Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Guy Claxton. "Hare Brain, Tortoise Mind" (1997).

What would be your criteria for the best non-fiction books? In order for me to find such a work compelling, it must change the way I think about things- at least for the duration of the time that I'm reading it. But my standard for the ultimate non-fiction is a quality that I take away from the reading that remains with me for a long time. A lot of stuff seems profound only as long as the author is explaining it, and leaves no residue in the reader's life. Naturally there is some sort of continuum that describes the extent to which something one reads will stick with him/her. It's not something to be measured in absolutes. Guy Claxton's Hare Brain, Tortoise Mind certainly intrigued me when I was in the process of absorbing it, but whether or not it's going to linger is tough to determine.

Claxton is most of all moved by the concept of the unconscious, which he refers to as the "undermind'. If you've ever taken a basic survey course in psychology, then you are likely familiar with the term. You'd encounter it whenever you studied Freud and Jung. They defined it as a dark and enigmatic region of the mind that we are ordinarily unaware of, but nonetheless affects the way we think, and the choices we make. Freud most associated the unconscious with sex, while Jung paired it with dreams. When they first introduced their versions of the concept, it entered the popular mind fairly quickly. But over the subsequent decades, it has become progressively discredited, and viewed as essentially unscientific.

Western society seems to have sided with Descartes, with his reliance on the conscious mind as the only source of true thought. Claxton calls the prevalent attitude a reliance on "d-mode" (deliberation or default, alternatively). We have been taught that the only worthwhile mental activity involves logic and/or analytical reasoning- byproducts of the conscious mind. Meanwhile the unconsciousness, which has always been an essential component of Eastern spiritual and cultural traditions, is either viewed as suspect or ignored altogether. Claxton views that as a mistake, if not a fatal position. His contention is that these two disparate modes of thinking are equally significant, and respectively appropriate for different situations and problems.

But before we can give the unconsciousness its proper due, we have to accept that it actually exists, and discover its nature. In order to establish its parameters, Claxton cites many experiments conceived by a wide range of cognitive psychologists and other scientists. He doesn't belabor the reader with overwhelming details, but instead presents the findings in easy-to-understand, direct language. Even without the copious references included in the footnotes, these studies are convincing. There is no doubt that the brain processes an almost unimaginably large amount of information that we are never consciously aware of. To add a layer of additional authenticity, Claxton includes several fascinating puzzles which demonstrate the presence of unconscious processing.

In order to cover all of his bases, Claxton presents a detailed look into the world of neurology. He offers an accessible look at the structures of the brain itself. He explains how neurons work, and how the patterns of fired electricity that course through the brain relate to both conscious and unconscious learning. His writing style makes an extremely complicated subject sensible to the layman. The elegance of the system is remarkable, appealing to both the rationality of the conscious mind, and the intuition of the undermind. In a relatively short (yet dense) volume, Claxton manages to accomplish amazing feats of exposition. As in an optical illusion, his revelations seem at once deeply profound and inexplicably obvious. I would certainly recommend Hare Brain, Tortoise Mind to a general audience of inquiry, and I would consider it almost indispensable for artists, writers, business managers, salesmen and educators.

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