As much as we may want to connect, it seems as though there’s always something keeping us apart.
We feel separate from the group. Or we don’t feel like the group even knows we’re there. We do what we can to find our place, to contribute, to belong… But somehow, we often feel as though we’re doing it all wrong.
Nobody really knows us.
We’re not sure anybody even cares.
And the rest of the world goes on without us… try as we might to keep up.
Sometimes, the harder we try to fit in, the harder it is to find a place that really works for us.
It’s the ultimate irony, really — we’re built to want to connect… we long to connect — and yet, it’s so easy (and often so natural) for us to feel disconnected, cut out, left alone.
Certainly, we all feel this, now and then. Some of us feel it more than others. But it’s something pretty much everybody has in common — and again, how ironic, that the very thing that sets us apart from each other, is one of the things that connects us.
I’ve thought about this a lot, over the past years, piecing together one clue after another, certain things made more sense… and of course, other things made less. And the thing that’s struck me, time and time again, is how we dance this intricate dance between separation and connection… joining and splitting up… merging and dividing… in countless ways in our lives and in the world.
It really is remarkable. And when we really dig into the true nature of our separation, our distance… and the ways that they actually connect us, the more wondrous and wonderful the human condition seems.
I just finished the next-to-last round of edits on this book. I started it in the beginning of 2016, which isn’t so terribly long ago. But it’s taken me a lot longer to finish than it probably should have.
It’s not a long book. Roughly 150 pages. With a pretty straightforward (albeit radical) premise:
We crave Unity and Connection, believing that Separation is an illusion.
The thing is, Separation and Distance are very much an in-built part of our lives, and we can’t reject them without rejecting our fundamental selves.
But if we look within at how our microscopic neurology handles separation we can learn some useful lessons on how to productively deal with Distance on a macroscopic scale.
Heady, perhaps. Yeah, that’s my thing. But it’s worth the effort in thought and consideration
Anyway, I’m pleased with how the book has wound up. The Conclusion is particularly satisfying for me. It just has a good feel. Complete. Wrapped up. Concluded — with an invitation for where we can go with this new understanding of ourselves.
Now I need to type up the handwritten edits, get the galley formatted properly, and forward review copies to my waiting readers (some of whom have been waiting patiently for months).
With all the reading I’m doing about neurology and neuroanatomical systems, it seems like a whole lot of thought is going into applying that knowledge to AI (artificial intelligence).
What we learn about how the physical human system works — the neuroanatomical intricacies — is being translated to invented systems.
The question that comes to mind is, why not apply more of what we learn to existing human interpersonal systems, as well as newly designed systems?
Honestly, we routinely apply principles from the physical world to the social / cultural / political sphere. We talk about growth and expansion, which are physical phenomena, in interpersonal contexts. We talk about birth and aging and end-of-life scenarios in terms of product “lifecycles”.
The more I read about the internal, microscopic systems that both separate and connect us, the more I have to wonder why we don’t apply more of what we know about our physical makeup to our “meta” situation.
It’s an idea. And it’s an idea I’m actively developing in Beloved Distance.
I’ve just completed a fresh revision of Chapter 4. I’ve got four more chapters to go, followed by a Conclusion. It’s coming along. And to be sure, I’ll be discussing the above thoughts in a whole lot more detail.
Well, the Thanksgiving holiday has turned out to be a lot busier than expected. I was probably being unrealistic, in any case. If I’ve been too busy to regularly work on Beloved Distance for months, I’ve certainly been too busy to work on other necessary things, as well — which means…
Plenty to do, errands to run, chores to catch up on, in the time I have off for the week.
Which means less time than I’d like devoted to writing.
But I’m probably just being greedy. Jealous of that beyond-my-control thing called Time. Not to mention a little unrealistic.
But truth to tell, I actually have gotten more work done on the book than I’ve done in months — maybe a year. It just doesn’t feel like it, because I feel so far from the conclusion. I’ve got the Introduction and first two chapters (of 8 total) pretty well sorted out. I’m now working my way through Chapter Three — which I have to say is really getting me pumped, because it’s all about what drew me to this work, in the first place.
What fascinates me? Neurology. Neuroanatomy. Biochemistry. I got into this subject over the past 10 years, as neuroscience has leap-frogged ahead in a series of really amazing advances. Technological / imaging progress has been paralleled by an ever-increasing body of scientific literature — some of it even Open(!). And then there are the kind researchers who have forwarded me copies of their papers, when I read the abstracts but couldn’t afford the $35 to buy the whole thing outright. I’ve had a steady “drip” of neuroscience in my life, for years now, and the fact that I don’t actually make my living at that type of science (I’m a technologist), has definitely freed me up to explore areas that many a self-respecting PhD with a reputation to protect would never dare enter.
Such fascination. There are some amazing brain / neuroscience projects going on, these days, including some very cool free courses available online from places like MIT and Coursera. Of course, you have to have free time, to do a course justice — even the online ones — and with my packed schedule, it just hasn’t been possible to dig deeply into them.
But at least I have imagery. And maybe that’s for the best. Because reading all the words and listening to all the talks points my attention in a certain direction (as it should). But finding the ever-evolving imagery piques my interest in visual-spatial ways that and get me thinking, “Hey! Wouldja look at that!”… and that sends me off in a glorious reverie of ever-deepening appreciation of just how intricately and amazingly we’re put together.
Looking at neuro images, and then thinking about what that tells us about our lives and the way we work — and could work better — has morphed from a passing interest to a persistent passion… a continuously burning flame that never seems to fade. I might get distracted by things like… oh, earning a living (yeah, that)… and I might not have as much time to write about it as I like, but I always come back to it.
And when I do, it lights up parts of my life that tend to go a little dim in the crush of existential necessity.
Beloved Distance is an exercise in this fascination with our neurological makeup, and what it means for our interpersonal lives. It’s about neuroanatomy. And politics. It’s about separation. And connection. It’s about how the dualities of our lives interplay back and forth with each other in an ongoing feedback loop of longing, deprivation, fulfillment, and transformation. It’s about our innermost cellular secrets, and the public dramas we can’t help but stare at like some awful train wreck, shaking our heads, wondering, “Why? Oh, God — Why?!”
I find this line of inquiry so fascinating. I’d say my fascination is almost beyond words, except that I’ve got about 150 pages worth of words about it, so far. 😉
Bottom line: The closer we look at things that can only be seen with an electron microscope, the more we can learn about all that stuff that’s larger than life and obvious to anybody who’s paying attention. Beloved Distance is about how we function in relationship, from the smallest scale to the largest. And the more I study the pictures in my Neuroscience textbook (by Bear, Connors, and Paradiso), the more it holds and strengthens my interest.
This is seriously fascinating sh*t, and I really hope I can convey this to my readers.
It’s not just fascinating. It’s essential.
And it’s fun.
Okay, back to reading my textbook and getting my numbers trued up.
Of all the nerve, I — a non-scientist, a non-neurologist, a non-medical person — am writing a book about the nervous system. To make matters worse (in case you’re not sure, I am being facetious), I’m taking the liberty of philosophizing about it — as a non-academic, an unofficial philosopher.
It’s tricky, to say the least. The field of neurology keeps changing. Our understandings of neurobiology are evolving at a rapid rate, as every month it seems someone discovers something new, or puts 2-and-2 together in ways that add up to more than 4. Or, for that matter, they realize there’s another hidden “2” in the equation that nobody noticed before, and they either add it in, or square the values that they’ve discovered before.
It’s tricky, even for people who are highly trained scientists, on the cusp of cutting-edge research. It’s tough to stay current — even (especially?) if you’re actively involved in research, yourself.
But I’m doing it, anyway. Because, when we look closely at the world around us, and we have even the most basic access to what we Do Know About Our Nervous Systems, it’s possible to use that knowledge as a springboard to better understand the world around us. In fact, it’s almost irresistably compelling.
Very few of us understand what exactly is going on inside the sun that produces all that light and heat and those amazing sunsets. But we do know how to reference that light and heat and color in our lives to add meaning and “texture” to our experience. We don’t understand the exact chemical compositions of water and air, but we constantly use them as metaphors, often without realizing it.
I think we can/should do the same with our nervous systems. Over the past 20 years, we’ve gained the ability to look more closely and understand more completely, just how it all works — as far as we can currently tell. That knowledge is continually shifting and changing, of course, and it could be that some (much?) of what I’m writing about will change in the next 20 years. But that shouldn’t stop me — or you — from considering how it all fits together, and how our understanding of it can enrich our lives.
Once upon a time, very distinguished scientists believed that the nervous system was a continuous network of uninterrupted connections — like the vascular system with its networks of veins and arteries. It seemed like just common sense, that the nervous system would also be uninterrupted, just like our veins, allowing the signals passing along our “wires” to get where they’re going in one piece.
People believed this so strongly, that Camillo Golgi, the scientist who figured out how to stain nerves so you could see them as individual pieces, rather than just another dark clump of organic stuff, devoted his entire 1906 Nobel Prize speech to explaining how it was impossiblethat the nervous system was made up of separate neurons.
His co-winner, Santiago RamónyCajal, was a proponent of the “neuron doctrine”, which held that nerves were separate cells that were connected by something, though people hadn’t figured that out, just yet. Turns out Ramon y Cajal was right — but it took decades before we had equipment that could give us a decent view of that.
Did this stop them, though? Did their obviously imperfect, partial knowledge of How Things Work stop them from moving forward in their work? Oh, no. And even when they stood the chance of being proven wrong, they just moved ahead, anyway. Even staked their reputations on it.
Looking back at the past hundreds of years of scientific discovery, as well as changes in how we view ourselves as individual humans in community with each other, I’m struck by just how dynamic our knowledge of science and self is. We are continuously changing how we think about life, how we relate to it, how we regard ourselves, and how we relate to each other. Nothing stays the same for long, but we seem to get in the habit of thinking that How Things Are Now is How Things Have Always Been. It’s not true, of course, but we tend to believe it. Especially now, when we’ve got our online echo chambers to reinforce our biases and support even our least defensible opinions.
But things change. Times change. Knowledge aggregates and opinions proliferate… and at regular (and irregular) intervals, there’s some knew “wrench” being tossed in the workings of our minds. And so we adapt. Science adapts. Society adapts. We shift and change along with our surroundings, no matter how firmly we may believe that we’re anchored in universal truths. Maybe Truth doesn’t change, but our understanding of it does.
And so it’s important — for all of us — to step out and take some chances in considering the facts of the world around (and inside) us… building an understanding of those facts that works for us and makes our lives more meaningful. Even if the science might shift in a matter of years, even if we don’t have all the answers or all the insight that more accelerated experts do, I think we have every right to avail ourselves of What We Know At This Point In Time, and use that to better appreciate and understand our world.
Even if we aren’t PhD-grade neuroscientists.
Especially if we aren’t PhD-grade neuroscientists.
It’s our world, they’re our bodies. The science has been funded by our tax dollars. And I say we have the right to understand what’s going on in there, so that we can do better at what we do out here.