When I was graduating high school, my English teacher’s parting words to my class were that learning was something to be enjoyed and that we could crave knowledge in the same way that we crave food or sex and receive the same dividends from it. Well, almost.
There are two ways that we enjoy learning. The first is structural: It has nothing to do with the content of what we learn. The act of learning itself feels good, which is why we can (rather queerly) enjoy learning about terrible tragedies. It’s strangely all right to have a good time at a Holocaust museum. In this case, we don’t enjoy the knowledge itself but rather the knowledge of our knowledge—or metaknowledge (I’m making up the terminology as I go). The second, and maybe less intuitive, way to get pleasure out of learning is to enjoy the idea itself. Here, content makes us happy. Learning about relativity and ridding ourselves of the concept of the fixedness of time is a liberating idea, and it makes us feel good. We can enjoy ideas themselves.
When I arrived at Leiden University in the Netherlands for study abroad orientation, a dean gave us an introductory speech and touched upon these ideas by wishing us “flow” in our academic careers. Flow is the mental state in which a high degree of difficulty in an activity matches a high degree of ability in the person performing it—for example, an expert cellist playing a masterpiece. When this state is achieved, when someone is lost in thought (or, more aptly, found in thought), it allows for temporary freedom from the noise and anxiety that usually occupies our minds.
Our minds themselves are sort of strange in this regard because our own cognition allows us to execute tasks or thoughts, which in turn affect our cognition. We can think about listening to music or having sex and, based on the thought, perform these actions that in turn stimulate the brain that facilitated them in the first place. Meditation applies this to thought itself: deciding upon what you are going to think about before you do it. And this does not only refer to Eastern meditation—the great meditations of the West (those of Marcus Aurelius, John Donne, René Descartes, etc.) are meant to be thought-exercises.
Our agency of thought is obvious but not trivial because we are shamefully bad at capitalizing on it. Although we seek food and sex and drugs and art, we forget to go out of our way to consume ideas and reap their emotional benefit. Most Columbia students enjoy learning, but many students feel reluctant to take classes purely for their thought content. There is a pressure in Columbia’s culture to choose classes as economically as possible, and it is seen as sinful to indulge in an impractical class with transcendental thought content. So most Columbia students don’t get to eat up the tastier ideas because the prettier the idea, the more stigma it has. Ideas are not consumed enough purely for their aesthetic value.
Ideas seem on the surface to be immaterial, but the fact that ideas are made out of matter is important to understanding how we should consume them. An idea is stored chemically in our brains, written down, stored electronically, spoken out in sound waves, or broadcast in radio waves to carry it into foreign brains, but at no point in that process does the idea lose its material nature.
So you can think of an idea as a substance that has a direct physical effect on the brain it enters. Ideas behave a lot like psychoactive drugs in that respect. Their value rests only in the effect that they have on cognitive systems. (What use would heroin or cocaine be without consciousness?) And ideas can be addictive, inspirational, destructive, cultural. Unlike drugs, though, ideas replicate without using any resources. Ideas are goods that cost nothing to manufacture. They are a hyper-renewable resource (the more you use them, the more plentiful they become), and the good ones have limitless positive externalities. You can think of all of human achievement as the summation of the positive externalities of good ideas, and this truth is the basis for the Core.
It is quite a liberating idea to recognize that all of our happiness and misery is an epiphenomenon of these brains that can be manipulated so easily. And yet, instead of working to change the center of all of our cognition and perception, the Western custom is to try to change the world around us. This is much more difficult because it requires consent from other people who often want different things in the world—which leads to conflict and suffering. Our brains, our tiny corners of the physical world, contain our entire universes, and we have complete domain over them. And science tells us roughly how to maximize our own happiness by how we eat, sleep, interact, communicate, and spend our time. Consciously making decisions contrary to empirical evidence about well-being is the most destructive irrational behavior we engage in, and not exposing ourselves to ideas that will make us happy is part of this irrationality. As students, we are expected only to learn, and each semester, we get to choose how we are going to fill our brains. I think that is a liberating idea too.
Jake Goldwasser is Columbia College junior majoring in Middle Eastern studies and linguistics. He is currently studying in Leiden, the Netherlands. Thinking Twice runs alternate Wednesdays.
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