December 12, 2012


Warning - rambling and possibly incoherent content ahead.  

So, this post is a bit different.  Its either really interesting, or a frightening look inside the bizarro workings of my mind.  ("I award you no points.  And may God have mercy on your soul")

"Sometimes I think my brain thinks life is just one big free association game. Or dream. Is it?"  

Sometimes things happen that make you realize how wildly interconnected the world is.  

The other day, I was exchanging messages on Twitter with a friend about the energy situation in the U.S. and prospect of converting to sustainable energy.  The gist of what I was saying was that we - in the U.S. - have to get there (for many reasons), but to do so we need investment and innovation in clean tech, as well as policies that provide incentives for this development.  I used Germany as an example, since - whether realistic/possible or not - Germany has announced a goal of being on 100% renewable (non-oil-based) energy by 2050.  

Within seconds, we both received a tweet from some random German thought leader/evangelist on the German sustainability energy transition.  He tweeted: "Thanks for the praise and thanks for spreading the word on #energytransitionde. #shootinghigh."  

My friend's somewhat shocked response to me: "Apparently German energy leaders know how to use Twitter!"   

Apparently (!)

In digesting our conversation and the unexpected entrance from our friend in Germany, my brain immediately flashed to this classic Simpsons episode:  

 Mr. Burns: "Ooh, the Germans are mad at me . . . ."
 Germans: "Stop it Mr. Burns . . . ."

I find this free association thing happens to me a lot.  Is it just me?  I don't think so.  

Being an au moderne guy (I like to think so, at least), I decided that I would try to get to the bottom of this free association business by, as they say, leveraging my social network to crowd-source the solution.  (Hipster!  Jargony!  Awesome!)  

...You know, so, I - like -  posted my above question on Facebook.

What follows is an excerpted version of the oh-so-very thoughtful comments I received in response on the matter from my readers
·            Kittens
·            Potato.  
·            Sour Cream.  
·            Spilled Milk.  
·            Crying.  
·            The Raiders lost again.  
·            Bo knows.  
·            Bo don't know jack, cause Bo can't rap.  
·            Rappers delight
·            Gangnam style.

For me, anyway, this sort of free association exercise generally devolves into something buried in the lyrics from REM's Its the End of the World As We KnowIt (And I feel fine.)"vitriolic, patriotic, slam, fight, bright light, feeling. pretty! psyched!!"

OK.  So you get the point.  It was a damned fine job by Team Facebook, but my social network didn't exactly address the underlying question:  Why do our brains work this way?  

One thought is that perhaps this the way that the collective consciousness communicates/finds common ground, by sharing and re-associating and connecting snippets of culture and humor and song over time.  Cultural references, internet memes, old Seinfeld and Simpson's quotes are, in a sense, the stuff that binds us.  A short-hand way for how we remember and relate our stories and our experiences.  "McKayla is not impressed" means the 2012 Summer Games.  In other words, culture -the idea space that bring us together- is just one big interconnected multi-dimensional web of associations.  When you look at it this way, the very cloth that weaves us together is made up of strings of associated cultural bits (music, books, ideas) across time.  

On a lower - and perhaps less cosmic - level, our brains navigate our memories through this type of "association game" as well.

One illustration of the memory aspect of these cultural rapid associations that comes to mind is from a book I recently read called Moonwalking with Einstein.  Moonwalking is about memory.  It is written by a reporter who was asked to cover the "Memory Olympics," an event where "memory athletes" compete in feats of memory, such as memorizing the sequential order of a deck of cards, the words to a poem, or a set of names matched with faces.  (From the book, memory athletes, appear to be a less dorky and more colorful bunch than one might otherwise think.)

What the author explains is that these are not people of unusual intelligence or people with photographic memories; rather, memory feats can be learned using tried-and-true ancient techniques.  The main technique described in the book involves associating often-humorous visuals with the particular items one is trying to commit to memory.  For example, the author used the image of the comedian Dom DeLuise hula-hooping to memorize the five of clubs, and other bizarre images to do the same for the other 51 cards in the deck.  In this way, through memorable imagery and/or humor, the subject you are memorizing becomes more firmly etched in your head: "By associating goofy or vivid imagery with something you're trying to remember, it becomes easier to summon it to memory."  Association, especially of the humorous or bizarre, is just the way memory works.

Another memory-related theme worth mentioning that is also touched on in Moonwalking is that, in these times of computers and smart-phones and Google, the way society measures intelligence has changed.  Long ago, in the pre-printing press days, the mark of intelligence was the ability to recall.  Stories were passed from generation to generation by bards, who committed them to memory.  Greek orators were famed for their ability to memorize speeches and recall myriad facts to support their debating point of view.  

Not so much today.  The printing press changed all that; it liberated our minds from being storage bins, to (theoretically) allow for more creativity/thoughtfulness.  (Whether that is true in practice is, of course, another story.)  

The Internet, computers and data storage changed this even more drastically.  Today we don't need to remember phone numbers.  They are in our phones.  We don't need to remember directions.  We can Mapquest it.  If we want to remember the closing line of the Great Gatsby, we can just search online.  Or ask our social network.  (Its "So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.").  You don't have to remember the name of that book you read when you were twelve; you can Google it.  

(Surely one may debate the pros and cons of where we are at.  Because there is a trade-off.  You do lose something; because there is value in the looking.)

At any rate, today, one might argue, intelligence/being interesting/engaging is now measured more by (i) the ability to find and apply the stored information; and (ii) the ability to draw connections between it, and to be creative with it (to mash it up, if you will).  

Conveniently, our minds sharpen these skills by tirelessly playing the free association game.

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