Sunday, June 22, 2008

A New Neurophysical Theory

OK, this is complicated, bear with me.

I spent the day today watching the rebroadcast of Carl Sagan's Cosmos on the Science Channel. My wife, Teri, flitted in and out without a real interest in the show. After 18 years of marriage, I'm used to that - my sense of awe and wonder not being reflected back is common - she just doesn't care.

It sometimes bothers me. I know my wife is intelligent and I always took her lack of interest in science or history as an affront; a personal insult since - to me - a lack of interest was a vague reproof since she obviously had the brains to comprehend the material.

I know she loves me and wouldn't want to hurt my feelings, so there had to be another answer. Sagan inspired, I began to think about what was going on. I came to what I believe is an answer that has profound implications in a lot of areas.

What if she doesn't care about these topics because she's not genetically or intellectually predisposed to do so although entirely capable? Is it possible that there is an evolutionary governor in our brains that sets limits to the amount of interest we should show in certain topics?

I think it would be part of the survival mechanism. What good does it do for an individual to be too wrapped up in looking at the stars if a sabertoothed tiger is coming in for the kill?

Is there a mechanism in our brains that limits our interests in areas that have no direct bearing in our personal survival in the here and now? Is this why so many kids have a hard time learning abstract math like Algebra?

Are those of us who yearn for more information about the Universe and read history genetically inferior because we are diverting energies away from attention directly related to personal survival and the propogation of species?

Does evolution put soft barriers in our minds - "No, no you don't have to think about that" on certain subjects? Is that barrier elastic insofar as it can be stretched when an area of thought is linked to another area the brain thinks is important? I think so.

So many things make sense if my hypothesis is applied. I'm sure I'd word all of this better if I was a psychiatric clinician.

I wish I could explain it better.


Kevin said...

I think this is very interesting. We have been home schooling our kids for just over a year now and we have taken an approach to schooling called "unschooling". Unschooling is where we provide a rich environment and the kids gravitate to what they are naturally interested in. Yes, there is some encouragement in certain areas such as math and grammer, but for the most part, our kids feed their own interests. It's kind of like college, but just earlier in life. Why force algebra down a kid's throat if they're not ready for algebra?

The kids just took the national standardized tests and my 13 year old is past "13th grade" and my 9 year old is two grade levels above where he should be.

"Areas of interest" just happens. For kids its better not to force things. They'll happen naturally.

Take care.

Cathy Pountney said...

Very interesting thoughts.

I have always considered myself smart .. but I have no interest in science or history or geography. I do enjoy learning about medical science and what's possible and what's on the horizon .. but that's about all in the field science.

History and what has happened leading up today completely bores me. I always got A's in those subjects in school .. but they didn't interest me.

Now math .. Accounting .. Drafting .. those all kept me interested. I enjoy solving problems and puzzles (which I guess is why I enjoy programming so much!) But you know me ... I'm not the stereo-type computer geek who enjoys sci-fi, hard rock music, Monty Python, and Star Trek!

But it is an interesting idea to wonder why some people gravitate to some subjects and others gravitate to something else.

Ed Leafe said...

What you are describing seems to be similar to the 'strengths' concept promoted by Gallup/Clifton. It is described at, but that's mainly in the context of business hiring. It's applicable to all aspects of life, though, and makes a lot of sense, IMO. A basic tenet is that you can only improve your weaknesses to the point that they are not a handicap; you can never turn them into strengths.

In your example, you would probably have 'Learner' as a strength: you like to know about things to a depth that may not be necessary to your job/situation; learning itself is the benefit. Teri, OTOH, would probably not have that strength. Most couples do not share strengths; rather, they tend to complement each other.

Gonzo said...


That's a fascinating approach to education. I'm glad it appears to working for your family - it sounds to me your two kids are pretty bright. That makes your job a lot easier.

But here's a hypothetical question for you: What happens if you ran into a subject matter that was absolutely critical for college and your kids could not be motivated to engage it? I guess the answer is to tie it into something they are interested in.

Thanks for the insight.

Gonzo said...

Hey Cathy,

You're helping me make my point :-)

You're smart enough to overcome a disinterest in some subjects but still persevere enough to get a good grade.

Also, you have ample reasons to have an interest in medicine that are inline with my speculation about propagation.

But what I'm talking about are interests that you don't really have to know about for any reason - except maybe to get a gig on Jeopardy.

Unlike you, I *AM* a Star Trek and Monty Python geek. Why? And why are other techies disproportionately so inclined?

Let's look at classical examples:

Albert Einstein was a patent clerk who had no practical reasons to consider relativity (at least at first). Yet he did.

There aren't a lot of Einsteins around but there sure are a lot of very smart people.

I go back to one of my closing statements - is an interest in an area not related to classical survival a genetic defect? Is that why we're not all rushing around memorizing the periodic table and inventing anti-gravity?

Gonzo said...

Nice link, Ed. But I don't think I'd classify myself as a Learner. Maybe years ago.

Yeah, Teri (my wife) and I are complimentary although we had little in common when we got married. Over the years I've gotten her to appreciate certain things like some bands, movies, shows....but I've never got her to self-actualize in an area of endeavor that she didn't already have an interest in. The day I come home and find her reading I'll drop dead of surprise.

Thanks for the comment. I really think it's a good research area for the right folks, don't you?