Sunday, December 28, 2014

The Good, the Bad, and the . . . I Forget What Comes Next

I read two chapters this month of William James’s Principles of Psychology. “Association” and “Memory” expanded, reinforced, and clarified aspects of his views that I’ve read before rather than adding substantial new ideas, but they still kept a tight hold on my interest. True to Mortimer Adler’s metaphor of a Great Conversation, James spoke in dialog with two other philosophers of the human intellect that I read this year: Thomas Reid and John Locke. The pages confirmed some of my recent thinking, challenged other parts of my thinking, disappointed me at some times, and gave me hope at others.

If I understand James (and I’m not at all positive that I do on this point), he agrees with Thomas Reid in rejecting the notion that the mind sees and thinks of only images or ideas of things. We see actual things, James affirms, and the objects of most of our thoughts are existing things in the world. This view puts Reid and James in opposition to Locke, who believed that we think only about ideas and see only pictures. But like Locke, James posits that our thoughts succeed one another because of their association in our experience. James improves on Locke here, though, by suggesting reasons why thought A sometimes leads to thought B and sometimes to thought C.

He also improves on Locke in giving the thinker some control over the train of thought. Following up on ideas from earlier chapters, especially the chapter on Attention, James locates our control over our thoughts in the will to pay attention to certain thoughts that stream by and to reject others. I thought of Luther saying that although tempting thoughts fly through our heads like birds, we don’t have to make nests for them. According to James, solving a problem means keeping the goal in view, reviewing the ideas that association brings up, and selecting the one that seems right. By his theory, we have no more control over the appearance of the possible solutions than we do over any other stream of thought, although we can influence the stream by holding in mind a system of solutions. This observation certainly fits my experience: if I’m trying to choose a color to paint part of the house with, for instance, I do better if I think my way around the color wheel or look through the sample cards in the store than I do if I just let ideas pop up.

But two problems come to mind. James raises the first one himself when he admits that he can’t explain how we sometimes work at thinking of a solution with no success only to find ourselves spontaneously seeing the answer much later when we aren’t trying. He doesn’t want Freud to be right about subconscious workings of the mind, but it seems to me we have to accept that the mind can stew on a problem “on the back burner,” out of the sight of our present, conscious thought. But I see a second problem with his theory: if we have no control over the stream of thought, how can we decide to pursue a systematic approach to solving a problem? How can we control the appearance of that thought? The answer may lie in the chapter on Memory.

In the second chapter I read this month, James recognizes two factors that contribute to the strength of memory: (1) native ability and (2) the number and strength of associations we have stored with a given memory. Some of us are just born with better heads for memory, he says, so to get better, we just have to work with whatever we’ve been given and improve memory by increasing the number of paths of association. In other words, to increase the likelihood of being able to recall a given idea (and isn’t knowledge just a high likelihood of being able to remember a fact or method? the tests I give students sure suggest it!), we have to think over an object (a thing, a goal, a fact, a name, a statement, a list – whatever it is we’re trying to memorize) in as many different ways as possible. Fit it into a system. Make it relevant. Put it in your hands, your eyes, your ears, and your voice. Yes, James knew all about “learning styles,” but he gratifies me by placing the responsibility for pursuing multiple paths of learning on the students shoulders, where it belongs, not on the teacher’s. The way to memorize is to study long and hard.

Well, this post isn’t as poetic as the account I gave last week of a trip around a Ptolemaic sphere. But it has just as much to do with Christmas. What other season has more to do with memories? What other season has more meaning built on associations? What is A Christmas Carol but a tale of association and memory? In a way, my whole system of thought is based on Christmas, which suggests to me that any time during the good year when I have a problem, I should start the process of finding a solution by thinking of Christmas and then letting the associated thoughts flow. Now if only I can remember to do that!

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