Friday, September 24, 2010

Filing Cabinet: The Squid and the Geese


"It's the geese or us. I'm siding with the humans."


So wrote Andrea Peyser in a New York Post column that ran on August 30, a couple of weeks after the U.S. Department of Agriculture rounded up several hundred molting, flightless, nonmigratory Canada geese in Brooklyn's Prospect Park and gassed them to death, ostensibly because they posed a threat to airplane traffic.

Peyser's thinking seemed flawed to me, but I couldn't find the thoughts or words to say exactly why.

I was still struggling with this problem as I read the following paragraphs from Norman Doidge's The Brain That Changes Itself: Stories of Personal Triumph from the Frontiers of Brain Science, a book that describes a new wave of research into neuroplasticity. (The term sounds daunting, but the book is fascinating, hope-inspiring, and even exhilarating—popular science as page turner.)

As I finished reading about Burmese fishermen, I thought: "This is exactly what's bothering me about Peyser! She's only looking at the squid!" (In other words, the whole question of the geese demands a much broader perspective. As for staring myopically at squid, the same could be said for me, much of the time.)

Note: you won't have to care about geese—or squid—to find the passage intriguing.

The fact that cultures differ in perception is not proof that one perceptual act is as good as the next, or that "everything is relative" when it comes to perception. Clearly some contexts call for a more narrow angle of view, and some for a more wide-angle, holistic perception. The Sea Gypsies have survived using a combination of their experience of the sea and holistic perception. So attuned are they to the moods of the sea that when the tsunami of December 6, 2004, hit the Indian Ocean, killing hundreds of thousands, they all survived. They saw that the sea had begun to recede in a strange way, and this drawing back was followed by an unusually small wave; they saw dolphins begin to swim for deeper water, while the elephants started stampeding to higher ground, and they heard the cicadas fall silent. The Sea Gypsies began telling each other their ancient story about "The Wave That Eats People," saying it had come again. Long before modern science had put all this together, they had either fled the sea to the shore, seeking the highest ground, or gone into very deep waters, where they also survived. What they were able to do, as more modern people under the influence of analytical science were not, was to put all these unusual events together and see the whole, using an exceptionally wide-angle lens, exceptional even by Eastern standards. Indeed, Burmese boatmen were also at sea when these preternatural events were occurring, but they did not survive. A Sea Gypsy was asked how it was that the Burmese, who also knew the sea, all perished.
He replied, "They were looking at squid. They were not looking at anything. They saw nothing, they looked at nothing. They don't know how to look. "
(p. 303–4, The Brain That Changes Itself)

1 comment:

ccc said...

Very cool. I don't think Peyser would ever have the ability to see things in a larger context.