Thursday, February 16, 2012

How to Borrow Other People's Brains

President John Adams (1735-1826), by Asher B. Durand (1767-1845).
Source: Wikipedia Commons
During my reading and study over the years, I've often daydreamed about borrowing other people's brains just to see what it would feel like.

Like Schumann, I want the experience of hearing music in my head. I want to know if Shakespeare thought in iambic pentameter. I want to know the exhilaration of brilliant mental quickness along with Dorothy Parker and trip the line between genius and madness with van Gogh.

I envision a day in which scientific advancement proceeds at such an exponential rate that such things will be possible. (At least, I envision a future in which I write a science fiction story in which it's possible.) Until that day, we will have to rely on feeble substitutes for borrowing other people's brains.

How to Borrow Other People's Brains:

1. Actually listen to what they are saying. I do not mean that you should merely quiet down and listen to the words other people are saying (although you probably should do that as well). I mean that you should listen for the messages behind their words. Ask questions, working to understand the thoughts and influences that have driven them to the conclusions that they have reached and the resulting decisions that they have made. If we know anything about human nature, we know that people love to talk about themselves. Capitalize on this, using it as an avenue for borrowing someone else's brain. Most people who have been around me for any length of time know that I love to ask questions, even deep, searching questions of people whom I have only recently met. I try to preface this when I'm talking to new friends by letting them know in advance that I'm extremely curious, and that they don't have to answer all of my questions if they don't want to; however, I can think of no single occasion on which a person has been affronted by or refused to answer. (I have, however, had people claim that I can be exhausting. So there's that.) The upshot of this is that I've learned an enormous amount about what motivates some of the people around me. In the end, this is one of the best substitutes for borrowing other people's brains.

2. Read books written by interesting thinkers. Don't be intimidated by the name on the cover: if he's a clear thinker and has done his job correctly, he will be able to make his thoughts comprehensible to you. Take, for example, The World As I See It, by Albert Einstein. Although I can't say that I agreed with all of Einstein's assertions, I did understand his essays perfectly well and felt that through this book, I started to get a peek into what it might feel like to borrow his brain . His clearly-delineated essays put me in mind of endless rows identical filing cabinets, each full to the brim, but well-ordered and neat. I imagine that borrowing his brain would be a restful experience. The same can be said of C.S. Lewis, Thor Heyerdahl, Marilynne Robinson, G.K. Chesterton, Connie Willis, and Charles Dickens. Not that their brains would all be restful places full of well-ordered filing cabinets. Not by a long shot. (Yes, I'm looking at you, Dickens.) But reading their work in large doses has forced me to bend my mind to match the ebb and flow of their thought patterns. If you don't think this occurs, watch what happens when you sit down to write a letter after having read a few Jane Austen books back-to-back. 

3. Read journals and correspondence. Of course I don't mean without permission. (You creep.) I refer here to things such as the published correspondence of John and Abigail Adams (smart is sexy!), or Elizabeth Barrett and Robert Browning (swoon!), or the diary of Samuel Pepys (saucy!). This sort of brain-borrowing is both informative and entertaining. I highly recommend it.

4. Invent either a creepy electronic machine that steals people's memories and/or a machine that reads their brain waves and may or may not finally launch us all into a grim post-apocalyptic future. I've seen things like this on Fringe. To all of my scientifically-minded friends: please make this happen. Once you've perfected the technique, I will be the first one in line to attach the diodes to my skull.


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