Not Knowing What We Don’t Know

I’ve long been fascinated by what we don’t know as a species, as a culture as well as what we can’t know. This stands in stark contrast to the common ethos of scientism that hold that everything is knowable given enough computational power. Bear with me, this is going to be a bit a meandering path.

I’ll start by quoting from M.R. O’Connor’s book Wayfinding:

The British zoologist Robin Baker points out in his book Human Navigation and the Sixth Sense that one reason the scientific belief in a sixth sense lasted for so long is that by the nineteenth century, people in western Europe had so many aids to navigation, such as maps, compasses, place-names, roads, and road signs, that they themselves had forgotten there were other strategies for navigating. This forgetting is remarkable because, as Baker wrote, these modern inventions had only been available to the masses for three or four generations at most. “Throughout most of human evolution, navigation without instruments had been the rule,” wrote Baker. It took just a couple of centuries for people to forget that environmental cues can be just as accurate as maps and gadgets. This historical amnesia made non-European navigation practices seem that much more supernatural and mysterious.

The context behind this is that when exposed to non-Western navigation practices such as indigenous people easily wayfinding in whiteout conditions, elite scientists, among them Darwin, had no way to conceptualize this ability other than ascribing it to some nearly supernatural sixth sense. It only took a few hundred years from the introduction of navigational equipment until the point that Western Europeans had not only lost the ability to wayfind, they had even lost the memory that such an ability had ever existed.

Something similar happened when early modern classicists treated the idea that people memorized all of Homer and equally long bits of epic poetry as impossible. And then ethnographers found bards in the Balkans who recited massive amounts of text in much the same way that the ancient Greeks would have. Deeper study has unearthed more examples of oral cultures beiung able to accurately preserve large texts over the centuries.

This raises the question about which other seemingly super-human abilities that appear mythological are actually based in reality and have simply been lost to us over the centuries. The great healers, mystics, and warriors with similar deeds spanning many cultures come to mind.

Then there’s the separate question of what human abilities have been completely lost and left no traces in mythology and oral literature? Given the rapid advance of colonialism, urbanism, and the complete destruction of most indigenous cultures around the world, this loss could be massive.

A digression to sati

The Pali word that’s become known as “mindfulness” means memory rather than the awareness that it’s usually equated to. Some modern Buddhist teachers explain this away as mindfulness always remembering to be aware. But that’s always felt a bit forced to me.

The memory of the indigenous people in the book Wayfinding is striking. When navigating terrain devoid of obvious landmarks and without GPS, indigenous people are hyperaware and commit the tiniest details to memory, building a complex map of their surroundings.

This ability is severely atrophied in the modern Western brain. Noticing minute details, remembering them and then being able to retell them is something that few of us do well. I take copious notes, pictures and use references to remember, but the difference is that my brain serves as a sort of index that links to external repositories rather than remembering the information itself.

My guess is that this mode of externalizing memory would have made little sense to wandering mendicants at the time of the Buddha. For them, the link between awareness and memory was crystal clear. O’Connor goes on to explain that any memory is deeply tied to spatial awareness. Hence it’s plausible that the first generations of Buddhists understood sati to mean making a detailed map of awareness. Then the practitioner uses both memory and awareness to see that the territory being mapped is constantly changing, coming to the realization of anicca, impermanence.

This is a subtle, but important change from what developed in later traditions, notably the modern vipassana traditions that were heavily shaped by their contact with British Protestantism. These moments focused on a sort of ever-present now and the impermanence of momentariness — a later Buddhist doctrine that each moment arise and passes way and that momentariness is what the Buddha taught as anicca.

This is speculative, of course. But it is safe to say that people in a culture with an advanced oral literature had a completely different relationship to memory and awareness than a modern Westerner who’s checking his phone every few minutes.

As the proverbial fish that doesn’t know what water is, we’re so wrapped up in our own culture that we can’t even comprehend that there are very natural, even basic, parts of humanity that we’ve lost access to. This isn’t exactly a call to ditching GPS or trying to turn back the clock. But I do think it’s worth cultivating a bit of intellectual humility: our way of life is one of many, it may not be the “best” — whatever that may mean, and many have lived and continue to live fulfilled and happy lives outside of Western culture.

I’ll wrap up with another quote from O’Conner:

At a time of social change and ecological disruption, the possibility of this reengagement with our surroundings seems incredibly important. There may also be more pragmatic concerns. Just as the field of neuroscience is revealing the complicated, beautiful influence of the hippocampus on human life, it is also revealing what might happen when we indiscriminately adopt a technology that allows us to dim activity in this part of our brains by using it to give us turn-by-turn directions. A growing body of research combining insights into spatial cognition, memory, and aging points at the significant neurological effects of not flexing the hippocampus: it can decrease in volume over time and adversely affect how we solve spatial problems. In a series of studies in 2010, a group of researchers at Montreal’s McGill University, for instance, reported that exercising spatial memory and orientation in everyday life increases hippocampal gray matter, whereas underuse of its functions in older adults may contribute to cognitive impairment. Atrophy in the hippocampus is strongly associated with myriad problems, including Alzheimer’s disease, PTSD, depression, and dementia. (One of the researchers, Véronique Bohbot, told the Boston Globe that she no longer uses satellite-navigation devices to tell her where to go.) Could GPS’s turn-by-turn function have a subtle and potentially insidious impact on our well-being over the long term? While there has been no study testing such a direct relationship, the scientific literature so far indicates a possibility that a total reliance on GPS technology could over time put us at higher risk for neurodegenerative disease.

Modern life is changing our brains. Maybe for the better, quite possibly for the worse.