The Speed of Thought

May 18, 2008

I am reading a novel titled The Speed of Dark, told from the point of view of an autistic man trying to decide if he should take an experimental cure for his autism. In the process of making his decision, he researches how the brain works, and at one point he reflects on what he’s been reading:

The book answers questions other people have thought of. I have thought of questions they have not answered. I always thought my questions were wrong questions because no one else asked them. Maybe no one thought of them. Maybe darkness got there first. Maybe I am the first light touching a gulf of ignorance. Maybe my questions matter. (40)

The reference to light and dark ties in to the primary metaphor that the title invokes: “the speed of dark” vs. the speed of light. The character thinks that darkness must be faster than light, since it is always out in front of light, the frontier which light is penetrating.

I found this quite powerful. So much of academia is about distinguishing between those who have a right to answer the questions they ask, and those who do not–between those who even have a right to ask questions in the first place. The thought that my questions might matter, despite my lack of expertise, is heartening. I am reminded of Greg Ulmer’s pep talk on the meaning of acquiring a Ph.D. He called it “a license to teach yourself,” an indication that you have gone as far as the institution will let you go and that you are now in charge of your own education.

Later in the novel, the character speaks of thinking in terms of speed:

I do not know what the speed of thought is. I do not know if the speed of thought is the same for everyone. Is it thinking faster or thinking further that makes different thinking different? (240)

I have considered the question of thought-speed in the context of Deleuzian philosophy in my other blog:

I actually woke up this morning and, while in that half-haze of sleep and waking, starting thinking with Deleuzian concepts. I thought of how schizophrenic thought happens at high speed and wondered if the speed of thought could be measured. It’s probably not so much “fast” thinking (as neuronal firing is an electrical phenomenon that probably happens at speeds defined by the laws of physics) as truly rhizomatic thinking, as thinking that branches out into new areas, creating new connections in the mind of the schizophrenic that are “abnormal.” It would be a kind of “cinematic” thinking along the lines of Deleuze’s “movement-image” (as described by Clare Colebrook in her excellent introduction to Deleuze, which I am reading now). But there is a kind of “speed” to it insofar as it creates an “intensity,” both in the more common sense of “being intense” (like wow, he’s intense, man) as well as the sense that DeLanda develops in Intensive Science and Virtual Philosophy, in which something approaches a phase transition–starts to boil, for example. The schizophrenic as boiling-brain.

The real question, then, is how to boil our brains to schizophrenic intensity without “losing our minds”–a very real danger, as I have discovered for myself.


Learning and Mnemonomics

May 6, 2008

While at work, I am slowly reading Knowing What Students Know: The Science and Design of Educational Assessment, the report published by the National Academy Press. The chapter on “Advances in the Sciences of Thinking and Learning” speaks of the fundamental components of cognition as being working memory and long-term memory. The following quote caught my attention:

Unlike working memory, long-term memory is, for all practical purposes, an effectively limitless store of information. It therefore makes sense to try to move the burden of problem solving from working to long-term memory. What matters most in learning situations is not the capacity of working memory–although that is a factor in speed of processing–but how well one can evoke the knowledge stored in long-term memory and use it to reason efficiently about information and problems in the present.

Thinking in terms of how our memory is extended by technologies of communication–books, libraries, the internet, social networking–this quote suggests that learning is not just a matter of how we access our personal long-term memory but also a matter of how we access our culture’s memory, as stored in these various media. How can we tap the long-term memory of this vast, mnemonic prosthetic and use it to solve problems in the present?

This also invokes Ulmer’s concept of “emeragency” which puts problem-solving and policy issues at the center of a “humanities of pragmatics.” The technologically enhanced human brain is truly a “limitless store of information.” As such, our primary problem as individuals in the 21st century–and as educators of students who need the information literacy skills to navigate this limitless store of information–is to develop methods for managing this huge palace of memory: the birth of mnemonomics.