You can't reach the brain through the ears
Why do we have to learn everything the hard way?
I used to get free room and board in exchange for telling students not to go to Oxford.
They were applying for fellowships to go study there; I had recently returned from doing one, and Harvard was happy to keep me housed and fed if I would help students win. But I had a bad time at Oxford and I wanted students to know what they were getting into, so I would sit across from them in the dining hall, plates full of chicken tenders and french fries, and explain that postgraduate education in the UK is largely a way of extracting money from foreign students. Professors over there are checked out, classes are bad, and the whole place is pervaded with this sense of isolation and alienation, like everyone is behind a plate of glass. (Also you might end up briefly homeless.)
“Thank you so much for telling me that,” the students would say. “So, how many recommendation letters do I need?”
Sometimes I run into these students after they return from Oxford. “How was it?” I ask. They usually say something like: “The professors were checked out, the classes were bad, and I felt isolated and alienated.” And we share a knowing look, the kind that can only occur between two people who have been hurt exactly the same way.
As they walk away, I’m always left wondering: why didn’t they believe me?
THE LEAKY BUCKET BRIGADE
We spend our lives learning hard things the hard way: what it feels like to fall in love, how to forgive, what to say when a four-year-old asks where babies come from, when to leave a party, how to scramble eggs, when to let a friendship go, what to do when the person sitting next to you on the bus bursts into tears, how to parallel park under pressure, and so on.
It’s like slowly filling up a bucket with precious drops of wisdom, except the bucket is your skull. The fuller your bucket gets, the more you want to pour it into other people’s buckets, to save them all the time, the heartache, and the burnt eggs that you had to endure to fill yours. This should be easy: you have the knowledge, so just give it to them!
But it isn’t easy. You tell them they’ll be sad and lonely at Oxford; they don’t get it. You warn them that holding a grudge will only weigh them down; they refuse to let it go. You explain how to parallel park; they end up jammed into a spot at a 45-degree angle with a line of cars honking behind them. It’s like you’re tipping your bucket over theirs, but all the wisdom-water splashes everywhere, and none of it ends up in their bucket.
Why is this so hard? Why must every generation of humans spend their entire lives learning what the last generation already knew? Why can’t we reach the brain through the ears? The lives we could save, the years we could get back, the progress we could make, if we could just solve this problem!
So let’s try.
LEMME SHAKE YOUR ITTY-BITTY BONES
Here’s our first obstacle. Humans have this rich, strange, kaleidoscopic mental experience. Unfortunately, the main method we use to transmit the contents of one mind to another mind goes like this:
You blow air over your vocal cords, flap your lips, and wag your tongue
This creates a series of air compressions
These bounce off a thin membrane inside someone else’s ear
Which shakes some itty-bitty bones
Which in turn vibrates some fluid inside a snail-shaped cave
Hair cells, living underwater in the cave, sway in tune with the waves
This sparks the nerves attached to those hairs
The nerves make electrical signals that zip into the brain
The brain decodes the electricity back into mental experience
Computer people have a good word for this kind of thing: lossy compression. You simply can’t fit a thought into a sound wave. Something’s gotta go, and what goes is its ineffable essence, its deep meaning. You have to hope that the other person can reconstruct that essence with whatever they have lying around in their head. Often, they can’t.
There’s a classic study that illustrates this well. Back in 1990, a graduate student named Elizabeth Newton brought a bunch of people into the lab and had them sit back-to-back. She gave one person a list of well-known songs like “Yankee Doodle” and “Twinkle Twinkle, Little Star” and asked them to use their index finger to tap out those songs on the desk in front of them. The other person’s job was to name that tune. Tappers thought listeners would correctly identify the song 50% of the time. In fact, listeners got it right a measly 2.5% of the time.
Why? When you’re tapping out, say, “Joy to the World,” you hear it in full orchestration—lyrics, melody, maybe even some trumpets and a choir. But all the other person hears is “tap tap tap tap.”
(By the way, this study was never published. Newton turned in her dissertation and then peaced out. Newton, if you’re out there: respect.)
So when I told my students that Oxford wasn’t great, they had no idea what I was talking about; they might as well have heard “tap tap tap." They weren’t there when my so-called statistics class turned out to be a two-hour tutorial on how to open the stats program and basically nothing else. They weren’t in the room when I asked my advisor if she wanted to meet in a couple weeks after I made progress on my project and she looked at me helplessly, too polite to say “no” but too checked out to say “yes.” They didn’t sit with me for weeks as I forced my terrible master’s thesis out of my head, onto the page, and, ultimately, into the trash.
When I sum all that up as “it was kinda meh,” it doesn’t mean much. It’s like describing the Mona Lisa as “some lady smiling” or the Great Depression as “a tough time”—literally true, but basically meaningless.
So that’s the first thing preventing us from filling up each other’s buckets: by the time we pour them out, most of the liquid is already vapor.
SORRY YOUR MOM DIED, CAN YOU STILL FINISH THE POWERPOINT BY FRIDAY?
Here’s the second obstacle: even when the words make it past our ears and into our brains, we are naturally inclined not to trust them.
It turns out that you can kinda just flap your lips and wag your tongue and say whatever you want, even if it isn’t true. You can say “I love you” when you don’t, “I’m fine” when you’re not, and “I see myself working here five years from now” when you are literally googling “resumé templates.”
We all know that talk is cheap, so we tend to believe what we see more than what we hear. Your real friends are the ones who show up to help you move, not the ones who tell you how they’ll always be there for you. A good boss is the one who gives you time off when your mom dies, not the one who says, “I care about you!” and then asks you if you might have time to polish the PowerPoint between the wake and the funeral.
Unfortunately, when we want to transmit wisdom, words are often all we have. How else can you convince someone that, for example, it’s better to have loved and lost, than never loved at all? An interpretive dance? A sculpture made out of chewing gum? A breakup-themed escape room? If you’re sitting there with a broken heart, what are you going to believe: a string of phonemes, or the ache in your chest?
So words are not only lossy; they’re also untrustworthy, and so when a prematurely gray-haired grad student is telling you that maybe doing a master’s degree at Oxford isn’t all it’s cracked up to be, you might naturally wonder, “Ok so why did you go?” and that would be a good question, and the answer to it is, “A craven desire for prestige,” and a reasonable response to that is “Oh, I have that too."
FANTASIA VS. A FOURTH GRADER
Even when we understand the words, and even when we trust them, we still have another eject button: we assume they don’t apply to us.
See, inside my head, I’ve ideas flying around, soundbites popping off, feelings flooding the place—it’s all one big carnival bonanza. But when I hear about what’s going on in other people’s heads, all I get is piddling, near-meaningless statements, like “I’m having fun,” or “I feel sad.” That makes it easy to believe that what I have going on upstairs is just fundamentally different from other folks: I’ve got Fantasia playing up there, while they've got, like, a couple doodles underscored by a fourth-grader with a flute.
As I wrote in It’s very weird to have a skull full of poison, when I was sad, I kind of thought I was the only one to ever feel that way. Other people had off-the-rack misery; mine was bespoke, and therefore incomprehensible to anyone else. So why would I believe anybody when they told me that my sadness was temporary? They had never had my special, secret sadness, which was uniquely permanent.
The problem is that every person is different, so we always have a handy excuse for disqualifying any wisdom we hear. Sure, you found love, but I am uniquely unloveable. Following your dreams worked for you, but my dreams are unattainable, so I shouldn’t even try. It’s easy for you to say that people should forgive and forget, but the wrongs done against me are unforgivable.
THE SOURCE CODE AND THE KEEP
A final obstacle that stops us from filling each other’s buckets with wisdom: it might kill us.
If you’re on a Mac, you can open up a program called Terminal and, with just a few lines of code, ruin your computer. You’re not supposed to screw around in there unless you really know what you’re doing.
The human brain does not have Terminal, for good reason. If you could muck around with your own source code, you could suddenly make your lungs stop working, or destroy your ability to see blue, or get yourself sexually attracted to birds. That’s why you have to wall it off, so that neither you nor anyone else can break your brain.
But you can’t simply entomb all of your beliefs—you have to be able to change some things, or else you’d never learn anything. Some parts of our mind have to be exposed and malleable, while other parts have to be guarded and stiff.
So instead of being like a computer with a Terminal window, our minds are more like medieval fiefdoms. On the outskirts are fields and villages, almost entirely undefended. These are beliefs we don’t mind changing: your friend has a new phone number, your mom is arriving on Thursday instead of Friday, the sushi restaurant down the street was supposed to be good but it gave you gastroenteritis, etc.
Further in, you hit the castle walls. Things here are changeable, but only with a purposeful attack. You might encounter beliefs like, “Marvel movies are cool” or “I’m not good at math” or, I would suspect, “Oxford University is a good place to go for graduate study."
Then there’s the keep. The only way to change anything in here is to blow open the doors, chip away at the walls for years, or marry the king and be invited inside. Even then, you might not succeed. Psychologists call these beliefs primals, like “the world is dangerous and bad,” and some are even deeper than that, like “I am a good person."
To impart wisdom, then, is to lay siege to someone’s mind-castle, because the only things worth being wise about are hidden behind the walls. And it has to be that way, because these beliefs and values are simply too important to leave undefended. If someone could upend your entire sense of self by uttering a few sentences, we would constantly be under attack from the interpersonal equivalent of hydrogen bombs. But in protecting ourselves from attack, we also protect ourselves from wisdom.
CHECK YOURSELF BEFORE YOU SHREK YOURSELF
Okay, so you can’t really reach the brain through the ears, and maybe there’s no way around that, and maybe that’s a good thing. Maybe the real problem is that we think we can reach other people’s brains through their ears.
Can I show you the images I despise most in the whole wide world? Here’s one:
The idea that you could possibly make people more, what, encouraged? just by showing them an image that says “music is good!” is so outrageous, so utterly inane, that I feel ill every time I see one of these. This is the kind of foolish thing you do when you believe that people are stupid—“All these dummies need is a little inspiration, so I’ll remind them about the 2001 Dreamworks film Shrek!"
(My bet is that, if you ever tried to assess the effectiveness of this ad campaign, you’d find that it does nothing at all. It might even make people worse off, because they see images of famous people and think to themselves, “oh, I could never be like that.” These ads may be marginally effective at raising awareness of Shrek.)
We do this all the time: we attempt to reach the brain through the ears, but all we end up doing is vibrating the air. We try to convince students that math is fun by saying, “Hey students, math is fun!” We write blog posts about how a bad thing is actually good, or how good thing is actually bad, and we send them into the void. Airports still resound with prerecorded warnings to “stop the spread of covid-19”—what is it, exactly, that people think this is doing?
"OKAY SO WHY DO YOU WRITE A BLOG THEN?"
Because it’s fun.
I started by asking whether we could solve this problem. Now we're at the end, and I’m convinced we can’t. But I think we can tackle it better by appreciating its immensity.
You cannot dump your bucket into someone else’s bucket. You can only hope to fill their bucket slowly, even imperceptibly, perhaps with an eyedropper, perhaps over years.
To put it in terms of castles rather than buckets: you can go marauding all you want in the fields and villages of someone’s mind, but the treasure you seek is behind the walls, and it will take a siege to breach them. And, as every good king knew, you shouldn’t go a-sieging all willy-nilly.
If we really understood this, we would tear down the posters and tone down the PSAs. We would stop hoping to change people’s hearts by jiggling their cochleas. And perhaps we’d come to recognize and value wisdom more, because we’d appreciate how hard it is to get and transmit. We’re all born with an empty bucket, and we’ve got to fill it the hard way. So when I spot someone with a full bucket, I give ‘em a knowing nod, even though I don’t know yet, but I hope to one day.
My grandmother, may she rest in peace, used to end her goodbyes with two words: “Be good.” Out of context—or written in impact font beneath a picture of Mozart, or whatever—these words mean nothing. But because I knew my grandma for decades, I understood exactly what they meant. I wish I could explain them to you, but that’s the whole point: I can’t. It takes a whole childhood of hanging out with her, eating bologna sandwiches, playing cards, hearing about how she left the convent because the nuns made her decide whether she would use her one allowable excursion to attend her mother’s funeral, or her father’s. Only after all that time do my grandma’s words start to mean something, and then they mean a lot, much more than any of the words I heard in my formal education, especially in those years I spent at a certain UK university.
See, this has really been a long way of saying one thing, which I will still happily say even when I don’t get any housing or french fries in return: don’t go to Oxford.
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