Monday, September 25, 2023

That's When We Finally Come Alive

My wife and I keep a notepad on the kitchen counter on which we write our grocery list, adding one item at a time as it occurs to us. Even before I eat the last handful of pistachios, I’ll add them to the list lest I forget in the next second. I could, I’m sure, learn to keep the list in my head. After all, the ancient Greeks were capable of committing the entirety of Homer's epic poems to memory. Certainly, I could, if so moved, remember, “Peanut butter, toilet paper, mayonnaise, lettuce, cilantro . . .” But I don’t want to use my mind in that way, nor do I need to. I can externalize this task of memory to a notepad on the kitchen counter.

Writing isn’t the only way I externalize my mind. It drives my wife crazy, but I will often leave, say, a book I want to read on the coffee table where I will regularly see it, and each time I do, I remember, “That’s right, I want to read that book.” If someone asks me what I’m reading, I will answer them with the title that currently holds my bookmark, but I’ll also “see” that book on the coffee table where I’ve stored that piece of my mind. However, this process of externalizing my mind is something I do far more often unconsciously. I find bits of it everywhere. A certain chair might hold the memory of a dinner guest. This painting is where I’ve stored the memory of an afternoon. That fragrance is where I keep the lyrics of a song. And don’t get me started on photographs.

The other day, my wife was telling a story from our mutual past. At one point, she got stuck for a detail. She looked me in the eye for a moment, as if counting on me to help her out, but before I could say anything, it clicked and she continued with the story. That particular aspect of that particular part of her mind had been externalized to me.

When my father-in-law died several years ago after decades of marriage, it became clear to me that a large part of my mother-in-law died with him. For a few days, she seemed to continue functioning as the strong, opinionated, get-it-done woman we’d always known, but it quickly became apparent that she was no longer all there. She was grieving, of course, but looking back, we see that when her husband of many decades died, he took a large part of her mind with him. We determined that she couldn’t continue living alone in that big house with lots of stairs and an aging body, so we moved her to an apartment around the corner from us. We genuinely thought it was the right thing to do, but, again in hindsight, it’s obvious that when she moved, she once more left another big part of her mind behind. We surrounded her with familiar items and photographs, but it was as if her shopping lists had been erased. She died of dementia. Maybe we did everything right, maybe there was nothing we could do to prevent her mind from disintegrating, but I can’t help but feel that if we had let her remain in her home, despite the physical risk, her mental decline would not have been so precipitous and frightening.

We tend to think of our minds as contained within us, but in reality, so much of our consciousness actually exists beyond the container of our bodies. It makes sense from an evolutionary point of view. Thinking is very energy intensive. Our brains only represent about two percent of our body weight, but accounts for 20 percent of our energy use. By off-loading things like memories and knowledge to the external world, we are free to focus our mental energy on things that cannot be externalized. That’s what we do with books, for instance, and now the internet, technologies that have allowed us to more efficiently and effectively connect our minds to the external world.

Indeed, we are fully engaged in the computer age, these machines that have become extensions of our minds. As I write on this screen in front of me, I’m externalizing, to the best of my ability given the limitations of language, my thoughts, through my fingers, where they now exist in this machine. Periodically, as I write, I lose track of where I’m going, so I scroll back to the top to remind myself of where I’ve started and to remember the flow from there to here. Below this point on my screen, I’ve pasted some notes thumbed into my phone a few days ago as a prompt for this piece, again, an externalization of my mind, freeing it up then to do other things until I was ready to return to it.

If you’re interested, here is the note from which I’ve been working:

When I make a “to do” list, I’m externalizing my mind. When we make machines that think for us, we are doing the same thing. People have been complaining about “too much information” for as long as there has been information. Our thinking machines are able to process all the information — crap and not crap; true and not true; rational and irrational. The only thing machines have to work with are the things that we have externalized from our minds: what they will always be missing are the parts we cannot externalize. Are those things emotions? Are those aspects sensory? What are the parts of our minds that cannot be externalized? Pat really lost her mind when we moved her away from her home and stuff — she had externalized so much of her mind into it and now it’s gone.

What are the parts of a mind that cannot be externalized? Those are the parts that machines, no matter how smart, will ever be able to mimic, unless, of course, we actually manage, like Dr. Frankenstein, to create life. They will then, I assume, no longer be machines, but rather sentient beings that can think (as opposed to simply rapid-fire data crunching), create, ask and answer its own questions for its own edification, feel emotions, and, because it is life, it will seek to conserve, or more efficiently use, its energy, by externalizing its own mind. I can’t get myself worked up to worry about this happening because if it happens, it will be so far into the future that I can’t imagine that Homo sapiens won’t either be extinct or will have evolved into whatever is next. No, the concerns I have are not about artificial intelligence, but rather around the very real possibility that our machines will be used to create artificial realities that will lead us to behave in harmful, destructive, and downright ignorant ways.

At this point, I’ve scrolled up to the parts of my mind that I’ve previously externalized to see that I’ve gotten off track. The future of AI is neither here nor there as far as this little think-piece goes.

Now, I think about you, the theoretical reader that I imagine based upon what I’ve learned about over the past 14 years of writing under the promise of “teaching and learning from preschoolers.” You, in my mind, are a person interested in early childhood education and development. So, what does all this mean for the children in our lives?

For me it means that when we give permission for children to play, which is to say, engage the world through their curiosity, choosing what is worthy of their attention, and asking and answering their own questions, we are allowing them to develop their full minds. They are born to connect, through physical contact, through suckling, through vocalizing, all of which are ways in which they are externalizing this strange experience of awareness, of being a mind and being part of a mind. They do this with all of their senses, with their full bodies, and by engaging with other living things that are likewise externalizing their minds in a give and take that belies the myth of individuality. When we make the mistake of directing them to look in this direction, to memorize that bit of trivia, to learn according to our schedule, we are robbing them of the opportunity to develop their own unique and vital connection to the world. It’s only when we do this that we finally come fully alive, because it's only then that we know that we are doing what we are meant to do.

The more I think about this idea of externalizing my own mind, the more I see it, and the more I come to understand that when children play, they are, from moment to moment, making their metaphorical shopping lists, not on bits of paper, but rather on the world itself and the people they find there.


"This inspiring book is essential reading for every family choosing a preschool, every teacher working with young children, and every citizen who wonders how we can raise children who will make the world a better place." ~Dr. Laura Markham, author of Peaceful Parent, Happy Kids

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