One day my grandparents brought me an intriguing new plastic toy. Pulling on a string would induce an enticing, though robotic, voice: “Guess! What I am think-ing of?” It’s sentence structure was in broken English, a fact familiar to us all when we watch many closed captioned programs, but it’s beckoning inquiry held a certain intrigue. What was on this object’s mind? The programmed toy, designed to aid children’s memory and pattern recognition skills, was state of the art in the late 1980s and perhaps second only to a farm sound version where younger toddlers learned to associate domestic bovines and equines and porcines with their proper sounds: “this is a pig, oink oink!” was the classic refrain. Seeking clairvoyance and communication between one’s child self and a programmed robot was the beginning of something larger, the possible interaction of humans with their machines at the level of mind. As kids, the idea of the learning toy was to pick up patterns in what the computer was thinking of. As adults, have we become programmed patterns ourselves?
AU is far from an institution pumping out robotic grads; the length and breadth of our country is echoed by the diversity of our scholars. Unlike brick-and-mortar schools who seem to create cookie-cutter cartoon character undergrads, in various states of preppy-dom, wokeness and elitism, AU allows us to not only keep our identity but to add pieces of academic flair that make us more who we really are. Peer pressure is a different animal when we’re not surrounded by a cohort of like-thinking pupils. All this rests on an assumption, however, that as permeable as our minds may be, they nevertheless remain essentially ours, rather than something programmed exclusively from without. We’re not mere software programs, or ought not to be.
Your Right Brain is Calling, Its Asking Not To Be Ghosted
One problem being revealed lately by inquiring elements of our all-too supine mainstream media, is that our human brains are being altered by the technical realms we’ve created. “A way of thinking which is reductive, mechanistic, has taken us over,” claims neuroscientist Iain McGilchrist (online). While we are what we eat (and if you’ve ever overdosed on Samosas you know what I mean!), we only want to be what we learn or watch to the extent that we retain that beloved sense of me-ness that keeps us on the sane train. Unfortunately, research has revealed that, culturally speaking, “we behave like people who have right hemisphere damage. In other words, what we’re thinking of has more and more become what we’ve trained our computers to think. We’re literally the Frankenstein monster, more and more digital and binary and blaise by the day. But it doesn’t have to be that way; we can take our studies outdoors and enjoy some Canadian Spring weather!
Happily, AU allows us to break the mould of becoming a Sudoku game or an algorithmic version of our human selves). Essay assignments and invigilated exams require us to literally rethink what we’ve learned so that we can creatively and critically answer pointed questions. Plagiarism is precisely the opposite of adding our personal humanity to the proceedings. To simply recast our notes such that we can spit them back verbatim is, happily, an act of the pedagogical past (although it’s a helpful study tool). University education is about adding to and reformulating what we learn and that, implies McGilchrist, requires both sides of our hemisphere, which (unless we’ve tragically had to have seizure-reducing surgery to cut the corpus collossum and eliminate communication between our two spheres) matters. “The right and left brains perform the same basic functions, but in very different ways. How we interpret and experience the world depends on whether those two brains are working in balance, or whether one is dominant or damaged. That, in turn, shapes the world we live in” (online). A key element of a balanced brain is the utilization of all our creative resources, something that, arguably, most problem-solving mind games fail to address, as they make us into more robotic version of our thinking selves. “The left hemisphere’s goal is to enable us to manipulate things, whereas the goal of the right hemisphere is to relate to things and understand them as a whole. Two ways of thinking that are both needed but are fundamentally and at the same time incompatible.” Balancing these somewhat contradictory aspects of our mental realm into some sort of harmonious whole is part of being mentally healthy and certainly crucial when we seek to transcend mere facts and theories and actually create something new within our academic discipline.
McGilchrist ponders how human flourishing can be improved if we remember the right brain’s crucial, yet ephemeral, aspects: our modern culture, industrial in spirit and in utilitarian in economy, “treats the world as a simple resource to be exploited. It’s made us enormously powerful. It’s enabled us to become wealthy, but it’s also meant that we’ve lost the means to understand the world, to make sense of it, to feel satisfaction and fulfillment through our place in the world” (online). Isn’t finding ourselves and our place in the world one of the best ingredients of a good education?
With a bit of reflection, it’s clear that all is not lost; so long as we can critically consider our mind there’s plenty of hope that we can be more than a mule for the big tech machine and a shill for consumer culture. Max Weber, a founding sociologist in 1904, could see the blue screen glow on the wall long before reams of suburbia became marinated in that sleep-depriving techie glow: he warned that we’re living under the thumb of “specialists without spirit, sensualists without heart; this nullity imagines that it has attained a level of civilization never before achieved” (online). Likewise, the beat poet, anti-conformist Allen Ginsberg reminds us that our studies and our lives can became orations of ecstatic pleasure (jouissance) rather than dirges to diligence. During even the most forlorn or boring of moments we don’t have to succumb to the dull succour of a computer screen, we can spring forth to the great outdoors, that land that takes all our brainpower to appreciate, and allow the wellspring of our minds to refill with creative juices in a way only fresh air can provide:
“You were never no locomotive, Sunflower, you were a sunflower!
And you Locomotive, you are a locomotive, forget me not!
So I grabbed up the skeleton thick sunflower and stuck it at my side like a scepter,
and deliver my sermon to my soul, and Jack’s soul too, and anyone who’ll listen,
—We’re not our skin of grime, we’re not dread bleak dusty imageless locomotives, we’re golden sunflowers inside, blessed by our own seed & hairy naked accomplishment-bodies growing into mad black formal sunflowers in the sunset, spied on by our own eyes under the shadow of the mad locomotive riverbank sunset Frisco hilly tincan evening sitdown vision” (online)
With these lines in mind let’s let all spheres of our brain flower forth as we engage in the noble task of bettering the wonder that is our academic minds!
Ginsberg, A. (1955). ‘Sunflower Sutra’. Retrieved from https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/49304/sunflower-sutra
McGilchirst, I. (2021). ‘Neuroscientist Argues That the Left Side of Our Brains Have Taken Over Our Mind’. CBC News. Retrieved from https://www.cbc.ca/radio/ideas/neuroscientist-argues-the-left-side-of-our-brains-have-taken-over-our-minds-1.6219688
Weber, M. (1904). ‘Quotes’. The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism. Retrieved from https://www.goodreads.com/author/quotes/42041.Max_Weber