Sunday, December 30, 2012

Don't Mind Me

“Can you count your thoughts?”  Noam asked me last summer as I sat down with him for a travel meeting.  His question took me by surprise.  I loved it because it’s fun when the man who’s been lauded as “the world’s leading intellectual” throws me a mind teaser.  I also hated it, because it put me on the spot.  He was simply inviting creative banter, but I wanted to come up with something impressive because jousting with Noam Chomsky in a game of wit, maybe making him laugh, or better, making him think about my reply gives me a little high.  And I have to admit that underneath the play, I felt tremendous pressure to get the answer right - if there was a right answer.

 “Can you count your thoughts?” I repeated slowly, stalling for time, hoping that, if not a great rejoinder, then at least the beginnings of a brilliant repartee would sprout from my mind.  Seconds passed.  One, one-thousand, two, one-thousand, three, one-thousand...  Nothing was coming to me – nothing witty, nothing insightful, nothing amazing.  But that didn’t stop me from answering him.  It never does; I might be in awe of him, but I'm not intimidated. Let's just say our strengths differ.

“No, you can’t,” I said, “because even trying to count your thoughts is thinking, and you would have to count that thought about how counting your thoughts is thinking, and then counting that thought is another thought.  It’s endless.” 

He smiled and gave a slight nod to his head, which was pretty much a kiss of death.   What could I say?  I know what I could have done – I could have asked Noam whether he ever tried to count his thoughts.   Maybe he kept a running tally, which by now had to be at a number larger than the national debt.  

About a year ago, before an interview for a short documentary, Noam glanced down at the day’s schedule in my hand.  “Hmm, these guys want my definition of ‘courage.’ What should I tell them?”  He cocked his head to the side and asked me, “Bev, how would you define courage?”  We both remember that my reply was so awesome that he pumped his fist in the air and said, “Perfect!  I’m going to use that in the interview!”  More ironic would have been the question, “what is memory,” because Noam and I have failed to remember my remarkable definition of ‘courage' ever since.

 I recently suggested it was something like, “Courage is an unfortunate necessity in the face of suffering,” but Noam shook his head and said, “Nope.  It was better than that.” Every few months since that interview, I suggest a newer variation of this, sometimes including words and phrases like “evil necessity” and “strength."  As with many things that are discussed in this office, I wish I had written it down.   And p.s., if the person who organized this interview ever reads this, can you please put us out of our misery and let us know Noam's definition of courage?

These are the games we play, and while some of them make me crazy in a fun way, others literally drive me toward the nut house.  Maybe this is the price I have to pay for working in a department where not only my immediate boss and his colleague Morris Halle, but almost everyone is thinking about language, thinking about the brain, and thinking about thinking, though I doubt other people are trying to count their thoughts. But then again, this is MIT.

              My complex relationship with the art of thinking may have begun about twenty years ago when a grad student named Knut stood in my office doorway and said, “I haven’t been the same since I thought too much about the concept of Time; I can’t get the idea of the constant passing of time out of my mind.  There is never a now," he said, "because even when you try to think of now, it’s not here anymore.  Even this conversation becomes something of the past as soon as our words are out.”

              I will forever be visited by Knut's angst around the passing of time.  I call it angst, but maybe Knut thought this was the coolest concept since sliced bread.

                As is probably true for most people, the concepts of time, and even space, biology, and the brain began haunting me long before my conversation with Knut. When I was eight years old, the idea of eternity was introduced to me by my little brother Paul, who would later go to MIT and become a physicist.  Trust me, I saw that coming.  “Time never, never, never, never, ever, ever ends,” he said.  Before he said that, I was pumping hard on my sturdy silver apartment complex swing, minding my own business and enjoying a sunny Sunday morning.  Looking down at my new bright white sneakers I thought about the night before when Karen and Kylie McCluskey and Paul and I put on our whitest shoes and rushed back outside after dinner, just before the sun set, taking turns running in a big circle in front of the others until all you could make out was a pair of disembodied white shoes racing all by themselves around the edges of our playground. Trick of the eye, trick of the mind.

What is the mind anyway?  I was reminded twice today that nobody knows.  First when I found a copy of Noam's Q&A session with a group of Italian students in Pavia, Italy on my desk, and second when my older brother, Ron called to tell me that he and his partner, Lynne, each had a copy of Deepak Chopra’s new book, Super Brain, which he signed for them after a 50-minute lecture.  Lucky ducks – I would have loved to be there. Ron told me, “Dr. Chopra asked us to recall our childhood homes in our minds.  Chopra told us, ‘Nobody knows how we do this.  Nobody knows how you can form an image of your childhood home in your head. Nobody understands how thought, or the mind, works.’”  

The great thinkers of the world love this stuff - it’s fodder for fascinating research.  And until recently, I thought they - someone - knew the answers. Noam had talked about this very thing during that student Q&A in Pavia in the fall. I read my brother the following excerpt from that class, which Laura and I had been lucky enough to attend. 

“What is thought?” Noam asked the audience of graduate students. “You can say a couple of things about those aspects of thought that are expressed in language, but then we are talking about language.  What about those aspects of thought that aren’t expressed in language?” he asked, going on to say that nobody knows what thought actually is, and concluding that “there are a lot of things going on beyond the level of consciousness that we try to move to consciousness and even to the external world, often failing, which means that there is a lot of thought going on, and we have no grasp of it…In other words, I know what I’m trying to say, but I can’t find the words.”

Ron continued, as if he hadn’t heard me.  “I said to Deepak Chopra, ‘Dr. Chopra, when I want to stop thinking about something, I just yell out to my brain the command, ‘Stop!’ and I stop thinking about it.  Then he shook my hand and smiled.”  Ron always takes the noisier route.

I put my conversation with my brother out of my - and there's that word again - mind, but I couldn’t get Noam’s fascinating Q&A with the Italian grad students out of my head. I returned to the concrete and relatively tangible routine of my busy life, but that class session in Pavia kept sneaking back in, like the idea of your tongue sitting there in your mouth. It’s best to just forget about that tongue if you want to remain on this side of sanity.  Let it do its work and pay it no mind.  Whatever the mind is.  As my nephew Bobby likes to say, “I know, right?”

After re-reading the transcript of that Q&A, something fuzzy began to take shape in my - mind.  Noam was due in the next day, and I couldn’t wait to talk with him.  The next morning, when he stood near my desk to refill his coffee mug, I cornered him.

“Noam, remember when you asked me ‘Can we count our thoughts’?”  He did.  “Well, it took me a trip to Italy and an hour in your class and a few months of processing to figure it out.  It's a simple concept, but here's what I think:  We can’t count our thoughts because nobody knows what thought is.”  He looked at me.  I waited. 

“That’s right,” he said, pumping his fist like at my small triumph.  I liked that he liked my answer, even if it had taken me a year to come up with it, and even if it had holes in it.  I was quite pleased with myself, because some of what I overhear in our offices, or what Noam and I discuss, stays inside my head for a minute and then dissipates in a vaporous cloud as new ideas in my head vie for space alongside urgent e-mails, upcoming trip details, and endless crews and interviews and meetings.

Who needs mind-altering drugs when these types of questions are in the air?  I recently learned that the cells of the human body regenerate every three months.  So the skin, the lungs, the heart I have in May are not the same ones I have in August?  That can’t be right – somebody got their facts wrong.   If that were really the case, then we wouldn’t grow old. Now I’m curious - I’ll have to go and look that up.  As soon as I stop thinking about my tongue.

I know, right?
This is a quote by Noam that I love - it was included in the transcript of that student Q&A:  
It is important to learn to be surprised by simple things - for example, by the fact that bodies fall down, not up, and that they fall at a certain rate; that if pushed, they move on a flat surface in a straight line, not a circle; and so on. The beginning of science is the recognition that the simplest phenomena of life raise quite serious problems: Why are they as they are, instead of some different way?" (Chomsky 1988)

And by the way, look at the comic strip below, which Laura found on the web after I wrote this piece.  She remembered it from her childhood, although for some reason, it never drove her crazy.


  1. so many vaporous clouds, so little rain!

  2. Great article Bev! How lucky you are to be so close to Noam Chomsky, every day. How luck we are that you're sharing these with the rest of us. Please keep them coming. Many thanks!

  3. How about that concept of "infinity"? How far is infinity? I was told there was no "far" to infinity, it just is. Aargh! Think of it as a ball of string that never ends. What??!! If I have a ball of string then it has to have a beginning deep in the middle! So if it has a beginning it isn,t infinity. Try to wrap your tongue around that concept! ! I have that frelling ball of string in my head.