The Danger of Linking A.I. Machines to Consciousness

In The New York Times recently, an article appeared delineating how Dr. Hod Lipson, director of the Creative Machines Lab at Columbia University and an Israeli-born roboticist sat behind a table in his lab, explaining the potential adaptability of robots and other A.I. machines, something which he argued would become more important as people became more reliant on machines. Likewise, he discussed how as robots become more significant in our lives in terms of such areas of endeavor as surgical procedures, food, manufacturing, and transportation, any error in their functions could be disastrous for us.

As Dr. Lipton said, if we’re literally going to surrender more and more of our lives to robots, we want the machines to be resilient. In order to make this occur, Lipton recommended that we take our inspiration from both animals and humans, both of whom are good at adapting to change. Yes, of course both humans and animals are good at adapting to change, as Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution has proved time and again. Yet at the same time, there is a quality that only humans and possibly some members of the animal kingdom possess which A.I machines will never possess; this being the possibility of a consciousness rooted in their sensorial and emotive lives, onr upon which they can reflect.

In fact, during a period of time in which our working memories, our attention spans, and the stream of our thoughts are under attack from the digital age and the devices which we all now so obsessively use, it seems now more important than ever that we seek the possibility of a larger consciousness which exists on the other side of thought, memory, and even knowledge. That is, one which is less anchored in our cognitive lives and increasingly anchored in the sort of direct insight into the dynamics of both our world and ourselves which stems from an enriched sensorial life and likewise a deeper emotive one.

On the other hand, if we succumb to making A.I machines an increasing part of our intelligence, this larger, more expansive consciousness born of direct insight will never occur as people continue to focus more and more on the sort of purely cognitive activities, particularly memory, that A.I. machines are so good at, just as so many people have become fascinated and obsessed by the Internet and digital devices since both came into our lives a number of years ago. More than anything, it seems imperative that we realize that intelligence itself is certainly much more than thought and memory. As much as anything, it has significantly to do with insight, and with the potential strength of one’s emotive and sensorial life, something at which a machine, even one that can accomplish highly complex tasks, is not so adept.

A New Education for the Digital Age

As many people now know, our compulsive use of the Internet and corresponding digital devices are creating difficulties for many people not just within the field of their personal relationships, but likewise within the domain of their cognitive capacities. As a result of the effects of our current digital age on people’s attention spans and working memories, there is increasing evidence that the jumpy, fragmented awareness that is being inculcated in people by the great interruption machine that is the Internet is having a profound effect on the stream of people’s thoughts, and their capacity to follow those thoughts to a point of completion.

Likewise, the effects that the challenge of information overload brought about by the Internet is having on people’s short-term memories, their capacity to turn those short-term memories into long-term ones, and the manner in which large search engines such Google are in effect becoming our brain’s external hard drive in significantly replacing our once natural ability to follow the path of organic networks in our brain to retrieve relevant information and knowledge are both having profoundly negative effects on the capacity of our working memories to clearly and quickly digest important elements of ourselves and our world.

Consequently, to minimize the potential negative effects which the digital world may be having on our cognitive lives, there would appear to be two potential paths that we might take. Either we can somehow try to limit the extent to which we use the exciting but potentially hazardous Internet-related devices which have become our new reality, or we can seek to explore the possibility of the growth of a different type of intelligence, one that is beyond the reach of the Internet and its resulting technologies, and that is fundamentally anchored in not only our sensorial and emotive lives, but  likewise in our capacity for direct, intuitive insight.

The first, it would seem, might not be realistic simply because the digital world has now become so thoroughly embedded in all our lives. While the second, although being part of a serious exploration into the unknown, might allow us to potentially develop the sort of expansive awareness that the Internet and our current digital age might won’t be able to negatively affect simply because it exists beyond the intersection of digital technologies with our cognitive development in a world that is necessarily beyond the exclusive realm of thought and memory.

All of this would appear to necessarily speak to the possibility of a different sort of education to which young people in their formative years might be introduced; one in which their impressionistic lives become just as important as their cognitive development. One in which it becomes extremely important that young learners be allowed to remain with strong emotive and sensorial reactions to subject matter until those have reached a point of full fruition. Otherwise, the strength of their impressions will inevitably become dissipated to a significant degree. Consequently, it becomes extremely important that young students often begin the process of cognitive learning only after their impressionistic lives have become fully energized.

This also would appear to necessarily mean eliminating many of the results-driven approaches to learning that now so entirely dominate contemporary learning environments, ones in which exclusively cognitive learning has become predominate in order to produce certain scores on standardized tests. Instead, if accountability for learning became more fully tied to student initiative, students would not need to be so thoroughly manipulated, as they are now, by empirical results of learning. Rather, if the new benchmark for successful learning became one of how involved students became in creating their own paths toward particular subject matter, their impressionistic lives might be energized exponentially.

Lyn Lesch’s current book Toward a Holistic Intelligence: Life on the Other Side of the Digital Barrier was recently published by Rowman & Littlefield.

The Pursuit of Wonder in the Digital Age

During the period of the late 1970s and early 1980s the scientist Jacob Bronowski launched his brilliant series The Ascent of Man on public television, the series encapsulating how human knowledge has provided us with such a miraculous understanding of ourselves, our world, and our universe. And of course, this is absolutely true. The continuous pursuit of truth through human knowledge has produced the discoveries of Galileo, Isaac Newton, Charles Darwin, Niels Bohr, Albert Einstein, and other great scientists and thinkers which of course have led toward an ever-increasing sense of wonder concerning the world in which we live.

Yet if one might be bold enough to suggest, there still appears to be something inherently missing from this important assessment of the potential power of human knowledge. This is simply that by focusing too exclusively on the acquisition of knowledge as the primary means by which people can ascend, to use Jacob Bronowski’s term, one can easily ignore the whole person; and in so doing, ignore other aspects of their being such as the power of their sensorial and emotive lives.

If people are to develop a greater fascination with the details and dynamics of the world in which they live, certainly they must allow their impressions to become as vivid as possible; at a place at which their senses and feelings can come to full fruition, free from the potential dulling effects of thought and memory; using the latter only when these are needed.

Indeed, it is this capacity to become fully absorbed in the potential depth of one’s impressions which, as much as anything, might create moments of wonder in which a person’s inner life is fused with the observations of their world until the psychological distance between the two things begins to shrink, potentially even disappear completely. Yet how exactly might that kind of transformation of one’s being actually occur?

In his iconic book The Doors of Perception, Aldous Huxley, during his experience with the consciousness expanding drug mescaline, described some flowers in a vase which shone with what he called a stunning inner light; the stoical serenity inherent in some window drapes which revealed them as not just another household item, but as a true silken wilderness; and the folds in his trousers as being not just part of a necessary article of clothing, but as a labyrinth of endlessly significant complexity.

Such a state of complete absorption in the world’s details, that in which there is little or no psychological distance between the observer and the observed, would appear to present the best opportunity for fusing our emotive and sensorial live into such a deeper, more wondrous awareness simply because it is a state in which there is little or no separation between one’s inner life and the details of one’s world, what Huxley described as the non-existence of a self which in a very real sense inwardly becomes many of the things with which one is in contact. Yet how to achieve this state of wondrous awareness during one’s normal, everyday state of mind, without the use of consciousness expanding drugs such as mescaline?

If we are to pursue this new type of consciousness on the other side of thought and memory, one which is firmly anchored in our sensorial and emotive lives, it would appear to be of the utmost importance that we begin to understand more completely the exact limitations of both thought and memory so that we might begin to comprehend how each of these might on occasion become an impediment to the full growth of our emotions and our senses.

Yet at the same time, if certain of our cognitive capacities, such as our ability to attend and the stream of our thoughts, which have been adversely affected by the jumpy, fragmented nature of the Internet, and the dulling of our working memories by large search engines such as Google, which have in effect become our brain’s external hard drive as we search for information, then the endeavor to comprehend the dynamics and validity of our thoughts and memories so that these won’t necessarily impede our sensorial and emotive reactions from coming to full fruition is going to inevitably become exponentially more difficult to achieve. And so this this is something that might necessarily require our increasing attention as our current digital age proceeds into the future.

Lyn Lesch’s new book Toward a Holistic Intelligence: Life on the Other Side of the Digital Barrier was recently published by Rowman & Littlefield.

 

 

Our Diminishing Freedom in the Digital Age

This week’s New York Times highlighted a 2018 film, The Feeling of Being Watched, a documentary by young Muslim filmmaker Assia Boundaoui, which told the story of how the residents of the Muslim community in the suburban Chicago community of Bridgeview came to believe that they were the victims of an unjustified surveillance by the FBI over a number of years; the film effectively telling the story of how such a surveillance can become an end in itself simply because the fear of being watched can lead to a fear of speaking out, regardless of whether anyone is actually watching. As Ms. Boundaoui says in the film in voice-over, “That grey area between paranoia and the truth is a dangerous place.”

In similar fashion, the philosopher Simone de Beauvoir, Jean Paul Sartre’s lifelong friend the lover, wrote of how modern women face a certain similar existential bind in having to develop their own viewpoint toward their life and the world at the same time that they have become the viewpoint of others, in particular men, where they become both observer and observed, something which necessarily has a profound effect on their personal freedom.

Now, with the coming of our present digital age, it seems that we are all up against the same existential crisis as the Muslim community of Bridgeview and Simone de Beauvoir faced, one in which we are made to feel that we are being perpetually watched even as we attempt to make sense of our world. That is, any statement we make online, however seemingly innocuous it might seem, becomes immediate fodder for someone who might choose to misinterpret it. In similar fashion, the digital memories inside powerful search engines inside our phones and computers often know where we’ll navigating next in cyberspace even before we do.

In fact, the algorithms of Google and other search engines are now not only able to feed us information that they have already gathered about us, but also direct us to where we should travel next on the Web even before we have decided to do so ourselves by simply catching our eye with what they already know we may want to see next based on where we have already traveled. Anyone who has ever searched Amazon or begun receiving spam e-mails from out of the blue based on their personal search history knows this eventuality all too well.

Except the real difference between what Assia Boundaoui and Simone de Beauvoir endured and our present plight in the digital age is that their freedom was being controlled and impeded externally, so to speak, while for those of us who are potential victims in cyberspace, the impediment to our freedom is entirely internal. That is whereas before, the plight of those two women is part of their long-term memories and personal experience, albeit the result of difficult dynamics in their lives, now the very neural pathways inside out brains, simply because we are in effect outsourcing our memories and the pattern of our thoughts to large search engines, are being controlled and directed from the outside.

Consequently, our loss of personal freedom has now become a dynamic that resides inside the same patterns of thought and memory that we might use to combat such a development in the way Ms. Boundaoui and Ms. Beauvoir combatted their particular predicaments that were keeping them less free. That is, our mental freedom, in a very real sense, faces a much more serious challenge to its continued development simply because the very things we have always used to envision and maintain such a freedom, our patterns of thought and memory, are being conditioned in a manner in which they are becoming increasingly less clear to us in such a pursuit.

Lyn Lesch’s new book Toward a Holistic Intelligence: Life on the Other Side of the Digital Barrier was recently published by Rowman & Littlefield.

It’s Not the Technology

During the recent HBO television show The Newsroom, intrepid studio producer Jim Harper, played by John Gallagher, Jr., has an intense conversation with his girlfriend Hallie Shea, played by Grace Gummer, who has just taken a job at a news network which is requiring her to write stories concerning her life as a single woman in New York City and then post them on their site as significant news stories. After Harper admonishes her for caving into the more superficial reality TV culture that is rapidly becoming increasingly relevant, she tells him that his problem is that he’s afraid of the new Internet technology; his response being that it’s not the new technology, rather it’s the superficiality of social media.

In point of fact, as one who is critical of the increasingly superficial, shallow culture that social media has spawned, one tends to hear this argument a lot; that people who make a point of condemning social media for spawning a more superficial, dishonest culture are really just afraid of the growth of digital technology, and how we are being left behind because of it. No doubt, those of us who are alarmed by the possibility of Mark Zuckerberg’s Metaverse causing people to accept a shallower reality, the veracity of which can’t be trusted, will hear this same argument made with us over and over; that we’re really just afraid of a technology that we don’t understand how to properly use.

The late Neil Postman, author of such great books as The Disappearance of Childhood and The End of Education often spoke of two relevant questions which need to be asked whenever any new form of technology comes into existence: What present problem does it solve, and what new problems does it create? That is, in terms of the Metaverse, does this new technology in which people are able to inhabit a different or alternative reality really solve any of our pressing problems, or does it simply cause us to become shallower inwardly as we experience the real world less and less without really solving any pressing problems related to humans communicating with each other?

Likewise, does a kindle e-reader solve any problems related to human literacy at the same time that it potentially causes those to use it to connect in shallower fashion with what they are reading when they don’t have the advantage of a direct physical connection with it, as they do whenever they hold a book in their hand? Or does the new Apple watch facilitate faster, easier connection with others when everyone who could afford the watch can also easily afford an iPhone, while at the same time, it might easily cause Internet addiction to become more prevalent simply because it is something that is literally on someone’s arm?

Obviously, new technologies appear all the time that everyone must get used to because that is simply the new world in which they live. Examples being things like the electric light, the automobile, or even the personal computer. However, these are also things which made everyone’s lives substantially easier, even if they did create a newer set of problems. However, if things like the Metaverse, the e-reader, or the Apple watch come into existence without solving any pressing problems, and even though at the at the time of their appearance they seem cool or trendy, they present a new set of problems related to potentially shallower inner lives and shortened attention spans, then it seems one has to indeed ask if they are worth the trade-off.

When Jim Harper told Hallie Shea during their breakup on the Newsroom that “It’s not the technology” what he meant was that she was conflating the issue of people not being adept at using certain Internet-related devices with their concern with an increasingly shallower culture that those same devices may be helping to foster. Unfortunately, by conflating the two, the second issue, the more important of the two, might never be discussed or properly addressed. Let’s hope that this doesn’t continue to occur.

Lyn Lesch’s new book Toward a Holistic Intelligence: Life on the Other Side of the Digital Barrier, published by Rowman & Littlefield, is now available from booksellers.

 

 

Beyond a Synthesis of Spirituality and Psychotherapy

Lately there has been an increased emphasis on uniting the principles of psychotherapy with various meditation practices, such as those found in Buddhism, in order to promote what some have called the “wellness sector.” Of course, in the past psychotherapy and certain spiritual practice have been seen as existing at opposite ends of the spectrum in people’s search for peace of mind; psychotherapy being largely concerned with helping people face fully the very core of their anxieties by burrowing into them, while spirituality has traditionally been concerned with bypassing one’s unique neuroses in hopes of somehow transcending them.

However, lately those such as psychiatrist and practicing Buddhist Mark Epstein, in his recently released book The Zen of Therapy: Uncovering the Hidden Kindness in Life have sought to somehow synthesize the two philosophies by uncovering the fundamental principles that the two seemingly different approaches share. At one and the same time, emphasizing the uniqueness of our personal selves and life stories, yet likewise giving credence to the supposition of Buddhism that our personal stories are just stories that are in fact part of a larger reality in which they are much less substantial than we would ordinarily assume, Epstein attempts to create a larger, more inclusive approach to what therapy can do for people.

Yet, despite the efforts of Mark Epstein and others to unite psychotherapy and spiritual practices in the quest to improve people’s mental health and well-being, there might seem to be another possibility, one having to do with the potential shortcomings of each of these two endeavors. In fact, it may be possible that both approaches might be subject to making the same mistake from opposite sides of the spectrum. That is, psychotherapy intensely probing one’s emotional states in order to help the person in therapy better understand them, and spiritual practices such as Buddhism viewing certain emotional states as transitory, thus passing them by in order not to be trapped inside them.

In the case of psychotherapeutic practices, by intensely examining one’s emotions and feelings by essentially defining them with one’s thoughts, there is the possibility that by doing so the strength of those emotive states might be diluted because they are being examined at arm’s length, so to speak. In the case of spiritual practices such as Buddhism, by viewing those same feelings and emotions as being transitory, there is the possibility that one will not be able to experience them fully on the way toward a larger consciousness. In both cases, because one’s emotive states are being diluted, there is the distinct possibility that neither approach will lead the person undergoing therapy toward a larger awareness.

Perhaps wellness therapy, if one wants to use that particular term, rather than being seen as the practice of merely helping someone to better adapt to their world, and becoming content in doing so, might be seen as an exploration by therapist and patient alike, if one wants to continue using those terms, working to enlighten each other in the search for a greater awareness which might exist beyond the boundaries of the self. That is, exploring not only where the depth of one’s feelings and emotive states might eventually lead, but likewise examining how one’s thoughts and memories might in fact block such a realization from coming to full fruition.

With our current digital age having such a profound effect on our attention spans, the stream of our thoughts, and our working memories, we may need a new type of intelligence, one born in the depths of our sensorial and emotive lives, in order to more fully investigate not only the world we live in, but likewise what may lay beyond the boundaries of the self. Such an investigation would indeed be a journey worth pursuing in terms of changing the dynamics of the therapist-patient therapeutic model which has existed for so long. Perhaps using the power of direct insight people may be able reach the point where they no longer consistently need the benefits of either psychotherapy or spiritual practices such as Buddhism in order to understand the barriers to a greater awareness which our very own thought processes might be facilitating.

Lyn Lesch’s new book Toward a Holistic Intelligence: Life on the Other Side of the Digital Barrier was published recently by Rowman & Littlefield.

 

 

Joan Didion’s Heroic Depiction of Nothingness

The great writer and social commentator Joan Didion died last week at age 87 as a result of Parkinson’s disease; and of course much laudatory praise was heaped upon her online, in large part due to her unique indirect style, reminiscent of Ernest Hemmingway and other such writers who employed the same minimalist approach, one in which she was able to see the truth about so many things out of the corner of her eye. And of course, there was mention of the fact that her writing was so important to a generation of would-be writers who were no longer afraid due to her pathfinding efforts to insert their personal life into a piece of objective journalism.

In recent years, Didion’s book The Year of Magical Thinking received a certain amount of well-deserved praise, a book which concerned the sudden death of her husband John Gregory Dunne while their daughter Quintana was in the hospital with a serious medical condition. Learning to cope with unexpected, extremely difficult events through a form of illusory thinking by which she imagined she could control the outcome of events which had already occurred obviously struck a real nerve with people who are suddenly forced to deal with their own mental health amidst harrowing personal circumstances.

However, although her entire career was full of challenging novels and essays which served to define the parameters of our culture for us, written in her incredible minimalist style, what I remember best about Joan Didion are three seminal works from the late 1960s and early 1970s. The first of these, the title essay from her 1968 book of essays Slouching Toward Bethlehem, involved her razor sharp, brutal look at the downfall of Hippie society in San Francisco in the late 1960s when the entire culture of America was beginning to fray and, as Didion put it, the center was not holding. From accounts of young people who can’t envision a future for themselves from one day to another to her iconic account of encountering a five-year-old who, with the full consent of her parents, is taking one of many LSD trips; the starkness of her reporting exists in what she doesn’t say – the vacuous existence that Didion lays so carefully between the lines.

Then there is her novel from 1970, Play It as It Lays, a frightening personal account of a Hollywood wife who has reached the point where, as she puts it, nothing applies; that in which nothing, rather than being a state of empty existence devoid of anything else, is instead its own terrifying reality. Traversing a world in which all the players, including married couples, perpetually and cruelly use each other for their own amusement, the novel ends with the Hollywood wife, Maria Wyeth, laying on a bed next to a close friend while she watches him swallow a number of Seconal pills, in doing so taking his life, because he too has reached the point where he knows what nothing means and no longer wants to play the game, so to speak.

There is also the 1971 movie The Panic in Needle Park, for which Didion and her husband wrote the screenplay; the film that was Al Pacino’s first role in which he plays Bobby, a heroin addict who initiates a romantic relationship with a young woman named Helen, played by Kitty Winn, who has recently had an abortion, and so is obviously looking for someone to whom she can cling. Eventually, she starts shooting heroin herself simply because she wants to become part of Bobby’s world, even as dark as it can be at times. Then, after she is arrested for selling pills a doctor has given her to some kids in order to feed her heroin addiction, she gives Bobby up to the police in order to save herself from going to jail; the brilliance of the movie existing in both its stark tone (no melodramatic background music or fancy cuts between scenes) and likewise as a heart-wrenching story of how desperation can so often lead inevitably toward betrayal.

Although of course these three works are, as much as anything, dramatic cautionary tales, at the same time it takes genuine courage to explore the worlds they represent with an eye that is forever unflinching, as Joan Didion did so brilliantly. Looking at the perpetual state of nothingness in which all of the characters (real or imagined) live without sanitizing or moralizing their situations in any way by simply describing them in a manner that gets to their very essence is something that not many writers have the stomach for. Particularly in our current age in which events reported on cable television become inevitably sanitized or rationalized in order to project a certain perspective, we are in desperate need of truth tellers like Joan Didion, who never looked away from the subjects about which she was writing, although at the same time allowing us to see them clearly, if we dared to look, out of the corner of our eye. Her loss is an incredible one.

Lyn Lesch’s latest book Toward a Holistic Intelligence: Life on the Other Side of the Digital Barrier was published recently by Rowman & Littlefield.

DNA

One Possible Difficulty with Genetic Editing

Years ago, the writer Nigel Dennis, an author, critic, and playwright from the late nineteenth early twentieth century wrote a book entitled Nadia: A Case of Extraordinary Drawing Ability in an Autistic Child. The book concerned a young child who had an extraordinary ability to draw, nearly matching many great artists of her time. However, she was also autistic, and so in Dennis’s book it was revealed how her doctors discussed what they should do with her. That is, they realized that if they cured her, they would probably wreck her incredible gift for drawing. In the end, however, they did cure her, and consequently her ability to draw likewise disappeared.

This past year, Walter Isaacson, the great biographer and historian, released his book The Code Breaker, having to do with the work in which geneticist Jennifer Doudna and others have been involved where by using a certain protein they are able to insert a piece of the molecule RNA into someone’s DNA, thus allowing them to splice open a certain section of their DNA prior to inserting a preferred section that will then make them healthier in some way. To date, this gene editing has seemingly led to such developments as the healing of sickle cell anemia in those who possess the disease, as well as producing a potential end to Huntington’s disease, which can eventually lead toward the death of brain cells.

Of course, the idea that all sorts of maladies and illnesses, inherited and otherwise, might be potentially cured by this process of gene editing is an exciting development in the worlds of biology and medical science, as well as providing potential hope for all those who may be suffering from certain inherited maladies, such as heart disease, deafness, blindness or the amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) which plagued the late, great physicist Stephen Hawking for much of his life.

However, as in the case of the autistic girl with an incredible ability to draw, one has to ask the question: If potentially curing someone of a certain illness by altering their genetic code, or eliminating some inherited condition by which they are suffering is going to inevitably affect certain personal qualities or talents which are directly related to that by which they are afflicted, is it worth it? For instance, if Beethoven hadn’t passed through the dark night of the soul he experienced when he realized he was losing his hearing, would he have been able to produce the revolutionary optimism and defiance which are part of his iconic, otherworldly Fifth Symphony?

Similarly, would Stevie Wonder have been able to produce the incredible inner-directed music which he launched into the world in the mid-1970s with Innervisions or Fullfillingness’ First Finale if he hadn’t lost his sight? Or would Virginia Woolf have been able to produce the incredible stream of consciousness writing which she produced, such as her iconic novel Mrs. Dalloway, if she hadn’t been able to probe the boundaries of her own mind during one of her frequent states of depression? Correspondingly, if Stephen Hawking had had a full, active life, not confined to his wheelchair, would he have developed the obsessive will to probe the secrets of the universe?

These are obviously the same questions which the doctors treating the autistic young girl with her incredible ability to draw considered in treating her. Ultimately, when push comes to shove, what takes precedence, physical health or incredible, visionary talent? In addition, there would appear to be another question which might be considered here. That is, the significance of the human challenge against adversity, as well as the will to achieve not only against all obstacles, but also in fact even because of them?

The obvious answer might appear to be that if modern medicine can restore someone’s health and alleviate their suffering, shouldn’t that take precedence over everything else? Yet if one probes the question more thoroughly, considering all the relevant dynamics which are present, the answer might then not appear to be so easy to discern. For instance, in the case of someone who might be suffering from a certain illness or condition, but likewise possesses both a certain unique talent and an incredible amount of will to bring that talent to fruition, even against all odds, which is more important: Curing their illness or leaving both their talent and their will to create fully intact? Difficult questions which it would seem need to be ultimately addressed in this new age of genetic code breaking which has suddenly come to call.

Lyn Lesch’s recent book Toward a Holistic Intelligence: Life on the Other Side of the Digital Barrier was recently published by Rowman & Littlefield.

A Different Type of Intelligence

These past few weeks, Susan Orlean, author of the immensely popular book The Orchid Thief, has written and published a collection of essays and stories concerning how we humans interact with the animals with whom we share planet earth. In On Animals, Orlean considers a large range of creatures, from the chickens which she keeps in her back yard to the twenty-three pet tigers which one woman in New Jersey kept, and which none of her neighbors knew about until one of them escaped, to a famous whale in Iceland who actually resists human efforts to set him free. In turns both enchanting and thoughtful, the essays celebrate the meaningful connections which we have with our animal friends.

Of course, many people, when they think of Orlean remember both the book The Orchid Thief and the movie version of it, adaptation. Some may even remember one incredibly prescient scene from the film in which orchid expert John Larouche, played by Chris Cooper, explains to Orlean, played by Meryl Streep, the relationship between an insect pollinating a particular flower and large metaphysical concerns; such as because when the insect does exactly what it is drawn to doing, that is finds its soul mate flower which it pollinates, the whole world comes alive because of this sort of direct desire, and that once anyone of us finds our flower, so to speak, we can’t let anything get in our way.

This type of selective attention, often centered primarily in the sensory and emotive worlds, might on occasion move us within ourselves toward a larger intelligence which isn’t necessarily apprehended through words and thoughts, but one through which we might perceive our world more deeply and fully through the process of direct insight. Given that the Internet and our obsessive use of digital devices might be now impeding the stream of our thoughts as we habitually jump from one site in the virtual world to another; dulling our memories as we use large search engines as our brain’s external hard drive, rather than employing our own neuronal networks to look for information; and negatively affecting our attention spans as both our short and long-term memories become flooded with more information than they can effectively handle, indeed we may need to facilitate a whole new approach to what intelligence means.

That is, if we as human beings can effectively learn how to increasingly access an immediate perception born of direct insight to better comprehend our world and ourselves as the Internet and our use of digital technologies continue to adversely affect our cognitive capacities, then we might potentially be able to continue acting intelligently regardless of the effects brought about by our current digital age.

Direct insight, quite simply, is the capacity to immediately see the essence of a situation, person, idea, etc. by inhabiting a space beyond thought and memory. Some psychologists have referred to such a state as being in the zone. Others, such as noted Hungarian psychologists Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi have referred to such a place of immediate comprehension as a flow state; a place where the mind is able to make consistent connections between different areas of information and knowledge without any sort of interruptions or distractions preventing those connections from taking place.

Therefore, if one believes that the power of direct insight has a significant role to play in allowing a person to clearly apprehend their world at a place beyond the activities of thought and memory, the question would then appear to be one of how to actually facilitate such a state of mind. Consequently, certain questions related to one’s capacity for this type of insight come rapidly to the fore.

How might our emotive and sensorial lives, in lieu of our cognitive life, become focal points for this new type of intelligence? How might our thoughts impede our emotive and sensorial reactions to our immediate environment? What is the relationship between the stream of our thoughts and an intelligent apprehension of our world? How might moments of direct insight evolve from absorbing emotive or sensorial experience? And how do all these questions pertaining to an intelligence born of direct insight relate to one another?

Answers to these questions might involve emboldening both our emotive and sensorial lives in lieu of a predominately cognitive life, which means looking at the above questions and potential answers within a much larger context; at a place where the word intelligence might take on a much different meaning than that which has been formerly attributed to it.

Might it be that emotions and sensorial reactions are part of a larger intelligence which exists at a deeper level than what most neuroscientists, psychologists, learning theorists, and others had previously imagined, one which exists beyond the bounds of thought and memory? And if so, might this larger intelligence become increasingly necessary due to the effects of our current digital age on our thoughts and memories?

Lyn Lesch’s new book Toward a Holistic Intelligence: Life on the Other Side of the Digital Barrier is being published December 9, 2021 by Rowman & Littlefield.

The Complex Dynamics of School Shootings

As most everyone knows by now, there was another school shooting this past week when in suburban Detroit a fifteen year-old troubled young man brought a gun to school and killed four of his classmates. And has so often occurred in the past, people in the media are wringing their hands about this troubling dynamic continuing to re-occur, particularly in terms of the incessant debate which seems to go on over what is most significant as far as impeding such events – stricter gun control laws or greater adherence to mental health concerns which schools might address in terms of troubled teenagers who turn suddenly violent.

However, given the extremely fluid nature of the social dynamics which have come to call in our society recently, this choice between gun control and mental health of young people, particularly in terms of the increased responsibilities which contemporary schools might now have for young people who are in their care, may not be so binary as it might at first scene. There may in fact be a number of other dynamics which either directly or indirectly contribute to the endless wave of school shootings which have now come to call. In point of fact, some of them might be the following:

Modern television sets are now awash with all manner of reality TV programs which engender bullying or other angry behaviors among the participants; programs which many people tune in to watch in order to derive some sort of vicarious pleasure from such confrontations. Television networks who carry such programs will say that there are in fact other reasons why people watch, such as the wealthy lifestyles that are on display, but the truth is that in lieu of how angry confrontations between various participants are so often hyped in order to promote these shows, it seems rather obvious what one of the primary reasons is why people tune in to watch them – to experience the bullying behaviors of others.

As a result, because actual confrontational, bullying behavior is regularly encouraged by these shows, and given how readily available they have become to young people in their formative years, even if the shows are often only in the background of their lives as parents, friends, and others watch them for vicarious reasons, angry, bullying behaviors are becoming increasingly normalized in our society. As a result, due to the fact that school shootings are often done by some young person who has been bullied by his peers, there may well be an indirect link between reality TV shows which encourage bullying and school shootings themselves.

Furthermore, as more and more young people are inhabiting alternative, virtual realities on the Internet, particularly in terms of the vast number of digital games that are now available to young people, the inner lives of any number of them may well be desensitized simply because virtual images on a plastic screen will almost never affect one emotively or sensorially to the same extent that real world experiences do. Consequently, as young people’s emotive lives are in danger of growing shallower due to this trend, the line between how strongly they might experience real world behaviors can likewise grow shallower. As a result of this, the awful experience of imagining actually shooting someone might begin to dissipate in the mind of a troubled teen.

Finally, many school curricula and environments in our society, particularly those in the public schools who are dependent on state and federal monies to continue operating, are now growing increasingly narrowed and constricted due to rigid testing programs upon which both student learning and teacher performance are evaluated. Consequently, due to the sort of high-stakes testing which has become increasingly predominate in student lives, and the consequent need to narrow learning environments so that certain scores might be attained, there is often less time to deal with certain personal issue which troubled students might manifest.

Almost certainly, in order to deal with the plague of school shootings which has beset our society, we need to enact stricter gun control laws, as well as being sure to provide schools with the funds to implement certain mental health programs for students who might be troubled. Quite obviously those would appear to be the two most significant issues in potentially preventing more tragedies such as the one that occurred in suburban Detroit this past week. Yet, at the same time, they might not be the only two dynamics which may be leading toward school shootings. And due to a culture which now seems to be in an increasing state of flux, there may be other issues, albeit indirect ones, that are leading toward the recent tragedies we’ve seen occurring in our schools.

Lyn Lesch’s recent book Toward a Holistic Intelligence: Life on the Other Side of the Digital Barrier, published by Rowman & Littlefield, is now available.