Life of the mind
And here we stand at the end of something. A year, yes, but also this attempt at a series.
With this December issue entry, we wrap up this 16-part cycle that has been labelled “Life of the Mind.” Since this has been a series on various aspects of the mind – memory, mental health, learning, brain power, reflecting on reflection itself – it is only appropriate that I take a bit of time to reflect on this journey so far, and what the next steps might be.
I do not have answers, but I am curious and excited to find out – the best things in life are often the ones that take you by surprise.
I have frequently said it in these pages and I will say it again, lest there be any confusion: I am no expert on the brain or its workings.
I am neither a neuroscientist nor any kind of doctor, and I am definitely no mental health professional or counsellor. The last thing I want to do is dispense advice, or position myself as the holder of some kind of deeper insight, or promise to help you fight your creative blocks in five easy steps.
The book market is saturated with self-help material, and the internet is overflowing with it. I am a journalist and writer, and an interest in the field simply came about through playing with ideas, so I thought, why not share the journey with readers?
The process for me was sometimes rapturous, sometimes enlightening, but often painful, and taking me to dark places.
As a writer I like to tick off the possibilities. Think of these pieces as prompts, if you will – nothing definitive is being suggested here, the life of the mind is not a religion or a science, but an attitude of exploration of self-discovery. If you were prompted or inspired to reflect in this or that direction, rediscover a passion, or were facilitated in confronting a truth about yourself, then, well, that’s the idea.
No doubt, a deep disenchantment with our education system is what partially prompted me to take the issues of brain development. We have a system of rote learning which leaves many students with a bad taste in their mouth regarding learning, at the same time doing a disservice to the ancient art of memory.
Kindness, the most necessary-yet-miraculous attribute that we all have, is often bled out by the system, our heads replaced with unhealthy notions of competition, materialism, jingoism, supremacy. A child who shares her lunch at school and befriends a bullied kid is the most wonderful example of humanity, but she is not rewarded for this empathy in her end-of-year report card.
Furthermore, the regime hijacks education through petty self-interest and governmental agenda – what we are taught is not necessarily meant to free up our minds and help us reach our potential,
but rather propaganda handed down to children by the powers-that-be. At the end of the day, it is not so much education as it is indoctrination.
When I went to school here back in the day, the days and weeks were filled with uncomprehending memorization, corporal punishment, humiliation, terror, and an emphasis on a meaningless set of rules in the name of discipline. None of it has helped me become a better learner.
Not for nothing did Michel Foucault compare schools to prisons.
Very little of what I learnt at school (pre-university) did I retain, and the parts that did stick (namely anxiety) continue to do me a disservice. But I can no longer keep blaming teachers, parents, or society for what I see as a massive failure in my formal education – schools, colleges, and universities give us what they can, for the first chunk of our lives, but then we are on our own.
Even if you were lucky enough to go to the best schools, and emerge from the cocoon with the shiniest degrees, you will find yourself in a world that changes fast – contending propaganda machines will try to tell you how to think, emerging tech like AI, deepfake, and robotics will make you feel stupid and irrelevant, late capitalism or whatever monster emerges after it will chew up your creativity and your ideas and sell them back to you, all for a quick buck.
Your degrees, perhaps somewhat outdated by now, are not likely to help you. And the fact that you had straight As on your transcript aeons ago will do nothing to stave off dementia and cognitive decline.
Education, then, by which I mean really a sort of mental self-care, is a lifelong process, for which we ourselves have to take charge.
Maybe you brush your teeth regularly and floss, maybe you have a four-step nightly skincare routine, maybe you go to the gym or look after your finances. But here between your ears, this wet squishy thing is an object of unfathomable mystery and complexity. It stores your collection of memories of a lifetime, and it has the coiled potential of all that you can become in the days to come.
It is the most valuable thing that you own. Does it not deserve care, nourishment, exercise?
But all said and done, the workings of the brain, i.e. that elusive thing that we call “mind,” are an intensely private matter.
One memory prompts another. A book or a poem stimulates us to write something. Walking down the street on a boring day, inexplicably we are lifted up by inspiration or struck down by depression. No one really knows why these things happen, but the unpredictability is what makes us individuals.
You have the freedom to develop your interests in whatever direction you please, and no matter what your years of schooling did to you, detrimental though it may have all been, this is the life of your mind, and no one can take it from you.
For reasons that come down to emotion and instinct, I feel that this 16-part initial run is a good time for me to sign off on this journey, and for now try something different. I certainly hope to come back to this field from time to time, whether in these MW pages or elsewhere. We will see.
But for the moment, I feel a sense of completion. There is a certain solidity to multiples of 8 (8-hour work slots, 16-episode packages for K-drama, 24-hour days), so this is as good a time as any for a conclusion.
Still, this topic is vast, and newer avenues are coming up every day. With them, there will be new ethical questions, new technologies to reckon with that shake our very sense of self. We will confront those questions as they come, with courage, humility, and all the critical thinking skills we can muster.
Goodbye 2023 – a crisis-filled year. To our dear readers: May 2024 be kind to you, and may we all be a little kinder to each other.
Abak Hussain is Contributing Editor at MW Bangladesh.