Every so often I’ll be inside my house and hear a plane fly overhead. I’m sure you’ve all heard something like it. It could be a military jet or a commercial airliner flying into or leaving the city. And if skies are overcast, planes sometimes fly lower, so on rare occasions the sounds of an approaching jet will be louder than normal.
A few months ago I’m sitting on my sofa writing. I usually write with the lights off, except for sconces dimmed to about half power, which casts my room in shadows. I often write to epic, instrumental rock music, post-rock, that sort of thing. I’m always looking for new bands in this genre, and I download new albums every so often. I have an expensive sound system with five speakers and a subwoofer and all that.
So I’m sitting there writing when I hear a plane fly overhead. I don’t think anything of it. But instead of approaching, passing, and flying away, the sound of the plane grows louder and louder. In fact it grows unreasonably loud, and alarms start ringing in my head. What if the plane is in distress? Is there going to be a crash nearby? But the sound grows louder and louder until it is directly overhead. Like it is hovering directly over my house. And for a second, or maybe two, I felt a sense of wonder like nothing since I was a kid. Like something crazy and amazing was about to happen. And then, of course, I realized what was really going on. The sound was coming out of my speakers. This was new music I hadn’t heard before. The album was over, and after a few minutes of silence there was a minute or two of spacey sound effects. You know, the famous “hidden track.”
Later I got to wondering why I never feel that way anymore…that sense of wonder and awe. What happened to the formless monsters of my childhood nightmares? Why don’t creaking sounds at night scare me anymore? When did everything become so damn predictable?
There are lots of ways someone might answer that question, but if you read my blog you know I’m going to take the logical route.
At this point we don’t understand very well how it works, but it goes without saying that your brain is a computer. It receives input, processes that input, and stores it in memory. It governs all processes in your body. Some of those processes run in the background, just like on your computer, and some of them are on the desktop. Right now the application needed to read this blog is the primary open application. You might also be drinking coffee or tea or soda, which is another open application but not the primary one. The application to hear the sounds of your environment is running, but until I mentioned it you probably weren’t aware of it. But if someone started banging on the wall next to you, that application would be called to the desktop so you could evaluate it more thoroughly.
Imagine how, when you’re born, how much of a blank slate your brain is. Yes, there are some processes encoded already, certain tendencies you inherited from your parents, instinctive behavior that has evolved to help you survive. But really you are a brand new computer, fresh out of the box, ready to start receiving information.
And for a while every experience is new. There is little or nothing to compare it against, so everything is fresh. After a while certain patterns emerge, and you remember those patterns, and gradually you are able to predict what might happen next. If you cry, Mommy shows up and smiles at you. She feeds you. Etc.
When I was a child, I didn’t know what that sound in the closet was. I didn’t know for sure that a monster might not pop out at any moment. But after years of experience, when a monster never did jump out of the closet, I finally learned it wasn’t going to happen.
All through my life my brain has observed behaviors, whether my own or someone else’s or the pattern of human behavior in general. Or physical processes in the environment. Accumulating this information is, in effect, becoming wiser. Things that confused you as a child become more evident as an adult.
At least one would hope.
But just like a computer that you leave on for weeks, refusing to shut down and reboot, your brain can become cluttered with applications. It becomes burdened with the weight of its own knowledge.
I think I’ll make that Part 2.