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AFTER THE GOLDEN AGE for 09/13/2004
Vol. 2, #140

In a certain sense, we are all Supermen, at least Supermen of the mind. It seems more and more likely that we know everything, but our brains get in the way. To an extent, this is demonstrated by a condition described as autism, where the mind doesn't function like that of the rest of us, but, instead, has turned many autistics into--idiot savants. Some of these people can spot a prime number instantly or do feats with numbers that can make a computer turn green with envy. Some are whizzes at language, with the ability to pick up foreign tongues and even their dialects as easily as a seasoned athlete turns a handspring.

Some are remarkable composers of music, able to pour out symphonies of their own composition almost effortlessly. Some do the same with musical instruments, attaining a degree of proficiency that a working virtuoso musician requires years of practice over many hours a day. The skills attributed to the so-called idiot-savant are many and varied. And it would seem now that those instantly acquired gifts are received because the brain itself gets pushed out of the way. That is, there's no brain work involved.

Think I'm talking out of my hat instead of my brain? Well, probably you've never heard of a transcranial magnetic stimulator. Originally designed for brain surgery, in order to be able to stimulate or retard the action of specific brain regions, it has been adapted in other ways. Accordingly, as reported in the NY Times on June 22nd of last year by Lawrence Osborne, the TMS applied to his frontal lobe allowed him to experience many of the effects achieved by so-called "idiot savants". Sudden linguistic, artistic and scientific abilities appeared by apparently getting the brain's normal activity out of the way.

Of course, that leads to the question, if we already really know everything, what is the brain for? And the reason I'm asking the question is because I've often wondered what would really happen if everyone like my friend Sam Dirani, who often appears on this column's Round Table, were able to achieve Superman powers?

The brain, as we've come to know it in the current state of cognitive science, is a physical organ that allows small portions of what we know to slip through in ways that permit us to communicate and socialize, build civil societies and look after one another, experience emotions and a sense of caring missing from sheer knowledge.. In effect, while we are magical creatures that possess all there really is to know, such knowledge all pouring forth at once would make human community an impossibility, just as it does for autistics. Knowledge and information as such cannot operate effectively without the mediating effect of communication. Autistics, as we all know, do not communicate very well and while they seem to have bypassed the brain's controls on the vast reservoir of what we really know, cannot use their knowledge in any sociable way.

In effect, it strikes me that, like Superman, we are basically metaphysical beings, bundles of knowledge without form or purpose or direction, as was Superman when he arrived on this earth and found that his powers were so far beyond the earthly that they limited his adaptive capacities. Those adaptations had to be learned. Of course, the Superman idea as it was developed over the years, doesn't precisely match the all-knowing beings I'm describing, it does, however, symbolize them pretty well, and, of course, has appeared in our myths and literature in many similar forms. In this, however, we are merely expressing some deep inner sense of what we are. And realizing that our minds are essentially a means of adapting to earth life. Let all that knowledge out at once and we're as maladapted as any sufferer from autism.

Think back to early childhood. Try to remember some of the extraordinary feats you were capable of back then and for which you never had an explanation. I've already described how I was able to fly from my crib to mingle with the living world that appeared to me by way of the lace patterns of my window curtains.

Or take note of the truly marvelous, incomprehensible skill with which a very young child goes through the process of mastering the complexities of language. This is something that all cognitive scientists have noted, and it certainly does suggest that, essentially, we knew it all along.

Dubious about all this? But you like comics, right? Doesn't that strike you as strange?


<< 09/06/2004 | 09/13/2004 | 09/20/2004 >>

Discuss this column with me at my Round Table.

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