Reading is an act of contemplation, perhaps the only act in which we allow ourselves to merge with the consciousness of another human being. We possess the books we read…but they possess us also, filling us with thoughts and observations, asking us to make them part of ourselves…books enlarge us by giving direct access to experiences not our own. In order for this to work, however, we need a certain type of silence, an ability to filter out the noise.
Such a state is increasingly elusive in our over-networked culture, in which every rumor and mundanity is blogged and tweeted. Today, it seems it is not contemplation we seek but an odd sort of distraction masquerading as being in the know. Why? Because of the illusion that illumination is based on speed, that it is more important to react than to think…
Here we have my reading problem in a nutshell, for books insist we take the opposite position, that we immerse, slow down.
The capacity for intense focus, they note, relies in large part on a brain area called… VLPFC which is located a few inches behind the forehead. While this area has been associated with a wide variety of mental talents, like conceptual knowledge and verb conjugation, it seems to be especially important for maintaining attention…
Andrews found a significant correlation between depressed affect and individual performance on the intelligence test, at least once the subjects were distracted from their pain: lower moods were associated with higher scores…The challenge, of course, is persuading people to accept their misery, to embrace the tonic of despair. To say that depression has a purpose or that sadness makes us smarter says nothing about its awfulness. A fever, after all, might have benefits, but we still take pills to make it go away. This is the paradox of evolution: even if our pain is useful, the urge to escape from the pain remains the most powerful instinct of all.
When a surgeon cut into Henry Molaison's skull to treat him for epilepsy, he inadvertently created the most important brain-research subject of our time — a man who could no longer remember, who taught us everything we know about memory. Six decades later, another daring researcher is cutting into Henry's brain. Another revolution in brain science is about to begin…
In 1953, when my grandfather closed a door in Henry's mind, did he leave it open just a crack? Does this explain the surprising exceptions to Henry's profound amnesia? So much of our understanding of how memory works is based on our understanding of how Henry's memory didn't work. But were we misunderstanding him, at least in part, all these years? These are the sorts of questions scientists will grapple with and argue over in the years to come, as the Brain Observatory goes online, as Henry's mind is preserved everywhere and nowhere at once, as his cells are counted and his final mysteries come to light.