resist!

Posted by: holohan at April 16, 2003 10:06 AM

I'm inclined to believe that our predictive powers are much more important than our ability to learn through trial-and-error. There are some interesting theories out there that conscious thought originally evolved as internal model-building to weigh potential risks and advantages in the context of survival. It seems that your model-building machine is working perfectly well, since you're still alive.
One could try to chalk that up to overly-cushy modern living. But modern living is only safe for people who have functional model-building machines. If you don't, it's surprisingly fatal.

For example, I'm willing to bet that trial and error had nothing to do with learning not to play on the freeway. Either your parents taught you not to do it, or you watched the cars whizzing past and thought, "Boy, if I play out there, I might be hit and killed!"

But animals like squirrels and possums learn by trial and error. Which is why you often see spectactularly unhappy squirrels and possums lying very still on the side of the road.

So what happens to people that have to learn through trial and error? I'd say that either they're locked up somewhere with padded walls (try to imagine how someone that had absolutely no predictive ability would behave), or were lost under the wheels of progress.

Posted by: Jacob at April 16, 2003 11:00 AM

Pretty much all knowledge is earned through trial but, to those of us with scars (physical and psychological), the error part is just more noticeable than the success part. I'm sure that you learn a lot more from the numerous successful actions/encounters you have on a daily basis rather than from the few physically or emotionally traumatic events of you day. However, when you think about your day, you'd only say, "Shit, I burned my goddamned hand again! I'm such a lame-o" rather than, "I got up when my alarm rang, took a shower, ate, brushed my teeth, fastened my seatbelt in the car, drove (without crashing) to work," etc. Making mistakes is pretty easy, considering the thousands of actions you perform in any given day, and making mistakes that hurt you is easy too, because we're fragile beings, both mentally and physically. What really keeps us safe, is not so much our amazing ability to comprehend and adapt to the world around us, but looking out for each other and taking care of one another. One of the most important neurological adaptations humans have made over the course of our evolution is the ability to feel love and empathy for others. Parents teach their children life skills out of love, friends are there for you when you need comforting and I am here to tell you, Kati, "Don't touch the stove! That mo'fo' is hella hot!"

P.S. I can tell you haven't read "A General Theory of Love" yet. You should. It changed my life, the way I look at life, myself, the relationships I have with others... the world. At least, maybe the book will show you too that you can't blame "yourself" for certain things, because certain parts of your mental, not to mention emotional, life cannot be controled by your "conscious" mind. Please read the book, if only just to see if it'll bring you as much hope as it brought me.

Posted by: Kristina at April 16, 2003 06:53 PM

You're right: I haven't read it, but I have had it with me for weeks. I'm going to though, because hope is what I am looking for right now.

Posted by: kati at April 16, 2003 10:06 PM